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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 Ten
Who the fuck was she talking to? After the drug started to take a hold of her, freezing everything from the outside in to the point where she felt like she could barely move, a strength and focus built inside that was only shattered when she became aware of Madeline texting on Gary's phone. For all of the phone calls in the helicopter so far, Madeline talked aloud so everybody could hear what was being said and, more importantly, so they knew who she was talking to. Both times it was Master on the phone, but after the way the previous conversation ended - and the fact that all the times they'd spoken, Madeline was never the one to initiate contact with Him - Stephanie doubted it was Master whom she was texting now.

Could it be that the A-2 Agent was taking a moment to issue orders to those back at her base...or someone at the base ahead? Then why the secrecy? Unless there was something there she didn't want Master - and by extension, Stephanie - to know about. Was it more proof that she was up to something? After everything that was said so far between them, she wouldn't doubt it. It wouldn't do her any good to further argue or engage the woman now, though. She would just expect everyone she met upon landing to be a minion of the other Agent and regard them all as a potential threat, while keeping her eyes out for whatever trap the A-2 was currently setting. And when they touched down, she'd find a way to kill the other woman and cut off the head of the entire swarm.

That got Stephanie to wondering who Madeline answered to. She obviously had her own agenda and a war with Stephanie's Master... but was it really the A-2's agenda and was it really her war? Was Madeline in a similar position as Stephanie, used as a soldier in the army of a higher Agent? Stephanie's first impression was that such a thing would require a level of manipulation that Madeline probably wouldn't fall for. Then again, the other woman said herself that she fell for Master's manipulations and Stephanie suspected that Madeline wasn't as strong-willed or smart as she tried to make herself out to be. Afterall, she made an awful lot of noise to make up for an inability to just command respect.

Thinking of manipulation, Stephanie was forced to remember her own dealings with higher Agents and the games they played. Graninger, her old training manager, was incredibly manipulative. Their whole 3 year relationship, that started back when she was in training, was based on his puppetry of her emotions in order to mold and "train" her. Even though memories of that time made her break down in the Charlton elevator, Stephanie was thankfully shielded from it by the Clothozine chilling her. Instead of regret and sorrow, anger and hate filled her instead.

She was such a lost and wild young woman when she joined the Agency, intent on buying her way to the top with whatever people were willing to pay for - all of her was for sale at the time. However, the one person who mattered, Richard Graninger, refused to be bought, and their dominant natures clashed and burned against each other until the heat grew into the warmth of passion. She fell in love. And she was led to believe through every means possible - moving in together, receiving a special "slave brand" from him to show that he owned her forever, etc. - that he felt the same depth of devotion to her as well. Everything was a lie. As soon as she grew out of her rebellious, promiscuous ways and accomplished a name for herself as a rising star, he told her that she "passed" and then moved all the way across the fucking country, leaving her confused and heartbroken.

Stephanie wasn't crying about it now, though, instead glaring with haunted fish eyes at Madeline's typing fingers, still as a statue as her mind raced with the possibilities. The trail of thought didn't end at her own history with Richard but began blending with the present. Madeline's possible manipulation by a higher Agent was no longer being compared to what Graninger did to Stephanie; now, in her mind, Madeline WAS working for Graninger. All of this time, Stephanie assumed that Madeline's presence and threat were independently motivated as a way to strike out at Master. But now she was beginning to entertain the possibility that it had nothing to do with Master at all - that the real target was and always had been Stephanie herself. And that Richard was somehow behind it.

It made a sort of twisted sense to her, considering Richard might have known or suspected her plans to abandon him and his memory - and the marks he'd left on her heart and body - and this was an elaborate attempt to keep his "property" in line. It was a fantasy she often entertained in those dark months after he left, that he didn't mean the things he'd said. He really did care about and want her, but he was either attempting to let her grow stronger by allowing her to fly on her own, outside of his controlling influence, or he didn't want their affair to ruin either of their careers. It didn't make the betrayal any less painful, but it could explain his reaching out to her now, like this.

The branding ceremony they held together had been almost as sacred as exchanging wedding vows and she remembered clearly the look of pride and desire in his eyes as he gazed down at his mark seared into the flesh of her outer right thigh. But more than anything, he'd been intoxicated by the awe and worship in her own eyes during the entire event. He could not simply allow her to jump into another body and destroy the value of what was his - or at least, what he probably still felt was his.

Yes. Now she saw it clearly. Madeline was here to take her case away from her, working as an agent for him to keep her chained to this body. ...Or worse. To punish her. Afterall, she already let it slip once that Jason was her lover. Maybe that was what the texting was about? Was it possible Richard already knew? If he truly did still desire her, was it possible that he saw Jason as moving in on his territory? Or was it simply her who was going to be punished for showing such physical interest in another man?

Feeling like she'd unlocked a really complex puzzle, Stephanie gave Madeline a narrow look as the woman tucked the phone away. At her question, Stephanie bristled and her eyes widened, her mind racing with the hidden implications in those words - what was she trying to say? Was she just being a bitch, expressing disapproval about the drugs or was she hinting at something? Was she trying to find a weakness to exploit? Who was really asking: Madeline or Richard? Did he disapprove of her choice to depend on the medication?

Finally, coming to the conclusion that no matter what was planned, she couldn't go through with the transfer until she was sure she was protected, she said, "No. We wait." The Clothozine was brutal to her voice and body as it kept everything feeling like it was encased in ice, including her throat. So her mouth opened and closed rigidly like a nutcracker soldier and her voice came filtering out robotically from between her lips. "Master promised me. My partner is coming. I'm not starting until he arrives. I want him standing safe by my side. I told him I would wait."

She looked away to stare at her target and when her deadened hair fell in her face, she stopped to run her hand through it to brush the strands back. As her fingers slipped through it like stiff and sharpened blades, they came away with another net of hair, effortlessly sliding free to clump in her hand. No knots this time. And it felt like there was more of it tangled on her fingers than before, but she didn't even look at it as she twitched her fingers, letting the wispy threads fall to the ground at her feet.

"Besides," she continued, her voice coming out as if it took effort to force her mouth open. "We're waiting for Alexander's capture. Benoit will call. We're not in any hurry." Large black circles swimming in two white ponds, came back to focus on Madeline with a blonde eyebrow arching dramatically. "Unless you're in a rush. I cannot imagine why you would be. I don't know why you'd even care at all."

Slightly accusatory but not directly questioning. Just subtly hinting that she knew what was happening and warning the woman to back off. They couldn't take her case without a reason - not when she was under the protection and support of an A-1 - so they were trying to do it underhandedly through sabotage. Once Jason arrived - the one person she absolutely trusted - everything would be alright. He'd help protect her when she went through the transfer. She just had to keep things relaxed and stall until then.

"While we wait," she said, glancing at Gwen again. "Gary will retrieve alcohol and cookies. In preparation for Jason's arrival. And some rope." She gave Gary a pointed look that was made creepy by her current appearance. "I will tend to my target. I haven't really talked to her yet. I have a million questions. I'm a huge fan of hers," she explained. "I would like a chance to bond with my new body. Before I enter it." Then, to Madeline, her jaws snapping open and shut with each disjointed syllable and her fish eyes staring blankly at the other woman. "I do not want to be near you. If it is at all possible. Maybe you can be aggravatingly bitchy. Without a reason. To somebody else? I'm sure you can find someone. Either way. I want you to go away. As soon as the option for more distance opens. I do not like you. I do not need you. You are not even supposed to be here. So. There is no 'we'."

Was that fucking clear enough, Richard?

***

The car remained warm as she pulled to a stop and the GPS congratulated them on their arrival. Yeah, that's great. They were 'here', but where the fuck were they? She didn't make a move to get out, nor did the temperature around her go down, her hands holding onto the wheel tensely, waiting for him to say something. Anything. But he didn't. And suddenly, as he was swinging the door open and stumbling out of his seat, she realized he wasn't going to. Slowly, she loosened her grip.

It wasn't like she'd made a secret of how uncomfortable she was when asking him for help, but she was also basically waiting for him to tell her something that would make her feel better, to show that he understood and didn't judge her. Surprisingly, he accomplished that without uttering a word AND they avoided any mushy, sentimental crap that would have made it even more awkward. Ozzie let out a relieved breath as she watched him stand and slam his door shut before she followed suit out the driver's side. Even though she was already putting the moment behind her, the heat did not leave her as she stood by her door and slipped her army jacket back on, checking her gun and making sure it was ready to use. Tucking it back into the waistband of her leather pants, she watched Alex walk onto the sidewalk like one of the undead, for the first time actually truly alarmed by the sight.

Last time she'd been paying attention he was merely limping as if his foot hurt. Now it looked like he couldn't even use it. Was Xander doing that, or had it really gotten that bad? She was a little worried about how much she could depend on him, so she stayed tense and watched her surroundings, heat swirling around her as her dark eyes scanned the street and the buildings towering over it. She didn't join him on the sidewalk until he was standing by what appeared to be some sort of keyboard on the wall and she kept her distance from the doors right in front of them.

When she heard Alex say something about the girl in the trunk, Ozzie murmured, "I'll go get..." before fading off as Xander immediately shut the idea down. Okay, so what were they going to do, then? What was that about the roof? Osono glanced up, searching what she could see of the tall building in only the lights from the street lamps, but before she could ask how they were getting up there, both men were already way ahead of her and discussing codes or something. Ozzie stood nearby and continued to watch their surroundings while listening to them, but other than the value the information had for them right now, she wasn't really interested when Xander explained the Agency's general security.

The only thing that really caught her attention was when he mentioned "non-Agents" having codes. What did he mean by that? If a person worked for the Agency they were Agents, weren't they? Then she remembered the cheery voice of the woman they talked to on the phone, Peter's secretary or whatever. Were there really people working for the Agents who didn't know anything about what they were really doing? Or did they know and just not care, the way Cindy didn't seem to?

A smile quickly danced across Osono's face when Xander uttered the phrase 'Balls no' and the tension she was feeling faded somewhat. Balls no. She liked that. She didn't mention testicles nearly enough in normal conversation and now that she'd heard it, she had the sudden desire to do so.

Letting out a harsh sigh, she was about to urge the guys to stop toying with Alex's nads and get going when Xander ignored Alex's complaints and started pressing buttons. The tension came back as she waited, confident that Xander knew at least a little bit of what he was doing and getting ready for whatever they might find inside, once he got the door open. If he didn't... Well, they were getting inside whether this code worked or not. The only problem she saw was that the Agents inside would know about their presence sooner rather than later, depending on which way they decided to enter the building. If he thought to ask her, she wasn't sure she could think of a subtle way to slip inside.

A smirk twisted on her face as the keypad responded, buzzing and turning colors. "Wow, it worked?" she asked with a raspy laugh, when Alex began dragging himself over to the door, and she was already on his heels before he motioned at her to follow. Resisting the urge to shove him because of how slow his hobbling walk was, she slipped through the door immediately after him with just a minor glance back at the street they left. The car remained undisturbed and they hadn't attracted any attention, but as the door closed she couldn't get rid of the feeling they were being watched.

She was right. Not long after he finished celebrating about the video Graninger sent him, Rudy's phone alerted him that the heat signature was on the move. Looking at the screen, he nearly burst into tears when he realized that not only was Osono coming closer, but she was coming straight for the Agency base. Back on street level, he was seconds behind them, the heat signature flaring in a soft yellow glow on his tiny map, just inside the front doors. He didn't know why she was here - or why the fuck she was IN the fucking base fuckfuckfuckFuuuuuuuuuuuck! - but he hadn't failed yet. He could still make it and get her out of there without anyone knowing.

Inside, she felt a chill run up her spine, looking around the dimly lit room and trying to make out details. While Alex continued to emulate scenes from Dawn of the Dead as he made his way through the room towards the elevators, Ozzie instead stood right in front of the doors, sweeping her eyes over everything. First she looked over the minor furnishings that made the place seem almost normal, and then looked at the stairs and up where more faded lights loomed way up above. There was an adventurous urge to go exploring, but she realized she couldn't leave Alex, even with Xander protecting him, and finally decided to stay put until he figured out where they needed to go.

Where the fuck was everybody? This wasn't what she'd expected at all, not with the impressions she got from everything she heard so far. Other than Alex and Xander talking back and forth to each other, it was quiet. No thundering boots. No guns being cocked. No humming or whirring of sinister machinery. She was prepared to fight her way in here but now, she stood in their lobby uncontested and unchallenged. It was both a little relieving and made her feel uneasy at the same time.

When full darkness enveloped the place, her short blonde hair stood on end and she glared aggressively around her, holding her fists out and ready for a fight. This couldn't be good. Did they forget to pay their electrical bill - their lights indicated a lack of concern over being able to see or not, so it was quite possible somebody let it go past the deadline. As visions flashed in her mind of soldiers surrounding them through the cover of the shadows, she stifled the urge to start a fire, not wanting to make a target of herself. But through the darkness she heard Alex and Xander still chatting away and it calmed her a little bit to know they were both okay. Before she could make a move in their direction or call out to them, the power came back on again and she could see. That was odd. And definitely not a coincidence; the power getting cut right when they walked through the front doors. But what was the point of it?

Further by the elevators, it sounded like Xander found someone, but then she was completely distracted by a hushed voice saying her name from behind her. "Hey! Psst! Ozzie!" Turning to look, she was confronted with the familiar face of Rudy standing with his head and foot poking past the door she'd just walked through. "Hey! There you are!" he said, his face blossoming into a happy, dorky smile.

Everything she told Alex in the car and everything that happened in the past couple of days came rushing back to her. Peter, her dad, the catsuit Agent girl, Gwen; all of it, remembered in those split seconds and she glared hatefully at him, her fists tightening at her sides and her teeth clenching. She was going to do it. She was going to finish this. Just burn him alive and then he'd never bother her again. He'd never hurt the people she cared about ever again. And she could be free--

"Hey, what's the matter?" he asked, blissfully unaware of how much she hated him and the fact that she was planning on killing him right now. Glancing back out the door he still had propped open with his body, he motioned to her and said, "C'mere!" as if he had something to show her. Osono paused for a long moment, then with a sigh and kicking herself for how weak she was, she let go of the tension in her body and walked over to stand in front of him. With the door open and the angle with which he was standing between the glass, light from the street spilled over his features and Osono got her first good look at him since the last time they'd spoken to each other.

"Rudy!" she exclaimed, putting her hand on the side of his neck to turn him towards her so she could get a better look. Her voice got his attention but he looked back at her with a confused slant to his eyebrows, obviously not understanding the reason behind the sudden physical contact. "What the fuck happened to your face?" she asked, her voice taking on an angry tone and her eyes sparking with a protective intensity. She didn't really care about him - okay, just a little; she didn't want to care about him - but whoever did this had completely bullied and abused the shit out of the tiny dork. From the extent of the injuries she could see - there were more bruises on his arms past the plain white T-shirt he was wearing - his attacker had gone overboard, way beyond the point of 'just shutting the little freak up.'

Before coming to the door, Rudy didn't really have a plan on how to convince her to leave the base and leave the city, but thankfully, now he didn't need to. Fitting into the old familiar mold that she laid out for him, he played into her concern and in the tone of a small kid he pitifully murmured, "That fat chick... uh...Gwen, did it." Oh, God, that was so pathetic... but he loved the thought of pulling her heart strings like that. He called it his 'Little Bro Voice'. Even with all of his concerns over the past few hours, he could still get her in the palm of his hand.

Instantly, Osono got an ache in the pit of her gut that let her know she made the wrong choice. That tone of voice he used... it was something he did a thousand times before and it was clearly faked, but in those times when they were together it was easy to just play along. Now, after everything that had happened, even though she still had no desire to kill him, she wasn't in the mood to play games either. Promptly, she abandoned her concern for a more interrogative approach and still grasping the side of his neck, she gave him a sharp jerk and roughly asked, "Gwen? Do you know where she is? Have they started her transfer yet? What did you do? What happened to her?" Osono already sort of knew where Gwen was from the information they got from Peter, but she wanted to see if this little dipshit would be honest with her for once and if the information would connect. It was very possible that Peter lied to them - she still had trouble believing the guy would just tell them everything like that.

With his head leaning back defensively in her hold and giving her a wary look, Rudy suddenly relaxed and said, "Hm. I'm pretty sure she got hit by a truck. And died." He nodded and his eyes darted to look out the door before coming back to her face. Where did the sudden concern for that psychic pig come from? She'd only been around Gwen for no more than an hour. Whether he understood it or not, he couldn't resist taking another jab at the stupid fatty. But he stifled the urge to tell Osono about his "problem" with pushing people into traffic, since she didn't seem too tolerant at the moment and he didn't want to accidentally push her in the wrong direction. Needless to say, it was not what Ozzie wanted to hear and she frowned at him impatiently.

Suddenly, the lights went out and darkness flooded the small space between them and Rudy practically swallowed his heart in his rising panic. Fuck! Was Alexander here??? That meant Patten would be starting the party soon. And Ozzie would be right here in the middle of it, at the mercy of the A-1 AND that psycho. He could barely make out her features from the light reflecting off of his face, but hiding the tremors that threatened to invade his voice he casually said, "Anyway, who cares? Listen, we have to get out of here, okay? You're not even supposed to be in here - what did you do? Break in? I think I hear sirens," he didn't really, but was she worried that he mentioned it? "Come on, let's get outta this dump and go get some fajitas, yeah? My treat. I'll even let you put hot sauce all over everything we order, just like last time. I'll freak out and throw up again and you'll laugh your ass off and then beat up the waiter; come on, it'll be great." He flashed his eyes excitedly at her, like he couldn't wait to act out the plan he just outlined.

Osono didn't like this. It felt like her insides were being split in two. She knew it was true, she KNEW he was an Agent and he wasn't fooling anybody for a second. But it was the memory of those good times with him, those moments when running and fighting weren't important and it was just the two of them hanging out together. There was no way she was going to go with him right now - whether he was actually craving Mexican food or planning an ambush outside of the base somewhere - because she wasn't leaving Alex. But remembering those good times, especially with the way he was acting right now, completely un-Agent-like, she was having difficulty deciding what to do.

Alex expected her to take care of this problem and after what she said about Rudy, Xander wasn't going to allow the kid to live if it in any way threatened his revenge against Peter and getting his body back. And Rudy was a wild card when it came to her and other people, so he was a very big threat. As stupid as she was for even considering it, she didn't want to hurt the relationship she had with Rudy. If Xander saw her being weak like this, he might take it upon himself to kill Rudy for her. She glared through the darkness towards the elevators. God! This was so stupid! But she needed to get him out of here and keep him away from Xander and she had to do it in a way that he wouldn't get offended by.

What was happening? She was drawing away and her hand slipped off his shoulder until she was no longer touching him, stepping back so the light couldn't reach her anymore. "Yeah, sure," her raspy voice said from the darkness, not more than a couple of steps away from him. "You go on ahead and I'll meet you there. There's something important I need to do first."

Wait...what was happening!? She had something more important to do than saving her own skin? And what the hell did that even meeeaaan, anyway??? No! Fuck, no! He wasn't leaving without her! Not when Patten was here, practically in command of everyone on the premises, ready and willing to capture her and suck the life out of her. It wasn't going to happen! She was HIS, Goddammit!

Licking his lips to wet them, his words hurried after hers, spitting them out rapidly, and he finally let go of the door to step inside. "What do you mean you have something important to do? In here? The place is totally lights out right now. Besides, whatever you did to get in, you screwed up anyway, because I can totally hear the cast of Law & Order on their way here, like, right now. I'm sure whatever it is you need to do will still be here and worth doing tomorrow morning when the Heat isn't so bad - or at the very least we could leave and get some flashlights, you know?" From the sounds of things, she'd stopped walking away from him, but she didn't say anything. Desperately, he urged her, "Please, Ozzie. It's not safe here."

What was his game? This was the Agency base, wasn't it? Xander's code got them in through the door, so it had to be. Why was he so intent on taking her out of here? Wouldn't things be better for him to lead her further into the building where she'd be trapped? More importantly, why was he so intent on getting his brain fried by the one guy who not only had no problem killing people but even had plenty of reasons to kill Rudy - including the fact that Rudy stole the guy's girlfriend? The little idiot wasn't listening to her when she was trying to be fucking nice for once. Now she was willing to do anything to get him to leave before Alex came back from across the dark room.

"Safe? Since when did you ever care about my safety, you little jerk?" she growled in his direction.

Whoa. Anger. This wasn't what he expected, but she sometimes got blistering angry for no reason. It's alright. It's still cool. Work with it!Work with it! "What are you talking about?," he let out a small breathless laugh and tried to smile in her direction. "You silly goose! You're my best frie--"

"Shove it, asshole," she spat. "Enough bullshit. You know and I know what's been going on and I'm done putting up with it. Get out of here now, before I have to burn your sorry-Agent-ass to a crisp."

It's okay!It's okay! She'd said this kind of shit before! She never called him an Agent before - who taught her that word? - but IT. WAS. OKAY. He could salvage this. His cover wasn't completely blown. He'd lied his way out of these situations plenty of times, and he could do it again. All he had to do was keep talking.

He snorted in nervous amusement. "Whaaaaat? Come on, Ozzie--"

Flames sprouted just 5 feet away from him hovering in the air and he jumped back a few feet before he realized it was enveloping her hand, orange and glowing yellow dancing over her palm and fingers. The way she held it up, he could see her face in the flickering light and from the look she was giving him, the threat was clear. She wasn't going to fall for it. Fuck... He didn't want to have to do this, but he would if it got her out of this building. Biting the inside of his lip as they locked gazes for several seconds, finally he shrugged and nodded. "Alright, yeah, fine. I'm a goddamn Agent." He paused to pull the Aurora out of his pocket, the pieces rapidly forming together over his hand and the gun lighting up as it charged, illuminating his surroundings in the neon orange glow. Trying to put on his best 'badass' voice he glared back at her and said, "And I will fucking kill you if you don't leave right now."

Was she scared? She'd never seen him like this before, and he did a pretty good job of hiding this side of himself from her for years, but did that mean she didn't believe him? She knew what an 'Agent' was enough to accuse him of it, so she must also be aware of what that meant and what he was capable of. If he had to, he'd fire off a warning shot to scare her. Fuck! Why was this so damn hard? What was she even DOING here? Nervously, Rudy glanced where he knew the stairs were behind her. Where was Eric? Was he lurking nearby? Did he have a certain lustful-Amazon-invisible soldier hiding close and watching?

Ozzie smirked proudly when he pulled out a geeky looking weapon and threatened her with it, basically coming directly clean for the first time EVER. Arching a haughty eyebrow at him, she regarded him coolly, completely confident that he had no intention of pulling the trigger for whatever the hell that thing did. Because right from his lips, he admitted it: he was an Agent. He was her Agent and that meant he wanted to capture her, not kill her. Right then, Xander called out to her and was coming back from his visit to the elevators - which she could just make out from here by the light of her flames. As he came closer, she turned from Rudy and completely cast the harmless twerp out of mind as she started walking towards the stairs.

"Second floor?" she asked him, to make sure she heard right. "Are you going to be alright going up the stairs with your leg falling off or do you need me to drag you by your ball hairs?" Heh, balls.

... What the fuck was happening??? Who the fuck was that?! Rudy squinted in the dim lighting from his gun and Ozzie's fire and then his heart sank. No... Please, God, no. That was Alex, wasn't it? Seriously, the next time he was within a few feet of that corpulent psychic, he was going to kill her and GET RID OF THIS DEMONIC INFLUENCE SHE HAD OVER HIS LUCK!!!

"Waitaminute!" Rudy called out, just as Ozzie put her foot on the bottom step. She still had flames licking at her hand, but Rudy had lowered his gun arm, the soft glow lighting up his features enough for them to see the confused look on his face. "What is going on? Where are you going? Why are you hangin' out with this queer? And why, in Whedon's name, is he calling you 'Sparky'?"

Rudy's voice had reached a hysterical note, as he made his demands known and Osono was actually enjoying herself a little bit as she turned back to him. "Because that's my name, ballsack. It's what he calls me." She shrugged with a small, tolerant yet amused smirk. Whether he was harmless now or not, he was still an Agent and she didn't feel like telling him anything about what they were doing. So, after answering the least important question, she felt like they were done and ready to move on.

What? They had fucking nicknames for each other? He wasn't breathing down her neck for 24+ hours and she was already slurping on another asshole's dick? He couldn't let that stand and the thought of the entire thing made him angry. Angry with Alex - but he already hated that douchebag - angry with Eric and especially angry with her. Before she could turn away again he shot out a mocking, "What? Are you like his dog or something?"

Her immediate response to that was defensive - she was actually fond of the pet name Xander had given her - but she relaxed when she realized how helpless and harmless Rudy was now. Whatever he was trying to do, he was getting stupidly desperate. Instantly, she thought of the perfect response to this. "Balls no," and she cocked her eyebrow at him, looking at him like the child he was behaving as.

Something was going on here and the deeper implications of it came upon him like a knee to the groin. Agent. She'd learned that word from that guy. They'd probably been traveling together ever since he left the restaurant - which was bizarre and totally out of character for her. What other out of character things had she done? Did she let Alex fuck her? After all the times she'd rejected Rudy... And Alex probably convinced her that Rudy was bad too. Never. She never would have stood up to him like this at any other time and here she was, forcing him to break his cover, destroying his case as a result, and walking away from him with another man. He... He could salvage this. He could. She belonged to him and it was his case now. Noel was dead and he was in charge. Nobody was going to make him look bad, least of all that jackass. And nobody was going to take her away from him. The easiest way to correct the problem...

After several moments of Rudy just staring at her as if she was getting ready to burn his comic collection, his face broke with a sudden insincere smile and he shook his head. Letting out a little laugh, Rudy sneered an ugly grin and aimed his gun at Alex with murderous ease, muttering under his breath, "Motherfucker."

He didn't hesitate when his finger pulled the trigger.

***

Alright, he admitted it, today was the best day he'd had since he arrived to the Spokane base. Although, those first interviews when they accused him of everything and the Lead Agent on his case almost ripped him out of his brain - those had been really good times too. But this was ten times better.

Standing in front of the mirror in his new Agency uniform, he felt like for the first time, things were going right. His year of servitude, tests and interrogations had finally paid off. It wasn't official yet, but the paperwork was on it's way to being approved. Fenton was going to be an Agent. An A-12, no less. Screw all those preliminary ranks and get him a running start up that ladder! And even though Graninger failed to explain exactly what he'd be doing other than working for a high-level Agent on the other side of the country, he didn't care.

Fin had a place now and a code with his name on it. He had a fucking name now. No more babysitters, no more restrictions, no more being ignored or treated like shit. Well... okay, he still expected some of that because he was a low rank yet, but it was on an entirely different level. He wasn't going to be disrespected as a civilian-nobody anymore. Now he would get abused and degraded as an actual employee. Totally different.

Slipping on the thin, dark gray jacket he'd been given, he turned to the right and straightened out his arm and then bent his elbow, watching the yellow stripe up the sleeve fold and stretch with the movement. In addition to the cool uniform, he also got to utilize standard Agency equipment: his own phone, his own sunglasses, and his own pen. He wasn't required to sign important documents yet, but he could certainly provide a higher ranked Agent with a writing utensil if they needed it. Being an A-12 was serious business.

"Much better," Richard commented as he entered the locker room and got a look at Fin's clean-shaven face. Then Graninger's face grew focused and he stepped forward, turning Fin towards him and promptly zipped the gray jacket closed so only a small white triangle of the shirt underneath showed. "Always keep the jacket zipped. Agency dress code regulations do not permit more than an inch of the undershirt to be shown - any more than that and it looks unprofessional. You are also required to take care of it, keeping it spotless and presentable at all times. You're not a high enough level yet to get uniforms for free, so if you ruin this one, it'll be coming out of your paycheck. Hopefully that'll motivate you to take better care of your appearance."

The guy could really be a condescending prick sometimes. "Do you always get this sentimental with your employees or is it just for me?" Fin asked glibly. "Because you're kind of making me uncomfortable."

Surprisingly, that actually got him a smirk from the older man. "Try to keep a hold on that tongue as well. It'll get you into trouble with Agents a lot less patient than myself." Yeah, the guy was a real jolly jokester. This advice was greatly appreciated and all, but it was also a repeat of things Graninger had said before. Not just a few minutes ago in the guy's office, but before that, during his year of training under the older man. As much as Fin continued to joke, he knew what was expected of him. Besides, not all Agents were as big of hardasses as the A-2 made them out to be. Richard himself was proof of that, as much as he tried to hide it.

"I'll attempt to remember," Fin said, mockingly sincere. "But if I slip up and accidentally upset someone with my comments, I'm going to tell them I learned, from you, that this sort of behavior is tolerated."

The A-2 frowned but said nothing to that, and with the air of impatience he turned on his heel and headed out of the room with Fin following behind at a respectful distance. As they proceeded through the glimmering halls, Fin held his head high but also kept himself cool and casual. He owned this suit and he belonged here and everyone they passed noticed and recognized him as one of their own. And they were all impressed. Well... except for a couple who weren't - who obviously had something they wanted to say if the puritan A-2 wasn't present. But that was okay. Fenton already knew where he stood with those guys and if all of his plans eventually worked out, they'd be running and getting coffee for him someday.

Eventually, Graninger stopped in front of spotless, mirror-faced elevator doors, and he smoothly tapped the call button before folding his hands formally behind his back. "I'll be visiting New York in a couple of days," the man's raspy voice echoed in the corridor. His dark suit contrasted harshly with the gleaming white of the floor and walls, a spot of comfort for Fin's eyes in the midst of the brightly lit hall.

Fin waited for the man to say more, but he didn't before the elevator arrived and they stepped inside together. He was about to ask whether the visit was for business or pleasure when as soon as the doors closed, Graninger reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out what appeared to be a Glock. Surprised, Fenton blinked at Graninger's reflection in the elevator doors but he was ignored while the other man loaded the pistol with crisp, practiced movements.

Then it was handed to him. Fin couldn't help but hesitate, remembering Graninger saying something before about holding off on giving him a weapon until his application went through, but he obediently took the gun, his hand fitting over the grip with familiar ease. "Put it away and just keep it with you," he instructed Fin coldly. Glancing up at the ceiling where he knew a camera was, Fin tucked the gun into his waistband under his jacket.

"Anyone in particular you want me to shoot?" he asked brightly. Graninger glanced at him, raising his eyebrow at Fin's tone, but Fin just shrugged back at him. "You know how fond I am of injuring people. I even have a shirt that says 'Your trauma makes me happy.'"

Richard shook his head and sighed in resignation, facing forward once again. "It's just as a precaution, and although I'd prefer that you use your words in all cases where it is possible, I expect you to at least have some level of discernment when a bit more force is necessary. I have very little knowledge of what you'll be working on or even about Patten himself, but I'm not stupid enough to believe every A-1 deserved to get where they are by following all of the rules." The elevator doors opened and Richard stepped out with a stately grace, with Fin following behind. The sun was still in the sky but making it's gradual descent outside the lofty windows, golden light filling every space like a physical thing in the tall-ceilinged lobby. "Either way, if you're smart, you'll keep the Agency's goals in mind when following orders. If you have any trouble knowing if something is right or if you need a review of the rules, give me a call."

This type of behavior wasn't new - making Fin believe that he didn't think he could do anything - but he had a hard time knowing if that was what this was or if Graninger truly thought Eric Patten would try to trick him into doing something he wasn't supposed to. The guy was supposed to be an A-1 wasn't he? Those guys had freedom, sure, but they also had to be the strictest hardasses about the rules, didn't they? Then again, Graninger was as obsessed about the rules as a person could get and yet he ordered Fin to break into his ex-girlfriend's apartment and steal her diaries.

As they walked through the glass front doors, Fin said, "Are you sure you don't want to come with me? You can hold my leash."

Graninger released a smoky chuckle in his throat as he walked up to a gleaming, black and silver-trimmed car, opening the back door for Fin to get inside. "I have no doubt that this job will be a good opportunity for you to learn and grow. Keep your eyes open and no matter what Patten tells you to do, remember who you really work for. I'll be in touch."

Wait... So, Fin was going to be a spy or something? Didn't he have enough to worry about? Then, remembering what Graninger said about his phone call with Quin, Fin realized this might not have anything to do with Patten at all. Sitting in the back seat but keeping his foot on the pavement, Fenton looked up at the A-2 and said, "Sure, I'll keep it in my back pocket. The person I really work for is someone who's name starts with "A", right?" he pointed at the black and white logo on his left breast. "Does this mean they own me or am I a walking billboard? Alright, in all seriousness, I do have one question: Does this - any of this - have anything to do with Stephanie March?"

Graninger gave him a neutral look as he considered the question like it wasn't even important to him, then nodded. "March will probably be there, but I have no idea if what Patten wants you for has any relation to her at all. In all likelihood, it probably doesn't. Either way, March is my concern, not yours. Whatever happens with her, you are ordered to stay out of it." And to avoid losing his foot, Fin brought his leg into the car just as the door was slammed shut. There was a muffled tapping on the roof and then the idling car was pulling away from the curb. Graninger did not stay to watch the car drive away.

***


When Gwen woke up again, she wasn't met with the familiar static, but a high, repetitive strumming. Blinking and coughing, she soon realized that this noise too was coming from the woman sitting beside her, and as Stephanie turned to regard her, Gwen recoiled defensively in her seat. Rigidly, like her neck was on a mechanical joint, the Agent turned to look at her while the internal strumming grew more frantic like the sound of screeching violins or tearing metal. It made her wince and shy away from the dark glass-eye stare of the other woman, but it was slightly more comfortable than the foggy static because it didn't weigh so heavily on her mind.

"Hello," Stephanie said, forcing the word out between lips that opened with movements from the woman's entire jaw. "Welcome back. I hope you have learned your lesson."

God... she thought this woman was scary before. She'd always seemed less than human and threateningly robotic, but this right now had the taste of a building on it's last leg and ready to collapse, taking everyone within down with it and burying them alive. Blue eyes blinked in fear but Gwen nodded a little bit to indicate that she understood. A quick check told her that thoughts were still closed off to her, and she'd already decided that there had to be better opportunities for escape on the ground, rather than right now. Gwen couldn't overpower Stephanie physically, but maybe she could outrun her?

"Good," came the unnaturally jagged response. "Let us talk of something else. There's something I've wanted to ask you. For at least a year now."

Gwen didn't want to talk to this woman, nor did she desire to be talked to. But until those other opportunities came up, she figured she needed to do what she could to keep Stephanie "happy", and hopefully stay conscious when they landed. So, she gave the Agent a look that indicated she should go on - Stephanie watched her with lifeless eyes, seemingly waiting for permission to ask her question. When she got the go ahead, Stephanie blinked and then said, "Why did you kill Andrew?"

Her brow wrinkled in confusion for a moment. "...what?" she finally asked, shifting in her seat uncomfortably.

"In your book. The Forever Sleep. During the final battle. Andrew died. You killed him. Why?" Gwen cast a wild, disbelieving look at the dark haired woman and the guy with the tongue. Was she seriously asking about her books...like a fan? As if she wasn't holding Gwen captive and planning to kill her. She wanted to say something smart back to her - for some reason, the fact that her Agent was a fan of hers was all at once insulting and at the same time felt intimately violating. Stephanie liked her books enough to read the entire series and yet she was still going to kill her.

"He was back on their side. He changed. And he was helping them. I found it unfair. That you punished him like that."

Calming herself down, Gwen collected her thoughts for an acceptable answer to the question. Stephanie was of course, talking about Andrew, one of the three main characters in her Nightshade series. The books revolved around 3 siblings, Andrew the eldest, Janic, his sister and the middle child, and then Joana, the youngest sister. They were set in a fantasy world with different regions on the brink of war. The main focus of the stories were Janic and the love triangles she entertained through the different novels - a dark and troubled general on one of the opposing armies and a kind nobleman from her own kingdom who was supposed to marry someone else. But Andrew had his own subplot where he eventually betrayed his sisters and his kingdom, seduced by the evil Queen on the opposing side--and OHMYGOD!! Why was she even thinking about this right now?!

Tucking her hair behind her ears and letting out a heavy breath, Gwen said, "I didn't punish him, alright? After everything he did, I felt it was the most powerful way to redeem himself. To make the ultimate sacrifice to end the war." She paused to tremulously lick her lips. She knew how to deal with this; sometimes fans got attached to her characters and were upset when bad things happened to them. "The decision was very hard and I didn't make it lightly, believe me. Andrew was my favorite."

Actually, the main character, Janic was, but Stephanie seemed pleased with this and said, "Mine too." Stephanie looked away to stare at the space next to the scowling Agent's seat, then, as if Gwen needed her permission or approval, "I understand. It was the right choice. I just wanted to hear. Your reasons."

Out of line of that awful stare, Gwen relaxed in her seat a little, but immediately tensed again as Stephanie looked back at her. "I wish to talk. Of something else," Gwen was holding her breath, waiting. "Tell me of your time. With Alexander."

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"That's the third time you've let the guy live," Alex muttered. He was falling into a bad mood. The weight of his leg was dragging on his hip and he had to use his hands to swing his knee around to move. Xander'd already stopped walking for him. Yeah, yeah, he appreciated it, but the anticipation of what was yet to come was wearing his gratitude kind of thin."Out of everyone you've called a loose end, why's he off the list?"

The dude's a gold mine. If we find him again, I'm wringin' his neck for a full update. I've gotta know what's changed around here.

Alex paused for a moment.

"'If... we find him'?"

Settle down, Xander said, cutting through the excitement that'd started bubbling up. Don't read too much into it. I don't have a choice. My body's been on ice for years and when I'm out, I'm not gonna be at full strength. I've gotta lie low and figure out what the fuck I'm doing now that this is over. So yeah, fine, I'll stay for a month.

That was what cut his excitement in two. Alex had been puffing up in giddiness as Xander was talking. 'Excitement' was the right word - it fit everything he knew about his 'roommate' to get his body and then take off, but when the guy was seriously agreeing to hang around for that long at least, he felt safe removing the heavy weight from his throat and enjoying the thought of everything he'd get from it. Finding out a better way to fight the Agents - that was a given. When he knew how they worked, what the actual thoughts were behind ordering these people to kidnap innocents, he might be able to come up with a plan that'd let him have his paranoia and a normal life. Or something close to it, but anything'd be better than hiding in apartments. From there, he could get a full understanding of the Agency, not just a rushed explanation in a car, and the fear of knowing he'd probably keep being hunted after Xander was gone could be wiped out if Alex could convince him to... uh... alright, for lack of a better term, get rid of anyone who was planning on it. And Gwen - by far, she was the most important person in this. With Xander standing on his own, they wouldn't have to struggle for control of a body. Anything he wanted to do, he could do, and would have to if they were going to break her out of whatever cage they'd put her in. But he dropped back to reality when Xander's tone floated in.

"Why does it sound like that's not the hard part?" Besides the fight still ahead, waiting wherever Peter had put it since he hadn't put it here. "What aren't you telling me?"

Ha, ha! Check it out! No, don't change - It's the Lollipop Guild!

Crap! Don't mean Rudy. Alex looked up. Crap. Dammit... Xander meant Rudy.

I meant Shithead, the eighth dwarf. His good knee tugged forward. Giddy-up, horsey. I wanna say hi.

"Let's not do that," Alex said. He could see Rudy by the door, outlined by the streetlights pressed up against it that stopped out of fear of coming in. The tiny jerk's presence immediately freaked him out. He was glad he was standing in the open because Xander would have kicked him if he tried to hide out of habit. "What the hell is he doing here?"

Good question. Why don't we ask? And... Xander turned Alex's head down to look at his feet. How 'bout you stop inching towards the wall?

"Sorry." Alex didn't know what to make of this. Was he... Should he be going over there? She'd been determined in the car that right now - a moment she'd flawlessly predicted - was going to be the end of everything Rudy had done to her. He didn't feel he had the right to interrupt when she was handling something so important. Xander, obviously, was on a different level about it. If he felt like butting in, he'd be okay. He knew the 'rules' already, and if Osono exploded the way Alex expected, Xander either saw it coming and was getting ready to run or had already guessed how it'd happen and brushed it off, confident. "So... is it safe?"

He's breathing, isn't he? Xander was not pleased. He didn't dwell on it, though. He yanked at Alex's knee again. Go.

He didn't want to, but he did. He felt relieved doing it. ... Damn. He hadn't felt that in a while. Why was wasting time on Rudy  somehow something good?

"I'm an idiot if I get sentimental, right?"

Can't make you worse.

Right.

Alex cautiously slid his leg across the floor, creeping over, trying not to catch attention, only to feel a pressure bear down on him he didn't get in the Elmira lab. Just... this transfer thing was getting too real. Dammit - why did Xander have to agree to a month? It had the opposite effect of what it should've. It didn't settle any of his nerves. A month and then... what - poof, gone? Why not? As much as these years had ruined Alex's life, they'd ruined his, too. If not, which he doubted, it meant he had one to go back to. Either way, he wasn't hearing a true reason for Xander to deal with him or Gwen beyond those four weeks he was planning. Alex could ask... but he couldn't expect an honest response. The best he might get was an 'I don't know until I know' for all the good - none - those did. Would... Gwen stay if Xander didn't? She didn't have much more of a reason. He couldn't live with it if she only hung around because she felt like she owed him when they saved her. But she was a writer. In theory, she could... possibly... Alright, stop getting distracted. Just because Xander'd said a month, something Alex had asked for in the first place, didn't mean he'd keep to it. Xander could have liked them more than he let on, no one knew what would happen in the future, and they wouldn't be alive to stress about it if he didn't go back to handling... Not that he had anything to be stressed about.

Because he didn't.

"... So what is the plan for when the month's up?"

Seriously? Now?

He knew, he knew, he already knew. He'd be quiet. He'd stop.

"But off the top of your head?"

Alex.

"Okay! I... okay."

He kept this up and Xander wouldn't stay a week.

You're such a girl.

But if Xander did that, Alex wouldn't want him to stay. And Xander's answer was an in-head snort. Well... that was ambiguous. Was he snorting because he thought Alex was talking out his ass or because he was fine with leaving straight away? He wasn't staying because he had to, was he? Beyond the 'full strength' stuff, was he only agreeing to shut Alex up or... And there was another snort. That was even more ambiguous! ... Or...  wait. Did Alex only think it was ambiguous because he -

There're two ways out of here, Xander said. One of them's on the second floor and Batboy's holding the other.

There was a glow coming from Rudy's arm. It wasn't fire.

"What is that?"

Same as before. Oh, the light glove. Xander was bored by it, but he picked up in time to explain, I'm pointing it out 'cause I'm gonna use it to kill you if you don't relax for ten seconds. I'll stay if I stay, I'll go if I go, now kindly shut up and keep walking, 'cause holy shit, please shut up.

... That... helped... Until he got it in his head that Rudy had a gun pointed at Osono.

"Xander?"

She's got it.

Got what? Alex wasn't exactly beside her, but he was near enough to see her response to Rudy's threat was to turn her back on the Agent - and he was an Agent, so that should've been all the excuse she needed, old memories aside - I wouldn't call it an aside.

"You heard what I heard, right? You were there - you were listening? When she explained it?" Because she'd been pissed to a point that'd made him think she'd dance to get her revenge. Or was this another 'rule'?

"It's not his leg, it's his foot," Xander called back. "Keep the offer open for when he goes downstairs without me."

"She has a gun," Alex hissed, "pointed at her face!"

Xander thought it was funny.

Endurance, efficiency and obsession, he said, peppy while spelling it out. That's what pays the Agency's bills. It's practically fatal for how exploitable it is. Like now. He hasn't shot her yet? He won't. "When do I get a nickname?"

"When you give us your real one," Alex snapped.

But I did that already, he whined.

"Shut up, Xander."

But why would I lie about it?

Why would he lie about half the things he lied about? Alex wanted that gun gone, right now, and since Osono was fine with it ignoring it, he would have to make it happen.

So... uh... Get on that.

Figures.

The humour in his words dried out when they saw Rudy watching them darkly. It wasn't direct and it wasn't constant; he was flicking his eyes back and forth between Alex and Osono like he was trying to make some choice. Alex felt the challenge long before he saw the glint in Rudy's eye. What was he thinking in that small head? This choice was the wrong the one. He'd said he had a trick for staring contests. Xander was willing to demonstrate, and adding to the list of things he'd always be unfairly better at no matter how long he stayed to dish out training and practise, Xander was six steps ahead of the lesson Rudy apparently hadn't learned: every weapon they'd had aimed at them over the years had been some psychotic wave of energy that consumed a full building, hallucinative gas pumped through a room that locked behind them, electrified net that covered a whole field - in other words, stuff Xander couldn't dodge, dangerous but guessable traps Alex had half a mind to accuse the guy of running into on purpose just to prove he'd get out of them and send the Frenchman back to the drawing board.

The Agent almost hadn't needed to with whatever sealed Alex inside his own mind. He vaguely let a thought wrap around it. Xander hadn't been worried, and even if Alex had instinctively guessed it was from the ex-Agent finally getting what he wanted, it'd been enough to calm him down. It wouldn't have worked forever. It'd only been for a day, but if they hadn't gone to Elmira, how long would Alex have been in there? And then getting out - seriously, could someone explain to him what happened? Because everyone was describing something Alex was pretty sure he didn't know how to do. And yet it'd caught Peter's interest. How had he heard about it?

He was down to five steps ahead now. Plenty of time. The difference between the Frenchman's traps and Rudy's attack was that: a trap. No way out, a hundred ways in, and every single time Alex's life flashed before his eyes. But this? The thing could've shot bees and still not made a dent in his concern. Alex felt Xander actually sink in disappointment when the gun got turned on him. The movement in Rudy's shoulder stood out like a sign had been painted on and Xander had taken over enough to move Alex's shoulder out of the way, convinced - and right about it - that was all he had to do to dodge the shot.

The trigger was pulled without a second's pause. If Alex hadn't moved, he would have died. Instead, the blazing spurt of light utterly, valiantly missed - he heard Xander gave Rudy credit for being batshit insane on two separate occasions - and, "Who the hell is that?"

Xander backed up. He missed the body landing on his shoe as it collapsed into a dead pile of limbs.

What the fuck...?

Those were not words he was allowed to say.

"Rudy -" Holy shit. Alex's mouth had dropped open. "Rudy... who is that? What did you do?"

He shot someone. Xander was serious, and he was locked onto the crumpled heap that'd fallen from thin air. That's the short answer, anyway.

If Alex wasn't so freaked by the fact that the shot that'd been meant to bore a hole through his face that Xander helpfully avoided on his behalf had instead hit the empty space he'd previously been standing in that hadn't actually been empty because an invisible Agent was there and taken the shot by accident, he might have said something about Xander's remarkable insight and reading of the present situation. But he was right, and the gun worked. As quickly as it'd found its mark, it'd wiped it out. And it didn't just break the effect. It shattered it. The reveal was explosive. No 'appearing', just a crackling sound of something shorting out and an electrical outline that fizzled into nothing by the time the man - it was a man - hit the ground with a dull, wet thud.

Whether it was what had been said before the girl Agent's interrogation or the sheer... violence of what just happened, Alex's throat went dry.  

Two birds with one stone.

"I think you hit your 500."

Nothing. Alex quickly backed up. If Xander wasn't gloating yet, then something was still off and he wasn't standing by that thing unti it was figured out. The problem was the corpse had ended up between him and Osono. She had the stairs on her side. The body had its head pointed at Rudy. It was covered by a helmet, black along with the rest of the suit, but it wasn't any less creepy. Alex could still feel eyes on him.

Agents were the worst.

"You." Forget the body. Xander was talking to Rudy. "You don't fucking move." His eyes weren't much kinder when they turned back to Osono. "I know it's a little much to ask, but if you'd be oh-so-gracious, maybe watch him for a sec?"

Alex's senses were fired up again, focused, but not overwhelming. Out of fear of skin grafts, he tried to give Osono a wry smile, a weak smile - anything to kind of tell her not to take what Xander'd said the wrong way. Xander didn't let him. He'd stepped back to the body and crouched over it, grabbing the side of the helmet and turning it over. And over. And over. It was harder when the gear was still attached, but he didn't have an interest in taking it off.

"What are you doing?"

Getting answers.

Good thinking. Good idea.

The helmet had a hole melted in one side. The hard plastic had been eaten away and opened up a face fried from either the gunshot or the fizzling. Was he inspecting it?

No.

"Then what are you looking for?"

"Something." He flipped the body over. It didn't turn at the waist, so the corpse's legs were still on their side. You feel anything?

"You have my hands."

You see anything?

"You'd know before me."

At that, Xander gave up. He let the body flop back on its face and from where he was crouched, swept his gaze harshly over the lobby again. He was scanning it. Alex started to brace himself, but before the paranoia could set in, he was stood up and walked over to the stairs, callously stepping over the corpse like he never gave a shit to begin with and likelooking it over'd been a way to kill time. Xander did not give back control.

"I'm getting my body," he told Osono, moving past her until he reached the fourth step. "Coming or staying?"

It wasn't a threat. He actually was asking. The shortness in his breath was from a reluctance to talk at all, but otherwise his voice was level. Rudy wasn't an issue anymore and Xander wasn't rending the shrimp into forty pieces. He was letting it go. ... Why?

"You okay?"

Fine. "Whatever you're gonna do, do it fast and catch up. See you up there."

Then he climbed the rest of the stairs. He still hadn't given back control.

"Why aren't you waiting for her? Rudy's with her," Alex said, the minute his feet settled on the upper walkway.

She's fine.

"She'll get lost!" In more ways than one. What if she got recruited? "She isn't Gwen. We can't send a message to her."

It's fine.

'Fine, fine, fine.' Xander's favourite word, after 'fuck', 'kill', 'Starbucks' and 'shut up, Alex'. Gwen had seen through it and Osono had rolled her eyes. They knew what 'fine' meant: the exact opposite but with a full refusal to share. And now the paranoia was here.

"What was wrong with that body? You didn't brag about it. I thought you liked crossfire."

Body's fine. He ignored the part about the crossfire. 'Cept for the dead thing, but I don't think that counts.

"Why are you holding the rail so tightly?" Xander let go of it. Alex hadn't seen that reaction before. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Yeah. Why?

Six years. For six years, Alex had lived with him. They'd talked, they'd fought, they'd backed out of a few fights - and Xander threw a fit for a week afterwards - but he hadn't heard an answer like that from him. There was an emptiness to it. The guy didn't act the way other people did, so there went any natural assumptions about what it was. Alex would have to guess, because he wasn't going any farther in unless he knew they weren't falling into certain death.

"You seem..." He had never thought to use this word before. Alex swallowed thickly. "... like you're nervous."

Do I.

There was a hallway at the end of the bordering floor they were walking along. Xander went straight through it and was doused by the slow, spinning, red lights at the corners of the walls. Back-up power - more of it. Any chance it was a trail?

"Are you?"

No.

Of course not. Stupid Alex.

"Don't go so far. Xander? I don't want to lose her -"

We're on a time crunch here.

That. That was exactly what Alex meant. The first two words of that sentence had been sharp and annoyed and Xander-in-a-nutshell, but then it tapered into the same, falsely mellow tone he'd used on Osono downstairs.

'Getting answers'...?

"Xander..." He had used this word once before, but he'd been joking about it, busy tossing around how good it felt to know the guy was overreacting to something he turned out to be perfectly okay with twenty minutes later. A solid lump of nerves slid down his neck and landed in his stomach, weighing it down and leaving him numb. Xander ignoring it made it worse. In a cruel twist of fate, Alex was quickly clued in to how much he needed his assholish reassurance. So say 'relax'. Say 'shut up'. Say something so he knew -

Would you fucking shut up?

That helped for two seconds, but faded as soon as they fell back into his empty lull.

"You're not okay."

Stop worrying about it. He couldn't. Xander knew better than to ask. Sure enough, Alex saw his eyes roll before he heard an aggravated sigh and demanding order to Just calm down.

He did, as far as Xander knew. His heart wasn't beating any faster than Xander already had it going. His hands were clenched, too. The silence deepened, even though the rush of adrenaline was grinding againt his ears. It wasn't anything to be concerned about per se; hell, Alex almost always never believed him when Xander said he could handle things and 'don't freak out, I know what I'm doing'. This was one of the few times, though, that it hadn't been followed up with a punch to knock sense into him, and it was the first Xander wasn't paying enough attention to notice he probably should.

Distracted.

Quiet.

Withdrawn.

Restrained.

Xander was scared.

And Alex didn't know what to say.

* * *


Ugh...

Lights go on. Lights go off. Lights go on. Lights go off. Lights go on. Lights go off. Lights go back on - straight up, this was the most boring thing she'd ever had to do. Bad enough she got stuck with the Vikings, but they put her in the one spot away from the other one spot that would've actually made this grunt work worth it. No, Buzzy, stay here and flip the light switch. You're the technical one! No one else was gonna figure out how to flip it off then short it out. That was something special only she could do, even though it didn't damn matter 'cause Cryptic said Eric would've planned to fight in the dark. Danielle was so stupid... and her brother was ten times worse! Ugh - she had to get out of this place! How many stupid generators did this building even have?

So she wasn't a fighter. She wasn't getting called off the front line to finish up a dumb chore, but she actually was the technical girl. She figured when the Vikings asked for her - or when Cryptic sent her over - it'd be for something... oh, maybe, possibly for something potentially actually technical? Her talents were being squandered here! And Marshall was so far away...

Wow. Thinking his name made her melt. She stopped playing with the dumb fusebox and ran it through her mind. Marshall. Marshall. Was it too much to ask to have a minute alone with him? She just wanted to see his cell... She'd earned it! She knew she had! She'd been the one tracking it, so why couldn't she? But nope - that wasn't happening. Marshall was never supposed to be here. Eric just changed his mind about where he wanted things. Okay, she knew what Cryptic would say: 'Eric doesn't change his mind. He simply reveals his plans'. But it was Danielle who was putting her foot down. If her dumb powers would stop making her crazy - what'd she have anyway, Power Periods? - long enough to listen, Buzzy could've explained how fishy this was. Wasn't it fishy to anyone else? Moving Marshall - she rubbed the little tattoo on her ankle - was one thing and she appreciated it a lot, but to move his brothers, too? Trevor, okay, she saw something stirring there that made a little sense. He was alive, in that 'I'm not dead but I'm technically dead even though I'm not dead' way - like... half the people in stasis cells were. But Dylan? He was... dead-dead. As in 'dead'. As in 'why even keep his body 'cause they were only supposed to do that until the transfer failed or worked and boy had Dylan's failed'. She didn't know. It seemed weird, especially since quasi-alive Trevor was going to Elmira but not-even-a-little-alive Dylan was going to a farther away, undisclosed, super high security place that - see? She could've traced that if she'd been asked, but Danielle wouldn't budge because it wasn't what they'd prepared for and she could call Eric stupid but at least he kept moving.

She'd called Cryptic. Unlike the Vikings who refused to talk to anyone, the Russians were a family and never turned each other away. She'd mentioned the new cells thing. Cryptic said to keep her mind on the job and not to tempt Eric to go further, but also to enjoy her bonus guest for as long as she could. He'd been impressed but not surprised to hear Eric had something else in motion. He wondered what he was up to, too. It could've had to do with the branches or absolutely nothing at all, but Eric wouldn't be stopped no matter who he was plotting against. Buzzy frowned. So, why were they helping the Vikings again? And was it too late to get a wall around Russia? China had one. Germany had one until they'd chickened out. Man - she didn't trust Bergmann. What did she take off for? Was she double-crossing them? That bitch. Oh, and Buzzy knew about her, by the way. Wouldn't Danielle be pleased to know her partner-in-crime had taken a liking to the man who made sure they couldn't reach the bathroom without dodging a knife through their neck? Hello? The Moroccans? Danielle was dumb. Bergmann was hopeless. Cryptic had the patience of a saint for putting up with them. And she, the sweet girl caught in the middle of this, was a tortured heart pulled from her lover and she wanted to see him right now!

"Hello?"

"Hi, Buzzy."

"Oh. You." Scissor. "You here yet?"

"Heading out now. Did you warm up a seat for me?"

Ugh.

"I don't think Eric's looking to kill any of us," Buzzy said, smartly quoting Cryptic's predictions, "but if he does off someone, I hope it's you, 'cause you are getting so annoying."

"I think Dalton said the same thing."

Dammit! She hated when she agreed with those cavemen!

"What do you want? I'm working." By the way, lights went off. "Everyone's going swell here. You don't have to keep checking up on me."

"Where are you?"

"Doesn't matter. You're not supposed to be anywhere near me."

Sometimes, Buzzy was sad that she looked like she was fifteen. She wasn't helping by keeping her perky blonde hair in pigtails laced with white ribbons, but she'd thought the black tights took the dollish-ness out of the pink shirt and yellow slippers. So she wasn't gonna win any fashion shows - sue her! It looked cute and boys liked it but Scissor liked it too much. What a creep.

... Would Marshall like it?

She wasn't blind. She knew what his predicament was and her heart went out to him. To be locked in a coma for two years, then trapped in a half-transfer for another six - oh, Marshall, you poor thing! It meant her odds were slim and she understood that. But she'd been fixed on seeing him again ever since he killed her cousins, which admittedly wasn't the most romantic way to meet a guy but - wow. Just wow. The way his shoulders rippled with strength a he'd pinned them by their necks... The way his eyes sparkled in the sunlight of that warehouse - green, she remembered completely, and when she'd been hiding in the corner as her cousins failed to fend him off - stupid for trying - she remembered those big eyes had been all she'd looked at. Until one of them ripped his shirt. Then it was, 'Ooh! Marshall! You do work out!' She'd been - like, twelve, but her heart had known. Didn't that say everything? And it wasn't something as shallow as the others thought it was. She'd shared his soul. She knew she did, because she'd seen his brothers, too. The ones that worked on the public side - ugh! Tiny and weak and... bleh. But the Agent Eliases - ohhhhh goodness. She'd felt like Goldilocks. They were all fantastic but Trevor was too big - and too psycho - and Dylan was too boring - he'd stopped being a Pain Eater to join a higher rank - but that sparkle in Marshall let him hit all the right marks. She was curling her toes just thinking about him! Maybe it was a good thing she wasn't seeing him now 'cause she'd be a puddle in the middle of the room, and he was in one of the older tanks and those ones weren't known for modesty -

"Buzzy, I hear you drooling."

"That's because I'm thinking about someone worth drooling over. Do you have a point for calling me?"

"Just wanted to know where you were. I've been thinking about another celebration when we're done here."

"Oh my God, you're making me vomit." Marshall would never be this clingy, but ride Scissor once and suddenly... "Whatever - if you don't have a point, I have one." Cryptic had given her a message to relay. "Bergmann said something about... like... Agents or whatever. Agents hiding? Hidden Agents? I don't know - she's German. Something about Agents."

"We're all set for those, Bumblebee." Did everyone get it? 'Cause bees went buzz. "We know Patten's tricks."

She seriously doubted that.

"Can I go back to drooling?" Lights went on, lights went off. This was boring, enough to make her want to talk to this loser. "You're bothering me."

"Elias is never gonna like you," Scissor sneered. Great, she was picturing his face. Him and stupid chin cleft - nothing good ever came from gingers. And their freckles. Marshall didn't have any of those. He had these really cool war wounds and this one crazy scar across his chest - damn, he was - like... a warrior. "You heard the other reports, right?"

"What reports?"

Bullshit. She knew everything about her man.

"Breton's final words," Scissor kept going, oozing through his headpiece into hers. "Alex and some chick named Gwen joined forces. Breton was complaining about the guy on the other Agent team. You know what that means?"

"He found a little skank on the side?" Everyone wanted her pooky pie, even when he wasn't in his own body. And they'd tried to make him cut his hair! It'd spoil his majesty! But maybe he'd shave a little, just for her. ... Wait, what was she saying? She liked it rough. "Am I supposed to be threatened?"

"They were in a hotel together." Nice try. "She was with him in Elmira." She loved his hair! It was this perfect mix between chocolate brown and oak. ... Yes, they were different colours. She was talking about the reflection in the light - chocolate in the dark, oak in the sun. Don't doubt her. She'd analyzed this. "Buzzy!"

"What?!"

"She's helping him get his body back!"

"So?!" What was her problem with that supposed to be? "Best of luck!" She couldn't wait for him to transfer. If only she was staying long enough to actually see it happen...

"Don't you think that's something he'd want to repay?"

"Marshall doesn't repay debts because he doesn't owe anyone, stupid." More switches lit up. Another generator. She fiddled with a few more switches and - whoomf. Those lights went off. Just two more rounds of this and those spinning red lights Bergmann'd put everywhere would be down for the count. ... Unless she had another generator. Damn her. "I think we should take him instead of Charlotte. Cryptic says Eric set her up as a trap."

"Cryptic thinks the fucking moon is part of Eric's scheme. Buzzy, I'm not trying to break up your weird, obsessive crush -" The hell he wasn't! "I'm just saying you might want to consider other options since your lust lamp's got a new blip on his radar."

"Yeah? Well, that's weird. 'Cause I'm looking through my files right now." Yes, she knew about Gwen. She'd made a sidenote of it on her laptop. She rolled her eyes at it. "Says she's taken already. Problem solved!"

"You don't think he'll want her back?"

"Maybe." Fat chance. "At least until he sees his 'other options'." Meaning her. Meaning Buzzy. "So he wants to save her. He's still gotta make it through recovery. You think he's just going to bounce up on his feet? By that time, Gwen's gonna be long gone." It was funny, 'cause it was true. That was part of the plan, to take out Gwen and her Agent. Her laptop had helpfully reminded her. ... Hey. Yeah. This was a shared report. Scissor knew that already. "You're sending up a lot of flags for something we've already accounted for. 'We're all set for those,' doofus."

"Uh... yeah." Oh - like that wasn't so giving it away! "Well, it's just because -"

"What are you Vikings doing to him?"

Don't try to lie. Buzzy could smell lies.

"We're not doing anything. He can sit in his dumb cell and rot."

"It's not dumb."

"Buzzy, I just think you and I should hook up again. It doesn't even have to be a full thing. Just quickly - just before we get started on this. The building's practically empty - there's Bergmann's guards, but we outnumber them - so how about you and I find a private room -"

"Why're you acting like this is your last chance? I'll probably have to hook up with you," she said, grabbing the waterbottle out of her backpack. She'd made a nice nest for herself here. She had a cushion she'd been sitting on in front of this ridiculous panel - lights on, lights off! "I'll be so depressed when Marshall's... gone..." Scissor had shut up, like that was somehow supposed to stop her from figuring it out. Those damn Vikings! "Marshall's not going?"

"No - he is -"

"Don't you bullshit me with your stupid 'technicalities', Scissor!" She was getting to her feet because she couldn't hate this guy sitting! "You tell me what's happening right now or I swear you will never see me in anything less than a parka again!"

"Aaaaarghh!" That was a cry of victory for her side. The Russians had won again. Stupid Vikings. "Okay! Okay, fine! But we're still having break-up sex!"

"If you don't spit it out, you'll be lucky to get -"

"Danielle wants to capture Marshall and drag him back to base," he blurted. "She says with Breton gone, there's no way to track his movements and use them to our benefit, so we might as well haul him off and keep him in a cage until we find a new solution."

... Oh... my...

"She's bring Marshall with us?!" This was the happiest day of her life! "Before or after the transfer?!" After, after, after!

"Before." Shit. Good enough! "But I know you're not gonna look at me if he's around so... you know... One for the road?"

"Scissor, you disgust me. But you've made my day more bearable, and as such, I will let you touch my breasts."

"And -"

"Don't push it."

She stopped the call, then squealed delightedly as she went over the news again her head! Marshall! Marshall, Marshall! Danielle was keeping him? She almost took back everything she said about that branch! She didn't, obviously, because Danielle and her brother were so horrible, but she almost did and that counted for something! Hooray for Vikings! And maybe he'd be in Alexander's body, but if they could seduce him over to their side - he hated Eric, he should be good to hear their deal - there was no reason they couldn't stage another attack and get his real body out! Ahhhhhh, Marshall! She'd ravish him! She'd make his cage the most comfortable he'd ever known! He wouldn't want to leave by the time she was done with it! Ooooh - she had to get ready! What would she do? What would she say? Fantasyland was thinking he'd remember her, but with patience, she was sure he'd feel a vague sense of familiarity, and then she was in! She'd have him!

Lights on, lights off, whatever! This was way more important! Alright, screw this. Enough lights were off! She was sitting by that cell and waiting for her man!

* * *


Jason was aware the crisis was not averted. Alexander had taken his information and left, but while it meant he'd allowed Jason to get away, he was still an active target running loose in an Agency building. The hundred problems based on what he'd seen were piling in his mind. Benoit was drunk, Eric had his own agenda, Agent Bergmann was gone, plus the lights kept cutting out. It wasn't possible for Eric to have ordered that or even Madeline from wherever she was. Something was wrong with the system. His goggles were registered to his rank by default and it was enough to tell him the power was supposed to be running. It'd been a sharp pain to the left side of his mind, but it'd been worth the ache in his chest from digging through his broken suit to confirm his suspicions: the building was being sabotaged. The attack the A-1 was expecting hadn't been a bluff. It explained the need to put his lead's transfer elsewhere, but unfortunately not much else. If Eric had rightly forseen this, there should have been more precautions taken. This wasn't one failed transfer and his psychic, criminal friend anymore. It was an armed force set to destroy them, and as far as he could tell, Eric - as the only one who'd had a hunch - was letting it happen. Jason knew he and Madeline didn't get along, but he couldn't honestly believe this was happening out of spite. Eric had a purpose behind this. He could feel it. He'd been feeling it. Security here was low but effective based on the building's minimal-risk location and precious storage, but there'd been a nagging sense around him that Eric wsan't counting on it to win this. So... Jason chose to be satisfied. The man was an A-1. There was no one better to handle this mess. And Jason had his own problems, like transportation. He still needed a car.

He'd taken the stairs, however reluctantly. There'd been more than he'd thought there'd be. By the time he'd reached the halfway mark, he was wondering if there was a car for him at all. Eric said there'd be, but - another nagging feeling - Jason was sure it wasn't so simple. He didn't doubt him - he just.... He thought it in his best interest not to take Eric at his word anymore. No - better - he thought it best to take Eric precisely at his word. He'd asked for a car? He'd get one. It was Jason's fault for not asking for more details, but that let him fill in the blanks alone.

Ha. This wasn't so bad. Now that he knew the rules, how hard would it be to play? Jason was proud of himself for understanding this much by himself.

... Although there was something to be said about experience.

Jason stopped on the steps and rested as he worked something over in his mind. Benoit. What he'd said. What he'd been about to say. 'I thought he got it by you.' 'He' meant Eric, and Jason won nothing for figuring that out, but the rest of it...

Eric Patten was so obviously dangerous that he didn't actually seem dangerous. He was a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing, but he was wearing it to hunt ducks. Jason couldn't picture the man ever holding a gun or wielding a hammer, and stringing Rudy up had been done with such... such joy that it felt like Eric had been playing. The fact that Rudy'd probably done something to ask for it didn't hurt, either. Truth be told, if Benoit wasn't in the picture and bent on biting at the man after his every word, Jason might not have suspected anything. His lead had been charmed right away, so there was a chance she wouldn't have noticed. Madeline's hate was obvious in the other way: so exaggerated, it came off strongly misplaced. But... Benoit. Jean's death was a separate situation and Jason saw how Frenchie was handling that. It was a wonder he hadn't passed out by now. But the possession itself... Benoit hadn't said a word. He'd taken his shots at Eric's powers as a whole but had been unnaturally closed on the matter of specifically controlling Jean. It did hit him as odd. It wasn't as though Benoit didn't care about it. He'd given his protest and he'd made his disgust known. Everything was in place for him to remark on it even off-handedly and he hadn't. He'd simply... backed off. 'Backed off' as in he was trying not to get involved.

Did it feel to anyone that Frenchie knew they were sitting on tracks, and he was the only one to see the train bearing down on them and step off? Jason's head was running again. Had that been the only time it'd happened? As far as he knew, but it was all the evidence he needed. There was something going on - like that was news - and Benoit not only had it figured out, but had casually been giving Jason a warning.

Then the video played.

Then Benoit stopped warning him.

No problem. Eric was so blindingly helpful that Jason knew he'd've been told if he was being walked to his grave. He was needed to rescue Stephanie. Benoit, however, had brought up a new line of inquiry. Who said it was all he'd be in Elmira to do? His lead was incredibly important, as much to Jason as to Eric's plan, but when he'd fulfilled his mission and his lead began her transfer, his hands would be idle and he could feel a list of chores rising around his feet. This was technically a favour on Eric's part and he spoke like someone who could easily collect. That had to be where the danger was. That had to be worth the warning. For Benoit to bring it up the way he had - before he'd contented himself to blame Jason for his friend's death and then left him to twist in the wind - meant it was something to be puzzled out. The plane ride would be helpful after all. He could think. But then again, without any further insight, he could wind up overwhelming himself and walk into whatever he should have been guarding against.

Dammit, Frenchie. He didn't fucking kill Jean. The idiot brought it on himself. Why did Jason have to pay for his mistake?

He'd gone back to walking. He'd reached the bottom. The parking lot was almost empty, which made sense considering how late it was. Almost empty. Something told him, out of everything left, Jason could have his pick.

He found one.

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#, as written by Ten
At first she'd been a bit relieved to get off the subject of her novels - it was just too ridiculous to sit here talking to Stephanie about something so normal - but now that the Agent wanted to actually talk about the last couple of days of pure Hell, Gwen kind of wished they were still gushing over her books. "What do you want to know?" she asked after a moment.

"Everything. Every small detail. Start from the beginning." For most of the conversation the noise that was coming from inside of Stephanie's head was reduced to a repetitive strumming with occasional high points of squeaking sound. But now as she stared at Gwen with those dark eyes - they weren't normally that color, were they? She could have sworn they'd been green before - the internal noise screeched jarringly, causing Gwen to wince. She wasn't like this earlier... what happened? "I found your pizza. He gave it to you?"

Gwen hesitated. "Yes, he brought it over as a peace offering. You were in my apartment?" Okay, NOW she felt violated. This was almost as bad as when Tagman stalked her.

"During investigation. You ran off, I had to find you. Why a peace offering?"

Gwen had the defensive urge to tell the woman to fuck off - she was INSIDE my house and searching through my things! - but for the sake of keeping calm and rational, she didn't. If she didn't answer Stephanie's questions, would she knock her unconscious again? Gwen couldn't afford to let that happen, the closer they got to their destination. "He was being noisy and I went over to yell at him. Xander brought the pizza over afterward to say he was sorry." Remembering that moment it felt like weeks ago, especially when she remembered how she felt to see Alex suddenly turn charming and smooth-talking his way into a date with her.

Stephanie didn't pause before jumping into her next question and there was nothing on her face to even indicate the previous answers meant anything to her. "Why did you leave? You went with him; why?"

Didn't Stephanie ever hear of chemistry? "I don't know. There was something strange about him and I wanted to find out what it was. Besides, he's good-looking and seemed really nervous and shy... I figured I'd be leading most of the time and he didn't seem like the type to try and pressure me into anything." Gwen stopped and cast a glance at the guy sitting across from her. "It's been a while since I've been with anyone... I thought he seemed safe and I was in control of the situation. I just wanted a little inspiration for my next book..."

"Did you find out, why he was strange?"

"Yes."

"You knew, there was an Agent, in his head?"

She stopped for a moment. Why did it feel like Stephanie was disappointed in her or as if she were admitting to doing something wrong? "Yes."

"You stayed with him, and ran away with him. Even after I attacked you, and you knew, people were after you. You stayed. Why?"

Stephanie WAS disappointed in her! She could hear it clearly in her voice through the robotic, clipped tone. Was she trying to make Gwen feel bad about escaping her? Well, it wasn't going to work. Gwen admitted she hadn't made the best choices in the past few days, but she'd be damned if she let this woman think she could reprimand Gwen for anything. "While I was on my date with him, I started hearing voices from the people around me, the stuff that they weren't saying aloud. And he said something weird about superpowers. I thought he knew what was happening to me. I thought he could help me."

"Did he?"

A glare formed on Gwen's face and she shot back, "Yes! He protected me! He saved me from you--"

"But not from Rudolph Quin, the world's worst Agent. And the shortest. Alexander was just...helpless? Did he even try, Gwen?"

"We were all caught off guard at that restaurant. He was wounded and he was protecting me from the Agents that were shooting at us. It's not like he intended to let Rudy capture me." First it was Gwen's fault that she ran away with the guy and now it was Xander's fault for not being everywhere at once? This woman was trying every guilt trip she could get her hands on. And too bad because it made her all the more unbelievable.

"Of course not," there was something almost soothing in Stephanie's tone, but it was practically torn apart by the way her mouth moved like the top of a chest opening and closing. "I'm only trying to understand, why. He gave you every reason, not to trust him. Didn't you learn anything? Or have you forgotten Tagman?"

There was something almost smug and haughty in her voice now, but Gwen refused to be talked down. Her faith in Xander hadn't been misplaced. Compared to what she had at the time, he was the best advantage she could have asked for. He'd admitted himself, a couple of times, that she shouldn't trust him. But she could, she knew she could depend on him. He tried to hide it but he cared. She reached out for him then but frowned when she hit the wall of high-pitched screeching inside the Agent's head. "What am I supposed to do? Stay hung up on that psycho forever and not ever let anyone in? You don't know anything about me."

"Silly Gwendolyn. I know everything about you. Where you like to shop. What scares you. What comforts you. I know your schedule. Your habits. Your interests. I even know, the exact nuances, of your menstrual cycle." Did she say she felt violated and creeped out before? Forget that wimpy shit; NOW she felt vulnerable and scared. And it wasn't just the stuff Stephanie listed off, but the death lingering in the woman's voice. She wasn't just talking about an idle hobby or her "job". Every ounce of Stephanie's obsession came through her voice, stripping Gwen bare and drenching her in what Gwen could only articulate as a feverish hunger.

"I was assigned, to your case, 4 years ago, but I researched your history. I know that your mother, got pregnant with you by her boss, while working as his secretary. Rather than fulfill, his fatherly duties and leave his wife, he paid your mother off, to keep her happy and quiet. And spent most of his time, with his real family, doting on and loving them, leaving you, fatherless."

Gwen's whole body tensed in her seat, but rather than feeling scared she just became angrier and angrier the more Stephanie went on. "For your information I was very happy while growing up and both of my parents loved me! He might not have always been around but my father didn't abandon us. He showed up for every one of my birthdays and spent time with me...at least once a month. That's better than most kids can say when born in such a situation! Quit trying to act like I was some waif, abused and left starved for love, because none of that shit ever happened."

Gwen folded her arms and frowned. She wasn't getting defensive. Sure, there had been hard times, living with her mother in a crummy apartment and going to crappy schools, surviving off food stamps and cable that they stole from their neighbors. But not once had she ever been under the delusion that she had it worse than some of the other kids in her neighborhood who wore the same exact clothes from elementary school and all through middle school and who had one or both parents in jail. And her dad... why did any of this shit matter, anyway? She was an adult now and all of that was behind her.

But Stephanie wasn't done. "I know that, those visits meant, the world to you. He'd show up, out of the blue, at least once a month, and he'd take you, to the park or the zoo. Those sunny afternoons, you truly were happy. He probably missed a month or two, here and there. But he was busy, doing important work, and that's why he, couldn't see you. Certainly not because, he was taking his real family, camping or grilling, on the weekends. Certainly not because he, was boning his new mistress. After all, you knew the truth, didn't you? Whatever kept him away, it had to be important, because there was nothing, he'd rather do than spend time, with you. Right?"

Gwen didn't know why, but she wanted to cry. None of this mattered. She was trapped and on her way to being killed by this woman and none of these things she was saying mattered any more. "Please... stop," she croaked, tears filling her deep blue eyes and her nose reddening from the effort of holding them back.

"Did you dream, of him coming to rescue you, some day? Just take you away, from the tiny apartment, that you and your mother lived in, off to wherever he went, while he was away. Did you know, about his daughters? I know that, you imagined him with them. Reading them stories, in bed at night, getting to curl up in his lap. Comforted and protected, by his strength, when he checked for monsters, under the bed. And you, going to bed alone, because your mother worked late. I know that, you looked for him, in the crowd of parents, while reading your winning entry, to the National Scholastic Pre-teen Writing contest. And I know that, you dream of him, walking you down, the aisle, when you finally find the one."

"Please, I really don't want to talk anymore..." her voice sounded so quiet compared to Stephanie's and she was openly crying now.

"You want to know, how I know, these things? Because it's all over, your fucking books. As if you thought, no one would notice, you recreating your childhood fantasies, through Janic. You couldn't be, more transparent, even if you hadn't made, both love interests, twice her age. Even Andrew mirrored aspects, of your father, seduced and corrupted, by the Evil Queen - because your mother, was to blame, for chasing him away. You didn't kill Andrew, to honor him. Your father died, last year, and you tried to glorify, his passing - this man whom, you barely knew - by building the legend, that he finally broke free, from her wicked grasp, and saved, the kingdom."

"It was just a story, Stephanie!" she burst out defensively, wiping her nose and trying to stop crying. "It was completely fictional! You're trying too hard to stretch it to fit my life!"

"I'm not wrong," was the placid response. "And I know, that's why you stayed, with Alexander. Despite what you knew, and the danger he was, you followed him. He was daddy, finally coming to rescue you, from your boring, crappy life."

"I stayed with him because I subconsciously thought he was my dad? Really?" some of the power returned to Gwen's voice as she sniffled hard and sneered at the other woman. "Neither Alex nor Xander is anything like my father, so you're really reaching with that. And he's not dangerous, okay? Xander knows what he's doing. You people just weren't a threat to him."

"Gwen, he led me to you." She stopped and thought about that for a moment and started to shake her head, but Stephanie continued talking. "Not only does he have, very obvious symptoms, relating to his powers, and attacks, but the man in charge, of his case, had a way, to specifically track him. And we wouldn't have, teamed up, if you hadn't followed him. You wouldn't be, completely untraceable, but you might have, had a better chance."

Gwen folded her arms tightly under her chest again and shook her head. She wasn't crying anymore and she knew what Stephanie was trying to do, but it did bring up doubts in her mind. "You make it sound like it's his fault, though. How were any of us supposed to know about that?"

"Xander, was it? - He's an Agent. You think, he didn't know?" Gwen was about to fire back how stupid that was - why would he let them track him like that if he knew about it? It wasn't just bad for her, but bad for him as well - but was talked over, the robotic voice cutting through what she tried to say. "So, let's recap. It's his fault, that you met. It's his fault, that we were able, to follow you to Vestal. It's his fault, that I almost had you, in Elmira - his Agent knew he was going, to that base and why. It's his fault, that Rudy got his hands, on you. Where is the part, when he was, protecting you? It sounds more like, he's been protecting, himself. Afterall you're here, and he's still out there."

None of that was true and she knew it. Gwen wanted to bring up all of the things that Xander did to help her, but in light of everything that went wrong - especially all the things that Stephanie didn't know to blame him for - it didn't seem worth it to argue. He'd been such a big freaking baby when they left that coffee shop, as if she owed him some sort of loyalty and just MINUTES after he finished telling her and Alex that they couldn't trust him. And yet when it mattered most, he'd left her wide open and vulnerable with that creep Rudy Quin. At the time, she'd been scared that he would still be mad at her and not chase after her, and since then had decided that it wasn't his fault. Now though... she wouldn't put it past him to just get rid of her. Afterall, she promised the exact same thing when she told him off.

Biting one of her fingernails, she looked out the window for a moment and turned back as Stephanie said, "But I wouldn't bet, on him staying free, for much longer."

What did that mean? Was something going to happen to them? Xander's body was in Charlton and they were probably still going for the retransfer. Did Stephanie mean that the Agency already knew and were setting a trap for them? There was a moment of concern for Alex, but Gwen didn't even try to reach out to either of them.

***

Another airplane. Fin was thrilled. At least he didn't have to deal with long lines, sitting in cramped seats next to unpleasant people or invasive security checks - those did absolutely nothing to make him feel safe by the way, especially when they started targeting children for strip searches and pat-downs. How was the thought of kids suddenly becoming terrorist threats supposed to put him at ease? Screaming brats were bad enough as it is, but now they were plotting to take down Boeing 747s? What was the world coming to?

No, this time he got to travel in true Agent-y style in Graninger's private jet. It wasn't as luxurious as he would have imagined, with four seats positioned in two rows and all facing the front of the aircraft with limited space between them. But compared to both of the recent flights he took across the country, on commercial jets, the foot and elbow room was like having a football stadium all to himself. Not to mention no one else was in here, except for the flight attendant - a young woman with cream and coffee colored skin and a smile that made him want to make-out with her dentist. Or...just make-out with her. Either one. Fin wasn't picky.

Other than a tiny logo on her uniform, there was nothing else to indicate that the flight attendant was any part of the Agency. That, added onto his isolation in the cabin of the plane, made him suddenly realize how independent he'd become within the last hour. He was an Agent now and that gave him more privileges than before - namely, he could now make phone calls using his very own Agency issued cell phone. And despite the restrictions on him at the time, he'd pilfered the phone number of the Agent on Pie's case. Billy King, the woman who eventually transferred into her.

The most important aspect of this was that Graninger wasn't here lurking over his shoulder anymore. And he'd reviewed the rules as much as the older man had been willing to drill them into his head; he didn't need permission for this one little phone call. The jet had yet to take off and when he asked the dazzling Mona Lisa when they were leaving, she told him they were waiting for others. So, he wouldn't be flying all on his lonesome after all. He guessed that ruled out making a fort in between the empty seats out of extra blankets and tiny pillows. Since he apparently had a little time, he took his cell phone out and punched in the number, rubbing at his missing mustache and beard while he listened to the phone trill in his ear.

"Hey, King here," was the response as soon as the phone picked up. Fin's voice caught in his throat and he froze like a pillar of stone in his seat. God... it sounded just like her... but it wasn't Pie. Well, technically it was Pie, but the teenaged voice he was familiar with had been warped into something clipped and full of authority, almost completely unrecognizable from the playful young girl he'd known. "Hello?" the stranger's voice prompted, an irritation and impatience filtering through the earpiece on his phone, making her sound all the more bizarre as familiarity tingled through his ear drums and down his spine.

Not wanting her to hang up without having said anything to her, Fenton cleared his throat and stumbled over a few brisk words, suddenly uncomfortable and eager to end this. "Uh... Sorry, your majesty, I must have dialed the wrong number. My bad."

As he started to pull the phone away from his ear he could have sworn he heard Pie say "Fin?" in a hopeful tone, before he rushed to hang up. No. That didn't just happen. Still, as he sat staring at the phone in his hand, he couldn't shake the sound of the recognition in her voice echoing in his head. Graninger was right. This wasn't good for him and he needed to stop doing this to himself.

He didn't have long to dwell on that when his thoughts were interrupted by someone new boarding the plane. A tall man in his late thirties bowed his head as he moved through the door, his wide, muscular shoulders covered in a slimming beige suit with a white dress shirt underneath - no tie and an unbuttoned collar, Fin noticed - and a thin silver earring dangling from his right ear. The casual look was contrasted by the sculpted salt and pepper beard centralized around the man's mouth and the militant haircut, his calculating blue eyes scrutinizing the cabin of the plane in seconds as he walked towards the seats.

"Sorry for the wait," the man said in a relaxed, apologetic tone. "I just got out of briefing and was notified that this was the last private aircraft leaving for the next couple of hours. I didn't want to wait that long so we tried to catch this flight before it took off, especially since it's going exactly where I need to be."

Actually, Fenton was just a little bit irritated by the delay - he was eager to report to his new boss and take up his first official assignments as an Agent - and this guy, whoever he was, took his damn time getting here. But there was something open and confident in the man's demeanor that drew Fenton in and tickled his curiosity. As the man sat in the seat behind him, Fin turned in his chair to look at him and said, "Damn right you better be sorry. I had to entertain myself by oggling the flight attendant and actually getting bedroom eyes made back at me.." He glanced over his shoulder where the slender woman stood leaning into the cockpit talking to the pilot, her elegant legs bent at the knee and her perky round bottom accentuated by her slimming skirt as she bent over slightly. Fin turned back and shook his head with a sigh. "Torture."

There was a moment where Fenton worried about what rank this guy was - Graninger's warning echoed in his head in that smug, raspy voice - but the older man gave him a genuine smile and nodded. "Oh, my, you poor man. Is there any way I can repay you for the ordeal my tardiness has put you through?" the guy asked, seemingly amused and playing along.

"I dunno. What've you got? Actually, you wouldn't happen to have a gift card to Outback Steakhouse in your pocket, would you? I hear nothing but good and yummy things about their new woodfire grill entrees." Alright, really, he needed to stop now. The guy chuckled and shook his head but Fin said, "Sorry, this is the first time I've been let out of my cage and my Master forgot to muzzle me before setting me free. Which is unfortunate because I've already bitten, like, 3 people..."

There was a brief pause that was just long enough to get Fin feeling uneasy - and it didn't help that those blue eyes were fixed on him and he couldn't tell if that was a thoughtful gaze or if he was looking for a physical weakness - but finally the guy's small smile widened generously and he extended his hand. "My name's Creasy," he said as Fin grasped his hand in a firm shake - two solid jerks and then he was released. "What's yours?"

Restraining the urge to blurt out more lame jokes, he instead gave a polite smile back and said, "Fin." Usually when he mentioned his nickname to professionals, they gave Fenton odd looks, but this guy smiled and nodded his head as if to silently say Not bad. As if Fin could have been saddled with worse...like his actual name.

Adjusting his suit coat briefly, Creasy asked, "What rank and/or position are you? Nice uniform, by the way."

"Thank you. I got it because I've heard that chicks dig guys in uniforms. It works. Ms. Never-Had-A-Cavity back there could barely keep her hands off me." Another amused smirk stayed in place on the older man's lips. "A-12. No position yet but I'm being reassigned to someone in the Charlton, Massachusetts base," that got nothing more than an eyebrow bounce, but it was enough to let Fin know he'd surprised the guy by even daring to talk to him the way that he had. After nervously wondering if he should apologize, he finally decided to ignore it and play it naturally until he was called on it or reprimanded. Granted, it wasn't how he was going to handle talking to other Agents in the future, but Creasy seemed pretty laid-back. Why shoot himself in the foot and overcompensate for the rules if Creasy wasn't offended? "You're headed to Charlton as well? Working on a case?"

Any answer Creasy was about to give was abruptly interrupted as someone else entered the plane just as the flight attendant was passing by the door and they collided right in the aisle. It didn't help that the guy had a briefcase that wasn't latched properly - thus opening and spilling it's papery contents upon impact - and a yarmulke that promptly fell off his head as he teetered and flailed on his feet. The commotion lasted all of 5 seconds with the flight attendant looking less frazzled and unnerved than the kid was. And he was most certainly a kid, looking at least 19 years old but Fin bet the guy had never shaved before. Tall and lanky in a dark black suit, which only emphasized his awkwardly long and skinny limbs, and topped with short curly hair with two perfect Shirley-Temple-curls dangling in front of his ears down to his chin.

The kid was stammering apologies to the flight attendant and anxiously crouching to collect the puddle of files that had spilled from his case, unable to decide if it was more important to let her know how sorry and awkwardly embarrassed he was or to put all of his papers away as quickly as possible. From behind him, Fin heard Creasy release a small chuckle, followed by a heavy breath. "Haggins," he called, and immediately the younger man stopped what he was doing and looked up. Like a deer caught in headlights, big brown eyes, long nose and rosy lips froze in a questioning and reluctant expression of dread, while the flight attendant knelt beside him and helped get papers that had fallen under the seat to Fin's right. "Quit fooling around, boy. Did you get the box from the trunk?"

"Uhhh..." Haggins only glanced away to take the papers the stewardess collected for him but immediately looked back and set his yarmulke back on his crown. "I didn't think we'd need it. The other Agency bases should provide us with any basic equipment--"

"I'm not leaving unprepared and I packed it in the car for a reason," the older man said in a calm, stern voice. "Go and get it, please. And focus. You can flirt on your own time."

"Right," was the response, with no sign of impatience or attitude for being forced to the task, although he did blush and give the flight attendant an anxious look. Fin tried not to laugh. Somebody was most certainly still a virgin and it was painted in neon lighting right above exactly who that was.

As the briefcase was restored to order and set aside, Haggins left the plane again and Fin turned back to Creasy and gestured with his thumb. "Cute kid. A little skittish though. Might need to work on that if you don't want him to wet the carpet when company comes over."

Creasy let out a deep throated chuckle and said, "Yeah, isn't he? Skittish is alright for now, although it does get a bit bothersome occasionally. He'll even out eventually, as soon as he gets laid." So, Fin wasn't the only one who noticed.

Fenton stopped for a moment... Why did he get the feeling that last part was really 'as soon as I lay him'? After looking Creasy over while the older man buckled his seat belt, Fin finally shrugged and shook his head a little. Then he noticed something on the guy's belt. "Nice badge," he commented, briefly pointing at it. Not a police badge but very obviously Agency inspired with a large, stylized "A" overlaid on a black and gold crest. "Where can I get one? Chicks love shiny things too."

Creasy glanced down and smiled as he said, "Well for that, you'll need to train in the Agency's investigation courses, like Haggins, and put in a few good years of undercover work for the DOC."

Fin blinked at him. "The Department of Commerce? Undercover? Wow... I didn't realize those guys were so hardcore..."

"No, the Docimasy. The Agency's specialized disciplinary unit." Fin blinked again but gave the guy an interested look. "We're assigned the task of investigating claims of misconduct in the Agency and meting out charges and punishments - specifically in regards to suspicious deaths, but we also handle reports of fraud and sexual assault. Usually we're only called in for the more extreme offenses. Everything else is handled by whoever runs the local bases."

"Wow..." Fin nodded slowly, thinking that over. He had no idea these guys existed. Did Graninger know about them? "'Extreme offenses'... Is someone in trouble? Did something bad happen in Charlton? Did someone die and then get sexually assaulted? I think there's a fetish for that."

Fin was getting used to Creasy's understanding and slightly paternal grin. "I'm sorry, I cannot discuss any open cases we're working on."

"Fair enough," Fin could totally respect that, but it didn't make him any less nervous. Who sent these guys out? Who were they after? He prayed that Eric Patten wasn't currently on their radar. Finally, he got out from underneath Graninger's shadow and it'd be absolutely fantastic if he was sent straight back here because Patten got arrested or something. God! Why couldn't Graninger's words stop haunting him? "So, when you say 'suspicious deaths' you're talking about murder?"

"Agent-to-Agent murder, yes."

"How do you investigate something like that? Do you just ask the guy if he did it, or what?" Fin was actually really interested in this. Apart from the apprehension that Patten was possibly the one being targeted, finding out how the Agency handled crime and punishment within the ranks was something he wondered about. Particularly when he personally knew these guys had very little respect for the laws of the land, to hear someone say that somebody actually cared if some of them died in the line of duty was a bit of a shock.

"That and we do an autopsy on the body of the deceased and dig into backgrounds to try and establish a picture of the previous relationship. Any witnesses are questioned to get a clearer view of the crime. Just what you'd expect from an actual police investigation, except handled by the Agency's own. Since a lot of these types of deaths involve higher Agents, we try to keep things in-house due to the confidential nature of any cases they may be working on." Haggins came back and sat in the seat next to his boss, "If you're truly interested, you should sign up for the training program. We could always use a few more Docs on the payroll." And Creasy gave him another warming smile and that was it. The conversation was over as he and Haggins conferred over files from the kid's briefcase.

It didn't matter, even if he wanted to risk interrupting, because right then Fin found himself distracted as a young woman boarded the plane as well and sat in the seat next to him. The first thing he noticed was the dark eyes and dark makeup around them, but then the short hair and long stylized bangs came into view, along with the slick, shiny black suit hugging her thin body like a second skin. As soon as she sat down, Fin turned to her and said, "Hi, my name is Fin. What's yours?"

As if he'd used a lame pick-up line, she sighed heavily without looking at him and said in the most disgusted tone he'd ever heard, "I'm a lesbian." And she adjusted her seat belt like she expected that to completely shut him down. Too bad Fin wasn't the type of guy to know when to shut his mouth.

"I'm terribly sorry..." he said after a moment, putting on a mockingly sorrowful tone. "Your parents... What bastards. I bet the kids in middle school were ruthless with a name like that." She tried not to smile but continued not to look at him. "Let me guess, your last or your middle name is 'You can stop trying to get into my pants now.'"

Briefly, his attention was diverted to the backseats when a tiny chirping alert came from Haggins' cell phone. "I got an email from him," he informed Creasy, while looking at his phone and pressing buttons. "He says case no. 62724 has left Charlton and will be arriving in Elmira, New York in a few hours. That's going to take us out of our way. What should we do?"

Creasy, his attention completely on his companion, shook his head and shrugged a little. "We'll stay on course and just go after the other one first. Besides, he's the more serious threat anyways."

Nothing about that conversation assuaged his earlier suspicions but he was momentarily distracted again while as he watched, Creasy reached across the small gap between the seats and touched one of Haggins' sidecurls, fingertips gently tugging on it and releasing it so it bounced like a spring. Obviously, the man was unaware that Fenton peeked back there when he did, but he wasn't sure which was stranger, the sign of affection or the fact that Haggins noticed but seemed unbothered by the gesture. Now, Fin wasn't an idiot and he knew as well as anyone that romantic relations between Agents was prohibited. How exactly did that work for someone who was supposed to defend the rules like Creasy did?

Then again, he was probably putting more into what he saw than was actually there. Turning to the woman again he let out a deep breath between pursed lips then said, "Well, you know what they say; when you assume you make an ass of you and me." Again, she tried not to smile, but she actually looked at him this time.

"Anjelica," she said after a moment of consideration, and reached out to shake his hand.

***

A body dropped. It took her a second to realize that it wasn't Alex and she released a lungful she'd been holding in without realizing it. Everything happened so fast, she didn't have time to react, but as soon as the gun was raised and pointed at Xander, she'd been in the process of starting a fire somewhere on Rudy's person. That damn Rudy! He almost killed her friend! And it was her fault for letting it happen, AGAIN! The twinge of guilt was soothed by the fact that Alex was alright, and at least now she knew she could depend on Xander to be quick on his feet, but she focused all of the rage she felt at herself towards the one who deserved it. That stupid little idiot!

"Whoa..." was Rudy's mumbled response as Alex was suddenly laying the blame at his feet. "Hey! I didn't mean to do that! He was just there! If you hadn't stepped outta the way - that's on you, man!" No wait, that sounded lame and Ozzie was watching. "Uh, I mean, yeah, I totally knew where he was." He shrugged and casually thumbed his nose. "I'm a killer. That's what I do, man. You're lucky I felt like icing someone else right then, or you'd be buttered toast!"

Actually, that was kind of weird and disconcerting. He was perfectly willing to kill Alex just a second ago and even desired it more than anything else in the world - deep in his soul he wanted to fucking kill that target-stealing-case-ruining bastard. But the sudden appearance of one of Eric's invisible soldiers was like a jolt to his system and brought him back to reality. Rudy needed to be careful, because if there was one of them - it took him just a split second to check and make sure he didn't accidentally hit the delicious Squiddie - then there were certainly more. Waiting and watching.

Then suddenly Xander was issuing orders, first to Rudy and then to her, and immediately she felt a rise of defensive heat burst within her. The thing was, she didn't know what to be angry about: his tone, like he could boss her around - whatever happened to asking nice, jerkoff? - or the actual implications in what he said, as if she wasn't capable of keeping an eye on Rudy. But then suddenly she grew a bit morose as she realized why he was mad at her. She promised to kill him as soon as she saw him again and here Rudy was, walking around, perfectly fine and shooting at people.

When that dick started telling him what to do, Rudy had a mind to listen to him but only because it seemed like a good idea. Don't fucking move. Instead, he stood in place and searched the lobby for anyone else around, but still they appeared to be alone. He wasn't taking that very far though, because he really hadn't seen the first guy.

When Xander was done with his inspection and moving past her on the steps, Ozzie reluctantly drew her hateful gaze off of the shrimp to turn to him instead. Right, his body. But she couldn't help feeling another wave of guilt in the tone he took with her. God! Why did he insist on making her feel bad about this? She asked him for his help in the car, but instead he HAD to know about her stupid history with the guy and embarrass her about it! Well, fuck Xander, then! She wasn't going to be made to feel responsible when she already told him that she couldn't fucking do it!

"Yeah, see ya, jackass!" Rudy called from behind her, making her cringe. "The pickle people room is up the stairs, down the hall, take a right and then a left. Follow the red fucking glow, retard. Buh-byeee!" Rudy didn't have a clue if his directions were correct - probably not; his crawl on the upper floors was still a bit hazy - he was just eager to have that psycho out of the picture. As soon as he got Osono alone, he'd be able to turn on the charm and work at fixing and rebuilding what that moron had undone. All of those years of hard work! Dammit!

Seriously, she was going to kill the stupid fuck, but she waited long enough to hear Xander's final orders to her. Curt and to the point. He was giving her another chance to finish it for real and he was trusting her to do it. After what Rudy just did, it gave her the biggest reason why she needed to deal with this problem like she originally planned. But as soon as Xander was walking away from her, she felt herself fall back into the same mindset as before. She couldn't let Rudy go. Well, at least she could teach him a lesson and set things straight. He may be her Agent, but he wasn't going to fucking capture her - not if he wanted to continue to live. And that meant he needed to stop hurting the people around her.

When that freak left, Rudy walked forward to nudge the corpse with his foot and made a soft, "Ew..." noise when it flipped over and he got a look at the hole in the helmet. "Oh, God! Ozzie!" he said excitedly, waving her over. "C'mere! This is so gross! Check it out!" He glanced down at the gun on his hand. "I had no idea it could do that to someone. Musta been the suit he's wearin' or somethin'." And he looked up at her as she marched towards him, only having a second to see the anger in her face before her hand swooped out and smacked his arm dislodging his weapon and sending the Aurora clattering to the floor. "Hey... my gun..." he murmured pathetically as she suddenly grabbed a fistful of his shirt and jerked him violently.

"WHY did you do that?! Why did you shoot at him?" she shouted in his face. He seemed scared for the moment, flinching from her as she held her other fist clenched and up, ready to pummel the crap out of him.

"I'm sorry! No, for real! I didn't know that Agent was even there! I meant to kill the other guy!"

Wrong answer and he paid for it with a swift punch to the eye which left him dazed for a couple of seconds. Holy shit...yes, mother... wait, wait, wait! He couldn't act like he liked it with her! He had to keep in character if he was going to sneak back into her trust and 'masochistic creep' was not the role he was supposed to be playing. As his head righted itself and he blinked the stars out of his vision, Rudy put on an unhappy face and tried to ignore the throbbing sensation in his groin when he stared back into those hot, viciously terrifying eyes.

"Why, goddammit!? He's my friend!" she yelled. She hit Rudy plenty of times before - even broke a few bones - but for some reason, right now, with his Agent status out in the open, it felt REALLY good to punch him. Just give me a reason! PLEASE!

"Which one? The dead one or the gay one?" he blinked at her and his eyes darted around the room briefly. When he started talking again, his voice sped up comfortably, while getting a defensive note to it, as he clung to the wrist of the hand that held his shirt. "Anyway, your 'friend' is a total nutcase who tried to kill me in the bathroom! All I wanted to do was help the guy and he went all 'psychotically unbalanced Jackie Chan' and hit me for no reason! I shot at him now because he was coming near you! I was trying to protect you from that homicidal maniac!"

Another wrong answer and he got backhanded across the cheek, his head whipping to the side and a cut on his lip reopening. "ENOUGH!" she growled - Oh, yes...Rudy like.... - giving him another fierce jerk. "It's over, you hear me!? I know you're an Agent and I know you're the one who's been after me all these years! So just cut the shit now, or I will seriously start burning your limbs one by one!" Oh wait... was... was she crying? God... he didn't know if that was sexy or not. Rudy wasn't a fan of tears, but she was still blisteringly angry at him and he certainly liked that. How confusing and...arousing. "Just tell me the fucking truth for once!"

"Oh, we're telling the truth now?" he perked up a little. "In that case, I have to be honest, please, don't stop hitting me; I fucking love it. Just one or two more like what you've already given me and I'll finally be able to fully empathize with the song "Jizz in my pants"." He let out a small sigh and gave her a crooked grin. "God... Wow, thank you for that. I'm so glad to finally get that off of my chest."

Osono didn't know if he was being serious or not, but it didn't matter. There was nothing but jokes with this guy and she was just about at the end of her rope. She wasn't crying but she didn't know what to do now. If he wasn't lying, then he was getting off on his beating and she had nothing but brute force to threaten him with. "Why would you care about keeping me safe?" she asked, her voice growing quieter as she let him go. "You've done nothing but keep me in a constant state of fear and danger since I met you. All of a sudden, you want to play like you're my hero? Don't bullshit me, alright? Just stop."

Oh, God. She WAS crying. Jesus. What a way to kill a boner. Massaging the neck of his T-shirt, he glanced around the lobby again - the lights kept going on and off but neither of them noticed - suddenly remembering what he needed to do. Alright, so... lying to her and trying to get into her head the usual way wasn't working, nor did threatening her and threatening her friends certainly didn't help either. Maybe... just a little bit of truth and she'd take that as a very strong commitment on his part and want to leave with him?

"Okay... okay, yeah, all of that shit is true, but I was protecting you, alright? I'm the fucking Lead Agent on your case. Do you know what that means? I'm in charge of capturing you and bringing you in. Do you think that I'm stupid enough to not realize my tactics weren't working after the first few dozen times? Wait... don't answer that." He shook his head and bit his lip. They needed to get out of here, like, now, or else the Boogeyman Patten would sneak up from the darkness and trap her here forever. "Sometimes... I just suck on purpose, alright? I never sent any teams after you that I thought might overwhelm you. I'm probably the worst level A-3 Agent on the planet and I did that for you, to keep you out of their hands." Rudy shrugged and flopped his hands at his sides. "If you want me to say that I'm sorry, I won't."

Osono's body tensed as that last sentence came from his lips, so eerily similar to what she imagined he might say. It was enough to shock her back to reality, and shake loose the sympathy that was growing during his little speech. "No, you didn't do any of that for me. If you really wanted to protect me, you woulda told me the truth and stopped being an Agent." She watched as his shoulders slumped a little, but he didn't look sad, merely disappointed. As she turned to leave him behind for the last time, he put a hand out and touched her arm to stop her.

"Yeah, you don't know my girlfriend, alright? She was pressuring me to keep on you and she woulda killed me if I tried to escape. I'm not with her anymore, by the way. Grenade launching incident. She's dead now. You just gotta believe me when I say I'm trying to protect you now. We have to get out of here, Ozzie. It's really not safe for you to be here." She turned back to look at him and he took his finger off the truth button as he desperately pleaded, "Look, you want me to leave the Agency, fine, I'll do that." Not really. "I'll walk away from it right now... if you come with me." Lies. "I... I like you and don't want you to get hurt." The thing about all of this was, the Agency had become such a big part of his being, even without Noel keeping him chained to the floor, he couldn't imagine himself doing anything else. There was no one to go home to if he got fired and he certainly didn't want to be a REAL fugitive on the run with Osono; he just liked pretending to be one while also being a super secret Agent man. The perks! The power! The danger! And the women!

Fuck. She believed him. She didn't want to and Ozzie fought against it, but he'd never said anything like this before and his concern seemed genuine. It was exactly what she always wanted - for him to be by her side and be a real person. To actually HAVE him as a friend and not just believe in him being a friend. Or at least... it used to be what she wanted. Now it was too late for the truth to matter except as a bandage for old wounds. And she was done playing sissy games with him. Xander needed her right now.

"I can't leave Alex. I've got to help him and help him save Gwen. If it's a choice between 'leave with you now' or 'have you continuing to chase me and hurt the people I care about', then fuck that shit. Just stay the hell away from me, alright? That's the best thing you can do for me now is forget about everything and leave me alone."

Why wasn't this working??? What more did she want? He'd fucking fake-poured his heart out and she was still stuck on those morons that they just met fucking yesterday! Okay! He had just one more thing up his sleeve! Reaching up to her, he grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her down for a kiss, his hurt lip scraping urgently against hers and wriggling his tongue--suddenly he let go and air exploded from Rudy's lips as he doubled over, holding his stomach where Ozzie powerfully thrust her fist.

"Knock it off, stupid!" she yelled at him and promptly turned to start marching up the stairs grumpily. That was a lot less pleasant than she imagined it would be, even if she took away the fact that he tasted like blood and onions.

Alright, fine. He wasn't going to convince her to leave and if he kept trying it wasn't going to do anything except make her mad - God, his spleen hurt so fucking good right now! - so... Whatever. The least he could do was stay with her and make sure she didn't get hurt while she went tromping around the base with that fag, Alex. How much more could he possibly piss Patten off by getting in the way like this?

Smirking a little, Rudy sang to himself, "♫ When I'm not with ya, I lose my mind, give meh a siiiign! Hit me, babeh, one more time! ♪" before tripping up the stairs after her.

***

The car had been stopped and quiet for at least 20 minutes before Brie finally decided that they weren't going to drag her out of there. The Audi was a newer car so she eventually found the safety latch inside the trunk and popped it open. A quick peek told her that her captors were nowhere in sight and she faded before slipping the rest of the way out of the car. The car was parked in front of the Charlton base and even though she'd never been here before, she knew what it was immediately when she saw it.

Looking up and down the street, she looked for those two con artists but couldn't see them. They probably broke into the base, then - why else would they question her so much about it? She didn't have her mask with her, and a quick search of her pockets told her she'd lost her phone somehow, so she couldn't contact anyone about this. She needed to get inside and alert security and find a phone to call the branch manager and tell her what was going on.

She'd screwed up really bad with this assignment, not only in the original task but also the fact that she'd been tricked into believing both targets were higher level Agents. Brie couldn't just accept defeat and she felt a deep-seated need to get back at them for what they'd done to her - the burns on her face still fucking hurt really bad - so she had to make up for everything now. Her failures would be forgiven if she got in the base on time and was able to stop them from doing whatever it was they planned to do.

It was a safe bet that those two morons wouldn't have used the front doors to break in, so she was safe to do so. Since it was the simplest way in, Brie walked over to the keypad on the wall and put her code in, a small smile coming to her lips as the light flashed green. Walking over to the door, she tried to pull it open and was stopped short as it locked again. Letting out a frustrated sigh, she walked over to the keypad and tried again, but it didn't log her number this time. The thing wasn't even on. What the hell?

Walking over to the doors, she peered inside and realized that all of the lights were off. A power outage? Glancing at the streetlamps behind her and the shops on this street, she finally decided no. Just the base. That meant, those two impostors were messing with the fuse-box! This was bad, really bad. If the power was out inside, how was she going to contact anyone? Either way, she needed to find another way inside that wasn't controlled by the power.

Swiftly, and still cloaked, she walked off the street and started to make her way quietly around the building.

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#, as written by Tartra
‘Xander, someone broke into our room and I can’t see him.’
‘Again? Alright, move fast. I’ve got a date.’

‘Xander, there’s a hobo-Agent trying to kill me in an alley.’
‘Aw, you’ll be fine. Dibs on his wallet.’

‘Xander, I can’t control my body and you’re collapsing every six seconds.’
‘It takes five to get to Starbucks. What’s the problem?’


All of that had happened in the time since they met Gwen. That was four days ago. Four. Osono had been around for only one but she could still lay claim to the full Xander experience: ‘There’s Agents flooding the restaurant and they’re shooting everything.’ ‘Alex, I’m busy. Tell them to take a number. I can’t kill everyone at once’, followed quickly by a slightly less believable, ‘What the fuck did I come out of the bathroom for if these are all the asses they brought for me to kick? And I had to share? This is bullshit.’

Fear did not make sense. In the years he’d been around, he’d never even hinted he knew what it was.

Alex had seen everything else. He’d been dragged through everything else, kicking and screaming and pleading with him to have some sense of survival and stop terrorizing the group out to destroy him, so yeah, he had proof to back it up. Every fight needed to be topped by the next. Every stunt was pulled just to see if he could. On twelve separate occasions, Xander – completely after the fact and out of breath because it’d been so ‘hilarious’ – quaintly admitted he’d nearly been killed, proceeded to dissect what could’ve gone wrong and how close he’d come to it happening, then plunged into the next battle after a coffee break because ‘Alex, I’m on a roll now!’ And Alex would be convinced. His confidence was contagious. A war he couldn’t win purely meant he had to change his tactics, and if the best case scenario was breaking four ribs, dislocating a shoulder and concussing, Alex got one sigh of relief for not losing a leg too before those four ribs were taped and he got called a bitch for squirming because ‘shoulders popped back in’.

What did it take, Xander? What had broken through?

“Do you know where you’re going? I don’t see signs anywhere.” And he wasn’t counting on Rudy for directions. “The walls look the same. I can barely tell if we’re walking in circles.”

Elmira might have been a body harvesting, mad scientist playpen, but there’d been arrows and stuff and people to take hostage. Here, nothing was marked. He wasn’t even sure what colour things were. The walls were either beige or yellow, but because of the red lights, he was only sure they weren’t white. It was more than he could say for the neatly doors around them. Those were just dark. Maybe brown, maybe blue, but standard size and neatly spaced and windowless, except for the ones in the corners. Those had windows reinforced by a criss-crossing wire tucked behind their glass, but they were pitch black. The handles and hinges seemed bronze or gold, almost matching the neutral carpet, and the ceiling was a dead... grey? Was it grey? He’d call it ‘other light’, and they kept it clean. There were no smudges to work off of and no smears set in from age. Waiting for Osono sounded better and better.

It’s not a standard layout, but they’d keep stasis cells in the center of building. It’s an easier in and out for moving ‘em.

‘Easier’, huh?

“How many would they have in a place like this?”

Not a lot. Meaning? Seven, eight... Ten’d be the max.

And they’d be softly bobbing inside a room, clustered together like they were there to have parts harvested. Alex shivered.

“Why here? Elmira had plenty of room.”

Different reasons. Further study, per request, trophies...

He curled his lip at that.

“‘Trophies.’”

Sometimes.

“These crackpots don’t surprise me anymore.” Xander grunted, but it wasn’t in agreement. Alex tried to ignore what that implied for his safety. He awkwardly cleared his throat and brought up something else. “So... how much time will the transfer take?”

Less than a real one. We don’t have to do that brain scan.

“There’s a brain scan?”

Uh-huh.

Question. But Alex sighed loudly and slapped it away. He got those questions all the time, even though he’d told himself forever ago he wasn’t getting an answer.

“So how long is it? Minus the – uh... brain scan.”

Not sure. It’s not like I’m going anywhere new. It’s back to the head I was in before, Xander said. Probably take a few minutes. You’ll be out soon. And then they’d find a way to Elmira. They needed to get Gwen. Yeah.

Question.

Seriously, stop it.

“Think the Audi’ll take us back there in time?” Alex felt nervous. About Gwen, not about the question on his mind. If he ignored it long enough, it’d go away. That was how things worked with him. ... It’d... uh... never worked when it was about Agents... but if he didn’t think about it, then how the hell did he know what it was about? A part of him was probably just worried about... dinner. And lunch. And about how those beef Skittles were going to settle in. “That timeline of yours. You said you thought we had two days. That’s including today, isn’t it?”

Yeah, but the Audi’s gonna be fine.

Alex let out a snort through his nose. When Xander countered with what was basically him raising his eyebrow, he gave in and said, “I trust your judgement on travel time.”

But not the actual words?

“You and ‘fine’ need to get a room.” Xander laughed. “I’m not kidding. You call me a girl but you’re the one making me play roulette to figure out if ‘fine’ literally means ‘okay’ or if you’re ducking out of explaining anything.”

To be fair, there’s no quick answer for half the shit you wanna know. Question. Question, question – shut up, please. You’re gonna be mad at me for all of it. I’d prefer to hold off until we’re somewhere I don’t have to worry about... He very purposely drifted off. Alex waited, only to realize that sentence wasn’t finishing. It’s fine. And that one? That one means both.

He sounded amused, but Alex heard the shifting emptiness underneath.

“Is there something I can help with? Anything?”

No. Focus on the transfer.

“... Alright. The transfer.” Question. It was getting worse. “The one without the brain scan,” he added. “Right. Sure.”

So they kept walking. Alex had his own too-controlled silence up. It was incredibly unfair that Xander got to comment on it and he didn’t.

Spit it out. You’re annoying me.

“When the hell has there ever been a brain scan?” Holy crap, that was fantastic to get off his chest. A whoosh of relief fell out of Alex. “I don’t remember a brain scan.”

It took five days. I remember ‘cause I spent ‘em all gloating. It’s just to make sure whoever’s going in is actually gonna fit inside your head. Like those goggles he stole. Right. It’s to force compatibility. I’ll explain the rest later. There’s a lot you don’t remember I wanna go through but I don’t have time.

The reasoning made sense, but the rest of it dawned on him quickly.

“Is that why you’re sure we have time to save Gwen?”

It’s part of it. Like I keep saying, the technology’s improved, but that doesn’t change that it’s only been eight years since I was there. Besides, Peter’s reset the clock. He’s been doing something new.

... Question.

“What’s he doing new?”

Well... The first day we met her, you asked why I thought she was interesting. He paused, almost like he’d flipped his decision to get into this. He powered through anyway. I don’t know. I got a vibe off her. It was a... ‘Agent sixth sense’ or whatever. There was just that look. It’s not what’s important.

Alex thought back to that night.

“You said she was hot.”

She is. And if that’d been all it was, I’d’ve stayed for the night and been gone in the morning. Cocky bastard. No Starbucks? Always Starbucks, but I wouldn’t’ve brought her. I don’t ‘date’. And yet, there’d been one. She wanted information, which she pointed out with her lovely biography of us. What biography? I wanted to know who she was. It was a silent business arrangement.

“Silent and unnecessary!”

I didn’t trust her, Alex. I still don’t.

He bristled at that.

“Gwen has been nothing but loyal, Xander,” he said. “I know you’ve got issues getting close to people, but she’s been a friend from the start.” Aside from when she promised to call the landlord, but they were past that by now. “She’s not a threat.”

Not yet.

Alex scowled.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

You remember what I said. Agents are expensive. I’ve ripped through almost five hundred. I haven’t done anything to give off that I’m any less dangerous than I’ve always been. I’m trained to work with a suit – they know that – and as paranoid as you think you are, I’m twenty times worse and I’m the one who always has a grip on what’s happening. So try to think about this the way I do, he said, firm but oddly... understanding. Sending in a suit – one suit – is suicide against someone like me. The Agency wouldn’t throw money away like that, but for a minute, I thought it could’ve been part of a bigger trap. The jackass sunk that theory when he didn’t know who I was, but I saw them hanging around everywhere for a week. That was a full team for her, except Gwen’s powers weren’t even on yet. Alex – come on. Why were they so prepared?

“Because...” He slowed back down. Then he stopped. Xander waited patiently. “Because they were worried she’d escape?”

That’s one reason. There was a note of approval in there. Alex felt kind of proud. Another’s they thought her powers would turn active. Another’s that she could have had someone around to protect her.

“Like you?”

Like me or whoever else. They weren’t leaving room for error on this. That is why I don’t trust her.

“You’re saying Gwen’s dangerous.”

Extremely. Probably. The words were grim. It’s not her fault, but there’s something in there we’re not seeing.

“She’s a psychic,” Alex said, as Xander began again down the hall. “She can read our thoughts.”

And change them. Change them? When you woke up outside of Elmira, she did something. She – How’s the neck? Alex put his hand to it. The bruises were still sore. Nothing had healed. But you’re feeling better, huh?

“… She did that?”

So I’m wondering what else she can do. Hate burned through his body. And I’m wondering what Peter knows.

That was a decent question. Why didn’t Alex have questions like those?

“You think he cares?”

There’s not a chance in Hell he doesn’t. I don’t know to what extent he’s personally involved. It could be... He puffed out his cheeks. It could be strictly business or it could be the next revolution, but that woman he sent to go after Gwen’s got her research and training down like a pro. Peter put this in good hands. Whatever he wants done with her – either of them – it’s not gonna be something he’ll rush. Gwen’s an asset, and that makes the other bitch the insurance.

Alex narrowed his eyes as he carefully demanded, “… Kind of sounds like you’re basing this on Peter being in charge. He said someone else sent his guards out.”

Sure. But the only point he got across was going out of his way to tell me my body’s here in Charlton. And that he’s here in Charlton. And that I’m not getting another chance after this. I dunno, Alex. Is it me, or does he sound like he wants me away from her? Xander had managed to destroy their first attempts at catching Gwen. Yeah. I did. Then I came here. Tell me it wouldn’t’ve been awesome if they’d fucking brought her here, too.

Instead they’d carted her to Elmira... If Peter somehow wasn’t running things, then they’d be wise to recruit him for this part of the problem. Geez. Xander was a superhero. He had his own arch-nemesis and everything.

“I guess I can stop worrying about you immediately going back. You’ve got a lot of apologizing to do after all the crap you’ve done.”

I’ll send ‘em a fruit basket.

“A fruit basket of pain.”

With Grapes of Wrath? Alex sputtered. What?

“That’s a nerdy joke,” he pointed out.

Cultured. It was a cultured joke. Read a book. He might as well, since Xander looked down on TVs. He’d missed out on a lot of shows that way. When this was done, he was marathonning everything, just because he could. That’s gross. TV is stupid.

“It’s comments like that that make me wonder how I didn’t know you were a separate person.” Question. What to do about Gwen wasn’t something he couldn’t move faster on than he already was, but about something else – “Hey... I’ve been thinking.”

Shit.

“Yeah – ha... Don’t say that too early.” Although Xander had many other colourful words safely tucked in reserve. “I’ve gotta know. Why did you use that excuse? You could’ve said anything, but you picked...” It wasn’t unbelievable now that he knew him. “... calling me crazy. I mean…”

I challenge your scepticism, considering you bought it.

“It was a little bold, though, don’t you think?”

Name a part of me that isn’t.

And none of those parts were Alex. That’s why he felt dumb.

Alex had always had questions he’d never let reach a spoken word. He mused about them constantly, to the point where he was getting tired of suspense, but even after Xander appeared, he’d kept them locked up. He’d assumed there’d been no point. He was on his own in getting information, and since none of the people chasing him felt like stopping for an interview, he’d picked permanent ignorance over drowning in mystery. Everyone else seemed to go along with it. Nobody asked him what the Agents were like, and while a lot of it had to do with Xander fielding outside interest, Alex never offered his personal insight. And why? Because he’d come to terms with it. He’d rationalized until it fit: the coma was a twisting mess of half-awake, half-asleep wandering. He couldn’t remember more than blurry sounds and muffled voices mixed with streaks of light he’d been told were muzzle flare from the escape. Until now, right now, as he slowly regained enough control to pause in the middle of the hall once more, it’d never bothered him. The truth, however, was it should’ve, way the hell to his core and much, much earlier. It fell heavily into place when he realized the closest he’d been to experiencing a transfer was hearing the details from David.

... It was... different... thinking about it this way. He’d been cornered and escaped, but at last he was seeing it: everything he didn’t remember was when the time the Agents won. So… he hadn’t escaped... Not really. The actual term was ‘rescued’.

“Xander?”

Hm?

“I want to hear about my transfer.”

Xander hesitated. From that, Alex gleaned the message: the guy had known this moment was coming and he hadn’t been looking forward to it.

I think I did say it too early.

“Yeah. A little. Can you live with that?”

I’d rather have the sex talk. From you.

Alex was missing a part of his life. For six years, he’d thought he’d been fine – well, relatively speaking, but he’d always assumed the worst was yet to come. To hear the worst had happened already and he’d just plain, fucking... been late...

“Why did you never tell me? You didn’t have to out yourself, but you didn’t have to hide it.”

You would’ve put it together. I couldn’t risk it, ‘specially not when you can drink me into oblivion. Oh. Right. That. But that only lasted until he was sober. It wouldn’t’ve been permanent. ... Unless... he’d decided to never be sober again. You can see my dilemma.

Xander nudged him forward. Alex took an awkward step ahead, then fell back into the motions. The spinning lights on the walls left him cold as he walked by. They were red and bright. Shouldn’t there be some warmth coming off?

“So if the brain scanning –” Look at him, already talking like he was an expert. “If that took a few days, then I was missing, right? I have a family, Xander. My mom, my dad, my friends? They didn’t notice?”

They noticed.

“And?”

The Agency took care of them. They – what? Relax. They think you eloped. Fastest explanation, until I woke up to completely sever ties. You’re lucky I’m lazy and never got around to it, otherwise you’d have a lot of bad blood to clear. I’m great with parents, but I take a personal pride in being their worst nightmare, too.

“You would take pride in that,” Alex muttered. “Woke up from what?”

The coma.

The coma – right! That was another world of problems!

“How the hell did you hide that? It’s a full four weeks unaccounted for,” he cried.

Can we not do this?

“What did you say to make me look at a date and think, ‘Oh, it’s not the same month as five minutes ago. That’s interesting. I’ll go back to fleeing for my life, then forget the Agents and what all that could mean’?” It felt like Alex was chasing after the guy. Xander wouldn’t slow down or stop walking ahead and he was purposely trying to ignore this place. Alex wasn’t letting it happen. “You can’t get away from me. You live inside my head.”

Not if you move faster.

Xander!” With all the effort he could muster, Alex grabbed his knees and locked them. He wasn’t going anywhere. “What happened during that month? You escaped, things exploded, somehow my brain was picked at for a week, but then I’m awake and walking down a street. You said you took over, which I was mostly okay with, but you aren’t actually me. So what happened? What did you do?”

Try it. Try to get past him. Alex was not letting go and whatever issue had Xander’s skin crawling when he’d been downstairs, how did he like knowing he had to sit through it until he explained this?

We can talk after.

“Of course, because I’ve got a much more convenient time coming up, oh wait, we’ve gotta rescue Gwen. Now, Xander, if you’re feeling generous.”

I’m seriously not, he said, sarcastically apologizing. It’s fun playing therapist, but we’ve got shit to do. Alex sat down. ... What are you doing?

“Getting comfortable. That foot can’t be easy to stand on.” He stretched his legs and absently rubbed his thigh. Just then, he discovered it’d been twitching and spasming the same as when he’d fallen on it. Xander simply held it still so Alex didn’t see it move. “Be honest. Should I cut it off?”

I’ll break it off if you don’t get up. I’m not wasting energy pulling you from the floor.

“Well, that sucks. I really like this carpet.” Actually, it was scratchy, and when he ran his hand over it, he wondered how many screaming victims had been dragged across its fibres. “Let’s wait here for Osono. I just hope no one gets to your body before we do.”

Dude, don’t be such a girl. This is petty. And Alex would have been embarrassed if it’d been anyone other than Xander. It’s just a coma.

“What are you again? A Pain Eater? Remember when I called you ‘Doctor Xander’? Triple that in your head,” Alex snapped. “Comas lead to brain damage. I might have brain damage!”

An Agent snuck in. I’d say that’s pretty damaging. Let’s go remedy that now by getting off your ass.

“You can drag me –”

I can let go of your foot. You’re talking about getting comfortable, but I’m sorta runnin’ low on batteries. So get the fuck up, start walking, or I’m not one that’s dragging anyone anywhere ‘cause I won’t have the strength to move.

Alex heard the threat. He understood it. After six years, his response was practically reflexive.

“It sounds like that clock’s ticking, and I’m not sure how fast I can crawl writhing in pain. If only my foot wasn’t shattered.”

The standoff had begun. This was exactly what happened seconds before said foot broke four days ago, so he sat in his spot and waited for some reaction. He was on full alert for the first cord of pain to light up. It didn’t, because Xander wanted to test the waters by reminding him, You realize I’m not destroying you because I need you to be conscious?

“That’s the power of extortion. Talk.”

Xander was impressed by this.

I can’t believe how much you’ve grown, little Alex. There goes my doubt about you surviving without me.

“Thank you. I – OW!

That’s for blackmailing me, you fuck. No, it was okay. He didn’t say it aggressively. The slam of Alex’s fist into his own gut took care of the hostility for him. Fine. What do you want? He was speaking quickly. He was serious about his energy, then. Finally, something to exploit.

“How did you make me forget about a month? Even if I completely believed you, how could I’ve possibly not wanted to know what happened?”

Wasn’t hard. I said you repressed it. Can we go now?

“And all you did for a month was break out? Bullshit. You had free reign and no supervision. Did you catch other people with powers?”

How many other enemies did he have hiding in the background?

No, I wasn’t cleared. That was a very weary sigh. Xander had given in and set himself to offer full responses, but he was going to sulk about it for as long as he could. I had to fix you before I could do anything.

“Fix me?”

Your maximum physical potential was categorized into speed. Someone had made him memorize that, and Xander definitely still resented it. I was a Pain Eater. You weren’t exactly the right tool for the job and you’ve got baby skin. It’s gross. They’d analyzed him? They did that much work to know who he was? Did that... fall under ‘obsession’ or ‘efficiency’...? With Agents, the answer’s always both. Can we go now?

“Stop. Last one. Why weren’t you in a coma, too?”

What?

“That’s been bugging me,” Alex said. If the coma was me getting crushed by you trying to take over my brain, when I fought back and got stronger, why didn’t I crush you down? How are you still here?”

I dunno. Science?

Alex frowned at him.

“You said that kind of fast.”

Did I? Did I sound stressed, too? It’s because I’m having trouble choosing if I wanna keep a grip on your foot or have energy leftover for when we’re inevitably attacked. Get up!

“Xander, you’re a great liar –” And a shameless one, and probably a little pathological. “– but I know by now when you’re blatantly covering. What, so you were in a coma?” That was the only time the guy tipped his hand about ‘fibbing’: when Alex got it wrong by guessing the opposite. “When?”

I wasn’t in a coma. Crap. That sounded honest. He was burying the lie within the truth – Alex hated when he did that. I guarantee you’ve got less time than you think to figure it out, so move.

Great. A dead-end. He’d isolated the problem, at least. Alex counted this as a draw, not a loss, and he wasn’t going to let it go. There’d been nothing but car rides in this adventure, and since they had another coming up to rush back to Elmira, there was plenty of time to grill him.

Xander dropped back into his too-controlled silence. Alex nearly asked him what was wrong before his toe tingled. He sighed. Maybe now was a bad time, but he was just starting to separate his life from the one he’d had the details smudged on. He got up carefully, trying not to jostle anything, then let Xander walk him through the building again. But this wasn’t over. That month was his. He wanted it back.

* * *


It was a truck. It was a big, white truck parked on the green loading square, surrounded by people Jason was positive the Agency would have to be blown up before it let go near these levels of equipment. Lower ranks weren’t known for being classy, but these four had no uniforms or anything that hinted they worked here. In his mind, it was proof enough they didn’t. Eric’s prediction stormed through his mind just then. These people were the enemy. Anti-Agents. The attack had been building under their feet and none of them had noticed. Eric must have. He always wound up knowing everything.

Jason wasn’t going to stand where they could see him. He ducked behind a pillar. Fade. Come on – fade! The blessing of the power outage struck him, too. If he’d gone down the elevator and let it open with a chime, he’d probably be a dead man right now. Sure, ‘probably’, as if he hadn’t blown all his good luck on living through Alexander. The stairs let him sneak in, but come on, come on, fade.

“It’d be nice if the next time you got her on the phone, you asked about work instead of setting up a booty call.”

“If you wanted it done your way, you should’ve done it yourself. But you can’t, ‘cause I’m in charge.”

Low grunts of acceptance followed this. Jason took note of the tension. Meanwhile, he pulled his goggles up from his neck and fastened them around his eyes. He swallowed past the nausea. He couldn’t shake it, even now. Damn.

“What’s the word, boss?”

A third voice, low and sleepy, balancing the frustrated first and quasi-dickhole voice of the second. Jason leaned out, taking a calmer look at was what around. His goggles didn’t help, except to outline the assailants and confirm what he already knew: there were four of them. It was that kind of useless information he’d painstakingly worked to correct. No height, no estimated weight, no detection of weapons or insight into their stances. His interface had even defaulted back to green, ‘mint’ or ‘mucous’ depending on who was asked. He wanted his orange back. He wanted everything back. His stomach clenched in cruel sympathy, but otherwise, his pleas went unnoticed.

“The word is we get inside when the lights go out for good. Buzzy’s still playing with ‘em.” This was the second voice again. He had a clunky way of talking, like his consonants had to be hammered in. The other two sounded similar. “Dumb bitch didn’t give an ETA.”

“You should have asked about it –”

“Night, back off! I’m in charge, I didn’t ask, I don’t need to! We know when they’re going out and she has to call us. She can’t lift the cell by herself.”

“She’s not gon’ lift it. She’s gon’ stare at ‘is.” … Huh. They’d… brought a… chipmunk. “Tell you what she’s gon’ do – look at ‘is.”

Jason had slunk back around the pillar. He didn’t get what to see what was happening, but he heard rustling of something being passed over. Given the weak context, it didn’t sound related to their objective here – and that objective could’ve ranged from theft, fraud, total destruction of the building, or whatever else a group with enough spine to take the Agency on had come up with – but one of them, specifically the third, found it fascinating enough to comment on.

“You keep pictures of naked men in your pocket?”

“Jus’ t’e sexy ones. Gus, you know, you lose some weight, you can join in, too – but scissor, you see ‘is? Eight pack. ‘At’s not easy to get, man, ‘specially not for a stick like you. She likes ‘em ripply, stripes. I take one look at you and your floppy arms and I say your girlfriend’s gone.”

“… Tops, why do you have pictures of naked men in your pocket?”

“‘Cause it’s what I do – I come prepared. Where’s your naked men, Gus? Night? Scissor? T’ey’re cells, my friend! All t‘e cells – look, here’s ‘e best. Boom! Charlotte. Buzzy gets ten minutes wit’ her boy alone, we get months in Spank City wit’ ‘is one. What’s Patten gon’ do, get more pissed at us? Hell no – pass it around, admire ‘e curves, ‘e gentle angle, t‘e lighting, t‘e grooming – ‘is, my friends, is ‘e hallmark of a criminal. To let something as good as ‘is go to waste…!”

The fourth voice had said all of that without stopping for breath. Jason hated him already.

“Tops, screw yourself.”

“Scissor, your words, ‘ey hurt, you know? You wound me, but I’ll take it as a sign of your grief at hearin’ your best ride bumped it to a new man, tellin’ you she’d rat’er bob for apples in a pickle jar ‘an spend one more day wit’ you, and I’ll do my part by not holdin’ it against y’sorry ass. Hey, who wants to see a naked body-builder? ‘Is one’s a girl! Super strength! How hot is ‘at?”

The second voice, apparently… ‘Scissor’, didn’t like where this conversation was going. Jason found a use for it. This idle chat was something that came at the start of waiting around. They must have shown up recently.

“Scissor.” The first voice. “Call her back. Ask what her –”

“Gus, move the truck over! It’s not in the middle,” Scissor barked. “Night, I told you you’re not in charge. You make me say it again and I’ll slice you in two.”

Jason wasn’t here for them. The need to fall into his regular role and stalk these idiots until he knew their hopes, dreams and darkest fears was pushed down by greater need to get on the road and head for Elmira. Unfortunately, he overestimated himself. As he crept along the side of the immense, weakly lit parking lot, running on its emergency lights along with the rest of the building, his dedication to his work came back in full and restless force. This might not be his responsibility, but he had a natural obligation to pass this information along. His goggles sluggishly responded to his call, unaware there was anything to anticipate, but forcing a connection between them and what he was trying to do sent a request for Eric’s number. Good work, suit. This was a tiny step forward, but the success was overwhelming through its symbolism. He could fix them. Later. For now, he brought up his screen and wrote a message.

Anti-Agents in basement. Attack imminent.

There. It was all he had to say. He gave the four a damning look from among the few remaining cars, then returned to slinking along, getting closer to fading the way he was meant to. The sensation was like pushing a stubborn lock into place. If he could twist the metal far enough, eventually he’d hit its lip and fall into it. But the energy he needed to get there…

“She say why she like him? I heard he killed her cousins – man, ‘at’s sick! It’s unforgivable! Buzzy’s got weird taste in boys, I’ll tell you ‘at much – everyone knows. A killer tops her list? Scissor, I don’ know how you don’t take ‘at spot. It’s ’e one t’ing you’re good for an’ you let some Agent walk off wit’ it? You know what? I’m not gon’ stand for it. It’s my new duty to help you two, ‘cause if t’ere’s one thing I love, it’s love. Hey – ‘at sound like Patten? I do him good, don’t I? You t’ink Buzzy’s over t‘e big man next since we snuffin’ out Elias? She’s gon’ need a rebound, Scissor, and Patten’s good’s any.” The fourth voice took a break. He didn’t stop for long. “Hey, she got more family? Maybe a sister – you bump ‘at off, you get Buzzy’s hand in fuckin’ marriage. She loves ‘at shit, apparently. Yo, tell ‘er to see a doctor.”

“We aren’t ‘snuffing’ anyone out. He’s more useful alive,” the first voice said. “We aren’t in charge of it anyway.”

:-)

Jason blinked. That note had fluttered over his screen with nothing else attached. It was from Eric. Did his messages really need to smile, too? And was that all he could say?

The cry of an engine snapped him to attention. He froze, on the cusp of finally fading at the level he had trained so long to master, caught between the front bumper of one car the Agency loaned out to guests and wheel of a van that’d backed into the spot and was used for the types of chores he’d always considered too ‘hands on’. He hadn’t thought to secure a full visual of the four. It wasn’t his problem – specifically given the circumstances – and according to Eric’s happy face, it wasn’t supposed to be. Stopping like this, however, gave him the clear line of sight he needed. Yes, there were four, and based on their voices, he had very little trouble matching each one to a face. His goggles lit up to feed him uninteresting tidbits. Had they been programmed, they would have known to analyse whatever he was not. This was inefficient.

The tall, sulky one with his arms crossed was the first voice. Jason recognized the expression. The Anti-Agent was scowling but trying to hide that fact from the others. He was doing a piss-poor job of it. His arms were crossed and that gave it away, but his glaring at the scalp of his shorter allies was equally as informative. The second voice belonged to a… scarred… guy. There were sharp, vertical lines cut into his face and down his arms. They weren’t red, but they were raised, and they looked like the kind to have hurt. He was pacing irritably, snarling at the ground and muttering to himself. He had something in his hand, as well. It must have been the picture. He’d crumpled it - thankfully, Jason remembered to add, considering what was on it and how quick his goggles were to zoom in on the clenched fist. The third voice was a fat man, older than the others and either bored with his work or exhausted from it. He was leaning against the truck in a way suggesting he expected to drive it soon. All four of them were dressed casually. Regardless, the last one stood out.

The first three had the same basic features: blond hair, fair skin and round faces. They weren’t related, Jason clarified, but they looked alike. More alike than the fourth one. Mr. Peppy. He had his hands tented and was twitching his criss-crossed fingers, like he couldn’t keep them still and honestly didn’t want to. He had a much sharper look to everything. His hair was black, his skin was copper, and his face was thin enough for someone to say it was stretched. He didn’t seem to belong with them.

It wasn’t his job to care. He had to get going. Jason crept through and relaxed at the softness of his feet, slinking by another van before realizing he’d run out of cars to hide behind. The rest of the lot was empty. He was not going to survive the run to the exit if he couldn’t get his fading to work properly.

Slow down. Breathe. Go back to basics if there was no other choice. His goggles… They weren’t rejecting him. They just didn’t know who he was anymore. His suit was a whole. He could do this.

‘Snuff him out’? That wasn’t what Benoit’d said Eric said.

He was typing within instants.

I apologize for getting involved, but I heard them say they’re planning to engage Elias. I understand if it’s classified, but it may interfere with your plans.

Whatever the fuck those were.

:-O

Was it a bad thing Jason could picture Eric somehow making those faces as he wrote them? It seemed incredibly disrespectful to the A-1.

… Well, he was the one typing expressions instead of using words.

“Do I have to move this again?” The fat one was complaining about it. “Could you make up your mind?”

“Move it,” the second voice snapped. It knocked the ‘quasi’ out of his first impression notes. “I should call Buzzy back.”

“You’re going to ask if she’ll sleep with you again, aren’t you? Let it go, Scissor.”

“She don’t ‘ave to sleep, you catch my drift,” Mr. Peppy was saying. “She could stand, she could sit, she could lie down – my t’ing’s to get ‘em on a desk, you know, ‘cause ‘en you got the chair, you build a li’l height – my secret charm ‘f’you swing it wit’ a tall girl – but you get a rolly chair in ‘ere? Man, don’t do t’at, ‘at’s askin’ for trouble. My cousin did ‘at? Fell off, hit down, stabs pen right through his neck. Dead. In ‘e ground t‘e next morning. We had a couple lots already open so we jus’ kicked out one o’ ‘e junkies and spruce it up for him? You know – like family meant to do? No good son-of-a-bitch, stealin’ from his own mot’er – I hope t’e worms eat him and choke on ‘is skin and t’en he dies again. He deserves it. But I know what you t’inking: Tops, how you gon’ fall on a pen, pen falls, it’s on side, you know? Shag carpet, my friends. Points ‘ose pens in ‘e air. It’s dangerous. And t’at is why you always go for linoleum. Hardwood’s too high maintenance – linoleum. Got a friend who works in flooring, you give me five minutes, I talk, get a deal – make you wan’ kick a li’l girl downstairs, it’s so good.”

“… So anyway, let it go, Scissor.”

“I’ll let it go when it’s time to let it go! He’s not here yet! He’s got no interest in her! Have you taken more than five minutes to talk to her? There is something unbalanced in her head. No one wants to get close to that.”

“You did,” the fat one said.

“Shut up, Gus! I’m different! I live on the edge!”

At those words, as if he’d commanded it, the lights broke down and flooded the lot with darkness. They – all of them – heard a rough clanking from overhead, like a massive machine was stuck in the ceiling, screaming to start but was hammered back by whoever was pulling the strings. Jason pushed himself against the wall. He didn’t hear the others move from their spots, but he had to admit he wasn’t listening very carefully. After four minutes of that… racket, it stopped abruptly, gave one last hiccupping groan, then choked back into operation. The emergency lights slowly returned. There were considerably less than there’d been before. He saw one flicker dangerously before it determinedly came back on. Another did the same. That one didn’t make it. He tried not to empathize. He also tried not to take it as an omen.

“Your girl?” Peppy sounded amazed. Jason assumed. Peppy didn’t have much emotion in his voice. It seemed to be a case of ‘fast’ and ‘faster’. “Your girl is good.”

“She’s not our girl,” the first voice said. “She’s Russian.”

“Hey – we’re all family here! Rooski, Svenka, Italiano – t’row ‘em Deutsch in the mix, grab t’em Polskis, t’em … I don’ know what Chinese is – but get ‘em and those Arabian Nights and we got ourselves a party! ‘Course, ’is no shit ‘til you get us Cubanos pumpin’! Jus’ admit it – we already know: t’is wan’ no party ‘til ‘e Island arrived! You’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome.”

“Tops, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re the kind of family I crop out of reunion pictures.”

Mas vale algo que nada, ‘cause you sayin’ I’m still in ‘e picture! ‘At means you ‘ad to invite me. Mi hermano!

“Tops, don’t hug me! We talked about this!”

The lights were back on. He’d already noticed, but he still felt as though he was… He remembered this. He exhaled gently. Finally. Even now, it wasn’t optimal, but he had finally faded enough to risk the run. He was leaving.

Eric, I can’t stay. I have to go to Elmira. Is everything alright here?

:-P

… Good enough.

Four Anti-Agents in the basement of an Agency building, armed with an Agency truck and discussing the theft of a stasis cell… and he was walking away! He was invisible again, free to meld with the shadows, but while the relief in taking these steps towards his lead assure him he was doing the right thing, his responsibility could not be ignored.

Is there anything I should know before I leave? Is there anything I can do?

He had made it halfway to the exit by the time the response arrived.

Did Benoit see the clip?

Some of it. Not the important parts.

He asked that it be shut off. It’s too early for him to review it.

:-(

Expendable bullets. Even Benoit. In an A-1’s eyes, at least.

I’ll send the video to your account. I’m sorry I couldn’t do it myself. Then, because he couldn’t help himself, and because he was feeling brave from slipped away from four intruders, likely to have been looking for an ambush, he politely added, Please send my regrets when he’s sober. He wouldn’t want to hear it drunk or from Jason at any time. Because Jean had decided to be the stuck-up caveman he’d been playing as, Jason had burned one of his bridges. Pissing off an A-3 was not going to help his career. An endorsement from an A-1 could overturn it, but a leprechaun riding a unicorn would be an easier sight to behold.

:-D

He took that as ‘no problem’.

Jason went up the ramp and carefully around the barrier. He only relaxed when he made it outside, and even then, only until he remembered there could be others here. He made sure he was as invisible as he could manage, then set to work trying to find the car Eric had ‘promised’ him. It took two minutes for him to settle on the sleek, silver Audi parked outside the front door.

Well, if Alexander wasn’t here to stop him…

* * *


“So this is weird.”

What?

Mr. Sulky was being sulky despite Alex apologizing twice. He was sorry about the impromptu hostage situation, but it’d been his memories on the line at the last time he’d have ever the chance to muscle Xander into anything, and what’d he’d heard about Gwen was news she’d want to know when they found her. Everyone should be on the same page about it. Besides, the guy made him sit through his crazy epiphany. He could knock it off with the moodiness. Anyway, it felt like they were close. Alex was excited. The worry had subsided long enough for him to get swept up. Don’t worry – it would pass, but for now, he was looking forward to it.

“In ten minutes, I’m going to meet you,” he said. “Then when you go back, I’m going to meet you again. Then Gwen’s going to meet you and Osono’s going to meet you –”

Calm down, skippy. It’s not a big deal.

What a pain.

“You don’t find it interesting?” Clearly, Xander didn’t. “Come on – think of how fun it’s going to be! Do you age in there? Are you still the same?” He’d take that as a ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively. “Then it’s like picking up where you left off.”

Uh-huh.

“Alright, not exactly where you left off, but close.”

Would you stop being happy?

Alex grinned. He couldn’t help it. He innocently asked, “Why? You want to stick around?”

I’ll fucking kill you.

“No, you won’t. Lighten up. Hey – when do I get to ask about your real life?”

When you pry my fist out of your throat. Alex rolled his eyes. Xander wouldn’t do that. What do you care?

“You’ve lived with me for six years and you came from a group that knew enough to assign a ‘maximum physical potential’. I’ve been confiding in you for forever and even with the… very frequent fights, I think of you as family. So… yeah. I should get to know you.”

‘Family’. Xander snorted. You did get brain damage.

“I know you tried to steal my body.” And break his foot and drag him into danger and beat him senseless whenever Starbucks was forbidden. “You’ve made up for it. You’ve been helping. You might not’ve meant to originally, but you did and it’s appreciated. And again, all the times I confided in you…” He shrugged. “It almost makes you my –”

Say ‘brother’ and I let your leg go right now.

Even that wasn’t enough to bother him.

“What would you call it?”

‘Dedicated babysitter’. He was walking faster. You’ve been decent at staying away from sappy, Alex. Don’t fuck it up on the last day.

“Okay, okay.”

… Although staying away from sappy meant there was sappy to stay away from, so Xander trying not –

Stop smiling.

“I’m sorry!” But this was funny to him. “It’s hard to take you seriously when you’ve been here for so long and you yell at me for everything anyway. I’m used to it, and you’re not a babysitter.”

I guess I’m not getting paid, then.

“What’s your problem?” Congratulations. Now Alex was annoyed, too. “I was being nice.”

Don’t be nice. Be the opposite of nice.

He’d been ignoring every door they’d walked by until a new colour showed up along the wall. This one was lighter than the others, and instead of a handle, it was a doorknob. Xander, without warning, stepped towards it and turned it open. It wasn’t locked but it was dark inside. Alex heard him rustling for a bit before he walked back out, holding what looked like three or four tensor bandages. He jammed those in his pocket and went back on his way. That must have been a supply closet.

“Are those for my foot?”

Yeah. I’m expecting Osono to drag you. When she hits the stairs, it’ll be a bumpy ride. This’ll keep her from setting you on fire when you start crying like a bitch.

“That’s a lot of concern for a babysitter,” Alex dug in.

Dude, stop. I’ve got enough family.

“… That’s not actually possible.”

Ha! Fucking only child.

“... Spoken like someone’s who’s not an only child.” And the massive roll of his eyes – it actually stung – clinched it. “That’s... awesome! Xander – so... Brothers? Sisters? Do they know what happened?”

The first thing I’m doing when I get out is eating a crate of Prozac. If I tell you – Nice timing. Alex had just opened his mouth to ask again. – will you shut up?

“I promise.”

You’re a damn liar. Well, he knew where Alex learned that. Screw off.

“That’s not fair! You know everything about me!”

And you were fine with that arrangement until a few days ago! I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I’m pissed you think it means you can ask me shit.

“By ‘what’s gotten into me’, you’re of course referring to the grand reveal you’re an absolutely distinct identity, right?” Alex scoffed. Xander scoffed back, mocking him. “What am I supposed to say? ‘Get out of my head, I don’t want to know anything about you ever?’”

You said it in Vestal. I was thrilled.

In Vestal? ... Oh. Oh, that...

“I didn’t –”

Stop, stop, stop, just stop, seriously, stop. Stop. But he kept walking, because he didn’t mean ‘stop’ in that way. I am not offended. I am not hurt. I am not betrayed. I’m not holding anything against you. Don’t ask questions about my life.

“Why not?”

Fucking – because, okay? Just because. Don’t ask me questions just because. It creeps me out.

Hypocrite.

“Oh… I just thought…” It figured the first thing Alex asked about was a sensitive subject. That was how his luck ran. “I’m sorry...”

Nooooo – don’t make that sound! Ha, yes! Why, did he feel guilty? Was it working? Go suck a dick! This was immediately topped by a furiously reluctant, Do you swear you’ll leave me alone if I answer one thing? Alex didn’t know why this did when nothing else bothered him, but there was a very particular way of sounding sad Xander simply could not stand. The coma thing might have been a draw, but this was a victory for Team Alex. One thing, Alex. One thing.

If he could milk how depressed he was going to be to be losing his dearest, closest friend, Xander might spit out a full on PowerPoint. Alex might not always be able to fight, but when he was... But he only got to do it once a year, because for the rest of it, Xander would be on to his game, and it’d take around ten months for him to stop expecting it.

“One thing. Sure.”

Xander didn’t retract his comment about Alex being a liar. That was okay. Alex actually was on this most special of occasions. Why couldn’t he have done this to Osono? No one was ever around when he inexplicably managed to act.

... Fine. Ha, ha, ha, ha! Check and mate. What?

“How many brothers and/or sisters do you have in your real life?”

This is so stupid.

Alex tried not to laugh about it. He came close to pulling it off, but not quite. Still, he had the prudence to explain before Xander said anything, “I don’t know why this is making you so uncomfortable. Wouldn’t you want to talk about yourself? You’ve been living as me for six years. This is as much a refresher as it is an introduction.”

Shut up, Alex.

Whatever. He’d tried.

“So, siblings?”

... Five. Holy shit. He’d answered. It took Alex a minute to realize it because Xander said it the same way he mumbled ‘fine’, but he’d answered! They’re half-brothers. Daddy was a whore.

“Wow.” He was stunned. “I didn’t think you actually –”

Okay, enough now.

HA. Like that was happening. Next to car rides, ‘firsts’ had dominated everything around them. Whoever Xander was, he was finally coming into focus. Alex wasn’t letting him slip away. Guilt trips – he’d said they were an annual thing. He had to make this count.

... Xander had brothers. What else did he have?

“Are you close with them?” He’d braced himself for Xander’s outraged attack for having shockingly not stuck to one thing. “Do they know what happened?”

More or less.

“‘More or less’ is useless, Xander. It’s a nothing response.” This tiny flaunt of power was cooler knowing now he wasn’t trying to trick a fragment of his psyche, but someone new. “... If you don’t trust me... Sorry. Forget I asked. I’ll… go back to being quiet…”

Thirty seconds. Hey, he’d held out longer than he usually did.

I’m seriously gonna fucking kill you. But not until later. Two were great, the others were not, I will end you if you say a word about any fucking ‘past tense, present tense’ bullshit. Shut up!

Alright, sorry! No more talk about his suddenly existing brothers.

“Where were you born?”

Alex!

“I’m gonna find out eventually.”

Then eventually is when it’s gonna happen! He honestly didn’t want Alex to know anything about him? … Getting answers was going to be the highlight of next month. Gwen would get a kick out of this. Osono, too, if she stayed. Oh, look, it’s a red room. Thank God, he just about snarled. Go nuts with that. Stop prying.

They’d turned a final corner, and now they’d hit a crossroads. To their left was another hallway that looked the same as the ones they’d gone through, winding past several other rooms before disappearing in the distance. To their right, there was something else. This hallway was darkened. The spinning lights had veered away from there, and their silence made the dark glow at its end so much brighter and unforgiving. And it was warmer. That wasn’t a point in its favour.

The entrance into this room didn’t have a door. If it did, it would’ve been a double and it would’ve been on the side of the wall, not facing them. They could sneak up instead of worrying about being stared down as they approached. But the glow... It didn’t seem... friendly – which wasn’t what he meant, because what he meant was it looked like the mouth of Hell – and the excitement faded. The giddy rush he’d had melted from his face and he stared, quietly, at was probably the longest walk he’d ever have to take. Peter was somewhere around here. He didn’t know where, but somewhere. Xander thought something else was up. Wherever that was, it had a right to be feared. But after that, if Alex made it and lived through those two incredible dangers, his reward would be the Agent who’d... done this.

Ah, Xander pleasantly exhaled. So now we’ve shut up. Thank you.

“I don’t want to go in there.”

Kinda have to, unless you’re holding me hostage again. Alex stopped walking. Xander tried kicking at his knees to force his foot forward. Time crunch. Still happening. His toe twitched again.

“... Xander.” His breathing picked up. He couldn’t bring himself to slow it down. “... I can’t go if you’re going to turn against us.”

You know what I said about that. You also know what I said in the car.

Peter’s presence was everywhere. He would never leave them alone.

“I can’t do it.”

You have to, he said, frank, or I will have to make you.

“You’re asking for a leap of faith,” Alex bit off. “You won’t even tell me your name! How am I –”

It’s Marshall. I said it. Listen.

“Yeah – well... that’s great to throw out there. It doesn’t mean it’s not a lie,” he retorted.

It’s written on the tank! Go in – you’ll see it! It’s on a sign at the bottom. He didn’t move. He flinched, however, when Xander sighed deeply. Okay. Alright. I’ll level with you. You don’t want to trust me? I’ve been encouraging it. I don’t know what Peter wants but it’s going to happen soon, and unfortunately, even if I guarantee I’d get away, I can’t make you believe I wouldn’t be a danger to you later. It’s not possible.

“Saying I have to kill you doesn’t help.”

Well, we’re not doing what Rudy and Osono do. I’m not letting you go through that. He sighed again, more sternly. There’s... Fuck.

“What?”

There’s a button on the bottom of every stasis cell. Every model has it. It’s a kill switch. ... What? It’s big and red. You press it, a flap on the side opens up. Turn the key to left, pull it out, and that’s the end. Whatever’s inside goes off life support. It’d take about a minute.

Alex ‘looked’ at him. Xander was serious.

“Why would you tell me that?”

Because I’m not going to kill you. Should it ever get to that point, I’ll let you kill me first – that is a promise I can make regardless of what Peter does. But it doesn’t mean he won’t make me try. Those words echoed in his nightmares. Alex, if you sincerely don’t trust me and you can’t let me leave, then now’s your chance to stop it. I’ll understand.

The spinning lights behind him cast a flickering shadow down the corridor. He saw his body outlined and stretched towards the end room. It was like it was taunting him.

“I’m not killing you.”

Then go in.

“I can’t if I don’t –”

Then you’re killing me anyway! He felt a tug of panic. It was real. It was one of the glimpses he got from Xander’s vault of thoughts. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that energy thing? It’s getting worse. Turn around and leave if you want, but I’m not gonna last in here. So – I’m sorry, I know it sounds pathetic, but if I’m gonna live, I need you to do this. Make a choice.

“Not when you’re telling me the choice is between letting you out to terrorize everyone or killing your body and letting you rot in my brain,” Alex spat.

If you want to be a retard, sure, those are your two options. Or you could not be a dumbass and transfer me in, hit the button and let me die in there.

“Why do you have to die?”

I’m just giving you your fucking options!

Whatever response Alex was supposed to have prepared was seared from his chest as his foot lit up. He didn’t remember hitting the ground. He just felt the pain. It pierced through his skull and it roared up his leg, slashing through his tendons as it ground his bones to dust. It came with a sound, a sharp static that screeched in his head, and burst so violently through his eyes that he blinded himself with a frenzy of light that shrieked back down his spine. The pain kept renewing. It felt worse and worse and worse –

... exactly what I told you was going to happen, don’t fucking blame a thing on me. Xander sounded livid, but more than that, he sounded far away. Alex, you in there? Alex?

“Yeah?”

There was a very sudden pause following Alex’s acknowledgement.

The fuck do you mean, ‘yeah’? Are you alive?

“... Yeah.” And to prove it, he sat up. Alex put an arm out to help himself and felt a weak tremble in his elbow, but other than that, he was... fine. He was... abruptly and... totally fine. “The pain’s gone.”

Now Xander was livid and confused.

What are you talking about? How is it gone?

“I don’t know. What happened?”

The thing I said was gonna happen. Had Xander lost his grip on Alex’s foot? He had it back now, but... You’re okay? Seriously?

“Yeah, I’m okay.” Frazzled, but he could live with it.

Great! Then I’m not apologizing. Xander hovered for a moment, then started to pull to him to feet. Can you stand?

“Yeah – Xander – stop. I’m okay.” Which... was weird, because at the restaurant, he’d been breathing around a sword that’d been lanced through his chest. Shouldn’t he still be in pain right now? “What the hell have you been doing to my foot?”

Therapeutic massage.

“I don’t feel it.” Alex gawked at his shoe. “Let go again.”

Fuck you. Go inside.

“No, really! Xander, let go. I want to see if it’s okay.” This was probably wishful thinking, but Alex’s head was clear and the nerves that’d been charring to blackness now seemed... ‘Fine’ was right the word. “For a second.”

Only for a second? Then what am I waiting for?! Now cut it out and move.

He wasn’t ready yet. He looked down the hall as if he expected the answer to come trotting down it. When it didn’t, he looked the other way at the red room. The glow hadn’t lessened. It was equally as useless. His eyes wouldn’t stop, though. He turned around, waiting for something to pop out at him.

“There’s a hole in ceiling.” He shouldn’t’ve noticed it, but he instinctively looked at the carpet. It might have been dark, but the dust was light enough to stand out. That hadn’t just... appeared...? It was like it’d been drilled in. “Xander. There’s two.”

Xander was studying it impatiently.

Do me a favour, he said. I don’t have time to discuss it. Get Gwen to tell you about Elmira again.

That’s the thing from Elmira?!” What the fuck?! “I can’t put holes in things!”

Talk. To. Gwen. Are you okay?

“Yes –”

Then my interest in this is over. Walk.

Alex staggered ahead, only to glance back at the fucking holes above them and remember why they’d stopped. “Wait, wait!” He’d drilled through a ceiling? He’d – just – what the fuck had just happened? “Wait! We haven’t settled this!”

I told you how to kill me. I told you what’ll happen if you don’t. I told you everything you need to know. What is there left to settle?

Alex sank back at what he said. The starkness of it cut deep.

“… Nothing.” Xander’d put his life in his hands. “You said it all.”

Good. Half the stress in his voice backed off. I’m glad. Now can we go?

“... Yes.”

Alright. Alex got pushed again. Then walk.
* * *


WHAT WAS ALEXANDER’S PLAN? EAVESDROPPING LIKE THIS – AS THOUGH SHE COULD HAVE MANAGED OTHERWISE, SEEING HOW CLOSE THEY WERE IN THIS CABIN – GOT HER CURIOUS FOR WHAT WAS HAPPENING ON THIS OTHER END. SHE KNEW WHAT WOULD BE HAPPENING, AND CRYPTIC WAS SET TO BEGIN NEARLY AS SOON THEY ARRIVED, BUT THE HYPOTHETICAL HAD HER INTERESTED. WHO WAS THE DASHING PRINCE COME TO SAVE HIS LOST PRINCESS? WAS IT THE TRUE ALEXANDER? WAS IT THE AGENT INSIDE HIM? WAS IT BOTH? THE BEAUTY OF WHAT COULD HAPPEN SHOULD SHE DARE TO FATHOM THAT...

MADELINE DRUMMED HER NAILS ALONG THE ARMS SHE HAD CROSSED. CURIOSER AND CURIOSER. ALEXANDER DID THROW A WRENCH INTO THINGS. FORTUNATELY, HIS WRENCH HAD A TENDENCY TO LAND IN HIS FORMER ALLIANCE’S MACHINERY. WHAT NOW? DID THIS GIRL BELIEVE IN RESCUE? DID SHE SEE A LIGHT AT THE END OF THIS BLEAK TUNNEL?

POOR THING. THIS WAS A PERSON MADELINE WANTED TO HELP. SHE HAD NO USE FOR TEARS AND HAD COME TO FIND THEM DISGRACEFUL, BUT SHE SAW BEYOND THEM WHEN THEY FOLLOWED A CRY FOR AID. MARCH HAD NO MERCY LEFT INSIDE HER. SHE SAT UP STRAIGHT, POISED AS EVERYTHING PATTEN WANTED HER TO BE. THAT, AND ONLY THAT, STILLED MADELINE’S HAND FROM ATTACK. SHE COULD HAVE SAVED THIS GIRL WITH A DRAG OF HER FINGERS, BUT MARCH WAS TOO DANGEROUS. AND MARCH WOULD SURELY BE THE FIRST OF MANY. PATTEN DID NOT UNDERSTAND HOW SUCCESS COULD AVOID REPITITION. IF THIS WOMAN FULFILLED HER PURPOSE, A DOOR WOULD BE OPENED. STEPHANIE HAD TO FAIL. SHE WOULD FALL TO THE TRANSFER AS IT BROKE IN TWO OR SHE FALL TO HERSELF AS THEY KILLED GWENDOLYN. THEY HAD NO CHOICE. MADELINE HAD NO CHOICE. THIS WAS A LIFE THAT WOULD BE EXTINGUISHED TO DESTROY THE REIGN OF THAT MAN, AND WITH A POWERFUL SWEEP OF HER BREATH THROUGH THE AIR, SHE SWORE THE HIGHEST HONOUR SHE COULD GIVE TO THIS GIRL WHO HAD NEVER MEANT TO BE A VICTIM.

SHE ALMOST HOPED ALEXANDER WOULD ARRIVE, BUT THIS WOULD HAVE TO BE PERFECT.

SO LONG AS SHE THOUGHT IN HYPOTHETICAL, WHERE WAS THE HARM IN WONDERING? THE POINT OF THIS WAS TO SHATTER MARCH. STEWART WAS A CASUALTY CHOSEN AT RANDOM. SHOULD THE FORMER DIE AND THE LATTER LIVE, THEIR WORK WOULD HAVE COMPLETED. STEWART WOULD SEE ANOTHER YEAR AND DANCE OFF WITH HER BOYFRIEND, AND PATTEN’S GOLDEN LADY WOULD HAVE DESTROYED THE COURAGE HE NEEDED TO PRESS ON. HIS PLAN WOULD NOT BE STOPPED, BUT THE HALT WOULD SEVERELY IMPEDE HIM. HE MIGHT NOT RECOVER. THEY MIGHT EXPOSE A POINT OF WEAKNESS.

MARCH, MEANWHILE, HAD A DIFFERENT COURSE OF EVENTS PLANNED.

“YOU KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT HER FRIEND, MARCH? DID PATTEN SHARE WITH YOU SOME NEWS?”

IMPOSSIBLE. MADELINE WOULD HAVE HEARD OF IT. IN FACT, THAT WOMAN THOUGHT IN GREATER FANTASY THAN SHE WOULD EVER MANAGE. WHERE PATTEN CONTINUED TO FIND THESE PEOPLE…

THE DOG BEGINNING TO DOZE OFF. MARCH’S LATEST VOICE WAS HYPNOTIC. MADELINE WAS SIMPLY ANNOYED, BUT SHE APPRECIATED THE EFFECT IT HAD ON THE FAT MUTT. SHE STILL KICKED HIM AWAKE AND ORDERED HIM TO GIVE THE SMALL CLOTH SHE KEPT IN HER POCKET TO STEWART. THE YOUNG LADY WAS HAVING A DIFFICULT DAY. IT WAS, TRULY, THE LEAST MADELINE COULD OFFER, BUT GIVEN THEIR PRESENT COMPANY, IT WAS ALMOST MORE THAN SHE COULD AFFORD.

“DO ENLIGHTEN US,” SHE SAID. “I THINK YOU CAN SPARE A MOMENT OF TORMENTING YOUR CAPTIVE TO INFORM ME OF WHATEVER YOU THINK IS HAPPENING IN MY BUILDING.”

* * *


His eyes were closed. He looked at ease.

At least as far as Alex knew. The rest of him could’ve told a different story, but his mouth and nose were covered by a mask and tube hooked to the tank’s top. Still, although it wasn’t much, he could make out a jaw line. It almost wasn’t what he was expecting. He hadn’t come here with any set idea of what Xander should have looked like, but the subtle difference between what he’d been thinking and what reality was spelling out for him was... interesting. His jaw had a curve to its corners, giving it a noted shape before it tucked away. His hair was brown, but probably not as dark as it was in the red light, the very same that made his skin seem both fiery and pale. It was longer than what he thought Xander would’ve had patience for. Likely it wouldn’t make it past the ‘real’ Xander’s chin, if that far in the first place, but it’d get in the way of his ears. The endless air bubbles floated by to lift the front of it. When they did, Alex noticed the small bend down in his hairline. His cheeks were the only thing he could see clearly. The mask didn't cover them, so they were free to stand out enough to interrupt what would’ve been the straight lines of his face. What was the word he should’ve used? ‘Pronounced’? Something close?

Mind if I ask a question?

“Uh... Sure.”

Terrific, thanks. Why the fuck are you staring so intently at my head?

“Am I not supposed to?” ‘Cause… he was naked. Alex had extremely limited options.

Keep it moving, tap dance. There’s plenty of time to ogle my ass when it’s out of the test tube. We need to find the controls.

Xander’d already started looking for them. He just got more determined when he said it, switching from looking at out the corner of Alex’s eyes to turning him and making him walk over to the wall. So… the controls were in the wall? … And hidden, because instead of only an intense study of the surface, he was running his hands along it. Alex wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. Considering the cash they’d spend on their regular weapons, how hard would it be to stick a poisoned spike everywhere? Even a rusted nail could hit him with tetanus, and no matter how smooth the walls looked, he was still working off the red light of dead people. Well – almost-dead people. One of which was Xander. The real one.

“So what is your name? And I’m only asking because I read the sign,” Alex said quickly. “It didn’t say what you said. It was ‘E’ something.”

Elias? … Yeah. It’s called a surname, stupid. But after ‘Elias’, it was ‘M’, right?

“I don’t know. I was trying to ignore anything under your neck.”

Good boy. You’ve learned after all. The search didn’t take long. His hand ran over a groove, and Xander instantly reacted by digging the rest of his fingers into it, pulling until he cracked a line down a short length of the wall, then ripped the front of a panel off entirely. Dozens of switches stared back at them. Naturally, none of them were labelled. Okay. Progress.

“... These are the controls?”

Crap.

These are the controls for the controls. The pre-controls. Xander gave them a careful eye. Let’s… see… what this one does.

Poke.

A gigantic clank broke out from above them, running a tremor under their feet and ever so slightly shaking the five, red, people-holders that were supposed to be stuck to the ground. Alex flattened himself against the wall, hugging it for dear life because that up there sounded like the apocalypse.

“What the hell was that? What did you do?”

No idea.

“… And what the hell was that?” What kind of answer was that? “No ‘wrong switch’, no ‘shut up, I’ve got it’?” Xander didn’t even answer him. Alex’s stress levels skyrocketed. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

We, he said, pushing Alex away from the wall and spinning him around to face the controls again, are transferring. That’s what’s going on. He pressed another switch on the opposite side of the panel. Nothing happened at all now. Alex didn’t feel any better.

“Xander, seriously,” he said softly. “You don’t act like this.” Another switch. They both paused to listen for more awful sounds, but other than a short, low hum, there was nothing. Xander continued toying with the pre-controls. More importantly, he brushed off Alex completely. “This is still about that body. The one Rudy shot.” To be honest, he had more incentive to ask about the eye-beam, but the fact that some dead minion was an issue for any longer than ten seconds meant something was severely amiss, and Xander trying to downplay it was not working like either of them hoped. “Are we okay?”

Yeah. Fine.

“I can hear the ‘for now’ from a mile –”

Nothing I say is gonna make a difference. Just drop it.

Alex heard venom. In that case, this was about the dead Agent and Peter.

“Is he attacking us?”

Does it look like he’s fucking attacking us?

“That’s a bad thing?” More switches, but only the ones away from the mini-Judgement Day toggle. “You’re leaving this up to my imagination, and that thing’s telling me he’s got us at his mercy. So just tell me what’s happening so I can stop…” He noticed the strain growing in the silence. “… Xander. My imagination’s crazy, right?”

We’re gonna need to find someone else to do this. There’d better be a nerd pulling an all-night around here, and he’d better know how this works.

Oh.

Sweet.

Fuck.

“We are?!”

Just be glad he’s not bothering us, Xander said. Evidently, we’re worth more not dead.

Osono! Shit – they’d just left her! They’d fucking left her!

“We have to find her,” he cried. “Why didn’t we stick together?!”

‘Cause the plan was not to?

“The plan was based on us being ambushed! That’s clearly not happening!”

I don’t know about that.

For good measure or for whatever other reason, Xander jabbed at a few more switches. More rumbles, more empty pauses, more nothing of any kind.

“Okay – stop it,” Alex said. “Stop it ‘cause… I have to know now! You can’t keep leaving me in the dark and then expect me to handle it when you’re gone!” But if Xander was this disturbed by the no-name threat around them, would he be able to survive even with the guy’s help? “What was wrong with the Agent Rudy killed? You spent three minutes looking at it –”

He was invisible.

“I can handle that,” he insisted. “I might not see them right away, but it’s not like it’s my first time!”

Alex. He’d finally stopped trying to act like they were safe. He was invisible, not faded. I didn’t see him.

“… You always see them.”

Yeah, well, fuckers got an upgrade.

“Oh…” Then they… Oh, shit. “Shit. So there is –”

Hey. Deep breaths. If we were gonna be killed, it would’ve happened by now. Peter’s waiting for something before he gives the order.

Yeah, and I can guess what it is! He wants you back in your body!” This was a trap. This was the trap they’d been preparing for but hadn’t expected. Invisible Agents, ones who could attack without Xander – Xander – seeing them try. There could be hundreds here! Rudy had shot one of them by firing randomly into the distance! “Dammit, Xander! Why the hell didn’t you say something?!”

So you could panic exactly the way you are now? We have a transfer ahead of us, Alex. I need your concentration. Peter could have killed us but he hasn’t yet. He’s fucking with us. Let’s just… That hesitation meant Alex was going to loathe whatever words came out of him next. Let’s hope he doesn’t get bored.



“Okay, now I’m panicking.”

Xander sighed and flipped more switches, steadily moving down the lines and waiting mere moments between each one.

It could be the one guy. I don’t know how much these new suits cost. They looked expensive. But on the other hand? The retard did walk into a bullet. But it might mean they spent more money on tech than on training, which happens.

“You said they’d never send only one against you.”

Faded. They’d never send only one who was faded, but invisible… He shook his head. I can’t believe they pulled it off.

“I’m thrilled you’re impressed,” Alex shot out.

It’s my only choice, since you won’t let me stop thinking about it, Xander said, frustrated. We can’t change what’s happening. Accept it. And – just… head straight for the exit when I’m in. Your leg’s gonna suck, but you need to move.

“That’s good advice, except we took so many turns getting here, I can’t remember what direction we’re in now.” If only he’d blasted more holes in the ceiling. Or in invisible Agents. “You better remember.”

Let’s hope Sparky does.

‘Hope’ was not allowed to replace ‘fine’, because ‘hope’ was worse in every possible way, and from Xander, Alex was almost sick.

“Yeah. And that she can drag us both.” This foot was not going to be easy to handle. The bandages – Xander was going to have to put them on before he left. Alex wasn’t sure he could do it the way this guy had likely mastered. “By the way, I don’t think you can fit any of my clothes.” Stupid show-off eating steroids… What was doubly unfortunate was that he’d left his bag behind in the car. “I guess… towel?”

Alex. Fuck. Okay – whatever, what? What now? I’m not coming with you.



“Um… Okay.” One second. He wasn’t choosing between demonic outrage and unforgivable horror. “Um… What?”

I’ll find you when I’m awake. You guys can’t wait for me.

“But we have to wait for you,” Alex said slowly. “You have to come with us.”

I will, but only after I catch up.

Did anyone else hear what this voice in his head was saying? Where was it coming from? When the fuck had this been decided?

“Xander, if we leave you, Peter will do… whatever the hell he was planning on,” Alex said.

I know. And he was okay with that? I know the risks. That’s why I explained them.

“But – Gwen! Gwen, she’s…”

He didn’t finish that sentence, even though it’d had an ending. ‘She’s counting on you.’ Something had interrupted him. That something was guilt. A vivid, haunting surge of it rose up from his feet before it was put away. Alex recognized it. That guilt was from Xander, and it was the same rare glimpse of emotion he’d let out when Gwen had been taken away from the restaurant.

Question.

This was one he didn’t want to hear the answer to.

“Xander,” he said, trying to work up his nerve. “Why aren’t you coming with us?”

Alex knew what he’d say if he’d been asked why they weren’t allowed to wait: Peter wanted Xander back in his body, and they might be allowed to leave out of gratitude for delivering their warrior. Staying to stop it would carve their names into Peter’s list. It was the cold rationale he was used to hearing from the guy. Alex could try and deny the logic, but in the end, Xander was laying out their best odds. That wasn’t the problem here. The problem was completely different.

The transfer… He paused to think about his words. The actual transfer – the part where a mind is moved from body to body – is the only part of the process that’s fast. Going to a new body means you have the time sucking brain scans to put up with, then the coma, which takes even longer. Going back, it’s not as bad, but it’s worse depending on how long you’ve been in storage. Xander turned his head back towards his cell. To his body. That’s eight years of no movement, no breathing for myself, no real exposure to light… Even if I was coming, it’s not like I could help. I need time to recover. So there’s no point in staying.

“Oh. Okay. That makes sense.” He didn’t want to ask. He didn’t. “Then… I guess my next question is, ‘how long have you known about this’?”

I’ve always known.

“What I’m getting at is, if you’ve known for a while, why would you take so long to bring it up? You never told us and you never even implied… but you’ve known.” Xander had known when he’d walked in here. He’d known in the car. He’d known at the restaurant…

I figured now would be the best time for it.

No. No trying to ‘obvious answer’ his way out.

“Best for who?” That wasn’t hard. “Best for you? Why? Why did you need to tell me at the last minute?” That guilt. That guilt was not forgotten. Xander had felt it so intensely back there. “What did it have to do with Gwen? Because honestly, other than ruining your chances of us putting you first, there’s nothing I can…”

It hit him. Xander didn’t have much to say about it.

… Yeah.

“You…” He shouldn’t’ve asked. “You didn’t tell us… because you didn’t want to risk not coming here first?” That guilt hadn’t been a charming ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough to save you, Gwen’. It’d been a ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough to save you, Gwen, but I have to get my body now, so good luck with not having your mind destroyed’. “You knew she was in danger! And you weren’t – you’re in a fucking aquarium!” The pressure hadn’t been on back then. Peter hadn’t given them the ultimatum, and they would’ve never heard if Xander hadn’t – “That’s why you called him?!”

I told you why I was calling.

Bullshit! I knew it made no sense, no matter what you said!”

It did make sense, Xander snapped. It wasn’t like I was doing it on purpose.

He admitted it. He’d just admitted it.

“Part of you was.” The guilt. Alex couldn’t shake the memory. “Part of you needed a reason not to feel so bad about throwing her to the Agents, and calling Peter gave you one.” The timeline Xander’d come up with… It’d accounted for the trip to Charlton and what it’d take to get back to Elmira. He’d been thinking about this all day. And night, because those notes – the Braille ones… “Peter really helped you, didn’t he? It looks like you two are still friends.” Xander had stopped flipping switches. His fingers were touching one of the last ones, rigid with hate that’d consumed them as Alex connected the dots. “And you’re picking him over us.”

Fuck you.

“No, think about it.” Although Xander probably already had. “You walked us into a deathtrap knowing Peter wanted you to transfer. Those invisible Agents? Wow.” Alex couldn’t help laughing. “Wow. You’re a fucking genius. Because you know who would’ve known there were other people in here, Xander? A psychic. A psychic would have known. So good job on making sure we didn’t have one of those, otherwise we might’ve called this off.” They didn’t know where Osono was. Hell, even Rudy was in trouble, considering he’d shot one. “It’s nice getting your way, huh?”

Amazingly, Xander didn’t have anything to say. The hate had faded, but nothing had taken its place. Alex didn’t feel anything from him, but there was no mental wall up to stop him. Xander – just… wasn’t feeling anything right now. But if he wasn’t working the pre-controls, Alex would, because he had enough of this wild ride and he wanted it to be over. He went through three more before a new sound appeared. Sliding. Metal sliding, and against more metal. Behind them, part of the wall was rising up. A full system had been tucked away behind it, beginning with a wide monitor and moving on to a complicated set of buttons and interfaces.

“Are those the real controls?”

Xander nodded. He didn’t say a word.

“Okay.” Alex prepared to shuffle towards them, purely to stop before he started. There was one last thing he should say. “Xander?”

No reply, just a mild shift of focus.

“Best of luck with Peter.”

… Thanks…

“Don’t thank me for that.”

He started to cross the room, wincing at the sight of the console he’d have to figure out in minutes. He had no intention of going back on his word – he wanted Xander to be transferred out, as much for that guy’s sake as his own – or testing the ex-Agent’s. He wasn’t going to look for a kill switch. But he wondered about it. He wondered if Xander regret telling him it existed. He had nothing to be afraid of, but was he nervous about it anyway?

Alex sincerely, profusely hoped so.

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#, as written by Ten
"Very nice to meet you, Anjelica," Fin said, taking her hand in a small shake - a lot less formal than Creasy's - and she actually smiled just the tiniest bit. "So, are you with the Docs or are you just here to make sure the plane ride is as enjoyable as possible?"

She regarded him with a considering look for a moment and glanced at the seats behind him. "Yes, I'm with the Docimasy, but I'm not one of them." Indicating the two Agents in the back. Fin looked back as well. Haggins had papers out and was silently mouthing the words while reading, seemingly lost in deep, concentrated thought. A quick glance behind his seat told him that Creasy wasn't paying attention either but messing with his cell phone, possibly messaging someone or checking his Facebook updates. Neither of them seemed to acknowledge the conversation he was having with Anjelica, nor the fact that the plane was moving and picking up speed.

"What do you mean, 'them'?" Fenton asked, quirking an eyebrow. "Do you mean 'them' as in a man? Because, yes, I believe I noticed that about you right away." He paused and looked her over, letting his eyes wander over all of her smooth curves covered in skin-tight, shiny fabric - the only things left exposed were her hands and her head but she might as well have been sitting there naked for all the suit kept concealed. The best part was, she was the perfect body type to wear it. "It was the lesbian comment that tipped me off."

He was beginning to really like the almost tolerant expressions she kept giving him, particularly the smile she kept struggling to hide. "No, I meant, I'm not a part of the detective unit. I'm a doctor."

There was a long pause in conversation as the jet picked up speed and lifted off but once they were steady in the air, Fin turned back and said, "A doctor? Wow. Aren't you a little... young?" She couldn't have been much older than he was - 30 at the most but that was pushing it. Nobody took that much care of their body to stay looking that good. Unless... she'd transferred into it... "I thought medical school was supposed to take a hundred years or something. So, either you're looking really fine for 90 or..." He gave her a wary look that turned secretive as he leaned forward and whispered, "...did you sell your soul to Satan?"

A deep chuckle came from the seat behind him and he glanced back to see Creasy shaking his head with a humored smile on his face and going back to his text conversation. Anjelica shook her head as well, turning away from him and doing her 'trying not to smile' thing towards the front of the plane. Creasy's laughter had gotten Haggins's attention and he leaned forward a little and said to Fin, "More like the Bride of Satan."

Anjelica frowned and turned in her seat to scowl at the kid sitting behind her and rolled her eyes before righting herself. If she was 10 years younger, Fin would have expected her to smack the kid on the head like an annoyed older sister. Hm, interesting. First Creasy with his fatherly teasing and now these two were acting like siblings. It was completely different from the atmosphere of distance and authority that Graninger cultivated in his base. Maybe other Agency divisions and bases encouraged this 'familial' approach?

He had a smart comment for Haggins prepared, but decided to ignore him for now. "Do you take walk-ins?"

"In the morgue, I do," she said giving him a slanted smile and a sultry look. Fin blinked at her. Okay... that was a little odd. If he didn't know any better, he'd almost swear that she was flirting with him. Or threatening him. It was hard to tell. Noticing his confusion, she tried not to smile and said, "My specialty is dead people." Oh. That kind of 'doctor'.

"Hm. Sounds like you might've missed a few classes in medical school. Patients aren't typically supposed to end up like that when they come to see you, you know. In fact, I'm pretty sure there's an oath that'll tell you all about it." She pursed her lips and scowled in amusement, shaking her head and glancing out the window. "Okay, so you're an Agency coroner? That never would have occurred to me. I bet it impresses the ladies, though." God, she was cute when she smirked like that - he could do this all day and still be entertained by her struggle to hide her amusement. And she was amused. Good. Then he'd keep making references to her sexuality until she told him to stop or admitted that she digged him. That seemed to be a consistent way of handling these situations... "What rank do you have to be to get the privilege of cutting bodies open?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "A-6," she said smoothly. "Each Doc team is assigned an M.E. that travels with the group during investigations, specifically when a murder may be involved."

"So, there was a murder? In Charlton?" There was an abrupt and short grunt from behind Fenton's seat and immediately she grew quiet and cautious. Very subtle, Creasy.

"I'm sorry, I can't discuss it." Of course not. Not with her boss breathing down their necks. Well, although it didn't make him any less nervous about their presence, at least now he knew someone had been killed, otherwise they wouldn't have brought along their gothic forensic lady to do an autopsy. Who was murdered and who was the murderer? Fenton supposed that they wouldn't be out here with their investigators if they already knew the answer to that, but they had to at least have somebody they suspected. Why did he automatically want to point the finger at Patten? He had absolutely nothing to base his suspicions on except for Graninger's cryptic comments before he left.

Changing gears, she finally asked, "What rank are you and where do you work?"

None of this sat well with him. A little because he was concerned for his job but mostly because he was snoopy. He had to know if they were really coming after Eric Patten. He had a duty to protect his new boss - or at least, that was what he was telling himself his was motivation for pressing the matter. Fin probably wasn't going to get anything out of her directly, but he might be able to gauge her reactions if he said the right things. "I'm an A-12. And I'm going to be working for an A-1 named Eric Patten." He was watching her closely as her dark eyes widened briefly and she looked him up and down again as if re-assessing him. "Do you know him?"

"No, but he's an A-1, so I'm familiar with the name. Nothing but rumors really."

Immediately whatever surprise had been there was gone and she almost seemed genuinely uninterested in talking about the guy. Great way to sweep that under the rug and deflect his attention, Anjie. Too bad he already saw-- "Are you really an A-12? You don't act like it." Oh, wait. Of course. His rank was what surprised her. Once again, Fin was brought face-to-face with the fact that he'd let his tongue run away from him in front of higher level Agents. There was a very specific hierarchy at play here and he was ignoring all of it in favor of being friendly and hitting on girls. He had to get rid of this habit before he finally reported to Patten, otherwise he'd really start to pay for it.

"Yeah, I'm sorry," he said, mockingly humble. "I had a lot of sugar today."

That was when something occurred to him, and he suddenly had the urge to talk to Graninger about all of this. It was his private jet. Creasy had said that this was the last private flight leaving for Charlton in the next couple of hours, yet Fin couldn't see the guy being let on unless he got permission from Graninger to board. There was no way that smug bastard didn't know they were here but how involved was he? Did he know about this before Fin left or after? If it was the former, then why wouldn't he tell Fin to expect company on this flight? What might he be trying to hide? He didn't want to be paranoid, but he didn't like feeling Graninger playing with his strings either.

When the seat belt light finally turned off, he unbuckled himself and stood up. Speaking to Anjelica, Fin said "'scuse me for just a moment," before turning and proceeding down the aisle to the bathroom in the back of the plane. As soon as the door to the small cubicle was shut, he pulled out his cell phone and began typing a message, sending it to Graninger's number. He didn't usually text, but he really didn't want to risk being overheard if he spoke aloud. If the door was any indication, these walls weren't very thick

what do you know about the docimasy? There, straight to the point and no confusion about what he was asking.

There was a minute or two before he finally got a response and Fin was leaning against the sink when his phone beeped the alert. Why? Did you make some friends? He could almost see the guy's smug little smirk and Fin let out a silent sigh. Well, alright, if Graninger wanted to play games...

yeah. the vampy necrophiliac and the jewish kid are nice but the lecherous socal mobster is my favorite. were bffs.

Be respectful. Fin wanted to laugh. There was something still incredibly amusing about Graninger's reactions, particularly because he could see the guy being stone-cold serious with that reprimand. They all outrank you and should be treated with humble subservience. Don't be a hot shot and keep your mouth shut unless you're addressed.

relax. apprently i pass for a higher rank. Was the A-2 cringing and resisting the urge to tell him how impersonating a higher rank was strictly against the rules? It was really hard to hate Graninger sometimes. The guy was just so high-strung and easy to bait. they're after a murderer in charlton. seriously do you know anything about that?

Fenton tried to imagine how Graninger would react and he was pretty close when the next message popped up on his screen, Nothing for you to worry about. What they're doing doesn't affect you. Leave it alone. That is an order.

This was just like what happened with his orders about Pie. Not only was Fin just supposed to shut up and not ask questions just because the man said so but also he said it in such a way that made Fin feel like there were plans that involved him that he wasn't being told about. But he was in their club now and there were rules he had to follow if he wanted to make his way to the top. So, all of this nosy, mouthing off needed to stop if he wanted to reach his goals without any more delays or obstacles. Besides, he'd contacted Graninger to try and weasel information out of him and the man made it clear that he wasn't going to be useful on that front.

Before he could make any final decision one way or the other, it was made for him as a knock came from the door. "Just a second," he called out, while hastily typing out ys sir and pressing send.

He turned to flush the toilet for the sound effect of it, pretending he actually did something productive in here, and his hand was at the latch just as his phone beeped again. Good boy. Have a safe trip. Yeah, sure. It wasn't like if they crashed he wouldn't survive or something. And he knew how Graninger might say it too; with the condescension he'd express towards a dog. Biting the inside of his lip, Fenton opened the door and left the tiny water closet.

At least, he would have if she hadn't been in the way. Anjelica. One minute she was blocking the doorway with her gorgeous, lithe form and the next, he was gently pushed backwards and she was suddenly occupying the cramped space with him. He stood looking at her as she closed the door again, waiting for her to say something first and when it finally came, it was exactly what he expected. "I need you," she purred huskily.

"I'm sorry," he murmured in a falsely apologetic tone. "I'm just not comfortable with chaperoning. You're going to have to use it by yourself this time." And he pointed at the toilet off to the right of the sink then tapped her on the side of the shoulder encouragingly.

An actual smile blossomed on her face, bringing an entirely new dynamic to her cold and morbidly stern features, actually looking like a young woman for the first time since he met her. Moving forward to press her body flush up against his, she kissed him with soft and urgent lips, unzipping the jacket of his uniform and running her hands all over him. He didn't stop her, kissing her back for a moment or two before finally breaking off and saying, "Hey, I thought you said you were batting for the other team."

"I lied," she said simply, pushing her long bangs out of her face, her dark eyelashes hovering low over her cheeks while giving him a coquettish look.

"I knew it--!" he said triumphantly before her lips enveloped his once again, her hand running through his hair and the other slipping under his shirt to stroke his flat abdomen. That's when his paranoia kicked in. Wasn't she working with people who were specifically going after Agents who broke the Agency's biggest rules? Fin was pretty certain - despite Graninger's naughty example and past exploits - that Agency affairs were somewhat serious business. What with the conflict of interest and all. While she directed her attention to his neck, biting him like an actual vampire, he once again spoke up, deliberately whispering. "What about your boss? I mean, he's right outside the door and he said something about the Docimasy and sexual assault..."

Anjelica released a heavy breath and drew back from him, craning her arms to reach her back while giving him a tolerant yet impatient look. "Creasy? Everyone knows that he's boning his secretary. He won't care about this so long as you don't file an official complaint against me." The harsh sound of a zipper accompanied her words and by the time she was finished talking, she'd slipped both arms free and stood exposed down to the waist.

Fenton looked at the plush and supple expanse of skin - taking back what he thought earlier about her being the same as naked with her suit on - and pursed his lips, slowly shaking his head. "Nope... No...complaints here..."

Smiling again, she wrapped her arms around him, kissing him feverishly as his hands cradled the smooth, warm skin of her back.

***

Gwen didn't know what to think of that, but not wanting to be rude, she gingerly took the handkerchief from the guy and wiped the slow-drying tears off her cheeks. She still held true to her first impressions of this woman being extremely unpleasant, especially now that she'd begun shouting - did she always talk like that or was she actually angry about something? It almost sounded conversational, if one could use that term to categorize screeching. Anything was a relief from the noise that came from inside Stephanie March's mind. With the way she spoke, it was obvious she was an Agent as well - what about the guy with the glasses? Was he the dark haired woman's assistant or something?

From her demeanor and Stephanie's reactions, it was immediately obvious that these women were not friends and something changed inside of Stephanie when the other woman began talking, as images and thoughts suddenly began filtering out of her head. There was still the internal violin and nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching that kept Gwen from touching anyone else, but the blonde Agent's mind was now an open book. At first, Gwen thought maybe it was from a lack of focus that made the internal walls slip and fall down briefly. But as Stephanie turned to her - very stubbornly refusing to talk to the dark-haired Agent - she realized it had nothing to do with concentration. The woman was falling apart inside.

"Not something, that Master told me," she said to Gwen - and ONLY Gwen. "It was a plan, that the lazy Canuck, and I came up, with prior to His joining, our team. To lure you both, to Charlton where, Xander's body would be, making sure, that we arrived first, and allowing Alexander, to attempt a retransfer. In the middle of it, if the drunkard can get, off of his ass, long enough to do, his fucking job, then he'll stop the transfer, right when, Xander is between bodies. Killing him. Forever. Then Alexander, will be taken into, custody."

There were several unfamiliar nicknames that were being used that flooded Gwen's mind with impressions, cluing her into who these people were - at least in direct relation to Stephanie. First, she recognized the name the other woman shouted: Patten. He was the corpse-like signature that Rudy talked to on the cellphone; the guy who put the fear of God into the short weasel and who's threats kept Rudy from hurting or killing her during their hellish trip. Remembering the few times Rudy had punched and slapped her and feeling the dull ache in her bruises, she amended that to "mostly" and was merely thankful the sociopathic little Agent hadn't also given into the urge to shoot her. This Patten guy had seemed involved before but how was he involved now? Was he the dark-haired Agent's boss or Stephanie's?

Second, was the oddly named "Master" - his real name was Master inside Stephanie's head - who's mental impression was accompanied by a picture of a gargantuan, muscular man posing dramatically on a mountaintop, like a superhero or a Greek God or something. He was holding the Earth cupped in the palm of his hand, dwarfed by his massive grip, a blood red sunset shined behind him, casting him in a demonic light, and a large, brilliantly blinding yet strangely charming smile dominated his face. Normally, when Gwen got impressions like this - well, at least what she'd come to regard as "normal" during the 3 days she'd had her powers - an image like a photo of a person showed up in her head, or some flash of memory like a small movie seen from the person's point of view. Seeing this guy in such a glorified depiction, she couldn't help but question if he was real or not.

And finally, there were the references to a Canadian and the impression she got, although just as dramatic and exaggerated as the other, Gwen instantly recognized him as the Frenchman from Alex's memories. This was where she got the greatest reveal of what was wrong inside Stephanie's head, when she was given the opportunity to compare the image of how the woman saw him to Alex's memories of him - the ones he didn't mean to share with her but that she'd caught and saved that night in the hotel. There was the smoking, the sunglasses, the slicked back hairdo and the obvious accent - which Stephanie's mind warped cartoonishly with babbling "French-ish" words. Everything else was like looking at a Dracula-themed parody of the guy: creepy and thin, pale, with a hideous, snooty frown, sharp widow's peak and a thousand cigarettes coming from his mouth, ears and nose. Ah, so, he was most definitely not a friend either. As if the insults didn't clue her in.

"Even if the, arrogant Quebecer is, unable to muster the motivation, to participate in the, greatest moment of, his pathetic life - what he's been chasing, and waiting for, for years - then Master and I, have already set someone, to pick up, the very predictable, slack."

Jason. She was talking about the possessive addict, with the invisible suit, who stole her goggles. From the few impressions she got from Stephanie's head, he was her knight in shining armor and from the images presented, it almost seemed literal - fighting a dragon with a sword and everything. Although, it was a bit hard to separate Stephanie's fantasies from the reality of what was happening between them, apparently... they'd gotten closer since the last time Gwen saw either of them. And he'd been ordered to stay behind to help with Alex and Xander's retransfer.

Again, she felt a moment of concern for Alex after hearing the plan, wondering what would happen to him and if he'd get out alive. Or next time they saw each other, would they both be looking at one other with Agents behind their eyes? She felt nothing after hearing that Xander was going to die. There was a second when she felt appalled that she could be so heartless, but from the things Stephanie said combined with what Xander himself kept saying to her and Alex, she didn't feel like she could depend on or trust him if he made it through the transfer alive. What was stopping him from going back to the Agency? He was and always had been one of THEM. And she was almost certain now, that even if he didn't die and the best case scenario happened where he made it back into his original body and decided to tell the Agency to go fuck themselves, he would not come for her. He had no loyalty to her and during their last argument, she made it clear that she had none for him either. Even though she hadn't really felt that way at the time, right now she experienced no guilt over the things she'd said.

The thing that ground at her the most though, was the fact that Alex didn't have a choice. He couldn't just wait for Xander to get weaker and weaker and risk himself being affected when the guy faded. After 6 years of being stuck together, there was no telling how attached they actually were on the inside and whether or not parts of Alex would disappear when Xander finally did. So, she didn't blame him for walking into the trap, knowing that they had a limited amount of time to do what they needed to do. But she hated how helpless the situation made her feel - aside from the fact that she couldn't reach out to Alex and warn him about it - particularly the fact that Xander had become necessary to Alex's survival. He couldn't go through with the transfer because Xander might actually make it and then turn on him; he couldn't wait for Xander to fade because he might die too; and yet, Alex couldn't make it in and out of there in one piece without Xander's help.

"As I, already said Alexander's, Agent may be a shiftless, freeloader but he knows, his target inside and out. He is able, to predict what he'll, do and that, is how I am, absolutely certain, Alexander will come for his, body and fall into, our trap. It is also, how I know, he doesn't give a shit, about you."

Alright, she'd had enough of this mental game that Stephanie was playing. Even if some of what she said was true, she was saying it for the specific purpose of cutting Gwen down and she KNEW it. Gwen hadn't seen it when she was crying before, but then again, she hadn't possessed this very open view into Stephanie's head, which allowed her to see the woman's intent. Anyway, it was time to turn the tables.

Looking at her, not only could Gwen see what was inside of Stephanie's mind but she could also touch the parts of her brain that controlled her body's biological systems. She'd already known something was wrong with Stephanie just by the way she looked and acted now, but it became ever clearer as she got an X-ray look at the woman's body. Something was wrong, but as far as pinpointing a direct cause, she couldn't find it. An unbelievable amount of stress was being put upon Stephanie's internal systems, to the point where Gwen found several weak mental and physical supports that were on the verge of snapping under the pressure.

If there was ever a chance that she might be able to escape, then this was the best weakness she could exploit. Let's see how you like it when people bring up your most vulnerable wounds and darkest secrets, Stephanie. "What about Jason?" Stephanie didn't blink but inside there was a flurry of thoughts and emotions in response to Gwen's words. "He tried to leave you, twice, didn't he? I think that says something about how he feels about you, but then who could blame him? You've practically drained him dry, bullying him with your fists and then your vagina. He can't even do his job because you're taking every tool he needs to do it, weakening him to become your little plaything. It's sick. Leaving him behind was probably the most generous thing you've done for the guy. Too little too late, if you ask me, but I'm sure Jason would say it too if he hasn't passed out from withdrawal."

It took very little effort to rile Stephanie up and although physically she kept herself looking like a diseased porcelain doll with painted-on features, inside she was reacting violently. The only real effect of this was that the more Gwen talked about Jason, the more Stephanie thought of him...thus giving Gwen more to talk about. Then she hit upon an interesting train of thought.

Gwen frowned and squinted. "Are... are you really planning to go through with this transfer, into my body, because you think Jason will prefer a brunette over a blonde?" That wasn't exactly it but it was pretty close to Stephanie's reasoning for it. Gwen licked her lips and only glanced at the other two before scoffing a laugh and shaking her head. "I can't believe this...! Out of all the illogical-- You do realize that will change nothing, right? I may not be an expert on the...the 'transferring' or whatever you call it, but I'm pretty sure I know the basics. You're not going to magically become me when you transfer in. You'll still be the sadistic, domineering bitch you are right now. Even if he had the hots for me physically, you'll crush all of it just by being yourself."

Finally, Stephanie blinked. "You're wrong," she said calmly. "When I am, you, I will be perfect, and he will, love me." There was no doubt in Stephanie's mind or in her voice and Gwen's resolve to fight her on the issue wavered a little to see the psychotic level of obsession and devotion she felt towards Gwen. Turning from Gwen, she stared blankly at a spot on the seat to the right of the dark-haired woman and with a death-grip finality ringing in her voice, said, "And if he doesn't, then I'll have the, power to make him, love me."

Gwen suppressed a shiver and pressed her lips together briefly, hesitating for only a second before leaping. "I thought we were talking about Jason..."

Stephanie didn't look at her but gave Gwen's lap a sideways glance. "We are."

"Then why does this sound exactly like the plan you had for getting Richard back?"

It was like fucking lightning struck, the beehive officially and unceremoniously kicked, Stephanie's thoughts frantic and frenzied and fruitlessly trying to hide things when there was no wall to hide behind. The supports of the woman's mind and body shivered at mention of his name but held fast, and with how erratic everything was inside, Gwen wasn't sure if she should be relieved that an explosion didn't happen. One thing did get released, however, and Gwen watched, inside and outside, as the pressure broke open in Stephanie's eyes and tears streamed down her face. There was no sadness behind it - the woman was sanguineous when thinking of the man now, even though Gwen knew there was more to it than that - but more a physical letting of the current stress she was under. Stephanie noticed the wetness, dully touched her cheek and glanced at her moistened fingers boredly, before settling her hand back in her lap.

When she looked at Gwen, even though she continued to shed tears, there was rage bubbling like boiling oil beneath the surface of her motionless features. "Stop. Snooping."

Gwen put on a small show of being penitent and wary and merely shrugged and said, "I'm sorry. I can't control what I'm getting from you. It's like I can't turn you off." Which was actually true, but she wasn't upset about the fact. This was the biggest advantage over Stephanie that she could ever possibly get and she knew exactly how to play the woman like she did to Noel. Thoughts of that other Agent woman reminded her of how she messed that up and she briefly touched the bandage, feeling a sting in the cuts on her chest. She had no one else to depend on except herself, so she couldn't stop now. And there was no room for error.

Another interesting thing - other than her bizarre, past relationship with the guy - came up in the thoughts regarding Richard: Stephanie was convinced that everyone was in on some sort of conspiracy against her, with him acting as the mastermind behind it all. Again, it was very hard for Gwen to separate the memories from the fantasies inside Stephanie's mind, but apparently she thought that Madeline, the dark haired woman, was sent here to stop her from transferring. Gwen's eyebrows wrinkled in thought as she looked again at the other two Agents - the guy didn't have a name, or Stephanie did not remember it; he was no more than a piece of furniture in the helicopter for all the acknowledgment Stephanie gave him - and she supposed wondering whether or not they were actually sent by Stephanie's old boss to control her really didn't matter. An enemy of Stephanie's was a friend of hers and the woman was threatened by Madeline. Whatever else she knew about this situation, Stephanie's condition wasn't lost on them. They couldn't be so irresponsible to allow her to go through with it in this state, especially when the margin for error was so wide under normal circumstances - and Gwen was merely basing this off of what she'd seen with Alex, Xander and David and Maggie. The transfer was probably not going to happen any time soon.

It was almost enough to get Gwen actually feeling sorry for her. She knew now what Stephanie had been through and although she still thought the woman was being unreasonable and obsessive to hang onto the pain of a breakup for almost 4 years, it added a new dimension to the seemingly robotic Agent. She understood that desire to heal a broken heart. It didn't make her want to give in or give up but it wasn't as rigid a course as Stephanie thought it was. Stephanie could still have everything she wanted... by letting Gwen go. And in her volatile emotional state, Gwen thought she might be able to convince her of this alternative solution.

"I know what he did was painful," as Gwen spoke, Stephanie looked away again, chaos raging inside her. Not wanting to take the chance that the woman wouldn't hear her, she decided to add an extra push to her words. "But putting on a different face won't change what happened. Certainly not if you end up doing the exact same thing he did to you, to someone else." Gwen glanced again at the other two, before reaching forward and gently slipping her hand into Stephanie's, in a comforting gesture. "You don't have to trick someone else into loving you... You just have to realize that maybe Richard or Jason or Master aren't the ones."

Feeling Gwen's touch, Stephanie turned back to her, looking straight down at their joined hands, staring at them while Gwen rubbed her thumb against the back of Stephanie's knuckles. Slowly, her black eyes came back up to Gwen's face and-- a sharp pain blasted inside her head along with maniacal screeching blaring through her temples and behind her eyes. Gwen winced and gasped in pain, her other hand flying up to press against her forehead as she bent over her lap and tried to will the discomfort away.

Meanwhile, as Gwen writhed in agony, Stephanie silently reached onto her lap where Gwen had dropped the cloth that Madeline gave to her and picked it up. Gwen could barely think through the cloud of noise but she was aware of Stephanie using the napkin to wipe tears off of her face while ignoring her own - Gwen wasn't aware that she was crying again and Stephanie's touch was gentle as she smoothed the cloth over Gwen's cheeks. She would have liked to move or to lean away from her but the sound subsided while Stephanie worked, leaving a dull, throbbing pain in it's place. She was still holding Gwen's hand and she got the distinct impression that Stephanie enjoyed caring for and touching her. If she didn't fear what Stephanie might do in retaliation, Gwen would have jerked her hand back and gotten as far away from her as she could.

"So, so silly, Gwendolyn," Stephanie muttered. "Although I will say, I appreciate the effort, and recognize the, resourcefulness of the, attempt. At one point, this quest may, have been about, him and finding some, sort of retribution or, regaining what was lost. But I no longer, care what he wants, or what he thinks. Now, my only wish, is to no longer be me."

Gwen was able to get enough relief from the headache she had to open her eyes and lift her head right in time to watch Stephanie regard the wet stains on the cloth. After a moment or two of blankly staring at it, she brought it to her lips and licked the moistened spot, a burst of pleasure filling her to taste the saltiness from Gwen's tears. Tucking the cloth away into the back pocket of her pants - for reasons unknown; saving it for later? - Stephanie turned back to Gwen. "I'm not doing, this, to hurt you, you know. Nobody else deserves, you. Not Alex. Not Xander. Not your, dead father. I'm doing the transfer, because I love you, so much."

Gwen squinted at her through her headache. She was absolutely certain that Stephanie had no idea what love was. And it wasn't from a lack of trying to understand it, either.

***


The tension immediately left him as soon as that other guy left. Not that Theodore particularly cared one way or another - he had a lot of work to do and he wasn't really paying attention to the stuff going on around him anyway. But Creasy became tense when that guy, Fin or whatever, started asking questions about the case. It was subtle and the older man hid it well, but Haggins had become particularly in tune with his mentor's moods and emotions. And whenever Creasy got tense, Haggins became anxious.

So, he felt a lot better as soon as that guy left and he let out a small breath while going back to the paperwork in front of him. Not too long after that, Anj rose from her seat - again, Theodore normally wouldn't have noticed, since he was so wrapped up but Creasy looked up from his phone to watch her walk to the back of the plane and he sat listening to her as she knocked on the door. When the door closed again and neither Fin nor Anjelica came back to their seats, Haggins leaned into the aisle to glance back there. Sure enough, nobody was standing in the small alcove and the door was closed, which meant the both of them were in there together.

Whatever Creasy had been listening for, he seemed satisfied and was already back to typing on his phone. Sitting back in his seat, Haggins shook his head a little and murmured, "Shouldn't you say something to her or, you know, I mean, to both of them, maybe?" Even though he was nervous, his voice actually came out slow as he stammered, entering each new idea into the conversation when he thought of something else he should be worried about. He just didn't want to come off as if he was targeting Anjelica - which, he was; the way she got away with breaking the rules seriously bothered him a lot - and he also didn't want to make it seem like he was trying to tell Creasy how to do his job - it was just a suggestion, that's all. All of which he only thought of after he started talking.

Creasy didn't look up from his phone but stopped typing, obviously waiting for a reply message and shook his head in a relaxed fashion. "No. Anjeru knows what she's doing." Of course. She was screwing some dude in the jet bathroom and Creasy was going to let it slide because they were the only ones who would know about it. The fact that the older Agent used his pet name for her also spoke volumes about how he was handling the situation. Haggins wasn't about to go over Creasy's head and report her but he still found it annoying that she'd take advantage of the A-3's generosity like that.

Glancing up from his phone, Creasy smiled crookedly at him and nudged him with his elbow as he said, "If you were really concerned about her sleeping with someone else, maybe you should have made your move before ole Fin jumped in and took the spotlight." Yeah, that was something Theodore really didn't need; suggestions of romantic feelings towards that woman. He'd rather shoot his own foot or pull his own tooth out or something. Without any anesthesia or lollipop afterward.

Creasy was always doing that, teasing him about women. Most of the time it made him uncomfortable - which he knew was probably the reaction Creasy was going for - but other times he enjoyed it, feeling at ease from the jovial attention. He felt like they had a connection. Haggins knew Creasy was gay, even though the older man was probably the most manly person he knew, and he was also aware that Creasy was attracted to him. Theodore didn't share those feelings but Creasy's occasional display of affection didn't bother him, mostly because despite how... forceful Creasy could sometimes be, he knew he'd never be pressured to go further than he was comfortable. Plus, he worried that if he told the older man to stop - especially when he hadn't done anything, really - that it would offend Creasy and make him shut down and grow distant. If it meant he got to enjoy a sense of familiarity and kinship with the guy, then sure, he could put up with his payot being tugged occasionally or given a gentle stroke on his back every once in a while.

Haggins gave a small roll of his eyes and indulgent smile and shake of his head, then Creasy chuckled and went back to his phone. A muffled murmur came from behind his head through the wall and Haggins set aside his paperwork again. "Okay, but what about the other guy? I mean, she outranks him. If he tells someone, especially an A-1, she could--"

"Teddy," Creasy said in exasperation. When he looked at Theodore now, there was a stern patience in his bright blue eyes. "He's getting laid. Trust me, he's not going to blow the whistle on her. Just, relax, alright?"

"Right. Okay. Yep," were Haggins' nervously, curt responses to each point that was made, meekly inserted in between each of Creasy's pauses. Noticing that he was still bothered by it even though he'd resolved not to say anything else, Creasy reached out and put his hand on the back of Theodore's neck. The contact was unexpected but not unwanted, and it wasn't an indecent touch or anything. Just a very casual hold on that very sensitive part of his body.

"I've got it under control. You just focus on your work, alright? Let me handle the bigger things." Basically: shut up, Haggins.

Trying not to think of the way Creasy's warm fingers brushed at the short curls on the nape of his neck, Haggins nodded his head and tried to hide the rosy blush that he could feel filling his boyish cheeks. Creasy smiled warmly and gave him a friendly shake and then let go, leaving Haggins feeling incredibly cold in the absence of the contact, both put at ease by the touch and yet relieved it was gone at the same time.

When the other man went back to his phone, he typed one more message and then slid the cover shut and tucked it away into an interior pocket of his beige jacket. "What did he say?" Haggins asked. He knew Creasy had been talking to Graninger because after the first email or text or whatever, he'd asked to talk with the A-2.

"Not much. He was just telling me how to best handle Quin." Case no. 7846. Haggins really preferred using the numbers rather than the people's names. With the confidential nature of the reports they received and the resulting investigations, he felt it was more appropriate than advertising the suspect's actual name. At least not until the case was closed and the full findings were published.

"You think he'll give us trouble?" he did ask Theodore to run back and get that big trunk from the car - which Haggins put in the compartment in the underside of the jet.

"Nah, he's a little guy," Creasy said, leaning with his head against the back of the headrest. "I'm sure even you could subdue him with ease." Wow. That was saying a lot and he didn't know whether to take it as a compliment to himself or as an insult to Quin. Creasy leaned his head to the side and nodded at the papers in his lap. "You're working on his case?"

"Hm?" Theodore had been lost in thought briefly, tapping his pen against his lips, but now looked from Creasy to the paperwork he was holding and nervously replied, "Oh, yeah, just trying to go over the records for the Wallace case and the files of Agent Team request forms." This was where Haggins shined - the research part of the investigations - and his voice grew more steady and confident as he went on. "There's a lot of discrepancies that should have been addressed by whoever got this paperwork put on their desk. I mean, there's dozens of request forms for new teams - I've got at least 12 forms here for a total of 30 new Agents to be assigned to the case, all submitted between May and September of 2008 - and there's no record of where the previous teams went. The case reports are very vague about what happened during different target encounters and capture attempts. There's no official death notices anywhere but I'm assuming that's what happened to them. Otherwise there should be at least 150 Agents on this case now, which originally only required a dozen, at the most." Haggins shook his head in grim frustration. "Somebody down the line turned a blind eye to these records and it's been going on for years. I'd put my money on one of the archivists or somebody in the filing department in Grissom base. If they've been doing this for this case, who knows how many other cases have gotten away with this sort of thing?"

"Hm," Creasy grunted, his expression thoughtful as he arched an eyebrow. "Don't worry about it. We'll go after the bigger fish. The case is not a money pit; it's Quin that's the problem. He's the Lead on it right?"

"Yeah, co-Lead," Haggins said, glancing down for a moment to check the file in his lap. Creasy's brow scrunched up in a confused scowl as he looked at his apprentice. "There were two A-3s on the case."

"Hm, when I get a chance, I'm going to ask Quin about that specifically. Even for a case and target that supposedly needed 100 plus Agents, having two Leads on it seems excessive." Then the older man let out a heavy sigh and leaned his head back against the headrest, settling into his seat and closing his eyes.

"You're going to sleep?" More important question: Haggins now had to play babysitter to Mr. Quipster and Little Miss Slutty Pants?

"Mhm, I'm just going to get some rest before we need to get to work. We'll be landing sometime tomorrow morning, so, if you need to, go ahead and get a little shut eye as well." And leave the two flirty birds unsupervised? No way!

"Okay, yeah, maybe. Have a nice nap and everything. I'll let you know if anything that needs your attention happens." He really wasn't very fond of being left in charge but if he complained, it would make him a burden on the older Agent for forcing him to stay awake. Anjelica better behave herself when she got back out here, because Haggins wasn't going to tolerate anything.

***

Rudy was having fun again. Sure, he was in an unfamiliar, dark, creepy and possibly haunted base, while some dumbass psycho was running around and if Patten found him with Ozzie like this, any explanation he gave to either one would get him in trouble with the other. But he was willing to overlook all of that in favor of feeling free for the first time ever. Who knew telling the truth could be so liberating?

"While my brother was away at summer camp one year, I played with the model Rebel blockade runner that he got for Christmas, even though I was forbidden from ever, ever touching it," Rudy said in his speedy voice, sauntering casually along next to Osono while she searched the halls for signs of where her new bff went. "When I was 12, I dropped my oldest brother's toothbrush into the toilet, accidentally on purpose, twice, and never told him about it. At age 13, I killed the neighbor's demon-possessed Pekingese with rat poison because God told me to--"

"Do you have any idea where we are or where I need to go?" Ozzie asked, turning to him with an impatient growl.

"No, I told you already: the hallways and staircases move by themselves when no one's looking. Also, I do not work in this building." She rolled her eyes and let out another frustrated breath. "And don't interrupt. I'm trying to clear my conscience here."

"Fuck, Rudy! If you're not going to help me, then just shut the fuck up!"

"Hey, don't get mad at me. You're the one who started this and I can't stop now. Each new revelation of long buried truths is like another jolt to my system, filling me with new life and a cloudburst of happiness in my heart--"

"Alright fine!" she shouted, turning on him again and glaring at him through the dim red flashing lights. "If you're so hot on the truth now, then why don't you reveal shit that I actually give a fuck about!"

Rudy stopped and blinked. "Okay. Like what?" He was actually hoping that she'd ask him about the reasons why he wasn't allowed to talk to half of his extended family anymore. It was a really great story and one she'd never heard before in their 6 years running together.

Marching stoically down the hallways, she was silent for a moment, merely looking this way and that and trying to find her way through the darkened maze while silence dragged on between them. He hated the fucking quiet, especially since it only creeped him out to think of Patten or somebody silently lurking in the shadows and following them...waiting for an opportunity to strike. Quickly, he spun around in place to look down the empty hall and hopefully catch their stalker in the act but there was no one there. With a cocked eyebrow, he warily turned back around. I'm onto you... Charlton Phantom.

When she finally spoke, he'd caught up to her and was walking by her side as her raspy voice asked, "Why did you join the Agency?"

"What?" This wasn't how they played this game! That sounded like a boring topic of conversation - despite the topic actually being about himself, which was always a fun thing to talk about. Suddenly, he stopped and struck a karate pose at whoever was breathing down his neck--!! Empty. "What kinda question is that?" he asked while jogging beside her.

"It's what I want to know, alright? You feel like telling the truth, then make it truth that actually matters. Either answer me or shut your fucking mouth. Why did you become an Agent?"

"Because I wanted to carry a gun and hang around with violent women." Honestly, what the hell did she want from him? This wasn't fun anymore and he took it back: telling the truth sucked! She gave him a threatening scowl and he shrugged emphatically. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"That's not what I asked you for," she said, stopping to actually face him. "Don't think about 'what I wanna hear'. Can you actually be truthful with me or is it all for show? Is there ever any part of you that is real?"

Normally, Rudy wouldn't give a shit about any of this. She wanted to back him into a corner and he would have been fine with saying, 'Alright, game over. Not playing that. Let's talk about something meaningless and fun.' But she had to hit him with that last part. Not that he was worried that she thought he was a phony - far from it. He'd gotten by for years allowing her to think he was made out of cardboard half of the time and it didn't bother him that she knew he was a liar. All of this shit that he'd successfully kept them from talking about for as long as they'd known each other was now out in the open and her willingness to allow him to stick around - and the balance of her attachment to the thought of killing him - weighed heavily on how he acted now that he was exposed. Downstairs in the base lobby it had been hit, miss, miss, miss, and hit, but he was running short on the amount of mistakes he could make before everything totally crashed and burned.

Taking a deep breath, Rudy's shoulders slumped and he whined a little bit. "I don't fucking know! It was either this or join the army since my dad was tired of me sitting around the house in my underwear playing video games and watching movies all day and spending all of my allowance money on comics and convention tickets even though he's more than rich enough to support me in two dozen lifetimes of sitting on my ass and goofing off." He stopped for a breath, even though he didn't need it and shrugged with an ambivalent, dorky grin. "I have 3 very successful older brothers and I'm the disappointment of the family. When I was told about the Agency it sounded like it'd be cool and at the very least entertaining, which as you can tell, I am making a very kickass career out of it." Well... mostly getting his ass kicked.

It was hard to tell what she thought of that but she didn't seem angry at him anymore - or at least, not as angry - and Osono remained silent as she began walking again. After taking a moment to trick whatever was behind him by feigning and then turning around quickly, he caught up with her again. "Okay, my turn!" She glanced at him with a sneer and he merely smiled widely. After a moment she nodded her head tolerantly. "Why are you so obsessed with helping that herpes-ridden, walking vagina, Alex? Do you have the hots for 'im?"

Rudy was actually, genuinely interested in this. In all the time he'd been chasing her, making sure that she was too scared to stay with anyone for long, she'd never expressed sexual interest in anyone. Not that he was saying that was what this was but it was a level of concern that he'd never seen in her. How something could spontaneously erupt like this in just 24 hours was most easily explained by infatuation or feelings of attraction towards the guy. Plus, if Rudy could pinpoint what exactly hooked her to Alex, it might be easier to shake her loose and she'd be clinging only to Rudy for support again.

"Why?" she asked after a moment of consideration, giving him a crooked smirk. "Are you jealous?"

Ha! Okay, he didn't like where this was going - there was no way he could reasonably answer that and keep her loyalties going in the direction that he wanted them to. If he told her he was, she'd most likely catch onto the fact that he was lying. If he told her the truth, and she expected him to actually have feelings for her - which he didn't - then it would push her further away. Ozzie didn't usually get sentimental, but he couldn't risk his answer being important to her and end up hurting her feelings. When Osono got upset, she didn't just get depressed or kinda sad; she got fucking pissed.

Then Rudy's eyes fell upon a door on the far wall. "Heeeeeeyyyyyy! I know where we are!" Skipping ahead of her, he rushed to the door and pulled the Aurora handle out of his pocket without opening the gun. Clicking a small button on the edge of it, a bright flashlight flickered on and he pointed the beam down at the door, finding dark colored smears staining the wood and on the light colored wall right beside it. Osono came up to stand at his shoulder as he shined the light down at the carpet, revealing more smears and dark droplets.

"See that?" he asked, waiting for her to nod before continuing. "That's the life-essence of yours truly. I came this way earlier - after enduring the hottest physical beating of my life - and left this trail of blood behind. It should go all the way to the red-room if we follow it. And if your sleazy boyfriend found the right way then we should be able to meet him there." Yippee. Then without hesitation he began leading the way, keeping the spotlight of the Aurora flashlight trained on the speckled pathway.

There wasn't more than a couple of beats of silence this time before Ozzie spoke up. "Why did you kiss me downstairs?"

Oh, God! He really didn't want to talk about this! What was wrong with her and all of these mushy-gushy subjects? "I didn't," he answered curtly. "I bumped into you. With my mouth. Completely and totally by accident. However, if you insist on taking advantage of me by referring to it as a kiss - which I did not willingly give to you - then I will have to ask that you stand at least 2 feet away from me at all times so as to prevent any more accidental violation of my... lips."

She let out a raspy laugh. "No need to get so defensive about it. I was just wondering what took you so long to finally make a move." Even though he was nudged in the ribs by her elbow, Rudy failed to get any more comfortable with this conversation.

"That's... I'm sorry, that's just really gross."

"Don't be a fucking dick, Rudy," she said harshly, an edge entering her voice. "You're the one who said you liked me. Why would kissing me be so horribly nasty to you?"

Seriously? He really, really didn't want to talk about this! There was no decent way for this conversation to end in his favor but since she wasn't about to let it go... "It's not nasty to ME - if anything, I actually think it's really hot, especially when you start getting all 'tough girl' on me - but I just think it's kinda inappropriate with the way you think of me, is all."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Rudy shrugged and tried to give her an innocent look, pleading with the Gods of DC Comics for her to get distracted and just forget about the entire conversation. Apparently, the Comic Lords were intent on punishing him, because she did the exact opposite, actually walking a few steps ahead of him and stopping right in his path. "Tell me, what the fuck are you talking about, 'the way I see you'?"

Just rip it off quickly. Like a bandaid. "I just know that you tend to think of me the way that you remember Claus, that's all." And he tried to laugh about it, hoping to encourage an air of lightness around the comment. Again... his prayers went unanswered as the exact opposite happened.

"What did you just say to me, you son of a bitch?!" Every line in Osono's body was filled with violent tension, just waiting for the go ahead to jump him and tear him to pieces. Staring up into her eyes, which were filled with the burning light of murder, he tried to suppress the erotic shiver that coursed through him.

So far, he'd been telling the truth about how he felt about her. He wasn't physically attracted to Osono. But now, seeing her like this, and seeing her here in this place with himself not needing to hold anything back any more, he couldn't deny how sexy her body language was. So... angry and...threatening. Rudy just couldn't help himself and he forgot all about being honest or trying to get her out of here safe and alive as the urge to provoke her overwhelmed him.

"I'm sorry, you didn't hear me and you want me to repeat myself or was there something that I said that you didn't understand?" His eyes darted down quickly and he noticed her fists balled at her sides, her arms shaking just the tiniest bit. "Wait, am I still supposed to be telling the truth?"

There was no warning when she grabbed ahold of him, her fist in his T-shirt and shoving him face-first against the nearby wall. Rudy let out a heavy gasp and grunt as he slammed into the flat surface, arousal coursing through him as her voice hissed dangerously in his ear. "I will give you about five seconds to explain what you just said about Claus before I start hurting you, Rudy!" Oh, God! That hit him right in the pit of his gut! The fear and the new, blossoming headache from the pressure on his shoulders and neck! Fucking Mother-of-Christ, she was scary!!!

"You're already hurting me!" Rudy exclaimed, half muffled with his cheek pressed against the wall. "And you're doing excellent! Don't stop now! This is me being completely truthful again, by the way!" A sharp scream left his throat as she grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm against his back, pressing him harder into the wall and putting pressure on his wounded shoulder - Ow! What the fuck??? Oh, right, he'd been shot. He totally forgot about that because it stopped hurting after he left the sick bay. But hot damn! He was so grateful he was being forced to remember it!

"Cut the bullshit, you sick fuck!" she was screaming now too, her voice made a few notches deeper by her gravely, smoky voice. "Tell me what you know about my brother!"

"You mean, aside from the fact that he's dead?" Ooooo! He was going to get in sooooooo much trouble for that! What was he really supposed to be doing? He couldn't remember. Rudy was so drunken with arousal at the moment, that he was having trouble focusing on anything else except this potentially life-threatening and painful game he was playing with her. But he wasn't so far gone not to notice the sound of a door when it echoed in the hall.

Both Ozzie and Rudy turned towards the noise just in time to see further down the hall, a figure retreating into one of the rooms. Having found a new enemy to engage, she shoved away from Rudy and pursued the other person, leaving him to stumble through a fog of ecstasy after her. Stopping in front of the door, she tried the handle but without results, stepping back to stare straight ahead at the door, heat radiating in the space around her. After only a couple of seconds, the door handle began to glow red and before Rudy could say anything, Ozzie surged forward with her left boot striking out to kick the door in.

Splinters showered from the door frame as the door swung open and she stood proudly in the middle of the room. There were red lights flashing in here as well, but looking around the computer desks, it was hard to make anything out. Either way, the room appeared to be empty.

Fully recovered from his orgasmic ordeal, Rudy stood near her and murmured, "See? That's what happens when you barge into a place. You scare people off!" he said in mock offense. When Osono noticed that he was there - and seemingly remembering that she wanted to kill him for mentioning her little brother - she quickly drew her fist back, intending to backhand him with it. Rudy made a weak, mockingly feminine noise of complaint as he shied away from her, but before she could hit him, their attentions were diverted again as papers fell off of a desk on the far side of the room.

Instantly, when Osono turned towards the noise, fire erupted from the spot where it originated from and a sharp shout burst forth, accompanied by a dark skinned man stumbling past the desks and into the middle of the room by Ozzie's feet. He rolled on the floor briefly to put out the flames on the edge of his white pants, but once they were gone, he shakily got to his hands and knees and looked up at them. Immediately, the skinny black man looked at Osono with obvious fear, but when his eyes fell on Rudy, there was confusion mixed with it, almost like he expected help. Oh, right. The uniform.

Feeling amused by the way things probably looked to this guy - who, from the geeky clothes and wimpy demeanor was obviously in the computer department or an IT guy or something - Rudy looked at Osono and shook his finger rigidly at her. "No! Bad target!" Heh, she didn't like that.

Ignoring Rudy, she rushed forward and grabbed ahold of the guy by his shirt, fire bursting on her other hand which she used to threaten him. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"He looks like a tech," Rudy commented. "And he was probably using the Agency computers to surf for some late night internet porn. Probably the really dirty, nasty stuff too, because his mom checks the browser history on his laptop. Ain't that right, buddy? Yeah... you sicko..."

For the time being, it seemed that Osono was setting aside their drama from before to deal with this new problem, because she turned to him and asked, "Tech? What does that mean?"

For real? Was she serious? "It means he likes to stick his dick into computer disc-drives. He just works with the computers, that's all, and he's probably the most harmless species of Agent there is, aside from the lab breed. In fact, I'm surprised he's still conscious. I'm pretty sure they're trained to pass out and play dead when they sense danger. Just let him go, Ozzie."

"He might run and alert the others that we're here," she said, ignoring the guy's rapid and silent denial, as she gruffly picked him up to stand on his feet and shoving him to walk ahead of her back out the door.

"So you're gonna take him with you? As what? Like, a hostage?"

"Shut the fuck up, Rudy. If you don't like it, then go away!" she stopped to shout in his face, but shook her head with a dark sneer. "I don't have time to deal with any more of your bullshit. You've distracted me enough."

Casting him out of mind, she left the room, dragging the skittish Agent with her as she continued to follow Rudy's blood trail down the hallway. After a few moments, Rudy appeared at her side again, the jacket of the uniform he was wearing now untied from around his waist and back on his arms, hanging unzipped in the front. Well, that had been a nice little delay - REALLY nice, actually - and now they had a new friend to torture! Or maybe she was thinking more along the lines of handing him over to that sadistic bastard, Alex? As some sort of twisted present for her new lover or something.

When Rudy noticed it was growing quiet again, he tried to get rid of the itch in his back that made him feel like someone was following them, and finally gave into the urge to talk. "Did I ever tell you about the time I ruined my brother's wedding? It's now a stipulation in the family records that I'm never allowed to exist in the same state, building or even room that he's in." Ozzie groaned low in her throat and jerked the guy she was holding so he wouldn't fall behind her. Not too much farther until they reached their destination; Rudy recognized that the blood trail was getting thicker, signaling that they were getting closer to the beginning of his wounded journey.

***

Shit. He couldn't feel anything. Fin knew something was happening because her hand was inside his unbuttoned pants and her arm was moving in a vaguely... stroking motion. But aside from an internal pressure that let him know his body was being touched, there was no sensation to accompany it, either pleasurable or painful.

This always happened. Under normal circumstances, his body always had a level of resistance to injury, but it got really bad - particularly the problem with his nerves - whenever his body was under any amount of stress. If his heart rate increased or if he began breathing heavier or sweating, then everything faded to that neutral internal pressure and nothing else. It allowed him to keep his balance and move around without falling over on numbed legs, and it let him hold things and still use his joints and muscles even though he couldn't feel them, but he lost all other feeling. Which wasn't saying much because he didn't have much of that to begin with. But at least when he wasn't panicked or... excited, he could enjoy a kiss or a caress.

Now it was gone, though. Fin tried to ignore it, tried to enjoy it, running his fingers through her hair - which had been cut with an electric razor on the nape of her neck, it was so short - with barely a hum of feeling on the insides of the appendages. Her lips, which were hungry and needy, became like kissing her through a film of tight plastic, the stroking of her tongue too soft for him to appreciate it to any degree. And her body, which had been warm and smooth against his, felt like he was holding and groping an incorporeal mass.

Great. He couldn't do this like this. Granted, it had been years and he was aching for release - he even convinced himself before this point that he deserved to celebrate finally getting the job he wanted. But it took the entire purpose out of it if he couldn't benefit from it at all. And as much as he wanted to be a hero and just do it for her and help her out... well, okay, truthfully he didn't care about that. If he wasn't having fun, then it took all the fun out of making sure she was having fun. Now, he just needed to figure out how to end this without making her angry.

Breaking the kiss, he stood back and looked at her, taking a few breaths with his hands on her shoulders, before finally reluctantly opening his mouth. "Listen, I'm really sorry, I'm sure you're a terrific young woman but--"

"But what?" she interrupted with a tiny frown. Oh, great. She looked hurt, like she knew what he was trying to do. She wasn't going to make rejecting her easy, was she? "You flirted with me out there like you were ready to drill a hole with that thing, but now all of a sudden you don't want to?"

"No, that's not it at all," he said soothingly. "Of course, I want to-- I mean, that should be obvious." He briefly gestured at the front of his pants. "I just... can't." She scowled at him and he let out a heavy sigh. "Look, I just got this job today and I'm on my way to work for somebody really influential. This could be my big chance and... I really don't want to screw it up if someone happens to find out I had sex with you. It's against the rules."

She was putting her suit back on, already having signed him off apparently, and stopped in the middle of zipping it up to glare at him, the dark makeup giving her features a more threatening cast. "Bullshit. I already told you, neither of my colleagues care and they won't report us. I'm a higher rank than you, so anything I have to say about it will reflect more badly on me, especially with me being the initiator. The only one who's threatening your career with this is you. You already blew this big chance, so the least you could do is give me some credit and tell me why you really don't want to."

Well, they did say the truth would set him free. "Okay, I can respect that. The truth is, I'm having a bit of difficulty with physical sensation right now."

"What?" she was briefly distracted but now stood before him, fully dressed again. Her nipples were still hard and poking through the shiny black fabric... Fin tried to focus on her eyes, convincing himself, one more time, that he was doing the best thing.

"I'm sure you're really fantastic at this, it's just I can't... feel anything you're doing to me." There. He said it.

Anjelica's eyes widened and she made an 'offended' face. "Oh yeah?" she scoffed at him. "Then feel this motherfucker!" Her body moved smoothly and silently in the small space, muscles tensing and stretching beneath her black second-skin as her hand came surging from below to slam into his gut. He felt the internal pressure that registered in his brain as his body being "touched" by something but as far as how hard she hit him or any pain related to that, there was nothing. He'd been trained to react quicker than this but he'd already decided to let her hate him when he lost any emotional attachments to his erection. So, he also let her knee him in the junk before she snootily turned and left him alone in the tiny room.

"I already told you, I can't," he murmured in exasperation, rolling his eyes and letting out a heavy sigh. The only good thing about what had happened was, even after he gained the feeling back - that small bit of sensation that still allowed him to enjoy a bit of humanity - there would be no wounds or bruises to cause him pain. He could say a lot of things about the annoying aspects of his powers - like the inability to get laid without taking a sedative first - but one thing he was eternally grateful for: whether he was in an agitated state or not, his body was always 100% indestructible. Even in sleep.

That went about as well as he could have hoped for, considering what he told her and how he worded it and although he was glad it was over quickly, he was still in a bad mood from needing to cut her off in the first place. Then again, it was his fault for thinking with his dick and Fin tried to remind himself that he had very high goals that he needed to reach and these distractions weren't helping. He told himself that, but it didn't make him feel any better about not getting any sweet, delicious candy.

Zipping everything back up, he left the bathroom - with little to no difficulty this time - and walked out to find Anjelica still standing in the aisle next to Haggins' seat. They both glanced at him, the kid looking from Fin to her nervously until she glared at him and he finished collecting his things. Upon further inspection of the scene, Fenton realized that Creasy was asleep and Haggins was being bullied out of his seat to move up to where Anjelica had previously been sitting. Okay, she could be immature about it if she needed to be. He had a feeling that her company wouldn't have been very pleasant after that anyway.

Once everybody was switched around, Fin walked up the aisle, glancing back at Anjelica as he took his seat. She refused to look at him and had an iPod out, putting the headphones into her ears and pressing buttons. So, she was going for the 'nuclear ignore' approach. As much as it saddened him that she'd turned so cold so quickly, this actually made things easier for him. It would have been worse if she'd decided to stay in her seat and actually pay attention to him after he'd humiliated and embarrassed himself like that. If only all sex related arguments ended up this clean.

Turning to the kid sitting next to him, he watched as Haggins rifled through his papers, adjusting and organizing them while using his lap as a desk. Although he'd been in a bit of a bad mood, as Fin watched the younger Agent fret over the order of his papers - and seemingly panicking over something he thought was missing - he actually felt a lot better about the whole situation. And he'd relaxed enough to finally feel the soft cushions of the seat underneath him, so it was a full recovery.

"Hi, how ya doin'?" he said, giving the kid a casual grin - and completely ignoring Graninger's warning about waiting to speak only when being spoken to. "I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Fin."

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#, as written by Tartra
This was a nice car. These seats were comfy and the steering wheel moved gently under his gloves. Like… satin. Or velvet. Maybe suede. Something smooth. It was leather actually, but he was glad to have the peace of mind to think and pretend it wasn’t. He relaxed and enjoyed the silence, cramming as much of it into the minute he allowed himself before he set off again. Being in here was like a vacation. It was like the start of a new mission. No, better – it was like the end of a long mission. Since longer than he cared to remember, he was by himself. He wasn’t being groped, attacked, tied down or falling apart from withdrawal, and – damn… It felt stupendous. Along his arms and spine had been this… this tension growing as mistake after mistake dropped on him, each attributable – to varying degrees – to something he did or didn’t do. The tension wasn’t gone, but it was holding off. He wasn’t getting the stab at redemption he’d been hoping for. Quin’s target was already inside and Stewart had been caught, but Eric’s blessing gave him a more important project: saving his lead. From a professional standpoint, he couldn’t ask for anything better. He would be there make sure the transfer, although he wouldn’t have sway over the technical aspects of it, successfully held. Nobody really knew what’d botched Alexander’s because the crazy man hadn’t stuck around to let the Agency check it out, but if Jason had his way, they could cross off emotional stress. This would work if his lead’s pain could any way sabotage her effort. It was a promise he’d made to her that he intended to keep. And then, of course, from the less professional standpoint… he just wanted to be there.

She wasn’t in a good place. What she’d used to fill her veins started at the level of a growing addict’s choice to help with the suit. He’d been shocked she’d consider it, but given what came next, it was almost justified. He’d already seen the look in her eyes when she’d come out of the bathroom. He remembered it from his peers who’d stiffly stepped around, jumping between an unholy calculation in every move to breathtaking grace as they trained, worked and killed. Only those types killed. Some wound up as pseudo-assassins, as fragile as glass and twice as sharp. The difference was that his peers had gone through years of steady ‘ups’ in their highs, whereas she’d done in it days. Jason knew that wasn’t the end of it. She had more. There was always more. God, what if she had taken it already? The way she’d spoken had been all business. It’d be logical to move along if there was any waver in her current dose’s effectiveness. Had he chosen to be supportive of his lead’s decisions like he was supposed to, like he was known for, he could have offered to hold onto the vials for a moment. She would have taken them back eventually, but he could have had a closer look, and then he could have gauged the stress on her system and more accurately assumed the danger he’d be driving into. This case was nothing but emotion and regrets. Some of it came from her wandering hands, a lot of it came from losing his goggles, but now he was left to regret his emotion in swearing off drugs entirely.

Why had he lectured her? When in hell had he ever lectured a lead Agent? Against an A-3 – he’d been trying to argue, as a subordinate A-5, against the choice of a superior. What did he expect?

He should have been done with this. That he wasn’t meant he’d had more time to get involved. Just… the case he was getting involved with was so different... No. Stop, no, that was it. That was the problem. He was lying to himself. The contents of this assignment might have been his first taste of the Agency’s true work, but everything else was the same. He’d started off so well with his quiet obedience and steady stream of updates, and then – alright, he’d lost it, but it was all he needed to prove that his usual methods still worked. Sitting here wasn’t going to give him the time to get back to that, however. The car ride and plane trip might help, but if he was counting on a full recovery, he could forget it. He needed a week to put his mind in order and compose himself enough to return to the near-constant nods of his head and summary analyses of all the variables he and his suit could see, like before. Like on the first day.

The angry bump on his neck throbbed. It was still sore, trying to absorb the Butter Juice. He wasn’t touching it, though. He’d let go of the steering wheel, but it was to grab was a small box he’d had pushed towards him. He’d kept it. She’d gotten it from Eric, but it’d wound up in Jason’s hands. It was the suit drugs from the limo: neatly packaged, neatly measured, one hundred percent going to fry every part of his humanity. He hadn’t had this stuff before. Ever. The way his lead had handled it suggested a chilling familiarity, but he didn’t have that luxury or desire. He wasn’t using these. The box dug a cruel outline on the inside of his pocket, but he shoved it deeper and out of the way. He was going to ignore it. No one was telling him he couldn’t ignore it. In fact, everyone was expecting him to ignore it.

He wasn’t ignoring it.

He should check the car.

Yeah, checking the car was a good idea. He’d do that. Right now.

Jason hadn’t left the front of the building. He’d been parked instead, relishing the feeling of not having to travel. When this mission was over, he wasn’t moving any farther than a block for a year. All his next assignments were going to be strictly local. Anyway, he hopped out and onto the curb, skipping over the areas he’d already checked out of habit, like the keyhole and windows for scratches and the ignition for any sign of being tampered with. The doors hadn’t been locked. He guessed Alexander and Co. hadn’t planned on staying long. Sorry to fuck up that plan, Alex. But not really. Jason checked the tires in case there’d been a wire attached. A short stay meant little time for booby-traps, but there were a few things that could have been put in place with a couple of minutes and a strong know-how. No wires, though, and nothing obvious wrapped around the axles or standing out from under the hood – and he jumped back as he opened it, only remembering afterwards it wasn’t this Elias who played the ‘surprise! It’s a gun!’ game. Nothing in the tailpipe, either. The last fast place to check was the trunk. … And the trunk was open.

Maybe it was a family game. So Jason moved to the side before he gingerly nudged it.

… Nudge. Nudge, nudge.

The trunk swung open on its own after a point. This time, he stayed steady. The Butter Juice had helped again. Probably. But the trunk was open now and Jason peered in. There were three bags tucked to the sides, one of which he immediately recognized as his target’s. The other two? Well, no prizes for guessing. He grabbed the closest.

Inside of what he’d ripped apart was men’s clothing. This was Alexander’s, unless Quin’s target dressed way, way down. There was money in there – thank you – and credit cards with sparkling gold memberships. And… passports. Five of them. Each one had a different name listed, but it was Alexander’s face every time. Pushed to the corner, there was food, emergency supplies… various forms of ID that – what, seriously? Jason frowned at them. There were… driver’s licences and… birth certificates sporting subtly different dates. Did Alexander just find them over the six years he’d been on the loose? That didn’t make sense. These took a while to process – the passports especially. How’d he pull it off with Benoit hounding him and all those Agents he’d killed almost daily?

… That was a good question. These should have been intercepted. Benoit only had to catch wind of one to justify scouting any ID applications for traces back to his target. They could checked the black market, too. It was one of the reasons the suits and the incredible system they ran on had been developed. Six years? Frenchie never thought of it? Jason grinned. It was kind of ridiculous.

It couldn’t have been because of a stand against technology since Benoit’d been willing to invest in those lenses of his, and although maybe it was possible to go an obscene amount of time and not come up with an idea so obvious, or maybe Frenchie devised a cunning strategy that didn’t need such free and basic tactics, the man had stopped for lunch in the middle of chasing Alexander. Twice. He’d obviously found enough of a schedule to let him lounge when he wanted. He couldn’t take a few minutes to think of this? Then he got stuffy when Eric wanted to eat. Talk about unstable priorities… Jason admit he hadn’t bothered to look into his lead like he should have, but he didn’t fault himself for it. He’d expected this case to be wrapped up and those sorts of investigations weren’t worth the effort. Based on that, could he be blamed for not looking into Benoit? He regretted it a bit. Right now, he was genuinely curious to hear what was so special about their impromptu teammate – not ‘teammate’ for much longer if they were all splitting up – that the Agency would entrust such a deadly target to his exclusive care. Jason hadn’t seen whatever they’d seen. All he knew was Benoit was damn lazy and quick to drink. So… once again: why was he so trusted?

This would be a long flight. There was plenty of time to put his goggles in order and solve that riddle before landing.

So the car was clean. There was no more reason for him to be here. He closed the trunk and went back to driver’s seat, immensely enjoying the weight off his feet. Even the pain in his chest was fading. He was free to drive off the instant he turned the car on.

He would, he told himself. Soon.

But he wasn’t ready to go yet.

… Not yet.

* * *


Uh-oh! Uh-oh, uh-oh! Someone had said something wrong again and Madeline was getting mad! Gary knew she was getting mad because there was that feeling that said someone was gonna get smacked, and since Gary was the only one close enough – why oh why didn’t he bring a helmet – he was the first one on that list. Oh, she looked mad! She looked way more ticked than usual and she looked – OH CRAP, she was looking! Don’t make eye contact! Don’t make eye contact! See, that’d probably been the problem the whole time – higher ranks probably didn’t like little guys staring –

“CAN YOU GO FIVE WORDS WITHOUT ATTACKING YOUR MARK? THERE’LL BE NOTHING OF HER LEFT BY THE TIME WE LAND.”

She’d stopped looking. Oh. He was safe. Oh. The heart attack’d been for nothing. Oh. Well – uh… just a second for him to make sure he didn’t pee his SWEET TERROR, she was looking at him again!

“It’s closed! My mouth’s closed,” he tried to say. “I’m being quiet!”

“STOP DROOLING IN MY HELICOPTER, DOG!”

He just wanted her to like him. Why didn’t she like him? Stephanie had liked him a little before, but now she’d done something and he was alone. He wasn’t allowed to talk to targets, either, and he didn’t have his phone because Madeline had grabbed it. He’d’ve been so happy to hand it over, but she didn’t want him to…

He started to sniffle.

The first teeniest, tiniest, smallest noise he made got her head to spin.

“No crying,” he said sadly. “I know…”

He couldn’t talk, but they could still hear that. His tongue was really cold hanging out like this. When was it supposed to stop swelling? Why did Agent Bergmann have to pinch him so hard? He couldn’t feel his tongue at all. That was – like – a super pinch, and it wasn’t as much fun when it happened to him.

Still awesome, though.

Super awesome.

“I UNDERSTAND YOUR EXCITEMENT, MARCH. FEW TAKE TO THE TRANSFER AS PASSIONATELY AS YOU. I CAN ONLY IMAGINE YOUR JOY IN CUTTING THE COSTS OF BUYING A NEW WARDROBE INSTEAD,” she said crossly. “BUT YOU HAVE HER NOW. YOU’VE WON. GIVE US ALL A REST AND LET HER HAVE HER LAST HOURS IN SILENCE.” She flicked her eyes back at Gary. He tried smiling – “STOP DROOLING ON MY UPHOLSTERY!”

Gary was very sad. No one seemed to care about it. Madeline turned back to the window with a snap of her head that sent her hair whipping around like a… like a whip! She wasn’t listening to him at all, either. Accidentally, Gary did sniffle again, and she totally ignored it! Gary was heartbroken. She might not have liked him, but he still wanted to talk to her!

Gary started to cry.

Okay he wasn’t crying anymore he was sorry he stopped he was sorry!

“Please don’t rip my tongue out,” he wailed. “Please don’t kill me!”

“I’M NOT GOING TO KILL YOU, YOU DOLT,” she snarled, practically restraining herself with her arms and legs all crossed. “I WANT YOU TO SHUT UP.” … Okay. But on the bright side, she’d heard what he said. Was his tongue getting better? Was he just getting good at talking around it? Maybe he – eep! “CUT IT OUT. NOT EVERY MOVE I MAKE RELATES TO YOU, DOG. STOP FLINCHING.”

“Sorry, Agent Bergmann…”

“SHUT UP,” she roared. Then she sounded a little bit calmer and fiddled with Gary’s phone. “I HAVE TO MAKE A CALL. MARCH HAS GIVEN ME SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT.” And – uh… whatever it was, she didn’t look too tickled. What did Stephanie say? He couldn’t really remember because she’d been saying a lot, and the stuff between her and her target had been kinda mesmerizing – “DOG.”

“Yes, ma’am! Ma’am – yes? Yes, ma’am?”

“IF YOU CAN’T KEEP YOUR DUMPY HEAD QUIET, TALK TO HER.” She snapped her fingers at Gwen Stewart. The other hand already had the phone up to her ear. “SHE COULD USE A GOOD LAUGH AT SOMEONE WHO THINKS HE’S SPECIAL.”

“Oh no, Agent Bergmann! I don’t think I’m special,” he dutifully explained. “I’m only as special as you tell me to be and you’ve been very, very, super clear –” Right, to Gwen! … Uh… Well – uh… Okay, Madeline was an A-2 but – uh… it was Stephanie March’s case and she hadn’t said… anything… “Are you sure I’m allowed –”

TALK!

“Hi Gwen, I’m Gary,” he quickly whimpered. “I’m an A-10. I’m on a helicopter with you.” There was no way she was gonna understand what he was saying. But – wait! She was psychic! Oh, but Stephanie was doing something to cancel it out. All Gwen must’ve been hearing was a big ‘blurgh, blurgh, blurgh, blurgh, blurgh!’ “I’m – uh… Well, I’m the guy I think you talked to when you stole Jason’s… Not that I’m accusing you of anything – and technically what you stole – the goggles, I mean – ‘cause you didn’t – from him – ‘cause they’re not his but – like, the Agency’s –”

“PATTEN.” Agent Eric Patten! Madeline was calling him! Ooooh – she didn’t look like she was enjoying it… Hey – hey! Maybe she’d put him on speakerphone again! Hey – yeah! That’d be great! Or – “DO YOU MIND TELLING ME WHAT THE FUCK YOUR PET MEANS BY SAYING MY KITTY IS CANADIAN?!

Gary couldn’t help it. Man, maybe she should be smacking him, because he was too nervous to stay quiet on his own!

“Is that… bad?”

She gave him a pinch on the air sharp enough for him to think she was gonna stick a diamond in it. Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh – that smarted and it hurt!

“I DEMAND AN EXPLANATION! DOES YOUR DECEIT KNOW NO END?!”

Was he still supposed to talk to Gwen? But his ear…!

“Agent Berg–”

“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘A LITTLE CANADIAN’! I WANT AN ANSWER AND I WANT IT NOW!”

Uh-oh.

Uh-oh, uh-oh.

Uh-oh-uh-oh-uh-oh-uh-oh-how bad was this gonna be?! She was about to break his phone next – look, it was crunching a little and everything! Noooooooo – oh, his ear hurt like it was gonna fall off!

“Agent Bergmann, my ear,” he cried. “You have to fix it, Agent Bergmann! Pleeease!”

And she…!

… Immediately looked at ease and nestled into her seat with a short, “FINE. I SUPPOSE THAT MAKES SENSE. I SUPPOSE. BUT YOU WILL TELL YOUR SLAVE TO STAY QUIET. I AM AT MY END WITH HER.” She snapped the phone shut. She didn’t give it back, though. She was opening it again and pressing numbers – but his ear! “YOUR ‘MASTER’ SAYS TO BE QUIET. CAN YOU MANAGE THAT, MARCH? YOUR VOICE IS UNBEARABLE.”

“… Miss Bergmann…!”

“OH, ENOUGH WITH YOU,” she blasted at him, then fired out her hand back at his ear and pinched him again. This time it hurt even… Oh. Oh, that wasn’t… Well, hey! Pretty fast, it started feeling… Wait. Wait! Wait – no, now it was feeling numb, too! This wasn’t nice! No, no, no, it wasn’t what he wanted! Agent Bergmann, help – “BE QUIET! I AM MAKING A CALL!”

Gary burbled a tiny ‘sorry’. But… well… If he had to pick, a numb ear was better than a… painful ear…

Why did the high ranks get all the cool training? He wanted to learn this crazy pressure point stuff. But not on him anymore – this wasn’t learning. Hey, did Jason know how to do it? Because maybe if Gary asked him

Uh… but only after Madeline was done with his phone.

She looked happy now. Why was she happy? If she was happy, Gary was happy, but what’d just happened?

“Agent Bergmann? Who are you calling?”

“MY CAT. WHO ELSE?” Oh! That was good! She’d be nice for a while, wouldn’t she? And as soon as he thought it, Madeline Bergmann was smiling and having a lovely time and she sang into her phone – because her cat could use phones, too – a cheery, “HI, KIT-TY!” She never sounded that friendly to any of them… “ARE YOU STILL DRUNK? GOOD – MAKE CUTE NOISES! THESE PEOPLE PUT ME IN A BAD MOOD AND I’M SICK OF ALL OF THEM.”

* * *


He wondered.

He wondered if it meant something. He wondered if it served a greater purpose. Patten had made his camp on the third floor of this base and left the rest of his Agency allies below on the second. He wondered if the choice was based in symbolism rather than function. Following the stir of noise growing under their feet, the right to hide on higher ground had fallen into place, but to treat the commotion with an act of caution didn’t fit what Leon knew. Patten preferred to get his hands dirty. It wasn’t to say he couldn’t grow bored, but given the strike the Nordic branch would launch when Miss Madeline called it in, it was unusual for his tastes to change today.

Were Victoria here, she would have glibly repeated the Russians’ faithful mantra: Patten didn’t change; he revealed more to his plan. She, however, was downstairs. They spoke briefly and only when the need arose, but last he heard, she wanted to track the newcomers. Alexander was here. He brought friends. As Victoria explained, if the France operative was ‘indisposed’, as her tasteful way of skirting the more accurate description of ‘killed, possessed, then worn’, then she would have to watch them until Danielle arrived. Word had come from the Nordics that they had every intention of keeping Alexander in their arsenal. Details around how it would happen had not been provided in the message, but he and Victoria agreed they would most likely draw on their usual method and bluntly drop the man in a box.

She had been away for some time. He didn’t enjoy being alone with Patten.

‘Alone’. Leon didn’t laugh. Alone was relatively speaking, unless Patten had regained the power to float a plate through the air. Fortunately, telekinesis was the one weapon they had successfully neutralized. Alexander made quite the unlikely friend. If he ever found out about his part in this, he would have to be thanked, because the branches could not have made it this far without his help carving a bloodied path. It seemed as though his usefulness had had a limit, however. Miss Madeline was right: there were other Agents here, ones that neither he nor Alexander nor the rest of the German away-team could find. He wondered how long they had been around. He wondered how much they had seen. The away-team specialized in stealth and intelligence and yet there’d been no sign of anyone in the building unaccounted for. Here was proof. The plate was being held, and Leon, with all the training he’d amassed to use the Agents’ suit technology and perfect their fabled fading, could not see what was in front of him. It was not for lack of trying.

The suits came in two styles: with the full mask or with the half. The former merely covered one’s face to assist in overall non-detection. It could be modified to guard against specific targets, either standard surveillance equipment that saw past the façade or else whatever civilian that’d made the poor decision to be born with special abilities and be added to the Agency’s list. The amateurs, the sleuths, those under request, and those who needed their every defence raised chose the full mask as their headpiece of choice. The analysts, the technical class, and the data collectors preferred the latter. Half-masks were bulky, painful, addictive, and incredible. Leon could do a lot of damage with one. What a shame the Agency didn’t trust him enough to have it. He supposed his loathing could only be so concealed. His ‘superiors’ must have sensed it. Regardless, there had been visits from those suits before, accompanying other Agents and teams and taking no notice of the ghosts haunting Miss Madeline’s claimed land. Surely they would have acknowledged each other. Surely Miss Madeline would have been informed. No one had spoken or hinted otherwise, and this, more than anything, was what unnerved him. They didn’t know where Patten had them stationed. They didn’t know how many were here. They didn’t know the extent of their roles, whether it was to silently observe or strike from the corner, but worst of all, and most threateningly, they didn’t know what else Patten had. Rest assured, Patten had something else.

He must have had something else. The man could not contain himself and his very being – no matter the form he took on – was carefully crafted to lull his audience into the falsest of false securities: first they found him unbeatable; then they found a plan to best him; then, when it failed, they thought him invincible; then a man of both balance and respect, holding both strengths and weaknesses like anyone. According to Miss Madeline and several other accounts, that was usually when Patten murdered them. It revived the ‘unbeatable’ link in the chain. More than that, it put his world in order. Leon had grown the theory that the man did not appreciate those he had to work with – a group that went out of its way to include those who worked to kill him – settling into any state of comfort or relaxation. Everyone must have either loved him or hated him, and he would gladly pull at every string to ensure he had what he wanted. He thrived on chaos. It was one of the reasons the Russians found him fascinating: to breathe war and feed on the fire of panic but still find the order in each opponent to exploit and turn against them was a trait Cryptic had struggled to emulate. They thought Patten could hear the music in Hell. The Nordics said it was crazy leading crazy. Miss Madeline hadn’t made up her mind. Because of it, neither had the rest of her branch. It was why Leon felt so unsure. Had she sided with Cryptic, he could prepare for death. With Danielle, and he might have smiled over the premature reveal.

He didn’t smile.

Leon couldn’t believe these ghosts were all Patten brought, but he couldn’t accept that his fate was unavoidable. For others, certainly, their lives were at their end, but he trusted himself to survive long enough for the Nordic branch to show. Should they fail to arrive, Leon would not die quietly.

Patten had stood in the same place since he'd stopped to talk ten minutes ago. At one time, he had moved to rest against the wall. It was the highlight of the time spent waiting here; otherwise, Patten was silent. His attention had fallen to his phone and the letters scrawled over its screen. Someone on the other end was in steady correspondence. That had not been an easy fact to acknowledge. At first the man typed so quickly, Leon had assumed it was one long message. He revised this when the small beeps of notice were addressed without a break in his fingers’ movements. Now and then, Patten paused to read what he received, but there was no change in his content demeanour to hint at what it said. The sole reaction he had had to anything so far was a snort and a smirk as the phone rang in his hands. Four times, Patten had hushed it, and four times, it had cried again. It was, however, only until now, when the phone rang for the fifth time, that Patten at last and without any warning answered it.

Leon was crouching. He had had no reason to stand or to sit, but this sudden interaction nearly changed that. His face was set grimly behind his mask and his eyes sharpened to consume Patten’s narrow range of expression. Would a half-mask have helped to interpret it? Yes, and although he resented the softly growing dependence on Agency equipment, he remembered the abuse he would have had to endure to continue on with to the higher tiers. The half-mask was not a forgiving instrument. Every suit he had seen had thrown themselves to Agency brand narcotics to cope. He stressed the addiction in the ‘narcotics’. Many seemed to apply for the half-mask purely to sample and lose themselves. Leon expected no better from them.

“Graaaaace,” Patten greeted energetically. “So sorry I missed you the first nineteen times, but I’m glad you called to make it a round twenty! You’re so thorough in your work! It’s why I know you wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t for a super special emergency.”

“Leon.”

His name was not said out loud. He felt it through a touch on his shoulder.

“Victoria.”

He had replied through a turn of his head. It was their sign of alliance. She was not one of them.

Victoria kneeled by his side, and they faced their enemy together.

“He can see us.”

Leon already knew. Suits kept their eyes on other suits. Though they had not cracked the ghosts’ code, they would have seen past fading. Regardless, he kept it maintained. Victoria, in her full mask, mimicked him. Whether Patten knew or didn’t, he had yet to respond. A curse in disguise, potentially, but any information they could gather and send before the ghosts came to destroy them would have its use in the end.

“Have you warned the Nordic branch?”

“Yes.”

She had nodded, for the same reason she continued to fade. They spoke through their hands and gestures. Words were noise and noise would break the truce to observe in peace.

“What did they say?”

“They doubted its importance.” As they would. “They chose not to see it as a challenge.”

“I have faith in them no matter what they choose to see,” Leon replied, “but I find their confidence overwhelming.”

Patten was listening in raw amusement. He seemed on constant verge of rolling his eyes and shaking his head, as though whatever reason the caller had provided was both innocent and childish.

“As long as they win, they can act as they please.” They were in agreement, then: the Nordics themselves were of no concern, only their achieved results. It was this focus that had passed down from Miss Madeline. She was the chain that breached the gap between the other two central teams. The Nordics and Russians would have fallen from their in-fights long ago if not for her. “Why is he on the third floor?”

“I assumed he finished his work downstairs.”

It was up to Victoria to confirm it, if her most recent task truly had been to follow Alexander and the woman who joined him.

“Lamarre is one place,” she reported. “Alexander is in another. His new friend and her Agent are on the move.”

“You left them,” he noted.

“The Agent was alert. I didn’t risk it. I can’t maintain the illusion under pressure.” Leon expected more from her. She sensed this. “I waited for confirmation. They found the technician Miss Madeline left. They will be in one place soon.”

“Good.”

It was enough.

“Well – I dunno, Gracie. I’m in Charlton. What do you expect me to do?”

Victoria listened to the phone call. She had the air of someone who also mourned the talents of a half-mask.

“Who is he speaking with?”

“Grace Li,” Leon explained. He signed each letter individually. “She’s the A-2 of the Elmira lab. An S-1, to be specific.”

“Why is he speaking with an S-1?”

Why indeed. He wondered.

“We’ve been waiting on the Russians to tell us.” Waiting because Elmira was Russian territory. The drawn lines had been a small split of jurisdiction, but it alone had hit the German team with too many problems to count. “They haven’t.”

“I bet they think we’re already dead,” she reasoned. Leon accepted it as possible. “The Cubans are here with the Nordic cell handlers and the Russians will finish the building’s power. Their next move will be to clear Charlotte’s stasis cell. After that, we’re leaving. We only have to stay to make sure they know where the cells are.”

“I really think you’re overreacting. It can’t be that bad,” Patten said.

They ceased their briefings as the sound of his voice twinkled. They waited a time after as well, hoping to catch part of what the doctor was screaming on the other end. Giving up, and frustrated by it, Leon informed her, “The Nordics say Alexander is attempting to retransfer. If the Russians try to clear Charlotte’s stasis cell, they may be attacked in the process.”

“They know. The Russians were who alerted the Nordics,” Victoria clarified. Leon prepared to press for further details. She stopped him. “It’s Buzzy.”

Victoria didn’t spell the name. Seemingly, there was a gesture just for her. It looked familiar.

“Is that the girl obsessed with him?”

“With the Agent inside him? Yes.”

Buzzy. Hmm.

“Didn’t he kill her cousins?” Victoria shrugged. Leon didn’t ask her to elaborate. This was no time for gossip. “So long as she’s aware of what’s downstairs.”

“No one else is more aware.”

“Grace. Grace, Grace, Grace,” Patten said. “You sound like you’re having a rough time and – really – I’m sympathetic to your situation, but there’s nothing I can do from over here. You shouldn’t’ve let him out. The cage is there for a reason.”

Victoria was upset.

“What involving a cage haven’t we heard about?” She tensed in her place. “Why has any information been withheld?”

“Grace, he’s Australian,” Patten said. “Can’t you just smack him with a dingo? Or use a stingray – those work.”

“I’m calling them.” Outraged, she rose to her feet. The Russians refusal to share what they knew would not be taken lightly by her. “They are required to co-operate.”

“Don’t waste time. They won’t tell you.” Evidently, this was something they’d preferred to handle themselves. “Go back to the woman and her Agent. Make sure they’re in one place.”

“Miss Madeline is on her way there now and I will not let her land if something is wrong,” Victoria snapped.

“She is capable of making that assumption alone. Trust her. Do work that matters.”

“Then I will not follow the woman when I know she intends to join Alexander. I don’t care where her Agent wanders off to.” She was stubborn and cold in explaining this. The chill of death had brought this down on everyone. Victoria did not expect to survive. Like some others on their team, she bought into Cryptic’s words. She merely hid it better. “I’m going to watch Lamarre.”

Apparently, she bought it enough to self-fulfill it.

“He’ll kill you,” he told her.

“Miss Madeline has him in her security room. When he tries to sniff around, I’ll stop him.”

“He’ll kill you,” he told her again.

“I can walk through walls, Leon,” Victoria reminded him. “I understand Lamarre may delight in our destruction, but he’ll find it hard to hurt what he can’t touch.”

She didn’t want an argument. She sank through the floor and vanished, softly and serene, as though she had never arrived. Leon watched her go. He wondered whether he would see her again.

Man.” Leon’s eyes turned sharply back to Patten. The man had snapped his phone shut. He seemed well entertained. “That woman is long overdue for a vacation. I actually think she’s legally required to take one by now. All expenses paid – that’s what I’ll get for her.” And then Patten turned his head. “Anyway, as long as you’re here –”

Leon had time to stand, but not to run. The ghosts – his ghost – moved faster.

She struck under his rib cage first, removing the air from his lungs. She attacked the side of his skull next, to disorient and disable him. She slashed at the back of his legs then, to bend his knees and drag him down. He collapsed. She revealed herself. It was a sign he could not escape.

“Target subdued,” his ghost said.

Her metal voice was paralyzing. Her black lenses didn’t blink.

“Oh, Squiddie, you do earn your keep,” Patten applauded her. The ghost’s gaze did not leave Leon. “Isn’t she great? Sometimes I wonder why she’s not the A-1.” Leon could hear him laughing. He could only hear. He couldn’t lift his head. His cheek scraped the carpet as he twitched to see more than the ghost’s blank gaze. Even at her distance, he felt her loom, and through the ground, he heard Patten’s footsteps. The man walked until he stood between his servant and the Anti-Agent on the floor. He smiled broadly. He began to talk. “So – this is kind of an awkward request, but I’m gonna need you to die.”

No. He would not see Victoria again.

No. He did not believe Cryptic’s words.

Yes. Somewhere, Eric Patten had a weakness. They were prepared to take it tonight.

“… You…” Leon would not fight it. He didn’t have to. “… can’t… stop us…”

Patten toyed with the side of his glasses. His smile grew as though he heard the most beautiful sound in the world, and as he knelt at Leon’s shoulder, his ghost’s gaze joined him to watch. Leon closed his eyes to words he knew he could never answer.

“Poor little German. You don’t get it.” There. God. The piercing sting of death. “That’s exactly what I’m counting on, kids.”

And Leon was thrilled to take this horror to the afterlife.

* * *


“You know, you can talk,” Alex said, trying to decide what he was the most pissed off about. “Just because you threw Gwen to the wolves, led us to our deaths and basically handed yourself to Peter doesn’t mean you have to spend an hour sulking.”

Well, when you put it that way, of course it sounds bad.

Xander sounded lethally sarcastic. Alex honestly didn’t care, and that sentiment shot straight to Xander’s frigid corner and made him sulk even more. Fine, whatever. He took up less space that way, and Alex needed all of it to focus on this… thing in front of him. Who knew the controls for putting someone’s mind in someone else’s body were so specifically the opposite of intuitive? There were dials, screens, knobs, switches… He didn’t see an ‘on’ button anywhere, but he’d sooner cut his own leg off than push it if he did. With this kind of technology, what the hell would ‘on’ mean anyway? Nothing made sense. Everything was everywhere. It almost looked someone tried to organize it, because in the background were grey squares around a few clusters of those dials-screens-knobs-switches, but there was nothing else to go on. Nothing.

“You’d think someone who wanted you back so badly would leave a fucking manual around,” he muttered. “Am I supposed to do this by myself? Do you wanna help me out here?” So Xander reached out and grabbed a lever completely hidden on the side of the console. A chair popped up in the middle of the room. Oh yeah. That was definitely a contender for first place in the anger contest. “… So, you made me stand in front of this for five minutes when you could’ve done that right away.”

Just figured you ran out of things to bitch at me for, Xander said heatedly. Nothing to do with me being too tired or trying to remember a process I’ve only seen twice in my life.

Alex punched his fists into the console’s sides. It gave a dangerous thud that echoed through the room.

Stop doing that.” He didn’t know how to stress those words any harder. “You screwed us over. We don’t owe you shit. Remember what Gwen told you: this is a favour!”

And I’m so obliged. Thank you, Alex. And thank you, Gwen. To think, I could’ve missed all this if you hadn’t selflessly whined about me killing Rudy over killing twenty other Agents. Or – no shit – if you’d let me go to Starbucks.

Stop bringing up Starbucks!

I don’t know why you keep complaining, asshole, Xander spat, hovering on the final edge of self-restraint, barely away from exploding. As I have pointed out, following you pointing it out, your life would’ve been over years ago if I hadn’t transferred in and broken your ass out of HQ. Gwen? You think she’d be better off? Fucking imagine where she’d be right now if I didn’t find her. Dead, Alex, as technically as the Agency can do it. So I love how both of you have no problem telling me I’m the fucking bad guy leading you two into pointlessly dangerous scenarios when – guess what? You two are walking corpses and I’m the one who’s lost anything. So I stand by what I said: fuck you. I am the victim here. You and her fucked my life up, not the other way around.

“How can you say that without laughing? You actually can’t believe it,” Alex cried.

You would be dead without me, and therefore you’re living on borrowed time. My time. Yes, I fucking believe it.

“Then you’re our big hero, right? You’re this swell guy who saw two people in need –”

I’m a fucking tidal wave that put out a volcano, Xander bit. I never came here to make your life easy, but I did, and I’m sorry it’s not as perfect as you wanted, but what the fuck did you expect to get?

“I can’t believe you think you get to be victim. I’m still stuck on that,” Alex said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I always knew you ran on warped logic, but this might be the point where I find out you’re just insane.”

I spent six years living as a voice inside your head and I found out last night that Peter, motherfucking Peter, who I – if I hadn’t met Gwen – would’ve happily gone on thinking was a few rotting flecks of brain matter, is somehow still alive. Yeah, I think I’m insane. And I think I’ve earned it.

Alex let out the tiniest breath. It almost sounded like a laugh, but the noise was so hollow and dead that he wasn’t sure it hadn’t been a sob. He wasn’t breaking down now. Not now, and not here with an army of invisible soldiers that Xander wasn’t even going to try to fight. But this pressure was getting to him all over again. He felt dizzy.

“… You know? When this is over,” he said slowly, “just go. Away. To wherever.”

That’s what I figured.

“I can’t keep dealing with you,” he tried explaining. “I have no idea who you are, and I’m really thinking I don’t want to know.”

It’s for the best.

Those five minutes of staring at the console had been enough time to process what they’d said. The ‘thanks’ and the ‘don’t thank me’ had carried more poison than they’d realized. Now it was in their blood, and their blood had started to boil. Osono was going to have fun dealing with this. If the invisible soldiers hadn’t already killed her, that was. And if those soldiers didn’t kill them.

Alex’s fists had relaxed onto the console. A fake sense of calm had come over him, but his heart kept pumping furiously.

“This seems stupid to ask now,” he said, “but since I don’t know how to use this and you’re still trying to remember, I might as well.”

Sure, shoot. Can’t wait.

Okay.

“Have you ever not hated me?” It didn’t sound so stupid now that it was out there. “After I wised up. Before that, we got along great because you talked me into everything, because I was a stupid kid and you took full advantage.”

You’re still a stupid kid.

“I know. But I also know things changed when I started fighting you.” The first time Alex chose not to follow Xander’s suggestions was the first time he’d ever been punched by the guy for real. Before when Xander smacked him, it’d always been kind of friendly, like he was poking a dog or some other animal. They never went back to that. “I remember there’d be times we’d get along and I’d always kind of think, ‘Okay, so are we friends now?’ But I have never had to ask when you thought I was an enemy. You don’t do that unless you hate someone. So did you always? From the start? Or is that – like – some new thing you slowly built over the years?”

Quiet.

The fire in Alex’s chest slowly settled down. He could picture it, ready to flare up at the first wrong word, but purposely dying to make way for whatever was supposed to be put there next. Xander was thinking, and he was taking his time.

Not always, he finally replied. Alex was surprised by it. I don’t mind you. You’re actually a good guy. You’re not trying to hurt anyone. There was some praise in those words, but no warmth. The other half of the response made sense of it. What I hate is that you exist. A lot of the time, I can’t ignore you do.

Despite himself, Alex grinned weakly.

“My existence offends you?”

Yeah. Because what happened with you was a mistake. The grin fell. I’ve been stuck looking at it for years.

Well… There was an obvious way to solve that problem. Hell, it was the same way Xander solved every problem.

“You could have killed me.”

Tried. Couldn’t.

“Ha.” Xander couldn’t kill someone. “Was it because you love me just that much?”

No. At that, Alex dryly chuckled. I’m selfish, remember? I didn’t kill you ‘cause that’d admit everything. So long as you’re alive, I can fix things.

“‘Things’, huh?” Plural. “Like more than one?”

A wall slammed into his head so fast that Alex actually choked and fell. For one terrible second, he thought Xander had shoved him face first into the console. In the next, he realized that wall was in his mind. Xander had put his back up and its every titanium inch was immaculately polished and fierce.

Fuck, you’re nosy, Xander said. Hey, that felt great. Awesome. Thanks, dude.

Alex was going to take a minute to stay on the floor. His head hurt now.

“You’re welcome. Sort of. I’ll tell you what I won’t miss,” Alex told him, somehow in a lighter mood. For once, the violence had helped a little. “You doing that.”

Neat, right?

Xander was proud of himself.

“It’s probably another trick you should show me. Gwen shouldn’t know every thought I have.”

I’m sure you’ll figure it out.

… He’d said that so casually, Alex almost missed the faint note that’d waved over. Right. They were fighting. The light mood broke enough for Alex to feel guilty.

Xander always did that. If no one was bleeding, his attention drifted in and out and everywhere. He’d change the subject too fast for anyone to remember they had something to settle.

“When I said…” Xander was listening. “When I said ‘when this is over’… you know I meant ‘over’ over… right? Like, when the Agency is out of my life for good.”

They’d have to be destroyed. Completely.

“Yeah. I guess you’ve got work to do.”

Well, what’s the deadline?

“The sooner the better,” Alex admitted. “But I didn’t mean it. I mean, I don’t want you gone.” Too feely. “You’re impossible to deal with and I am never going to have peace in my life if you’re here –” Close call. Good job. “– but it’s not… I mean… You know I just think like that when I’m panicking.”

You’ve been panicking a lot lately.

Alex flashed back through his thoughts from the last few days.

“I don’t mean it,” he said. “You need to stay.”

He’d apologized. Now Xander considered accepting.

… Alright. Alex was relieved. He exhaled quietly. But knock it the fuck off. It’s getting hard to tell if you’re serious anymore.

Once upon a time, he swore ‘emotional’ was the right word for the guy. He would’ve brought it up and laughed a little, but… now really wasn’t the best time. Instead he amiably asked, trying to force the rest of the tension down a different way, “Tired of just reading my thoughts?”

I can’t read your thoughts, dumbass, Xander said, like he never thought he’d have to explain it.

Alex blinked.

“… You… can’t?”

No.

But… he always…

“… Then how do you literally know what I’m thinking all the time?!”

He’d never been reading Alex’s thoughts? Seriously?!

Uh, ‘cause you’re transparent as fuck and I know you? Xander raised an eyebrow at him. What’d you think I was doing? Magic? You’re a retard.

“No, I –”

Retard.

“That’s mature,” Alex snapped.

But familiar, and back to the way they should have been talking. The fire let itself out. Xander seemed better, and Alex felt rested on the floor.

Yeah. Better.

Xander had legitimately fought with him. It hadn’t been for long, and Alex was sure there was something funny to say about the guy throwing fists if his coffee wasn’t perfect but barely raising his voice when it finally turned serious, but a painfully sinking feeling grew in his gut.

He stopped.

Alex stopped because that dead fire had a bed of embers still burning. It brightened as soon as he went to ask what Xander meant back there. He kept his mouth shut, and the mental wall did its part by refusing to disappear. Its message was still loud and clear but… did Xander really think… he was the one who had lost something? The guy wasn’t stupid – he was more aware of what was happening than Alex half the time, and he’d seen what Alex had gone through both as an Agent chasing a target and as that target on the run. So, why would he…? Unless…

Alex took something else back. Yeah, he wanted to know who Xander was. The trouble with that was the mental wall.

It’s for the best.

Best for who?

“… Okay.” He couldn’t say anything else. “But… are we okay? With this?”

Another silence.

Yeah. It’s done. And enough with the ‘feelings’.

Okay. It was done.

“Good.” Then they could forget it. Try to. Alex would try to. Xander’d probably already erased it from his memory. “But… Gwen? You’re okay with her too, right?”

I never said I wasn’t. I don’t trust her, but it’s not the same thing. He moved in Alex’s head like he was shaking himself off. Don’t worry about her and me. You’re the worst mediator on the planet and I’d rather not have you saying something that’ll make her try to strangle me when I come back.

“She’ll probably try no matter what I say. You’re not going to be there when we save her. She’s going to think you abandoned us,” he pointed out.

I know. But the most you can say is I didn’t, and she’s not gonna believe it until I actually show up. She’ll think you’re trying to cover my ass, he said. It’d be nice to mention I was trying to kill Rudy before I was rudely interrupted.

“By her, screaming to you for help.”

Good point. Yeah, don’t say anything.

Alex rolled his eyes. His heart had calmed down. He hadn’t really relaxed from the… squabble, but he was willing to say he’d brought it down to a tolerable nervousness.

“How about I tell her you’re sorry for this happening,” he offered. “She’s gonna want to hear it.”

I doubt that, so don’t get involved. A little bitter. She’ll hate you for it, too. Then he kind of gestured to the console with a slide of his concentration.

“… She doesn’t hate you.”

Yes, Alex, we’re best friends. Can we get back to this?

Alex looked up, warily eyeing the half of the controls he could see from the floor.

“We’re nowhere closer to figuring those out. I’m not giving up, but there’s gotta be something else we can try.” It wouldn’t have hurt for Xander to come in with that ‘something else’. “You don’t want me to say anything to her?”

Alex –

“Because you two were getting along.”

Yeah, hey, and what’s a little kidnapping anyway? Not a word from you, sparkle butt. Controls. Focus.

But Xander didn’t listen to Xander, either. He barely got the last word out before he twisted his neck to look at the doorway. With him so tired, there wasn’t a lot of distance between them this time. Alex was pulled into the subtle sound of movement and the almost imperceptible vibrations loosely dancing through the floor. Xander was hunting and he was on full alert. His legs tensed. His knees bent. His teeth felt too sharp for his mouth – but for all of five seconds before the guy burst into a call of, “Glad you finally made it. Took you long enough.”

Osono was here, but she wasn’t alone. A thirsty curve drew through Alex’s lips as Xander zeroed in on what seemed to be a captive.

“He stays in one piece until we know he can’t help us,” Alex quickly whispered.

I can work with that.

“Xander, behave.”

Why don't I get to have any fun ever?

Alex hoped the captive had health insurance. In ten minutes, he was gonna need it.

* * *


This peace of mind had his head clear. A clear head meant he’d started thinking. That one trait was why he was so sure he’d excel as an A-4, then an A-3, then possibly even an A-2. His mind naturally worked to solve problems. Every A-3 had to be able to say the same, and these blank moments of solitude were the best times for it. They allowed for self-reflection and a deeper look into what was troubling him.

Jason still hadn’t left. He was too busy considering the idea of letting Eric know he’d found a car.

It was just the way he’d responded to Jason’s warning. Not the fact that it was an emoticon, though Jason could write an essay on that point alone, but rather what it stood for. It meant ‘okay’ or ‘thanks’ or ‘whatever, buddy’. That was where it ended. There was no follow-up and no interest in any other detail. Jason was specifically here for details, and it would’ve only taken a word for him to pull out every physical factor in the situation. At least having the ‘okay’ or ‘thanks’ would’ve been an acknowledgement. He would’ve been able to assume it was information Eric already had – and because it was Eric, Jason held no doubts that he had known, either from Benoit sitting in front of the security screens and feeding him information, however reluctantly, or through sheer Patten-powered magic – but the distinct decision to not bother with anything more than… Was a happy face really capable of being condescending? Because that’s what it felt like. It felt like that happy face had been mocking him, patting him on the head and cooing, ‘Good boy, Jason! Now run along back to your lead, and be sure to wear your seatbelt extra tight!’ That was… unfair. It was cold, too. Jason’s hands tightened around the steering wheel and the line through his chest from the adrenaline shot filled with ice. He could have been imaging it, but just entertaining the idea that Eric had been making fun of him… It hurt. It hurt far more than he’d thought it would.

Had he done something wrong?

Back in Elmira, Eric managed to get instantly on his lead’s good side, instantly on Benoit’s bad side, and leave Jason floating roughly in the middle. The three of them had stayed like that. Hell, the one thing his lead could count on was the A-1 pulling out all the stops for her, either as a reward for her loyalty or as legitimate appreciation. Benoit – no question about it – had more than once, behind those shades he now kept almost exclusively for this reason, glared at the man as if he was going to rip Eric apart with his bare hands. So they were taken care of. Jason was the one dangling, and Eric wasn’t going to clear it up. In the first five minutes they’d met, Jason was practically ignored. In the car, he’d gotten some of happy glow, but otherwise, he’d – again – been ignored. Here in Charlton, the one reason Eric had had for talking to him privately for any length of time was because Jason hunted him down. Eric didn’t act like he’d enjoyed it. It felt like it’d been the low point of his entire trip. Jason knew that, but… after that low point had come his suit’s return and an honest endorsement to find his lead.

Their interactions were not clinging to the rules of a code, like Benoit had it. Eric was too informed of Jason’s situation to pretend they hadn’t crossed into shades of gray. They weren’t friends, though. That was despite repeated opportunities Eric had jumped on with Stephanie. Everything about the way he spoke to Jason spelled out… balance. Balance and neutrality. He seemed to want to have Jason on level ground and only level ground. Every burst of kindness was cancelled by a pull from rules. Every favour was only after a punishment came through. Eric would give exclusively after he took and Jason wasn’t sure if he should question these motives or thank the man from sparing him from whatever was brewing in those delightfully crafty shadows.

This was the first in the line of the many things he’d feared about a promotion. These were the emotions hiding in the background, the truths and lies that went above, beyond and below protocol, all used as boundaries in a game he didn’t unlock until the rank A-3 accomplishment was achieved. Jason counted himself fortunate to have such a rare opportunity. To be involved enough to get to see how these things worked – and what happened when an A-1 was involved. Some A-2s didn’t get to do that! … And he wasn't sure he was ready for it.

It was just him. It had to be just him. He was an A-5, he wasn’t very important, and Eric not punching him in the face was already cause for celebration. Jason simply felt like he was missing out because he was seeing how everyone else was treated. His lead was special because of who she was, and Eric probably only cared about that because she was already a lead. Quin, meanwhile, had been a lead. Yeah. Quin. Jason remembered what he’d seen in the cell room. He felt a little better.

He could go further.

By the front door, glancing in and acting like she was trying to find a way inside but had already spent a while circling the building for any entrance that wasn’t that one, was a woman wearing a suit. She was faded, which for him meant Jason spotted her like she was strolling around in a bear costume. She couldn’t have been from here. If she was, why wasn’t she inside? The power might have been out, but she could have gone through the basement and taken the stairs. Those were locked, but what A-6 couldn’t pick them, much less an A-5 in control of this technology? So she wasn’t supposed to be here, not according to Madeline’s security. Jason’s hand went for his goggles. He stiffly moved through the menus and manually drew up the one line of information he was curious about: who she reported to. In the minutes it took, nearly long enough for the woman to wander off again, he had his answer and it wasn’t the longshot he’d thought it be. At the top of her hierarchy, so far removed that it was possible they’d never met, was Eric’s name. This woman worked for him.

Therefore, this woman was coming to Elmira.

Change of plans. He’d gotten away with not knowing about personal lives when the cases were short and his involvement was controlled, but now he needed the backstory and Eric wasn’t someone who could be observed to be understood; he had to be explained. This woman? She was his best shot at figuring the man out. The goggles could handle the others.

“Hey,” he shouted. “If you’re not getting in there, then get in the car. I have to talk to you about your boss.” It was a sizeable distance between her name and Eric’s. He didn’t expect her to know much, but everyone had their rumours. He’d decide how much to believe after he had them laid out. “Trust me. It’s not safe in there anyway.”

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Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard.

Finally, his name decided to show it's ugly face after subtly displaying evidence of his mark everywhere. What did he see in this awful woman? During her lovely little discussions and reminiscing with Gwendolyn Stewart, it occurred to March that Bergmann and Richard were possibly lovers. At some point between the last phone calls and the one that was being made now, that suspicion had transformed into core-deep certainty. Her ex-boyfriend was fucking Bergmann. It only made sense. Bergmann was an uptight, aggressive and powerful woman. The way she treated everybody, including Master, spoke of an unwillingness to submit or give in to the authority of others. It was reminiscent of the way March had portrayed herself during her affair with Richard... while behind closed doors, every night, she got on hands and knees and crawled around for him, wearing nothing but a collar and leash.

As much as it angered her to imagine this horrible bitch in bed with her mentor, she felt both a sick pleasure and an actual sick nausea to imagine Bergmann in a similar position, being forced to be someone else's "pet". Either way, not only was it not beyond the realm of imagination to mentally put Bergmann in that role, it also seemed more and more likely the more they interacted with each other, because March refused to believe that this plot to stop her transfer was something that Bergmann just cooked up on her own. Oh, the delightful, kinky secrets of Agency women...

"What is wrong with your tongue? ...Anyway, yeah, I remember talking to you and don't worry, the brat stole them back," Gwendolyn's voice came out of nowhere, drawing March's attention away from the private conversation Bergmann was having with Master. Looking at the girl, it appeared she wasn't talking to anybody and temporarily alarmed, March mentally stabbed at her with the EDP shield, a fiendish delight filling her when Gwendolyn's internal presence shivered in pained response. Outwardly, Gwendolyn flinched and gave her a hurt glare, and receiving the reaction she was looking for, March rigidly turned back to Bergmann, satisfied that Gwendolyn hadn't broken through or contacted someone. Silly Gwendolyn, talking nonsense to herself. "I'm not," the psychic said with weary defiance. "Gary is sitting right there. You know? Gary. Your boyfriend's buddy who came along with you? Remember?" Yes, yes, Gerard, something, something. After March tapped her hand and shooshed her like a child, Gwendolyn turned away with an irritated sigh

Back watching Bergmann, a new suspicion started to grip her as the woman's demeanor rapidly changed and she began to seem almost... civil towards Master. Like she was accepting what he had to say without a fight and without expressing her undying hatred in between her words. What was going on? Immediately, March began to doubt, an anxious dread filling her to think that possibly this whole little feud Bergmann had with Master had been a facade and a lie. It did seem heavily played out, didn't it? All the screeching and threats, the promises and established loyalties on either side. Elaborate theatrics made to string her along and force her to submit to the will of her supposed allies. And eventually... what? What was the purpose of the charade? Why would Master, of all people, agree to engage in such an act? Was he working for Richard too?

No...

Beautiful Master... How could he do that to her? She'd been nothing but loyal and obedient this entire time! Had she not dedicated herself above what was expected of her to make him happy? That wasn't even her job and she did it! Bending over backwards to give him a comfortable place to stand. There was no reason for him to suddenly turn on her like this. But what if--!

Only then did it occur to March to question his sudden and "opportune" appearance in Elmira and only then did she truly begin to fear for Jason's safety back in Charlton. Afterall, hadn't Master promised her that Jason would be safe? If he was playing out a lie with Bergmann then he could have lied to her about everything else. After his recent phone call, March had gotten the distinct feeling that Master had been trying to secretly support her relationship with her partner and she'd almost begun to think of him as a surrogate father-figure. Now she saw, he'd been trying to destroy their love and nearly everything he'd done was in support of that theory. And just like with Bergmann, March couldn't find a reasonable motive for him to want to do that unless he was acting on the orders and in the interests of someone else. The way Master tortured Jason by demoting him and then dangled his suit in front of his face, almost seemed like the spiteful taunting of a bitter rival, except for the fact that Master was obviously not making a claim on her at all. Remembering the way he'd kissed her hand at their first meeting, rather than seeing it simply as a flattering gesture intended to imbue himself within her graces, it now seemed like a hidden message from someone else that he'd been dutifully delivering. Old Master puppeteering the new Master...

But why break character now? If Master and Bergmann had pretended to fight in order to push and lead March in certain directions, then what could they possibly gain from letting the masks slip off before the final scores were posted? Unless... unless it no longer mattered whether March knew about it or not. Could they be so arrogant? Richard certainly was and it showed in the way he'd orchestrated this whole thing, pulling the wool over her eyes, anticipating her thoughts and actions and pushing forward the appropriate actors to play the parts of God and the Devil. And now that she'd completely fallen for it, already on her way to her destruction, they'd decided it was no longer relevant whether she still believed or not. They were confident there was nothing she could do to save herself.

As the phone call came to an end, March internally rolled her eyes at Bergmann's comments. Oh, sure, Master gave her orders to shut her mouth. She'd get right on that - it wasn't as if March had done any direct talking to the other Agent anyway, and her conversations with Gwendolyn were none of the woman's business. You're the LAST person to be complaining about someone's voice being unbearable., she snootily thought. A small snicker came from beside her and as she shot a militant scowl in that direction, Gwendolyn bravely met her gaze but pressed her lips together in a thin smile. Well, alright, March would concede that although she wasn't pleased about no longer being able to shield her own thoughts, at least the EDP was working in all of it's other functions. And yes, that had been a humorous observation and it was okay for Gwendolyn to laugh.

Turning back to Bergmann who was engaged in some sort of sickening version of phone sex with March's old, French-speaking colleague, Lamarre, she held back the disgusted sneer that threatened to warp her features as she listened to the woman's screeched cooing. March was already aware of the supposed relationship between the two, but now that she was positive the woman was in a relationship with Richard, who was a very jealous and possessive man, she began to wonder if this was part of the play-acting as well. If that were true, then how involved was Lamarre? And once that thought made it's grand entrance, everything else came bursting through the opened door.

Lamarre, the big actor. Of, course... She was stupid not to have seen it before. Their cases becoming "accidentally" entangled and Lamarre's deliberately slow and languid style of pursuit, were all meant to allow Gwendolyn to flee from March's hands and keep her out of reach. To stop her from transferring and abandoning Richard's memory. And then March concocted a plan with him that would enable them both to get what they wanted by using each other as stepping stones, and who conveniently showed up to play the third point of the triangle? Master. And what were his contributions? Changes to the plan that gave both him and Lamarre control of her project's success while at the same time eliminating her protective partner from the picture. Was that why Master took Jason's things away? To try to force him to abandon the case? And when he refused to, Master ordered him to stay behind anyway.

Did that mean that Alexander wasn't going to get caught? Jason would help him with the retransfer and then he'd try to stop Alexander and the other one from coming after Gwendolyn and they'd probably kill him. Alexander would kill him. There was so much that could go wrong with that plan. Would Richard risk it? Jason could succeed in disabling and detaining Alexander and the guest and then what? Richard had no one else to crash her party. Well, there was Bergmann but she'd revealed herself as a threat and an enemy to the point where she no longer had the upper hand. Honestly, if this was his back-up plan, then Richard had seriously underestimated March's abilities - which was odd, since he was the one who'd trained her.

No, he had to have something set up as a Plan B in case things back at Charlton actually happened the way they were supposed to. That meant there was something in Elmira? Hadn't Master said someone was on their way there? At the time, March assumed he'd meant Jason, but since he wasn't about to let the two of them be together again, could he have been subtly taunting her? What if he meant Richard?

The question seemed irrelevant almost as soon as it was asked, instantly answering itself with itself as suspicion transformed into that same deeply rooted certainty. Richard was coming to Elmira. He was coming and he was going to try to stop her from transferring! The possessive bastard! He had no right! She hadn't done anything wrong and she was doing her job! No matter what his arrival meant, there was absolutely no way that he could just swoop in and take her case away from her. He might be able to delay things by clogging up procedure with motions and reports, but he was sorely mistaken if he thought he could beat her down with paperwork. This was her ticket out of the mess he'd left her in and he would have to kill her before she'd let him take her target away. Quietly, March's hand squeezed Gwendolyn's a little tighter, and the other woman looked at her but said nothing in complaint.

Watching Bergmann with a blank gaze as she thought these things over, her face still streaming with endless tears, March was unafraid of what awaited her in Elmira. They all thought they had her finished and although she did not know what the finale was, nothing was going to stop her from getting into her new body. And since they all had relaxed enough to assume the fight was over, she'd let them continue to think that until the time was right. Then freedom and a new life would be hers.

***

It was basically a repeat of the introduction he'd had with Anjelica, reaching his hand across the aisle and waiting for a hand shake, except Haggins had absolutely no interest in conversation or traded introductions with the guy. Not wanting to cause any trouble or awkward situations, however, he decided to just swallow his pride and go through with it. Warily, Haggins eyed the appendage as it hovered near him and he tried not to think of who or what it had been touching just a few seconds ago. Anjie and this stranger hadn't been in the restroom for more than a couple of minutes and it was basically a closet, so, there was no telling what acrobatics - or dare he think it - alternative methods had to be performed for those two to get off.

Trying to stifle thoughts of Anjelica in sexual situations and swallowing the vomit that threatened to fill his esophagus, Teddy donned a polite smile and moved to put his hand in "Fin's". The act of reaching out and leaning over upset the delicate balance of the piles of papers on his knees, spilling them into the aisle and onto the floor while he watched in dismay. "I'm... Haggins... " he said lamely, not even touching Fin before he was turning to his fallen files, both relieved that contact was averted and annoyed that gravity was picking on him. After he'd just organized everything to be easily accessible! Now he'd have to start all over! Good thing he had a few hours to kill.

"That happens to you a lot," the man seated next to him casually said. Haggins bit his lip while he gathered the fallen papers, keeping back a smart remark. Not only was that the stupidest, most pointless thing the guy could have said, but it could also be construed as being rude and unnecessary, which, if Haggins was a lesser man, he would have shoved his higher rank in Fin's face and told him to shut up and leave him alone. Glancing back at the seat behind Fin, he paused for a moment in his clean-up to regard the sleeping form of his boss, trying to think of what Creasy would do in this situation. The older Agent was very hard to anger, but even when he did get mad, he was always cordial to his enemies, letting them know who was boss with a warm smile on his face. Pure refined and dignified restraint mixed with the capacity for concentrated brutality.

"Ever thought of going digital?" Fin asked flippantly and Haggins let out a breath and forced a smile on his face as he sat back up with his gathered papers.

"Actually, it's not up to me," Haggins said, straightening the papers by tapping their edges on his knees. "The Agency--" Glancing over at Fin, Teddy realized the other man had leaned down to help him pick up the fallen files and he only came to this realization after noticing that Fin now sat with his eyes glued to the papers that he held rather than handing them back to their owner. Frowning, Haggins reached out and snatched the pages back, receiving a wide-eyed and innocent look from Fin as he returned the forms to the pile he held.

"Sorry, I'm a bit nosy. Bad habit." As if that excused him of anything! If Haggins were a different Agent, Fin would get more than just a simple reprimand for snooping like that and for continuing to talk out of turn!

"Yeah," Haggins muttered warily, sorting the papers back together and putting them in the right order. Deciding to just forget about the incident and focus on his work, he began to turn away but Mr. Socialite wasn't going to give him a break.

"So, what do you do for the Docimasy? Are you a clerk or an archivist... or just a secretary?"

"I'm NOT a secretary," Haggins said testily. Glancing at Fin, he noticed the guy gave him a strange look and he could almost swear the man was amused by something. Fin was playing with him! Ben KalbA! "Do you think you're funny? I'm an apprentice investigator AND an A-6 rank! I'd appreciate it if you'd act like you belong in the Agency and adhere to the appropriate rules of conduct. Just because I sat next to you does not mean I'm free to talk to! I should write you up for... for even speaking to me!" Haggins shot a small glance at Anjie who was not paying attention. She was softly lip synching to herself the words of whatever song was currently coming through her headphones and when she noticed Theodore looking at her, she gave him a stony frown and flipped him off. "I could write you up... for a lot of things..." Haggins said quietly once he turned back to Fin.

As soon as he said it, he hated himself for it. Immediately, the amusement faded from the man's eyes as his gaze shot to the woman behind them, his body and demeanor rapidly changing to become more guarded when he looked back at Haggins. It was as if a light had been turned off as Fin's eyes dulled and his expression turned sober and strangely, Haggins regretted it's absence. "I'm sorry, Sir," Fin said, giving him a respectful bow of his head. "I didn't mean to overstep any boundaries. I'm just nervous about my new assignment, that's all."

Harah. He felt like such a Shmok now - and rightfully so. Not even he approved of people who pulled the rank card, especially in a setting as informal as this. And it wasn't that he didn't like the guy, because he actually did. Fin was pretty funny, even when he was flirting with Anjelica and being corny, and he was good-looking in an above average way. ...Not that Haggins had been noticing that or anything. The only thing he didn't like was the way Fin was benefiting from Anjelica's free pass. And also the fact that the guy had sex with her at all; this wasn't the first time Haggins had been made aware of the medical examiner's lustful exploits and needless to say, he was a little disappointed that Fin didn't have better judgment to know trash when it boarded the plane wearing nothing but a shiny, black garbage bag. Either way, it wasn't fair for Haggins to treat him badly just because he didn't like that Anjelica got special treatment from nearly everybody, while others like himself had to work hard for everything they wanted. It wasn't like Fin understood or knew about that or as if he was condoning her spoiled behavior.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Haggins cleared his throat and nervously set his papers back down on his lap. "Hey, it's alright," he said in a humble, apologetic tone. "Lots of people mistake me for an assistant, which I sort of am, but I'm also in a pupil position, so, I like to think that makes a significant difference and I try to remind lower ranks to still be respectful. But not all the time, because that's sort of a douchey thing to do. It's not like you knew though, which was probably why you were asking, so I was just telling you, so you'll be careful when talking to new Agents." He was rambling without meaning to and his cheeks felt really hot.

Fin didn't seem to mind though and Theodore relaxed significantly when the other man grinned a little bit. "Well, thank you, Haggins, Sir," he said with another respectful bow of his head, only this time it had a more mock feel to it that was also particularly graceful. Haggins shifted in his seat anxiously. "I really appreciate it. Question: do I just call you by your last name or do I call you 'Sir'?"

Once again, Haggins was put in a position of authority and... he had to admit he liked the attention and respect. The urge to take advantage of it was there, but he finally decided he preferred the idea of Fin being comfortable. "Just call me by my last name," Haggins said with a shrug, nodding his head so his sidecurls bounced. "I guess it doesn't really matter right now, since I'm technically off the clock." He gave a glance behind Fin's seat to where Creasy snoozed soundly. The older man's eyes were closed and his head was tipped back against the headrest just slightly and his fingers lazily half-laced over his lap while a soft, barely there, droning came from his nostrils. When Haggins looked back at Fin and they both caught each other's gaze after looking at the sleeping Agent, a small smile came to Haggins' bow-shaped lips and Fin looked away with a smirk.

"So, uh, Fin," Haggins said, setting his briefcase on his lap and tucking his pile of papers inside while he spoke. "Why all the questions about the Docimasy? Are you thinking about joining?"

There was a thoughtful pause before Fin nodded his head and said, "Yes, actually. Your boss's pitch about it really won me over." And Haggins bet the "coroner's naughty report" sealed the deal for him. "Plus, I just think rules are really fun. Especially enforcing them."

Haggins laughed a little at that. "Well, you'll definitely get a kick out of it if you enjoy procedures and judicial power. Of course, you won't get that ability until you reach at least A-3 rank and only on the cases that you're assigned. Anything below that is mostly focused on investigation." Clicking his briefcase shut and tucking it under his seat, Haggins asked, "What unit or Agency territory are you thinking of maybe signing up to?" Please, say North-west. Please, say North-west.

"Wait, what do you mean judicial power?" Fin asked, ignoring the other question. "You mean, like a judge and jury and that sort of thing? Hey, how are punishments on cases handled anyway?" Slowly, as Haggins began to realize the way Fin looked to him as the authority with all the answers to his questions, he started to feel not only more self-confident about his ability to provide those answers but also a willingness to do so.

"Well, the Lead on a case for the Docimasy is usually an A-3 who leads a team of investigators to collect all of the evidence and testimonies about a particular incident within the Agency," he started, his voice sounding stronger as he went along. "For instance, just as an example, let's say you were the Lead on a case for a report of sexual assault. You would have the authority to question the victim, any witnesses, the accused, and you could direct your team of Docs to collect evidence of the crime." Haggins felt a chill of excitement tremble up his spine as he noticed the attentive way that Fin was looking at him. He's listening! He's actually interested in what I have to say! "And then you as the Lead would have the authority to make a final decision and close the case."

"Final decision?"

"Yeah, like, whether the accused is guilty or not, and what punishment they should receive."

"Really?" Fin seemed a little shocked by that. "Just right then and there, 'guilty-not guilty' and then 'I sentence you to a month in Agency jail?"

"Well, I don't think confinement is the standard. I mean, Creasy, my Lead, usually has a lot more creative ideas than that and each case is handled differently. When you're on a case like this, the Docs can get really involved. Lead Agents have a tendency to focus on their cases to extreme levels and that's part of why they got where they are - because of that focus, they know their targets intimately even without having met them. Well, it's no different for the Docimasy, except we tend to get focused on other Agents." He paused at the thoughtful frown on Fin's face. "I mean, the focus stops when the case is over, of course. It's not like we'll still be thinking about you once we've wrapped everything up and doled out your punishment."

Haggins tried to laugh about it but Fin just distractedly said, "No, of course not."

There was a bit of a silence that immediately had Haggins feeling worried. Had he said something to upset Fin? Maybe he explained too much and now the guy wasn't interested in joining? That would suck, because then it would severely limit the chance of them ever working on the same assignment together - unless Fin got accused of something. Not that he was particularly interested in that, but Fin might be a fun guy to work on a case with. He certainly asked a lot of probing questions.

Thinking that he should probably bring up the question of what classification Fin might want to sign up for, just to make sure the guy was still interested, he was interrupted when Fin asked, "You're currently working on a murder case aren't you? What would the punishments for murder be?"

Caught off guard, Theodore licked his lips for a moment and stammered a reply. "Well... uh... it really depends on the severity of the case - sometimes we find out that it was a defensive act or otherwise justified, so the punishments end up being a lot less... strict." What was Fin thinking? Was he asking because he thought there might be a flaw in the system? Haggins swallowed heavily and quickly tried to salvage the approval that he felt slipping away from the other man. "It also depends on the Lead on the case and the defining characteristics of the accused. Each verdict is decided with sensitivity to the specific details of the case."

"Characteristics of the accused?" Fin repeated, pursing his lips and squinting his eyes in a brief moment of thought. Then, quietly, Fin glanced at the seat behind him, watching the silently napping Creasy for a moment before turning back to Theodore. When he spoke again, each word was enunciated carefully and spoken deliberately. "What would you say were the defining characteristics of the person you're looking at in the case you're currently working on?"

All of a sudden, Haggins was made aware of how close Fin had gotten, leaning into the aisle to speak to him. So close that Haggins could see the man's eyes were a lighter brown than he'd originally thought and he could smell the spicy aroma of his after shave. That, added onto the almost playfully secretive way Fin was looking at him and the deeper timbre the man's voice possessed when he spoke quietly, sent a burning flush to Haggins' cheeks and neck and made his head spin. "Come on. Spill it. Just a few tiny details," Fin said with a small tilt of his head and a flash of charming white teeth.

With his thoughts wandering into forbidden territory, Haggins tried to focus on what he was being asked and felt a deep, penetrating need to tell Fin about the cases they were going to Charlton to investigate. With his mind dancing between thoughts of being locked in the confines of the bathroom with the other Agent and the details of the cases humming on his tongue like his finger on the trigger, everything was interrupted when a loud snorting sound jolted him out of it. Instantly, he turned to the seat behind Fin where Creasy was adjusting himself in his sleep, smacking his lips in dry mouth slumber, before settling into peaceful silence once more. Taking it as a sign from God that he should keep his mouth shut and not fall for the temptation of this handsome stranger, Haggins licked his rosy lips and gave Fin an apologetic look.

"I'm really sorry," he said, the depths of his regret filling his voice as he spoke. "But it's Docimasy policy that the details of all open cases are kept strictly confidential." Fin had on a peculiar smirk as his eyes glanced behind him and he settled back into his seat, pulling away from Haggins. Feeling anxiously helpless and grieving over the lost moment, Haggins desperately tried to explain the situation so that Fin would not hate him for keeping secrets. "It's not that other people can't be trusted - and I'm definitely not saying that I don't trust you - but more for the safety of the victims and the accused. Because until the final verdict, nothing is really known for certain - we haven't even talked to any of the parties involved yet. So, to talk about it would basically be spreading lies and rumors that may not be true; all Agents are innocent until proven guilty." Haggins gave Fin a pleading look. "I'm really, really sorry."

Fin turned to him with a ready grin and shook his head with a shrug. "Haggins, it's no big deal. I was just curious. Like I said, I'm nosy and I'm just looking for a bit of entertainment to keep me distracted from my 'new job jitters'. Honestly, don't sweat it, alright?" When Fin gave him a nudge on the arm with his knuckle, Haggins blushed and smiled nervously, relieved that he hadn't offended his new friend. It did not occur to him at all to be worried about this need to impress and befriend a man he barely knew anything about. "In fact, I think I need a little relaxer."

Clicking his fingers to get her attention, Fin called the flight attendant over and when she approached, smiling and flashing blue eyes at him, Haggins gave her a shy smile back. "My friend and I would like some refreshments," Fin said cordially and then stopped himself in the middle of what he was going to say next, scowling thoughtfully and pointing at Haggins. "How old are you?"

"Me? I'm 22. Why?"

"Okay," he said with a nod, turning back to the woman standing before them. "Do you have the appropriate ingredients to make Sea Breezes? Okay, good, we'll have two of those, then, please. Anjelica. Hey, Anjelica." It took a minute of waving and snapping his fingers at her for Fin to get her attention but with an irritated frown, she pulled one of her headphones out of her ear and shook her head questioningly, as if Fin were the biggest moron in the world. "My lovely lady, would you care for anything to drink? Perhaps something sparkling and fat free to tenderize your palate or possibly something sweet to match your sunny disposition?"

The icy hate did not fade from her eyes as she turned to the stewardess and nodded her head curtly with a short, "J&B on the rocks," tucking her headphone back in and turning back to the window to continue ignoring the rest of the plane.

While Fin had been speaking, Haggins found himself distracted as his eyes wandered over the flight attendant, noticing her slender curves, accentuated by the conservative uniform, her toffee colored skin, smooth and free of blemishes, and her curly mane tied back neatly, but left dangling in thin, tiny ringlets upon her back and shoulders. As she walked away and Theodore was left eying her elegant calves and short-heeled shoes, it finally occurred to him what Fin had actually asked her for. "Sea Breez--? No, wait a minute! I can't be drinking right now!"

"Why not?" Fin said, adopting an enticing, cavalier tone of voice. "You said yourself that you're not on the clock right now. Besides, they wouldn't provide alcohol on Agency planes if they didn't want Agents to be drinking, now would they?"

That was extremely faulty logic, and Haggins almost let himself fall for that dashing grin again, but shook it off in favor of common sense. "Yeah, I know, but I have a lot of stuff to go over before we land. I still haven't looked over everything we've collected from the records and I can't afford to be unprepared tomorrow. Creasy--" Oh, God! Creasy! Quickly, Theodore chanced a look backwards but the older Agent was still asleep, the muscles in his shoulders and arms completely relaxed. The man wasn't going to be rousing any time soon.

"Geez, calm down, Haggins," Fin urged, nudging him in the chest with the back of his hand, forcing Haggins to face forward again. "You deserve a break every once in a while. Yes, you're going to be doing a lot of work tomorrow, which is why you need to get in as much RR right now as you can. Even Creasy understands that and he's already got a head start on you."

"Yeah, but--"

All objections died in his throat as the flight attendant came back, pushing a small cart with their drinks on it. Haggins was just about to tell her that he didn't really want an alcoholic drink but probably just some kosher juice instead, but as she handed the tall glass to him, she flashed those dazzling white, straight teeth at him with a womanly cooed, "Here you go," and he forgot what he wanted to say.

After the drinks were handed out and he watched her retreat back to her station with her cart, still sharing a look with her and giving her an approving and thankful smile, Haggins said to Fin, "Well, one can't hurt."

"That's the spirit!" Fin urged, clinking his glass against Theodore's, even though he could tell by the look in the lad's eyes, one drink wasn't the only thing he'd ask their lovely attendant for.

***

She was so pissed off right now. After years of putting up with this shit, she still continued to allow the idiot to haunt her life. She was so weak and as she stomped through the maze-like hallways, following the gory path before her, she dreaded what Xander might say when he saw her entourage. It was bad enough that she'd promised more than once to finish this and failed to do so, making herself look pathetic and wimpy. But she also hated the fact that she even cared what that ex-Agent thought of her anyway.

Although she was still raging and explosively angry about Rudy pushing her sensitive buttons, the rage felt like habitual foreplay compared to the other emotions she was dealing with. Osono was used to that sort of shit coming from Rudy and although she'd never talked about her dead baby brother with him and hearing Claus's name coming from Rudy's mouth had been like him stabbing a knife in the boy's chest, the anger and the argument and his reactions were familiar territory. It was old, practiced and worn. And it was not what her mind was fixating on now as they made their way closer to the room where Rudy said Alex and Xander should be.

She didn't know when she started caring about what Xander thought of her and she felt like punching herself in the face for even allowing the emotion to occupy a space of serious consideration within her for more than five seconds. But it was there and it refused to go away - even if she took the psychotic leap and gave herself a black eye, she doubted it would leave. At first, everything had been about Gwen - Stacy - her new friend that Osono's selfish stupidity had put in harm's way. Alex hadn't wanted her help and had blamed her for what happened, so then it became about proving herself to both of them - Stacy and Ben, as she'd known them then. To prove to them and herself that she was still human and she could still care about other people. To return the kindness and acceptance that had been shown to her after years of semi-solitude. Whether Alex wanted it or not.

She'd been psychotic and argumentative when he wanted to take out his frustration, guilt and fear on someone other than himself, willingly playing his bad guy. She'd been attentive, strong and forgiving when he needed a partner and an equal to share the burden with. And now she was doing nothing but disappointing him and it was upsetting her. Osono couldn't get his tone of voice out of her head and the way he walked away from her, leaving the entire decision in her hands again. Trusting her to deal with it. But as much as she'd transformed during this trip, nothing had changed between her and Rudy. Well, close to nothing. He'd revealed himself as a liar and a professional stalker with murderous motives... but it really wasn't like she hadn't known that before. He just never said it out loud or admitted it until now. If anything, him coming clean about it made her feel even less like killing him.

So, she still couldn't kill the guy and allowing him to stick around was not only making her look bad but endangering everyone else. If she showed up with Rudy still jabbering at her side, alive and well, it would send the message to Xander that not only was she a big, emotional softy, but also that she cared more for this psychotic twerp than she did about their safety. It cast a bad light on everything she'd done for Gwen and Alex up to this point, turning her into a phony. Whether she was ready to accept it or not, Osono wanted him to see that she was genuine about this. And to top it all off, her sense of urgency and the threat of danger had become bigger than Rudy; with invisible Agents wandering around and regular Agents hiding out in the rooms, Xander, with that bum leg of Alex's, could be needing her right at this very moment. She didn't have time to babysit or continue to mess around with her feelings for this loser.

Slowing down and finally coming to a stop, Osono let out a heavy sigh as she gave a rough jerk to the geek she was hanging onto and turned to Rudy who was still going on about something that she had no interest in.

"I still don't understand why everyone's so upset with me. Honestly, if they knew I was a screw up to begin with, then why did they even put me in charge of anything? I just don't see why I should be blamed for them getting exactly what they asked for. I mean, right? If they didn't want racist jokes or to hear me singing to 80's songs, then they shouldn't have asked me to organize the entertainment at the reception."

"Shut up, Rudy," Osono said in a harsh, raspy voice, cutting him off. "I need to talk to you for a minute."

"Alright, but I just want to finish what I was saying by stating that I had no idea the event was going to be publicized on national TV." He paused for a moment. "But still, don't you think I should have at least gotten a copy of that tape? Talk about being treated unfairly."

"Enough," Ozzie said with a growl in her throat, ignoring the flinch from the tech guy standing next to her as she calmed herself enough to talk normally. "Listen, I've been thinking about it and maybe it would be best if you weren't around while I help Xander get through this."

At least, that's how she would have said it if she'd been a decent or polite person. "Listen, you little shithead, we're almost there and you need to beat it. Nobody likes you and nobody wants you around, got it?"

"We've been over this already," Rudy said, having the nerve to let out an exasperated sigh. "I can't leave you alone in here. It's dangerous and I need to protect you." She gave him an icy look while holding the wide-eyed and nervous tech within view between them. Rudy's eyes darted to look at the guy and then back at her before he shrugged and said, "That doesn't count. That's like saying, 'lookit, I can beat up kittens! That means I can handle Rancors!' Which, forgive me for my skepticism, but even Luke had a hard time with one of those. If you prove to me that you can use the force to slay giant alien monsters from the planet Dathomir, then maybe I'll consider letting you run around enemy territory by yourself."

"Shut up, you stupid geek! I don't need protection! Even if I did, how the hell is having you around going to help? Are you gonna pull out your flashlight and blind everybody to death?" A smirk came to Rudy's lips and he opened his mouth like he was about to argue, but she wasn't going to let him - God forbid she let him have a word in; he'd never fucking shut up. "Look, you said you wanted to try now and that you're trying to be honest and trying to help me. For the first time since I've known you, you told me the truth about who you are. All I'm asking is that you leave me alone right now and give me time to process everything you've said. Otherwise, I might still be angry enough to kill you."

An amused snort came from Rudy as he quirked his eyebrows at her, but he was silent for a moment before saying, "Alright, fine. If it'll help you see that I really am on your side, and that I'm serious about helping you," Oh for God's sakes, just shut the fuck up, Ozzie thought but kept her expression as patient as she could make it. "Then I'll go. For now. On one condition."

Osono didn't know whether to be relieved or annoyed. On the one hand, he sounded serious, like he was actually going to listen to her and he only had one thing that he wanted in return. On the other, that one thing could be something she wasn't willing to give up and then he'd never fucking leave. Preparing herself to knock him out if it turned out to be something stupid, she nodded impatiently for him to go ahead and tell her his request.

"Answer my question from before. About Alex."

"What?" She didn't have fucking time for this stupid shit!

"Tell me how you really feel about him and be honest, or I'm not going to leave your side ever again."

"Rudy, this is idiotic! I need to go! Seriously, you need to get out of here now! I'm done playing games!" She really was and she was NOT having this conversation with him, here, or right now.

"I will, just as soon as you tell me."

The tech, who's shirt was still fisted in Ozzie's hand, slumped with a release of breath from his nostrils and Osono snapped her head around at the noise. "Oh, I'm sorry! Are we fucking boring you? What are you in a rush for, you little shit? When we find Alex I MAY decide to cook you from the inside out! Ever think of that?" A wary, nervous look entered his big dark eyes and he kept his mouth deliberately sealed shut as his gaze refused to meet the burning stare of his captor.

"Ozzie."

"WHAT?!" she snarled at Rudy's prompt, ready to punch him to force him to comply with HER demands, but she was stopped by the expectant and smug look on his retarded face. With an irritated click of her tongue and an exhalation of air from her lungs, she chewed the inside of her lip as she considered what she should say to him. How did she feel about Alex? Well, to be perfectly honest, she still wasn't very fond of him, despite the progress they'd made since the restaurant. He complained too goddammed much, whined a lot, and he was an arrogant jerk who thought he was better than everyone else.

Although he did make her laugh sometimes, it was mostly his relation to Xander that she liked, especially when the two guys got to picking on each other. And no matter how much of a snobby jerkface he could be, when it came to making her laugh, Alex would always lose that game to Xander. Osono had only recently become aware of his presence, but through that process of reintroduction to Xander, she'd come to realize that he'd been the parts of Alex that she'd liked all along. As much as she hated to admit it, him being an Agent was the only thing she didn't really like about Xander. Oh, God... Why do I keep falling for these Agent-boys? Somebody shoot me in the face.

Just thinking about her feelings made her angry and annoyed, so it was only a few moments before she burst out with, "Oh FINE! I LIKE HIM! ALRIGHT?!"

"Annnd?"

"And I want to help him so that he'll see that I care about him and maybe he'll like me back..." So that she didn't have to actually say it or talk about her feelings outright.

"Annnnnnnnd?"

Osono glared. "What the fuck? I answered your stupid question, why aren't you leaving? What more do you want?"

"Do you want to fuck him?

"Rudy, goddammit, I swear I will burn the hell out of--!!"

"Hey, it was a two part question! All I want to know is, do you want him for his dick or is there something more to it?"

Everything about this conversation made her uncomfortable - the subject matter, Rudy, and not to mention their current surroundings. It bothered her that he was even asking about this, let alone that he was pressing the matter right now. "Why are you so fucking interested? What does it matter to you?"

"Curiosity and morbid fascination - I DID tell you he tried to rape me in the men's room, right?" When she gave him a threatening look, he interrupted her again. "I'm getting counseling for it and slowly healing my wounded masculinity, so no need to worry about me, I'm just calling into question how 'available' he is. Anyway, tick tock, are ya gonna answer me or not?"

There was a long pause where she tried to find another way around this, but having no other course of action - she certainly couldn't threaten him physically, because anything short of killing him was only going to get him off - she actually took a moment to think about the question. Did she want to sleep with Xander? Well, of course, but what Rudy was really asking, whether he knew it or not, was 'did she want to sleep with Alex?' It wasn't Xander's body and no matter how attracted to him she was now, she did not feel that way towards Alex.

Then everything decided to hit her like the head of a bull ramming into her. Not only was this gushy conversation completely out of place and annoying as hell, but it was pointless as well. She still had no idea which one of them was Gwen's boyfriend and both had seemed plenty interested and worried about her, enough to make Osono think it could be either one. She had no idea which one Gwen had made her claim on and it wasn't fair to plan like this or to even think about this while she was on a mission to save the poor woman. Ozzie hardly thought Gwen would appreciate it if she was saved only to find out that Osono had stolen her boyfriend - whichever one he was. Even if she wanted to make a claim in Gwen's absence, she wasn't dating material to begin with. Alex disliked her and Xander would hate her too if she didn't get rid of Rudy.

"No," she finally said, giving him a serious look. "It's not like that."

"Not even a littl--"

"No, goddammit! I don't want to have sex with him! How many fucking times do I gotta say it?" The sense of urgency was back, prickling at the back of her neck and making her hair stand on end. This conversation was over. NOW. "I answered your stupid questions! Are ya gonna go now?"

There was a small smirk on Rudy's face that Osono had trouble reading - was he amused by her crush? Was it something he expected her to say? Or was he laughing about something else? - but he eventually nodded and shrugged smugly. "Sure. I'll go, for now. I'll just leave you alone to have some private time with your psychotic boyfriend and deal with alla that sexual frustration that's obviously got you both so tightly wound." He laughed at her attempt to object and her raised fist, backing away from her with his hands up in a defensive gesture. "Prove me right, why don't ya? Anyway, you two have fun and stay safe in here, Ozzie. You never know who might be lurking these halls." Starting to walk away, he stopped a few feet down the hall but turned around and said, "Oh, and I WILL catch up to you later-- Ozzie?"

Finally freed from her burden, and not waiting for him to disappear, she turned around, stomping down the bloody trail, not even thinking about him again before she finally reached the end of the line.

The truth of the matter was, as easily as he agreed to leave, Rudy was not actually comfortable with this at all. He really believed he had her with that question - whether she'd actually answer it, which he doubted, or she'd never admit to feelings for that loser. In which case, he would have been much more comfortable with leaving her alone with the gay-ass weirdo. Now that he was done being surprised over her totally going against what he expected, he was filled to the brim with possessive rage.

WHAT THE FUCK HAD ALEX DONE????!!!

Alright, so a few moments ago, he'd been willing to plan ahead for the inevitable "feelings" she might have for the guy, which were clearly being displayed as she continued to risk her neck for him. But for her to actually admit it... She LIKED him?? Osono, the woman who ate ash and breathed fire, who despised PDAs and even acknowledging an emotion other than passionate rage. SHE said that she liked the guy?? This went beyond any feelings that he DIDN'T have for Osono; she was his target and she'd been completely brainwashed and rewritten by this lunatic! All of those years of getting to know her and getting close to her and that motherfucker was changing all of her rules.

He'd tried to be civil about this and tried to do what she wanted to do but it just wasn't going to happen. Things needed to go back to the way they were and there was only one way it was going to happen. Taking out his phone, Rudy quickly dialed the number he had for Eric Patten, anxiously walking through the dimly lit and flashing hallways as the phone rang in his ear, being careful to peer around the halls so she wouldn't know he was still following her. As soon as it picked up, he stopped in the middle of the hall and his voice started speeding along in his rapid tone, almost forgetting yet again who he was talking to before he brought himself up short.

"Hey, Mr. Patten! What's happenin', man? Been a while since we've spoken. I've done a lot of recovery and thinking and I have to ask when am I going to get my balls back from you? Seriously, I can't wait any longer, so if you have any deals to make, I need to do it now. I STILL have her Eric and she still can't kill me. I can fucking do this if you just give me a chance and let me have the authority and tools to do it with. But I gotta tell ya, buddy, I'm running out of time..."

There was the slightest pause for breath as he rubbed a hand against the skin of his forehead agitatedly, glancing around at the empty hall as his mouth began spouting off again. "You mentioned a 'Part two', if I remember correctly, and I think I'm ready to start talking about it now. Did you get my message? The one with the video? Awesome, right? Such a cute little potential killing machine. Well, his name is Fin and he's all yours - completely, all for you, at your service, whatever you wanna do with him, neutered and with all of his shots already, although you may have to potty train him - as soon as he gets here which should be in about--" Rudy pretended to consult a wristwatch he didn't have. "--4 to 6 hours. I don't really have that long to wait, so just trust me when I promise you, he's coming, alright? Now, what else do I have to do for you to get you to put me back on top? I'm just asking for a reversal of those demotions you gave me and a simple sweeping under the rug of anything related to it. I did apologize already, right? By the way, has Squiddie said anything about me?"

Was she already back in the room with him? Was Alex happy that he was no longer there? Was he already twisting her mind some more? "Anyway, I'm all ears," Rudy said with a dorky grin into the phone. Soon, he'd be an A-3 again and then he'd get another team of Agents who'd be able to separate Osono and that ugly fruitcake nutjob who had his hooks in her. Rudy couldn't convince her to leave him and he certainly couldn't take on Alex on his own. But throw enough guys at the problem and there wasn't anything he couldn't get done.

***

Releasing a heavy sigh, she wracked her brain for ideas, even as her eyes scanned and searched the front of the seemingly impenetrable fortress, for a way inside. Several minutes had passed now and Brie still hadn't found another entrance, despite looking all along the parameters and she was beginning to grow frustrated. Who knew what damage those other two were doing inside or what confidential files they were sifting through! And it would all be on her irredeemable head if she didn't get in there and blow the whistle on this right now!

Thinking that she might have better luck if she ventured up and searched the roof, she began to wander towards the side again, searching for an easy way up, when the sound of another voice caused her to instantly freeze in place. Standing in a defensive posture, it took only a half second for her eyes to find the stranger lurking in the car by the curbside and in those breaths of a second, she also processed what he'd said to her. Her boss? Who was he talking about? Was this about Patten again? Honestly, what was wrong with today? It was like one long, exhausting, painful test. And was it just a coincidence that he was sitting behind the wheel in the car that those impostors had been driving?

Venturing closer, she was able to see more clearly that this guy was actually donning an Agency suit, just like hers, so she relaxed a bit more, knowing he wasn't another pretender. "Do you work here?" she asked, bending low so she could make eye contact with him. "I NEED to get inside and if you know a way, then you have to tell me. Two outsiders have broken in and shut the power off and I think they may be trying to find information about Eric Patten." Her big, dark eyes gave him an urgent look and tucking her choppy hair behind an ear she said, "Please, I need your help to stop them. My job is on the line here."

Then, registering the rest of what he'd said, it occurred to her that he probably knew more than he was saying. "Wait, what do you mean 'it's not safe'?" she shot a glance at the building behind herself and gave him a penetrating glare. "Do you know what's happening already? And you're leaving? You're just going to drive away and let them take over the base?" Maybe he wasn't as loyal to the Agency as she originally assumed, and with that thought in mind, she slowly began to stand back up and moved away guardedly. What was going on tonight?

***

"Yeah, since I know my way around here, I decided to take my fucking time and check out the sights," Osono replied as she marched into the room, shoving the geek ahead of her while still keeping a grip on his shirt. She spared only a glance to the ugly tanks in the room, stifling a small shiver before turning back to the boys who had somehow managed to find themselves on the floor again. "What have you two been doing? Taking a nap? Get up, you lazy bitches, before I decide you need more 'motivation' to hurry up. Like roasted nuts, maybe?"

There had been a very brief moment, when she first entered the room, where she felt a knot of concern lodge itself in her throat to see him lying on the floor. In the red lighting that suffused the room, the way he looked laid out like that in the shadows of those awful tanks, her very first thought was that he was dead. The sound of his voice instantly transformed that concern into anger and irritation, first for being made to think the worst had happened while she wasn't here to protect him - when, in reality, he was actually just a clutzy bastard - and then for the feeling itself popping up in the first place. So, despite the joking and sassy tone she took with him, there was an edge of reprimand in it, for him making her fool enough to even care about him.

The playfully threatening tone she took with him actually had the effect of brightening her mood, relieved and filled with the comfort of familiarity in being with him, until she found herself standing in the middle of the room, quiet for a few seconds - while those two murmured to each other, something she couldn't hear - just staring and smirking at them. Quickly recovering, Osono caught the tech watching her and she scowled threateningly in return.

"What are you looking at, scrotum stain? Did you think I'd forgotten about you? Oh yeah, I seem to remember you being quite eager to get here! Better not keep you waiting, huh?"

Fire burst to life, yellow light glowing around her hand, rebelling against the oppressive scarlet that still hummed warmly from the tanks. Bringing him close to her, she held her hand near him so that he trembled and shrank back as much as her grip on his shirt would allow, his eyes squinting defensively as he whimpered and sweated in fear.

"Pl-please, don't hurt me! Please, don't kill me! You need me!"

That stopped her and she only glanced in Alex's direction briefly as he started to rise. "Oh, really? And what the hell would I need a little ball licker like you for?"

Bravely, he looked her in the eyes, his dark skin looking slippery wet in the light of her dancing flames. "Because I know what you're here to do and I know how to work the machinery you need to do it."

Osono drew her head back a little and looked around the room, first letting her dark eyes sweep over the glowing red jars with floating people in them again, then at Alex who stood by the controls. "The retransfer?" she needlessly asked. "You know how to work the computer." He nodded steadfastedly, and she looked at him again. "And you were waiting for us?"

"I was ordered to remain in the building to await your arrival."

That's right. Peter had said he was expecting them, didn't he? And Xander had suggested that this might be a trap that they had no choice but to walk into. Looking around the room, Ozzie's body took on a new shade, her stance growing rigid and tense with stark lines and dramatic angles, the shadows growing darker around her as her flames grew brighter, illuminating more of the space. In the light, her eyes took on a wild tone as she searched the spaces again for what she wasn't able to see. There could be people in here, watching and waiting and she wouldn't even know it. Just like the guy who surprised them all downstairs.

Her search eventually brought her gaze to the chair that sat in the middle of the room. Like the dentist chair equivalent of a heavy metal Lord's steam punk throne, it sat suspended from the floor on a cylindrical base that attached to the bottom of the seat, while the rest of it reclined slightly with the foot rest hovering above the ground. The rest of it was covered in shiny, dark chocolate leather, turned bloody in the lighting, with shining metal bolts connecting it's parts, and wires looping like folded wings from the back in a complex and threateningly barbaric way. It had the feel of shiny new technology while at the same time declaring itself as puzzling, enigmatic and experimental machinery. At least, it was the way she interpreted it.

Looking at Alex again, she began to finally have second thoughts about doing this. There was no going back now and there was no way she'd dream of backing down - she wasn't afraid to lose her life today and she would to protect him. What she was having doubts about was whether it would be enough.

Looking back at the tech guy, she put out her fire and grabbed ahold of his arm, pinching his bicep and digging her short nails in as deep as she could, getting close as her raspy voice lowered so Alex and Xander couldn't hear her. "You do the retransfer exactly how it's supposed to be done and no 'special alterations', got it? If anything bad happens to him during this, you will find out just how hot things can get when you piss me off." The tech nodded silently, swallowing a lump in his throat. "Good," was the curtly hissed response, uttered a second before she shoved him violently to stumble towards the control panel. "Get to work, ball sweat!"

She spared one more long glare as he moved up to the wall of buttons and screens, making sure he was doing as instructed, before glancing at Alex. Not meeting his eyes she muttered, "I'll stand watch over here," stepping back a few paces to stand with her feet planted firmly and her arms held ready at her sides.

"I'm... I'm going to need you to get into the chair..." the tech hesitantly said to Alex, pressed a button and flipping several switches in a row, resulting in the chair seeming to "relax" with a mechanical hiss and slight movement of the arms and back support. The wires and tubes hanging from the back wobbled in a vaguely biological way as the chair continued whirring and moving, turning to face Alex with seemingly open arms, before the whole thing grew quiet and still once more.

And Osono stood by, her eyes hunting and searching the room for any possible...invisible enemies.

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#, as written by Tartra
Look at that. Peter did leave a manual.

Told you. Right, like he was supposed to be proud. Alex didn’t need more proof of what was happening here, but having it shoved in his face like this started pumping him full of dread. I don’t know how you’ve lasted this long without having a stroke. Your blood pressure must be insane. Maybe an aneurism. A heart attack. Something is gonna happen by the time you hit thirty.

“And –”

Oh no you don’t, Xander cut in. That one is not my fault. If anything, I got you to lighten up.

“You did a bang-up job,” Alex muttered, weakly sitting up in his spot. Osono was saying something to the tech – whatever it was, the guy looked like he was paying attention – but Alex's eyes were following something else. His left hand was pressing lightly on the ground. His back was getting tense, too. Xander was distracted. He also wasn’t sharing so, once again, Alex had to make him. “You hear something?”

Feel something... Then he shrugged. Never mind. Doesn’t matter.

“Well… yeah, it does,” Alex said, starting to pull himself to his feet. He had to grab the control panel to hoist himself up. “You might be staying, but Osono and I have to run out.” Hopefully, they’d trip over a charred corpse on the way. Just because Alex didn’t like killing didn’t mean he didn’t know when it was useful. Where was Rudy? “Is it Agents? The invisible ones?”

No... He was distant. Alex heard him breathe out a frustrated puff and say it again, sharper. No. It’s not.

There was that tone. A cold sweat set up shop along his spine.

“Oh. So, you’re just freaking out because…?”

I’m not freaking out, Xander said, definitely annoyed. I’m pissed off.

“Ah.” That was significantly worse, but apparently the ‘never mind’ wasn’t a suggestion. Osono explained where she was going to be and the tech gave his shy instruction, and with a quick kick of adrenaline to his good leg, Alex was made to start walking. Xander’s little… ‘magic chair’ was waiting. He did not appreciate it being reclined so far back. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, now he had to hope no one noticed his neck being completely exposed and took a stab at it. With a knife. Or with whatever else these people wanted to use – he had no clue what they liked. Right away he figured out where that came from. As he very hesitantly tapped the edge of the damn thing, just to be sure it didn’t fold shut and snap his hand off, he felt a ripple of impatience go through him. Xander. Of course. The trouble was it wasn’t about Alex taking his time to sit. Xander – pissed, not freaked out – still had his mind on whatever it’d been stuck on downstairs. Now, it seemed worse. There was an uncomfortable ball of stress near the bottom of his chest, directly in the core of his body, and whether it was because the guy didn’t have the strength to hide it or because it truly had gotten that bad, it was there. He wasn’t okay. That meant Alex had a blank cheque not to be okay, either. “You’re sure you’re not freaking out?”

Yes.

“Because it’s alright if you are,” Alex told him. “I just wanna know.”

Alex, shut the hell up and get on the chair.

Alright, alright. Alex… sat. He sat very carefully, certain he wasn’t touching anything that looked like a switch and ready to jump off the instant something sank too far, in case he set off some kind of pressure-controlled trap. It seemed okay, he guessed, but he was now officially inside Agency transfer technology. How ‘okay’ was he supposed to be?

“What’re you doing?”

Xander had fished the tensor bandages out of his pocket.

Fixing your stupid leg. He went to work unravelling one of them. Alex didn’t get to see. Xander’d already looked over at Osono. “‘Cause you missed a few things, I’ll bring you up to speed: I’m staying behind, you two are gonna go, find Gwen in Elmira, then I’ll catch up when I’m walking again.”

“He’s not turning on us,” Alex added quickly. Xander rolled another one open. He’d taken – like… four of them or something. “He just can’t – he says – get up as soon as he’s back in his body. He says it takes a while because he’s been in there for so long.” Should he have pointed to which one Xander was? “Uh… tech guy! Make sure you put him in the right one.”

The middle one. It was pretty obvious. If Peter had actually left his minion here, then the tech already knew. Still, Alex jerked his head towards it, a bit lamely.

“I’m gonna say the same thing I said to him and Gwen,” Xander said. Wait, what? No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no! Hey! Fuck off – I was talking!

“I know! Are you trying to get me skin grafts? You can’t tell her that,” Alex hissed under his breath, because what Xander had said to them before was basically a fat, ‘Hey, I might rejoin the Agency’, rather than the nice ‘Hey, I might be tricked back’ he’d said in front of Osono when they’d all been in the car.

I operate in the interest of free information. She should know what’s going on.

“No, she shouldn’t! Look – I get what you mean when…” Alex had half-turned his head away. Before he said anything else, he gave Osono a quick, tight smile, a ‘just a second’ gesture, then turned right the hell around in the chair so she couldn’t read his lips. Xander yanked back the other way, enough so he could still do whatever with his leg. Alex silently agreed to it, fine, but he kept his head pointed towards the tanks. … And his eyes on the ground. Modesty. Whatever. “I get what you’re trying to say when you say ‘nothing is off the table, I haven’t crossed out my options, blah, blah, blah’ – but listen. She knows something’s going on. She knows as well as I do that Peter’s after you. She’s been unbelievably patient about it so far. Do not get it in her head that you’re crossing over like you want to. That’s exactly what she’s going to think. She’s not Gwen. She doesn’t need you.”

You don’t think this counts as ‘hiding it’? Tell me, if and/or when she finds out, what’s gonna be worse?

“If you’re serious about doing everything in your power to get away from them and come back to us, that’s a huge ‘if’ and a big ‘she won’t’. Keep quiet.”

Sure, ‘cause now she won’t be suspicious at all.

“Just do what I say,” Alex whispered. “Okay? As a going-away present.”

What’s my going-away present?

“That you get to go away.”

Oh, aren’t you thoughtful?

“You’re dying. You don’t get to choose.” In his head, Alex could wag a finger at him. This was gonna be a lot more difficult when Xander was running around on his own. There was no way he could muscle Xander into doing anything. Those were details he’d sort out later, though. “Just don’t.” … And – uh… “And cover for me.”

Make this somehow not suspicious? You want me to clear up that gravity problem, too?

“Xander.”

Fine. Cheap asshole. Xander looked back at Osono, sulking. “What I was trying to say before I was so rudely interrupted, 'cause this jerk doesn’t have any damn manners, is that the most I can say is ‘yes, I will eventually catch up to you’. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take. If we’re lucky, no more than a week. If we’re not…” He gave her a wince. “As far as uncomfortable schedules go, this is one of the top slots on the list.”

‘A week’?

“How are you going to find us?”

“I’ll find you,” Xander answered lazily. “They’ve got so much shit set up to hunt me down already – you, I mean – that I’ll barely have to look to find something to use. It’s in everyone’s best interest for me to stay just because of it. I find the system, I break the system. I’ve been meaning to do it for a while. Too bad Alex is a pussy, ‘cause I would’ve forever ago. Saved us some running.”

“What happened, happened,” Alex said. “We’re okay with how this worked out.”

Don’t speak too soon. It’s not over yet. I still have to make it out of that tube alive.

... Yeah.

... Alex... wanted to come up with something better. He wanted to ask if Xander was sure there was nothing he could do to help. With those thoughts floating around in his head, Xander should have picked up on them, but the guy didn’t say anything. So Xander wasn’t budging: he was doing this alone and Alex and Osono and later Gwen would have to run and – just… cross their fingers. A lot of their fingers. There were so many things that could go wrong and only one – one – way it could go right.

“You okay?”

Xander was distracted again. Like Alex shook him out of it, he forced his head out of the clouds.

Fine. Alex grunted at him for that. Xander ignored it. “Good luck getting out of here, guys. Sorry about…” He vaguely waved his hand. “… this.”

An enormous rush flew by Alex’s ear. He jumped horribly, and although it got an excuse for Xander swearing at him - he shook his leg doing that - no one was allowed to call it unjustified. That'd happened out of nowhere! The inside of the center tank had just started frothing with bubbles. There was no more ‘Xander’… no – Marshall, wasn’t it…? Close to that? Alex couldn’t see him anymore. The bubbles streamed up from the bottom of the glass and streaked to the top, over and over and endlessly. The light inside was changing. At first, he figured – when his throat relaxed enough to get some air to lungs to keep his brain going – the breaks in the - uh... water... were shifting it around. No, it was different. It was getting lighter. Orange, it began, then yellow, then finally it gave up and went a solid white, turned peach at the very edges by the two red chambers on either side of it.

The inside was… crackling

“What’s going on in there?”

My body’s revitalizing. Just like before, Xander was moving around, as if mentally limbering up. Actually – no. He was mentally limbering up. It’s getting pulled out of nap time.

“And…” There were bolts of brightness ripping through it. Thin tendrils of energy – almost blue. “Why does it look like there’s a lightning storm?”

‘Cause it is a lightning storm. It’s using a live current. Nice, raw bolts. Scienced up, naturally. He sounded like he was excited by it! The Agency takes all its ideas from horror stories. This one’s Frankenstein.

“Wait. That’s real electricity in there?” Could one damn thing happen in this place that didn’t scream of terror and agony? “Xander, isn't that gonna hurt?”

Ohhhhhh myyyyyyy. You have no idea.

What?!” Out! He wanted out of this chair! Out right now! “You never said I’d be electrocuted!”

Calm down, diddle dick, Xander said soothingly. Nothing’s gonna happen to you. Stay put.

“But the current –”

– is for me. It’s just for my body. I’m the one who’s coming out the stasis cell. If this was a fresh transfer, there wouldn’t be any at all. … And if it wasn’t a rush job, we could wait the three hours this part takes to finish.

“This takes three hours?”

Uh-huh.

Alex was confused.

“But we’re not waiting? You’re going in now?”

Yep.

More mental limbering.

“You’re… allowing yourself to be electrocuted,” Alex said slowly. “You’re aware of this. And you’re okay with this.”

Fuck. Yes.

“Could you try not sounding like such a maniac?” It helped knowing Xander wasn't bothered, but sounding that excited… “That’s not normally supposed to happen, is it?”

No. You’re supposed to wait until the current’s done its job. People go insane from this shit. Xander bounced around. It's another reason why being me is fucking awesome.

“So before we do anything, you’ve already changed stuff,” Alex cried. "What is wrong with you?"

They heard a groan. They heard a loud, impossible groan. No sooner had Alex spoken than the entire building let out a bellowing, tortured strain. Nothing moved – not that he noticed – but from the sound of it, every wall, ceiling and floor in this place bent, the wood shrieking as it turned, the plaster cracking as it rumbled, and the metal howling as it stretched.

And just like that, it was over, its dying echoes fading as quickly as they’d begun.

Uh…

“What the fuck was that?”

That is officially the ‘hurry up’ bell, Xander said. “Hey, stupid tech, you wanna move this along?”

“Xander?”

Shut up, Alex. Everything’s fine.

“Yeah, and that’s what I’m afraid of.” Alex’s hands gripped the sides of his chair. Xander had finished wrapping his foot. His entire ankle was tied up in a very intricate weave. It only took four bandages for his ankle to be completely immobilized. Alex probably still couldn’t stand on it, but as far as riding in a car went, he should be okay. ... Thanks. “I think we should get out of here.”

You’re paranoid. Nothing about the way Xander said that made it seem like it was a bad thing. He was yet again distracted and yet again not explaining why. We don’t have another chance.

“You want to intentionally botch –” Not ‘botch’. “Fine – alter the transfer, to get electrocuted, in the middle of whatever the hell is going on in this building. This is sounding worse and worse and that’s not even counting the crap we already agreed were awful circumstances.”

It’s fine, Alex.

“It’s not fine! Something’s going on! I’m not joking anymore – I will get out of this chair if you don’t fucking tell me what you know!”

I don’t ‘know’ anything –

“Then what you think! Anything!”

Make that ‘a stroke before the year’s done’, Xander said. You’re scaring yourself.

“Don’t care,” he retorted. “Tell me.”

There was another groan, but this one was tiny compared to the first one. Was someone attacking?

“Yeah. Maybe. I think so, but I’m not sure.” Xander, everyone: the master of certainty. “Shut up, Alex. Don’t bitch when you get your way.”

“Sorry. Just… say it.”

You gonna sit in the chair?

“… Yes.”

Good. “Tech, hurry the fuck up. I wanted this thing done two days ago.” Then Xander sighed, agitated. “Alright. Don’t panic.” Alex immediately got ready to panic. “… Great. Anyway, so… You know how I’ve got that whole ‘holy shit, yes, there’s about to be a fight’, secret sixth sense bullshit?”

“The one you use exclusively to get us involved with those fights?”

“Yeah. That one. It’s something they try to train into every Agent who’s there to fight. Not everyone gets the hang of it, but the more you practice, the better it is, and the better you are at knowing when something’s going to happen. Depending on the kind of Agent you are, the thing that triggers it varies. For Pain Eaters, because they’re usually attached to some other senior Agent – our supervisors, if you want to call ‘em that – and because we basically work as their bodyguards if we aren’t working on a case, it’s – like… hostility. We know when someone's going to attack them. It’s a feeling. It’s specific.”

“So?”

“So, idiot, I wouldn’t bring it up if it wasn’t driving me insane. Shit’s going down soon, and that fucking noise got louder the farther we went in. Here? It’s the worst. Whatever’s happening, this is where whoever the fuck is coming is headed for.”

“… I still don’t get it.”

“Not surprised.” It was Alex’s fault he didn’t understand Xander’s psycho-hunter instinct? “I’ll spell it out for you: I got the feeling we were gonna get attacked the moment we got in. I started getting a worse feeling as we walked into the room. Whatever trap that’s been laid out, it’s centered around here. That means it doesn’t involve those fucking invisible bastards, wherever or how many ever there are. And if they’re not here for us, that means they’re here for someone else.”

Alex swallowed nervously. He wasn’t sure why he was nervous, but this sounded like a ghost story Xander was telling.

“For who?”

“I don’t know, but if it’s not you, it’s for someone worse.”

Xander’s agitation quadrupled.

“Wait. But you said that! You said Peter wanted you to fight,” Alex pointed out. “You’d wake up and then you’d be in the middle of a fight? Remember?”

Dipshit.” Xander was adamant in emphasizing every consonant in that. “I said it’s happening soon. I’m not a fucking psychic – I can’t see into the future, so if I’m picking it up, it’s big and it’s happening in minutes from now. Minutes. So you’re fighting your way out of here. I’ll be trapped.” Then he grumbled more to himself, “Whatever Peter wants me for, it’s not this. I won’t wake up in time.” But if Peter didn’t need him to fight, how did Xander know Peter wanted him back at all? Because he had a hundred chances to kill me when he was around before. He must think I’m worth something.

“Ever think maybe he just didn’t want me to die? I’ve got powers. I’m worth something.”

Hate to break it to you, kid, but the first real sign of interest he’s ever had in you happened during that phone call. He likes your new eye beams, but it still doesn’t mean he wants ‘em. That’s the French guy, and A-3s can’t say shit to A-1s.

“So… I can get away. It’s alright. Osono and I – we can fight our way out,” Alex said, giving her a determined nod. “If there’s a fight, that’s even better. The Agents’ll be distracted. We’ll slip out.”

Xander’s agitation, already dangerous, doubled.

“Whoever’s attacking has two things: brains and balls. They’re smart enough to have planned to take on an Agency base. Their enemies? They can’t be seen, so when these guys do attack, they’ll be looking for everything that’s hiding. Nothing will escape. You can’t ‘slip’ out. They’ll find you. As for a distraction, yeah, the Agents are gonna have their hands full, because I’ve heard of a couple of attack by randoms against global bases. Nothing lives, Alex. They don’t know who you are. We have teams – the Agency has teams of people trained in infiltration. Plus, there’s transfers. Just because you have powers and you’re dressed like a civilian doesn’t mean they won’t think you’re one of them and slaughter you like the rest.”

Slaughter.

… Slaughter?

“How… bad… is this…” Alex’s voice was disturbingly fragile to his own ears. “… gonna be for us?”

Let’s just say… Xander thought about it. ‘Thank fucking God your powers have a boost’.

A third groan. It was deeper and more insistent.

“Okay. Well. Then out of curiosity,” Alex asked, “and because I am really, really, really desperate to hear this answer –”

You shouldn’t’ve heard any of it. I warned you.

“Alright – great – shut up. Ten minutes ago you said you weren’t sure there were any more of those invisible guys. Why are you suddenly convinced there’s an army?” It doubled. Doubled again. Alex had nothing but pain in his chest from the stress Xander was piling into it. He tried to relax into the chair, but then he remembered what chair it was and then he was adding to the problem. They made a fantastic team. If Alex got a stroke, this was the reason why. “You’re not convinced?”

“… No. It’s a theory. Everything I say is a theory. Parts of it just get more and more likely as I go on,” he said. “I know there’s gonna be an attack because Peter said there would be. I know it’s happening soon because I can feel it. I know this is gonna be at the heart of it all, so either they want the cells in this room or they’re tearing the whole building down, and I know from experience that when the Agency’s attacked, it’s destroyed. And then there’s a gigantic Agency fist that goes out to fucking demolish whoever did it. The only thing I know about the invisible people is that they exist. One, at least. Who knows if there’s any more? It might not matter, though. There wasn’t anything from that first guy, so I don’t think he was here to fight. Couldn’t dodge, that’s for damn sure.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve never had to be precise with this. It’s just supposed to be a warning to take a closer look. I don’t think anyone’s used it to actually find someone else.”

“Well, then, I guess there won’t be anyone for those people to attack,” Alex said. “We’ll go out the side or – okay, don’t just stop talking when you’re in the middle of this! What now?”

Remember when I tossed around the other idea that one of the ways Peter was going to have me work for him was by dropping me into the middle of his fight and either expecting me to die or shooting me in the face when it’s over?

“If I do or don’t,” Alex snapped, “what’s it matter?”

Peter’s got a fight, we’ve jumped into the middle, but I’m gonna be in a stasis cell. Where do you think you’re gonna be?

Alex very firmly put his head in his hands and squeezed. He had a headache now and this helped, but part of him wondered if he wasn’t subconsciously trying to strangle Xander by his mental throat.

“Are you seriously trying to say that Peter wants us here to fight as his surprise soldiers?”

“That’s the worst-case scenario, but yeah.”

“And you’re sure there’s no one else to fight instead?”

“No,” Xander said, “but if there is, they’re not exactly getting ready for it.”

“You know who’d know for sure?”

“Gwen?”

“Yeah. Gwen. Good job.” All in all, this was too much for him to wrap his head around. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to believe it, but Xander – the unbelievable liar that he was – didn’t lie about fights. But – screw it, Xander said it was a theory. In a burst of confidence he was positive came from some kind of hysteria, right before reality sank in and just after he decided to delude himself until it did, he decided to stick to that. Just a theory. It was just a theory, that’s all. “So that’s it. That’s what you were worried about.”

… Sorry, was the fact that you’re about to be the frontline in Peter’s personal army not enough for you?

“You admitted it was a theory. Osono and I will be okay. You just worry about getting back to us, Xander. And not getting crushed by Gwen when she asks where you’ve been.”

Xander paused, like he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave it at that.

I'm actually sorry, he said after a while. For what’s it worth, we officially set the record for resisting capture. You’ve got all your years of running before I caught you, too.

“Tell them to mail the trophy,” Alex said.

Nah, I’ll bring it with me. Heads up: it’s Peter’s skull on a stick, real Lord of the Flies-like.

He grinned. Peter better pray someone killed Xander in his tank. Alex didn’t need to have a ‘theory’: when that guy got out, he was ripping the Agency apart. There was no doubt about it, and another bar of courage dropped into Alex’s lap because of it. If Xander was ready for what he had to do, Alex would be, too. He wasn’t the one who was going to be trapped inside a tube and he wasn’t the one who was going to spend three hours getting electrocuted. Besides, he had Osono, and after one more day, they’d have Gwen. Xander would be on his own. Alex didn’t like it, but there wasn’t much of a choice.

“Have fun,” he said. “I’d say ‘be careful’, but I think ‘don’t die’ is better advice.”

Definitely the more realistic of the two. Xander went back to limbering up. “You stupid tech, aren’t you done yet? I’ve got places to be, shit to do.” To Osono, behind the tech’s back, he mouthed, “Someone’s killing him after, right?” Then he gave her two thumbs up, like they’d instantly agreed.

Alex almost joked that Xander didn’t need to ask if there was already a ‘dark force’ on their way, but the humour in it died before he could open his mouth. It wasn’t funny. But… for now, at least, he didn’t have to think about it.

* * *


“No,” she said. “I have not.”

Out of every answer she could have offered, Squiddie, without a drop of interest, picked the most boring one. Benoit was disappointed. He hadn’t hung up on Madeline to watch her polar opposite. Things were getting miserable. No one was doing anything to distract him. He didn’t know where his jacket was – he’d chucked it somewhere, and wherever it was, he’d chucked his tie in the other direction, so those were two things he’d lost in under a minute – and although he’d killed ten minutes laughing over how wonderful the small swipes of vengeance were to bask in, like the fact that he was one step closer to being at her desired level of dress and she would never get to see it because she’d destroyed her phone, he was over it now. If he didn’t find something soon, he’d be thinking again. Swearing his undying loyalty to Salcon was one thing, but if he kept it up, he’d talk himself into killing Eric for what he’d done. ‘Killing’ – sorry, he should get that right. Eric couldn’t die. And technically he hadn’t ‘done’ anything wrong. Benoit was being foolish. Jean was dead, who the hell cared what happened to his body?

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think – arghhhh! Dammit!

Where’d his schnapps go?

Shit, he felt awful. Usually his response to this would be ‘drink more’, and usually his only counter would be ‘it’s not professional’. Well, the first thing wasn’t working and fuck the second, because he’d lost all professionalism the minute he’d let Jean do as he pleased. Once again, as he sat in this god-awful chair and twisted as far as his propped up legs would allow, he pondered that decision. He’d had a duty to kill Jean and he hadn’t, and while he’d reaped the rewards of that over the years – and the Agency, as it related to Benoit’s work – technically, technically it meant he’d allowed Jean to live and therefore die a more gruesome death and then get worn like a coat. So in that sense, Benoit admitted this was his fault, so – ooh! Schnapps! Just in time! That’d been about to go down a dangerous line of thought and the Agency – Salcon, at least – needed him alive. So Benoit busied himself with that for a while, occupying the rest of his presently limited attention with the possibly-a-robot.

She wasn’t saying anything. Screw this woman – honestly, why someone like Eric would insist on working with a person so devoid of entertainment –

“Benny!”

Eric, if you sneak up on me again, I swear to God, I will gladly end you!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa – easy there, buddy! It’s okay! You don’t have to jump up – come on, sit, sit, sit. And weapons away, please. I don’t like anything I can cut myself on waving around in the air. Come on – sit!” Eric wasn’t remotely fazed. He was used to death threats. He collected them. Benoit didn’t see the point in glaring at him for it, so he regrettably sighed and did as he was told: he sat, but he was tired of sitting. He was tired of a lot of things, lately. “There ya go – all better! Nice and comfy, right? Hey, your shirt’s untucked!”

“Is it a problem?”

Let it be a problem. Give him any excuse.

“Not at all! It makes you look much more relaxed,” Eric chirped.

“What a coincidence. Looking ‘relaxed’ was exactly what I’d intended. What’s in the bag?”

“Back to English, are you? Well – I know you didn’t stop drinking, so I guess you got drunk enough to loop back around to being sober,” Eric said, thrilled by this notion. Fucking idiot. “Two things, actually – one’s still kicking. Gotta say, Benny – Jean was a damn good choice in hired help. I’m not one to carry things around myself, but I’m really enjoying that I can practically toss a car around. I can’t tell you how fun it is.”

“Another coincidence, I’m sure.”

He needed a cigarette. Ten, tied together. It’d been the one habit Jean hadn’t complained about. ‘Everyone is allowed one flaw’, he’d said. Benoit had been flattered at the time. Part of him now worried that Jean was encouraging a slow, steady death. … No, that didn’t sound right. If it were true, the man wouldn’t have gone berserk whenever Benoit tried sneak the smallest cake – which was made with both eggs, flour, and milk, so that was three food groups right there. He still didn’t know what the problem had been.

Everyone was allowed one flaw. Jean was a flaw, apparently. The fates had deigned to let Benoit smoke instead. Funny.

He lit one up. Eric was already dead; he wouldn’t mind inhaling anything. Frankly, Benoit was disappointed by it. Could he take offence to anything, or was everything doomed to be dealt a cheery smile?

“Definitely a coincidence. Where’d Squiddie go?”

Benoit had turned the chair to face this barbarian when he entered. Now he turned it again to face the screens. Eric was right. Squiddie was gone. The building might have had cameras everywhere, but the monitors only showed so many. He didn’t see her. He didn’t care very much, either.

“Agent Quin called you,” he lazily reported, speaking over the muffled sounds poking from the bag Eric brought in. He turned the chair back around. “He wants to talk about a deal you made. Squiddie answered. I imagine she’s on her way here.”

“Awesome. Check this out,” Eric said, dropping the bag on the floor. A sharp cry of distress rang out. “Consider it a peace-offering.”

Benoit sighed.

“Eric, you are an A-1. Jean is dead. You had every right to take possession of him. He’s property now.”

It was true. He couldn’t deny that it was true.

Back to smoking.

“Don’t sound so depressed, Benny. Y’know, I’m gettin’ kinda worried about you.” … Was he actually worried? Could he – “Anyway, it’s totally not about that. This is for what I’m about to do to you. It’s one of many, but I figure just in case they don’t come in here, at least you have one to erase off the planet.”

What was he talking about?

“What’s in there?”

“Before I show you, I want to be clear.” Eric had knelt over the bag, ready to open it, but he’d stopped with his hands on the tie he’d wrapped around its mouth to look up at Benoit with what he’d assumed was a ‘sincere’ smile. Bullshit. Eric didn’t know ‘offence’? He damn well didn’t know ‘sincerity’. “I’m not doing this to upset you. You’re just the best person for the job. You need to understand that I accept your insistence on keeping these professional, and that when I give you assignments to complete, it’s derived from that. It’s fully for business purposes.”

“Eric,” Benoit said, “what’s in there?”

“Anti-Agent.” He beamed, then he yanked the bag open and out tumbled two bodies, a man and a woman, though the man did not move. The woman, on the other hand… “I went shopping, picked up one for a little ‘side quest’ and decided to see if it worked.” He beamed brighter. “It does! So – this is Victoria, she’s twenty-six, and she readily informed me of why she was having trouble contacting me – I didn’t have the earpiece on, you see – and that I had to come downstairs and meet her to let the Nordic branch in.” Benoit’s fingers curled into the chair’s arms, scraping them along the way. “I politely enquired as to why she would want to let them in, and she said she’d rather not have them smash the door open and waste time banging up the place when she could guide them instead, especially because after today, she had no intention of pretending to be an Agent anymore. I said, ‘that’s great!’ Then I waited for her to turn around and slapped a collar on ‘er.” Eric gently tipped the woman’s head up. “See? Same one I use on Nathan. Alright, it’s a weaker version, but it does the job of taking out her powers. She walks through walls! Tell me that wouldn’t’ve been a pain to stab!”

“I suppose,” Benoit said quietly.

The woman’s eyes were fierce. She had been gagged and bound and it disturbed him to realize how little he gave a shit. This was a traitor before him. This was someone who had joined the Agency purely to destroy them. Benoit could feel the hate in him beginning to grow. At it, he saw hers fade into a bitter realization of what was to come for her – and a sudden fear in knowing she could not flee with her life.

He spared no other thought to describe her. She didn't deserve it.

“What’d’ya say? Peace-offering accepted?”

Benoit snapped his eyes to him. God, how he wished he hadn’t. Even through that ghastly smile, his friend was there.

Watching.

So he stopped looking.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Babysit! Bodysit, at least. See – I really like Jean and I don’t wanna have to lose him just ‘cause I was too lazy to find a guard and risk the Antis stumbling across him and messing a perfectly good corpse up. I’d like you to watch him, make sure he gets through the next… mmm… hour? I’ll call it an hour.”

“Get your pet to do it,” he said, releasing a long breath of smoke. He leaned back into the chair, trying to remember why he’d thought it a comfort before.

“This is important. I like to assign important things to people with personal motivation.” Yeah. Benoit had noticed the trend long ago, mostly recently with March and her pet. And now, if the messages Eric was well aware Benoit had been spying on were any indication, Elias. Eric never missed an opportunity. “Benoit. I know this is hard for you.” He put his hand on Benoit’s wrist. Idiot. He’d rolled his sleeves up ages ago. Eric whined that there shouldn’t be sharp things ‘waving in the air’ but he’d drop his hand on the arm with the knife attached to it? “I know it’s not something you want to do – I know you need time to grieve, but I need you focused before all that.”

“No, you’re trying to delay my grief in the hopes I’ll be permanently crippled by it. I know your tricks, Eric.”

“And allow me to assure you, as far as I’ve seen, you’re the only one who does,” Eric applauded. He kept his somewhat-sombre note, however. His grin was still ‘sincere’. “But this isn’t a trick. You might be trying to push it down, but all I want is to get as much use out of you before you snap and do something crazy.”

“Crazy like what?”

“I don’t know. ‘Not rationalize something’? That’s crazy for you, right?”

“I don’t rationalize. If I have a reason for acting the way I do, I stand by it. I don’t need to excuse myself.”

“Rationalizing the rationalizing – that’s pretty meta. So, you’ll watch him?”

“Eric…”

“It’ll give you some time to think. I’m gonna be busy anyway, running around, screwing with the Nordics,” Eric said. “You’ve got two options: keep him here and intact, or let me risk putting him somewhere they’d find him.”

“I don’t want him here.”

He tried to sound respectful. It sounded selfish instead. After everything that’d happened, he could spare an hour to watch over his friend? But Jean wasn’t alive – what obligation was he supposed to have?

God, he needed more to drink.

“Benny. Please?” Eric tapped his arm. “I don’t wanna have to order you.”

“You have to. That’s the only way I'll agree.”

Eric shook his head, understanding but disappointed.

“Okay. You're ordered.”

Benoit had already finished his cigarette. He was going through these too quickly. That was his answer, though. He blew out, and not in Eric’s face. Eric was overjoyed.

“Mr. Eric Patten.” Squiddie had arrived. She had her owner’s phone with her, outstretched and politely waiting for his attention. “Agent Rudolph Quin has requested your assistance in overturning his demotion.”

Her voice was completely level. Every syllable had an equal length of duration.

“‘Kay – one sec. Uh – why is he calling about this? I thought we discussed those terms.”

“He cited time as a key factor.”

“Right, right. They always do! ‘Kay, one sec, for real.” Eric went to the corner of the security room and sat down, nestling in. “Roll that dead one out for me, Squiddie.”

Squiddie did so, juggling the phone all the while. When she was done, Eric closed Jean’s eyes, and as if the world had dimmed in an instant, the glorious shine faded from Jean’s face. That purple mist crap was back. Benoit was curious: what would happen if he’d saved his last puff to blow at that soul-cloud? Would Eric resurrect himself coughing? An amusing thought. Pointless to dwell on, but amusing. The purple cloud sank into the other man’s skin.

“So you’re an Anti-Agent now,” Benoit blandly noted.

“Indeedy-do!” The man woke up. Without a break in its existence, the smile had settled in and picked up with its full force. This body was considerably smaller than before. That was to be expected – anyone compared to Jean was pathetically tiny. The man had brown eyes, pale skin and light brown hair. His jaw was round and his brow was low. He was also dressed in an Agency suit. Oh, if only that child were here to see how easy they were to attain. “I’ve gotta do a tiny bit of spy stuff, then I’ll be back. Won’t take long.”

“By all means, don’t rush yourself,” Benoit grunted, pulling out another coffin nail.

“Phone please! Squiddie, get my glasses.” Squiddie delivered on both accounts. She had Eric’s glasses in his hand before the phone had reached his ear. Despite every ounce of his sanity telling him not to, Benoit glanced back at what Jean looked like now. The accessory had truly transformed his face. This was what he was supposed to look like. If someone didn’t find himself something else to get drunk on, Benoit wasn’t going to make it three minutes. “Guttentag, Rudy! What’s crackin’? You having problems on your end?”

“He claims he is capable of capturing a target if you provide him the authority and tools.”

“Sooooo… he’s not capable of capturing a target. And if he is – if you are, Rooty-roo, and you’re just not moving ‘cause you really want your rank back, I’d say that’s pretty darn selfish of you. The Agency should be your priority, not your own piddly goals. I think that right there affirms my decision. Clearly, you don’t have the dedication required of an A-3.”

“Agent Rudy Quin assures you his bargaining chip is en route,” Squiddie informed him. Look at that – she was relaying Quin’s speaking points. She was certainly going above and beyond what she usually did. Benoit had little experience with her, but this was undoubtedly, uncharacteristically talkative of her.

“And? If he’s not here, Rudy,” Eric said, “I don’t know why you’d bother owning a phone, let alone use one to call me.”

“I was listening to the call,” Benoit put in. “He used the f-word. He also said ‘balls’.”

Eric gasped.

Rudy! That sort of language is not appropriate for an A-7! An A-8, maybe, but A-7s are supposed to be above that! I am extremely disappointed in you!” Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha… “In fact, I don’t care to speak to you anymore. Sin seveder!” That didn’t sound German. “Squiddie, go find this guy and hurt him.” Squiddie set off. Eric snapped his phone shut. “The nerve of these people…”

“Quite. Now is that all?”

“Yeah, I think that handles everything. Thanks again, Benny!” Eric waved. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

He went away. Unfortunately, that left him alone again with his thoughts.

And the traitor.

The woman was watching him. She expected this. To them, he was still a monster. He could not help his satisfaction in this understanding, but he kept a steady face as he stood, rolling the chair away. With a practised twist of metal, Benoit slid his knife from the outside of his arm to its top, leaving it to point over his first knuckles. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Subconsciously, then, he wanted this to hurt.

He was glad Jean’s eyes were closed. As the spring released and the blade sliced out, he realized, dead or not, he didn’t want his friend to have to see this.

This.

Maybe he was snapping.

… Well. That was going to make Jean decidedly harder to ignore.

* * *


Someone say he didn’t have to convince her, because his lead was getting closer to Elmira by the second, meaning she was getting farther away from him. He didn’t have time for this! He had to catch up! Planes could only go so fast, in case anyone here needed a reminder!

“I’m leaving because I asked to leave. There’s nothing left for me in there,” Jason said. “And I have permission straight from your boss’ mouth. See this?” The papers Eric’d given him were already coming in use. He grabbed the one with his signature – not one of the ones that mentioned his demotion – and held it up to her, not letting her touch it, because knowing her type… And by ‘her type’, he meant someone who’d taken the effort to get a suit but had stopped short of going for the goggles. Ugh. Druggies. There was a reason the other kind of mask was so popular: they just wanted their fix. He didn’t even see them as suits. Half-suits, and that was generous. He wasn’t feeling any nicer than that right now. She wasn’t getting in the car and he had to get to his lead. Hurry up. “I don’t work here. I’m visiting this base. I’m on a case that’s getting wrapped up in Elmira and I need to be there. As far as I know about here, it’s about to get attacked – so, maybe, if you’re interested, get in the car and let’s get the hell out of here. Everyone inside already knows about the intruders. It’s a trap.”

Was it anymore? The plan kept changing every other minute. Benoit wasn’t supposed to kill Elias, no one had said how they were going to catch the real Alexander, and they hadn’t been clear on what the protocol was for him bringing a buddy, which he had. It looked like Alexander didn’t pride himself on faithfulness. As soon as one woman was gone, he picked up another. Then again, there were two of them in there. Maybe they swapped.

He shouldn’t be this rude. It was just that a lot was falling onto his plate. Narrowly – by the grace of Eric – recovering his suit only emphasized how at a whim he could lose it again. Her job might have been on the line, but his suit was. He almost wanted to explain that to her, but he didn’t trust a half-suit to sympathize. It wasn’t anything personal. They – just… didn’t get it.

“Eric is aware I’m leaving. If you’d like to check, you can give him a call.”

Something caught his eye. Down the road – way, way, way down there, he saw a few faint lights. He normally wouldn’t have cared beyond noticing them, but those were… an awful lot of them. Eight. Then twelve. They were getting closer. Oh, they were cars. That was alright. … Except those were a lot of cars. Why come this way?

“I seriously hope this city has a street racing problem,” Jason mumbled. It sounded exactly as stupid coming out of his mouth as it had in his head. “I’m not trying to you rush or anything, but… alright – I’m definitely trying to rush you, but only because I’m hearing a lot of loud engines heading this way, and I’d like to go before they get too close. If you’re going to call Eric, call him in the car, then you can jump out if you still don’t trust me.” Why the hell wouldn’t she trust him? He’d be hurt, if he hadn’t already written it off as part of – was that a fucking rocket?!

No! No – it was a… firework or something! Some sparkly… ball, like the size of a basketball, was shooting over to the Charlton base. It wasn’t even following a straight line. It was twitching and spastically switching directions like the thing was on meth, and the light trail it left behind was like a child had scribbled it. And he knew it was heading for the Charlton base because a) where else would it be headed, and b) what the hell, it just slammed into the Charlton base!

… And… stuck!

… And then sat there, glowing. Huh. It was almost out of view around the corner, but it was bright enough for Jason to seenow it exploded! What the fuck? And the cars were almost on them – they had to move!

“Get in,” he ordered. “Get in, or I’m leaving you here.”

With that said, he started the car. She had three seconds before he drove off.

* * *


“Yup,” Glue said, pulling her hand back inside the window. “She got ‘em. Defences are down. Go Russia.”

“Yeah, like they wanted to help,” Magnus said. “How do you know they’re down?”

“See where I hit it?” She had her hand back out there, because apparently she couldn’t point unless her finger was outside the car. “The windows? They’re supposed to be covered by a shield by now. See that metal line kind of just above them? Those are the shields. They aren’t coming down.”

Magnus squinted. Glue flicked open the glove compartment and handed him the binoculars. They’d be close enough to see in another few moments, but he was impatient. Sure enough, when he took a closer look, he saw what appeared to be thick, metal strips, barely covering the top inch of the now broken glass. But she was only half-right. The shields weren’t coming down, but they were still moving.

“I think they’re stuck. They’re trying to close,” he said.

“Trying ‘isn’t’, so we have that to be grateful for,” Glue told him. “Wait – so are we gonna be stuck listening to that the entire time we’re in there?”

“Don’t start, Glue.”

“That’s not fair! She said she’d have it handled! I don’t want to listen to that – again,” she complained. “Remember Krakow? How old did that get in five minutes? We couldn’t hear anyone over that junk.”

“Deal with it, Glue.”

Glue chewed on her finger. Then she went back to the glove department, right as the Cuban drove them up to Agency’s front door. They parked on the empty curb, soon surrounded by the other twelve cars carrying their allies, but while the others got out and stretched, Glue dug out a small radio.

“Buzzy,” she said. Magnus rolled his eyes. What, she expected the Russian to care about her delicate ears? He flicked one of them as he opened the back seat, scooching out the passenger side, hoping to remind her to get out, too. She didn’t, but she opened her door. The Cuban stayed behind the wheel. Their branch was for transport, nothing else. They’d circle around until the attack was over. “Buzzy – what’s going on in there? Do you have their defences down or what?”

I’m trying,” came Buzzy’s very peeved voice, “but someone in the cell room flicked a switch that almost locked the room down. I had to kill it in the middle of the whole thing being blocked off. So, sorry, but I was told no one’d be touching any defences until I got to them first.

Someone had tried to lock down the cell room? Magnus shared a look with Glue. She read it, then asked, “Who set off the defences? Did someone find out we were coming?”

Ha! Listen, lady, I don’t know what you Vikings were told, but Eric Patten is here. Of course they know we’re coming.

That set a spark of rage off in Glue. Magnus felt the same. They were sick to death of the Russians and their ‘Patten is unstoppable’ crap.

“Listen, Ruskie, that’s not what I’m asking. Are we clear to go in or did you fuck up?”

Buzzy sounded scandalized. Now Magnus was wondering if they couldn’t make a stop at wherever she was hiding and cook up some collateral damage. Glue was thinking the same thing.

If that’s how you’re gonna talk to me, why don’t you just find out?

With a little click, Buzzy had shut her radio off.

“Unbelievable,” Glue said, stepping out of the passenger seat at last. “These fucking Russians! It’s like we don’t have enough people to fight.”

Magnus disagreed. Their strike force only carried twenty-six people. This was going to be overkill, even with the invisible soldiers Patten now allegedly had. The intel had come straight from the Germans and that alone should have let him believe it, but the fact that it’d been so last minute had raised a few eyebrows. Not Danielle’s. Never Danielle’s. So what if she was a little insane from the build-up of her energy? Patten doing something like this had not gone unexpected and she’d’ve called it adorable in any frame of mind. What this meant was their branch’s favourite flag had been waved: everything got demolished now. Any shadows in the corner? That corner went to Hell. They were supposed to leave the building intact overall – Bergmann and her cronies might have changed their minds about pulling out of this after, Danielle said, and it was supposed to be a back-up in case this didn’t work – but the Germans seemed to have gone AWOL already.

“Isn’t Bergmann on her way to Elmira?”

“To help the Russians or something. I heard she flipped when Patten showed up and took off because of him,” Glue said. “Here’s hoping she won’t wear gloves. I could do with a few less of Cryptic’s crew and you know they love their handshakes.”

Magnus was about to laugh, but he brought it down to a controlled grin. Danielle was stepping out her truck. It was a symbol of respect to keep from showing any too strong of an emotion in front of her. She hadn’t switched in a while.

“You think Dalton’s going to be alright?” Dalton was the one who’d be fighting for the most part. Danielle would throw her punches, but she was the strategist. What her main contribution was to set her brother down where he needed to be, turn ‘ghostly’ and float off to a safer or more convenient spot, then point to where he needed to float to before they switched back. It was a powerful tactic. It was an incredible inspiration. Danielle and Dalton were two of those the branches called ‘unfortunately blessed’. Their powers, in a word, were supposed to be useless. Instead, they’d turned them into a harbinger of war and death. Half the Nordic branch was recruited by that alone; the idea that even the weakest of them could still be such a threat was one that’d carried far. “How many times has he fought with them so…?”

“Messed?”

“Yeah.”

They both meant it with the most love they could muster. Harbinger or not, Danielle and Dalton’s powers were still filled with drawbacks. Only one of them – until their powers deflated and they were both ‘normal’ again – got to have a physical form. That physical form was… interesting, to say the least. They weren’t gifted with super-strength or any great advantage. What they had was ‘the power of two men’ – specifically, the power of Danielle and Dalton. Their body – the non-ghost one – grew until it was exactly the size of both of them combined. Their strength was exactly what both of theirs were, their speed was what those two of had found, and their faces… Well, it was still a ‘two eyes, two ears, one mouth’ scenario, but the features had changed to giant, twisted parodies. They looked like a blond Neanderthal. All that was missing was the club. Hell, even their hair length averaged out. Danielle had hers long, Dalton had his short. The Neanderthal’s was directly in-between. Oh, and their knuckles dragged. Literally. Their arms had also doubled in length.

No one asked what happened in the ‘personal’ parts of their body. They assumed it checked it out down there. After all, Danielle didn’t become Dalton when she switched. They just swapped density. Still, no one was planning to confirm it.

The rest of the Nordic branch was like a lake of lightly coloured hair and fair skin. Glue and Magnus – they were no different. Magnus was taller, obviously, and he’d had to have the back seat to himself to fit. Glue was smaller and almost wirey. Her powers didn’t depend on physical strength, and so she hadn’t bothered. He had, although he got the same free pass when his abilities activated. He simply enjoyed looming over people, and the sense of accomplishment he got from working out kept him happy. The same could not be said for his peers. Out of the two of them, Glue was closer to the norm. It worked in Danielle and Dalton’s favour. They pumped iron like lives depend on it, and in times like these, it truly did. As leaders of this branch, they had an image to uphold. Just as the Cubans specialized in transport, the Nordics were here to search, capture and destroy. Yes, that meant ‘the Vikings’ pillaged and plundered. The Cubans had no end of jokes about it. The problem was that it had spread to the other groups, particularly the Russians. If nothing else, the Germans had earned their respect by refusing to comment. They had no sense of humour. The Nordics liked that.

“Danielle,” someone in the crowd shouted out. “Are we ready?”

Danielle was moving slowly, crushed under her weight. She was strong enough to carry herself, but when her mind was pressured, she could barely act. She needed to think. She needed to switch. When the voice rang out, she stopped shambling forward and leaned on her knuckles as she stood in front of the door, her face reflecting in the glass and the streetlight, her eyes staring through but seeing nothing. She wasn’t listening to her people. Dalton must have been discussing something with her. He was the only one who’d have her ear. Right now, he might have been reminding her of the plan, long-forgotten, and then he’d step in. Dalton was a good friend of Magnus but that didn’t stop him from pointing this out: if either of them was going to be able to fight without a brain, it was Danielle’s brother.

Yes,” their Branch Master’s voice grandly boomed. “We’re ready.

She vanished. In the same instant, Dalton appeared. In the instant after that, the door was torn to pieces.

“Valhalla’s a-waitin’ f’you guys,” the Cuban in their car bubbled. Magnus was sick of him. He burst into his armoured skin and death-gripping, iron talons, then gave the Cuban’s precious machine a new sunroof. “‘Ey, what t’hell, man!

“Pipe down in there or we’ll find out how much dynamite you ‘didn’t bring’,” Glue snapped. “Let’s go, Magnus.”

“‘Ey, yeah, don’t mind me! I’m jus’ t’e guy s’pposed t’get you Vikings out alive!”

Glue ignored him. Magnus followed suit. It sounded like the fight had already started in there.

More importantly, it sounded like Valhalla would have to wait.

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#, as written by Ten
Well, that was easy. Haggins was in the middle of his second drink and already the kid was drunk. Fin didn't know whether to feel disappointed that there'd been no challenge in it or to feel triumphant that things were going according to plan. He supposed there was no point in being haughty about things, so he was pleased that Haggins turned out to be such a lightweight.

That had been twice that Creasy somehow interrupted or interfered with the conversation concerning the team's current case. And although Fin would have liked to believe the snoring fit that had spooked Haggins was just coincidental, he comforted himself with the fact that, short of waking up and ordering the conversation to stop, there was nothing Creasy could do now. The boy's inhibitions were completely shot and his tongue was looser than Anjelica's bra clasp.

"And then after he set the baby on Jared's lap, the Mohel turned to get his instruments. He was so nervous about the whole ceremony being performed right in front of him, by the time the Mohel turned back, he'd passed out with the baby still on his knees! Haha!" Haggins giggled before taking another long sip from his glass.

"That's hilarious," Fenton said with a dry smirk, sparing a short glance to the seat behind him, his smile widening as he turned away from the deeply sleeping senior Agent. "A timid, Jewish teenager fainting at a bris; definitely a knee-slapper. Although, I do understand where he's coming from."

The alcohol in Haggins' system prevented him from recognizing the sarcastic tone in Fin's voice, so the lad nodded and said, "Luckily, the baby didn't fall or anything."

"Right. Luckily." Fin was just finishing up his first Sea Breeze and barely feeling a buzz, while Haggins was gulping down the remains of his second and on the verge of losing his balance while sitting motionless in his seat. If there was ever a time to start digging, this was it. Especially if he expected coherent results. After the flight attendant brought them both refills on their drinks and wandered away, Fin casually asked, "So, forgive me for saying so, but you're a pretty high-strung guy yourself. Have you ever passed out while working on a case for the Docimasy? Like, when dealing with sensitive situations or gory scenes?"

Haggins was in mid-swallow - taking his third glass down to a quarter empty already - but shook his head. "No, but Anjelica handles most of the... gross stuff. She likes that sort of thing. Mostly, the cases I've done were just investigations of fraud... Misappropriation of Agency resources, record errors, false reports, that sort of thing. You know, when people don't do their jobs and use Agency money and equipment in ways it's not meant for and then try to hide the fact."

Fin nodded thoughtfully as Haggins swallowed another quarter of pink liquid from his glass, and getting ready to use his contemplative tone, he stopped as the boy continued, talking over him. "Like for instance, this current case we're on... the guy has been Lead on a single case for years..."

Wow. Lookit that. He didn't even need to ask. Seriously, was there going to be any work involved in this? It just didn't feel right to have Docimasy secrets handed to him so willingly. But Fenton really wasn't the type of guy to complain...

"You know, sometimes it AMAZES me how much work some people will go through just to get out of doing what they're being paid for. The guy's been working on this case for 6 years.. 6 years, Fin. There are a thousand Agent team requests that have been submitted, approved and filed during that time and there has not been one report from any of those guys and nobody's ever heard from them again. No death reports. Anything. Just disappeared... Then, recently, the other Lead on the case tried to file the same phony reports that she'd put in before, to hide the missing Agents but it was declined because someone else's property was involved."

"What does that mean?"

"Oh, it was just some A-1's elite team that were requested for the case and then killed in the field," Haggins said with a shrug, not noticing the way Fin's face turned white at the mention of the rank. Was this a different A-1? Please, let it be a different A-1. "The guy refused to let their deaths be buried under the rug, so the termination reports were actually submitted and reviewed outside of the local base. Once those were looked at, the incident was reviewed - dangerous and amateur planning was the initial verdict - and after demotions were handed out, the rest of the case work was looked at. Within hours, they found the mountains of Agent team request forms tucked away in the record room at Grissom base."

"Wow..." Wait a minute... "But I thought you guys were investigating a murder case?" That's why they had the slutty coroner on their team. "Are you saying you think these two Leads actually killed those Agents? Jesus... Talk about trying to cover up slacking off on the job."

Haggins laughed. "No, no. That's the other case we're investigating in Charlton. The two cases are related, so we were handed both at the same time. See, and here's where it gets kinda weird, Fin... The female Lead for the first case was murdered by the Agent under investigation in the second case," Oh, God... NOT Patten. Please, tell him Patten didn't kill her for revenge. If Haggins meant Eric Patten, he would have said "A-1" rather than "Agent". ...Right?

"They use to be working on that same case together but this other female Agent--" Wait. Other female Agent? "--has been working as the Lead on a different case for a couple of years. She's supposedly a real hot-shot and so far all we really have on that case is a body. It's like, zero communication coming out of Charlton - faxes and emails were sent to the A-2 in charge, but no response has come back. Docs don't need prior notice and we're always allowed admittance into every base, so, really, it's a courtesy to even ask her before we get there. So, details about why Harper Anderson was killed are still a mystery..."

"Why is that weird?"

"Well, it's just... so... unexpected. From her files, she's supposed to be some sort of prodigy - joined the Agency young, moved up the ranks like a rocket, developed her own system to combat psychic abilities, which is pretty impressive--"

"Wait! A psychic?" Now that the concern over whether or not his new boss was involved had fully faded, a new sinking feeling filled Fin as he began putting the descriptive puzzle pieces together. Apparently, Haggins misinterpreted the thoughtful faces he was making, somehow thinking the issue was the 'psychic abilities' part, rather than recognition of this Agent's personal bio..

"Yeah... Listen, I know the sort of stories that trickle down and I know the hazing that lower levels go through. You A-12 guys aren't let into the inner circle yet, but let me tell you..." Haggins almost fell out of his seat as he swerved his head to look back at the two seats behind them - Creasy was lightly snoring and Anjelica was brooding and sipping at her drink, still listening to her music. Turning back to Fin, his slurred voice got lower as he leaned across the aisle, his eyes drooping and yet still maintaining an emphatic look. "From my own personal dealings and what I myself have witnessed, I swear to God, the stories are true."

"Stories?" Fin asked, trying to hold back the creeping smile that threatened to burst forth on his face, pulling back a little from the strong smell of alcohol and cranberry juice on the boy's breath.

"About the people with powers."

"Oh-h-h." It took all of Fin's willpower not to burst out laughing and he had a feeling that with more than half of his second glass already in his system, it really wasn't helping the fight for self-control.

Again, Haggins misinterpreted Fin's reactions and grabbed onto his arm as he spoke, trying to get Fenton to see the truth of what he was saying. "They exist, Fin. The stories are real."

"No doubt, my friend," he said politely, prying the boy's fingers from his arm. "I wouldn't be here if they didn't. None of us would." Releasing Haggins' hold on his arm removed any support he had, so the lad fell back into his seat heavily, swaying slightly in his chair. A somber cloud began to drape itself over the boy's shoulders, seemingly put there by the odd and sudden shift in the topic. Not wanting to lose Haggins before he was done with him, Fin cleared his throat and asked, "So, do you mind if I ask you this woman's name?"

That instantly buoyed Haggins out of the mood he'd fallen into and gulping down the rest of his drink, he set his glass aside and went digging in his briefcase. After rifling through his papers for a minute, during which, Fin made a halting gesture to the flight attendant to stop her from bringing the new drink she'd mixed, a paper was pushed into Fin's hands and he took a look at it. "Hm, 'Harper Noel Anderson'," he read. "Interesting middle name. But I meant the other one. The female Agent that you think killed her."

Handing the paper back, Haggins grabbed it and stuffed it back into the briefcase, with little care for order or neatness as he closed it. "Oh..uh. Her. Um.. something with a holiday..." Haggins giggled and rubbed a hand on his forehead, his face flushing a heated pink as he mumbled, "Gosh I can't remember... April?"

"Yeah... that's not really a holiday. That's sort of a month." Hesitantly, he offered, "Stephanie March, maybe?"

"Yeah! That's it! March." Yeah, that's what Fin thought. He knew it wasn't a coincidence that these guys were on her case and just happened to be riding on Graninger's plane. "Do you know her?" The recognition must have shown on Fin's face and since it was a little too late to hide it, he rolled with it. With how drunk Haggins was, it wasn't hard to distract him.

"Yeah, I sorta do. Hey, uh... how exactly do Docimasy teams get notified of a case anyway? I mean, what happens to make you guys go out and go after someone? Do you just have someone poring over the files all day, looking for inconsistencies?" Fin would bet his right ass cheek that Graninger was somehow responsible for sending these guys on the hunt for his ex. All of a sudden, he found himself gritting his teeth as he waited for the answer.

Which Haggins was having difficulty giving, struggling now to keep himself sitting upright, almost as much as he was fighting to concentrate on the conversation. Scared that the boy was gonna pass out soon, Fin gulped down most of the rest of his drink and signaled to the flight attendant to bring him another. When she arrived with the drink in hand, Haggins' eyes brightened, licking his lips as he made to reach for it. Luckily for Fin, the alcohol had slowed the lad down some and his hand swept the glass up before Haggins got more than within a foot of the drink. "Whoa there! I think you've had enough, little camper!" Patting the disappointed Agent's hand, Fenton turned to the attendant and said, "Can you get some water for my friend here? In a nice tall glass, please. Thanks."

With the kid revitalized by the almost-promise of more alcohol, it didn't take more than a sip of water for him to willingly return to the conversation - after Fin reminded him of the question, of course. "Well... a case will usually come to the Docimasy if someone reports something. Missing equipment, paperwork errors, sexual harassment... Someone fills out a form that is directly addressed to our office. With murders, it's different. Every Agent death comes to our desks and gets looked at, but it really only becomes an official case when there's a suspect. Then a full investigation is launched. Even if at the beginning it looks like it might have been an accident, the Docs dig into it to make a final call on it."

"But how did you guys get these two cases? Who assigned them to you?" Honestly, Fin didn't know why he bothered asking. It was obvious; they wouldn't send these guys all the way across the country unless someone had a personal stake in the outcome. A personal grudge to be fulfilled, perhaps? And the other case with the missing Agents was probably just a cover to make it look like they had more of a reason to be here than a 5 year old break-up.

"Granininger," Haggins said, drunkenly stumbling over the syllables in the guy's name. "Richard Granimger."

"The A-2 in charge of the Spokane, Washington base." Fenton nodded, feeling both relieved that he'd solved the mystery and that it had nothing to do with Patten at all - if he WAS the A-1 that Haggins mentioned, then he was only peripherally involved. Honestly, what the fuck was Rich doing now? Even drunk, Fin heard Graninger's voice reiterate the warning he'd spoken before he slammed the car door in Fenton's face. This was about Stephanie and now that he knew, he was supposed to stay away from it. But it was like an itch now, one that refused to be ignored while he just sat by and let this guy's agenda play out in front of him... whatever his goal really was. Either way, Fin had a very strong feeling that it wasn't going to be good for Stephanie.

"AND the Chief of the West Coast division," Haggins continued, nodding agreement and raising his glass as if in salute and then making to drink from it, only to be disappointed by the fact that it was water.

"Wait, what? Chief? Division of what?"

Haggins looked up at him, trying to keep his gaze steady - Fin couldn't figure out if that look meant that he couldn't believe he'd revealed this information, or he couldn't believe that Fin didn't already know about it. "He's the Head of the West Coast North American division of the Docimasy. All Docs stationed in and working on cases from British Columbia, Arizona, Washington, Vancouver, Oregon, and California to... Arizona, Utah, Winnipeg, Montana and Alberta report to him."

"..." Fin openly gaped at him, unsure of how to respond - or, really, how far he should take this information, since the list of territory seemed a bit...dubious.

"What?"

"What?"

"...ha, what?" Haggins was stupidly amused.

Alright, this conversation was going nowhere and Fin's level of inebriation was starting to catch up to Haggins'. He was finally ready to admit, he'd drained the boy dry of everything he needed - and hadn't really wanted - to know. It didn't matter anymore anyways. Haggins was seconds away from losing consciousness or throwing up. "Nothing, nevermind. Now, finish your water, like a good boy. God forbid this ends up being a bad first experience for you."

***

What the hell?! What the fuck did he mean 'he was staying behind'? How could he say it so flippantly, as if he wasn't completely abandoning her and Alex? Yeah, and Alex could go fuck himself with his explanation. She didn't need to be consoled. And now that she was here, she wasn't even close to being worried about Xander turning. Ozzie remembered the phone call with Peter and how insanely mad Xander got - not to mention his bloodthirsty, fired up comments after that when he got used to the idea of possibly getting a shot at revenge. She wasn't concerned and she wanted to punch Alex in the groin for being useless and even bringing it up. As if 1. that was really the first thing her mind would jump to and she'd freak out about it and NEED to be talked down and 2. as if HIM, Alex, saying anything would make ANYTHING 'better'.

She wasn't stupid and she understood the why and all that bullshit. She even understood that Gwen was depending on them and that she could only carry one fool on her back on the way out of here. ...Osono just didn't want to leave him. She thought things were going to be different. She thought it'd be like an outpatient procedure. In, then out, and on to saving Gwen. There was a promised future in that and she had the urge to punch Xander in the groin too for taking it away.

She was being stupid and she knew it, so she remained quiet, silently agreeing to the change in plans... until Alex pointed out which of the bodies was Xander's real one. Up to this point, she'd completely avoided looking at the tanks, partly because she didn't care - those people were asleep or something and not a threat; until they started moving, they remained unimportant - but also because what they represented scared her. They were 'asleep' for a reason and it probably meant that they were "empty". It wasn't something she wanted to think about.

Now, however, with her eyes starting at a bare chest and moving up his neck to his half-covered face, she actually stopped and let herself stare. And then she continued to let her eyes wander, always coming back up to his face and flowing hair, picking out different details on each additional sweep. Osono had never been one to ogle or gush over men or boys and they'd never really been an important aspect of her life, except as comrades or brief sexual adventures. It didn't mean that she wasn't interested in more, though. Laying her eyes upon the man that she was just starting to let herself feel something for - completing the attraction with a pretty package - she called dibs on him right then and there.

After that, Xander spoke again, but she wasn't done with the first thing he'd said, getting herself ready for an argument she was GOING to win. Then Alex did something or they were talking or fighting to themselves in that weird, annoying way, and she rolled her eyes at Alex's pathetic apologetic gesture. He needed to knock that shit off. Honestly, it wasn't like she got mad about stupid shit. Anyway, it gave her a moment to think and she stood by planning how exactly she was going to fight him on this. If both men thought they were leaving without her Xander then she'd say it right now so there wasn't any confusion: screw fucking Gwen. In the span of 10 seconds, she'd made up her mind and she was okay with admitting it was selfish. It really was too fucking bad if Gwen was dating one of them because she wasn't getting that one and as much as Osono felt guilty and as much as she did truly care about Gwen - although she struggled to explain why, even to herself - Gwen was NOT here and Ozzie wasn't going to wait until she was. He may have made saving Gwen a goal on his list, even now giving it a point of importance above Ozzie's feelings, but Xander had made it clear he kinda liked Osono too. You snooze, you lose and she'd made her choice. She wasn't leaving him behind in this place.

When he was finally back to talking to her, she continued to disagree with him in her head, ready to object to everything as soon as he shut up. The small almost regretful face he made gave her pause, finally seeing some sign that this wasn't the ideal situation for him. He didn't want to leave her, but for some reason, he felt he had to. True, it might have something to do with his old body needing time to adjust - she didn't know how the fucking thing was supposed to work, so whatever - but she had a feeling it had more to do with Peter than anything else. She couldn't deny that him finding this guy was important - she heard how insane Peter was during the phone call, the creepy fuck; he needed to die or he'd be another Rudy on their asses... except as an actual, plausible threat - but there was a big part of her that didn't want to be reasonable about this. The part of her that was used to solving her problems with brute force and shouting.

The more Alex talked with him, bringing up different points and concerns, the more upset and aggravated about it she became. Because Xander - or Marshall or whatever; honestly, she'd thought he was joking when he said that was his name, but now she was more than willing to call him that when he finally stood up and showed her a smile untainted by Alex's ugly - but anyways, he was HERS, dammit! She just finished branding him with her eyes. If they left him behind, there was a good chance she'd never see him again.

All thoughts fled from Osono's mind, her body reacting defensively and heating the air around her when the sudden noise started up from Xan--Marshall's tank. With her heart pounding fast, she glanced threateningly at the tech but he wasn't paying attention to her - she was hoping that with his skittish personality, if he WAS doing something against the procedure or possibly harmful to Marshall's body, that the idiot would be guiltily watching her over his shoulder. Since he wasn't, instead, professionally focusing on what he was doing, then she assumed that this was how things were supposed to go.

There wasn't exactly confirmation from Alex and Xander's half-conversation, but Alex was asking the right questions for clarification and despite freaking out briefly, it seemed like Xander was letting him know this was procedure and stuff. Or at least he was at first. Then it kind of seemed like Xander was going to be electrocuted or something? Squinting at the lighted tank in the middle, Osono thought she could maybe see what he was talking about from where she was standing. But before she could offer her own opinion about whether it was a good idea for Xander to be a pussy like Alex, or just go through with the damn thing like a man with balls, her whole body froze.

What the fuck was that noise? Adrenaline pumped through her and she got ready to sling fire - although aiming at 'what' was a bit difficult since it seemed like the sound could be coming from the walls themselves. Finally deciding that the only direction she needed to worry about was the doorway, she headed in that direction, only halfway paying attention to Alex talking to Xander. Leaning out, she looked into the hallway where the red lights were still flashing in some parts of it, but it was still as empty as it had been when she and the tech passed through. There was a moment when she worried that whatever the noise was had to do with Rudy and she growled low in her throat at the thought. She knew it was weird that he gave up so easily! After clinging to her leg since she got here, it seemed improbable that he'd just go away because she told him to. Then she began to get angry at him again for whatever he was planning or doing right now since he promised to leave her alone. The little fucking liar!

Impossibly, things had changed dramatically since they'd parted ways and a gargantuan, protective violence began to soak into her body and clothes. First of all, she'd claimed ownership on Marshall and his body and that alone made Rudy seem even less appetizing or attractive than he had before - and that feeling of distaste for the shrimpy dork was growing by the minute as she let her eyes peek over her shoulder at gorgeous... slender... muscles, elegant sloping abdominal lines leading from hips down towards his barely hidden groin. Oh, yeah. Totally gonna hit it, she thought as she turned back to the door with a smirk. Second of all, she was not going to let anyone or anything harm Xander or destroy this moment for him. Whatever she needed to do, Rudy was NOT getting into this room. In fact, if she even spotted the idiot down this hallway...

Xander shouting at the tech guy to hurry up brought her back into the room briefly and when she glanced at the Agent their eyes met for a moment and she pressed her lips together in an ugly frown and pointed threateningly at him with a small flash of her eyes. Nervously, he turned back around and after making sure he was still working, she went back to searching the hall for whatever had made that sound before. And she started to get irritated... and worried... Because, it occurred to her that it possibly wasn't Rudy who made that noise... Were the ghost Agents doing stuff? They obviously had to know the three of them were here - if God damned Rudy knew where they were and was able to find them, then it was likely something the entire Agency figured out the second they parked the car by the curb.

Idly listening to the sound of Xander's voice and finding comfort in it - and feeling uplifted by the occasional reprimand and insult he directed at Alex - she turned back into the room when she realized he was describing or explaining what that sound might have been. Walking forward a few steps, she stopped to listen and gave Xander a penetrating stare, ready to smack him. THAT was more than a good enough reason to drag Xander with them when they hightailed it out of here - Alex could fucking crawl; she didn't care - if this guy Peter had plans for him. If she left while he was defenseless, there was nothing she could do to protect or help him. Stupid ass...

At Alex's nod, she curled her lip, but tried to keep herself from exploding. Instead of giving him more nasty looks, Osono let her eyes wander back to the tank that housed Marshall's bod, finally close enough to see the "lightning storm" that Alex mentioned before and she wondered if maybe she really didn't have a choice. What if it hurt him when she pulled him out of the tank? Could she really risk that? Caution had never been her thing - she just wanted her fucking Marshall; to know that he was safe and still with them. But then again, friends and... attraction had never been her thing either. A few instances of casual sex during her teenage years and adult life - before she met Rudy - but never... fucking googly-eyed feelings.

Huffing a breath at herself, she reluctantly settled down to the idea that she wasn't actually going to be leaving here with him. If not for the fact that she might accidentally kill him if she tried, but also that he'd never forgive her if she took him away from this opportunity to get close to Peter and finish things - hopefully for good this fucking time. As much as she was starting to care about him, he didn't need her here watching over him - and she didn't want him to need her like that either.

Back to paying attention to Xander, talking now about an attack on this room by unnamed enemies wanting the 'cells', as he called them, she watched him with an air of stubborn fondness. Eventually, Alex came to the point that they were going to need to fight Peter's battle for him against whoever was coming, as if being used in such a way was something he didn't agree with. Osono didn't have a problem with that - she was actually excited about it. They weren't Agents - or at least, Xander indicated that they weren't - so she was very interested in seeing who this new enemy would be. As much as she wanted her life back and to stop running, Ozzie wasn't a crusader and she didn't care about the moral justice of destroying the Agency for good. As long as they left her and her friends alone, what the hell did it matter? So, she had no qualms about fighting those who were against the Agency. If they were in the fucking way then she'd enjoy handing out a massive ass-kicking. And she really didn't care if it was something Peter wanted or not; she personally didn't have a beef with the guy, except for the fact that he was a threat to Xander.

For a moment, Ozzie stopped, annoyed and insulted when Alex mentioned Gwen 'crushing' Xander when he rejoined their group, but it was a minor hesitance. Especially when moments later, Xander turned to her, after shouting more abuse to the guy controlling the machine, and confided in her a plan that she didn't even have to agree with for him to know that she totally did. Which instantly brought a grin to her face. Then it dulled just the tiniest bit. This was really it. The tech was on the verge of moving things forward and whoever was coming was already making the building groan. She didn't have another moment and after this... there'd be no other chance to say goodbye. And she hated the way that sounded and felt inside her head. Osono really was going to make herself throw up if she didn't stop it.

Stepping forward so that she was standing right beside the chair, she glanced at the door again to make sure it was clear before turning her attention back to Alex and Xander. Smirking, she nodded at the middle tank and raised an eyebrow and said, "Nice 'skin' ya got there. I'm a little ticked off that I wasn't informed of this prize for getting you guys split up. I mean, I knew it was gonna be great but..." She whistled and let her eyebrows dance a little as she looked back at his body, finally letting out a small raspy laugh when she returned her gaze to him. Then her joking demeanor sobered and her eyes grew pensive and melancholy. "I know we don't have a lot of time and I really don't want to keep you from this, but this'll only take a second..."

Taking in a deep breath, Osono licked her lips and prepared herself. After calculating the distance and the force necessary, she aimed and began to lean forward... her fingers latching directly onto Alex's nipples through his shirt and without a single pause, she gave them both a harsh twist. "That's for leaving me with that whiny bitch Alex, you bastard!" she said, giving him a frown. "A week or MORE?? Are you fucking shitting me?" Throwing a finger into his face, she squinted and said in a low voice. "You owe me for bringing me into this and not telling me what I was really risking, beforehand." A mean and slanted smirk danced on her lips as she lowered her hand and said, "But I have a feeling you'll make it up to me. Somehow." Subtly, her eyes fluttered to shoot an approving look at the middle tank but they didn't stay long as she finally backed off and turned away.

"Oh, and if I got Alex with that instead..." she said, stopping on the way back to her original spot by the door. "...you deserved it just for being a pussy, you big pussy."

There. Goodbye and good luck, Marshall. For now.

***

Wait...

...did he just say Squiddie was coming? He did say that right? Right after he finished shitting on Rudy again and right before the dial tone echoed in his ear, Rudy could have sworn he heard Eric order Squiddie to find him and... hurt him. His whole body trembled with shivering excitement and heat pulsed in his neck and groin at the thought of being punished by her again. And they'd be completely alone this time. His beloved, the cold, merciless, robotic angel that injured him with such finesse and creativity--Holy shit! Rudy was gonna get bopped again! The sudden, growing tightness in his pants made it hard to jump for joy, but he managed a few uncomfortable hops.

Oh, right, yeah... all of that crap Patten said sucked but Rudy found it really difficult to be pissed about another demotion - fuck! Did he call him an A-7? A fucking A-7??? - and having his request smacked back into his face so glibly. Because not only did Squiddie answer the phone but even with Eric talking, he could hear her talking to Eric, telling him the stuff that Rudy said while he thought he was talking to the higher ranked Agent. And that alone made it difficult to not only concentrate on the conversation but also made it difficult to get mad about any of it. He hadn't realized how much of an impression she'd left before, but he felt it on a primal level, even as he looked at the dried bloody carpeting beneath his feet, remembering the agony and the faintness that threatened to swallow him during every moment of his crawl to the locker room. The tension had been so strong, that Eric's order seemed like a promise of release for him.

Hanging his phone up, Rudy stood in the hallway with a dorky grin on his face, glancing expectantly in either direction. Should he just wait and let her find him or would she like things better if he actually ran and hid from her? Would she be extra rough with him if he prolonged things with a game of hide and seek first? What if she couldn't find him though? Would she eventually give up? That wouldn't be fun at all.

...What was he doing before? Something about sandwiches, right? Oh! Ozzie! Yeah... Well, as much as he hated to admit it, there really wasn't any contest. Between his bff and his future wife, of course he'd choose to have his lust sated before he tried to get under Osono's skin again. A beating was a beating and forever now, Squiddie would come to define his ideal, while Ozzie represented nothing but blue balls - which were fun and all, but... Licking his lips and already breathing heavier, he reached a hand up to the crown of his head and pressed his fingers teasingly into the soft bruise that Squiddie gave him. Briefly, he let out a soft groan and his eyes fluttered, while his erection pulsed in time with the pain lancing through his skull, transported from the NOW back to the room where Squiddie inflicted the damage that he prayed would never go away. The remembered sound of bone meeting hard wood flooring made his balls tighten.

That's it. Rudy made up his mind. He was going to propose to her. He'd never felt like this about anyone ever, even that horrible skank Noel. For 6 years she'd been his Mistress, their hatred for each other only alleviated by what they could do for each other - he got to play victim and she got to play tormentor. It was how their... 'love' worked. Intimacy through violence, as Noel did terrible things to his body and he begged and worshiped her for every moment of it. But she'd been more of a whips, chains, and hot candle wax kind of gal, getting off on torturing him in different ways, each session filled with new and exciting pain as she attempted to push his limits to further heights. Without even trying, not only had Squiddie filled the massive hole that Noel had left - only his penis was sad about her death, not the rest of him - but she surpassed his late boss in the level of extremes she'd gone to. Rudy probably suffered permanent brain damage from what she did; Noel's scars and bruises always healed.

Squiddie was special and even as aroused as he was, while waiting for her, he also felt, in his heart... well, okay, so really, he was just excited about the physical aspect of the "relationship", but that was what marriage was, yeah? Commitment to only fucking - or just cumming from the efforts of - ONE person, right? Property rights and shit. As a special person, she deserved a special proposal and since he was eager for her to claim ownership over him as soon as possible, he was gonna have to do it without a ring.

What could he do? Something to impress her and possibly make her happy. Well, she seemed to like her boss a lot - it was... a little hard to tell and the mask was only half of it. Maybe if Rudy did his job a little bit, it would make Eric happy and thus, make Squiddie happy? That meant trying to capture Osono. Ooo! AND if he did that, it'd show her that any attachments he may have had to his target were gone; that after years of protecting his best friend, he was willing to give it all up for her. So long as she "gave it up" for him. Zing!

...it occurred to Rudy that maybe he'd suffered more brain damage than he originally thought...

How was he gonna do it? He knew where she was, or at least where she'd said she was gonna be, so finding Osono wasn't a problem. It was just the method of capture that he needed to decide upon and knowing all of her weaknesses, it was just a matter of focusing on what was most likely available right now. His body pumping with adrenaline and his mind a blur of ideas and hastily thrown together plans, Rudy set off in search of something to aid him in his romantic quest. Walking the halls, with his eyes scanning every surface with focused concentration, everything fell away before him as he thought of his future with the lovely masked creature he was smitten with. Everything he'd ever worked for - his cushy job with the perks of having the freedom to do whatever he wanted while still commanding respect from people who normally wouldn't give him any; his friendship with Osono and all of the grudges he'd held onto over the years - all of it seemed irrelevant now when he thought of marrying the love of his life.

Turning down another hallway, at the end of it, hanging on the wall, he found what he sought and he jogged towards it. Maybe he could even work for Patten? The guy said he wasn't useful but that was only because Rudy wasn't really trying. He was fucking awesome when it came to actually putting effort into things and he'd do it if it meant he got to be closer to her. Hm, he'd have to remember to ask Eric later if he actually had to keep pissing him off to get another "date" with Squiddie or if it was something he could just request to have happen.

Rudy laughed at how insane he'd become, shaking his head in amusement as he unlocked the hose wrapped on a cylindrical peg against the wall, unraveling lengths of it before he turned the wheel next to it and water pressure began to hum through the thick snake in his hands. Pulling it with him, causing the cylinder to turn as more of the hose was released, he began running back the way he came, finding the blood trail again and heading back to the red, pickle people room. Smirking to himself and panting as he jogged, he thought of all the pleasant ways Squiddie might express her admiration when Eric clapped his hands and squealed "Bravo!" - would she choke him, maybe? He really liked being choked and the effect asphyxiation had on his orgasms was phenomenal. Would she break some of his bones? Oh, sweet baby Jesus! That would be so... excruciating. He couldn't decide upon a body part that he'd most like her to break, though. Everything seemed like it'd be really painful especially if she didn't hold anything back from the effort.

Giddy and filled with a rush of overwhelming hormones, Rudy sped up, letting the hose hang back over his shoulder while he ran and feeling the tension in the line as he went around corners. Up ahead, he could see where he and Ozzie had parted ways before, and he blindly rushed towards it, knowing that the room with the jars was only a bit further than that. And suddenly, he was breathless, his heart lodging itself in his throat and rupturing while the arm gripping the hose was yanked backward, the force of which made his feet fly out from under him, slamming him flat on his back.

Blinking and coughing in a daze, it occurred to him that with as many turns as he'd taken to find the thing, he hadn't planned this through very thoroughly; the hose wasn't long enough. Even as he tried to get his bearings back, he was already planning again how he was going to fix this problem. Stupid Agency! Why couldn't they invest in bigger hoses that actually reached important rooms in their bases??? Love was at stake here!

***

It wasn't as if she didn't want to trust him - especially since she felt an almost familial bond with him, seeing him donning that equipment - but Brie had been tricked once already tonight. Not only did it make her feel hurt and abused to have her trust twisted and broken like that, but she felt embarrassed and stupid for allowing herself to be victimized so easily. She wanted to believe this guy, but she also couldn't afford to make any more mistakes right now.

First thing was first, she inspected the paper he held out, quickly skimming what it said and noticing the signature at the bottom. That was a pass given directly by Patten... whoa, then did that mean this guy was important? Immediately, Brie began to get nervous, debating with herself about whether she should risk doubting someone higher up than her, or if she should take the chance that he'd end up not being who he said he was. Biting her lip, she paused when he said that there was a trap already set up inside the base. How was that possible? How could anyone know where the two imposters were headed? They'd questioned her about this base as if they didn't know where they were going. ...Maybe this base was just extra prepared for intruders and always had a trap set up for unwelcome guests? What about this attack he was talking about? Who was attacking and why? Were the man and woman who kidnapped her in on it somehow?

This all seemed very strange... First of all, who would be stupid enough to attack the Agency? Nobody even knew about the Agency except Agents and possibly targets. This almost seemed like the spontaneous "test" that fake Eric had said she'd failed. Outlandish and bizarre and there was something wrong with the reasoning behind it. She felt uneasy. For some reason, he was trying to manipulate her into getting in the car with him. Maybe he was working with those other two? Maybe he was sent to take care of her while they thought she was in the trunk, but now that they discovered she wasn't, they'd decided to try and lure her away from the base while they finished doing whatever it was they were doing.

Brie especially began to get uncomfortable when he started urging her to get into the car because of some "phantom" thing heading this way - according to him. That is until she began to hear the engines too and saw the rocket swirling around. Her mouth fell open as she watched the light show, finally seeing where it hit the base. Shooting an astonished look at the stranger - a silent 'did you see that?' articulated in her eyes - she jumped and jerked back defensively when the explosion went off.

Holy fucking shit! Someone was attacking the base! Forgetting her training and letting the coward inside her take over, Brie didn't need to be told twice and rushed to put herself within the safety of the vehicle, barely having time to close the door before he was peeling away from the curb. As he drove away, she knelt in her seat and turned halfway around to watch the base as it receded through the back windshield, shocked and really disturbed by what was happening. Sure, okay, she believed the impostors were up to no good, infiltrating the base and possibly digging into Agency secrets. But an actual attack on something as large as the Agency? They'd need a freaking army to do something like that!

Finally turning around to sit facing forward in her seat, she sat quietly, thinking of all that had gone wrong tonight and realizing how much she didn't know about everything. Glancing at the guy who was driving, she thought of maybe asking him about it - she certainly trusted him NOW - but driving away from the action, she came to the conclusion that this wasn't something she was expected to deal with. And if and when she was, they'd most certainly brief her on it, rather than leave her asking questions, right? Even though she knew they weren't really in the Agency and that guy wasn't really her boss, Brie couldn't shake the paranoia about "hidden tests" now. She probably never would, since that still seemed like something her boss would do.

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#, as written by Tartra
Buzzy, we’re in.

So let there be darkness. Another twenty seconds of fingerwork and it all shut down. Finally. The Vikings whined about security ‘not being totally turned off’, but she was the one who had to sit here listening to it. The acoustics in her little nest were a nightmare! She couldn’t wait to get out. She’d been trying before, but then everyone had a bunch of other garbage she had to sort through and she’d been stuck even though Marshall was downstairs... Actually, since her job was done, she was getting out now. She stuffed her laptop in her backpack and crushed it with the pillow her butt had been planted on. Ugh – her legs! Out of everything that sucked about this stuff, circulation was definitely at the top of it. She had that... prickly feeling around her feet. So gross, but being a brave solider, she shut it out to focus on gathering the wires she’d snapped into their system. Total disconnect, like she was never here.

If she got paid, she’d so be making the most. She was the reason they were inside. Someone tell her one thing that didn’t scream ‘We are completely in your debt, Buzzy, ‘cause the rest of us are underlings that hit people and fight and have no appreciation for everything you do, without which, we’d be lost’. ‘Cause – like... seriously. Why was she here with them when her branch was in Elmira? Because the Vikings were hopeless and she was the only one Cryptic trusted to be on her own. She could’ve done this blindfolded. Ha! Maybe she should’ve done it blindfolded, just to rub it in! Whatever – it was over, this place was dumb, and after they got finished with it, she’d never have to come back. Unless someone screwed something up, but even then she wasn’t budging. She’d served her time. Buh-bye.

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall – eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, she could take a peek! Scissor wasn’t good for anything and she didn’t know how he’d wormed his way to Danielle’s left hand, but so long as he was running the stasis cell show, she was going to get everything she could out of it. They had to be headed there by now! Okay, so – trying to plan it out, she went over who was supposed to be doing what. They’d brought one of those Cubans to drive the truck – awesome, ‘cause it wasn’t enough that she had to hang out with Vikings, so she was here to kick it with drug lords on the side – but that meant that guy wasn’t gonna come up. He’d stay down there. Well – good. Show a Cuban that didn’t spout a thousand words a minute and she’d show you a twitchy corpse. But then the fat guy – Gus? Yeah, him. What was his power? Did he even have one? Buzzy couldn’t keep track of who did or who didn’t anymore. It was so stupid! They were the only ones doing it right! Cryptic didn’t let anyone join up unless they could fire something out of their nose, but there was everybody else saying, ‘No powers? No problem! It’s not like it doesn’t instantly make you an undercover spy!’ And they wondered why the Agency had zero trouble finding them whenever they wanted? Don’t even think about Eric! When the Agency could find them on their own, there was a serious issue they needed to figure out. Whatever, she was Russian. She didn’t care what they did. They didn’t care what she did, either.

So Tops was downstairs. Gus was downstairs too, ‘cause he was the one who had to put the box in the truck. Nightstalk was gonna come upstairs ‘cause he was the ‘ooh, I control shadows’ guy, and Scissor, even if he didn’t have a job to do, was on his way to hump her leg. So disgusting. Like feeding a stray – do it once and they didn’t go. But anyway, his job was the other half of ‘get to the cell’ security, though if Nightstalk couldn’t keep them covered in the pitch blackness from Buzzy’s gift and from Bergmann a) boarding up the windows, b) finding – like – the oldest building ever, too old to have anything but perfectly identical hallways everywhere instead of jazzing it up real you-are-here style, and c) sending everyone that didn’t have a reason to get down to the lobby and fight in the big fight straight home, then she just wouldn’t know what to say. This was an impossibly easy job: stay in the magic shadows to knock out any night vision or infrared tech, and let Scissor cut up anyone they couldn’t somehow walk around. So those two had to be on it. She could meet them there. The path would basically be clear once they went through. She’d make it!

She twirled her pretty, blonde pigtail and giggled to herself. Yup, she had lots of time before they had to run away. The Vikings were grabbing Alex before he transferred, so... they probably had him by now. That wasn’t good. She wouldn’t get to see him... well – right now. Thanks to the horrible team-up the branches were doing, all the main groups were bunking together. The Vikings would bring Alexander straight to their international base. She’d get to spend as long as she wanted with him! With Marshall, and no one could stop her! She could even be part of the interrogation! She’d be the good cop! And then he’d start to realize she was here to help him and fall in love with her dedication and then fall in love with her and then they’d just be together...! She’d planned this for forever!

Ooh, Marshall...

Wait – what the hell? Buzzy squinted at one of the other fuseboxes. The tiny interface on the side was supposed to be off. It wasn’t. In the corner, a baby light was blinking, and that one was a warning light. It meant there was a spike of energy going on, one that was dangerously close to tapping out whatever generators the building had running. Bergmann’s vault wasn’t connected to this grid at all, so if anything was happening in there, she wouldn’t’ve been able to see it. Whatever was going crazy was an Agency-certified instrument. But... the power was off. Completely off. The back-up lights, the building defences, the electronic locks – all of it, whatever had been left. Technically a ‘fridge light would’ve thrown on the alarm, but there wasn’t anything else that... Not when the only generators running now were for... Right, because the stasis cells had their own system to keep the life support up and to run the rest of its... ‘related operations’...

Oh my God, Buzzy! This was totally happening! Move – get to work! Where was her computer – where was it?

Wires – everywhere! She ripped them out and slapped them back in the power grid, diving through the rest of her bag to hook up to her laptop again. Her screen lit and almost blinded her, but she had to be sure this wasn’t some glitch. This had to be real – the alarm couldn’t be joking!

“Scissor! Scissor – oh my God, you idiot, answer me,” she freaked into her radio.

It couldn’t be him doing anything! Scissor – that’s who she meant – was supposed to be yanking a cell out. That didn’t add to the energy output, and whatever fluctuation couldn’t possibly – OH MY GOD, DTD 05 was engaged!

She was hyperventilating now. Things were... oh... wow... wow – this got... so real, so fast. Years of preparation were...!

Buzzy frantically checked it out. She had to be sure. She was not going into hysterics over a false call! There were five cells in Bergmann’s building right now and they were all listed DTDs. It wasn’t an easy status to get. It stood for ‘deserter, traitor and/or defector’, which was the worst of the worst in the Agency’s books. Anti-Agents couldn’t even get it if they were found out. The person had to be a committed employee who joined the dark side randomly. That was so rare, they didn’t even have a profile classification. Cell classification – sure, but cells always had to have a label ‘cause those damn things were kept forever. It was only supposed to be for the ‘transferred into’ body, though. There wasn’t any value in the original one so those got tossed away. Except for Charlotte, who was the point of this dumb raid, and except for one other very special guy. But a profile listing? Hell no! Profiles were temporary and only for active cases. Once those cases were closed by catching whoever was being chased, the profile was snapped shut and their case number was swapped for the next one on the big Master List. DTDs were taken down so fast that the longest anyone managed to keep it active was Charlotte, once again. So there was no point in specifying. Those who knew what it meant clued in, and those who didn’t get it would just shrug and think the info was missing.

Now, who did Buzzy know that had an unspecified profile number of... ‘05’?

She wanted specifics, so she got specifics. It wasn’t a fluctuation – duh – or any other sort of anomaly; this was fact! The energy was being used by someone, and it was for the beginning of a full transfer of one mind into another body. More to point, it was a retransfer!

It was – like... everything about him was this... amazing survival story.

Buzzy sat back, exhausted by the revelation. Marshall was transferring. TRANS-FER-RING. She’d never thought – okay, she’d always hoped and suspected and sort of assumed she’d be able to talk Cryptic into letting it happen once the Agency was gone – this day would ever actually come! Her toes curled. It’d be the least she would do once he got out! And this settled it: there was no chance he was not getting out. Her man was practically magic! Did he know how crazily close he’d cut it? Was he too freaking awesome to care? Once a transfer finished, the Agency had a one month countdown of a grace period until it said everything was working great and it binned the old bones – his sexy bones – ‘cause the case was wrapped up. On day 30 of 31 – September 30th, she recited perfectly – Marshall broke out, that popped the DTD profile, and the Agency had no choice but to keep Marshall’s stasis cell to pull him out of Alexander ‘cause they had to find out what the heck had made him go nuts to stop it from happening again and because they couldn’t risk damaging the body that had powers aaaaand because there wasn’t any guarantee Marshall would survive a transfer into a different empty body. The timing was so miraculous that it felt like divine intervention, but she’d chucked that theory when he continued on. No one was that lucky. Marshall was – just... Marshall, and that’d been enough. The Agency couldn’t get close to him to drag him back. Her majestic warrior was invincible. For a really weird reason, though, no one else thought that, and there were lots of bets going on that he’d be stopped before he made it two months. Well, ‘cause Lamarre was one of the ones told to catch him, although he never got around to it. She wasn’t sure when the infamously late Breton started interfering, but she was so not pointing this to that France guy. There’d still been others running after Marshall, too. But then it turned into a year, and suddenly everyone had their eyes on her soulmate. She couldn’t be prouder if she tried! Cryptic thought it was still just entertainment. Someone said – the Germans said – the Vikings were interested, but they weren’t planning on investing in him. Instead, they would just let her love do what he was trained to do – dodge capture, smash faces, kick up a wave of damage the branches could only dream about – until he died and they went back to handling it themselves.

She remembered precisely what she’d been doing when she heard the news that’d changed it: she was painting her toenails Peach Pink with her hair wrapped up in rollers, sitting on her bed after a job well done decoding the Transfer OS that Bergmann sucked up and sent over. The Germans were as annoying as any other branch, but at least they were polite and stuck to what they were good at. The Vikings – ugh – they were horrible! If the Agency hadn’t wiped out the other major groups, Buzzy knew Cryptic would have never partnered with them. They wouldn’t’ve even talked if Marshall hadn’t done what he’d did. Thinking about it now, when a dreamy smile climbed over her candied lips, got her to want to thank him. Not for getting the Vikings involved – ew – but – like... well, she’d said it before, hadn’t she? They couldn’t’ve gone this far without him, which was funny, ‘cause when the others clued in that was what the situation was, it happened at the same time the Vikings had decided to cut their losses before it was a loss. So maybe Breton had done more than she gave him credit for, holding back Lamarre until that stupid branch came to stomp everything out, ‘cause if the fight had been off by even a little bit...

The Agents’d brought out the big gun. The Germans only ever had the facts; the Russians and Vikings were the ones with opinions. Danielle said Eric had to help because the Agency had forced him. Cryptic said Eric had never had a problem, and with the way it’d all unfolded, he’d meant to be sent in. Whatever anyone wanted to say – of course Buzzy agreed with Cryptic – the Germans were clear about explaining what had happened: Eric was minutes from ‘fixing’ the Marshall ‘issue’, while the Vikings couldn’t wait any longer and swarmed before the job was finished, and then Lamarre and others had to fight them off. When the smoke cleared and the dust had settled, Marshall was gone, Alexander was gone, and there was a new body walking around ‘cause a different one had just had its head disintegrated. The Germans passed on the cause of death, and it wasn’t supernatural. The Vikings had been about to shrug and move on, except the Germans sent along the rest of the report, too. So Marshall had actually turned against Eric Patten. Eric Patten! The one behind everything! The Agency’s problem-solver! Charlotte’s go-to guy! Charlotte’s! After three months of a deal being worked out – a deal, the report said, Marshall accepted the very second it’d been explained, no matter how raw it’d been – the bottom just... fell out of Eric’s toy box, and Marshall devoured him for it. For the first time in recorded history, Eric Patten failed.

It was the shot that rang around the branches. There’d been a terrible silence as everyone tried to understand. The Agency had been completely blown away. The Germans went into overdrive confirming everything. Cryptic hadn’t even seen it coming. The Vikings...

Basically, the Vikings hit the jackpot.

This started. Danielle spent years looking for Eric’s weakness, and now she thought she’d found one. She didn’t trust him – DTD status so didn’t mean Marshall would want to help them – but France had Breton already in place and they’d gone from there. Danielle didn’t want to stop with just this one attack. Eric’s corpse-jumping powers were too strong to not recover, but she said she saw answer in what Marshall did. She said it was the chaos the Vikings created. Buzzy rolled her eyes. Cryptic would only shake his head, but she’d say it if he wouldn’t: bullshit. Charlotte and Danielle were like best friends! If anyone should have known what utter crap that was, it was Danielle, but she didn’t care when the Russians explained it and just went on a rampage – getting help from Marshall – through the Agency’s forces. She figured Eric needed those guys to be dangerous, and that this was the absolute last straw. They were taking Charlotte in the ‘ultimate show of force’, and there were rumours – just rumours, because as fucking dumb as the Vikings were, they couldn’t be this dumb – they were going to use Charlotte as ransom to try and get Eric to turn on the Agency, too. She didn’t know that part of it, but apparently Charlotte promised she was gonna keep Eric from only going so far, even in death, and Danielle must’ve thought this was what the woman’d meant. In the end, the point was to keep Eric’s attention here so Cryptic could wipe out Elmira, then there’d be nothing for Eric to use. Buzzy didn’t want to believe it was working, but... Eric was here. The Germans just said there were invisible guards around too, so there was the proof they needed to say he was protecting his... okay – seriously, one of these days, they were gonna have to come up with some word to describe what the hell had been going on with him and Charlotte. ‘Girlfriend’ was not it. ‘Mortal enemy’ was closer. Maybe ‘with benefits’? Anyway, he had standing around. Cryptic wasn’t convinced.

So they hadn’t seen what’d stopped Eric from fulfilling his promise of bringing Marshall in. Big deal. That didn’t mean it was a failure. In fact, not seeing made the very solid argument that Eric had done it on purpose. Maybe he’d wanted Marshall to be loose or... or maybe he’d wanted his telekinetic body destroyed. It didn’t matter. Cryptic had signed on out of curiosity. The Russians only wanted to watch how far Danielle would take this and how badly she’d miss the point. The Germans sent everyone the same reports: the Agency was strained. Cryptic – and Buzzy – totally got that. If this dual-attack worked, Buzzy might even admit the Agency was losing. Except there was a whole other part to this. Every so often, Eric fought back. Lamarre was out of the game so long as Breton was around – oops, that was over – but it just proved how independent Eric was if he didn’t even need that guy! And ‘every so often’ had been slowly dropping to ‘infrequently’, with ‘rarely’ set to go to next, and each time, like clockwork, the fighters Eric sent out dropped in number – sometimes more than they should’ve. She’d say it again: Danielle, wake up! Because those documents said the total opposite! When Eric stepped in, they burned to the ground. So – yeah, it was nice the Vikings were whittling the Agency away and it was great that they’d teamed up with whoever was left, but the Agency wasn’t the problem. Eric wasn’t trying and he was kicking their butts when he felt like it! Just… he never felt like it anymore.

Cryptic wanted to know why Eric wasn’t always fighting. The Agency now actually had to tell him to get involved. If he’d kept at it, the branches could’ve been buried already. Buzzy frowned to herself, hearing her leader’s theory in her mind. He’d come up with an answer. She shivered remembering it.

‘He was busy.’

Oh, and they had no idea with what. That’s why Cryptic was leading the Elmira attack. Dr. Grace Li ran that show, and Eric ran her. Whatever he was busy with, that’s where it had to be. They’d told the Vikings. Danielle said it proved twice as much how obsessed he was with Charlotte. Why would he leave his more-important-than-the-branches project alone if that was really what he was up to? It’s what Cryptic was finding out. He, with Danielle for once agreeing, was going to find the project and take it. In return, Cryptic sent Buzzy to Danielle to help steal Eric’s girlfrenemy – nope, not the right word – but only to prove a point: it wouldn’t work. And if it didn’t work – and no one knew about the invisible guys, so there was the red flag – the Russians were pulling a France and getting the hell out of here. Buzzy already packed. She’d probably have to re-pack because one last part of the puzzle had changed.

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! MARSHALL WAS COMING BACK! Great work, you stupid Vikings! Your one chance to control things – to get Marshall before he transferred – had just gone up in smoke, and Buzzy was loving it! There was no way in hell she was going now! Not without her Marshall!

Buzzy?” AHH! What was that?! “Babe? What’s wrong?

Scissor! So annoying!

“Um – nothing,” she radioed. “Nothing – it’s okay!”

She was hearing clanking, so they were going up the stairs. They weren’t in the cell room yet. Then Marshall had puh-lenty of time to get inside. They weren’t gonna stop him.

Buzzy, this is Night.” Ewwwwwwwwwww. “We’re aren’t screwing around. What happened?

“Nothing, you loser,” she sneered. Nightstalk. How pathetic. Bad enough Scissor had wormed his way to Danielle’s left hand, but it was twenty times the insult when Nightstalk – the guy supposed to be in charge – actually lost to the freak. He must’ve been so embarrassed. “I said it was okay.”

Then stay off our channel.

What a jerk. Like she’d wanted to be on his crummy channel anyway. She was just making sure they weren’t gonna interfere. It wasn’t her fault the Vikings were so awful that they couldn’t even interrupt a –

Oh, fuck.

Fuuuuuuuuck, fuck, fuck!

“Wait!”

Her voice crackled in the air. Pick up, Nightstalk! Don’t be an asshole!

Buzzy, what?

Panic-started-coming-in-‘cause-she-just-remembered-something-that-Nightstalk-and-Scissor-were-going-to-the-cell-room-‘cause-they-had-to-get-Charlotte-and-if-Marshall-wasn’t-in-his-body-and-he-killed-those-two-the-rest-of-the-Vikings-would-know-and-they’d-come-in-and-kill-Marshall-or-break-his-stasis-cell-or-else-Marshall-was-already-inside-‘cause-he-transferred-and-then-that-would-mean-Nightstalk-and-Scissor-would-see-a-stasis-cell-engaged-and-read-the-name-and-know-what-was-happening-and-hit-the-kill-switch-and-Marshall would be dead!

“Ah – nothing! Really! I’m – just...” Total lie. Total lie! Oh crap, what was she trying to say?! She loved Marshall, but this was gonna be the end of her if she did something stupid like help him! “I – just...” She couldn’t. Buzzy, don’t! Her passion was endless and pure and innocent but the Vikings would ruin her if they found her protecting an Agent! “I don’t trust you Nordics. Stasis cells are serious technology and... and you guys don’t have any clue about what you’re doing!” She-was-doing-this-for-love– “I’m coming with you.”

Nightstalk sighed. Buzzy was having a breakdown!

Coming to work, or coming to gawk at your boyfriend?

He was so rude! How dare he think she was anything less than a professional! She didn’t have to be here! Besides, if there was a transfer, there’d be bubbles everywhere. She wouldn’t see anything. Duh!

“I’m coming to make sure you don’t screw anything up,” she said, throwing her stuff in her bag again. “Where are you?”

We’re on our way to the second floor. We’ll be at the –

“No – stay!” Shit! She was basically on top of the building! “Wait for me. I’m not gonna let you two screw this by tugging the wrong wire and killing Charlotte.”

This might be hard for you to believe,” Nightstalk said, “but our branch has handled stasis cells before. In fact, we’ve handled all of them from the beginning.

“So?! I’m supposed to be impressed? You stay right where you are, Night. Cryptic will snap you into pieces if I have to walk there by myself and I get hurt. Wait for me!”

We don’t have time to wait, Buzzy.

“Then maybe I don’t have time to keep these lights turned off, then maybe you won’t have time to explain why there’s a giant ball of shadows wandering the halls!”

Come on! Come on...!

... Just hurry up.

HAHA! She did it! There was no second glance at her nest. Either she had everything or she didn’t. She threw her backpack on and streaked to the stairs. She had to get there! She had to save him!

* * *


Yeah, a week or more. That was how long he was stuck with her. She wasn’t the only one who hated how it sounded, but he was trying to be mature because this was supposed to be for Gwen. She didn’t seem to want to think that way. He didn’t get it! He knew they weren’t best friends, but almost everything she did had to scream that she hated him. What did do to her that kept having this happen? The Rudy thing? He didn’t know how to apologize! He wanted to but – seriously, could she give him one chance to take a breath before he got attacked again? So to sum that up: “What the fuck, Osono – oww! What is wrong with you?” And he glared at her the hardest he could without starting to melt her brain. Yeah, like he could find it.

Alex, I’m not even gone yet. Don’t start shit with her already.

She –”

But Xander clamped down on his jaw, so she got to do her little goodbye or whatever the hell she was saying, but he batted her hands away so they were not on him during it. She put a stupid finger in front of his face, and that made him jump enough to almost rear back in the transfer chair. Yeah, it went straight to his leg, thank you, along with everything else he’d hurt during this crap. He glared at her the hardest he could without starting to melt her brain. Any other expressions she wanted to make weren’t gonna be about touching him. At least with Xander, he got half of second of warning ‘cause he knew the guy.

Awwww, you’re gonna miss me.

Xander was flattered.

“What’d you say you were? Like… a tidal wave putting out a volcano?” Well, Alex could swim. “Yeah, I’ll miss you. You’re the lesser of the two evils.”

‘Lesser’? Do you know what tidal waves can do?

“No. But volcanos have worse movies. What she said – she’s right.” Not about the ‘ha, ha, you’re a pussy because I nearly tore your nipples off’ shit, but the other part. “You’re just leaving her with me? ‘Cause I really don’t see why we can’t take you.”

Touch the cell. You’ll figure it out.

He didn’t have to. He could hear it, that powerful hum. The crackling of the lightning storm had gotten worse. He watched nervously.

“That’s actually safe?”

Yeah. ‘Basically’. Which meant ‘no’ as far as Alex was concerned. Oh, but it was ‘fine’, right? If, by some miracle, you figured out a way to get me out, I’ve still had my body shut down for years without moving it. I’d suffocate because I wouldn’t have the strength to breathe.

“And just to be clear: this is voluntary electrocution. And according to you, some people go insane?”

The pussies. Ha, ha, ha. Which I am not.

Alex sighed. He didn’t like this. The technician guy was glancing over his shoulder meekly, like he wanted to tell them something – ‘start’, probably – but couldn’t get himself to say it ‘cause… well, Osono. If this was how she treated her ally

“You’re going to be okay?”

For his sake, his nerves, plus to be extra sure he had some word to take back to Gwen, and maybe even Osono if she ever bothered to ask, he needed to hear it, because he still felt like he’d be abandoning the guy.

I get why you’re asking – and fine, in a creepy and back-away-a-little way, it’s cute – but if you ask again, it’s gonna translate in my mind to, ‘You’re a whiny bitch, Xander. You hang on while I find a tiny stroller – I’ll just roll you out so you don’t break a nail walking’. Relax, Xander said sternly, while Alex tried not to wonder if that was going to be the last time. I got this. And it came with the warning that Alex didn’t believe him, purple nurples wouldn’t be all he had to shake off.

Alex frowned at her again. He could feel Xander shifting in his mind, ready to shut him up before he said something dumb.

“Advice?”

Cut her some slack. She isn’t used to you. You take getting used to. Yeah, barbarians always had trouble with forks. Easy, bunny balls. You play nice while daddy’s gone.

How? This whole time, she hasn’t done one thing –”

You started that. She’s got it in your head you don’t want her here. Gee, really? Where on earth could she’ve picked that up from? Exactly what I’m saying. Let it go. Alex heard a wince at the end of that. It was followed by a snap of pain from his leg and vague resitting of it on the leg rest.

“Xander? You hanging in there?”

Yeah – I just… can’t… He trickled off irritably, sounding annoyed with himself. The pain went away, but Xander went to his corner like he was dropping in exhaustion. He played it off like it was normal. It’s on you to fix, he was saying. You set the pace for her to think you’re a prick and she plays too rough for you to join in. There’s nothing to connect with right now.

“So I’m screwed?”

Make the effort, Xander said. It’s gonna piss her the fuck off, but if you keep making the effort – and don’t fuck it up by being… you – she’ll get the message that you’re trying. And it doesn’t mean apologizing every three seconds. That won’t change anything and she’ll set you on fire.

“If I do or don’t, that’s still a given,” he muttered in his throat.

Hey. He knocked Alex’s hand on the armrest. Stop that.

“Tell that to her.”

The both of you. You’re distracting me from my philosophizing.

‘Philosophizing’?

“... Like the creepy euphoria you were in?”

I’m arguing semantics, Xander said. How many chunks can you put a guy into ‘fore he technically becomes a soup?

“That’s not philosophy.”

You’re right – it’s biology, and it’s about to get as hands on as fuck.

Splendid. To go from talking about Osono, they would talk about Peter. Actually, it made him feel a little ungrateful. Xander was the one having to deal with him after the betrayal Alex barely knew anything about because it’d been so fast, and he was the one ready to climb into a jar and spend three hours getting zapped on every skin cell, and he’d still taken the time to give him some sort of idea of what to do with this firewoman. Alex had to get a grip on his sense of perspective. Who was really screwed here? Who could actually use the support? … but –uh… quietly, because that ‘you’re calling me a whiny bitch’ thing was probably still going.

“Did you figure out how to get rid of him?” Alex settled back into the seat. “That whatever project you think he’s got – are you going after it first?”

Eventually. It’s just concrete on his coffin, for making sure he doesn’t pop up a third time, however the fuck he did it a second, Xander said. I’ve still gotta kill him before anything else.

“But you’ve figured out how to do that.”

Maybe. He shrugged. It doesn’t matter. I’m just gonna end up in a blackout rage. That’s the only part of this I’ll regret: not remembering how I fuck him up. But it’s fine. It gives me something to laugh about later.

Peter was going to be done with soon. He was a bad memory that’d floated back to the top, and Alex hated feeling like he’d never shaken the fear of running into him again. Hearing he was alive had been a shock, but talking to him on the phone was like... It felt like they’d been expecting it. His everlasting supply of paranoia refilled and the sense of eyes on the back of his neck kicked in as strong as ever, but it was more an explosive frustration than any real disbelief. That wasn’t renewed, just strengthened inside of him. Then the feeling was right: he’d never shaken it. He’d pushed it down instead. That was his ‘secret sense ability’: no matter how bad it was, he’d live with it. He might not make the best decisions and more often than not, it’d dictate his whole life, but he’d always find a way to think of it as the best of a shitty situation, like a warped optimist. So... he looked at Osono. No, he wasn’t getting out of working with her, so yes, it was time to accept her. Eventually, if he kept his mouth shut and she kept her hands to herself, they might balance out and find... some version of harmony that didn’t involve flames. But Xander couldn’t do that.

Alex knew he couldn’t. This ‘Peter’ thing, something that’d stretched to grab every day up to and including the betrayal, had always been the guy’s sore spot. Xander was so sure he’d put an end to this years ago, and to have Peter show up now, happy and healthy and forcing a reunion, must’ve... Well, he didn’t need to guess. Alex’s ears were still ringing from the sound of Xander snarling. He was quiet now, but his fury hadn’t gone anywhere beyond moving off to the side. And he was supposed to stay in control when he saw Peter alive again? ‘Blackout rage’ – that sounded right. And it sounded like something Peter would see coming. With as much time as he’d had to prepare for this, maybe Xander couldn’t – ohhhhh crap, what was that?

“What’s –”

The head gear. For your head. You don’t have to freak out every time something happens.

Thin wires had come out of the top of the chair, curling into a wide circle that ran around his forehead. There was lots of space between them and his forehead, but there were three and the little halo they made was dotted by tiny globs of metal symmetrically spaced and pointed at him. Did those turn into spikes? They might turn into spikes. It felt like the kind of dick move the Agency would pull.

“Does this look familiar to you?”

T-minus two minutes, was Xander’s reply.

Two minutes. AKA the last call for panic.

“This is the easy part, right? Be honest,” he said, trying not to sound out of breath. “I don’t want to find out as soon as it starts than I get my molecules rearranged or a giant saw comes out to hack me open.”

You’re fine. “Goin’ now, Sparky. Keep this guy in one piece. And add it to my tab – I’m good for it.”

“Right. I’m fine.” Alex sat up straight. He’d shrunk away from the wire-halo. He completely shrank away again when the chair started humming. “And this –”

Calm the fuck down, man – Christ! I’ll tell you when something’s wrong.

Okay! Okay – then this was all standard procedure. This was supposed to happen. The chair was rumbling and he didn’t see that coming, but that was standard procedure, too. And the tech didn’t seem worried. Wait – would he be worried?

“Xander?”

Fucking – what? What is it?

The wire-halo was making Alex’s hair stand on end. His teeth were chattering ever so quietly in his mouth. His body was tense and his eyes were too wide and he was uncomfortable no matter how he tried to warp it.

“Nothing. Nothing, I can do this. I do – what the fuck is that?

They’re restraints so you don’t move, Xander explained, impatient. They’re normal. Everything is normal.

This was normal?! Thick – too thick – metal bands had spiralled out of the chair and around his neck, arms, legs and – right on top of Osono’s fingerprints – chest. Alex was good and helpless. Very good and helpless, he could say, and the chair reclined even farther until he was almost completely lying down. They were now in full control of him. The Agent operating the buttons over there and the ex-Agent inside his brain had full rein to do what they wanted. Xander’s tank flashed dangerously, ominously painted with bolts throughout its core. Alex could see it from the corner of his eye. It was all he could see, other than the ceiling and... red.

“I don’t want to do this anymore.” Fuck it – he didn’t care if he looked pathetic. “Xander? I don’t want to do this.”

Should’ve said that before the restraints came out. Stop moving, asshole!

His leg was burning. And how many times did Xander say he’d seen this? He thought he remembered everything? God – the worst thoughts he could think of were all he could think about, and they screamed that this was a trap and he had to get out.

“I heard an explosion,” he babbled. “You heard it?”

It’s probably just those people here to kill you, Xander said. He thought that was funny?! Alex, relax. Take a fucking breath.

“Wow – really? Just breathe? That’ll magically do it for me?” Full panic mode. These restraints weren’t budging ‘cause it was probably a fucking trap. “I can’t! I can’t – I can’t – I can’t – I can’t – I can’t!”

You’re gonna, so breathe.

This fucking thing around his neck – was – choking him –

“You do it!”

What?

“Do it,” Alex gasped. “You think it’s so easy, you do it!”

… What, breathing?

“Yes!”

… Breathe. You want me to breathe for you.

Yes!”

Um… Alright…

Xander took over.

Everything around him turned off.

The light dulled. It could’ve gone black for all he knew. Alex stopped hearing the tank, and the vicious snarl of thunder faded. The chair disappeared from under his legs, its shaking dimming down to the faintest pressure on his back. The nerves in his foot were on fire, but his mind wouldn’t focus on it. It was too busy moving. It was too busy guiding his lungs. In one, sudden, almost too-cold breath, a wash of air went down his throat and stayed there. It didn’t leave. His lungs started burning. He felt them get too full and stretch, and his mind still wouldn’t focus. Just before he thought he was going to pass out, the air flew out of his lungs and he collapsed in his own style of exhaustion. Everything left him. He was soothed to the point of being numb. He was tranquilized. One breath, and then Xander dumped control back into Alex’s hands.

So this was what he meant when the guy said ‘relax’. How the hell was Alex supposed to do this on his own?

“Thanks.”

Yeah. He was still a little freaked, but he wasn’t tense, and the kick-start had brought his breathing to a ragged but steady rhythm. … He could hear disaster out there, though. And for that, Xander almost smacked him. Just think about something else, would you?

“Like what?”

I don’t know. Anything. Spiders. So now he was thinking about spiders. Thanks, Xander. Hey, you could’ve picked kittens.

“… I don’t want to do this.”

‘This’ referring to willingly undergoing a transfer.

I noticed, but it’s happening. It’ll be done soon. Don’t move. And if you panic again, I’ll choke you.

That sounded like a promise. Out there, he heard another quake through the floor. He didn’t let himself think about it hard enough to gauge whether it was closer.

“See you in a week,” was all he could think to stay.

Yup. Don’t kill yourself. Ride the lightning!

Xander had great timing, because the humming picked up. A spike of dread shot through him as he heard the machine, but a fuzzy tingle spread across his face and he was suddenly cut off. There was a divide in his mind. It felt like a vacuum. Xander’s order to breathe echoed in his head and Alex put it on a loop, feeling the raw edge of terror start creeping up on him. He could not think about this transfer. He could not start questioning its safety. A sharp buzz ran between his ears, and just now did he find out he couldn’t shake his head to clear it. He was paralyzed. His jaw was glued shut, and while his fists weren’t clenched, they were locked into place. Xander wasn’t going to hear him if he asked whether this was normal.

This was it. This was the transfer, and he was trapped until it finished. Someday, someone was going to ask him what he had noticed first: the tearing crest of pain overloading his knee or the sudden...

... flooding...

... space.

If he could scream, he would have. Instead, he thought about spiders.

Oh, and about how much his nipples hurt. He couldn’t forget that.

* * *


That... sound...

He heard it.

... So familiar.

Desperate.

It broke him from his work. It told him to pay attention.

He knew those eyes. They asked what he hadn’t answered in many years.

Eight years.

So familiar...

Dear God, how things had changed.

No game now. No choice. No breath of basic mercy.

He wasn’t sure who to blame for this. And that stir in his blood as he saw it all...

He didn’t know who to thank.

Underneath it all, buried but alive, was his relentless understanding of that sound. That... ringing.

‘Will you kill me?’

And those eyes.

‘Perhaps.’

It was so unusual for them to ask. She was so honest in her request. But he had killed her. She would die. He had a standard to uphold; he wouldn’t fawn over this. The act was enough without details, without tracing a line into a path. This was art. A man much worse than he had ever been would have called this ‘art’.

‘What are you waiting for?’

His canvas, his paint...

This was not how he fought.

‘More.’

She was alive. He knew her limits. Whether they walked through walls or stood as mortals, he would always know their limits. He stopped short of hers, but then he pushed her again.

‘More what?’

She was watching him down there. She was waiting for the man she had heard about. He knew what she expected. The beauty of saving one of them meant a full trade of information. He had been their terror back when he had put the effort in. He didn’t wait for them to attack. He hunted them, understanding why they had to fight. He saw the break in this system as plainly as anyone. There was his mercy: he empathized. It wouldn’t stay his hand, but if they asked, he could answer.

‘More of you.’

He let them go. The choices...

He hated them for their conceit.

‘You’re an evil man.’

They never bothered to dig. They took what notion they fell upon and ran with it to its bitter end. All their ideas were scraped from the surface. Self-absorbed, because they wouldn’t understand. Wouldn’t, because they didn’t want to.

He tried in his little ways. His mercy led to choices, led to games, led to life. He tried to have them choose. He tried to have them see the danger. They thought him a monster because he sliced, carved and gutted their friends and strung them up in full view. When he destroyed their homes, he did so in ways even he found disturbing.

‘Only today.’

‘Always.’


Once upon a time, he disturbed Eric.

Eric couldn’t wait for him to do that again.

‘I don’t have to kill you.’

It was the story of his life: the greater good was outdone by its tragedy. He killed to break them. He wanted them to scatter. He wanted those deaths to strike a fear in their hearts that drew out their surrender. They took it as a challenge.

They never saw his other work.

‘Haven’t I suffered enough?’

This blade could hurt in two ways. It struck from the side of his fist, or from its top. The first was unwieldy; twisting his arm to slash left him awkward and exposed. He had to strike quickly instead. He had to stab. The violence of the word swallowed its gift. One, sharp, straight, clear pierce through the throat, towards the brain. Done. It came with a glow of victory. With the blade on the outside of his arm, he spared them their pain.

But resting flat against his wrist, over his knuckles...

Art.

It took time. It took flourishes. It took sacrifice.

She endured it quietly. He hadn’t made up his mind as to whether it deserved approval or disgust. He took no pride in dealing pain, but for her to not acknowledge it was an insult.

‘Yes.’

‘Then why won’t you end this?’


She hadn’t played fair, he protested. But neither had he.

‘Because I haven’t.’

He should have untied her.

‘That’s ridiculous.’

She spoke with only her eyes.

There was nothing left of her mouth.

There was so much blood around her...

‘I never asked for your opinion.’

The collar had been wise. It could never be a level ground; such a risk, such a fair fight against an enemy defied his duty to this cause. Maybe it was why Eric found him so amusing. Fascinating, one might suggest. It was the kinship around the twist of terminology – he fought a fair fight for as long as he was able. He simply chose to use ‘fair’ in a specific way. To him, it meant ‘just’, and ‘just’ meant ‘right’. It meant ‘moral’. Eric thought the concept hilarious. Here were these people he was assigned to kill, and he gave them a chance to give up and run before he murdered them to stop any problem they might cause. They could always choose to live. He would never taken a life that didn’t ask to be taken.

‘I never asked for you to kill me.’

But let them win? Give them any hope they could? No. That would be lying. Lying outside of what was he comfortable with. He was an Agent, after all. In his soul, he heard his own words: always trusted, never believed. He would let them live, but he would end them if they resisted. How he went about presenting these rules was his own clever game. He tailored it to the circumstance.

... So familiar...

That sound...

He had to win.

He was the only one he knew who could handle whatever path this world was leading them down. The others – all of them – always had a catch to their competence. He didn’t listen to what they said they could do; he watched how they moved and studied their shortcomings. Where they showed promise, he stepped aside. Where they didn’t, he took over. It was why he couldn’t rise through the rest of the ranks yet. There was so much work left to do as an A-3 that going on would only serve to abandon it.

‘That was beyond my control.’

He’d given himself too much responsibility in a group that recognized none of it. If he finished his work, would they notice? Would they hate him? Their existence depended on them always having an enemy to fight. If he took down that opponent, or in an ideal world, befriended them, the Agency would have served its purpose.

Everything, as it stood in this dark day, hinged on that not happening.

‘You can’t really believe that.’

He wasn’t sure it was worth stressing over.

He was thinking again.

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

He didn’t appreciate it. Thinking led to trouble. He knew that. He’d stop.

‘You had your chance to stop this.’

‘Did I.’


The Agency was a good idea. Salcon believed it; therefore, he believed it.

‘You chose not to.’

Eric was a steadfast ally. The Agency trusted him; therefore, he trusted him.

Stop thinking.

Stupid. Pointless, stupid, unchangeable – it didn’t matter what his drunken head wanted to gorge itself upon. In the end, he couldn’t do anything about it.

‘I have a feeling you resent that.’

He just didn’t understand why he kept coming back to that point. He’d done it before, back when Eric had joined the Alexander case. He couldn’t... stop... thinking... something had to be...

He didn’t know how to explain it.

‘Fuck you.’

It was an instinct. Therein laid his dilemma, because an instinct was not about thinking. On that alone, there was no reason for him to suppress it. There was more thinking to be done arguing against this urge than not. But something else rose up, stalking out of the corners of his mind to talk to him.

Perhaps...

Perhaps he was arguing against this... not to suppress it...

‘For that, I suppose I’ll let you bleed to death after all.’

... but to delay.

‘You don’t mind waiting?’

Something was wrong with Eric. That point had been made so oppressively clear that he hated himself for saying it. But now there was a new note attached.

‘I’m a patient man.’

Something was wrong with Eric, but now was not the time to find out.

‘I’d hate for you to get bored.’

‘I won’t.’


... So familiar...

He blinked. He blinked hard and snapped out of it.

Ringing. That’s what that fucking sound was. It was an alarm. One of Madeline’s screens had lit up in excitement. Benoit walked over to it, proud that he’d pushed the chair out of the vault to give him more space to deal with the girl. Bad enough he had wade through a red puddle and mar his shoes without tripping over everything else in here.

What was going on? Because he needed to ask, as if he hadn’t seen it a thousand times already.

“Your friends are here,” he murmured to the German. Somehow, he was intrigued by the lack of response. He turned his head to look at the woman, then raised an eyebrow at her. She was dead. She hadn’t made him wait. That was polite of her. Going back to the screen, he saw a recognizable face. Danielle. Then Dalton. Then Danielle. He made a ballpark estimate of how long they hadn’t switched to get as big as they were: five days, possibly six. The twins would never make it to eight. Danielle hated being out of control for long and she wouldn’t mentally endure the agony of being reduced to a drooling idiot. Benoit should say hello, considering they were the branch he’d been about to blow up a few weeks before Jean interfered. Speaking of whom – “I’d normally say your friends were here too, but I’m assuming they’ve abandoned you by now.” Far be it from them to ‘try again’.

No good. Any of this. He called himself lucky for having this debacle pan out as it had. Eric was the one to tie her up and Benoit, as an A-3, could not overrule his decision. He’d worked with what he’d had and... he’d gotten carried away, but the energy said he’d done so down lines he remembered from the past. Within him, it clicked, but the challenge came back as well: balance. Malice did not become him. It’d be easy to lose himself to it if he didn’t maintain his distance. His rule was that the search and the kill could never become something personal. As for the chase...

Well. Total aloofness was trouble, too. He had to have some give in it, or he’d be no better than an executioner. Always keep that balance, above the games, the choices and the mercy. In the end, it’d be worth it, even if he spent the lead up wondering how much of it was borrowed from Eric’s book.

... That sound...

Footsteps.

* * *


Is that the best you can do?

Yes, Dalton. It was. Magnus had been watching. He could taste the air around them. The carnage on his tongue was... moderate. But loud.

“I’m never washing this off,” Glue shouted, ripping the fuse she’d streaked through the air. Magnus cleaved the spine from the Agent that’d tried to stop her. He hooked another with his talon, carving a hole through its belly as it squirmed, trapped, and tore itself. Glue cast her fuse out again, catching her bomb on the back of her latest sight’s head. “You’ve been doing this longer.” She ripped it. The Agent’s head burst. “Has there been a mess this bad?” She cast the fuse back out, almost fishing. She was quite skilled at fishing.

“Knowing Patten’s around has everyone excited,” Magnus yelled back. The spikes on his arm plunged through a guard’s mouth. Great strips of flesh tugged away as he pulled this Agent off of him. The body’s throat sprayed a frenzied mist and landed on a different corpse. They were running out of room to stack them. Magnus crushed one under his claws. “Get the Agents on the stairs.”

“Are you telling me or Dalton?”

Your blood will spurt from your veins!

“Whoever gets there first.” Dalton did, followed by Ricochet, who led with his knives as he sprang from ceiling to wall to corner. The Agents dropped their guns in horror, showing their ranks. Bergmann had done them a favour by choosing a base tucked out of the way; she’d been able to argue for novice security. It gave away the fun, but the Germans never left them disappointed. Three of her floors – two upstairs and one sub-floor underneath – had been filled with guards that Buzzy’s rampage through the power had locked in until Danielle gave the word. They flooded out when the warning lights shut off. Dalton’s voice brought them to the lobby. Their plan to rule the floor as the Agents crowded in and strangled themselves had worked. The fight began at eighty-seven to twenty-one, minus the five Danielle made scout the rest of the building. Dalton began with his fists coated in a stiff shade of red. Now the floor lay carpeted with the teeth and limbs the Nordics had split from Agent torsos, and Dalton’s hands, the triumph of their branch, dripped with life he had claimed. “Are we saving one?”

“I thought that was the plan,” Glue said through the war. Part of the wall collapsed beside her. Auldegg flew into it, stabbing somebody in place. That would be their banner: one man, one face, pinned and screaming to the drywall. Their gifted seamstress pulled her thread through his arms, piercing every organ she could reach before he died. Glue waved to her as Auldegg dropped down, tossing out a smaller bomb to rupture the legs of one fleeing. Auldegg waved back, pleased she didn’t have to chase the damned fool, but screeched at Listless when he consumed the thing before she could sew through its heart. Even with so many, the Nordics fought over their kills. They lived for competition. “We should hurry. There aren’t many left.”

The Agents had wasted their ammo. Whatever guns hadn’t emptied, Frysskal froze in their hands. He wasn’t as strong as Heat Storm; where every hand she warmed would have melted at the wrist, Frysskal had only burned three with his cold. Those frostbitten palms shattered, and he went for their eyes as they cried. Slakt Tand had given up his talent; he and Cradle were using their axes. They moved as a team through the shattered floor. Cradle morphed the broken tiles into a grave, and Slakt Tand made certain it was occupied. Nine Agents had been cleared by them already; a good number for such a slow choice of strategy. Dalton was whipped away by Danielle. When he came back, he was behind the last large group. Those eight were boxed in on every side. Danielle switched over whenever one tried to run, and Dalton did not forgive their desperation when he returned and wrapped his hands around them.

Magnus didn’t hear swishing. The brutal din of Hell seemed silent without it. CryShadow was still on patrol, it seemed. Whether it was with the other four remained to be seen. Danielle would refuse to call this off until her best spy was back. They had time.

“Pick one,” he barked at Glue’s back. His elbow impaled another guard, spearing it – a woman now – into the ground through her jaw. “Not that one.”

“Or this one,” Glue said. The line of light wrapped around her finger was yanked back. Her bomb went off again. She’d stuck it to an Agent’s shoulder. Riposte ran past, dragging his toy by the chain he’d wrapped around its neck. “Riposte! Stop there! Hand it over!”

Riposte had started climbing up a column to string the Agent up from the second storey’s walkway. He paused where he was, his nails digging him into place – as good as Auldegg, though he lacked her web to hang his prey – but he frowned and whined, “Glue! No! This is one of the invisibles and I found it!”

That was one of the invisibles?

Magnus was not impressed.

“When you have your husband abducted and murdered, you can have your pick,” Glue said. She held her hand out for the chain. Riposte sulked but heard her point. He dropped and brought the gasping Agent over. “Thank you.”

“What am I supposed to do now?”

“How did you find him?” Magnus needed to know. Riposte wasn’t a dumb kid, but he wasn’t a hunter like the rest of them. “Did he attack you?”

“No – I tripped on him,” Riposte said loudly. Dalton was pulling the stairs apart. “It wasn’t hard. I surprised him. He tried to shoot me.”

That gun was a dangerous weapon. Magnus towered over it. The Agent wailed piteously.

“What gun is that?”

“I don’t know the name,” Magnus told Glue. “I only know the Russians like it and they’re building their own. A shot would have killed you, Riposte.”

“I was wondering when I’d hear something like that. This mission isn’t anything special. Patten’s supposed to be obsessed with keeping Charlotte.” Glue huffed. More Agents screamed behind them. Dalton had taken the stairs apart to beat them with it. “I’ll never call the Russians ‘right’, but I didn’t think they were completely full of shit. It’s about time we found out what these invisibles can do.”

“And that they exist at all,” Magus added. The Germans, once again, succeeded in their report – however last minute this detail had been. “Riposte, tell Danielle.”

“Then do what? You took my bad guy!”

“Give Auldegg a hand with hers,” Glue said, pushing him under where their seamstress was hanging. “She’s an old woman. She can’t catch everyone by herself. Auldegg!” Glue made the decision official. “Riposte wants to know if he can get anyone for you!”

“Aren’t y’a blessed soul, love! Yes – gather what’s around! I’m afraid these legs aren’t’as spry’s they used to be.”

“That means I don’t get to kill them,” Riposte grunted, still sulking. “She does.”

Glue shushed him and sent him on his way. He jumped back into fray happily enough.

“We have until CryShadow comes,” Magnus said, able to lessen his volume now that the Nordics had taken over. “Keep your ears open.”

“I take it it’s your turn,” she noted.

“No. It’s yours. But I’d appreciate the favour.”

She clicked her teeth.

“You keep asking for these favours and I’ll never get my revenge.”

“That’s true, but as you explained to our friend just now, ‘the bigger the loss, the better the choice’, and I have three lives to avenge.” He wrapped the chain around his hand, pulling it tight and crushing the links together. The Agent – dressed in a suit so much sleeker than what he’d seen before – kept gasping. “I win.”

“How long’re you gonna pull that card? It gets old,” Glue poked at him. “Alright. You win. But I get the next one.” Magnus bowed in thanks. She bowed back, accepting the praise of her generosity, then led the way to a room behind the lobby’s front desk. A deeper receptionist area was in there, it seemed. “Don’t wreck what he’s wearing. The Russians’ll want it.”

“Unless this suit doesn’t come with something for a head, I’d say it’s already wrecked.” The Agent’s face was bare because Riposte liked looking them in the eye – or at least the one that was left. The other was swollen shut. Amazing. Usually it was gouged out. “We’ll find one later.”

“I think I already saw this suit,” Glue said, building a bomb in her hand. Magnus threw the whimpering Agent into the room. Glue shut the door with a solid slap. Her bomb filled their eyes with a yellow glare. “No, I know I have. Sunder had three of these. Slakt Tand – he had two.”

“The invisibles are already out there?”

“You’re as disappointed as I am,” Glue sighed. “I guess Patten doesn’t want Charlotte that much.” She took the chain off the Agent’s neck. They wouldn’t need it. Magnus wouldn’t. “But he is an idiot, and this a... very nice gun.”

“He spent his money on technology.” How dull. “I was hoping for a challenge.”

“It’s sad that Bergmann’s guards are better. More guards than there’s supposed to be,” Glue said. “We’ll have to thank her for the present.”

“... P... please...”

“Oh look. He’s talking.”

“That’s never smart.” Time to begin. He stretched, hoping to build his enthusiasm. He looked the part, and that he could always count on. Magnus shone in Glue’s light. The spikes on his arm were still wet with blood. His hair turned to razors when he transformed, and its length, grown beyond his back, had its own body count. By itself, it slashed the minds of six as he had sprinted through this weak, sobbing, bald man’s colleagues. His talons clinked as he flexed his hands. “What is it, little Agent?”

“... Please – I... I... have a wife –” Glue’s eyes snapped open. “ – and kids...”

Magnus ran his tongue along his teeth. His spikes shimmered as her bomb flared.

“We have something in something in common,” he told the bald Agent. “I’m a father, too. But mine are dead.” The Agent was smart enough to not shrink back. If there had been any truth to what the Russians had said, he would not have been caught at all. Not by Riposte. Patten had failed to deliver, but Magnus smiled absently at the effort shown through what was assuredly an expensive investment in equipment. “Care to guess how that happened?”

Anyone else who’s finished here, get cooking,” they heard Danielle call. “Riposte, find the rest of these fucking ‘invisibles’.

“Guess,” Magnus said.

“I... I don’t –”

“Sure you do,” Glue stepped in. “It’s the reason we’re here, Agent. You heard the man: guess.”

The Agent didn’t want to.

Fucking Patten thinks his pretty suits did shit to stop us – can you hear me, you son of a bitch? We won! The next time you buy your power, pick up the talent to go with it! Wrap this up, people.

“Don’t listen to what’s outside. She isn’t talking to you.” Magnus leaned over the man. “Guess.”

“I... we – I –” The hope was draining from his face. “They... were... held for transfer –”

“Try having some trust in your processes,” Magnus said. “The transfer holds them in a vegetative state. That’s not how they died.”

“I –”

“Tell him, Magnus.” Glue’s bomb burned brighter. “Or I will.”

She wanted to skip to the good part. She still craved their torture. Her loss was a fresher wound in her memories. They’d somehow agreed his loss was fiercer, but they’d done this so many times, it was hard to get excited by the Agents’ begging. When had this become into work? There was no passion in it anymore. He spoke like he was reading line off a card, disinterested. He fought like it lately too, lost in the thought of doing this forever with no respite. Glue stood as his inspiration. That was the malevolence he needed to reconnect with. Any less, and he could never earn his family’s peace.

He had to feel something tonight.

Magnus’ feet scraped closer, his claws landing at the Agent’s toes. With a delicate touch, his talons tipped the Agent’s head up. Magnus stared into the man’s one good eye. The Agent understood what was coming for him.

“I killed them. I killed my children,” Magnus said, blankly. “All because your company decided they were a danger to the public, and that was it best to replace them with their own soldiers. It’s a sad story, and I have ways of telling it that would bring you to tears – truer tears than the ones you have blubbering for your miserable life. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to share it.” Magnus straightened up again, looming over him. “Not with words. I’ve never been good with words.”

“CryShadow will be here soon,” Glue remarked, sounding bored from where she stood by the door. “Once it’s done scouting the building, we’ll have to go. The Cubans won’t wait.”

Magnus brushed a talon across that other eyeball. Glue enjoyed the trembling fear.

“No. I’m not good with words. I’m sorry, little Agent. It’s not what you’re used to. You’re not supposed to be killed unless the mood for it’s been built, and I can’t do that,” he said. “There’s too much out there and I don’t have the patience.” The Agent tried to shy away. He was already pressed against the wall. There was nowhere for him to move. Patten’s best? “I’ll just have to slice the skin from your body and pick the muscle from your bone.”

“It’ll be more pain than your brain can handle,” Glue said. “You’ll go insane before he’s finished with you.”

Please!” The Agent was pleading. “Please! I have kids! I have – Goaaaaaaaaa!

Magnus snorted.

“‘Goaa’ is a new sound.”

New was good. The good filled him. It didn’t last.

“I think he was saying ‘God help me’,” Glue mused, swirling in delight.

Magnus wouldn’t ask. It would have had more to do with words, and at any rate, he’d already drilled his hand into the Agent’s stomach and slid his talons through his lungs, cutting him, cutting him, cutting him...

* * *


“Here! I’m here! I –”

Shut the hell up,” Nightstalk hissed. He lunged at her and pulled her into shadow cloud, covering the hand she’d been using to light her way. “Do you want to get us killed?

What, what’s the problem? I’m here,” Buzzy whispered, managing to get her mind around that. She suddenly looked at the ground, and then kicked at it, still with her hand flashing. “What’s this thing?

It’s a fire hose, my bumblebee,” Scissor explained. Nightstalk scowled at him. Scissor didn’t see. “An Agent brought it with him. He’s sitting over there.

Buzzy looked at Scissor, then Nightstalk and the edges of the cloud. Finally, she stuck her head out, having the sense to keep her hand in and use the light trickling down the hall from the Stasis Cell Room instead. SCR, as he liked to refer to it. After assessing the situation with her cotton candy excuse of a brain, she looked back as if they were the ones being silly and shrugged at them, saying, “So? Why is that a problem?

He’s an Agent, Buzzy. That is the problem,” Nightstalk spelled out. Scissor wouldn’t do it. He was ‘in love’. This was who Danielle trusted more than him? He’d grown up with this man, but all it meant was he was the authority on how wrong for the position he was! “We’re not moving until he’s handled. We can’t risk going around. He’s dangerous.

“... Are you fucking serious?”

Shhhhhhhh!

“No, screw that, I’m not whispering,” Buzzy said, ensuring the only thing keeping the Agent from whipping around and finding them now was his shadow cloud absorbing the sound. She held her hand up. “I’ll take it care of it. He looks like a wimp.”

No, because he’s an Agent, you fucking simpleton,” Nightstalk snarled as loud as he trusted himself to do. “They don’t hire just anyone, Buzzy! These people are professionals and they’re trained to kill whoever has anything to do with us. Don’t move. I’ve called CryShadow –”

“You called CryShadow for this? This?” She cackled. “Give me five seconds to fix this.”

I’ve called CryShadow and it’s on its way,” he said. He tried to mentally force this child-woman to get with the fucking program. These Russians couldn’t think the way they were supposed to. They’d already told themselves they were alive at the Agency’s choosing, so they’d thrown out their basic sense of preservation. This was an Agent, he wanted to scream! Even with Scissor here, Nightstalk wasn’t taking the risk, especially not if Patten was around. “Don’t move until it’s over. CryShadow will kill him.

“Scissor, did he actually call CryShadow?”

Don’t worry, Buzzy,” Scissor smoothly said, sliding up to her as if he was made of oil. “I won’t let the big, bad monster get you.

“You’re both fucking stupid. Get out of the way,” Buzzy told them. “I’ve got work to do.”

No – don’t move!

“Let go of me, Viking!”

Stop, stop! Let him concentrate! Nightstalk had had about enough of her and he was ready to give her a piece of his mind, but he felt a push from the back of his cloud and he froze, because someone else was here. It wasn’t CryShadow. Someone completely different had just walked in and he felt nothing but panic as grabbed both his allies – he used ‘allies’ loosely when it came to the air-headed Russian – and pulled them against the wall, tightening his cloud.

Buzzy, baby, hush,” Scissor said. “Something’s wrong.

Scissor wasn’t an utter twit around her, then, and the growing-up-together insight had him accurately reading Nightstalk’s reaction. Buzzy glared at him. She didn’t fight, however. Good – Nightstalk could focus on what the hell had walked in his cloud. The Germans said there were other types of Agent now, like invisible ones, worse than the regular cloaked kind. It was up to Night to protect his team, as it was to proper leader. He drew his cloud in tighter, giving the intruder plenty of room to walk by without stumbling into them. He was staying with his idea to wait for CryShadow to handle it. Maybe, though, they’d get lucky and this stranger would draw the Agent away.

Unless it was another Agent.

Shit. It’s a suit,” Nightstalk muttered. “Shit!

CryShadow had to hurry. Like Nightstalk feared but expected, the suited Agent had stopped walking, and it stopped walking very close to where they were hiding, then started tapping on its... helmet. Well, the helmet was new. Usually they had a mask or goggles, but he recognized what the tapping meant: ‘What is wrong with my equipment?’

Shit. Shit! He hadn’t retracted his shadows fast enough.

What’s the damage, Night?

Scissor was obliviously unconcerned. Nightstalk took it as a compliment in trusting his cloud to work.

The damage is that that walked into my shadow shield. A suit’ll get its sensors scrambled because the shadow goes over it; they can’t see anything unless I let them, and I didn’t let them. Dammit – it’s gonna look for us.” He swallowed heavily. No, be a leader! Take charge! “Alright. Scissor? Get ready. You might be up. Buzzy, you too. We’re going to work together.” He heard a sound. “Buzzy?

Night?” She was whispering again. He was almost pleased with her, except he was aware of the tone she spoke in. It was the Russians’ ‘Patten is here and he’s come to end us’ tone. “You don’t know who that is, do you?

Other than ‘another bastard’?

That wasn’t the quip of a man getting ready to fight a suited Agent.

Do you?

Uh-huh.” Buzzy was terrified. Nightstalk could see in his cloud as if it were broad daylight, and he saw her face turn pale. In one of the rare times she ever had, she clung to Scissor out of her free will. “I know who that is.” The Agent stopped tapping. Nightstalk knew what was next. He tensed as it stood with its back tall and alert, turning its head to scan the corridor and confirm a malfunction, and therefore the absence of mystical shadow clouds. The Agent would shrug it off if they could escape. The trouble was that they were now between a rock and a hard place, because the Agent with the fire hose was still an issue, and any chance that they could have been Bergmann’s ‘Agents’ was gone when he remembered the Germans’ plan to get out of here. “It’s Squiddie.

Who?

Oh my God, you Vikings don’t know anything,” she squealed. “Squiddie! It’s Squiddie! Eric’s right hand!

Scissor’s face wasn’t picking up on it.

Who’s Eric?

Patten, dummy.” Sometimes, Nightstalk resented Scissor more than usual. “She means Patten.

Oh my God. Oh my God.” She was breathing too fast to be safe. “You’re sure you called CryShadow? Oh my God – tell me you called CryShadow.

Buzzy, I don’t know who –

Shut up, Night!” She was pulling herself against the wall now. Where was the ‘thank you’ for not letting go of her? The Agent, meanwhile – Squiddie – was taking a slow step forward. He knew that, too: it was trying to check if there was simply something wrong with this specific area that would show up again if it walked back through it. Nightstalk could reach the cloud out if the Agent stepped back to where it’d been. He’d done that once before and it’d worked. It’d been a good distraction and he’d run away unnoticed. “This dumb stuff better hide us!

It will as long as we’re quiet,” Nightstalk said, “and as long it doesn’t come in to find us.

How the hell do you stop her from doing that?!

Oh. It was a ‘her’.

Mostly I stay out of the way and wait for the Agent to leave.

Nightstalk’s powers weren’t offensive. They were strictly for support or defence, two very crucial roles that let him plan from the shadows he found refuge in. Even Danielle did that, in a way. When Dalton was out, she was like a ghost. She led from a distance like Night. They could have bonded over that had he moved faster. He should be the one leading this SCR mission.

Buzzy-bee. I’m here. I won’t let the scary squid get you,” Scissor assured.

You Vikings don’t get it! We are fucked if we don’t get out of here right now!” Buzzy was panicking. This wasn’t the best time to notice, but Nightstalk liked her better that way. “Squiddie is dangerous! Eric doesn’t trust anyone, but if he was going to, it’d be her! She’s his assassin!

Hey, what kind of name is Squiddie?

Don’t worry about the fucking name, Scissor! Can you two pay the hell attention?! We have got to get out of here! We have to run when there’s the slightest chance!

We’ll wait for CryShadow.” But they didn’t have long. This ‘Squiddie’ character was now positive something was amiss. He’d be sure to put a cloud over her if she found them, but he didn’t see a lot of point. Agents were trained to fight in the dark. The good ones could fight blind. “It’s a tight spot, but we’ll handle it.” Through his guidance, certainly.

Buzzy put her hands over her mouth and made a muffled whine, like she was smothering a scream under there. Then she put them up as if she were stopping the conversation, apparently struck by inspiration for how to better explain herself. By all means, Buzzy. With her Russian awe for all things that hinted to Patten, enlighten the wayward Nordics.

You know who Lamarre is, right?

Don’t patronize them.

Yes, we know,” Nightstalk said. “Is she like him?

That could be a problem. That could be a big, very big, problem.

Hurry up, CryShadow. Nightstalk knew the tiny demon didn’t like him because he controlled shadows and that was essentially what CryShadow was, but they were on the same team. Work together! Wasn’t everyone supposed to want to?

Yeah, she’s like Lamarre, if he was bionic,” she spat. “You don’t get to be Eric’s personal guard if you can’t topple over an army single-handedly!

Lamarre can do that,” Scissor said. “Remember the Americans? Ooh – remember the Moroccans?

Would you Vikings just drop it with the ugly Moroccans?! That was – like – forever ago, and Squiddie could’ve done it with her eyes closed!

‘Squiddie’ could’ve trapped a full branch in a cave and drowned them? I don’t think so.” Nightstalk was proud of his encounters with Lamarre. He’d only been through two, but it put him ahead of the other 80% of people who’d been through just one and hadn’t lived. Buzzy wasn’t going to smudge his personal triumph by piling on paranoia about a ‘personal guard’ that didn’t seem to stop the multiple occasions they’d killed Patten before. “Tell me she’s a great Agent and that I’ll believe. Tell me she could destroy a branch by herself or with her eyes closed, and I’ll say it’s hyperbole.

Buzzy blinked.

Okay – Scissor? Remember when I said that if Eric killed anyone, I hoped it was you?

Yeah. And you said I could touch your boobs.

“One. And I take it back,” she said, glaring at where she figured Nightstalk was. She’d put her hand down. “I want you to live and Night to get his butt kicked.

That’s a great team spirit,” Night said.

And it didn’t stop Squiddie. She’d taken more steps while they’d bickered, and again she stopped to study her environment. This time, she was standing in front of them. If she reached to put her hand on the wall, she’d touch Scissor’s shoulder. Nightstalk braced for impact. Scissor was prepared to defend himself. Buzzy’s hands shot back up, but they were shaking and weren’t charged.

Swish, swish.

Perfect! Night relaxed again. Scissor looked somewhat disappointed. Buzzy was still going nuts because... well, Patten.

Another swish, swish. Squiddie turned as thought she’d registered the change in proximity. Nightstalk wasn’t a fan of CryShadow’s methods, but he got a certain satisfaction out of seeing suits torn apart. He felt a bit daft for being troubled at all. Ever the actor, or actress as the case remained to be seen, CryShadow had a knack for tension. Night wasn’t the one to do its grace justice, but he’d certainly try. He’d watched this enough to put a clever narrative to it. He liked the arts; he would not disgrace them by clumsily barking out details of CryShadow’s show.

A-hem.

Swish, swish.

She’s backing up,” Buzzy whispered, adding nothing to what they were already looking at. “She’s going away...!

This Agent was on her toes. She had stopped trying to find Nightstalk’s cloud – he should have really drawn it back as soon as Buzzy arrived, but the girl could knock Buddha from nirvana – and, with her arms held somewhat away from her sides, stiff as though set to block an attack, she walked down the hall to where the first Agent was. A friend? A colleague? What did they call themselves? To the chorus of faster and rising swish, swishes, Squiddie arrived at and turned to the other. Ah, they’d grouped together! CryShadow would enjoy – Squiddie kicked the other Agent through the wall.

... Yikes.

Um.

Hmm...

That’s a room,” Scissor realized out loud.

Certainly a room. He’d been mistaken. Squiddie’s leg had curved as it lifted into the other Agent’s gut, not just hitting into him, but actually scooping the surprisingly small man up. Replaying it in his head, it wasn’t quite a kick then, because after she’d scooped him, she’d flung him from her tibia – recognized as the main bone in a leg, for those who were not aware – with such force that he’d utterly blasted through the door that he’d been resting on the ground beside. In went the other Agent, disappearing into it. His impromptu flight must not have broken the door itself, however. Squiddie had left enough of it in one piece for her to pull it shut. Nightstalk couldn’t tell if she had locked it. Then, Squiddie stood, her arms held above her sides as though they had never left. She was waiting, it appeared to Night. Had she run, CryShadow could have given them more of a show.

Swish, swish. Swish, swish. Swish, swish.

From the ceiling, and then the floor. The noise was all around them, echoing from everywhere and yet no where all at once. Scissor was excited. Buzzy was not, but she’d at least clasped her hands together instead of having them up. She rested them on her chin anxiously.

Nightstalk felt spoiled. He could see in a way the others simply couldn’t. They’d get whatever they could catch from the CSR’s light. Admittedly, that was more than okay, but they lost the detail. It was black-and-white against full colour and high-definition – there wasn’t a contest! So while they heard the sweeping and held their breath, Night stared as the walls rippled, unseen in the cloak of lost power, slithering around and around in a great circle, blackening everything behind it. The living shadow was picking its angle, and as it twisted like a snake to move along, it gave another swish, then another, and another. CryShadow could not walk silently, whether out of its choice or its talent’s limitation, but – oh, did it do wonders for its audience’s atmosphere.

Squiddie would have seen it by now. Her head didn’t turn, but if the helmet was like the goggles at all, she wouldn’t have had to. The sensors would have been picked the creeping blackness that cut into the CSR’s red and white blaze. Wait, white? There shouldn’t have been white in there. It – swish, swish. Swish, swish. CryShadow had its scent. Actually, Nightstalk didn’t know if it could smell. That made its next move so much more... titillating.

CryShadow had been watching movies again.

The entire section of the hallway Squiddie stood in was surrounded. The shadows had painted every surface, though they left an empty ring around her feet. The neatness of the lines used in the boarder was impeccable, and at last, Squiddie, by now having all the information she could expect to have from her equipment, turned her head in a slight tilt to the side. She was listening. The swishes were gone now that CryShadow had settled its space. Squiddie was listening to something else. A growl. A low, faint growl, pulsing from the two walls and ceiling. Squiddie was waiting.

Teeth.

Yellow teeth.

Their tips grew from the shadows above her head, slowly coming from the darkness as a mouth formed around them. The teeth were sharp and lined in a jagged row, and the black gums forming to hold them together lowered those diseased sabres closer. The ceiling was twice the height of Squiddie’s stance, but that distance was cut by a quarter by the time they all emerged. Its jaws hung open for a reason, and Night knew there was a tongue wiping the hungry drool before it dripped. Coming after the teeth was not the head of animal; instead it was ebony and eyeless, shaped to coil into nothing less than a starving snarl. Ridges lined the sides of the sleek cover housing what would have been its brain, its roundness reflecting the light – “I fucking knew it – it’s stealing that shit from Alien!

Scissor, shut up,” Nightstalk hissed again.

That’s bullshit,” Scissor whispered, outraged. “Heat Storm drags that thing around and treats it like it’s Steven fucking Spielberg. Yeah, well – I think I know now she means James fucking Cameron. What a hack!

So anyway – because that wasn’t important at all, Scissor – CryShadow, hanging with the face of what-one-could-say-resembled-the-alien-from-that-movie, began to growl deeper. An ephemeral fog of dusk breathed out of its fangs like smoke, rolling down to curl past the Agent’s shoulders and run the length of her spine. Squiddie didn’t move. CryShadow didn’t mind. Its teeth split wider, folding back until the bottom of its jaw could touch the ceiling. Now the drool did drip, but vanished in the air before it struck her. With a bob of the throat it made for itself, it lowered a second – “Hey, it did rip Alien off!

Right?! Another mouth? Like that’s not what the movies are known for?

Nightstalk said CryShadow had probably been watching movies. Good to know what’d been on TV last night.

Oh my God, if you two don’t shut up, I’m pushing you out there.”

The second mouth of knife-like fangs let out a reclusive but high-pitched screech. It moved as though sniffing the Agent’s head, lapping up whatever fear it invoked. Whether satisfied or finished, CryShadow coiled its copyrighted tongue. A flicker of thirst bent along its face as it growled from above once more. They stood like that, the five of them: the hunter, the hunted and the watchers. Squiddie would try to fight, as they would always.

And... as it... always would...

CryShadow-lashed-through-the-air-and-plunged – and Squiddie grabbed it by its second mouth and yanked. Pop. It snapped off the wall. Then – poof, because it vanished like the drool: into fog and into the shadows. No more Alien.

Gone.

The cube of darkness didn’t waver. No one could kill the darkness. They heard a bright chitter from a corner, and then a swish, swish as it circled around. Night saw it. CryShadow moved like ink in water. Squiddie was still, powerless to find any possible trace until it made its move.

Therefore... she waited, until... it was... time –

CryShadow plunged.

Like a column of death, a pillar simply appeared from the ceiling and punctured through the ground. Moving faster than Nightstalk expected, Squiddie strafed to the side. She stood still there, too. The pillar didn’t disappear. It marked the centre of the hallway it’d painted, and from the left – plunged. It wasn’t attacking, Night saw, as Squiddie was trapped from behind. It was herding. It was fencing her in like she was cattle. Another streamed out, thinner and sharper, and when Squiddie moved, the beam whipped itself to follow and block her escape. Then dozens appeared like wraiths, stabbing from one wall to the other, from the floor to the ceiling, from corners and bends, always burrowing through to the other side and ripping holes through every surface it owned. In seconds, Squiddie didn’t have anywhere to go. She should have run while she had the chance.

Hundreds. Thousands. Millions, some as thin as wire, others as thick as branches, all of them closing in on the Agent as she danced through the spears it teased her with. The Agent was fighting her life now, planning to disappear if only she could outlast the shadowy spikes, but she didn’t notice the hallway that’d been sectioned off now melting. Night didn’t blame her. She had a fair list of preoccupations. But the darkness took on a shape, no longer a harmless design cast by light. As though it were oozing from rafters, the lines Nightstalk had admired for their neatness fell and curtained over her. Scissor and Buzzy witnessed a terrifying sight: the Agent’s tricky footwork disappearing behind a deafened wall of black, until it finally consumed her and left nothing to see through. Nothing for them. Nightstalk had a full view of what was happening. CryShadow’s spears had tightened, and the Agent, despite her dexterity, was caught in its web and strangled.

“Did he get her?” Scissor poked his head out. “I can’t see – is she dead?”

Without the light from the CSR, they were blind. Buzzy lit her hand up. The cold bolts writhed between her fingers. Their brightness ended at CryShadow’s solid wall. They were stuck out here until the skirmish was done. On the bright side, the fire hose Agent was, too. CryShadow might have even covered his door, locking him in.

“She’s not dead,” Buzzy said. She was going off her Russian garbage, though. She was right, but accidentally. “She’s too good to die.”

Nightstalk frowned.

“Buzzy, who exactly are you cheering –”

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaam!

“Oh – fuck,” Scissor yelled, clamping his hands over his ears. Buzzy nearly electrocuted herself by not shutting off her hands before she did, too. “What the fuck was that?!”

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam!

Nightstalk couldn’t see anything. CryShadow’s wall – it was still solid, but that shouldn’t be a problem for him. The last image he’d seen was a spear wrapping around the Agent’s neck and hanging her, adding on by grabbing her feet to rend her in two, or three if it was in the mood.

God, that sound

And it exploded back into the shadows, its shrieks howling through the building, its walls collapsing into nothingness. The Agent dropped to the ground. CryShadow didn’t care about her. It thrashed in twenty directions, breaking the halls apart as it screamed and that noise slit their minds into shards of madness. The Agent stayed on the floor where she’d landed, tiredly, not immune to what CryShadow had done to her, but whatever she’d done to it to make... that noise was unending!

“CryShadow, get out of here! Find Danielle,” Nightstalk could barely heard Scissor shout. None of them could press their hands any harder. They’d crack their own skulls if they tried, but the sound was telling them to try – “Go, skitstövel! Dammit, go!”

The spears CryShadow had left behind didn’t fade, Night saw. They crumbled. Not once had they ever gone like that before. They blew up into powder as what was left of it mauled its way across the ceiling, recoiling from the joint between it and the wall as if it – a shadow – had run into it by mistake. Still it screamed, wilder, savage, torturing them in three voices as it spasmed, desperately amassing enough of itself to find the way it’d come from and fly. It slithered erratically, untouchable in the darkness but screaming as it left. The Agent didn’t wait for the sounds to die before she was on her feet. Now, as though she’d recovered, she strode to the room she’d thrown the other in and reached inside. Like he was no heavier than a sack of potatoes, she dragged him out by his leg and took him down the hall, too. She, however, found the stairwell Nightstalk and Scissor had entered from. She went in. She was running away.

Herregud…

Night hadn’t been the one fighting, but he was gasping for air anyway. He couldn’t take his hands off his ears. Part of him felt like the screaming would come back. Buzzy had been floored by it. She’d dropped, her shaking knees too weak to keep her standing. Scissor was panting like the rest of them, but he’d let go already. He was the closest to the SCR and his silhouette was turned towards it. Was he planning to move? So soon? After that?

“What happened to CryShadow?”

It could have been any of them who’d asked. Scissor was the one who had a response.

“The Agent... hurt it...”

But that wasn’t possible. CryShadow was a shadow. Shadows couldn’t be hurt. Scissor’s face said he was thinking the same as confusedly as Night, until he remembered he was in love and fell over himself rushing to help the Russian.

“Squiddie’s gone,” Nightstalk said. “The way’s clear.”

“How about we take a minute to put ourselves back together?”

Scissor said it scoldingly. He couldn’t believe Night would want to do anything while Buzzy was upset, even though he was the one with the glint in his eye telling everyone he’d go by himself if her and Nightstalk weren’t ready that absolute second.

“That sounds good to me,” Night said.

A break: smart idea, Scissor. Smart thinking.

* * *


The Russians thought they were idiots. The others could jazz it as they wanted with words like ‘fiendish’, ‘destructive’ or ‘uncontained’ – the Russians thought they were idiots, and as Oscar would say until his face turned blue, nothing helped them with that like the patrols. The main group was in the place they were supposed to be, the place they’d informed the other branches of, led by Danielle and her brother; meanwhile, these fringe gangs ran around corners to cause whatever chaos they could amongst the leftovers. It wasn’t satisfying work for them – Oscar had been here for only six minutes and all six had been used ignoring Luke’s complaints – but the fact that that was the point wasn’t explained to outsiders: everyone on patrols were there not to flank or scout for Agents that got away, but for punishment. Consequently, nobody expected them to stumble onto anything. They dealt with ‘leftovers’ ironically, in that there were no leftovers, and as such, when Oscar was usually called by one of them, it was to stick back on the arm they’d blown off of themselves because they couldn’t sit still for any length without something needing to bleed. Short-sighted, but vaguely entertaining. Oscar looked down on the patrols with contempt, but the goodies they came up kept them close to his heart.

“Do you hear screaming?”

“I dunno. Whatever.”

Today was full of surprises. The patrol had outdone itself, which wasn’t a hard hop over the bar they’d set so low, but he wished them his thanks all the same. Monkeys chewing on the Mona Lisa... Whoever was thrown into the patrols wasn’t very smart to begin with. Oscar was amazed they’d had the sense to call him before they did whatever patrols did to bodies left lying out. He knew what, but he didn’t want to waste time explaining it. There were so much better to things to run his eyes across than them.

“Do I have to wait for it to send? Can we go? Bergmann’s office smells like booze and blood.”

Phil and Luke. Matt was in the corner, puking to himself, outside the vault he wasn’t nearly as comfortable in as the others. Matt was new, and he had unfortunately picked an ailment Oscar couldn’t do much about. He pieced things together; he didn’t heal them. Whatever was in Matt’s system would have to find its own way out.

“Your favourite smell in the world,” he mumbled, still hunched in the corner of Bergmann’s vault. He didn’t look up to talk to them, partly because the gesture wasn’t likely to be returned, and because he was busy putting skin back enough to build up some semblance a face. It was slow going, as it should be. “How does it feel to miss the party?”

“We should’ve never talked shit about Dalton,” Luke said. He’d taken the chair to swing around on it. More than once, he’d kicked Oscar in the back. Oscar would hold onto that. Dalton wasn’t the only one who could hold off on bringing down his wrath until it hurt the most it could. “That ghost hears everything. I told him I was joking.” He heard the squeal of the chair turning, then felt another kick. Oscar frowned. “How’s the meat?”

‘Meat’, Luke said, because none of them knew what to call it. When they had walked in here and found a body – two bodies, but the other was quietly being dead in the corner and well outside of Oscar’s circle of any mild interest, although he noted that that was the France fellow they’d learned had dropped off the map recently, whose startling appearance here drove his sense of timing wild with glee – mutilated in ways he hadn’t seen for years. Phil was watching him twist a torn hunk of cheekbone over until it matched up, having already pressed the eyelids into place and teeth into their homes. It could be one of theirs, and more than likely it was, but it could have also been an Agent. He wouldn’t know until he had it held properly. The other two could not stop pestering him over when that would be. This was a puzzle, not a show. Oscar was being polite by not telling them they weren’t supposed to be in here. Apparently they’d gotten it into their heads that they had to show up to send out whatever data the Germans hoarded back to their united base, on the off-chance it’d been overlooked. That was quite the insult to the Germans, but they were well-mannered enough to forgive it if they heard, especially if the data the patrol was sending was, as it seemed, something they’d left behind. Oscar didn’t concern himself with it. He was swimming in nostalgia.

“I’m fairly sure,” he murmured, thoughtfully, “that this...” He twisted the jaw. “... was a woman.”

“You’d think the tits would’ve pointed that out.”

“I’m not looking at her ‘tits’, Luke,” Oscar said crossly. “I’m looking at her face. This was a woman.” What was left of her. “I’m missing her ears.”

“Here’s a hand,” Phil said. He’d been sitting on the computer system’s console. He leaned over to pick up something beside him, making a face when it flopped like a glove. “No – uh… bones.”

No, he wouldn’t expect there to be.

What were you thinking, Lamarre…?

Likely it was too early for him to have his hopes up, but after six years of following Alexander, he’d been overwhelmed with hunks of flesh thrown about carelessly. The man was supposed to have been a Pain Eater – Oscar wasn’t sure what group that put him in under the Nordics’ classifications of the Agents – and it suited his nature, but it’d been boring. One severed head was another severed head. The Nordics blessed their darling pet’s kill count, but Alexander was single-minded in the worst way. Everything had to die. He had a grudge and the Agency needed to be torn apart. The branch could never tire of or stop telling this or that story of how they walked in and found fourteen, fifteen, twenty bodies strewn across the room, broken, but he, for one, had had enough. He loved his Nordic family, which was why he knew he meant it when he said they were easily entertained.

This was a story. This was like the old days. The cuts were methodical; each one had to be finished before he’d started on the next. Part of him had always wanted to meet Lamarre to ask him how he did it, why he did it, why he insisted on lifting his blade every single time rather than saw back and forth to save the effort, and that part of him left up again as he saw the trails of blood along the unbroken slivers of what hadn’t been destroyed. And how destroyed – honestly… To do all this with one sharp edge must have taken some time to manage. What had he been thinking, if this was his work? Oscar pinched the jaw in place. It held, mostly. What he’d give to have the others let him take this meat back to base. On its own, he’d be consumed for months, trying to understand what it stood for. It was so unfocused, but it was so precise… Oscar’s mind ached in a pleasant way he’d thought he’d forgotten.

“I could kill somebody if Dalton hadn’t stuck me on patrol.” Luke was seething again. “I could’ve killed nine Agents easy.”

Luke didn’t have to be here. Here specifically, because part of being on patrol meant he had to patrol. They could wander off and inexplicably run back missing a leg for all Oscar cared. They were interrupting. Hadn’t whatever file they were trying to send been sent by now?

“So Oscar,” Phil said from his spot on the console, “how’s it look?”

“Amazing.” Bloodthirsty idiots with no appreciation for art… “Intricate, I suppose would make more sense to you. Look at the lines, at how clean they are.” Aided by never sawing, only cutting. The skin never tore. “Whatever was used was remarkably sharp.” Only the best for the best. This was a line sung into the body with a delicate grace urged by… madness, almost. Some loss of control – loss of mental control, like he’d given himself a full pass on restraint and… let loose. “Look at the directions they go in. They’re overlapping. The skin’s raised from being…” Oscar had a tendency to talk with his hands. Oftentimes he didn’t say the word, but rather did the motion for it. Just now, he’d done ‘gashed’. “… repeatedly.”

“Awesome.”

“Very,” Oscar agreed. Luke was being sarcastic. “It says the whole act was impulsive.” The nose wasn’t on right. It might have been too high. Fairly close, considering this was a rush job. “It says this was personal.”

“Yeah? Can it tell you who that is?”

He didn’t mean ‘personal’ in that sense. Lamarre – if it was Lamarre – hadn’t done this for anyone. This had been his show and it’d been for reasons only he was intended to benefit from. Two things Oscar was certain of: the extent of the damage wasn’t hurried, even if the motions had been, and it was too early to call a motive for it. But… if Oscar had to guess… He looked over his shoulder at the other body. Breton. So maybe… therapy? Agents weren’t known for ‘healthy grieving’, but even if they were, this would count as ‘burying himself in his work’.

Interesting. Extremely. Why was Lamarre – if it was Lamarre – here? More than that, if he was here, and it was him, then what his goal? Following Breton? No. Oscar knew what the Agency thought of as ‘professionalism’, and Lamarre – if it was Lamarre – chasing a corpse around was not that.

Oscar sat up.

“Why is Breton here?”

“Patten was wearin’ him,” Luke drawled, now kicking Phil.

“Nobody told me that,” Oscar said.

“You’re the medic. You don’t get those reports.” And Luke was patrol, because he’d shot off his mouth behind the wrong person’s back. “That’s what it is.”

… Interesting. That’s what it was: interesting. Because if Patten had been in possession of Breton’s body and Lamarre was here, which could by no means be a coincidence in that particular scenario…

“Does Danielle know where Lamarre is?”

“No,” Phil said, quite quickly. “Why – why would – why would she need to know that – I mean… why?”

“Nice,” Luke said. His voice turned grave after that, however. “Why would anyone need to know where Lamarre is?”

“I think…” Oscar’s hand was bouncing in excitement over the meat, although his face was contained and organized. “… he might be here.” ‘Here’ wasn’t said, but gestured.

“He can’t be here. He’s gone,” Phil said. That was getting close to a ‘yelp’. “Breton has him running after Alexander and – ooooooooh…” The picture finally came into focus for him as his eyes wandered back to Breton’s corpse. “… Wait. You… You really think he’s here?”

“I’m not jumping to any conclusions without a thorough investigation,” Oscar replied. “I would like to comment on the extreme happenstance of what appears to be his work on the scene at the same time Patten is.”

Luke’s face was more serious than Oscar had ever seen it. Phil joined a while after Breton got his claws into Lamarre, but Luke had been around for quite longer. He and Oscar were in their thirties. Anyone over that age or who had been involved for longer than six years would have made the same face. He also stopped kicking around in his chair. Oscar appreciated that, too.

“You think Lamarre is working with Patten?”

“To give both men their credit, it would be ‘working for Patten’ and ‘not a chance’. Lamarre is for the Agency, which is a bigger concept than what Patten offers. He may be an A-1, but that doesn’t make him their king,” Oscar explained, “no matter how much the Russians seem to think it does. Patten has his own plans, and unless they follow the Agency’s intentions, Lamarre won’t touch them.”

Luke didn’t miss that Oscar hadn’t provided an answer.

“Are they working together or aren’t they?”

“As I said, it’s not time to reach conclusions,” Oscar said, “but keep in mind what’s happening in this building. We’re attacking Charlotte Carter – kidnapping her. That’s all the evidence we need of Patten’s interest. And Lamarre is a known authority on ‘our kind’.”

“I don’t get it,” Phil uttered.

Patrols: they weren’t very smart. Luke, on the other hand, had experience to run off of.

“You’re saying if Lamarre’s not working with Patten now,” the young man worked out, “he will be after this.”

“Breton isn’t around to advise him anymore,” Oscar added. “Except that he is, and now in favour of Patten’s projects. It’s an emotional tie to a professional one, and if the Russians are right about nothing, they’re at least right about that.”

“Lamarre might be back in the game?” Phil was close, but not exactly understanding what they were up against. “Well… he’s on his own now, right?”

“On his own with Patten – herregud…” Luke sat back in the chair. “This is… fucking… Oscar, do you think he…?”

“‘Planned this’? Come now.” Oscar gave him a tiny tsk with his teeth. “What is it we always say?”

“Patten’s retarded,” Phil blurted out.

“Right. He’s dangerous, to be sure, but his specialty is turning chaos into order, not planning the vision for the order to fit within. That’s Charlotte’s job,” Oscar said. “Danielle has given us a fully reasonable statement: anything that resembles preparation is simply a thousand chimps spelling out a lengthy verse of Shakespeare. He has so many things in motion, eventually one has to work.” So went the Nordic’s assumption. The Russians gave Patten considerably more praise. “Although… it makes you think.”

“What does?” Luke leaned forward. “What makes you think?”

“Nothing, really,” Oscar said, finally standing and slinging his bag over his shoulder. He couldn’t solve Lamarre’s riddle in the strict deadline the Cubans had given if he wanted a ride with them. With a deep ache of regret, Oscar had to abandon it. His heart hung heavily at the understanding. It was fair to say the one comparison he could make was if he’d neglected to mention the upcoming iceberg to the captain of the Titanic. “It’s just that I find it hard to believe an entire branch could be so deluded as to think Patten controlled the universe without at least accepting that they might have had some justification at the beginning.”

“The Russians are idiots,” Luke said. Phil agreed.

“Maybe so. Still…” Oscar righted his shirt and coat and brushed off his pants, now stained at the knees with blood. “You have to wonder, if Patten didn’t plan for this… what did he plan for?”

On that pleasant note, he strode from the vault, half-basking in the eruption of protests and arguments at his back, which devolved into a screaming match between the two over why – and it was amusing because they were fighting while being on the same side – everything he’d said wasn’t true, half-waiting to hear more Shakespeare accidentally tumble out of them. There wasn’t any. Well, he supposed once was the most he could expect in a day. He had paused a step from the vault door, looking back to catch enough of Breton’s leg as the Frenchman’s body remained slumped against the wall. Perhaps it was an odd word to use, but he had found that body to be quite clean. If the hand-me-down memos were worth their weight, there should have been more progress made in the process of decomposition. Patten? Could that theory float? Surely, but at any rate, it wasn’t the style of mystery he wanted to surround himself by. He’d leave it be. At that, he turned to walk to – oh.

Sweet mother of God.

“– full of shit, Oscar! Patten can’t think –” Luke stopped, too. He’d charged out of the vault intent on a fight that wouldn’t mean anything because it was pure speculation and froze mid-step because his eyes landed on the same phantom Oscar thought he was crazy to have seen. “... Lamarre?”

“Hello boys,” Lamarre said from his shadows. They heard glass rolling over something. It was… coming from him. The man was… sitting at Bergmann’s desk. His jacket was thrown over it, his tie was on but loosely looped, and his feet were atop the wood surface, damn near leisurely. In one hand, he was smoking a cigarette, and in the other, as Oscar’s eyes adjusted to the low light and gathered up the details, he had an emptied bottle that he rolled by its neck across the tabletop. His eyes were locked behind a pair of sunglasses. Oscar certainly wasn’t about to question it, even if the electricity was out throughout the building. Frankly, he couldn’t believe they’d managed to see the Agent. For a short while, the man had only been the barest silhouette. Oscar could have walked by. But… Lamarre must have wanted to be seen. His simple presence was a message on its own. Another puzzle. Another story. “You picked a piss poor night to attack.” Shit. This story had an ending: grisly.

“… Are you drunk?” Luke would know. The outburst drew a stitch of panic in Oscar’s throat. “Are you actually fucking sitting here and – you’re drunk?”

“Ohhh, I think you have more pressing matters to attend to than that.” He, of course, slurred this. If anyone in Heaven was listening, now would be the time to assist… “For what it’s worth, I left ‘drunk’ a good while ago. I should be able to sneeze on a scalpel and sterilize it by now.” He flicked ash on the ground with his little finger. “That really is the sign to stop inhaling an open flame.”

Lamarre was half-finished with his smoke, and after that, they’d… but he was calm. Didn’t he know what Luke could do? And Phil – Phil had abilities! And yet the man lounged in his place as though he were on vacation! Oscar couldn’t look away from it. He had the feeling that if he blinked, this phantom would vanish, and the single sign of his return would be the knife – did he still have the knife? Yes, yes, he had it. The single sign of his return would be it inside Oscar’s jugular.

“What the fuck are you doing here? Ready to die?”

Quite calm. Purposely calm. He was above the hostility in Luke’s person because he simply couldn’t be bothered. Luke wasn’t his focus. Then…

“Me?”

He’d mouthed the word – in his head, on top of that. Lamarre was calm, yes… but… because he wanted Oscar to be calm. He wanted… something… The Agent blew lazy smoke rings in the air. He was not concerned about Luke.

“Hey,” Luke raged, now itching to strike. “Hey! I’m talking to you!”

And he wasn’t listening. The embers on his cigarette burned bright red. He and Oscar were on a level that the idiot patrols weren’t ever to be a part of. The problem was that Oscar didn’t understand. The Agent wasn’t killing him, but there was no sign insisting he wouldn’t. Lamarre was just observing them, seemingly prepared to meet whatever they did with an action of his own. Oscar wasn’t ready for this. In his head, he’d… boyishly wanted to meet with him, to try to learn what turned such morbid scenes into expert sculptures of devastation, handled with both interest and a short of leash of apathy before it ever became enthusiastic. He had never thought it would happen. Even now, it wasn’t. He’d examined Lamarre’s handiwork as it was stumbled on; those who knew how to read the lead up before then were no longer with all ten fingers or toes. One had been lobotomized. Then no, he wasn’t an explorer landing on the horizon he sailed towards. Oscar was an architect made to scale the side of a building against his will. He was outclassed in this. He wanted to step away, but Lamarre’s patient waiting led him on to think that would be a very unwise decision.

Bergmann might have turned ballistic if she’d known there were shoes on her desk. But the man was French…

“I know what I’m not doing,” Lamarre quietly said.

Like a hint.

“You…” Luke was a boiling ball of violence at his side. Oscar had to struggle to keep his inner peace in place, shaken though it was. “You heard what I said?”

The Agent was silent. What happened now… It was up to Oscar to decide. The fear of the freedom to choose and choose wrong crawled out to him. He swallowed heavily, then carefully brushed the beads of sweat at his collar away.

“This is perfect. I couldn’t ask for a better set up,” Luke snarked. “You’re drunk, you’re outnumbered, and I’m gonna kill you. I just wish I had the library of names you wiped from the Earth. Guess maybe I can’t have everything.”

Lamarre didn’t move, but the message was clear: that was Luke’s fate sealed. What would his be?

He…

“Let’s call it a trade,” he murmured cautiously, pausing between his words. They scratched like gravel against his teeth, but he couldn’t spare himself the guilt. The other two weren’t getting out of here. Oscar could. “It’s a theory. That’s all. But it could make the difference.”

Especially if Lamarre hadn’t realized the potential for it. In his response, the Agent finished his snack and crushed it on the desk, then brushed his hands after dropping it into the empty drink. Luke’s hands swung up like he was going to go boxing – ha, ha, ha, what?! Lamarre gave a softly amused snort, too.

“Oscar, what the fuck? Back us up,” Luke said, turning fiercer as the man sat up properly. Patient. Waiting. Because there was the door, and no one had gone through it. Oscar felt immense when he realized what he could do: think about it from Lamarre’s perspective. There’d been no golden agreement and he was as liable to have his throat slit as the others, but the Agent had a worthy reason to delay. He wanted to know whether he’d had to wipe from his shirt the blood of two Nordic patrolmen, or two Nordic patrolmen and a recently exchanged German doctor. “Oscar, fucking –”

“I’m leaving,” Oscar said. He scrunched the strap of his bag in his fingers. “I won’t fight him.”

“Pfft. I should’ve seen that coming. It’s the German blood in you,” Luke sneered. “Gotta get out and let the real Nordics handle it.”

He didn’t take offence. Oscar adored his adopted branch. A shitty question of loyalty from the patrol wasn’t changing it – although it did assist in lifting that guilt.

“I wish you the best in what comes out of this,” he said, finally trusting the silence to serve as his cue to leave. Lamarre was no more content than before, but he specifically satisfied by this declaration. Good. Good! He’d… genuinely be there to tell the tale, not through the carvings designed into skin, there to be picked at by minds he used to work with, but through his words and reports. He was being let go. He was free! He… was… free… but his eyes fell to the floor, to the side, to the cabinets at the wall that the vault’s light could scarcely reach. Matt. The third of them. Matt was dead. The relief in Oscar’s belly sharpened again. He recognized what it was: the awkward shape of his outline on the ground meant a full story had been etched into Matt as well. It wasn’t anywhere as severe as the meat made out of the woman but – “Wait!”

That patient waiting grew a point to it. Lamarre was standing now, while Luke continued to glare, fists ready. Oscar’s luck with all its limits saw the notes of danger but tried to go beyond them anyway.

“Fucking say it and go, you coward,” Luke growled.

Say it.

His vision darted over Matt’s corpse.

“Breton,” he gently began, “was not harmed in my presence.” His imagination caught a puff of approval. “Another trade?” Now more amusement. “Painlessly.” It struck Oscar as the sole thing of reason he could demand. It was an easy favour, but the Agent had been gone from the war for years. Had he learned a taste for blood? Oscar hoped not. The grace of those stories counted on it. “I know… you can manage that…” He was certain. “… despite her in there.”

He didn’t see it coming.



Click.

He’d shut his eyes. Fast.

Then he waited.

And then Oscar opened them to see Lamarre not murdering the overly bold tongue out of his mouth for daring to ask any request, but having twisted his right wrist. That… that was the wrist that housed his blade, wasn’t it? It was strapped to the man’s arm. What he’d done was… tug it from the top of his forearm… to the side of it. Was that special? Oscar’s head wanted to stretch out to give his curiosity a closer look. The memories of the cadavers he’d examined jogged together to the rhythm of his heartbeat. He couldn’t solve it right now. He’d… have to trust him…

“What’re you guys doing out there? Ha – Luke, check what’s stuffed under Bergmann’s console,” Phil said, emerging. He had a – was that a sex taser? Ah – not – not that he knew what a taser for that purpose would’ve looked like. It… wasn’t like there was a brand – but… oh, come on – even in the dark, the pink graphic on the side gave it away! “Who’s he?”

Phil was so young in asking that.

“Lamarre,” Luke told him.

“And believe me, that’s not the start of what she has in here.”

Oscar was going to fall down if he didn’t leave, and they now appeared to be waiting on him to do so. Well – he wasn’t challenging that! He walked and nearly stumbled into the hall, in time for him to close the door on the sound of nobody moving then becoming everyone moving, and the triumphant cries flying into remarkably slaughtered howls. Bergmann’s office was soundproof. If it hadn’t been, he would’ve known how long those yells lasted and whether Lamarre agreed to the second trade. Rather than that, the door hushed it. He’d have to content himself with a ‘maybe’. He walked two feet, then collapsed into a temporary mess, giggling deliriously at what on earth just happened.

So then, he’d lived. A happy gasp flew from his lungs as it occurred that he had lived. He’d just joined the ranks of the rare and chosen few. The others would never believe him, and Lamarre had… killed… the only witnesses.

“Ich bin der glücklichste Mann der Welt,” he decided.

As well as the luckiest man breathing.

* * *


“I can’t believe you two called CryShadow. I am never getting that noise out of my head.” Stupid Vikings thought everything was fixed by hitting it! “I told you – I told you – that was Squiddie. You didn’t listen to me!”

“Let it go, Buzzy,” Nightstalk tried to say. “It’s over now.”

“It’s ‘over’? Let me tell you what’s ‘over’, Night.” She stomped to a stop right outside the opening to the cell room. “Your whole branch? Is over. O-ver! ‘Cause whatever Squiddie just did to your pet is exactly what she’s gonna do to the rest of you. You think you stand a chance now? That’s it! It’s done! The party’s over – which, by the way, totally sucked.”

‘Ooh, we’re the Nordics! We were the first branch Charlotte organized! We don’t need to listen to Russia ‘cause they’re all paranoid and dumb and don’t know what they’re talking about, even though they’re the largest branch formed both before and after the Agency started a purge. No way, we’re definitely gonna do this all by ourselves! Oh, but Russia, do you want to lend us your best people so we can pull off these ridiculous plans that have no way of working?’

“Buzzy’s right,” Scissor said. Yeah, of course she was! “CryShadow can’t be hurt. This is a huge deal.”

“I’m well aware,” Nightstalk said. HA! Who was he trying to kid? “But Squiddie is gone now. We’ll have to explain what we saw to Danielle, but we can’t waste precious minutes here and risk her coming back with enforcements. Get the stasis cell: that’s our primary concern.”

Buzzy scowled at him. She wanted him to know she still hoped Eric whooped his ass. Scissor was annoying, but he had good taste in company. Night, on the other hand, walked around like soggy diarrhea. What a tool.

“Whatever, Nightstalk. Play all you want. Danielle put my Scissorhands in charge, not you.” And she made her point twice as loud by grabbing Scissor’s arm and linking hers with it. He decided he didn’t want a fistful of electricity and just appreciated the gift he’d been given, so Scissor was acting just like Buzzy expected. Night was, too. She didn’t know if it was ‘cause she was Russian and his best friend – even though Night didn’t act like they were friends – was Nordic, or maybe just ‘cause he had a personal grudge against her he’d pulled out of nowhere, but that tiny sidle up to the ‘official’ group leader? It sent him grumbling. That was his version of punching a wall. Buzzy was content, so she led them in to meet their prize as her personal gift.

Uhhhh…

Craaaaaaaaaap!

“Hey,” Scissor said. “There’s people in here.”

And VWHOOMF – Night put a cloud over everything. Buzzy barely had time to look at what was going on before it all vanished in a puff of black. She thought she saw someone standing by a very important and super specific console, and she knew she caught a glimpse of a very important and super specific chair, but other than that and a teeny peek at someone else, some chick, standing around, there was nothing but nothing to see because that jerk didn’t open up his cloud to her! She stomped at him again, and ‘cause she knew where he was standing – he breathed like a cow – she was gonna redefine the meaning of – “You dickhead! How am I supposed to work like this?”

“I thought you harpies used sonar,” Nightstalk oh-so-wittily said, before letting her see freaking shapes she could barely make out. She heard Scissor letting out one of his Big Slices – he called it that and the dumb name got itself stuck in her head after a while – and definitely saw the guy by the console get snipped into two smaller halves right through the waist. But that damn Slice of his – dammit, Scissor! Couldn’t he keep it in his pants for once? Lose the enthusiasm! It shot right through the console guy and put a hole, a big line, right in the wall on the other side! Daylight – no, it was dark outside, but the open air lit up like night vision from inside this stuff – popped through. She couldn’t let him keep that up! Not with Marshall – oh-shit-she-was-in-the-same-room-as-Marshall-now! Don’t-panic-don’t-panic-don’t-panic! “What’s your problem?”

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” she cried angrily, whipping her hands around for added effect. “Scissor, you stop what you’re doing this instant! Let me do it!”

It was called ‘moderation’. Look into it!

One shape, two shapes, and one was in the chair. Ohhhhhh, somebody say that was Alexander and only Alexander! This was gonna hurt her a hell of a lot more than him if it wasn’t! Agents didn’t build anything that couldn’t take a few knocks, but she was a circuit breaker and those were some delicate circuits. Please-don’t-break-please-don’t-break-please have already transferred!

She leapt out and sparked up her hands, and they crackled with white-blue static that slapped across Alexander’s face. Well, the restraints holding him in were awesome. Thanks, Agency! And as for his hussy friend, she leapt at her –

“Oooooh. You got clocked in the face there, huh?”

SHUT YOUR STUPID MOUTH, NIGHT!

Fucking whore fighting back like she was gonna win! Buzzy shocked her twice as hard and didn’t let go until she fucking settled down! Only then did Night get off his ass and do something, like take the freaking cloud down. Like they needed it? What was the worse that was gonna happen?! The fight was finished!

“Buzzy,” Scissor gasped, running up to her. “Buzzy bee, are you alright?”

No, she was not alright! Her cheek had an elbow smacked into it like it was trying to break a hole through! Furious and feeling worse in the stupid red look of the room, she shook him off her when he came around. Nightstalk was just grinning.

“Now, did she actually hit you,” he said, “or did you run into that?”

That ugly twerp! Who did he think he was?! Why was he suddenly extra obnoxious today?!

“Do your job, barbarian,” she snarled, holding her hand to face. “Get the cell! I’m tired of you being lazy!”

“I thought the point of you telling us to wait was that you were going to do it for us,” Nightstalk responded. “So…?”

… If she killed him, could she get Danielle to think Eric did it? She’d have Scissor to back her up on it, unless he never wanted to see Buzzy naked ever, ever again. Fat chance.

“Fine. I’ll do it. You’d blow it up anyway,” she said. “Stand there, don’t touch anything. Need me to draw you a picture?”

“Buzzy, Night, come on,” Scissor stepped in. Nervously! Some leader! How did he get picked over that loser Night? “Let’s try to hold it together until we’re home.”

“Home for her is in a bat cave,” Nightstalk said. “And she’d still find a way to sleep with everyone.”

“Night, stop it! I’m not joking,” Scissor ordered. Finally – authority! Night frowned, but gave it up. Buzzy rolled her eyes at him. Scissor gave her a little wave. “Um… do you want to do the cell?”

“Sure, whatever,” she said. “Handle the other two.”

Actually, this helped her out. She turned to face the five glowing containers, doused in more red light when she glided in front of Charlotte’s. Their more-or-less founder was floating around naked – nice try, lady, but she knew a cheap pedicure when she saw one – and that was fun, but beside her…

Oh. Oh, beside her…!

The rejuvenation process was in full effect. The inside of the cell had churned to white foam, and all of it shone like a bright star in a sea of flame, like an angel standing on the highest mountain of Hades. She could’ve swooned if she wasn’t so pissed with Night and now doubly pissed he’d cut into this moment by being awful, but as she flipped open a panel at the base of Charlotte’s cell, getting on her knees to make it more comfortable, she stared at his. All the real data, like vitals and mental status – that was on the console the man Scissor’d killed been using. She didn’t need it. Her breath was holding on for a pretty blurb of info, one small enough to be wrapped up in another baby light no bigger than pinky nail, sitting somewhere… arooooooound…

There – ohmigod! Ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod-there-it-was-it-was-yellow! It was yellow – didn’t the world know what this meant? Tucked to the side of the base of the cell, an smidgeon away from the kill switch, was a friendly row of little lights that had to match whatever was in the rest of the tank. All these others? Their light rows were red. But Marshall’s was yellow! And yellow stood for something! Yellow meant mental activity was registered! Marshall was in there! Better than that – better than that – he was awake! That was the point of yellow! Awake! Awake-awake-awake-oh, geez, the rejuvenation was going on. … Was… he going to be okay…? Wait, they’d put him in there during the middle of it?! In the middle of that?! What the heck were they thinking, those animals?! The thing took fucking hours! Marshall was gonna be in there and awake for –

“Are you working or gawking, Buzzy?”

Dammit, Night! She’d jumped and banged her funny bone.

“Quit rushing me. Why can’t you do something other than hover?” And ow, stupid thing! She might be electric, but she could get still get shocks! Charlotte had better be worth it. She didn’t see how this would ever make up for the trouble, but being her put in her the perfect spot. She just needed to buy a minute. “Take care of your hostages!”

Just turn around or something. She needed privacy!

Almost… Allllllllllllmooooooost… argh – Nightstalk turned back around! Ridiculous, these two! Worse than rodents, they were their own breed of pest!

It wasn’t them. Okay, no – total lie, ‘cause it was – but it wasn’t them exclusively. Buzzy was thinking of everyone – all the Vikings, down to the tiniest, up to the dumbest, and that was a huge range to handle. No one really thought she’d come down without a plan, did they? Like she was going to leave this up to some last minute improvisation? Please! Her idea flew to her as soon as she’d wanted it, and she’d fleshed it out on the run downstairs to cut Scissor and Nightstalk off. The Vikings attacked anything that blinked, stared or looked shiny. They were bears, but the helpful part about that was they didn’t touch what was already dead. Enough technobabble would get the cell team to quietly leave, but Danielle’s patrols – well, Dalton’s, ‘cause from what she’d gleaned, patrols were on… like… garbage duty, and that sort’f detail Danielle shoved off to her brother – were haunting some corner of this base, too out of the way for her to ever casually stumble into them, plus the risk of someone else wandering around, and she couldn’t leave unless she knew there wasn’t anything to let Marshall catch their eye. So she had to kill him, except not. That was what would save him.

Complicated? Idiotic? Well, it took a fool to stump a fool. But she needed these ones to turn around. She had to get her hand in the base of his cell, into his beautiful glass of white light, and she had to shut it off.

“Hang on.” She heard Night walking closer to the chair. “Is that Alexander?”

“No fucking way. Is it?”

Yes! Good! Stay like that! She reached her hand towards Marshall – “Buzzy.” AAAAH! “Did you kill him or knock him out?”

I gave him a jolt,” she blasted at him. “Would you shut up? Those of us with brains need silence to think!”

“Then why are you snippy?”

She’d let it go for now if he’d turn away! She’d make him pay for that later, though.

Turn around!

Ahhh. Finally. Slyly, she reached her hand towards Marshall, silently picking open his cell’s panel with her nails.

“The chair’s sitting up. There’s no wires around his head,” Scissor was saying. She snaked her fingers around Marshall’s wires. There were hundreds in there, but she was looking for one of the big, thick ones. … Ooh. Cute. She liked that. “The transfer isn’t on.”

“Elias’ cell is white.” Buzzy whipped her head over her shoulder. No – okay, whew. Night wasn’t looking. With one hand on Charlotte’s side and one arm buried in Marshall’s, even she’d have a tricky time trying to explain. “They were trying to revive him.”

“We got here in time.” Clank, clank! Scissor or Nightstalk was taking the restraints off. “Danielle’ll be happy to have him where she can see him.”

“Yes… I suppose,” Nightstalk said. “My question, however, is ‘did we genuinely get here in time, or were we a little too late?’”

FZZZZZZTTT.

Then a whoooooooom…, dying as the angel light powered off. In that new cloak, Buzzy’s hand zipped away. Nope, not her! She didn’t touch anything! She was just playing with Charlotte’s cords when all of a sudden, something must’ve happened!

A-hem. She cleared her throat.

“OHHHHHHH MYYYYYYYYY GAAAAAAAAWD!! MARSHAAAAAALL!

Stupid CryShadow. If that thing hadn’t already deafened them, Buzzy definitely would’ve. How could something that didn’t talk actually out-volume her?

“Buzzy? Buzzy?!” Something dropped. Buzzy’s guess? They’d had Alexander mostly out of the chair and now that poor boy had nosedived into the ground now that Scissor’d run over to help her. She felt a little bad since that was the person who’d been caring for her honey-marsh, but priorities were different now that Marshall was out. Hands wrapped around her. Awww, Scissor was adorably noble when he wasn’t such a pig. “Buzzy!”

“What the hell just happened?” Nightstalk was always a jerk. “What did you do?”

Couldn’t tell, could he? Nope!

“Th… th-th… th…!” Heaping splashes of tears were streaming from her eyes. She could almost hear her mascara running. She must look so pathetic and distraught. If she wasn’t hard at work at that, she would’ve smiled in sheer delight. “Th-the… th-th-th-th…!”

“Buzzy, say it,” Night ordered.

Whoa! Sharp words, Nightstalk. He’d had better ideas, because instantly Scissor was up and slamming him against Charlotte’s cell. Night’s head gave a pleasantly hollow clunk against the glass. She loved having a little protector!

“I’m telling you this for the last time,” Scissor said, sounding… wow. That was the kind of strength that made her stop regretting that they’d fucked. “Back off and leave her alone.”

“We’re in the center of enemy territory! We can’t wait for her to finish stuttering –”

Back off or I tell everyone that… Squiddie bitch came back,” Scissor bellowed in his ‘best’ friend’s face. He had Nightstalk choked by the collar of his shirt, set to break him into perfect halves if Night’s eyes even flickered the wrong way. Buzzy turned down her crying. She couldn’t miss this. It was too funny! “Got it? You back the fuck away from her!”

Message received. Night looked like he wanted to pee himself.

“I-I’m… sorry. I… was… only asking that she tell us… what was wrong,” Night squeakily mumbled, disastrously slow. “We can’t know if she’s okay if… if we don’t know what happened…”

“Buzzy!” Ha! Well done, Night. Scissor was on her again, checking and re-checking that was okay. He really wanted that goodbye sex, huh? “Buzzy, you have to tell us what just happened!”

Check and mate was what’d happened. Marshall, in two seconds, was a free bird. Or as free as she could get him. After that, his life was out of her hands. She hoped he’d be alright…

“Th-th-th-th-th!” Just for Nightstalk, she stuttered extra hard. Fine, fine – she actually was nervous that Squddie could come back. “Th-there was a power surge!” She tugged on one the cables she’d needed to pull out from Charlotte’s cell to get it ready. “I-I was doing what Night t-told me to do, b-but there wasn’t enough power to m-move her and keep up w-whatever they’d done to Marshall’s cell!”

“Night said they were reviving him,” Scissor explained, like she didn’t know.

“They were transferring,” Nightstalk added. So someone’s bladder was reigned back in. “If they did it before we took Alexander out of the chair, Elias would be in there.”

She heard what he was really saying. ‘This solves that problem’. Horrible Viking. But did everyone understand what she meant now? They were bears. Night was waving bye-bye to his worries now that the light was turned off. Not shiny? Not alive, not interested. How did they function when it took that much effort to think? Danielle was the only one with a working brain cell in the bunch!

“MAAAARSHAAAAALL,” she wailed. “MARSHALL IS DEAD!”

Were they taking Alexander or what? And that hussy friend of his – what about her? Her, too?

“Over here, bumblebee,” Scissor said, getting her on her feet. “Let’s go over here instead. Scissor, work on Charlotte. Shh, shh, Buzzy – I’m here for you.”

Yeah. Her hero.

“I can see a current in there,” Night said. “He’s still being revived. Scissor, maybe it’s only the lights –”

SCISSOR, HIS VOICE IS MAKING ME SAD!

“Nonononononononono-I-didn’t-mean-it-I-didn’t-mean-it!”

“Never mind, Scissor,” she sweetly sniffled. Eyes – just… blazing, Scissor came back to guide her to the other end of the room. She wanted to giggle. “You’re so sweet, Scissorhands. I just can’t wait to show you how grateful I am for being so sympathetic.” It was hard to be certain when the room was red again, but it seemed like the blood had dropped out of his face. Three guess for what part of him it did go to. “Could you tell Night to really hurry it along? I simply have to get back to base to grieve!”

Crack that whip so Night didn’t suddenly think of another ‘maybe’. She wanted to leave, too. She was coming with them when they staged their getaway. Buzzy wasn’t waiting to spend any more seconds with Nightstalk – or really even Scissor – but a truck was bound to put a cap on the crazy driving the Cubans were famous for rather than the cars they’d brought. Whoever was handing out licences needed to take a couple back. But her job was over. Scissor had helped her sit on the side before he scuttled off to do her bidding, and she stretched and relaxed against the chilly wall, happy with what was transpiring.

Yellow was awake. Marshall was awake! In searing agony because of the revival – how could they do that to him?! – but alive.

And he was going to stay that way.

* * *


“Fourteen Agents in a line, thought they’d make it out in time, took too long and then got caught, now they’re in the cooking pot!”

The stew was about ready. Slakt was pouring in the gasoline. Cradle had, as one of his official duties, hollowed a jagged crater in the ground, and though normally the branch put in whatever Agent limb they could fit, tonight they’d found enough stragglers to keep it exclusive to what was alive. It’d be a slow cook with a serenade of tears, both the best and the rarest. Her branch’s away-team huddled by the edges to look in. A few had swung their feet over the side, kicking more rubble down. Danielle didn’t see Magnus or Glue among them. They were likely off managing a private stew. She allowed it. The two were worthy warriors, and the deal they’d made when they had joined was that they be allowed a moment of ‘therapy’ in every fight, as long as they weren’t critically required and as long as the branch had a handle on it. They’d come along eventually.

“What a waste of his work.” Thinking was easier, but the pressure in her mind hadn’t lessened. She’d be better to say it’d been gathered in a ball she had to crawl under and squint around. Days it took to earn this. Earn. The only part stopping her from losing it on them was knowing the gesture outweighed the strain. Sage flashes of wisdom like that were what turned her mind in directions the others couldn’t bring themselves from battle to notice. She didn’t mind: the full satisfaction of her people had been part of the goal. She just wished they’d had more to do. Patten normally didn’t get involved without filling his pockets with doom. “These suits are spectacular, but to fill them with… amateurs…”

Yeah. Weird.

Dalton wiped his hands on the floor. Tile wasn’t a great towel, but he was getting somewhere with it.

Invisible. It was an incredible take when she thought of the theoretical challenge. Had Patten honestly put himself into it – and had the Germans been slacking for whatever possible reason – this could have been the sideswipe that’d done them in. She’d had her best here. She never suffered cold sweats, but the potential loss was leaning on her. It came with questions like ‘why go this way’, ‘why turn down the opportunity’, ‘why have guards here at all, if they were going to be tossed like rags’. It hadn’t been Bergmann’s intervention, because she’d alerted them only today. Danielle had to put a face to the aggravating discrepancy, or she might wind up downgrading Cryptic from ‘hideously delusional’ to ‘understandably misled’. God knew she didn’t have the hours to lose divining whether there was more to Patten than she’d thought, not when the great response was assuredly ‘no, there isn’t, and there has never been’.

“Why start now, but Patten might think this is clever,” she said. “This is his version of a trap.” The bulk of his forces were either killed or trapped in a pit, no further reinforcements were available thanks to communications having powered down, nothing else had been in the way to stop the theft of Charlotte – certainly, to her, it had every typical Patten ‘I am trap’ traits. Most. Where was the overwhelming firepower? Bergmann’s security had put up a fight; Patten’s friends hadn’t been remotely productive, and the silence set into the building seemed to say they were alone. No second wave? No surprise attack? “Don’t kill them. I’m not done.”

No matches,” Dalton ordered. “Danielle wants to talk.

The branch would get something out of it. That part was crucial, because they needed entertainment. Danielle’s branch might have loved her, but they loved killing Agents more. These interruptions were a gamble to find something better buried between the lines, or next time they wouldn’t be so cooperative in delaying their stew when it mattered. Her branch was not an easy family to manage. She got by. Nothing else so deserved her concentration.

“Tell Auldegg to get one out. String it up.”

Auldegg.” Their seamstress always found the best view in the room. For now, the old woman hung over the pit, staring down with her crinkled eyes. She was pleased to help wherever she could. “String.

This would be fast. Their seamstress’ webbing flicked down and stuck onto the arm of somebody. Three more pulled out the rest of the limbs. Steadily, Auldegg hauled out an Agent, raising it until it could slowly spin on its chains at the branch’s eye-level. A girl, they were elated to note. She was younger than the others, and would therefore be the easiest to intimidate. She was already crying. These types always gave the best shows. Did this count as something buried?

“Tiny Agent’s spinning ‘round, ‘cause now she’s pulled out from the ground –” Cradle was their ditch digger, so Slakt Tand had taken it upon himself to master the ceremonies. They’d grown accustomed to the rhyming over the years, so much so that the first time they’d had a stew without Slakt, the branch refused to cook until they’d come up with a jingle to mark the occasion. To put that into perspective, Frysskal once knifed a Cuban over a pun. “Thinks she’s safe ‘cause she’s much higher, but she’s our first to catch on fire.” Then Slakt doused her with whatever gasoline was left. The Agent sputtered. “Hope your web’s not flammable, Auld.”

“I kinda hope it is,” Riposte said. “Because – like… it’d look cool when Auld drops her.”

The branch was in vocal agreement.

“Put a littl’ gas on the thread, love,” Auldegg called down. “Mind y’fingers! We don’t want nothin’ singed down there!”

“You’re the awesomest nana ever.” With the branch still in agreement, Slakt Tand basted the webbing, too. “Is Danielle switching out?”

Hell no. She’d served her time for the month.

“You’re translating,” Danielle said. She pointed at Dalton. Their strength had run down enough for the rest to see a ghostly ripple give its answer. A few hours would flesh her out to a Hollywood-style of spirit. CryShadow, were it here, could’ve made a flowchart about what movie she’d fit in with as she went along. Despite it, the branch understood. “Ask her how long she’s been here.”

Dalton liked being a hulking brute. He gnashed his teeth like he was chewing through bone. What a ham, even if it looked as impressive as it sounded. He heaved his legs towards crater and the Agent hanging over it. The branch got excited because they thought he was going to fall in. Not to comment on their faith in her brother’s dexterity, somewhat justified given their unusually extreme build up for the attack, but she’d switch before he would fall if he did. That was how they worked. As it quickly turned out, to the modest disappointment of the others, Dalton knew how to walk. He lazily batted the Agent on the web, hitting her with a hollow thud that nearly prompted Danielle to ask Auldegg to pull up another, but he knew how to hit, too. The Agent was intact. Good enough.

How long have you worked here?

“Three years.” There was no pause in the weeping. The Agent was praying her prompt answers granted her mercy. There were calls of protest from the pit that Cradle put a stop to, but Danielle knew what they were really complaining about: not getting the same chance. Patten called anyone who worked for him an ‘elite’, but these were of considerably lesser stock. Semi-elites, if she could prove it. These were Patten’s, but they weren’t Patten’s… quality. “I don’t do much. I’m new – I’m not important…”

“There goes keeping you alive for ransom,” someone said.

The branch swelled with laughter. The Agent would have hung her head in shame if she was able. If Scissor was here, he would have cut it off.

“Ask who she works for. Ask what she does do.”

Dalton curled the questions out, breathing fog from his throat that sunk into the Agent’s face. The branch thoroughly enjoyed it. The sharp face of horror at the heat of his breath wrapping over the girl gave them one of the few instances in which they were actually jealous of Danielle’s power. Dalton was an entertainer when he stepped on this blood-drenched stage.

“I’m – just… I watch,” the Agent said. “I only watch, I just get information for Eric Pa–”

That was as far as she got. The hacking chukles of the branch stamped over whatever else she would say. Dalton batted her again, and the immense surge of exultation from the others encouraged him to beat her almost to death where she hanged.

On the other end, merciful hell, did this girl just say what Danielle thought she’d said?

“She’s a damn spy.” A damn spy! A spy! “Who was she spying on?”

Dalton crowed it at her. The Agent was a sobbing, bleeding, broken mess.

“I’m – just – Agent Bergmann,” she pleaded, like it was her ticket out of here. “He sent – my boss – he asked us to – we’re just here to watch her! Just to find out what she’s doing!”

“Did you find anything?”

Dalton didn’t ask quite as nicely as Danielle had.

“No – not –” She was bawling and coughing and snivelling at once. “We weren’t trying to find anything wrong. He told us not to worry about anything being wrong – he wanted schedules and… and routines and… he wanted to know what she was doing, not what she was up to!”

“Holy shit, you missed out,” Slakt Tand said. The branch found that uproarious.

“Why did he want schedules and routines?”

“To keep track of her. He didn’t trust her,” the Agent said. “She had – I mean, she had Charlotte Carter in here! He had – he didn’t –”

Dalton got her to shut up. The other Agents in the pit didn’t seem as envious of her ‘chance’ anymore. Her brother turned back and lobbed over his shoulder, “What do you think?

Was that a trick question?

“Patten’s retarded,” she said back. “What else do I ever think?”

Their powers were too built up for him to understand an explanation more advanced than that. Okay, this was how it worked: a fucking spy? Patten had flooded Bergmann’s building with spies? That explained the huge bias on getting the best stealth suits, which had been… dammit, the Russians were supposed to be on top of Agency technology and the Germans were supposed to know where the development funds were channelled. There was no telling how long Patten had had these people and how many more there were, but a budding relief hit her for the second time when she remembered they were spies. Really! That she believed! And the fucking order to ‘not worry about what was wrong’ – yeah, that had Patten over it, too. What the hell was he looking for? He’d spent the last so many years going bananas over appeals to have his girlfriend moved, but he stopped short of digging out real dirt? … Alright, that was something she couldn’t dismiss right away. She’d confer with Cryptic and Bergmann when they were back at the united base, but for now, she’d treat it as a separate issue. Spies! That destroyed everything the Russians had been saying. The pieces were in place and they didn’t look like the picture on the box. Whatever Patten had wanted the spies here for, it proved two things: he was more than willing to send his forces in, and he had failed to do so. More importantly, he’d outfitted his Agents with such marvellous armour and guns that it said he’d been happy to try to protect his assets. These were guns any idiot could shoot. These suits didn’t need the training. Again, again it said everything she’d been pointing at. Patten put in the effort where he’d thought it was useful and hadn’t where he didn’t, and when there was the slight potential for his forces to pitch in, there was still the overlying order not to get involved. It was clear why. They were shit at hand-to-hand and even worse at their aim, although Plaster would be on doctor duty for a few of Danielle’s family. What did it add to? What was the total?

Patten did not plan to be attacked.

The Russians were wrong. Try to explain it. She challenged anyone to try. Come up with an answer that explained how Patten, who’d cut himself off from real information, who’d neglected to send in real forces, who hadn’t issued any protective measures, who hadn’t even had a reason to come here in the first place, could have possibly had this as part of his almighty scheme. There was no way! There were – fucking – just – look at the state of this place! It was ruined in the best way the Nordics knew! There was a fucking sinkhole in the lobby that they were about to turn into a gas-powered flame Jacuzzi! Focus on what she was saying here: Patten had influence everywhere, and if the Russians wanted her to concede that he’d known in advance, that was fine. But he didn’t plan for it. He’d been completely uninvolved. The swarm of security – and according to Bergmann’s records, not only were her guards of particularly crappy stock, but they’d only arrived last week via very sneaky paperwork and resource requests, completely untraceable thanks to the woman’s expertise – had the complete façade of competence and the defences in these walls… That was Patten, having taken tour after tour of this facility and testing all of Salcon’s budget with ‘defensive suggestions’. Without Buzzy slipping in and Bergmann leaving the door open, this was an impenetrable fortress. Good work, Patten. Sorry that it didn’t pan out.

It was funny. Charlotte had been protected. Both the building and the security staff count – increased on six separate occasions by the man himself – had Patten’s seal of approval over it. Danielle could relax. This was what it felt like. Things had gone fast and smoothly because they’d been made like that.

Happy?

Dalton had noticed.

“Dear brother, I think this is the first plan that has ever, ever gone the way it was meant to.”

This was what a flawless victory tasted like. Oh God… She never wanted this taste to end. She knew joining the branches would pay off.

I figured he’d do more.

That’s why she’d been alert when the alarm rang out about the invisible Agents. Patten’s retaliation? On the contrary. They were leftovers from his original arrangement because what had been ‘planned’ on his end was supposed to have worked. It’d been a blessing to have him here. Elsewhere at a desk at some headquarter, he might have noticed Charlton going dark and sent out everything he owned. Here, he’d stayed back because he’d assumed something else would pop up. That was a false sense of safety, and she was glad her branch had killed it for him.

“We did well. Charlton is down. I imagine it won’t be long before the Agency sends out its best scouts.” It wasn’t to her surprise because this had been accounted for: the best scouts were in Elmira. Them leaving meant it all was disastrously unguarded. Cryptic, it was your turn. “Is that Plaster?”

The good doctor, moving quickly down the stairs and – whoops, careful now. Dalton had ripped those to pieces. Fortunately, they’d run out of Agent-on-a-String and Auldegg had her hands free to scuttle across the ceiling and lower a thread down to Plaster to join. The doctor did, nodding his head tightly, mushing his face into an interesting combination of fear, awe, illness, discovery –

Switch?

“Translate.” Because she might have spoken too soon. That was Plaster’s ‘I found something really good but that’s my version of really good that’s actually bad news for you’ face. “Ask him what he found.”

Dalton’s head swivelled, languished, until he’d turned and backed from the crater’s edges. Plaster had something important to share. They would have to break off from the stew and leave the branch to it, who, on their part, didn’t mind and went to work chopping vegetables and throwing in spices, since nothing said ‘thin cover for setting people ablaze’ like legitimate ingredients. Slakt Tand’s idea.

“Danielle,” Plaster said, rushing up. He was straightening the corners of his coat in agitation. His knees were stained with blood, and it’d been smeared on the cuffs of his pants as well. “Danielle, I –” He squinted. “Danielle?”

Dalton.

“Oh. Then anyway – fine – the both of you,” Plaster said, acting the excitable fellow he often was after every morbid sea of serendipity. He fidgeted with his bag strap when he tired of playing with his coat’s zipper, and he, after reaching them, stepped farther away, prodding them to put more distance between their unscheduled meeting and the others. “Hi. Danielle. Where are you?” She waved. He caught the outline. “Ah. Well. Alright. Um…” Take your time. The annoying part of adopting a German was that they weren’t quick to shake their etiquette. The Nordic branch wanted things spelled out fast; the Germans measured each word for maximum neutrality. She respected that, but this wasn’t the time to be caught on it. “Lamarre’s here.”

“Dalton, switch. Alright, people! Light it and leave – we’ve got a new deadline and we’re out in three.” Her fucking head was crushing in on itself! Fuck this – she’d be dealing with it all week and now it was back! She lumbered over to the pit, ready to bash in anyone who said shit about it. “Plaster, where’d you leave him?

“Upstairs, in Bergmann’s office,” Plaster said. He was quiet ‘cause he didn’t want the others hearing. They’d start a riot and that be a new fucking pile to clean up after. “He found the patrol.”

“The patrol wasn’t supposed to be in her office,” the ghost said, floating at her shoulder.

I think I know where the patrol was supposed to be, Dalton,” she chomped. “Move it, Slakt Tand! Get them burning!

“You told us we had until CryShadow came back,” the branch whined. They whined in a group – their voices, argh, they scratched at her ears. “Why is there a new deadline?”

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaam!

That’s why.

What the fuck was that? The branch jumped in fright. Danielle’s fists closed into heavy cannonballs of density. She’d sling them into any Agent’s face, no matter who the fuck he thought was coming here for no fucking reason. Second wave? Was it the second wave? Did Patten – fuck, was Lamarre the ambush? That son of a bitch! Did he have a goddamn suit, too?

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam!

Out from the halls of the second floor, ripping over the ceiling of the lobby, came a burst of darkness moving on its own. CryShadow. Their night fiend was insane. The branch scattered back into the defensive order she’d drilled into their heads, watching as the shadow broke itself against the walls, moving like it couldn’t help itself, crumbling – crumbling?

“Danielle,” Dalton asked, “is CryShadow coming off?”

I don’t know. Switch. There could be a fight.”

Like melted cheese peeling from a roof, great strands of shadow pulled from its back and stickily snapped in the air. When they snapped, they faded into nothingness. CryShadow had to have a base – it couldn’t move on its own. It skimmed untouchably under the surface or submerged some part to stretch the rest into a solid form. The way heaping drops of its shape began to vanish wasn’t a concern; CryShadow did that for fun. But Danielle’s eyes saw it. When the strands snapped, the ends curled and broke into dust,as if they’d died instead of dissolved. CryShadow was shattering like stone and it just kept screaming

ScreeeeeeeeeeeeeeAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA–

And then it fell, suddenly deathly silent, touching nothing even though it needed to. The branch stared as their hell beast spiralled down, the remains of its body on the ceiling cracking into tattered chunks before bursting into dust like the strands. A wave of darkness tore through them as it finally hit, splashing into the floor like water. Gigantic ripples flashed out and withered away, and for several minutes, no one dared to even breathe. They were waiting. Danielle was waiting. A perfect circle of black lay where CryShadow sank, still save for the smaller rings it let out – steadily, like it was shivering. In the corner behind the receptionist’s desk, Danielle saw a flicker of movement. Magnus and Glue had looked out from another room. They waited, too. Everyone – just… waited.

“… Is it dead?”

Someone had asked. She didn’t know, but it’d been someone, and now the questions and the gasps picked up steam.

“Did it fall off the ceiling?”

“What happened to it?”

“Is it moving?”

Stay the fuck away,” Dalton roared at the few that dared to creep closer.

A perfect circle, rippling as though a pebble dropped in a pond. Danielle was glad she could float. She couldn’t fly or move as fast anymore, but she hovered over the ruined ground to settle over the black circle. She had no way of telling what had happened. Heat Storm was the only one who talked to it, but that was in a I-talk-to-my-dolls way of kidding. And CryShadow wasn’t making sound.

“Plaster,” she said, speaking through Dalton. “Who did this?”

Plaster knew what she meant. A bit unsure, he fiddled with the strap of his bag, then definitively said, “I have never seen that before.”

The doctor had every record of Lamarre’s missions in a mental cabinet more accurate than half the real reports. It wasn’t that Agent, then. That Agent. … But…

“Dalton, get them moving. Start the stew and head out,” she said. God dammit. This was her fault. Whatever happened to her people was always her fault. Patten was not going to survive this mistake. “We’re going to ask the Russians what they think.”

And CryShadow?

“It’s –”

“Chirrrp.”

Swish, swish.

“CryShadow’s alive,” Cradle cheered. The whole branch whooped in delight. Then they threw a match on the web they’d hung over the edge because Auldegg wasn’t holding her up anymore, losing their minds was the fire zipped down and sent the pit up in fire with a noisy vwhoomph. “The shadows can’t be stopped!”

Yes. CryShadow was alive. So alive – and from what she could tell, so okay – that it’d, twisting out of the black circle, had given itself a shadow shake and then swish-swished away, sneaking under Danielle’s ghostly legs like it was brushing by as a friendly pat. It didn’t stop before it went out the door. In seconds, it vanished in the night.

“Plaster, did it look…?” ‘Did the shadow look healthy?’ Because that’s what she was about to ask. Plaster shrugged. Alright, fine. “Dalton, switch with me. Great, stew’s on. That’s it. Go.” Took their fucking time to leave, but they kicked more crap down and spat on the fucking Agents and shoved off, heading home. The Cubans – where were the fucking Cubans? On their way. Whatever had fucking happened to it, CryShadow never forgot its role, and its role meant that thing couldn’t leave until they all good. Better than an egg-timer. “Magnus. Where are you heading?

“The cell team found Alexander.”

That got everyone excited.

I didn’t say ‘stop walking’! Move it, people – pick up the pace!” And to Magnus: “So what are you doing? Gonna get him?

“They say there’s the other girl too and they can’t juggle her with Carter.” Magnus’ pointy hair-metal head jerked over to Glue. “She’s not staying. I’ll be back with the bodies. Tell a Cuban to drive around once or twice for me.”

“It’s a good thing we’re on nice terms, because that’s one hell of a favour to ask,” Dalton said. “They’re skittish. There’s a reason they aren’t parked outside to wait.”

Do you mind not fucking narrating every branch quirk in my ear? I know that,” she said back. “Okay, Magnus. You can stay. But talk to Plaster first – he’s got a newsflash you need to know.” God dammit, Patten! Bringing all his fucking friends – goddammit, Breton, fucking dying in the first place!

“Criiiii!”

The Cubans are here. Find your ride-buddies – Slakt Tand! Enough with the gasoline!” She didn’t have a problem with burning the building down, but it’d take too long. “Magnus, you keep that fucker Alexander contained. Don’t let him out of your sight and don’t let him wake up if he’s out. Don’t make eye contact. And as for his friend, have a grip on her, too.

Was that it? It was hard to hold a mental checklist together in this pressurized brain. She banged on her head with the side of her fist, loosening up. That had to be it. Everyone was accounted for, alive or otherwise. Fucking Patten… What she said didn’t change because it was more proof: if Lamarre was here, why wasn’t he out? Patten must’ve told him to stay put. He must’ve been so sure the guards would handle it… and then when it was clear they couldn’t, it got too late to send him out. But the fucking trouble was both of them being here at all.

“Conference?”

Have it organized. Where’s my truck?” She proudly trudged to the open air. The glass from the door crunched under her feet. “Let’s get the fuck gone.

* * *


There was no hope of walking quietly in here. His footsteps rang like hammers through thick ice. So it was in the aftermath of a Nordic-led attack. The halls themselves wept from the scars they now bore. He felt selfish seeing them. Part of him, however, was back inside its element. He knew these marks. They came from organic steel, for lack of a better term until the Agency had its chance to study it. Magnus: another old face. Walking here, Benoit had gone around a small hill of a person cut in squares and piled to say they’d crumpled on themselves seconds later. The Cube was on TV last week. Then this was CryShadow’s signature. That gash at the corner, though, was not one he recognized. It’d pushed through the wall – several walls – and in the distance he could hear the wind whistle. All of it drew from the smell downstairs. The Nordics called it ‘stew’. He called it was worse than what had ever been done to them, but that was only his opinion.

They’d done well. He saw the base was ruined from the second floor to the first, both thoroughly and with an air of open pride. It’d been on fire for the half hour he’d waited before venturing out. He’d been trying to clean a little there. No luck in it, but… he’d be fine to blame the party on Eric. Speaking of which, there he was, as calm and quiet as anyone could expect. He didn’t react when Benoit joined him.

“You should have told me,” he said, eyeing the changes in the room. Carter was gone. That’s what they’d been after, was it? Elias’ cell was dark, too. “I would have stopped them.”

“Mmm.”

Eric was posted at the wall in line with the freshly emptied space. His Anti-Agent face was aglow of the dark red from having one less body to light it. So the A-1 was thinking, and his smile was dimmed in accordance. He looked reflective underneath it, his arms crossed in meditation, and although he was naturally amused like always, by what this time couldn’t have been good.

“I’m sorry about her.” But only out of professional courtesy. “I know you were close.” In a way. In a way that said if that’d been ‘close’, then Eric and Madeline were damn near best friends.

“Hmm?” Eric had vaguely turned his ear towards him, not paying attention, not really caring, and not budging his eyes from the gap in the row. After a second moment, he clued in that, yes, Benoit was here, and then finally turned to look at him, too relaxed to move anything else. “Whassat?”

Clearly, the man was devastated.

“Carter,” Benoit said. “She’s gone.”

“… Yeah – that’s… uh…” Eric twitched an eyebrow at the space. “It’s come to my attention.”

Oh, right. Benoit was the stupid one.

“Well, I’m glad you’re taking this so well,” he said, letting out a long breath of smoke. He leaned against the wall as well. He wanted to enjoy being taller than German-Eric until he jumped back into Jean body’s. “Normally one would have more to say about it, given your affiliation.”

“Hm?”

“Carter,” Benoit said again. “I’m not so naïve to think you’d be grieving about it, but some word in regards to what happened would be nice to hear. Speculation on who was involved, what they did to breach our defences, how they got in, how they took her.”

“Sounds like I’m not the one ‘affiliated’,” Eric said, grinning.

“The Anti-Agents are my job.” Used to be. Since then… “Remember it’s on all of us to gather facts on such an extreme violation.” And here he was, explaining it to someone who’d just snickered at ‘violation’. “You realize this is serious?”

“I’m handling it, Benny,” Eric told him, gone back to the empty space. “It’s what I do.”

“Sit on your ass and not bother? Maybe you weren’t paying attention, but I was,” Benoit said. “The Anti-Agents broke in and destroyed us. Bergmann’s security was chewed through like candy and your personal spies –”

“My what?”

“Your spies,” Benoit snapped. “The ones in the suits.”

Eric stared at him with a blank face. Completely blank. He wasn’t joking. But then something triggered in his head and he laughed, going, “Oh – yeah, them. Ha – no, they’re not mine.”

… Problem solved? In Eric’s book, certainly.

“What do you mean they’re not yours? You put them here,” Benoit said.

“Yeah.” Shrug. “You can see those guys?”

“Yes. I can.” Reluctantly, he remembered his rank again. “I sent in an order for –”

“Those lenses – right, right, damn.”

“That’s bad, I take it?”

“No, not bad. I guess. For you. I’m just disappointed I have to fire someone else, and his name starts with ‘Derek Brewer, recently deceased’.”

“Please say you’re joking,” Benoit said.

“Aww, of course I am,” Eric replied, shooting off a glittery smile. “And if anyone else asks, that’s exactly what you tell ‘em! Also – completely unrelated – remind me to send a fruit basket to his wife. Hey, what’s better for ‘sorry your hubbie inconveniently fell in a vat of acid’: pears or peaches?”

“Why choose? Send them both.” He’d been sarcastic; Eric seemed to take it as advice. “Can we get back to the real matter?”

“Sure! Or – wait, actually, do you mind? I’m kind’f trying to enjoy this.” Eric pointed with his chin back to Carter’s old place.

“‘Enjoy’ – what?” Already Eric had begun ignoring him. Benoit refused to accept it. In two fast strides, he was standing in front of the A-1, blocking his view and getting a tickled roll of eyes for his efforts in trying to stay focused. “What about this are you enjoying?”

“All of it.”

All of it’?

“That was an entire squad of security that died, Eric! Those were people with families –”

“And I assure you,” he cut in, “those sacrifices will not be in vain. Grr, those Antis! What were they, the Swedish guys?”

He didn’t believe what he was hearing. Benoit couldn’t believe it. Even Eric, even someone as cavalier about murder as… What?!

“Over a hundred die, none of whom were our enemy, and you want to make jokes about it?”

“No, really! It won’t be vain. Look – if you’re not gonna let me gloat about it in peace, I’m just gonna get another sandwich. I’m starving,” Eric said. ”Sure, tag along. No day’s complete without the mighty knight of Salcon crying about bruises, ‘cause it never gets old. So can you see Squiddie?”

They left the room and walked into the shadows. He was guided by his lenses switching modes, but Eric puttered along like he knew precisely where everything was. And true to his word, they went up to the third floor’s kitchen via the stairs to get the man a sandwich for his stupid fucking hunger.

Benoit was mad by the time Eric was eating.

“I have the feeling you didn’t tell me of the attack because you knew I would stop it.”

“Uh-huh. You want anything?”

He’d said it with his mouth full. There wasn’t the faintest ounce of… anything in his voice! Just the happiness – the fucking, smug, dead cold joy of everything else around him not pestering his bubble of mirth. Benoit knew there was a strong degree of distance from any personal responsibility in the losses the Agency might suffer, but he had never known it could be like this. For Eric to admit it so placidly, it was like he’d killed the other Agents himself!

“I don’t think there’s a word in any language to explain my opinion of you now.”

“You should ask the Russians. They’ll give you a million.” He giggled. “I love those guys. I almost feel bad for terrorizing them so much. I mean – sometimes even I don’t think I deserve so much credit. But I am pretty awesome, so I probably do. Are you sure you don’t want a bite? I haven’t seen you eat anything that wasn’t liquid and in a bottle. I need you in fighting form!”

That Anti’s words came back to him then. Benoit was consumed by a cruel repulsion to the very thought Eric might have been forcing them to work together – in a different way than the way they were now: willingly. It certainly sounded like it! If he’d been alright to dump so many of their people into a pit to burn, why not add a bit of this angle to it, too? He was ill from the idea, and only the shock of this falling upon him kept him from backing away.

“Fighting form for what?”

“Odd jobs, until we’re regrouped. You’re gonna be part two of reining in Xander. Squiddie’ll be part one, but since she’ll be wrapped up in that and the world keeps turning no matter how much you want it to pause, I’ll have to have you take her spot for a while. Temporarily – totally temporarily, and of course I’d never dream of asking anything near as much of you as her. I just need some help with a few things.”

“Like what?”

“Ah! And here’s where your insight into Anti-Agent behaviour comes in handy,” Eric said. “We’re gonna have our counter-attack –”

“Then now you see a point in doing something?” He was enraged. “Why bother? Why kill a hundred – let the whole thing fall!”

“Benoit! I’m amazed at you! I have nothing but the Agency’s survival at heart.”

“By not telling me there’s to be a raid and then letting our forces be slaughtered? You sick fuck – I can’t imagine what psychotic things have been running through your thoughts all this time, but if you think I’ll be a part of it –”

“Squiddie’s here!” Eric set down his sandwich and clapped his hands. “And she brought a flashlight! What a darling, isn’t she? She’s great.” Squiddie moved in and put the flashlight in his hand, then stepped into the kitchen’s corner without a break amongst her silent work. She had her sack of crap again. Benoit glared at it, but then turned it onto Eric when the A-1 hit the switch and stuck the light under his chin. “Oooh – spooky!” He would not be getting a response to that, unless a searing hatred counted. “Come on. Lighten up. Wait, was that a pun? That’s hilarious! I gotta write that down!” Deigning it was a horrible mistake to continue playing like this, he sighed and put the flashlight on the table. “Okay, Moody Pants. What’s your superior A-3 take on things?”

“‘A-3’,” Benoit snarled back. “As though I’m somehow lesser than you.”

“… Uh… no, not ‘somehow’. I can draw a picture if you want me –”

Every nerve in his body woke up, teeming with a horrendous lust for blood. He had never wanted so badly to kill someone before, and he tasted the scent of it in the back of his throat.

“You’re the monster,” he said. “Not me. You.”

“Cute. About those Antis…”

“You’re on your own. I’m done. I can’t do this.”

The words left him weak.

Eric laughed, like it was the most childish thing he’d heard before.

“You’re quitting? What, the Agency?”

“Just you.”

“Well, I wouldn’t recommend that,” Eric said. “You’ll cause more deaths than I did, and that’ll be out of spite, not a bigger purpose.”

“Don’t you fucking say this was for a purpose,” Benoit told him. “I don’t know them any better than you, but I won’t treat them as pawns.”

“Benoit, we’re all pawns! Some of us just don’t lose sight of that back row of the board. There’s a method to my madness,” Eric said. “There always has been. That’s why I’m an A-1.”

“Bullshit, you asshole – you’re an A-1 because you murdered one of the last ones!”

“That’s just a rumour, Benny.”

“And that is fucking hilarious and you should write that down, because I remember hearing from you that you always take rumours as a fact,” he spat. “Why would you think I’d treat this as anything less, now that I see how natural it’d be to you?”

“Ouch, okay? My feelings are hurt.”

T’me fais chier, tabarnak, so fuck you, fuck your plan and fuck everyone that tries to help you! I said I was done.”

And he left to – “I put a bomb in Charlotte’s cell.”

… He saw the path he’d have to take if he turned back now. But…

As cold to him as he’d been to this massacre, Benoit stayed in the room and returned his attention to the man. His face was one of expectation and polite welcome to Benoit’s audience.

“A bomb.”

“Not a real one. A virtual one. They can’t have her in a truck all day, and to put her on a powered system means uploading her to theirs. I know their tech. What I don’t know is their location.” Eric’s smile was serious, firm in what it was explaining. “They put her in, the bomb flies out, we get the signal that tells us what they think is the most secure spot in their territory.”

“One of a thousand.”

“But one of the few everybody involved has access to. You know them, Benoit – probably better than me.” Not true. He did, definitively. “You’ve been out chasing Alex for a few years, but the basics don’t move that fast. The branches hate each other and that’s been since day one, but they’re working together now. The Nordic branch, Danielle? She’s got it in her head that this’ll be her final strike. She’s cut deals in every way to get the Germans and Russians on board, and then their all their friends jumped in after that, but those three won’t change the bottom line. Wherever they took Charlotte, it’s where they all are, ‘cause they can’t trust only one of them to have her. You tell me that’s something you’re gonna walk away from - and I swear to you, if you leave, you aren’t coming back to it. I’ll forbid it, I promise, and you know we need you involved.”

Nothing in his mind had wavered, but Benoit conceded that last point: though there hadn’t been many experts to start with, thanks to Alexander, he might as well be the only one left. Certainly the most experienced. They did need him.

But this was Eric.

“What else is going on?”

There was that look in the man’s eye, the one that said he was about to pull rank and shut him out. No – that was the end of that. A deal with the Devil was going to be on Benoit’s selected terms, and those would be subject to change whenever he fucking felt like it.

“This is a two-part strike,” Eric said, giving in when he understood. “The other half? Elmira.”

Benoit’s eyes widened.

“They’re attacking Elmira?”

“Ballsy, I know.”

“We were there, Eric! We were – fucking – you let us – you let me leave?!”

“I didn’t need you there. Not yet. We’re going back – that’s kind’f why I joined you guys,” Eric said. “You’re free to do your own thing – sure, whatever, but because I need you in Elmira –”

“I can’t do anything from here, dammit!”

When I need you in Elmira, which is after the second half of the attack anyway, so no matter what you were thinking of doing, I’d have to shoo you out of that place, I have to make sure you’re there. That means keeping you out of the know so you aren’t wiping away every intruder so they can do what they came to do and what I’ve already accounted for. And hey, it would’ve been nice if you weren’t off to Charlton so I didn’t have to dance around with Maddie, ‘cause she’s such pleasant company and I’m glad I got you quality time with her too, but also ‘cause – gee, I dunno, the Nordics may have changed their minds once they found out I was here? Yeah, I’m super sorry I dinged your holy sense of ethics by letting some guys die the way they’ve been trained to expect and agreed to, but this is more than them. They’d understand if they gave a fraction of the shit that you do.”

Eric did not mix words when he knew he couldn’t afford to.

“Why after the second attack?”

“Those are details you don’t need.”

Of course.

“And March? Where does she fit?”

“Somewhere separate from you.”

Benoit frowned at that.

“So you have planned for her.”

“I plan for everyone – as I meet them or when I hear of them or when they get involved. Case in point: Xander. That is a fun fucking bonus. Rudy? Hilarious curse! That’s twice the kid’s screwed something up for me! One more time and I’m just gonna give him to the Antis to play with. The guy ruined my element of surprise.”

“What surprise?”

“The spies,” Eric cried, annoyed behind his grin. “Shot one in the face – can you believe that? So rude! I figured it wasn’t gonna be an issue ‘cause they’re all rookies anyway –”

“Explain it. Now.”

Eric’s eyebrow twitched. His smile did, too. Benoit didn’t care.

“They’re new suits – the next level. They’re completely invisible.” Invisible? “You didn’t know. They all show up the same to you. But they are. Fully. Unlike the old ones, like what Jason has, they don’t show up on anything, except for one very, very special piece of equipment.” The lenses. “Our lenses. I dunno what the hell happened to Jean’s, but he wasn’t supposed to have them anyway.” Eric tapped the side of his glasses. “Just me. And those wearing that suit.”

‘Brewer’, was it? Derek Brewer? Benoit would have to thank him, provided the fool escaped Eric’s wrath.

“Why are they here?”

“Training. They stay for a month and practise stealth techniques, and I make sure they do by telling ‘em to individually provide some part of Maddie’s schedule. Simple stuff, but to confirm they’re able to pick out information on request. After a month, they’re weeded out to go to bigger and better things or not. Surprise: this class didn’t graduate.”

Then he’d been right. They were never guards.

“And what was the point of that?”

“To get ‘em good and ready,” Eric said. “The Anti-Agents, I mean. When they find my invisible suits in Elmira, I don’t want them holding back.”

“You’re letting them die, too?”

“What? Nooooo – I’d never let anyone die, not even these ones here! It might have happened that Rudy shot one and then the cat was out of the bag and then that ambush opportunity was lost and the Antis went on safari, but it was just an unfortunate turn of events that, really, works out quite nicely for me, ‘cause I technically didn’t have to have these guys crowding around but doing it like I did means I might as well pop the champagne if you haven’t it guzzled by now. These ones here are unassigned. Check them – there’s no mark. I imprint all my property.” He tapped his glasses again, this time on the stem’s design. “See? So wherever you got the ‘mine’ thing from, put it back.”

“They still died,” Benoit said.

“Yes they did, but they were unassigned, not mine, like I keep saying. That’s okay – it’s an easy mistake to make. The Antis’ll get it. It’s not like they’re gonna run into Elmira thinking the ones there are the exact same as the ones here. I mean – wow, talk about underestimating your opponent,” Eric laughed. Then he stopped, filling up on a friendly, considerate tone. “Although – gee. Imagine if they did. That’d bring back a whole lot of the surprise, wouldn't t? And in such close quarters with – like… two ways of getting out…” He had actually thought about this. And if Benoit helped… “So?”

“Huh?”

Eric was patiently at ease. The shine from the flashlight almost seemed to come from him, pure and honestly.

“We need you,” he was told. The sincerity in Eric’s voice was overwhelming. “Are you on board with this?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s your choice, and it’s whatever you decide, but you do know.”

… He was right. Although quite frankly, it felt more like Benoit had to help. The Agency needed him. They would try regardless but fail if he wasn’t there. The damage would be catastrophic. He…

This was how it started.

Deep within his chest, Benoit’s heart was ice.

“Order me.”

“… Excuse me?”

“You heard what I said.”

Eric was confused.

“Why?”

“Because, Agent Patten,” he replied, “I’m an A-3, and you’re an A-1. That’s my only link to you.” It’d been subtle, so subtle, but the choice was not a choice. It was a death sentence. “And because, Eric –” This deal was on his terms. “– I’m not doing you a fucking favour.”

“… This is doing me a favour?”

Ha.

“It will be, because I told you I was done.”

Eric wore that surprised face well. Benoit knew he was safe. He had the only shield against this man’s power-through-hysteria: undivided indifference. If Eric really needed him, he’d have to accept he’d only get what he asked for, and there was nothing Eric hated like predictability. Besides Carter, but she was special.

“You’re serious?”

“Unless you’re not.” Benoit had earned another smoke. “Unless you lied, and this isn’t as ‘for’ the Agency as you’d like me to –”

“Alright, you’re ordered. Geez.”

“Was that so hard?” For him? Oh yes. “Get used to it, because I won’t change my mind. The instant you leave it up to me, I’m gone.”

But for now, he was simply gone to bed. He’d search for a nice one. There would have to be at least one room here the stew’s stink didn’t reach.

“Squiddie, could you let dear Xander out of his cage,” he heard Eric ask as he was left behind.

Benoit snorted at it. Good luck, Elias. Remember: the key to surviving was not to kill him.

Right away, Elias was doomed.

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#, as written by Ten
Well, this sucked. How the hell was he supposed to impress Squiddie if his hose wasn't long enough? And he'd already searched the hallways for this damn thing and the spot where he found it was the first spot he'd found a fire hose on the second floor, so he wasn't likely going to have any more luck if he went looking for another one. Laying on his back in the middle of the hallway, Rudy tried to think of how else he might disable his target and get the woman of his dreams to notice him. Maybe he should just drop his preoccupation with Ozzie altogether? Afterall, it'd be pretty hard to impress a woman by chasing after another, although it would show how big his... loyalty was. He couldn't do both, he realized, understanding that Squiddie was most likely a jealous woman and would want his obsession all for herself. Not that Rudy was going to give up his case - because FUCK Alex; she was his, dammit! - he'd just have to go after Ozzie at a different time when it was more convenient and preferably after he'd shown Squiddie his Captain Kirk uniform.

Well, good! Now this freed up his focus on actually winning Squiddie's heart, rather than wrestling with the tangled mess that was Osono's trust and trying to please the fussy Mr. Patten. How was he going to get her attention? What did robot chicks like? If he drenched himself in oil or wore shiny pants would she be attracted to him? Or maybe he should just cover himself in magnets instead? No! He was thinking too small! Besides, he wasn't even sure she wasn't human. That mask she wore... so mysterious and sexy... Would she be offended if he wanted her to continue wearing it during lovemaking?

Feeling more than comfortable to lay there, plotting and waiting for her to find him, Rudy cracked a grin as he remembered the way she'd answered him on the phone when he asked if she'd asked about him. She'd said 'no' in the most disinterested way possible. Such a tease, the way she tried to keep up the appearance of being a frigid bitch, despite him knowing that she was hot for him too. He seemed to remember her looking for any excuse to hurt him when she'd bopped the hell out of him earlier in the evening. Because she was sneaky like that, keeping their love a secret from her boss, while at the same time tempting him with deliciously bizarre and painful abuse. Maybe that was the way he should approach things with her? Keeping it on the down-low like he and Noel had, because the Agency and Patten wouldn't approve of their relationship. They just didn't understand that even the most inhuman of them still needed to feel things from time to time. And that woman, although a faceless soldier, was just as filled with fiery passion as Osono.

Rudy could do that for her. He could be that safe place for her to let her hair down. They'd be clandestine lovers, giving her a secret release and allowing her to still be the emotionally vacant thing that her boss needed and wanted. He could even help her keep up the ruse in front of Patten. By being deliberately annoying and disobedient, forcing her into a position to punish him, nobody would ever be able to accuse her of acting out of line or being weak - which, they would if they all knew how she truly felt about him. Thinking of her punishing him and what he was willing to physically go through, just to be close to her, Rudy shivered with a small smirk on his face, heat and blood rushing through him to all of the wrong places.

The sound of footsteps shook him out of his horny reverie and he delightedly turned towards the approaching sound with a dorky smile on his face. Seeing her in person again made the threat of physical harm just that much more palpable, and his body quivered excitedly as his mouth sped away without looking back. "Hey, baby!" he said without bothering to sit up or move, preferring how much more dangerous and seductive she looked from this angle. "Finally! A moment alone! And I just wanted to let you know I'm totally cool with this whole charade if you let me get to 2nd--!!!"

The rest of his bullet-words were cut off as her leg collided with his stomach and the confused yelp in his throat was swallowed as he went flying through the air. He had a moment to wonder what the hell was happening before there was an explosion of pain in his back when he slammed into a door, forcing it open with the impact. With a loss of breath and shuddering in disoriented agony, Rudy blinked and let out a shallow groan, not daring to move from the spot where he'd landed. It took a few minutes for the gasping pain shooting through his back and skull to subside enough for him to become aware of the cloud of ecstasy buzzing through him and centralized on his uncomfortably wet and sticky groin area. When he realized what happened amidst the married, dizzying onslaught of anguish and bliss, he smiled and let out an orgasmic growl.

Holy Fuck! She was such an animal! With just one kick to his poor, over-excited form she'd sent him through the roof straight up into heaven. Either he'd become hyper sensitive or she was just that fucking good and since Rudy liked to pride himself in how resistant to physical violence he'd become over the years, he was betting everything on her being more skilled than any of his previous sexual partners combined. And if he thought he was in love before, this fucking sealed the whole damn deal. It was consummated now!

There was a moment or two where he hyperventilated, thinking she was possibly lurking in this new dark space with him right now, ready to hurt him more at any moment but alertness eluded him and his shortness of breath propelled him deeper into the cloud of satiated exhaustion. He airily worried about needing to get off his ass and get back on his case soon or at the very least see if he couldn't take another stab at convincing Patten to give him his original rank back. But in the face of the pleasure consuming him and the weight of pain and fatigue pushing him down, he had trouble mustering up the will to care about any of it. Ozzie could wait. Eric could wait. And even Alex could wait to get his ass kicked. Nothing else in the world mattered right now and nothing could burst his bubble of oblivion. Rudy just got laid.

***

At some point in her vigil, she stopped really watching out for enemies, instead watching what the hell was happening to Alex and Xander. Osono wasn't scared of it, just fascinated as the question "How do you even put someone in someone else's head?" was progressively answered. Well... at least the question, "How do you put someone back into their own head?" was being answered. There was of course the hair raising on the back of her neck as the chair itself strapped Alex in, but at the same time, her morbid curiosity was piqued as she watched the head dress come out, surrounding Alex's scalp like some sort of alien machinery. Alex's panic didn't inspire any concern - if something was really wrong, he'd stop mumbling and yelling at himself and instead yell at her to get involved - but filled her with a sick sort of amusement watching him squirm in his seat.

Then she sobered quickly to realize... Gwen might be in a chair just like this right now. Ozzie grew frustrated with herself trying to fight the sappy feelings swelling inside her to think of the other woman in danger, but for some reason she couldn't help it. Inexplicably, where Alex's terror made her smirk and laugh, thinking of Gwen scared and trapped in the chair, begging to be let out and crying that she didn't want to be there, flicked the switch on Ozzie's empathy meter. Once again, she was faced with how selfish her feelings had been during this trip but she refused to apologize for the things she thought about Xander. Even so, a new resolve to 'be nice to the pansy with a hurt ankle' took over and she stopped laughing as Alex eventually quieted down too. This was it. Their group was getting cut in size again and she had to make it work. Somehow. As much fun as torturing Alex was, since he seemed to take everything so damn personally, she needed to do her best not to poke him. She needed to be the responsible one if he wasn't going to, which was another thing she'd have to 'punish' Marshall for later.

Annoyed, she almost began to debate with herself about why the fuck she was even in a group at all but suddenly her thoughts were interrupted as the room became dark. Instantly, her body reacted by getting in a defensive stance and fire burst to life on her hand. Instead of lighting the room like she thought it would, only the flames themselves had any brightness, the darkness almost like a physical thing pushing in around it. The gurgling sound of death came from somewhere nearby accompanied by a smooth, metallic clip noise and suddenly the darkness wasn't as complete as it was before. Letting the flames die down, Osono looked around the room in the available illumination - or what accounted for it - instantly pinpointing who'd died. Instinct took over as the action in the environment didn't pause for a second, watching as a young girl rushed at Alex with some sort of taser.

Filled with cool and vibrant anger, Osono stepped forward to protect him, as the figure of the girl turned to meet her, an automatic elbow coming up to smash into her face. Osono didn't know how this darkness worked or who these people were, but she wasn't going to let them hurt her friends and she didn't need her fire to hurt them back. Readying another punch as the girl recovered, she swung out with her fist just as the other woman grabbed onto her. Biting pain like static on her skin shot through her, all the more intense for the way it bit at every nerve in it's travels through the circuits in her body. Muscles spasmed of their own accord, and Ozzie clenched her teeth as she made to swing again, her fist flying through the air ineffectually. The static snapping and crackling didn't let up, bringing her to her knees as exhaustion flooded in where rage once stood, with a deeper blackness rushing on it's heels.

***

Annnnnd, sure enough, there it was. Lights out for Haggins. He felt a moment of regret and sympathy, knowing the hell the kid would suffer tomorrow, as he watched the mostly full glass of water drop from limp, sleeping fingers. But his marginal concern was flippantly tossed aside seconds later when the flight attendant came to clean up the mess, which involved a lot of bending over. Despite his own battle with restraint, Fin stayed a gentleman and merely shared a few sultry, meaningful glances with her, in between admiring her uniform - particularly the rear parts of it. After the water was soaked up and the glass taken care of, she brought him his own glass upon request - he had to seriously promise not to drop it before she gave it to him, though. Part of it was flirting and another part of it was her humoring the drunk guy who just wouldn't go the fuck to sleep.

Not too long after that, Anjelica released a sigh and leaned her head against a pillow tucked between shoulder and ear, the din of her faintly heard music still playing muffled in her headphones. As soon as the other woman fell asleep, the stewardess made sure Fin had everything he needed before retreating to the galley, probably to get a few moments to herself. Not that Fenton was a handful or anything, and he wouldn't have complained if she wanted to spend their mutual alone time together but he wasn't going to offer first. Anyway, he really needed to clear his head and think about the new information that the young Doc had unwittingly shared with him.

It had been 45 minutes since Haggins lost consciousness, leaving Fin alone in the cabin and the whole time, he sat staring at his cellphone, chewing over whether he should get involved or not. Honestly, he shouldn't even care about Stephanie March, and he didn't. Not really. The extent of his connection to all of this was a few hours of entertainment while reading her diaries. Well, it was amusing up to the point where it became annoying; like the parts where she alternated between weeping and ridiculously debated committing suicide after finding one of Richard's ties in the back of her closet, or completely losing it when she chipped his coffee mug while ritualistically washing it one Sunday. All of that happening months after he left, by the way.

Fenton's interest was more about Graninger. There was always a small bit of rebellion that he displayed when in the presence of the older man, but now that he felt himself stretching his legs in full independence, he was tempted to poke and prod the guy from a distance. To put his nose where he'd been specifically instructed not to. He knew he didn't have immunity from Graninger's control - especially not when he was made aware of just how much weight the guy had to throw around - but testing his new boundaries couldn't hurt. Whether Stephanie killed some woman or not, he doubted, with their history, that Graninger would give her a fair "trial". Just a couple of hours after Fin returned from a "super, top secret mission" retrieving those humorous diaries, the Agency's personal police force was sent out to go after her, with serious punishment in mind. It was too coincidental and he couldn't quite put a finger on why it bothered him for some emotionally disturbed chick to have her cage rattled years after her douchebag boyfriend threw in the towel. But Graninger was a raging dick. Did Fin really need a reason to be a dick back? ...Okay, besides the fact that none of it had anything to do with him and it wasn't his business.

Sitting with his thumb rubbing lightly at the numbers on his phone, he eventually decided that this was most likely the alcohol talking. Filled with guilt in not being able to perform for Anjie - and accidentally insulting her afterward - his sense of chivalry was ignited after hearing about this other poor woman's plight continuing ceaselessly with torture after torture. And also, he was a little jealous, as if he himself had been rejected. After being Richard's pet project for a year, it was perfectly understandable that he'd have trouble letting go. To find out that not only did Graninger not suffer any regret over selling him off but as soon as Fin was gone, he turned around and started making someone else's life hell - and his EX to boot - it was a bit of a blow to Fin's ego. And after all they'd been through together...

While he finished chuckling to himself over that, clarity swooped in, sobering him quickly, the laughter seemingly waking him up from the stupidly aggressive mood he'd been in. In all seriousness, whether he felt like messing with Richard or protecting some strange woman for no reason at all, he really couldn't afford to keep pushing buttons. They hadn't kept him on a year probation for nothing, and after finally winning them over, now was no time to go risking things, especially when NOW was the moment they were all probably watching him the closest. He'd worked too hard and there was still a long way to go to get where he wanted to be. To let himself get distracted by these pointless entertainments put what he was really trying to do in jeopardy, and after everything he'd lost, he wasn't going to lose this chance to fix it all.

At that moment, the screen on his phone lit up and a pulsing tone bleeped in alert as Billy King's number flashed with a message attached underneath it. Fin? Are you there?

Fenton sat staring at it, letting the minutes tick by as a deep numbness descended upon him, unable to let himself feel anything in response nor to turn away. It meant nothing. She was probably just tracing the call that he hadn't meant to make, digging to find out why the hell he'd contacted her and who he was. Normal, Agent-y caution and all of that. Her calling him 'Fin'... it was probably listed as one of his aliases on his brand new Agency profile or something - that would be sweet of Graninger to include it in the paperwork. Fin didn't really have an explanation for why he called Billy earlier, except some vain, useless hope he decided to entertain in a moment of weakness, brought on by his also very brand new autonomy. So, there was no need to talk to her since the conversation wouldn't do much to inform her than he already had before hanging up. Only when a second message appeared, did the wall of apathy break, immobilizing him with shock instead. I know your there Fenturd. Answer me.

Fin blinked rapidly at the tiny screen, a hand wandering up to touch his lips in quiet disbelief. Only one person ever called him that and no one else knew about it, which made receiving this now an impossibility. That was what the logical part of him kept saying, while the proof sat staring him in the face with tiny text, letting a sick sort of hope begin to filter through. With his heart throbbing in his throat, he slowly shook his head, trying to will himself to shut it off, fighting with the urge to reply instead, clenching his teeth in a struggle to retain control. Could it really be Pie? How? What did she want from him now? After what he'd done, why would she reach out? What could he even say to her--?

"He finally fell asleep, eh?"

The sound of the deep, yawning voice behind him made Fin jump in his seat with a harsh jolt and he released a hurried, yet relieved breath. Shutting the phone off, he surreptitiously tucked it into his pocket as he turned to regard the kind, fatherly smile of the older Agent, thankful, for once, for the opportune interruption. It took Fin a couple of seconds to return to the present, staring blankly at Creasy before turning his head to regard the slumped figure of Haggins, quickly catching up on the conversation. "Yeah, the vodka helped loosen him up. A lot," he said with a shrug and a nod. Creasy seemed momentarily shocked by the revelation that his adorable, frigid ward had been intoxicated while he hadn't been awake to witness it but the amusement never left his crisp blue eyes as he regarded the sleeping young man.

"Vodka? I assume that was your doing." It wasn't a question and the small smirk Creasy gave him hinted that he wasn't displeased, but Fin gave another tilt of his head and shrug in a noverbal 'Guilty as charged.' "Well, I hope you were gentle."

For a split second, Fin sweated from the possibility that Creasy was hinting at his ulterior motives in getting the kid plastered so he could pump him for information about their current cases. In response to the sudden anxiety, Fin glibly responded, "If you're asking if I popped his cherry, the answer is 'no'." Creasy's smile froze but his eyebrows did a miniscule bounce which, in his still fuzzy grasp on concentration, Fenton interpreted as a reason to keep talking. "I figured I'd leave that honor up to you." Oh, shit! Was he in trouble now? Like an automatic voice message machine being prompted, Graninger's voice badgered him again about rank, respecting authority and keeping his stupid mouth shut.

As Fin's insides froze with a suffocating chill, Creasy immediately let out a small snort from deep in his throat that proceeded to morph into quick and light, belly laughter. Was this an 'I'm so shocked that I'm laughing, but I'm probably going to kill you' type of laughter? Or was it more the 'I'm actually amused but I'm still probably going to kill you' type? It was an awkward couple of seconds while the older man regained his composure, letting out a lengthy sigh and rubbing his facial hair before shaking his head and looking back at Fin.

"Seriously, Fin," he said, another small chuckle chasing his words as he reached forward and rested a hand on the back of Fenton's neck. There was no threat in the gesture, the man's hold firm yet soothing, but he felt unnerved by it nonetheless and tensed under the warm touch. "Can I please get you to join the Docimasy? I'll sign the paperwork right now for you, if you'll just say yes to the 6 month training program. You can try it out and see how you like it, and even if it turns out you don't, you'll at least be walking away from this with an A-10 rank, no matter when you decide to exit training. A-8 if you complete the entire 6 months and pass."

"Why? Because I've got such a talent for investigation and observation that I was able to figure out you're hot for your Jewish secretary after only 5 seconds of seeing you two in the same room together? FYI, you're not hiding it well. If I hadn't known any better, I would have thought the boner poking into the back of my seat was for me." Where was the off button on his mouth??? HOW WAS HE SUPPOSED TO MAKE IT STOP?!! Truth be told, it was a great offer and he found himself salivating at the promise of rising up the ladder so easily and so quickly but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being manipulated. He was still a little drunk afterall and hardly in a state to be making rational decisions, but Creasy found this the perfect time to broach the 'second offering'. It wasn't that he didn't want it; he DID. He just wasn't sure about saying 'yes' right now.

"You can downplay it all you want," Creasy said, putting a gentle finger pointedly in Fin's face and giving him a knowing smirk. "But I've been watching you and you have a talent for seeking out characteristics in different people and playing upon them, working them to your advantage. And yes," he nodded with an admiring glint in his eye and a tolerant twist to his lips. "You're sensitive to body language and nonverbal cues, cluing you into hidden 'relationships' and connections between people. You think it's something everybody notices but it's not. Most people need to be told what to look for. I could use someone with your charisma and insight on my team and I'm willing to push up the offer to A-7 if you'll just take a chance on it." Creasy's voice lowered a notch or two, almost unnoticeable, getting close enough that Fin could see the detail in the earring dangling from the man's ear - a tiny, yet skinny and long, silver cross. "It would be a shame for such natural intuition to be wasted as an A-1's cannon fodder." Yeah, even if it were physically possible for that term to apply to Fin, it STILL wouldn't happen. He already had enough of settling for that role in his other life.

"I did indicate that I would think over your request earlier, didn't I?" Fenton asked, subtly drawing away from the older man, barely moving an inch within the grasp of those slender fingers still on his neck. "In case you're new to this whole recruitment thing, we're still in the 'thinking about it' phase of the pitch process." Fin was seconds away from just submitting and tolerating the contact, until Creasy's thick, smooth thumb moved in a slightly caressing motion just underneath Fin's ear. Despite his heart rate already reaching 135 bpm and the sensation of Creasy's touch being reduced to a hollow pressure with a hinted varied movement across his "surface", Fin instantly recognized the gesture for what it was and his hackles raised in aggravated defensive mode.

"If my 'talent' for observation and interpretation is really something to pine for, then yours must be rusty. In other words: I'm feeling a little 'harassed'." Not without a hint of aggression, Fin brushed Creasy's hand away, instantly moving out of reach once he was freed from it. A little late, he realized his push had been sloppy and heard the slur in his own voice, but Creasy relented with the same air of paternal amusement that he possessed when talking of Haggins. "Don't make me report you to... you," Fin said, shaking a too-loose, reprimanding finger at the guy.

"Well, it wasn't my intent to make you feel pressured." Like hell it wasn't! "Forgive me for being a little enthusiastic about the opportunity passing right in front of me. It's bad enough that the Agency lowered the standards of recruitment, making the DOC more and more necessary to curb in those who are allowed to slip through the cracks, but it's hard to find people talented and morally competent enough to make it within our division."

"Right, morally competent. The whole point is to NOT have to go after yourselves while cleaning up other people's messes," he said and Creasy cracked a warm smile. Fin wasn't sure if the guy was aware that he was implying the elder Agent's unrequited, flirtatious behavior in that statement or not.

"Exactly. So, just think it over. My offer is always open and I've got a position ready and waiting for you if and when you complete the DOC training." Oh, good. A spot working right under the guy. Did that mean Fin had to pull a 'Haggins' and kiss ass - or, more bluntly, 'suck cock' - to rise in the Docimasy ranks? Reaching into the inner pocket of his creamy, beige jacket, Creasy offered him a small, mostly black card between his first two fingers. "Call me when you're ready," he said with a casual shake of his head. There was the hint in there, and - drunk or not - Fin was almost certain he heard it in the man's voice 'Or, just call me when you're tired of watching other Agents get away with shit.' That was a subtle strike 2 against Patten, coming from 2 separate sources implying that the man might not be the ideal Agent that his title set him up to be. Then again, it could just be more manipulation, from both Creasy and Graninger. Both men had something to gain from making Fin distrust his new boss, so he wouldn't put it past either of them.

Not wanting to be rude, he took the card and looked at it - nothing special, just a standard Agency themed business card, mostly black with white accents and white type. They didn't even list themselves as "the Agency" but instead used the circle-triangle/capital letter "A"-logo. The Docimasy was just a division header under Creasy's rank and title and listed on it was Creasy's business phone and private number - most likely, the business number went to his office and the private went to his cell phone. Fin was just guessing. And there was no other name, just 'Agent Creasy'. "Thanks," he finally said, after he'd inspected it thoroughly. "California area code... You're going a long way from home for a case, aren't you? Are there no Docs in Massachusetts?"

"There are."

Fin waited but there was nothing else. Feeling prompted, he went ahead and ignored the dull voice in his head telling him to stop. "I guess the death of Harper Anderson was just that big of a deal, huh?" he asked. "Either that or Stephanie March is an international case."

Fin only stopped when he noticed that the warmth had drained from Creasy's entire form, a tension entering the older man that sparked Fin's internal defense mechanisms, shooting him instantly to premature anesthesia. The change in the other Agent was so dramatic that Fin's heart was pounding at 153 bpm and his mind cleared and buzzed like peroxide sizzling on an open wound. But just as quickly, Fenton blinked and relaxation and a casual air had returned. A complete turnaround in just 2 seconds from one to the other and then back again, but there was something superficial about it now, the smile on Creasy's face filled with restraint. Good God. Remind him to never piss this guy off for real. Fenton was actually scared, which was something he'd been shielded from for a very long time - when nothing could hurt or kill him, he'd become somewhat desensitized to threat - but he did his best to keep his facial expression full of the same charm and sarcasm as it always possessed. While at the same time making note of how tall the other guy actually was, even while seated. What had set the guy off so intensely? Was it the questions themselves or was it the fact that Fin had stuck his hand in the proverbial cookie jar when specifically told 3 times to 'wait til after supper'?

The perfect picture of calm, Creasy took in a breath deep enough to raise his broad chest up, letting it all out through his nose in an even burst and laced his fingers in his lap. Raising an eyebrow at Fin he finally asked, "So. Did you find everything you were looking for? Is there anything else you wanted to know?"

For some reason, right then, it occurred to Fin that the anger wasn't actually directed at him - not entirely. He was certain that Creasy was upset that Fin had gotten close to his case, but this sounded more like he was unhappy with the way that Fin muscled the information out of his assistant. This was most likely a protectiveness showing through and maybe even a fatherly disappointment that the kid gave in so easily. His body was numb and on high alert, but deciding that he didn't want the man's proposed openness to go to waste, he barreled ahead. "Stephanie March didn't kill that woman."

Creasy's eyebrows did their little bounce and a smirk came to his lips but his eyes were cool and distant, watching him. "Is that so? Do you know her? What is this declaration based on? Any facts to back it up?"

"No, I don't know her. But I know the guy who sent you on her case and he has a history with her," he licked his lips, trying to ignore the tension quickly leaving Creasy to be replaced by playful and calm amusement, as if Fin were stepping into a joke he was unaware of. "It is my impression that his motives for getting involved in this case are geared towards a desire to harm her. I don't know how you normally handle things or how much influence he has in the individual cases but I just thought you should know about this agenda he has against her so that it doesn't affect your investigation."

Creasy cracked another grin as he spoke. "We're talking about Graninger, correct? The A-2 in charge of the Spokane Washington base?"

"And the Chief of the West Coast North American division of the Docimasy."

"Right," Creasy let out a small chuckle. "Although, I'm flattered and... insulted by your concern that I would allow my investigation to be tainted by such biases, I think your anxiety is largely misplaced. And I think that your admitted lack of knowledge about Stephanie March and - despite your claim - lack of experience in dealing with Richard Graninger has severely warped your understanding of their... 'history'." Creasy put up polite air quotes. "Not only have I been monitoring Ms. March for a while, but I've been working with and beside Richard Graninger for years. If there's one thing that is always absolutely certain, if he ever has an agenda it is going to help the Agency in some way. The man is married to this organization and everything it stands for." Creasy gave Fin an understanding shrug. "If individual Agents get caught under the wheels of that machine, then it's a sacrifice he never makes in vain."

He wanted to argue with the guy. He wanted to tell Creasy about the journals and his stupid mission to retrieve them and the phone call Graninger got from Quin. But the more he tried to put his thoughts together, the more he began to see the pieces that were missing. Most of what he knew about the couple's romantic past was from Stephanie's journals since Graninger had been pretty closed-lipped about it. And she'd been an emotionally unstable wreck when she wrote those. It wasn't exactly the clearest picture of the situation and other than his biased opinion based on her version of events and the feeling he kept getting from the signals Richard gave off when being asked about it, Fin had absolutely nothing to point at and tell Creasy that he was wrong. For all he knew, Stephanie could have made most of the relationship up. And why the fuck did he even care?

Accepting that he was sufficiently beaten in providing the 'burden of proof' for his statements, and realizing that he was still drunk and probably said more than he should have anyway, Fin shrugged and said, "Well, at least now you know I'm not infallible when it comes to interpreting people and their relationships. I guess that's where the Doc training will come in to build those natural skills, eh? Although, I still stand by what I've seen between you and your friend there. I unlocked that vodka secret for the both of us. All you need to turn him to putty is one glass. Just make sure to laugh at all of his jokes and then go in for the kill. You're welcome." Creasy didn't deny anything, but he did purse his lips slightly in a thoughtful smirk. Feeling relaxed again, Fin thought of something else that stood out to him. "You've been monitoring March? Can I ask why? I thought you guys were only given cases when reports are filed."

"We are," unlike Graninger, Creasy had no air of gloating but seamlessly moved onto the next topic. "My very first case with her was when she was reported for sexual harassment and aggravated assault while still a low rank. She put a teammate in the hospital with the justification of 'consented sexual torture.'"

"...What was the verdict?"

Creasy smirked. "During questioning and finding out that his brutal, sexualized beating at the hands of a woman would be publicized in the Agency records, the 'victim' revised his statements to admit that it was indeed consensual. Thus, when the case was closed, she kept a clean record for the most part and his identity remains confidential."

Fin thought for a moment, trying to remember any mention of this in her diaries, but there hadn't been. The first journal entry had been written after she'd already gained A-6 rank. Without thinking, he asked, "When did this happen? Before or after her affair with Richard?" If it happened before, then it might explain why the A-2 had started paying attention to her. If it happened after... then it might explain why he dumped her, if she had been seeing other guys. With the way she'd written about him, Fin was having trouble accepting such a thing as true, but he was just trying to make sense of Graninger and the story between these two lovers.

Creasy grew a little serious, but instead of defensive, there was that same paternal patience and authority while he spoke. "Hey, now... That's enough of that. I think I've been pretty generous in tolerating your comments regarding our superior Agent, up till now. Don't push it, alright?" Although a smirk chased after those words, almost as if Fin were a disobedient puppy that was doing the most entertaining things while misbehaving. After looking at him for a while, which did nothing but make Fin think the guy was possibly checking him out - seriously though, who did he report to when being sexually hassled by a Doc? Or was that sort of thing saved for water cooler gossip and bitch sessions with other Agents? - Creasy finally spoke soberly, "Be cautious with your digging, Fin. I think it would be unwise to draw negative attention to yourself this early in your career by getting too curious about things long buried, deep underground."

Fuck that. Fin had enough sense to know that he shouldn't have poked at this Stephanie/Graninger business, but it wasn't his fault when the thing had been thrust right in his face. Graninger could've asked anyone else with more experience and more desire to obey for the sake of being obedient, to break into the woman's apartment and steal her shit. But he didn't. For whatever reason, he decided to involve his 'not-yet-an-Agent' pupil into this mess and Fin would be damned if he was just going to ignore the information teasing him right at his fingertips. Creasy wasn't going to hurt him for asking a few questions, so he felt his decision to butt in had been made with the appropriate determination of the risk. If he could continue to get away with it, Fenton would never stop asking questions that he wanted the answers to.

"Well, I'm flattered," he said with a mock humility. "And insulted by your concern that I would be so reckless, but I'm going to have to disagree with you. I think if I do decide to join the Docs, my desire to excavate dusty secrets no matter who I piss off, will be an asset to your group." Creasy smirked. "Afterall, the Docimasy isn't here to make friends, now is it?"

***

If ever there was a dead end to run into, this was it, he decided. He'd hoped to be a Lead Doc some day and lead his own team of investigators to search out truth and dole out justice within the Agency. He'd at least had fucking options. Now, just 3 years on his current assignment and still the same pitiful A-5 he'd been when he started, Sebastian was having trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And it was all thanks to one man: Eric Patten.

In the beginning, as soon as he grasped the depth of his Lead's obsession, Sebastian swore that he'd never sink that low into delusion and loathing. Not only was it a huge blindspot for the guy but it was extremely obvious to everyone else. The East Coast division, particularly their office, had become a repetitious, cartoon gag because of it, with Avery playing the part of the pathetic Wile E. Coyote. Now, though, Sebastian was starting to feel himself getting sucked into the same hole as his boss, willing to do anything to shut Patten down and see him punished just to close one fucking case on the guy's massive file. It wasn't that he hated Eric, despite his distaste for the man's personality - after meeting him several times, Eric was annoying in whatever wrapping he decided to kill and dress himself up in. All he wanted to do was close one goddammed case. Avery, the Lead on Eric's case, refused to take on any other cases and insisted that any he did take, absolutely had to involve Eric somehow. For years, Avery pursued this or that lead, following rumors and dancing with the dead, trying again and again to make something stick to the A-1. But within Eric's seemingly bottomless pockets, were endless excuses and alibis, tossed out with flippant ease and just tangible enough to create reasonable doubt, bringing each separate investigation crashing down.

Accomplishing something in the Docimasy was simple. There was always a guilty and innocent party and justice according to Agency rules was handed out with the appropriate judgement. Avery would never let go of the hunt, not since he was first assigned to Eric's case when the guy supposedly murdered an A-1 and took over his body - rumors only, but no one was saying that wasn't what happened. THAT case was untouchable, forced into being abandoned not only by the Agency's unwillingness to pursue it - because Eric was just that valuable? Or were they all scared of him? - but also by the tiny specks of evidence hitting a brick wall and splattering it with the case's guts. Avery never got over it and feeling constantly taunted and challenged by Patten, he made it his life's mission to bring the guy down. The word "nemesis" came to Sebastian's mind to describe the relationship, but he was almost certain it only went one way. He doubted that they were even a blip on Eric's radar.

That was what bothered Sebastian about the whole thing because he DID want to believe in the rules and order of the organization. Eric made a mockery, not only of his boss but of the Agency itself, getting nothing more than a slap on the wrist if he ever crossed a line. It sent the message that if you were high enough on the food chain, you didn't have to be held accountable for anything. Sebastian rubbed a hand over his face and then the peach fuzz that covered his shaved head, realizing that he was quoting Avery almost perfectly. Although his boss may have blurred the line between professional goals and personal vendettas a long time ago, Sebastian was determined not to let himself get that far. Avery was willing to jump for any reports that might in some twist of logic be attributable to the A-1, but Sebastian was the one who made sure they weren't just seeing what they wanted to see. Part of their failure was attributable to the lack of evidence tying Eric to anything and Sebastian wasn't going to let them leap on gut instincts. When they took Patten down they would do it with solid facts, so there'd be no way this cheerful roadrunner could zip away through the tunnel painted on the wall.

Which is why they stalked the A-1 and kept tabs on his movements. It didn't get them anywhere to sift through all the reports that came to the Docimasy and say 'Yeah! This could totally be him!' only to pursue it and find some other douchebag holding the string. So, they followed him and traced his activities, so when a report finally did come in, they could pinpoint exactly where Eric was at the time and what he'd been doing. Technically, this was against the rules and code of conduct for Docimasy Agents - their division didn't hound people looking for reasons to punish them, it sorted through the things that went wrong and took measures to prevent repeated incidents - but it was determined to be the most sure-fire way to monitor Eric and find a chink in his armor. There was a level of this that wasn't okay with Sebastian, but since he was tired of chasing their own tails - and since the Docimasy was willing to accept and tolerate that his boss had a problem - then he entertained this one flagrant misuse of funds and equipment.

They'd lost sight of Patten in Elmira but then several hours later were alerted to his code being used in Charlton. Avery's feverish desire to chase was pushed into high gear and he drove the first couple of hours as if the target were just a couple blocks away, ranting the entire time. Eventually, he lost steam and Sebastian took over, while Avery rested in the back and now, with dawn approaching, they were about an hour from the base. Despite his desire to remain neutral to his boss's obsession, Sebastian couldn't help but feel influenced by Avery's enthusiasm, so he woke the guy up. Hunched over, the groggy A-3 moved to get in his spot in the passenger seat, yawning as he adjusted the glasses on his face and making small grumbled complaints while he situated himself and put his seat belt on.

"Sorry for the early wake-up call," Sebastian said, neutrally respectful. "I thought it'd be better to give you some time to get ready before we arrive."

"Nah, ya did good, Seabass. Coffee?" It was handed to him, still hot in an insulated cup. "Sweet. How far are we from the post?"

"About 43 miles," he said, glancing at the man in the seat next to him as Avery took a sip from his coffee and brought out his thin cell phone. Not even awake for 5 minutes and the guy was already checking the recent Docimasy reports. "I would like to talk to you about the validity of this plan to follow Patten everywhere. I mean, I know it keeps us close enough that we can always watch him but I stopped for gas 3 times while you were asleep."

"Just use the Docimasy's charge card," Avery said, distractedly, using his thumb in a small flicking motion to scroll down the screen.

"That's exactly what I'm talking about. I mean, here we are, spending a few hundred dollars chasing his shadow and he hasn't even done anything wrong yet--"

"Hasn't done anything wrong!?" NOW he had the guy's attention, and Sebastian took in a deep breath as the other man began to rant at him in a quick clipped voice. "How can you say that? WHY would you say that? Haven't I explained it to you over and over? Haven't you seen enough of it with your own eyes? How can you say that? I expect this from the other cads in the Agency because all they're confronted with is what ends up in the files and no one reads the logs of our investigations. No one is willing to think outside the box or take the extra steps needed to go from two plus two minus six divided by three to get ....um, negative zero point six six six or something. Anyway the point is you've been on the case time and again and KNOW that it all adds up only to be shot down by a little 'oopsie!' from him--!!"

"He hasn't done anything wrong that we can prove, alright?" Sebastian said, finally getting a word in. That got Avery to quiet down with a surly frown, enough that Sebastian was able to continue. "I just think we need to consider the pay-off compared to the cost. There comes a point where we're not really doing Docimasy work but just driving around." Sebastian paused for a moment, watching as Avery continued to scan the reports, before finally plunging ahead. "I think we should take on other cases--"

"Holy shit!" Avery exclaimed loudly, while staring at his phone with brightening eyes. "Oh my God!"

"What? What happened?"

"HO - LEE - SHEEEET! No! Don't pull over, dumbass! Keep going! Go faster!"

Sebastian did as instructed, trying to curb the concern he was feeling as his boss grew more and more excited. "Tell me what the fuck is going on!"

"Charlton base was attacked!" Avery said with a huge, triumphant grin growing on his face.

"What??"

"Apparently Antis--no, don't fucking pull over, dammit! Apparently, Anti-Agents launched an attack on the base last night and completely gutted the place. And a transfer cell was stolen." Avery gave Sebastian a suddenly sly and haughty look and smugly said, "And guess who was there when it all went down."

"Now, wait a minute, Avery," Sebastian said, finally calming down now that he realized this wasn't the 'emergency' he originally thought it was. "Where is the A-2 in charge? Doesn't Madeline Bergmann oversee that base? Wouldn't she be the one responsible for anything that happens there while on her watch?" Sebastian's first impulse didn't even let him consider Eric a suspect yet, despite the guy being in the same location. He seriously doubted that it said right in the report whether Eric was actually affiliated with the Anti group, otherwise, Avery would have surely had a heart attack. AND they'd have bigger problems on their hands.

"Good thinking, Seabass," Avery said in a serious and thoughtful tone, turning back to his phone and punching numbers in. "I'll call the guy in charge of Madeline Bergmann's files and see if he'd be willing to give us the case."

"Maybe we should think about this first," Sebastian put in, trying to reason with the guy while maneuvering on the highway with the morning traffic. "If she's in charge then whatever happened is most likely related to her. It should be HIS case, not ours."

"Don't worry about it," Avery said, putting the phone up to his ear with a shrug. "He's French so he'll be begging for someone to hand it to."

"That's not--"

"Hey, Rémy!" Avery said in exuberant greeting, already getting an answer on the line. "How goes it, Monsieur? Anything interesting happening in your offices lately?" Avery cracked a triumphant smile and chuckled, while Sebastian watched the practiced control of this case fall down the Acme hole in the ground.

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#, as written by Tartra
“Here Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…”

Oh, Lord. They were bloody calling for him. David pushed deeper into the metal rut he’d found off to the side and at the back of the green people room. He stayed even more still than he’d been staying before, and any stiller than that would have to have his heart stop.

They’re going to find you.

Stupid, fucking Agent!

Maybe y’should take that as a sign t’hurry th’fuck up with gettin’ us out.

Can’t, I can’t, I can’t I can’t I can’t –

Stupendous. It wasn’t bad enough trying to hide in the white jumpsuit they’d made him wear or to corner him in a huge maze of a facility with seemingly no way out – wherever those elevator-disc-things had been, he was sure the hall leading there had been blown to shrapnel already – but he had to fight the internal fight of getting this crazy tart to focus for half a minute, to stop rambling, make some sense, and either explain why she couldn’t do it or – better yet – just shut the fuck up and get on with it! He could see them! Very faintly – they were far off, but through the green and the shadows the hollow gleam brought, he spied heavy outlines of rifles. Rifles with bullets. Being Patten’s pet wasn’t looking like it’d save their skin this time.

Shoot to kill, I bet,” he whispered frantically into the metal tile. The room was covered in it – along the walls, across the ceiling, and it, of course, made up the floor. There was a steady hum from the machinery before him; those people and their test tubes were the ones giving it off. There were rows of them. Hundreds. The room was too big to comprehend and he didn’t have to time to sit around pondering it. He’d run for ten damn minutes and there was still another two minute jog to reach the back. It gave a nice cover to his footsteps, he realized, but it also gave a cover to theirs. He couldn’t gauge the distance beyond the silhouettes he sometimes glanced. They were in formation as a line spaced throughout a row, and he figured every Agent checked their area before the whole formation stepped forward into the next one. He’d been here an hour already waiting for them to pass by. He didn’t have a plan for when they finally did, or one for if they… well – if they didn’t so much as ‘pass by’ as ‘find him and blow his head to pieces’, but he did have an idea that could work: “Fuckin’ banshee – hurry up an’ get us out!

Busy – we’re busy – I’m busy – I can’t –

It was like she wanted them to get caught! It was like she wanted them to rip their heads apart! Crazy Agent! She was no better than the rest of them! He was alone with his bombs and that’d be fine except he was failing badly on pacing himself. These people attacked in fleets. There was no respite offered and this little break – this rut here? That was the closest he’d gotten to a rest since he’d broken out. He didn’t know what this room was supposed to be, but it was terrifying and it looked a lot like even the Agents didn’t want to be in it. They’d been so… careless when they’d been blasting around the halls outside. He wasn’t about to fret over a little property damage, but it was a strong example of how they’d carried on until now. In here, every step was being tiptoed over. He’d gotten a good hit on the electrical system here and he was willing to say their caution came from  all the overhead lights – except there didn’t seem to be any now that he was checking – weren’t on, and so they were trapped with the hollow green gleam the same as he was. There’d be more shadows to search through, wouldn’t there? The Agents were probably thinking he’d be anywhere in this mess. Or maybe he was right the first time and they were trying hard to be gentle. What if this room was sacred to them? What if they saw ghosts in those glass jars?

Stasis cells: that’s what they were called. They were lined in too-perfect rows and came with a bit of trend in how they looked. The ones at the front and in the middle were sleek and contained, fashioned like vials on a steel pedestal of pretty buttons. The bodies inside of them were kept in place because of two clamps – two big clamps, one at their pelvises and one at their chests – holding them down so they didn’t float away in the – um… ‘preservatives’, if that’s what someone wanted to call it. The liquid oozed with bubbles and that bloody green gleam. Everyone’s eyes were closed, so he figured no one was home. There were dozens of wires clipped to their skin, too. It was as if a spider had gone waltzing in and done its business. Clamps? Wires? That had Li all over it. He couldn’t even guess what they’d be for. The pedestals had tiny screens with squiggly lines through them; he’d say it was a heart monitor, but it could be a brain wave scanner, or it could be something for breathing or blood flow or power level – yes, he knew what type of person would be inside those things. Funny how Patten spared David from the same bad hand. The blighter likely had something worse in store, then. And – not to mix the message – David wasn’t saying Li didn’t have that sort of information being fed to her every second. The damn woman wanted to know how many skin cells fell off on a minutely-basis. All he was pointing was that particular monitor at the bottom of each of the sleek, clamped stasis cells could have been for anything. It must have driven her mad this whole while to have gone without the same wires and screens stuck to him.

“Okay, Aussie. You had your fun. Get out here.”

Sure! He’d just dash on off to them, wouldn’t he?

We’re runnin’ out’f time,” he hissed to her, flattening his every muscle to the floor. “I can’t keep waitin’ on you. Do it now!

But it’s busy!

It’s ‘busy’?” To the surprise of no one at all, she was out of her mind, specifically now in regards to thinking he gave a stuff about whatever wasn’t getting them the hell away. ‘Busy’? What did that mean? Some sort of codeword? Some crazy, crazy codeword? “I’ll tell you what there’s t’be busy about: pickin’ a nice, clean glass for us to prune up inside since they’re about t’catch us and that’s where we’ll go! Ladies’ choice – y’want th’big one or th’travel size?

He only knew the difference because they were, in fact, near the very back. When he’d said there were hundreds of these things, he hadn’t been joking. This room was as huge as ten fields laid end to bloody end. Those farthest rows were why he could distinguish so many features as ‘sleek’ or ‘different’. In the last six lines, there were bigger, bulkier, uglier stasis cells, at least a foot higher than the rest and stuck out like sore thumbs. They were capped by heavy hunks of metal full of wires and each sat on other heavy, metal pedestals dotted by panels and small bulbs. To be honest, their shape reminded him of an old-fashioned hourglass, except without that pinch in the middle to filter the sand through. No clamps there! The damn fools just bobbed about, hovering close to the centre of their prisons but ultimately liable to go flopping over the place if they were ever hit by an earthquake or shoved. Or exploded. And they had the same green light showing through, but it was duller and almost yellow. A few in-between the rest actually were yellow. The tiny panels they had attached had their squiggly lines going much faster than the green ones. Another code? He didn’t have the head to decipher it.

No… no She was moaning now. Why not? He would too, except he was running for his fucking life and he wasn’t stupid enough to make noise when it was his sorry ass in control of this boy’s body. Not my turn – it’s not my turn – you won’t let me! It’s busy, it’s busy – not yet!

She owed him one moment of lucidity, enough for her to explain to him in clear terms what in hell she was rambling about.

Banshee, please,” he begged. He could hear them now. There, in the distance, stepping into the next row as a unit. They moved in perfect synchronization, apparently trained to sweep this area clean until they found him. Their boots on the cold, steel floor echoed faintly under the stasis cells’ hum. It tugged at his throat, and he ducked away farther. He had his head flat against the ground. It wasn’t comfortable. “I don’t wanna die. You don’t. You want y’body.” She perked up. “That’s right. It’s here, somewhere, but we’re not gonna find it unless we come back in full force, ready t’fight.

Too many, she said. Too many – too many – there’s –

Not in here, there wasn’t. Like he said, the Agents were oddly cautious as they crept about. If he’d had his head out farther or he was higher up, he might have been able to count them. That was saying something. Li’d probably put the order out. That woman was something else.

We’ll manage,” he assured her. “We’ve gotten this far, haven’t we? And they do want us alive.” Patten did. Li did. The only ones he couldn’t trust were these guard-idiots and Donovan. Fucking Donovan. “So try. Y’have t’try.

She was gearing up for another answer. He was so excited.

“Last chance, Nathan,” a different guard said. It sounded farther off. Then he was right: he’d destroyed the electrical system, because they normally broadcast over the speakers. “Do the smart thing before we make you.”

Yeah. Right.

David?

What?

I can’t, she said. I can’t when it’s busy. It’s busy.

Beaut. It was a codeword after all.

“Ten seconds, Nathan,” that other guard said. There was a harshness in the man’s voice, like he was at the end of his rope. “Nine. Eight. Seven.”

What’s busy? The teleportin’? That?

One at a time, one at a time.

There’s no one usin’ it, you stupid cow! I’m intentionally not usin’ my powers just t’save strength f’yours!

Body busy body busy body busy –

Oh, shush up if you’ve nothin’ important t’say,” he snarled. “I’m sick’f you doin’ that, just – over and over and over and over – you’ve been drivin’ me mad and I’ve had bloody enough!

Then the ground began to move.

“I warned you.”

The ground was moving. The ground was moving! The ground was moving, the ground was moving – Shush up, David.

“Put a lid on it, you idiot!” That was a scream, and in the corner of his mind he was fully aware of the sharp snap to attention of the rest of them. Lord – he could feel the wind as it was sliced by the rifles snapping to his corner of the room. They knew where he was now. He’d given himself away. But that paled in comparison to the simple fact that the floor was shit-fuck-of-an-ass moving around his body! “What do we do?!” He lurched up, burning his throat as he swallowed down vomit, and yelled at her again, “Banshee, what in fuck is this?”

The rows are moving.

“OH NO SHIT, REALLY?!”

It wasn’t some subtle vibration through the ground. As flat as he’d been against the floor, he hadn’t noticed a seam in the middle of the rut. Half of the bloody row now began to climb, and he pitched over harshly to the right as he fell into what was quickly becoming a metal trench. He’d seen it: across the room, every other row was starting to lift. There were trenches everywhere, and now he didn’t have the fucking luxury of jumping between the rows, because it was clear that these new walls were too high to jump over, and if he tried, he’d be shot the merry second his face poked out.

Oh God. This was it! His little rut – it was gone! Divided in two, half up, half down, nowhere else to hide, nothing to squeeze into, nowhere to fucking run except dead ahead and they’d see him, so what – David!

“Heaven help me, woman, if you waste a fuckin’ second –”

She’d cut him off by flapping his arm around.

Busy! Busy!

His eyes were opened about as humanly possible and beyond, so he felt confident in saying he could see every detail she pointed out. In a haze that’d suddenly looped around to where he was so panicked, he’d become calm again, he noticed his skin – although his arm was held up level to his shoulder, exactly the way she’d raised it – was sagging on the floor. Like fabric.

His skin was fabric.

Ha.

Ha, ha, ha.

“That’s… ‘busy’?”

One at a time! She seemed excited by this. She would be, wouldn’t she? One at a time, David – one at a time!

It was like his arm was melting. Right before his eyes and in-between the iron scrape of the rows shifting into place, coldly clawing against each other as they lifted their cells up, he was his bone begin to droop like limp rubber. He shook it, and the whole thing, bone at all, wobbled like it was made of elastic. He instantly swallowed more vomit.

“And… this would be what, precisely?”

Other than a fucking abomination. Li, what did you do to him? To this kid?

Hide, she cried, tilting his head towards the floor. He nearly struggled, then saw what she did. Hide!

The trenches. The walls. They weren’t… walls, really, but more like shelves. A glimmer of green light came up from a crack between the walls and the floor. Bloody hell… There was an entirely separate floor underneath them. It was full of stasis cells, too. Just… just how many of these were there…?

An awkward twitch bit at him. Part of his face – oh God, his face! – had gone numb. He bit at his lip and the feeling came back, but a moment later it faded again.

“Under there? Y’think we can…” Fit? Squeeze through? When he’d said ‘crack’, he’d meant it. The line of green light was barely a hair wide and the walls abruptly stopped moving. She tugged him towards it. “This can’t…” He was having trouble breathing. “I can’t fit! There’s no chance –”

We’ll fit, she swore to him. We’ll fit! If that room was the same as this room, then he had a good 50 meters to fall – The water! Underwater! Can’t swim – can fall – we’ll fit!

She sounded so sure. But she was crazy, so what did she know?

… But she was an Agent.

More of his face went numb. What was happening to him? His eye was beginning to cloud over.

David!

“Alright, alright!” He could hear the others. They were getting closer. He didn’t have a choice here. And then… ‘busy’, that’s what she said? This… shit making his limbs like this – that was keeping her from teleporting?

Do it now, David!

“Don’t rush me,” he said. “I’m not you. I’ve been pullin’ me weight, so don’t rush me!”

“Aussie…”

Shit. Never mind! And with that, he jammed his melting fingers into the line between the trench walls, watching it bunch as it refused to slip through easily. He… no, he needed a stick or something to push it down. We don’t have a stick! REALLY?! HE HADN’T FUCKING NOTICED. Come on, work! His other hand – melting, too – tried to help his first, but all he was doing was putting more sagging skin against the floor and getting nowhere with it! He couldn’t do this. This wasn’t his power – if this even was a power and not some horrible of side effect of Li’s experiments. His hand wasn’t going through. He couldn’t! And his face – more of it! His left eye was now completely black – what was happening?

“Help,” he tried to say, but his mouth hung open uselessly.

He heard footsteps now. Then someone said, “He’s in this one.”

His heart was pounding but it felt all wrong. It wasn’t in the right place anymore. He couldn’t get his hand through. David. Rigid! Just a bit more rigid – come on, David, he could do this. Rigid, like a needle, just enough to give it all some structure to thread through. David! That was it! That was it – blessed glory, he was doing it! He felt the odd shape of a bone as it led that floppy, curtainy skin through. A knuckle! He’d done it! That was one knuckle! But then the sound of boots – no, stay focused, do this, get out, then have a heart attack over it. One knuckle. Two–! DAVID!

Funny, because that one sounded less like she was trying to get his attention and more as if

* * *


Gwendolyn Stewart was an infectious disease and she’d corrupted every thread of his suit.

There. He’d said it. That was finally off his chest. It did literally nothing to change the situation, but at least he felt better.

Jason sighed and fell against his seat in exhaustion. No, he didn’t feel better. He’d just put a point on the problem he was facing. The only good use of that was a now cleaner jab in the eye whenever it crossed his mind – but metaphorically speaking, because he wasn’t actually jabbing… never mind. It was a dumb thought. More to the heart of his second problem, it was another dumb thought, and this one stood as the fourteenth – he’d counted – to bother him so far. He couldn’t help noticing how much faster they were hitting him. He was tired, obviously, but he’d been tired before. He shouldn’t have physically had a problem concentrating. Mentally, even, was something he’d learned to handle. He rubbed his hand over his face and winced from the texture of his glove. His skin was sensitive. It felt like it’d been scrubbed raw, and it burned under his suit’s seams as he breathed. The weight on his lap was worse. His leg throbbed while his blood shoved rudely through his veins, compacted as they were by his goggles’ light pressure. His hand tried to soothe it by vaguely tapping on his other thigh. A hundred bucks to whoever figured out that line of logic, and – what a shock – it didn’t do anything more than aggravate him.

The tapping brought back an uncomfortable memory. Right on cue, he started to fidget, and the shiver in his leg made him think of polished nails and… car rides.

“Sir?”

“Huh?”

She pointed.

His seatbelt. They hadn’t taken off yet, but it looked like they were about to. The stewardess gave him an approving nod as he strapped himself in, then she whisked herself away to the other end of the plane. In another seat, the other suit he’d picked up at Charlton was settled. It wasn’t much of a chore, he noted, feeling free to pass the approving nod along. This plane was nicer. It was smaller, but it felt more luxurious. The inside was like a moving hotel, and certainly on the higher end of those. The interior was an expensive black, and like the limousine, was lined by rich couches dressed in red, of all colours. The seat he was in was one of the only ‘airplane-esque’ in here. There were four in total gathered around the table in front of him. He supposed it was for doing business. Well, business was what he was doing. It was strange, in a way. This was an Agency plane, but it’d been customized for someone. Not Eric. Black and red? Definitely not Eric. Jason would have said Frenchie, but personal planes were an A-2 benefit. Besides, after what’d happened, he doubted the man would lend him a pen. And what had happened was something Jason swore to comb over the very minute he got his suit in working order.

He took his goggles off his lap and put them on the table. He stared at them. He wrapped the strap around his fingers. He still felt a connection, but it was buried under piles of Stewart. She’d ruined them. After years of painstakingly constructing the goggles to fit his mind and grow with what he fed to it, wearing something so empty was exactly as painful as wearing someone else’s. It didn’t work anymore. There was an incredible strain to simply look at the interface – which she’d also fucking changed on him because nothing had been spared. He, as his very first order, had established a careful balance with his choice of input. It’d been a rough split between mental and manual interaction, leaning heavily on the manual side since it gave him a headache to do everything through his thoughts, because in case anyone had forgotten, he didn’t take the drugs used to support it! Now his thoughts were the only way to navigate anything, because apparently the psychic had no trouble and the entire system had shifted to support her needs. Dammit – that… that word he couldn’t think of because there wasn’t one strong enough to throw at her! The violation of privacy was breathtaking, and in the minutes at a time he spent putting a timeline together, he damn well saw every fluffy thing she’d done with them. There was Elmira – yup, right there. He could see it. He could fucking see it. He was furious, and the tremble of rage brought him back to when she’d dug through his brain to get the entry code.

He waited for it.

He waited for the next level.

And it arrived: a violent crack of loathing split through the center of his body.

Were they fucking kidding him with this?! Were they joking – no, someone come here and answer him: was – this – a – fucking – joke?

Did anyone think the Agency was stupid enough to have just a code as the entrance to a place like Elmira? No! No, they didn’t! Because it wasn’t! It wasn’t – that was not how this worked! The code was half of the stupid process! With it alone, the alarms would have fired off in every direction. Oh sure, maybe Frenchie’d thought ahead to say, ‘Bonjour, everyone! I ‘ave two tar-gets coming to break in, so don’t make too much noise or zey’ll le run away.’ But what was that one thing they’d said? There was going to be a fight. Elmira security was going to be alerted and they’d engage in an attempt to neutralize the intruders, and then if they got away, that was fully accounted for. Jason was there, so he felt safe in reminding everyone that there had not been a fight with anyone other than him and the Flunky, and the Flunky died. Those two had snuck in undetected, and because of that, Elmira didn’t have its notice and it didn’t send reinforcements, Alexander killed that French giant, and now Benoit wouldn’t say what he obviously knew Eric had in store for him and Stephanie – “Sir?”

What?!” The stewardess was mildly surprised, but she ignored his outburst. Instead, she gave him bandage. Dumbly, Jason took it from her. "What is this for?”

“For your neck,” she said. “We’ll be flying in another five minutes. Seat up, please.”

This woman was a little older than the other stewardess they’d had. The experience showed. Jason was actually impressed with it.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, slowly adjusting his chair. She turned to go again. “Wait! What’s wrong with my neck?”

“There's a bump on the back of it,” the stewardess explained. “It doesn’t look healthy. You should see one of the doctors in Elmira. They have excellent clinics.” And once more, she walked away, casually adding, “The bandage is antiseptic,” before she vanished.

The back of his neck? He put a hand to it, instantly regretting the jolt of pain it unleashed. Pain from Butter Juice. Dammit. He must have been reacting to it. He idly stuck the bandage in place before he felt the first pang of embarrassment. Reacting? Was that a joke? He’d be the first to say this was embarrassing. If the other suit asked, he’d say it was Paripholl or something – whatever wasn’t Butter Juice.

Anyway. The code was half of the entry process because his personal combination was linked directly to his suit. Without the goggles, Stewart would have been done for. Guards would have been waiting at the bottom of the elevator. In absolute contrast to that, however, they’d been prepared, and he had none other to thank than Alexander for this massive pile of crappy luck. Jason didn’t get why the fool had been compelled to steal his goggles for any reason other than shits and a side helping of giggles, but of course they had to be stolen by the one escaped target being guided by the one rogue Agent that’d been the one freaking Pain Eater that decided to get some suit training on the side, too. Why? He didn’t know! Why did Pain Eaters do anything? So instead of a trophy that might’ve been left behind or – more likely – something that looked cool but a person as paranoid as Alexander seemed to be would’ve thrown out for fear of being tracked, Jason’s precious equipment was picked up by the sole person on this planet with both the motivation to take them plus legitimate insight into what they could do. Two hundred to whoever admitted that, yes, the universe was screwing with him, and three hundred if they would get it to stop.

This would have gone perfectly if Alexander wasn’t involved. For that, he blamed Frenchie. Jason was trying to be sympathetic, but if Benoit was throwing him to the wolves, then allow him to remind everyone that if Alexander had been caught earlier, his friend wouldn’t have eaten an eye beam.

Jason wanted a break. He’d been analysing things all day. He’d cut himself some slack with the attack on the Charlton base because Eric seemed to know exactly what was going on, and as an A-1, he was able to handle it. But everything else…

Nothing calmed his nerves like gathering information. Things about his lead were off the table until he had his goggles in better condition. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t just reset them and move on. There was too much that’d been recorded that he needed to go over. Stewart and Alexander must have made a plan before setting off, and what his goggles contained was the full development of it. He’d know what they knew. The information stayed. He’d just have to work around it and pull his suit back to where it was supposed to be. Likewise, anything involving Benoit would have to wait, but Jason had been writing a list of things he intended to ask. A curiosity he couldn’t define was pushing him to look into Quin, too. He wanted to see how that idiot fit, especially if it was his case that’d tangled up with Stewart.

That left the other suit. Really, that left Eric.

Jason didn’t turn to look at her. He merely eyed her reflection in his goggles’ lenses. They said the army matched the Agent, but she didn’t fit Eric’s style. She didn’t have that air of utter confidence he did, and she didn’t share any of the mannerisms Jason had seen. A suit was a suit and much could be said about a person that’d earned one, but there was a hefty burden of quality an A-1’s private employee had to manage, and she didn’t seem to be able to do it. That didn’t make sense. Either she was too far removed from Eric’s ‘real’ work to truly know what was going on, or she wasn’t a ‘real’ member of his personal force. Sometimes that happened.

… Or maybe she did fit.

Jason sat up farther in his chair, jostled by the plane’s sudden roll forward. They were moving. They were headed to the runway to take off. Fine – whatever, he wasn’t losing his train of thought.

Benoit was his best source of proof. No matter what everyone was happy to believe about Eric, Benoit was responding to something different. There was more than one note to the A-1’s song. Why wouldn’t there be more than one to the A-1’s army? What if this girl was a piece to a lower level? Sorry, suit, but there wasn’t a chance in hell Jason meant ‘higher’. But that was extremely interesting. That was actually one of the most interesting thoughts he’d had in a long time. It was hard to draw a line when he only had this one dot, but he was proof, too. Jason changed how he worked to fit the person he worked for, and if this woman was working for a side of Eric, then it stood to reason that the rest of his army worked for other sides of him. …Jason might actually figure Eric out. The weight of that did more than just calm his nerves. It lit them ablaze. There were a hundred implications – millions if he really tried – hiding in this!

Okay! This was big. This was very big. He gripped the arms of his chair and held on tight, reeling from the chance to potentially solve all of this – without Frenchie’s help, who wasn’t offering it anymore anyway. The only problem he could see was finding every type of Agent that Eric had attached to his name. Harder still would be figuring out which was the most important. Eric was fairly forthcoming, though. If Jason asked, he might get an honest answer.

“Hey,” he said, wisely keeping the excitement out of his voice. This girl was now ‘Side 1’. What did Side 1 do for Eric to want it on his team? “Why were you in Charlton?”

He could figure this out. He could understand everything. Would it help? He didn’t know.

That didn’t mean he wouldn’t try.

* * *


PATIENCE WAS NOT HER KNOWN SPECIALTY, AND SHE LOATHED THESE TIMES THAT SOUGHT SO MERCILESSLY TO TEST HER. CONCEDING A POINT TO ONE OF THEM WAS EVEN WORSE, BUT GIVEN THE ALTERNATIVE OF HER THEORY…

SHE LET GO OF THE DOG. SHORTLY AFTER, HE STOPPED BEING PURPLE, AND SHE HAD WIPED HER HAND ON THE SEAT TO RID HERSELF OF GERMS SURELY FROM HIS THROAT.

“GOOD WORK, DOG,” SHE BLANDLY DECLARED.

“Thuhkuh Auh-huh Buhmuhn.”

“THAT WAS NOT PERMISSION TO TALK.”

FIRST PATTEN HAD MANAGED TO PLACATE HER AND NOW SHE’D BEEN CALMED BY THE DOG. THAT SHUDDER NEARLY TIPPED HER TO ANOTHER FIT, BUT SHE SUPPOSED THESE CIRCUMSTANCES WERE EXTENUATING. BOTH HAD BEEN FOR HER CAT, AFTER ALL. WHO BETTER TO TRUST REGARDING AN AGENT THAN ANOTHER AGENT, EVEN IF THAT WAS PATTEN? HE, FOR ONCE, HAD NOTHING TO GAIN; THE BLASTED MAN AFFIRMED HER DARLING KITTEN WAS FROM PARIS AND HAPPILY HAD CLARIFIED MARCH’S SLANDER IN SAYING HER KITTY TOURED THE OTHER COUNTRY SEVERAL TIMES A YEAR FOR WORK. THOSE WERE CONFIRMABLE DETAILS FOR WHEN SHE FELT LIKE CONFIRMING THEM. THAT LINE OF SAFETY LET HER CAST HER ANGER TO THE WIND. LIKE BUBBLES, A RELIEVED UNDERSTANDING TOED ACROSS HER SKIN. OF COURSE HE HADN’T HUNG UP ON HER, THE DOG SUGGESTED THROUGH HIS BALLOONED TONGUE. SHE WAS TOO… WHAT HAD HE SAID? ‘AWESOMELY BEAST COOL’? SHE WAS WIPING THAT TERM FROM HER MEMORY, BUT ALL THE SAME, YES, HER CAT RESPECTED HER, TOO MUCH SO TO DEFY HER THAT... DEFIANTLY. IT WAS THE COMMONALITY IN EVERY MINUTE OF THEIR TIME TOGETHER AND JEAN HIMSELF HAD REPORTED IT AS THEIR PRIME OBSTACLE IN WINNING HER PET: HE STUCK TO THE RULES. SORT OF. AT ANY RATE, THE DOG DROOLED, HALF-DEAF AND HALF-BLIND BECAUSE SHE HAD TAKEN HIS OTHER EAR AND HIS CHEEKS – SHE MAY HAVE OVERREACTED FOR THAT LAST HOUR, BUT HE BROUGHT MOST OF IT ON HIMSELF BECAUSE HE WOULD NOT STOP CRYING – BUT VALIANTLY ATTEMPTING TO BE HELPFUL DESPITE HIS AFFLICTIONS, CHARLTON WAS UNDER ATTACK. BY ALL MEASURES, IT MADE MORE SENSE THAT HER KITTY HAD RUSHED TO INTERVENE AND SO HAD ENDED THE CALL. MADELINE AGREED. IT WAS WHY SHE STOPPED CHOKING HIM. IN OTHER NEWS, HIS HEAD WAS SWOLLEN LIKE A MANGO.

“Auh-huh Buhmuhn,” THE DOG SAID. “Cuh uh huh wuh-tuh?”

“NO.”

“… Uh-kuh…”

DUMB DOG. HE COULD HAVE WATER, IF THAT WAS WHAT HE HAD ASKED FOR, WHEN HE LANDED SOMEWHERE THAT CARED. THEY WEREN’T SO FAR OFF FROM ELMIRA NOW. HE WOULD LIVE UNTIL THE RUSSIANS STRUCK.

ON CUE, HER NEW PHONE CHIMED.

Charl. end, two hos., three fat., one pend., stew. M/P?

THAT WAS NOT WHAT SHE EXPECTED TO READ. SHE REFUSED TO GIVE UP HER GIDDY UNDERSTANDING – BENOIT WOULD GET THE VERY BEST CHAINS SHE COULD FIND – BUT THAT WORD ‘PEND’, SHORT FOR A FATALITY WHOSE IDENTITY HAD NOT BEEN CONFIRMED, CAUGHT HER ATTENTION AT ONCE. AS IT HAD BEFORE, THE SMILE SLID OFF HER FACE. THE DOG LOOKED EXPECTANTLY WORRIED. SHE IGNORED HIM.

“CHARLTON WAS ATTACKED,” SHE FLATLY PASSED ALONG. “YOUR FRIENDS WERE TAKEN.” THAT WAS FOR STEWART. SHE LEFT OUT THE ‘BOTH WILL LIKELY BE KILLED’. Pend?

Oscar, WAS THE FULL REPLY. ONCE AGAIN, HER MOUTH TIGHTENED IN ANGER. FOR OSCAR TO HAVE BEEN INVOLVED AND STILL LEAVE THE BODY UNCONFIRMED SPOKE A TELLING SIGN OF WHAT THE DAMAGE WAS. M/P?

SHE THOUGHT ABOUT IT. WHO HAD STAYED? CLEARLY THAT WAS WHAT THIS WAS BETWEEN: EITHER ANOTHER TOLL ON THE AGENCY’S END OR ELSE A PERSONAL LOSS OF ONE OF HER OWN, AND SHE FOUND HERSELF NOW SCRAMBLING TO REMEMBER WHO HAD STAYED IN HER EX-BUILDING ALTHOUGH THEY WERE TOLD TO EVACUATE BEFORE THE ATTACK. PATTEN’S INVASION RAISED SUCH CONCERN THAT SEVERAL WERE COMPELLED TO. OSCAR, THEN, WOULD HAVE COME TO THE SAME CONCLUSION AS SHE HAD NOW: WAS THIS AN AGENT KILLED BY THE NORDICS OR A GERMAN KILLED BY THE AGENCY? THE LATTER VERY MUCH HELD A THREAT AGAINST HER LIFE. SHE TRUSTED HER PEOPLE BUT WERE THE RUSE REVEALED WHILE SHE WAS ON BOARD WITH THIS ROBOT-SLAVE, IT WOULD FARE VIOLENTLY WHEN SHE LANDED AS ELMIRA WOULD SET OUT TO ENGAGE HER. NO, THEY WOULD NEVER DARE. THIS SECRET WAS SAFE FOR A SHORT WHILE LONGER. IT EVEN OFFERED A BRIGHTER SIDE THAN THE VICIOUS THIRD RESULT THEY MIGHT UNCOVER. EVERYONE KNEW THE NORDIC’S THIRST FOR DESTRUCTION.

MADELINE BEGAN TO SEETHE. THIS WAS WHAT IT HAD COME TO. THIS WAS WHERE THEIR MISTRUST BEGAN TO HAUNT THEM.

Danielle may have killed one of mine, SHE WROTE.

THE DOG SHRANK AWAY. SHE HAD YET TO SHOUT IN FURY, BUT HE SEEMED TO HAVE GROWN A KNACK FOR BRACING HIMSELF.

Yes. CRYPTIC DID NOT DIRECTLY ACCUSE A PARTY UNTIL THE EVIDENCE HAD BEEN CLEARLY LAID OUT. HIS ‘YES’ MEANT THAT HE ACKNOWLEDGED THE POSSIBILITY. M/P?

THEN ANOTHER THOUGHT CAME TO HER. PRESSING HARDER ON THE BUTTONS TO WHERE THEY BEGAN TO STICK, MADELINE TYPED OUT, Where does it pend?

Office. HER OFFICE. THEY WERE IN HER OFFICE?! DANIELLE! HOW DARE SHE! THE SINGLE REQUEST SHE HAD MADE – M/P??

GOOD GOD, THIS MAN! THE RUSSIANS NEVER CHANGED TACTICS! IF IT PAID OFF IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR, IT WOULD WORK EVERYWHERE ELSE. GRITTING HER TEETH, SHE CALMLY REPLIED, Stable, why my office?

Explain stable.

“TO HELL WITH YOU!” SHE SLUNG THE PHONE ACROSS THE CABIN AND IT SLAMMED OFF THE OTHER WINDOW. A FIERCE CRACK FORMED ALONG IT TOO, AND THE PHONE DROPPED AND BOUNCED OFF THE DOG’S SPONGY HEAD. IT WAS IN ONE PIECE. SHE GLOWERED AT IT. THAT WAS THE PROBLEM WITH THOSE OLDER, SIMPLER PHONES. THEY WERE BUILT LIKE ROCKS AND COULD STOMACH A TANK FALLING ON TOP OF THEM. COULDN’T THE AGENCY STOP UPSETTING HER? WHAT WAS THIS WORLD PLAYING AT WHEN NOTHING BROKE PROPERLY ANYMORE? “DOG, GIVE THAT TO ME.” THE GOOD THING ABOUT HIM WAS HIS EAGERNESS TO PLEASE. SHE HAD THE PHONE IN HER HAND BEFORE ANYONE ELSE COULD REACH FOR IT, AND QUITE SERENELY, SHE DELETED THE MESSAGES AGAIN. IT WOULDN’T DO FOR MARCH’S SENSE OF CURIOSITY TO RETURN. EVEN NOW, MADELINE WAS CAREFUL TO COVER HER TRACKS. AFTER SHE THREW THEM, SHE ADDED. SHE STUFFED THE PHONE AWAY. IT CONTINUED TO BEEP UNTIL HAD BEEN MUFFLED.

DALTON ONCE ASKED FOR THE LARGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HIS SISTER’S RULE AND THE FALLEN BRANCHES’. MADELINE ASSUMED – AND RIGHTLY – THAT HE MEANT IN TERMS OF STRATEGY, BUT THEIR MATTER OF TRUST HAD COME UP TOO OFTEN TO BE IGNORED. THIS WAS NOT HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. THE IDEA THAT ANOTHER BRANCH HAD KILLED ONE OF HER OWN SHOULD HAVE INSTANTLY TRIGGERED GRATITUDE FOR ELIMINATING AN AGENCY SPY OR FOR ACTING ON WHATEVER REASON UNLIKE ANYTHING THAT COULD BE CHALLENGED. THEY HAD ONCE RUN ON HONOUR, BUT THAT WORD MEANT NOTHING TO THEM ANYMORE. THE NORDIC BRANCH HAD ASSUMED CONTROL AS THE ONLY GROUP LARGE AND WILLING ENOUGH TO CARRY ON THE FIGHT. THE RUSSIANS HAD ALWAYS BEEN A MASSIVE ARMY BUT ISOLATED; THE REASON FOR THEIR EXTREMELY LATE PARTICIPATION WAS BECAUSE THEY HAD DECIDED TO HOLE UP IN THOSE MOUNTAINS OF THEIRS. THE OTHER SIX HAD BEEN LEFT TO STRUGGLE ON THEIR OWN. IN OTHER WORDS, IF SHE WAS LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO DEPEND UPON, SHE ALREADY KNEW THE LIMITS OF WHAT SHE WAS WORKING WITH. THOSE TWISTED, GORE-THIRSTY NORDICS AND THOSE UNCARING, SELF-CENTERED RUSSIANS WERE NOT HER TRUE ALLIES. SHE RESERVED HER JUDGEMENT UNTIL IT HAD BEEN PROVEN, BUT A MADDENING HATE TURNED HER BLOOD BLACK. IF SHE FOUND OUT DANIELLE’S PEOPLE WERE BEHIND THIS, IF SHE FOUND OUT THAT PENDING WAS ONE OF HER OWN, THE HELL TO PAY WOULD BE UNMATCHED BY THE WRATH SHE’D UNLEASH IN HER FURY. SHE WOULD DEMAND THE LIFE A HUNDRED TIMES OVER, AND THAT WOULD BE THE END OF THIS ARRANGEMENT. THE GHOST OF TRUST LOOMED OVER HER SHOULDER; THIS WAS NOT HOW IT USED TO BE, AND HER RAGE WOULD ADJUST ACCORDINGLY.

BY THE WAY, THE GERMANS WERE MEANT TO BE THE CRAZY ONES. WHAT WAS DANIELLE THINKING TAKING BOTH CONTROL AND MADELINE’S THUNDER? SHE DESPISED BEING THE VOICE OF REASON. IT WAS STILL ANOTHER REASON TO MOURN THE LOSS FROM HER PRECIOUS FRANCE BRANCH’S DEPARTURE, THE PRIMARY REASON BEING… WELL, SHE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN IT BY NOW. SHE WANTED HER KITTY BACK.

“I FEEL YOUR EYES,” SHE SPAT.

“Uh huvh uh quhsun, Auh-huh Buhmuhn.” WELL, WELL. SO IT SEEMED THE DOG HAD SOMETHING WORTH SAYING. MADELINE’S ARMS WERE AS SHARPLY CROSSED AS EVER AND THE POINTS OF HER KNEES ALIGNED INTO A SPEAR SHE KNEW THE MAN COULD RECOGNIZE. HE WAS SPEAKING ANYWAY, AND JUST BECAUSE THE FOOL WAS INCAPABLE OF SHUTTING UP. “Yuh suh thuh wuh tuh-kun buh… bah who? Bah thuh peh-puh who cahmin?”

“… WHAT?”

“Yuh suh thuh wuh tuh-kun,” THE DOG SAID, SLOWER. IT DIDN’T HELP. “Huh fuhnds.” THE DOG POINTED AT STEWART. “Yuh suh thuh wuh tuh-kun?” NOW HE WAS PANTOMIMING.

“‘I SAID THEY WERE TAKEN’, YES, FINE, WHAT OF IT?”

“Who whuh thuh tuh-kun bah?”

“‘WHO WERE THEY TAKEN BY?’” HIS NORMAL CONVERSATION WAS AWFUL ON ITS OWN WITHOUT FORCING HER TO STRAIN TO UNDERSTAND HIM. SHE BLAMED HIM FOR FORCING HER TO RESORT TO SUCH CRIPPLING MEASURES TO SILENCE HIM. SHE GLARED AT HIM DARKLY. “BY THE PEOPLE WHO ATTACKED. WHO ELSE?”

“Yuh, uhn thuh’s thuh pruh-luhm,” HE SLOBBERED. “Buh-cuh Juh-suhn wuh thuh. Thuh’s wuh heh stehd fuh, buh yuh duhdn’t seh whuh heh ith!”

SO MUCH FOR GLARING. SHE WAS STARING AT HIM BLANKLY. WHAT PART OF THAT MESS WAS SHE SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND? AND OF IT, WHAT PART WAS SHE SUPPOSED TO CARE ABOUT? CURIOSITY, HOWEVER, BEGAN TO TUG AT HER MIND. FOR ONCE, THE DOG WAS NOT JABBERING MADLY ABOUT HOW EXCITED HE WAS TO BE HERE BECAUSE HE WAS FOCUSED ON SOME OTHER NONSENSE POINT SHE COULD NOT DECIPHER THROUGH THAT SLOPPY GRUNTING. BOTHERED BY THE WASTED EXPENSE OF ENERGY IN LISTENING SO FAR, MADELINE TOOK THE PHONE OUT AND BOUNCED IT OFF HIS HEAD. HE DID NOT APPEAR TO MIND. HE QUICKLY BEGAN TO TYPE.

“TO THE POINT,” SHE GROWLED.

HARDLY A SECOND LATER, THE DOG MEEKLY RETURNED THE PHONE TO HER, WEIGHTED BY AN ELOQUENT, whers jason??

“WHO?”

“Thuh one thuh –”

USELESS. BUT HIS GESTURES WERE REMARKABLE HELPFUL. HIS HANDS FORMED GOGGLES AND MADELINE’S EYES FLICKED TO MARCH. THE DOG WAS DELIGHTED BY THIS AND POINTED TO MARCH AS WELL TO DRAW THE PICTURE. THE LOVER. THE ONE MARCH HAD LEFT BEHIND. THE DOG SEEMED PERSONALLY MOTIVATED TO ASK ABOUT HIS… ‘FRIEND’, SHE SUPPOSED, BUT MADELINE FELT A GREATER CURIOSITY AS SHE WONDERED WHETHER MARCH CARED TO HEAR.

THAT WAS A STUNNING IDEA, WHAT HAD OCCURRED TO HER THAT INSTANT. MADELINE WRAPPED HER FINGERS AROUND THE SMALL PHONE AND CAREFULLY CONSIDERED WHO WAS ON THE OTHER END. ‘M/P’, ‘M/P’, SURELY FOLLOWED BY AN ARROGANT ‘PLEASE BE SURE, BECAUSE I CAN’T TRUST YOU TO MAKE A PROPER JUDGEMENT’, THEN A WORSE ‘DO NOT INTERFERE BECAUSE IF SHE HATES HIM, THINGS WILL BE MORE BAD’. THERE WAS THAT GHOST, WINDING AROUND HER FEET. CRYPTIC LACKED THE CREDIBILITY THAT HE NEEDED TO CONVINCE MADELINE AGAINST HER INSTINCTS. SHE HAD GIVEN DALTON A PROPER ANSWER WHEN HE HAD ASKED FOR IT: THE GREATEST STRATEGICAL DIFFERENCE LAY IN THE OVERLAP BETWEEN EACH BRANCH’S WORK; SPECIFICALLY, THAT NOW THERE WAS NONE. DANIELLE HAD ENDED THAT. WHERE TASKS HAD FLOWN FREELY FROM GROUP TO GROUP AND NATIONAL TEAMS WOULD COLLABORATE ON DETAILS, DANIELLE SAID THE BRANCHES WOULD BE SPECIALIZED. THE NORDICS NATURALLY FLEW TO SLAKE THEIR THIRST BY CLAIMING CAPTURE EFFORTS AS THEIR OWN. THAT ENTAILED FORCED ENTRY, SECURITY AND CONTAINMENT. THE NORDICS THRIVED ON THE WOUNDS THEY CARVED. THEY WERE HARD PRESSED TO SHOW A MEMBER WITHOUT AN AXE TO GRIND OR WITHOUT AN INSATIABLE JOY OF GORE. THEY WERE THE GROUP THE FALLEN BRANCHES’ REMNANTS FLOCKED TO IN THE FACE OF THEIR OWN’S DESTRUCTION. OSCAR HAD BEEN WITH THEM FOR OVER THREE YEARS. HE ENJOYED IT TOO MUCH. IT WAS SOON TIME FOR HIM TO COME HOME. THE RUSSIANS, OF COURSE, CHOSE TO FURTHER TURTLE THEMSELVES. RATHER THAN ENGAGE IN ANY DIRECT ATTACK, THEY SIMPLY WANTED TO REMEMBER WHY THEY HID. THEY HANDLED TECHNOLOGY. IT WAS WHY THEY GONE TO ELMIRA. AS FOR THE FIGHT ITSELF, DANIELLE HAD LENT HER VERY BEST TO HIM. HEATSTORM IN PARTICULAR WAS AT THE HELM OF THE STORM. AGAIN: NO OVERLAP. THE REALIZATION FILLED MADELINE WITH RENEWED CONFIDENCE AGAINST CRYPTIC’S PARANOIA. HE MIGHT HAVE HAD SOME EXPERIENCE WITH PATTEN – NO MORE THAN ANYONE ELSE, AND CERTAINLY NOT MORE THAN HER – BUT ANY PATTERNS HE SAW WERE EITHER FED TO HIM BY HER AND PULLED TO SOME OUTLANDISH CONCERN OR TOO IMPRACTICAL TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. MADELINE KNEW PRECISELY WHAT THEY KNEW AND WHAT THEY THOUGHT THEY KNEW. SHE STILL COULD SENSE ONLY MERIT IN TURNING THIS HUSK OF A WOMAN AGAINST THE MASTER SHE CLAIMED TO CHERISH. ELIAS WAS GONE, WAS HE NOT? PERHAPS A SUCCESSOR HAD COME. OR NOT. MAYBE THE BEST SHE COULD HOPE FOR WAS BREAKING THE PLANS PATTEN HAD FOR MARCH’S TRANSFER. THAT SUITED HER. IN ANY CASE, THE DAMAGE WOULD BE IRREPARABLE. SHE KNEW THIS, BECAUSE WHILE THE RUSSIANS HID AND THE NORDICS SOUGHT TO SLAUGHTER, MADELINE RECLAIMED THE SPECIALTY THE GERMANS HAD SHOWN BEFORE THE OTHERS FELL.

SABOTAGE.

IT WAS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WORD IN ANY LANGUAGE.

CRYPTIC HAD RIDDLED THE MESSAGE INBOX WITH SIX OTHER ‘M/P?’ NOTES. SHE TEXTED BACK, Stable, THEN HID THE PHONE. HER KNEES WERE STILL POSED TO SPEAR, BUT A CONFIDENCE HAD SETTLED IN TO RELAX THEM. SHE KNEW WHAT SHE COULD DO.

ENJOY, PATTEN.

“THE DAMAGE WAS EXTENSIVE. IT’S TOO EARLY TO TELL.” THERE HAD BEEN A STEW, CRYPTIC INFORMED HER. DANIELLE WOULD HAVE FILLED IT TO THE BRIM. “MY SECURITY WAS OVERWHELMED.” THEY HAD BETTER HAVE BEEN. AFTER THE YEARS SHE HAD SPENT DRAGGING CHARLTON INTO THE SHADOWS DEEP ENOUGH TO CONVINCE THEM THAT HER BUILDING HAD NO NEED FOR SUCH EXCESSIVELY ARMED AND TRAINED GUARDS, SHE WOULD BE SORELY DISAPPOINTED IF ANY OF THEM HAD LIVED. “I DO NOT KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT YOUR BOY TO SAY WHETHER HE IS ALIVE.”

THE DOG’S HUMUNGOUS EYES FLAPPED OPEN, AS THOUGH THAT HAD NEVER BEEN IN QUESTION UNTIL NOW.

“Yuh duhn thunk heh’s uh-luhv?”

“I SAID I DON’T KNOW. HE HAS A SUIT. HE SHOULD BE CAPABLE OF AVOIDING DETECTION.” WHETHER HE HAD WAS NOT IMPORTANT. HER ROLE WAS NEVER TO PROVIDE A CONCLUSION, ONLY FACTS. THAT WAS SABOTAGE. THEIR CONCLUSIONS LED TO SABOTAGE. “HE IS AN AGENT. THIS IS WHAT AGENTS ARE FOR.”

“Nuh! Nuh – cuh Juh-suhn juh duh –” WHEN SHE BOUNCED THE PHONE OFF HIS HEAD A SECOND TIME, HE WROTE TO HER, Jason jut does anlysis cuz f his suit an he was sck cuz of witdrawl!!! IT WAS ALMOST EXACTLY AS INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

“HE HAS OTHER TRAINING,” MADELINE DRONED. “EVERY AGENT ADHERES TO A MINIMUM STANDARD.” THE DOG? UNLIKELY, BUT THAT WAS A JUDGEMENT THEY HAD TO COME TO. “HAVE FAITH IN YOUR COLLEAGUE. HE WAS ALREADY ON ALERT FOR ALEXANDER. ‘WIT-DRAWL’ OR OTHERWISE, HE DIDN’T WALK INTO THE ROOM BLIND.”

THE DOG LOOKED SO PERFECTLY UNSURE, AS THOUGH HE WANTED TO BELIEVE HER WHOLEHEARTEDLY BUT A CERTAIN DOUBT KEPT HIM TRAPPED AT THE BRINK OF IT. AS SHE SAID, THERE WAS NO ONE BETTER THAN AN AGENT TO ASK ABOUT ANOTHER AGENT. THE DOG WOULD KNOW WHICH WEAKNESS OF MARCH’S LOVER HE WISHED TO FRET ABOUT THE MOST. THAT ANXIETY WOULD BUILD, AS HE HAD A GIFT TO EXACERBATE THE CABIN’S MOOD. SHOULD MARCH COMMENT, MADELINE WOULD TAKE IT AS A SUCCESS. THE MERE INTEREST TO VOICE A DULL THOUGHT WAS ENOUGH OF A CLUE TO BE CONTENTED BY. MARK HER WORDS: BY THE END OF THIS, THIS WOMAN WOULD HATE ERIC PATTEN.

STRONGER, HMM? THEN ALRIGHT. SHE CALLED THE STUPID BLUFF. SHE HAD A CASTLE OF MISTRUST TO BUILD. IT WAS TIME THAT GHOST MADE A NEW FRIEND.

* * *


“It’s the Sugar Year, then the Tickle Test, then you have the monthly tests going Dead Time, Buffet Day, Global Warming split between which extreme they’re assigned –”

“That’s the temperature one? And Snack Time isn’t a test?”

“No, it’s training for Buffet Day…” Weist trailed off after opening the door. His face paled. “Donovan,” he said carefully, as though Lionel’s presence was surprising. Then he snapped a fast salute and added, “Sir.”

“Maggot,” Lionel returned. This wasn’t the army. Weist needed to get saluting out of his system. “You’re here. Nathan isn’t.”

“He’s…” Weist pointed lamely behind him. “The team has him down the hall. Clemens says there’s a problem –” Lionel’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t think there was,” Weist sped up, “but he –”

Clemens was Team F’s leader. Lionel put him in charge for a reason. If the man had voiced a concern, there was a concern to be voiced.

“It doesn’t matter what you think,” he told them. Franklin, the new one of the group, tensed at the address. He had non-army reasons for it, largely because he wasn’t from there. This one was a Pubby: one of the chosen few of the public side brought to slum it in the Agency for kicks. Pubbys thought these transfers were a thrill. When reality set in, they were the first to run. The boy tensed again when Lionel stood from the last intact table of the break room. The chair wobbled from the loss of his weight. “Is he contained?”

“Self-contained,” Franklin said, with a half-breath of laughter. That smirk wiped off his face when Lionel set his eyes on him. “I… mean… That’s what Clemens…” And then he gave a vague gesture to Weist. Wisely, Weist did not help him. If Franklin was going to be an Agent, he would learn not to hide behind higher ranks to support his words. Everyone here was accountable for the actions they performed. Lionel stood by that rule if no other.

“Clemens talks for himself. Move.” When they did, they stepped to the side of the door rather than back out it. They were waiting for him to pass like children cowering from a bear. Lionel had that effect. It came from being Elmira’s head of security. Or it came from being a Pain Eater. Or it came from being a big, black guy. “Who else noticed this ‘problem’?”

“Simmons did. Miller did,” Weist said, trailing after him. The sound of his rifle brushing against his uniform was drowned by Franklin’s brushing against his. Their chosen protection was a sharp insight into how settled they were in their places. Weist wore a vest over his armoured Agency jacket. Aside from his primary firearm, he had a knife and handgun strapped to his belt. Franklin had the same, but as a Pubby unversed on what was and was not an effective precaution, he also had a helmet, a visor, protective goggles under that visor, body armour over his vest, thigh guards, leg guards and a cup. It was Lionel’s job to notice these things and scoff at it. Someone was overcompensating in many specific areas. Clemens should have told the boy how little any of it would do against a target that summoned explosions in the air as the first of his many scientifically gifted abilities. “Weathers confirmed it.”

“I don’t give a shit about what’s confirmed. Did he see it?”

“Clemens asked him if he recognized it,” Franklin said. “Weathers told us he did but he couldn’t be sure until Nathan talked. He hasn’t.”

Lionel marched through the shambling hall with footsteps made to crush through the debris he wasn’t bothered to step over. Overhead, the shattered lights flickered weakly to stay on. Some of them were brighter without their fluorescent casing containing them. The wires that’d fallen out gave dangerous sparks along the way. Team D had had this territory. Lionel already knew they were responsible for most, if not all, the damage. The bullet-chewed tile shifted under his feet. It was a tired response to the affirmative.

The rest of Team F was another fifteen minutes away. Elmira’s maze of corridors often went on for great stretches at a time. They stood to his full attention before he arrived, turning to face him promptly. That was why Clemens was in charge. The man’s greeting was a proper ‘hello’, but not until Lionel was beside him and without his eyes so much as blinking away from his target. It was good to see the Agency lived.

“Weist says there’s a problem.”

“It looks like Mod 3’s awake,” Clemens succinctly reported. “Nathan was missing in the archives for an hour before those suits got a visual.” Lionel didn’t approve of those pansy-assed bitches, but Grace insisted they be sent to help. “We were prepared to engage until he ordered us to stand down and walked himself out. I would have brought him to you, but he stopped here.” Lionel reached out a hand to tilt the kid’s face up. Those eyes were empty. Whoever was in the driver’s seat didn’t have a strong grip on it. Hard to say which Mod was acting out based on that alone. He let go. Nathan’s head slumped back down to his chest. There was no resistance in the movement, but there was a slow control inside. Nathan’s head didn’t just drop; it lowered. “He’s been walking with his hands like that, too. He isn’t cuffed.” But his wrists were still together and in front of him as though he was. Residual positioning? Lionel didn’t remember if Mod 3 had been cuffed. It was as likely as it wasn’t.

“I’ll take it from here.” Clemens stepped aside and it rippled through the rest of the team. They’d had their rifles trained to the kid. They lowered them now. Nathan didn’t move. “I assume the archives are intact.”

“We didn’t fire a shot,” Clemens said.

“Good. I’d hate to have to kill you after you did your job.” Lionel clamped a hand to Nathan’s shoulder, then let his eyes sweep over the team. They landed on Weist. “Weist.” The other Agent was an over-built Latino. If Weist was scared, then it was because he was lowly security. Lowly security didn’t fare well against Pain Eaters even if they were sent to wrangle lost and super-powered lambs. The difference between them was immeasurable to those who hadn’t dedicated their lives to measuring it. Weist stepped towards him dutifully. “Last warning.”

“Yes, sir.”

Salute.

The message was clear enough. Lionel turned and walked the kid down a connected hall to Quadrant 6. It was one of the few Nathan hadn’t been chased through. That meant there were no pieces of the ceiling hanging over their head by various levels of precariousness. The walls were metal and were expected to have held, but they had been severely bent and dented by the battle. It seemed Team D had brought the RPGs along. Idiots.

They hadn’t been in silence for long, but Nathan broke it by remembering his words.

“What did he do?”

Flat. Detached. Nathan’s voice was firm but unfocused. It was still not a definitive sign of Mod 3.

“I interrupted his conversation by being on the other side of the door of the room he knew I was in,” Lionel said. “He was talking about our training.”

‘Our’. Would that word resonate?

“Unless times have changed, that’s punishable by more than a warning.”

It did. Grace would not be pleased.

“Times haven’t changed,” Lionel said. “There’s just less of us around to enforce the rules.”

Mod 3’s ears had picked up. With an awkward twist to his head as if he was stretching the boundaries of his motor control, he asked plainly, “How many less?”

“Two hundred.”

The emotion of shock must have been strong to register on Nathan’s face. The jagged lines his strides were leading him through broken unevenly at the news. Lionel’s hand on him kept him steady.

“Two hundred,” Mod 3 murmured. “From one area?” Yes. From theirs. Their region was essentially depleted. “That is a very nice number. Who did it?”

There was the real news.

“One guy,” Lionel said. Mod 3 nearly stopped walking. “You remember Elias, I’m sure.”

“That was Elias?”

Wouldn’t that be special.

“No. He’s in limbo. This was his brother,” Lionel said. “Baby Elias. I think you were gone before he showed up.”

Nathan had lost his shoes, but his bare feet didn’t shy from the stones. Yes, Team D had made a mess, and they were one of the six that brought explosives. The new rumour was that Charlton had been attacked. If Nathan held out for longer, Elmira would have been saved from a second assault by virtue of already being destroyed. There wasn’t a damn corner he could see that didn’t need some type of repair, and as he turned another and ushered them into a supposedly cleaner lane, he saw that held true in this area as well. This was Team J’s territory. Their names were added to Lionel’s mental list.

“Another Elias,” Mod 3 said wistfully. “What does that bring the total to?”

“Six.”

“Three on either side.” Mod 3 appreciated balanced teams. “So where’s this one from?”

“Here, like the C-2,” Lionel said. “The C-2 was a C-6 in your time.”

“Was that back when his dad was creative? What happened to ‘one in every nation’?” The man had been getting there before rebels took him out. “At least tell me he’s not from California, too.”

“Baby Elias? Nevada.” In Lionel’s opinion, that was close enough. “He broke in here a day ago. Supposedly there’s a plot on to bring him down.” Mod 3 gave a noncommittal noise. Lionel felt it more than heard it. He agreed. Plots didn’t mean anything until the results were achieved, but this one had a detail Mod 3 would want to hear. “Patten’s involved.”

“Of course he is.”

The flatness in his voice offered no context for the reply, but the words ended their short conversation. Lionel accepted that. Filling in some of the blanks was a courtesy he shouldn’t have offered when Mod 3 was set to go back from whence he’d came. Grace would seek a stronger sense of permanency this time. She would also seek answers Lionel knew she had no way of obtaining alone, but to find them would mean bringing Patten in the know. This was ultimately the A-1’s project and did not accept failure where success had been guaranteed. He also despised deception, but it was up to Grace to predict which would bring the lesser trial on her work. Lionel’s role was simply to ensure nothing bad happened during that time she kept Nathan awake for questioning.

They stopped outside her door. Lionel had gotten her to move to safer part of the lab. Her primary office had collapsed in on itself, but she would have stayed there if he hadn’t picked her up and carried her. She had screamed bloody murder to leave her file cabinets behind. Their first order of repair was to those cabinets out once Nathan was handled.

“Stand still while you’re contained.”

The order was a formality.

“Good luck with the plot,” Mod 3 said as Lionel unhooked the collar hanging on the wall. “I’m sure Eric has it managed.”

The collar went into place on top of a lighter line of skin. Nathan had worn it so long that he didn’t make sense without it.

“I’ll tell him you said hi.”

“I already did.” He put his wrist restraints on by himself, deftly twisting around the invisible shackles his hands appeared to believe they wore. “I broke in a day ago, too. Check your numbers, Don. I think 200 is off by a kill.”

Aggros rounded down.

The final piece was on Nathan’s head. The circlet lit up. The restraints had re-entered operation, but Lionel didn’t feel better about this.

“Nathan Stall, you have been refitted with restraints made to counter your recorded talents. Any attempt to remove these restraints will be interpreted as a hostile act, and you will be subdued to the best of my or any active Agent’s ability.” The other Mods had heard this spiel already. Mod 3 was given this recital as another formality. In short, Nathan didn’t care. “Chris.” Those lifeless eyes rolled up to him. “Don’t get in my way.”

As one Pain Eater to another, don’t make Lionel kill him.

“I’ll try to avoid it,” Mod 3 said.

It was the best answer he would give. It didn’t mean it was good, just that Lionel shouldn’t waste time expecting more. After a careful examination of the kid’s bindings, Lionel signed on them, and then unlocked the room his soup was impatiently waiting in.

“I mean it, Chris,” he warned.

“My word’s as strong as Eric’s.”

Lionel sighed. As he’d told himself, that first answer was the best he’d been given. Now he would spend the rest of the encounter wondering whether he could ‘the word of Eric’.

He gave those restraints a tighter fit, and then tighter to be sure.

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A dimly lit room. Candlelight, small flames flickering in miniature dances, the golden-orange light wavering in coquettish flirtation against the walls. Like a virgin... The aroma of rose petals and cinnamon filled his pointed nose, his head swimming as more provocative scents were identified, causing him to flick his tongue out against his own plush, swollen lips. He was not alone. He could smell her and feel her close by, his skin tingling and his lungs suffocating with the urge to bring her closer. The room was awash with heat, his skin slick and steaming to the touch and yet invigorating his muscles and limbs with sparking energy. Feminine hands ran through his dampened hair, fingers long and slender with short, manicured nails grazing teasingly at his scalp, gently tugging at his roots and sliding through his coifed locks with sensual abandon. Fingertips smoothly slithered down his neck, massaging at his jawline and caressing his cheeks, as if their owner could not get enough of touching him. A thumb strayed near his mouth and his lips parted, playfully capturing the appendage and sucking it coyly. ...touched for the very first time...

Opening his eyes, he took in the woman standing before him, her hands falling away so as not to impede his silent inspection. The black suit she wore was painted onto her skin, curves and flesh seeming to swell close to bursting within it's confines. Erect nipples pointed rudely at him through the fabric and flesh bulged vulgarly in other intimate places on her body, leaving no secrets to his eyes as they wandered appreciatively. In contrast to the revealing outfit, her mask was formless, hiding the features within. Her smooth helmet, dark in color and giving her head a general egg shape, wrapped her in mystery, her desire for him palpable and yet hidden beneath the layers of metal or plastic or... whatever the hell that thing was made of. The holes for her eyes were obliterated by tinted colored glass, hiding her further from him, a grilled speaker box fixated on the spot where her mouth should be.

Alone with her at last. The moment he'd been longing for had finally arrived and it seemed endless, their explorations and desires unhindered by the interruptions of others or responsibility. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied something and looked, noticing the stasis tanks that were in the room - Hm. That's weird. And creepy. - but cast them out of mind as her gloveless hand came out to stroke his chest, resting on the spot above his heart. "Like a ver-ER-er-ehgen!" he suddenly sang out in an exaggerated falsetto voice, his voice growing soft as he spoke the next lyrics to her in a meaningful whisper. "When your heart beats... next to mine..."

Opposed to normal logic, the outburst did not break the mood, instead amplifying the tension in the air, crackling like fireworks between them. Not seeing her face, he was unable to predict the move before her arms lashed out, grabbing ahold of him and abruptly pulling him close to crush against her supple body. And he found his lips smashed against the grill of her mask, his eyes blinking in awkward confusion as she held the back of his head, keeping him in place and gently swayed her head in impassioned motions, grinding the mask against his face. There was a moment when he started to fight it, the discomfort and alienness of it freaking him out. But feeling her suit grow wet with his sweat, sliding against him, her warmth seeping into him as previously unintroduced intimate parts shook hands in greeting for the first time, he began to lose himself in it, kissing her back. Tonguing her speaker box, he could hear her mechanized, husky breathing emitted from it, feminine gasps distorted by the helmet. He then

Rudy blinked his eyes, squinting in the sterilized lighting, white surrounding him and amplifying the glare stabbing his corneas from the bulbs above. I guess they got the power back on... For several moments, he tried to regain his bearings, trying to remember what the hell happened and where he was. When he was finally able to see, he at first didn't recognize the room but got the distinct feeling that he should before it finally clicked. It was because he was in the corner, on the floor and hadn't seen the room from this angle when he'd visited here before. The infirmary or whatever. Cots stood like giant, solemn beasts above him and he glared at them questioningly, interrogating them with his eyes. Why was he here? How did he get here?

Broken slides of memory flashed in his mind: a red-lit hallway, cloaked mostly in shadow... running with a hose... falling over... Squiddie standing over him... Squiddie! Instantly, his heart alighted like a flock of doves crowding out of an opened window, and he sat straight up and away from the wall he'd been perched against. Then, with eyes wide and his features strained, his body shrank back against itself as beautiful agony lanced through his abdomen and shoulder blades. That's when he remembered Squiddie kicking him through the door and he let out a gasped moan, finally becoming aware of the moistened and quickly drying spot on the crotch of his pants and inner thigh. The fabric of his uniform, stained with the excited juices she'd forced from his body in that blissful moment of pain, was drying to the skin of his leg and growing progressively more uncomfortable the longer he sat there. Rudy wasn't yet ready to move from where he'd been deposited, however, his breath hitching in his throat as he lifted the shirt of his uniform to look down at his slender stomach. Bruises littered his skin in ugly purple and black patches. Most of them were probably either from his wonderful time with Gwen - and all the stupid people she'd seen fit to puppeteer in order to beat the shit out of him - or when Stephanie threw her little fit, but he was too blinded with residual ecstasy to really acknowledge those other markings.

From amidst the crowd of bruises, he singled out a spot that felt like the pain was freshest and suddenly he knew, with harsh clarity and unwavering certainty, those marks had been made by the robotic Amazon who held his heart in a strangling fist. Delighted that Squiddie left evidence of their lovemaking on his flesh and still sore from the ache in his back, Rudy wrapped his arms around his middle, hugging himself - hugging the bruises she'd lovingly given him - and slowly rocked back and forth, reveling in sick delight. And it was sickness. He felt hot and ill, his mind numbed and lost to the whims of his heart, consumed by the need to be close to her again, if only for a moment. To be the center of her attention just for a few seconds longer. To be touched by her again... however violently she felt like touching him at any given moment. Rudy was sick with love.

Calming down, his breathing returned to normal and the pain in his body reduced to a simmering hum as he sat perfectly still, reliving the moments he'd shared with that wonderful beast. She couldn't deny it now! Her feelings for him were clear and now, after her open display of affection, the ball was indisputably in his court. He had to return it in some way, to show her his commitment to the relationship - it was real! It was happening! Gosh! She was moving so fast! But he wanted it too! He needed to be with her! - and suddenly, he knew, his original plan to just do his job and make her boss happy wasn't going to be anywhere close to enough of a romantic gesture. She'd given him bruises and there was the possibility of internal bleeding for crying out loud! This was serious and shit!

Thinking of that made him consider Ozzie and a pang of regret shot through his core, causing him to shift uncomfortably, sending a pulse of pain chasing after it. The effect was dizzying, almost like his past relationship was arguing with the present one and their battlefield was his body. And alright, fuck it. He admitted it. He had feelings for his damn target. But even as the thought crossed his mind now, as much as the emotions were still strong and felt real, they were no longer alive. The panic and anger he felt before when thinking of Osono being captured and erased forever was gone, replaced only by this acidic regret that left a bad taste in his mouth. Honestly, it was her fault! For years, he'd done everything he fucking could to protect her and exhausted every avenue of generosity that he was realistically allowed - granted, it involved attacking her constantly and keeping her away from people and making sure she didn't have any friends and couldn't trust anybody - but he'd had people to answer to and the best place to influence those people was in his position of power: being Lead on her case. He couldn't be expected to keep his position if he didn't act like an Agent at least some of the time!

Rudy scoffed when he remembered her response to that. She just didn't understand what was at stake and what had always been at stake. Now his position of power was gone and as he sat here, thinking about his deal with Patten, even if he somehow got his rank back - which was improbable; when the invincible dude got here, Rudy still had a "part two" he needed to go over with the guy and who knew what impossible tasks that entailed? - Osono knew who he was. The trust she'd had was gone and she was clinging to other people now, shoving him and his influence further back and to the side. The crucial part of the entire ruse had been the balance between what she suspected in her head and what he could make her believe in her heart and now those two parts of her were in agreement about him. Even if that agreement involved her resistance to killing him for emotional reasons, there was no going back and there was no way to put it all back in the box. And she'd been nothing but ungrateful when he finally decided to reveal the truth to her, instead running off to the arms of that fucking idiot, Alex, as if he was the Clark Kent to her Lois Lane!

"Fuck you, Superman, you stupid fucking shithead!!" he suddenly shouted, his voice hoarse with the strain of his rage. Rudy hated that guy so fucking much! She'd been fine before he left with Gwen and granted, he ruined things for himself on his end, he could have eventually finished these deals with Mr. Patten, no matter what they were - "you want my soul, Eric? Okay, here you go." - and returned to Ozzie who would be in the same state that he'd left her in: alone, running and full of anger and fear. But that gay-ass stupid piece of shit had ruined her! If anything, he felt more hatred for Alex than he felt anything for Ozzie anymore.

Taking out his phone, Rudy brought up the Heat Spectrum Analyzer, searching for Osono's latest activity. The trail had gone cold but no doubt she was no longer in the base anywhere. Had she run off with that psychotic freak? Was Alex laughing to himself and mocking Rudy because he thought he'd won? Were those two making out right now? Were they using tongue?

The thought sent his stomach acids burning a hole through his gut and with a furious sneer, he threw his phone as hard as he could, the thing clattering hollowly against the floor and sliding to a stop in the middle of the room. Pain and a renewed flush of pleasure buzzed through his shoulders from the harsh movement and he let out a sharp gasp, falling back against his spot leaning on the wall. Sitting there, dazed and mellowed by the throbbing ache in his back, he couldn't help but smile softly as thoughts of Squiddie flooded his mind once more. He was more than willing to accept it now, Ozzie was old news and there was nothing he could fucking do about that situation - except put a kryptonite bullet in Alex's ugly fucking face, but that was less about salvaging his case and more about making the douchebag pay for stealing her. It was time to set his sights towards the future and goals that he could actually reach. And the more he thought about what he wanted to do now, the more it just made sense.

Agents were meant to be with other Agents. They had more in common with each other than with super-powered people, afterall.

***

Shit. Well, if she needed more examples of the universe telling her to go fuck herself, then maybe she should just quit while she was ahead. It'd been 8 hours since Brie had taken a dose for the suit she wore and while in the car with the other suit wearing Agent, she'd looked in the pocket where she kept her kit only to find it already unzipped and empty. Searching through her other pockets, Brie found them mostly in the same state, with no sign of the drugs anywhere on her person. She was so screwed. Not that she had it anywhere near as bad as some of the more intense suit bearers - which this guy seemed to be one, due to his goggles - but she was definitely starting to feel it itch. Two things were required of her: stealth of movement and concentration and both were eluding her at the moment due to her lack of the proper chemicals to deal with the weight of the suit she was wearing.

It was alright, though. She could handle this and it was no big deal. Illogically, she began to think this might be another test of some kind before she remembered that it was most likely one of those imposters who'd stolen her drug kit... and also, they were the ones who made up that fake test crap anyway. Brie really needed to stop thinking of everything as being a test in disguise, but she couldn't help it and due to her dwindling attention span and the stress in her body, she was having difficulty keeping track of things and remembering what really happened.

A few things she knew for certain though. One, she didn't like, nor did she care about the other suit she was with. He had her boss's signature and that was enough to give his words some weight back at the base. But other than that, she'd joined him out of necessity to get out of the way of an attack that he seemed perfectly fine with walking away from. Which, was the second thing she was certain about: she was not okay with just leaving like they had. The posers had tricked her. They'd captured her and brought her with them for a purpose, using her to get information about that base. And they'd gotten inside at the one moment when those who ran it were most likely going to be distracted by people attacking from the outside. Her mission had only been to gather information about them and keep an eye on them while they infiltrated that low-level base and she still hadn't filed her report about that. But add on top of that, she'd failed in her duty to do anything back there about the very obvious threat to the Agency.

Not for the first time, Brie began to consider that she possibly wasn't cut out for being an Agent when suddenly the suit sitting beside her asked her about Charlton. She heard him. The words went into her ears perfectly fine but she didn't process them right away. "What?" she asked distractedly, giving him a doubtful look. He was asking what she'd been doing in Charlton. Briefly, she felt a moment of uncertainty as it occurred to her that this might be a test too - to see how she would respond. But honestly, she had no idea what the "correct" response would be. He was a stranger, so she was probably not supposed to reveal anything. But he'd shown her a form of identification and he wore a suit which told her that he was at least an A-5 and that he had personal permission from Eric Patten - an A-1 - to pass through locked gateways. Then she rubbed at her face, stifling a groan as she remembered that this couldn't be another test because the others she'd gone through hadn't been real in the first place.

Alright! Enough of this bullshit! She'd been burned, beaten, tied up, thrown in a trunk, deceived and she couldn't find the fucking drugs she needed! She was tired and hungry and just wanted to go to sleep for 3 days and she was done. She was just fucking done. "Whatever," she said dismissively, snorting in irritation. "Why the fuck do you care? You were so eager to leave, so why does it really matter what I was doing there? No. You know what I wanna fucking know? What the hell was happening back there?! Why were people attacking the base? What happened? Is the base okay?"

She was confused and she had a headache and she wasn't sure if she really cared about any of this. She supposed she did right now and she did have a lot invested in Charlton's fate before this guy dragged her away so abruptly. "If you don't know then I suggest you fucking find out because I'm not talking to you until I get some answers. Why were you leaving? What the hell is so important that you'd abandon Charlton while it was being attacked?"

***

She was going to die. No, not eventually. Not "soon". Right here and right now. To say that things with Stephanie had gotten worse would be an understatement. The woman continued to stare blankly, her mind sizzling with fantasies of deception, plots of betrayal surrounding her and a man behind the scenes working everyone as puppets. Stephanie's growing paranoia was really confusing Gwen because she didn't know who half of these people were or what they were really like and she had no way of reaching past the wall of static to find out anything from someone else. But that wasn't the part that made Gwen feel like she was dying.

Even though she was tired, every couple of minutes a shock of static would stab into Gwen's head, just enough to refresh the already sore parts of her cerebral cortex and keep her from sleeping comfortably. So, not only was she exhausted, her energy drained even more by the stress of being here in the hands of these people, but she was also suffering from a pulsing headache that never fully went away, constantly reinforced by Stephanie's rogue shield. And the best part of it was, Gwen didn't even think the woman had conscious control over it anymore and the "attacks" were just another symptom of the Agent's crumbling internal structure. With the irritating agony she was going through, Gwen really wished Stephanie would just fall apart completely already and stop dragging her fucking feet about it.

And just to exacerbate things, Gwen was no longer comfortably occupying Stephanie's mind anymore either. It was like they were stuck in a tiny room together and Stephanie's mental presence was inflating like a balloon, filling the space to bursting and squashing Gwen against the wall. There was no room to breathe and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep herself separated from the other woman. So, when Madeline began typing at her phone again, Stephanie zeroed in on it as yet another example of the traitor's plotting and Gwen had to struggle not to feel paranoid and hateful towards the woman too. Which frustrated her to no end because Madeline wasn't a threat to her - at least not in the way that Stephanie was threatened by her - and she was fighting against the feelings of suspicion and the desire to shut the woman down when it had nothing to fucking do with her! What had happened to her head?! By the time Stephanie finally went through with the transfer - and Gwen was really starting to lose the fighting spirit and hope against that as well - it wouldn't matter any more because, mentally, she and Stephanie would be the same fucking person!

Since Stephanie no longer knew that Gary existed, she hadn't even acknowledged the exchanges going on between Madeline and the poor minion - or whatever he was. He seriously seemed like nothing more than a portable punching bag for this high level Agent. So, the cell phone texting was the first activity from Madeline that Stephanie was willing to recognize since the last conversation they'd had and she was growing anxious about the meaning behind it as it pertained to their proximity to Elmira. Before she could act on these suspicions, however, Madeline spoke/shrieked, freezing both Stephanie and Gwen in place.

Charlton... The base they'd left behind and where Alex and Xander had been heading. And they'd been captured by the Agency. That was what she meant by 'taken' wasn't it? For several moments, Gwen didn't react, her whole being rejecting the news. It was impossible. Xander was indestructible and would not have allowed himself to be captured. He would have fought them all off! He would have... Silently, tears began to fall from her eyes as the full realization hit her, remembering the plan that Stephanie had outlined and the likelihood that Xander would be incapable of doing anything while in the midst of being transferred back into his body. And on top of that, he hadn't been in the best shape to begin with since they were last together. Oh, God! And Alex! She tried to shove the sorrow and guilt away, trying to tell herself that Xander was just a scumbag Agent who'd abandoned her, trying to blame him for everything. But she couldn't. She just fucking couldn't detach herself like that from either man. Whether she admitted to herself or not, she cared about what happened to them, and yes, that included Xander. And it was her fault they were probably no longer alive. If she'd been there... She was so stupid to just let herself be victimized by that idiot Rudy! She should have tried harder to escape the rat-faced bastard! Then maybe she could have done something to stop this!

Gwen was waiting, hanging onto every moment that Madeline typed at her phone, hoping for something more, some extra detail that would let her know what happened. Stephanie, however, was fully comforted after hearing just that little snippet, all of her thoughts suddenly revolving around Jason, confident that her partner had been the one to capture the target and subdue him - even though, logically that made no sense when comparing the information to what they knew in reality. There was no way that Jason would have survived another encounter with Xander and Gwen was sure of it. Against her will, filled with feelings that did not belong to her, she found herself celebrating and happy for Stephanie and her partner's supposed success - No no no no no! Stop it! Those feelings aren't yours! Not only had he surely redeemed himself enough to get a promotion and possibly get to keep his suit but it also meant that he was on his way to meet them now. Soon, the two of them would be together again and he would stand by and watch over her, protecting her from whatever "Bergmann" and "Master" had planned, while she finally got to transfer. On a deeper level, one where she was still in control of her own mind, Gwen started to plot revenge against Jason for what he'd done - even though she knew it was impossible for him to have done this - before she realized... there'd be no opportunity for it. This was the end of the trail and there was absolutely no one coming to save her now. The possibility that Alex would find out where she'd gone and come after her after he was freed from Xander's burden had still been open until a few moments ago. It was completely gone now. She was alone and Stephanie was going to have her transfer.

Gwen and Stephanie were so wrapped up in thought that they both flinched at Madeline's violent outburst, Gwen moreso because Stephanie hit her with another painful blast of static at that moment - it was just adding insult to injury now and she was really growing tired of it. Gwen had no clue what was going on with the other Agent or who exactly Madeline was angry at or why, but Stephanie's mind abounded with theories. All during this time, she'd assumed that Madeline was typing to either Master or Graninger or sending orders ahead of the helicopter, preparing for some sort of sabotage when they arrived in Elmira. So, of course, seeing Madeline so forcefully becoming irritated by the phone - and whoever she'd been talking to - it was seen as a triumph from Stephanie's point of view. Whatever plots they were spinning in their little conspiracy there were obviously disagreements from the members and thus weaknesses in the plan. Madeline didn't like whatever Lamarre or Master were doing or she was arguing with the grand puppeteer himself, Graninger, and Stephanie was delighted by this change in events, even as much as she was ridiculously suspicious of the other woman's display.

Madeline did not move to pick up the phone, leaving it where it was and turning to Stephanie with a deepening scowl on her face. "I HAVE TO BE HONEST WITH YOU ABOUT SOMETHING," she said, practically shouting it. Stephanie didn't outwardly react but was internally holding her breath for some sort of confession. "I WAS SENT HERE TO STOP YOU FROM TRANSFERRING." Oh. And there it was. "I WAS JUST GOING TO DELAY YOU UNTIL HE COULD GET HERE AND WE WERE GOING TO BRING A CASE AGAINST YOU AND REMOVE YOU FROM YOUR POSITION. I WAS ORIGINALLY FINE WITH THIS BECAUSE HE PROMISED TO GIVE ME STEWART BUT NOW... SEEING HOW MUCH YOU CARE ABOUT HER, I JUST CANNOT GO THROUGH WITH IT. I CAN'T TAKE THIS AWAY FROM YOU."

Gwen blinked. What? Was she for real? So... Stephanie's suspicions were right all along? And she was just... blatantly admitting to everything, and somehow convinced by Stephanie's obsession with Gwen to give up on these "secret plans"? This wasn't right... It didn't make any sense. Oh, and of course, amidst the still raging suspicions boiling in Stephanie's head she had the nerve to still feel smug about all of this. Of course Stephanie didn't believe her. It was just a typical ruse to get her to let her guard down or to in some way manipulate Stephanie for a better deal that she wasn't getting from the other side. How foolish of Madeline to think she'd fall for that. Yeah, right.

"I TRIED TO CHANGE HIS MIND," Madeline continued to shout. "BUT YOU KNOW HIM, MARCH. STUBBORN AND ARROGANT. I DID THE BEST I COULD BUT I FIGURED IF I PUSHED HIM ANY MORE HE MIGHT GET SUSPICIOUS AND TURN ON ME." Gwen could see that Stephanie was already positive that he had, knowing that the woman was ignorant for thinking she could do what little changing of the plans that she'd done without the puppeteer being alerted to which direction she was going to fall. "WHEN WE GET TO ELMIRA, WE'LL HAVE TO HURRY BUT CONTINUE TO BE CAUTIOUS. NO DOUBT HE MAY ALREADY KNOW I'VE SLIPPED IN MY LOYALTIES AND HE MAY HAVE SET PEOPLE UP TO TRY AND DELAY US UNTIL HE'S ABLE TO ARRIVE. I'LL HELP YOU ALL I CAN BUT IT PROBABLY MEANS MY CAREER WILL BE OVER ONCE GRANINGER REALIZES WHAT I'VE DONE. LUCKILY, HE CANNOT INTERRUPT THE TRANSFER ONCE IT'S IN PROGRESS WITHOUT PUTTING HIS OWN POSITION IN JEOPARDY, SO IF WE CAN GET YOU TO THAT POINT, WE'LL HAVE WON."

Gwen's expression neutralized and she slowly turned her head to look at Stephanie. Alright, even as Gwen felt her internal loyalties shifting in favor of Stephanie and her emotions, Gwen STILL knew that it was incredibly unlikely that her ex boyfriend had come back and was controlling everybody in an attempt to stop Stephanie from going through with the transfer. Sure, there might be stuff going on with whoever this Master was and the guy on Alex's case and Madeline was certainly here for a reason that hadn't been explained. But... come on! As soon as Gwen broke down the logic of the situation and realized that it was fake and that Madeline wasn't really saying any of those things, that's when she began to get scared. It wasn't just some sort of weird filter where Gwen heard Madeline say one thing and then knew from her Agent's mind that Stephanie had heard something else. Gwen was HEARING Madeline say these things. What was happening?!

At some point, without Gwen realizing it, Stephanie's mental presence had completely fallen apart, filling that internal room like some sort of doughy substance and enveloping Gwen's consciousness. She was being overwhelmed! She was fucking drowning in Stephanie! And now... she could no longer disentangle herself from the woman's delusions and hallucinations, being forced to experience them herself. Knowing what was going on and being okay with it, however, are two different things, and Gwen had to fight the panic rising within her as she realized 1. the phone that had been left on the floor was no longer there, yet Madeline never picked it up and 2. ..Gary was gone! For a while now, he'd failed to make any impact on Stephanie's attention, for some strange reason her psyche tried to cover him up and then eventually obliterate him completely. And Gwen had gotten used to the fact that when she looked through Stephanie's eyes, he no longer existed, but now that she no longer saw him either, she became increasingly distrustful of her surroundings. What else had Stephanie saw fit to erase? What had she added? More importantly, if Madeline wasn't talking about Stephanie's ex boyfriend, then what was she really saying? Was she even talking at all?

"I thank you, so much for finally coming clean about this," Stephanie said. "Even though I suspected as much all along. Because you're right. I do know Graninger, probably better than anyone else has ever known him. As much as it angers me that you were enough of an idiot for being manipulated by him--" Um, pot, meet kettle? "--I appreciate this example of good faith and I accept your offered assistance and companionship."

At the start of this, Stephanie's plan was to just pretend and play along with Madeline, because she didn't believe her for even a second, thinking that the other woman was trying some underhanded trick. So, she thought she'd try the same trick flipped onto the other Agent, ready and waiting with an attack of her own at the first sign of betrayal. But somewhere between "thank you" and "I accept" Stephanie fell for her own ruse, her paranoid plot falling back upon itself to reveal truth underneath. Gwen rolled her eyes and shook her head in a small, negative gesture, grappling with the urge to shake the delusional woman. Because now, in Stephanie's mind, she and Madeline were suddenly no longer enemies but practically best fucking friends, bonded over their shared abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the same man.

"Well," Stephanie said with a sigh and relaxing of her shoulders. "That's certainly a relief now. And do not worry, we will win this. He cannot take anything away from you if you actually do your job and help me through the transfer. Hopefully, when this is all over, you and I can become better acquainted. I am dying to know where you got that outfit." With a small annoyed huff and flinching from another sharp prickling of static, Gwen turned away from the suddenly girly conversation to look out the helicopter window. There were lights below in a sea of black, streets illuminated and small movements from cars here and there but nothing else of interest. How much farther to Elmira? How much longer was she going to have to sit through this? How much longer... did she have to live?

"That top looks absolutely fantastic on you," Stephanie was saying. There was a part of Gwen that wanted to slap the Agent and tell her to snap the fuck out of it but there was another part of her that realized this might be somewhat good for her. If Stephanie was busy engaging people in her own personal drama, lost in a world that was made up, then she might let her guard down easier and an opportunity for escape might present itself. Stephanie's shield was still strong and still very painful, but Stephanie herself was growing incredibly weak, the internal walls and gates that locked up her emotions and memories having broken open to let everything spill out into the forefront, mixing together in a soupy mess. Not to mention that physically, she was on her last leg of health. The internal chemicals were ripe for an explosion.

"It's been a while since I've gone clubbing," Stephanie said, and Gwen released a small sigh before sitting right in her seat again. Facing the interior of the cabin she froze in place, a harsh chill violently shooting through her body. Everything was normal and unchanged on Madeline's side of the helicopter. Except for her head. Madeline's head and face were no longer hers, suddenly replaced by the wavy, honeyed locks and rosebud lips of none other than Noel! Looking at the innocently cute features of the woman she watched die - who still wore Madeline's clothes by the way - Gwen began to quiver in her seat. Frantically, she looked out the window again only to be faced with a cityscape in overcast daylight, rain drizzling beyond the glass. Quickly looking back at Stephanie and Madeline, Gwen no longer recognized her surroundings. The interior cabin of the helicopter had become the inside of a white limousine, the seats and floor made of a plush material that could be fur or a fake equivalent. And every trace of the scowling dark haired Agent was gone, replaced entirely by Noel, now dressed in a silk blouse and skirt, similar to what she'd been wearing when Gwen first met her. Coquettishly, the young Agent smiled, flashing cute chipmunk teeth and looking every bit as alive and real as Madeline had just a few seconds ago.

Putting her hands on her face, Gwen rubbed her eyes deeply and ran her fingers through her hair, struggling to remain calm even though she felt like she was losing her mind. It was okay. It wasn't real and she knew it wasn't real. Even though Stephanie thought they were going to Grissom for a transfer and everything around her looked like the wrong city, Gwen was certain that eventually Stephanie would slip up her rabid attention and Gwen would be able to escape far enough to reach reality once again. Quickly, Gwen rejected the idea to try to jump out the door of the limousine, realizing that she should probably wait to launch any escape plans until they'd landed.

"Thank you, again, Noel, for being here with me and supporting me through this," Stephanie said in humbled gratitude.

"Oh, pish-posh. I wouldn't dream of missing it," Noel said in her courtly British accent, dismissing the sentiment with a small wave. "Hopefully, it won't take too long for the transfer to stick. Afterwards, lets rent a bitch-boy for the evening and give your new body a test run." Noel's eyebrows bounced mischievously and Stephanie giggled in prudish girlishness.

On second though, maybe Gwen should try and take her chances jumping out the door. Who knows? Maybe she could fly in Stephanie's reality.

***

Who packed a bag of golf clubs and an at-home hair salon set for their honeymoon? Seriously. And the car was just filled with this useless junk, enough to make Rudy's impressions rival each other between typical wealthy snobs and over-priced trailer trash. As if the Yugo itself didn't give him a clue in the first place. Driving had shifted things around and now, the travel pack that he'd brought with him when he switched from his Agency issued car, was down on the floor of the backseat underneath everything else in the stolen "wedding car". Kneeling in the driver's seat and leaning into the back searching for it, he shoved the other bags and useless garbage out of the way, struggling against gravity to keep them from toppling over again.

After a while of sitting and thinking to himself about what he wanted for his future, he realized with the pain in his body and how dangerous the woman was, there was never going to be another like Squiddie and he'd truly be an idiot to wait for someone else. Noel, the woman who'd spent years training his body to enjoy violence and pain, hadn't been even close to good enough to get such an instantaneous and intense reaction from him. Squiddie had done so with just a simple flick of her ankle, the amount of effort it took her to follow through with the action declaring in neon lighting and glitter signage, the strength hidden inside her. He wanted access to it - he fucking needed to experience more of it - but he needed to earn the right to it; to earn her respect. The only way he could do that was by showing her that he was serious about taking this relationship further. Sure, it was drastic, but the temptation of that much power inside a female body was too much. His mind simply could not physically handle the concept of willingly walking away from it or ignoring it and it was in every natural instinct and biological programming his body possessed. He needed to act.

After deciding upon this course of action - and when his body adapted to the current pain level, reducing it to something more tolerable - he'd gone in search of new clothes, the one's he'd been wearing having been stained and smelling of sex, which was totally inappropriate. As much as he wanted to walk around the base and flaunt the fact that he'd had intercourse recently, for all who smelled him to appreciate - Fuckin' recognize, bitches! - he decided it would be tacky to still be wearing the soiled uniform when he spoke to Squiddie again. So, he dressed himself in a white, Agency medic uniform that he found in the sick bay - the male version of the one that Miss Sexy Nurse had been wearing while locked with her lover in the infirmary closet. The pants actually fit him this time, starched with a professional crease down the middle of each leg, and were a bleached white with a dark gray stripe straight down the outsides from his hips to his ankles. The top part of the uniform was a long sleeved, bleach-white jacket, the bottom hem ending just above his knees but with a long slit in the middle, a zipper starting from his waist and going up to his throat - which he kept zippered closed because it looked cool. A dark gray Agency logo adorned his left breast with white, shiny shoes completing the arrangement. In short, he looked like a million bucks and it was oddly fitting for the mood he was in - not the medical status of the uniform but the pristine white color and complete lack of wrinkles.

With a squawk of triumph, Rudy finally pulled his bag free from the other crap that piled in the backseat, dragging it to the front of the car and setting it on the front passenger seat. Looking through the main part of the pack, he discarded the small binder of drugs he'd used to subdue Gwen Chubby Stewart, rifling through the rest of his shit searching for what he wanted. And as he did so, the sudden urge to sing burst in his heart and he willingly gave in, his voice coming out exaggeratedly deep as he poured himself into the impassioned tune. "Some-thing happens and I'm head over heeels, I never find out 'til I'mma head ovah hee-EE-eelsss!" Did Squiddie like music? What sort of music did she like, he wondered, and what was her era? Was she an '80's girl or a child of the '90's like him? These were important questions he needed to start asking if she was going to be his girlfriend.

Shuffling things around, Rudy caught sight of something and pulled it out, not what he was looking for, but he was still pleased to have found it. His vintage Han Solo action figure - 4" of plastic awesomeness, with fully articulated joints in the legs and arms, twistable abdomen and neck, and done up as a decent likeness of Harrison Ford for an '80's toy. It wasn't worth a lot of money because it was loose and out of it's original packaging, but he brought it with him during all of his missions. For moral support. "Hey, buddy! Long time no see! How about you hang out with me for a while?" and he slipped the figure into the pocket on the front of his jacket so that little Han's arms and bust were visible. Searching through some of the side pockets of his bag, he found his Magic deck. "Oooohhhh," he said in slow realization, pausing a moment in his search to look through them and make sure they were all there. So, Hoskins hadn't stolen them! What a relief! He didn't know what he would have done if he'd misplaced his killer Elemental Titans deck - it was his tournament winning deck and those cards cost a lot of fucking money, to boot!

These were fun discoveries and all but none of this was what he was looking for, dammit! He knew it was in here somewhere, because a week ago, following Ozzie's trail after she blew up that gas station and escaped from him yet again, he'd had an argument with Hoskins about a particular collector's item he said he had. Hoskins was the new kid on his team, set up as his personal driver and assistant after the other guy died in a... hyper beam related incident that he refused to remember the details about. So, he hadn't really known Rudy all too well and hadn't believed him when he'd told the scumbag that he was super fucking rich. Like, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark rich and that he had met a ton of celebrities and even owned a couple of props and costume items that had been used in a couple of the superhero movies that'd been made in recent years. So, in response, Rudy had pulled a couple of strings to have a bit of his collection sent to him while he was tracking Osono, to show that stupid low-ranked Agent and rub it in his face not only how wrong and stupid he was but also how utterly lame he was for not owning these really cool, awesome things. And it had certainly shut him up! Hah! ...Before he died and got shut up permanently.

Opening the zipper on what was probably the tenth pocket he'd gone through, Rudy let out a frustrated sigh that was suddenly cut off as his eyes set upon the object of his search. Gently, he removed it from it's pouch, holding it in his hand and remembering how fucking awesome it was. In fact, there was a sharp moment of possessiveness as he DID remember how cool it was and suddenly he was loathe to part with it. It was more than just a celebrity blessed item, it was the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy of his to don it while looking into a mirror and reciting the oath. And it was better than any of the other shit anybody else had because this was the actual fucking thing they'd used in the movie that was released earlier this summer.

After the swirling moment of obsession and panic subsided, he looked at it for a long time and realized how perfect it was. It was really precious to him, something that, under normal circumstances, he would probably cut his own balls off just to keep it, so that was just a really good reason he should give it to her, because it would surely be one of the most extreme gestures of love that he could express towards anybody ever. And it would look incredibly sexy on Squiddie. She deserved to have this part of his heart and once she put it on, it truly would be like she owned a piece of him. But it wouldn't feel like he was losing anything because she'd always be with him...

Closing his fist around it, he kissed his knuckles and tucked it away into the same pocket that Han occupied. "Keep it safe, buddy," he said as he slipped out of the driver's seat, leaving the car behind and heading back towards the stairs he'd used to get to the garage this time - for some reason, the elevator still wasn't working or it wasn't accepting his code or something weird. Walking up the stairwell, taking them 2 and then 3 steps at a time, another song burst forth from his throat, his voice echoing in melodic celebration. "Darlin', wanna have ya hear meh! I wanna have ya hear meh say-in'! No one needs you mooore than I! Neeeeed... yooooooooooooou...!"

Now to find Patten. Wherever he'd be, the masked siren who'd captured Rudy's heart was sure to be nearby.

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#, as written by Tartra
Sometimes, Jason wished he was a smartass. This trip would be a lot more entertaining. He could hear an empty space after what she’d said waiting for a clever reply. Actually, it wasn’t a half-bad question. She was dumb to think she’d get an answer when she’d held off on his about Eric, but she’d get a point for effort from him. That was it. This wasn’t a verbal sparring match. He’d say it was more… a shuffling force meeting an off-balance wall. Sparks could fly, but they were both too tired to manage any zingers tonight.

Oh. And he was above that. The word ‘professional’ hopped in his mind.

“No one is getting any news until the A-2 signs off,” he reminded her. Firm. Neutral. “If that won’t tide you over, call it what it was: me saving your life.” Better. That was a spark flying, right?

How the hell were other people doing this all the time? Eric always had something witty to say. Alexander was a dick, but even the run-ins with him had a quick bon mot to cap it. Did they write it down to memorize for later? Screw it, Jason was dealing with withdrawal. This was not the time for him to dance for the world’s amusement. He was ill.

Also, he was above that. Professional.

“Sir –”

Dammit, lady!” Hey, everyone: the stewardess was back. Just like before, she’d appeared from thin air. There were two ways for her to get to him: either coming from the plane’s nose or else from the tail. Why was she determined to use whichever he wasn’t paying attention to? “Yes? Can I help you?”

“I need to check your boarding pass.” She was smiling. That was not professional. “There’s been an update for it from Eric.”

“An update. Okay.” Jason reined his heart rate in. The woman was still smiling, so she obviously got a kick out of sneaking up on him. He guessed he’d better brace himself. Almost reflexively, he tightened his seatbelt. It wasn’t actually the same thing, but… no – you know what? Whatever. This seatbelt now equalled mental preparation. Why the hell not? “Wait, why? What update?”

“There’s been a lockdown at Elmira. I don’t have the details, but I’ve been assured it doesn’t concern you,” the stewardess said. “He says it’s a minor change to make sure his permission isn’t superseded by security protocol at a Nat. Lab. Pass, please.”

He unzipped his side pocket. Boarding pass, boarding pass… Right here. He unfolded it and tucked the other documents away. There was a slight growth to his calf from the bundle of papers inside that pouch, but it was on the outside and out of the way his stride. He simply didn’t like the look of it. His leg seemed wounded. Normally that wasn’t a problem or a detail worth noticing in any form, but he’d found himself being extra careful about his appearance in the last while. A small, stupid part of him – probably the one still soaked in Eric’s sunshine – giggled how it must have been about him trying to be best for his lead when he caught up. Another more serious section of his brain broke it down to the heightened threat of danger surrounding them. Charlton had been attacked and he was heading to a building meant to house Alexander’s new girlfriend. He’d appreciate not having his leg flash ‘weak spot’ to all of them. If he was being honest with himself, however, and as a professional, he was required to be, then he knew the main reason for it: that other suit. He hadn’t worked with one in forever.

… It felt nice.

Suits usually didn’t like each other. That was usually why they liked each other. Good God… He was letting himself admit it: what a relief being around somebody he knew he couldn’t impress. The freedom of understanding there was nothing he could do to ‘amaze’ her was overwhelming after five days of back breaking while he tried to endear himself to his now dead team and make sure his boss walked away respecting him – or, to update that, just make sure she walked away. Every Agency group had at least one core mantra they passed around. The suits took to theirs by instinct: everyone, on some level, was superior to everyone else. Sometimes they had to work to prove what triumphed over another, but putting him on a plane with her – practically a second him in a less advanced form – let Jason flash through the list like it’d been pre-made and he was only there to tick boxes. He was losing control of his gratitude. His face stayed professional, but this woman…

He gave her a once-over. Goggles versus no goggles. Was that a contest? She worked for Eric, but not in direct line of him. The thin flinches of her hands hadn’t escaped his eyes. He would have felt bad but she’d been trained in the risks, and it wasn’t his job to rub her shoulder as she met the aftermath of her decision. It was exactly what would have filled her mind if she’d seen him collapse earlier. Suits had a habit of ignoring what argued with the choices of their personal lives, but they’d swarm any sign of them being right. This called for that.

“She doesn’t have one,” Jason realized. “A boarding pass. She’s not supposed to be here.”

“I asked Eric if you could bring your friend,” the stewardess said. She was half-listening, more focused on marking his form with her pen. “He already knows. He keeps track of everything.”

Not ‘everything’. For an A-1, Eric let a lot of stuff slide. He was grateful for that too, because without it, he’d be back there still, but if Jason was turning this into a business rather than personal trip, he should have been ordered to stay behind no matter what kind of rant he’d been giving. At the very least, he should have been reprimanded in some way. Again – and he couldn’t say this enough – he wanted to be here, but now he trapped in thinking this was the last place he should have been allowed to go. And now Eric was ‘updating’ Jason’s boarding pass.

“Did he say what she was doing in town?”

“Mr. Patten’s told you everything you need to know.” Naturally. The stewardess gave the form back. “I apologize for the delay. We’ll be taking off shortly.”

“I hope so.” With the way his luck was going, there’d have to be one more setback before he missed his lead altogether. The sudden anxiety yawned at his feet and hugged him. Good to know the ‘I’m never going to see her again’ section was also sunshine-Eric-soaked. “Wait – ‘lockdown’? At Elmira?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Since when?”

She’d been about to walk to away. His question stopped her in her tracks. She turned back to him, quizzically.

“The alert’s been out for twenty minutes. You didn’t know?”

“No.” Something was wrong. An attack in Charlton, while awful, should not have triggered a response in a national lab. Charlton was remote and unimportant. Except… “Charlotte…” Would that have done it?

“It’s been internally attacked,” the stewardess went on. “Are you sure you didn’t hear?”

“What? No. I didn’t.”

“Interesting.”

So much for the smile. It’d evolved into a smirk. It looked like explaining something to a suit beat merely scaring one.

Charlotte was privileged information. For a fierce second, he almost stopped thinking. It was privileged information, Eric’s information, and on top of that, he wasn’t meant to have it. He’d eavesdropped on a private conversation and it was not his place to use what he’d heard – and could have easily misheard – in any speculation or in any form. The harm it could cause exceeded the privacy issues and stretched to a security breach, especially if he acted on it. And what if he did act on it? Eric would know. That the Agency would was far less concerning than that Eric, specifically, would. It was not his right to get involved.  

He was totally getting involved. He was just making sure he knew why it was wrong so he’d remember to think up an appropriate excuse after. Professional!

Charlotte: that was a name he’d never heard before. Well – ‘Charlotte Carter, the Agent’, because he’d obviously heard of just ‘Charlotte’. Eric’s conversation was like something out of a time warp, preserved and real even though the power of it should have faded. Jason didn’t know how long ago she’d been around. To be fair, though, he hadn’t known people with powers existed since last week. He was also willing to bet he wouldn’t find out anything new from the other suit, not because he didn’t think she wouldn’t have been told by her boss – but she wouldn’t’ve – but because the stasis cell had been red. Nobody talked about red cells. Alexander was allowed the exception because he hadn’t stopped being a problem. The others that’d been there were contained. Their absolute essence had been locked away. That, Jason understood. Those other three, whose names he’d forgotten because Eric hadn’t bothered putting serious focus on them, had been kept because super speed, super strength and… some other one – they were powers, and they were the bodies of captured targets. Their original bodies must have been destroyed long before they took off, otherwise the deserters would’ve been put back and the targets recycled. But Charlotte… Why keep her? She was pure memory. It wasn’t a target’s body, either. It was hers. What significance could it have?

Alright, so he knew the answer, but he was trying to work through this slowly. Other people on the plane had headaches and shaking his mind with theories was not going to ease the pain. Eric obviously wanted her around because she meant something to him. No, he was being serious. ‘Obviously’. He could guess the relation, but it might not have been appropriate. Anyway, it didn’t matter. What did was the A-1’s attention to it. Out of the four, hers was the one Eric touched. Jason fought with himself again to keep on this idea, because although the weight of how intimate that moment had been was hitting him a second time – and a third time in the middle of that thanks to the word choice of ‘intimate’ – and the privacy issues returned, he wanted an answer to a critical yes-or-no question: was the attack on Charlton enough to hit Eric personally? Because if it wasn’t, the attack was meaningless. There was nothing from Charlton to take, and it was too quiet to send a message through. But if it was, because of Charlotte, why have her there unprotected and so out of the light? Something was missing from the equation. There was nothing else in that building other than those four powers and eventually Elias. For the sake of his sanity, he wouldn’t list his reasons for why they couldn’t possibly have come for Elias, but there were a lot. So then what? Charlotte was such an oddity that it made her the most important. For the sake of argument, fine, Jason would pretend she wasn’t. It was still an unprotected base with ‘something else’ – it was Charlotte – worth fighting for. Where the hell was the security? Every Agency building had shields that he realized as far more useful than he’d given them credit for last week, but Charlton was old. Why chance it? Why wouldn’t Eric have her moved? He’d known there was something coming. Why wouldn’t Bergmann, out of a sense of diligence? There were inspections. That never came up?

Why would Bergmann want Charlotte anyway? She didn’t run a lab. What the hell was Charlotte doing in Charlton?

‘Internally’…?

“Wait – stop!” Why was he yelling? They weren’t in the air, but they were on a plane. How far did he think the stewardess would get? “Say that again, about the lockdown. It’s from an internal attack?”

His head had never been this divided. One ear had caught her word and let it simmer in his mind until his other ear slowed its work on ‘lockdown’. Now he could feel the shift as his thoughts turned to Elmira. It was not without the noted slide of his Charlton-tuned ear as it wrapped up ‘internal attack’ before stepping down from the height of his concentration. Was there a link? Vaguely, he went back to the notion of the missing variable in this madness. Pulling in ‘internal attack’ wasn’t an idle – oh, shit. Oh shit.

Elmira.

Internal attack.

Stephanie.

“Did you want to call him?”

‘Call him’? Call who? Call Eric? Maybe later, he’d come back to this and laugh at how ridiculously open-door the man operated. A-1s were supposed to be unreachable without a week of requests and applications to meet, and here was one of Eric’s people – an A-11 or an A-12 – casually inquiring as to whether Jason was ‘up for’ chatting with him, as if they were going to the movies and Eric’s name had come up as a last-minute invitation. Jason had already disrupted the rules with his budding Charlotte query. He couldn’t call now, not when the man was neck-deep in a war that might not have been over.

“No. No – it’s…” He wasn’t ending that with ‘okay’. It wasn’t okay. He was freaking out and his main goal was to reach her in time. His lead’s was… and after all she’d done to herself to reach it – “Gary.” Gary had a phone. His lead didn’t, but Gary did, and he stuck to it like glue. “I have to call my subordinate.”

There were lockdowns in place during transfer, Eric said. It was too early. It had to be. If they were in Elmira, they would’ve only started the preliminary scans, not the transfer. Did the scans count as part of the transfer? But if they were inside, Gary wouldn’t have reception for the call, so more than getting to talk to her, he had to make contact. ‘Internal attack’, ‘internal attack’, plus a fucking lockdown. When in hell had a different, bigger attack on an Agency lab become his best-case scenario?! Fucking dammit! This was exactly why he should have gone with her! He’d tried – he should be there now! Why wouldn’t this crappy plane fly?

“Dial 9 to call out,” the stewardess said, bringing the phone to him. It was on a cord, and the cord was barely long enough. He was about to tug on it but the stewardess stopped him. “You’ll rip it out of the wall.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. The woman nodded, then return to the other suit to tend to her. Did she want a glass of wine? It didn’t matter, because one was being poured for her. Jason brushed both of them off to hammer Gary’s number into the handset. Sometime during that, he got a glass of wine, too. “Gary? Gary –”

WHO IS THIS?

Not Gary not Gary not Gary.

“Agent Bergmann,” he coughed out in shock. “Wha – uh… What a nice supr–” She hung up. Jason stared  stupidly at the phone after that, still leaning forward slightly so it’d reach his ear. Okay. So… Gary stuck to his phone like cheap glue. That explained a number of things. Never mind, because the problem was now about calling again. His eagerness had taken a serious blow, but everything else held strong. Slower than before but exactly as determined, Jason dialed Gary’s number, now aware of and aggressively against the lack of a redial button. It was answered. “Agent Bergmann, this is Ja–”

YOU WANT THE DOG.

She’d shouted it disdainfully. Nice work, Gary. A friendship was born, and Jason didn’t think he’d meant that sarcastically. Bergmann was using his phone, so Gary must have been over the moon right now.

“Yes. The dog.” And Gary had earned himself a new nickname. ‘Fish’, ‘Gumdrop’, ‘Dewberry’ – this would join the collection through another commemorative shirt matched to the colours of what Bergmann was wearing the moment she’d first called him that. How did Diana survive a marriage to this man? But then she had her candle collection. “Could I –”

Uff!” Huh. That did sound dog-like, and Jason was going to make a blind leap and assume Bergmann had thrown the phone at his head. Yes, that was ordinarily how people handed Gary things. “Juh-huh?

“Gary!” He was relieved he’d made it through, but that was cut short by the knowledge that he was now in a conversation with the A-10. “What’s wrong with your mouth?”

Uh-huh Buh-muh –

“Stop.” That was all he had to hear. He’d call Gary and idiot and apologize to Bergmann after; he had to help his lead. Fortunately, Gary could speak Ancient Greek and Jason would understand. “Where are you? On the way?”

Yeah! We’re on Agent Bergmann’s helicopter! It’s so cool!

Thank God. Then the lockdown and internal attack were for and from someone else. She was still en route. He wasn’t sure how happy he could be by that before it became inappropriate – assuming the event in Elmira wasn’t a different Agent’s transfer and the internal attack warning had triggered it, then there was havoc in that other base and she was flying directly towards it – but there was hope. He had hope. It wasn’t over, and although he’d be cutting it close, unbearably and worse as the plane continued to sit on the runway, he could do this. And then…

He hadn’t thought that far yet. But he would. Eventually.

“What’s your ETA?”

No idea!” He sounded spunky about that. “It’s dark outside and I’ve never been there before.

“Are you planning to ask at some point?”

Oh! Right!” Come on, Gary. He was smart enough to be an A-10, but little things like that missed him? “Agent Bergmann? When are we landing?

Long story short, and it wound up being a long story, Jason heard Bergmann shriek, “WHEN WE LAND.

… So… um… you heard that?

“Yes.” Along with the rest of the abuse. “We’ll call it two hours.” The value was fully arbitrary, but saying it somehow gave him faith. “There’s a lockdown set in Elmira. It’s new. Can Bergmann get you through it?” That woman didn’t strike him as someone who played with her peers, but maybe she’d learned a way to be diplomatic despite that. There were only two types of people who could lift a lockdown on a building: an A-1 or the A-2 residing over it, otherwise specific and hard to get access had to be individually granted. Eric, as Jason looked over the modified boarding pass, had that specific access, but it wasn’t guaranteed for them. They were supposed to have been inside during the transfer-triggered lockdown, and on top of it, the access changed when a threat was present. “Is she going to be watching my lead’s transfer?”

Uhhhhh… I dunno,” Gary answered. “Stephanie and Madeline aren’t – like… quuuuuite on speaking terms. Well – like… to each other. Or – like… both ways.” What? "Hang on, dude. I’ll check.” That was another long story. “Nope. She isn’t watching it.

“But can she get you through the lockdown?” Except if Bergmann wasn’t watching, she’d be helping them from the kindness in her heart.

Jason, bro, I really don’t wanna keep asking her stuff,” Gary whimpered. “My head can’t take a lot more of this.

Who did he think he was talking to?

“Wow, head trauma from Madeline Bergmann,” Jason said. “You’re really lucky, Gary. You’ll get a Sorry card and flowers and she’ll probably sign your bandages.” So Gary asked again. This time, there was no story. There was a long, stiff silence instead. “… Gary?” He heard whispers. “Gary…?”

AGENT… WHOEVER YOU ARE,” came Bergmann. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE HAS BEEN A LOCKDOWN AND AN ATTACK?

His Charlton ear twitched excitedly. Other than pain, something from her voice was resonating. He’d handle it after. He put his goggles up to his eyes, and biting through the bile that rose in his throat, went immediately to the posted building statuses to find Elmira’s. Sure enough: “Agent Grace Li ordered a lockdown of the national laboratory.” He’d confirmed it. There was no listed reason, but the situation was clear. “Eric said –”

“'ERIC' SAID?

“Agent Patten said –” Shit. His first slip-up in years and it was with an A-2. “– it doesn’t concern us. Or that it doesn’t concern me.”

WHY WOULD IT?

Jason nearly let go of the phone. He steadied himself with a breath, however. Forget about surviving a marriage to Gary. How did someone last through employment for her?

“It required a change to my access pass,” he explained. “It was advanced to let me through. I’ll  be joining you and my lead before the transfer is underway.”

DURING A LOCKDOWN?

“If that’s what’s required.” The smoothness of those words hurt him. They’d been so simple to say all along. “I’m on board one of Agent Patten’s planes. We’ll be leaving soon.” She didn’t answer. “Agent Bergmann?” It was the noise of deep thought. Jason hesitated to say more, but he acted on the urge. “How is Agent March? Is she… prepared?” Sane?

I’LL MANAGE HER.

“But is she –”

She was gone. The phone droned lifelessly. And he had a death wish, because he called back.

“Agent Bergmann, I still need to speak with Agent Sanders,” he said, the instant she stopped screaming to take get air. “… Gary?”

I’m… gonna have – like… the biggest cast for her to autograph.” Well, at least Gary had the phone back. “What’s up?

“My lead,” Jason ordered. “How is she?”

They weren’t behind screens anymore. This was a verbal conversation, where every pause and every break in the flow couldn’t be hidden under the time it took to type or a trip to the bathroom. Gary’s head might have been whoozy from the punishments Bergmann must have been dealing out like candy, but the stretch of nothing Jason heard before the answer came gave him everything he needed to know. Like he’d been defeated, Jason’s eyes closed in exhaustion.

Ummmmm…” Gary continued dragging it out. “She’s – ummm… She’s good! She’s – uh… smiling.” And? “So she’s not – like… perfectly okay, maybe, ‘cause we had a teeny problem with her and Agent Bergmann not getting along, but – uh – don’t worry! Things are… better!

“Can I talk to her?”

Ummmmmmmmmmmm… you know, Jason,” Gary said, his voice getting progressively higher as he tragically tried to soften the truth, “I know you’re the boss and everything, but – like… I’m gonna say ‘no’ to that. She’s – like… unavailable. She’s – uh… in another meeting. With a friend.

Stewart, Jason realized. He didn’t have the right to interrupt that.

“Okay.” She was smiling. “I’m coming to Elmira. We’re still on the ground.”

Seriously?! You…! Dude! That’s huge! Stephanie’s gonna be so psyched to see you!

“If she sees me, which I can’t guarantee. I need you to be there for her if I’m not. Do whatever you can to keep her going, but keep her off those drugs. Eric says she’s strong enough to do this, but she’ll kill herself if she won’t stop leaning on them as a crutch.” Jason didn’t plan to whine like a girl over how ‘confused’ he was with what his lead expected, but he did regret not getting to this point sooner. Had he known they would’ve been so screwed up, he wouldn’t have had anything to lose in grabbing those vials from her hands. He didn’t even remember how many there had been. Three? Four? A minimum of four, and she’d taken two before she’d left. He was working on forgetting how it looked to see the light in her die as the chemicals set in through her blood, but it was his last picture of her. Its recency made it impossible to throw out, and unfortunately, most of his other memories had her grabbing his hair or raising her EDP shield. “Don’t waste time doing what she says. I’ll take responsibility for it, so as