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The Other Kind of Roommate

The Other Kind of Roommate

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There's been a lot of noise coming from Alex's apartment. He blames it on his roommate, the one nobody else can see. Someone's got to put a stop to it, and more than one person volunteered.

5,483 readers have visited The Other Kind of Roommate since Tartra created it.

Introduction

[[This roleplay first began here in 2010. After a short while, it was picked up and grown on a different site. Now, after three years of inspiration, energy and effort, TOKoR has come back to RPG, ready to shine as it has its well-deserved rest. Picking up in its place is its new characters and new twists on its new website: http://TheOtherKindofRoommate.com

This thread is closed to new authors, but the story is open to anyone's feedback. We're thrilled to hear your thoughts and happy to have your attention. Here's to three more years - or a well-deserved conclusion - on the new website, and all the action, romance, and wild rides we've come to love.]]






"Just shut up..."

Definitely. Xander was definitely going to listen if Alex asked for the seventh time. But at least he'd stopped trying to kill him. He'd worn himself out, what with all the exhausting ass-kicking taking its toll. But that only went so far. His voice was still going strong, the little bastard. He'd screamed for twelve hours, fourteen minutes and six or seven seconds - not that Alex had been counting or anything - and he still had enough breath to bitch at him for another three. Days, that was. Xander bitched for days. And for what? Coffee?

It's not just fucking coffee, you asshole. It's Starbucks. Alex's mistake. Again. The only fucking thing I ever ask you for, you cheap son of a bitch.

He'd seriously considered just handing himself in. Sure, the Agents had already more or less explained that getting the guy out would involve a saw, a drill, a chisel, his left temple and a grave, but it was starting to sound pretty good given the alternative.

I swear to God, the first chance I get, I'm grabbing a knife and stabbing you in the throat. You owe me.

Yeah, Alex owed him a coffee and a soul. They were in the mail, or something.

You think I won't wait? I can wait, you bastard - I can wait all fucking night.

Of course he could. Xander didn't sleep. Yet another surprise Alex had stumbled on.

I want my latte!

"Shut up," Alex said again.

The screaming started. At least the neighbours couldn't hear that.

His place was a mess. It usually was, but now it was dangerous to walk around. Glass was everywhere. Alex had told himself he should've never bought that mirror. Now there were shards of it stuck under his skin from when Xander had thrown his fist against it. He would've taken them out by now, except that his 'friend' was watching. Halfway through picking it out with tweezers, his hand would magically spasm, and then he'd have a field day trying to stitch his finger back on instead of just slapping a band-aid on it. That was fine. It barely hurt now. He was just worried about the mess.

The table? Smashed in two. Alex had landed on it with his hip. The chairs? Shattered. He'd been thrown against them, taking the blow with the exact center of his gut. The desk was gone, the shelves had cracked, the dresser was busted... He'd be picking splinters out of his clothes for weeks, if he was given that kind of privilege. Sometimes, it was easier to take a few pricks than try to dodge any of Xander's attacks.

You got lucky.

Alex agreed. There was a certain threshold of control Xander couldn't cross, and he'd made it halfway there simply trying to get back to Starbucks. That'd kept him from doing any permanent damage. It hadn't stopped him completely. Alex had overpowered him - it was his body anyway - it's shared - and, for some reason, he'd thought that was a good thing. He should've drawn it out, made sure the guy was too tired to take control of his arm and start beating him with it. He felt bruises along the side of his jaw. They were the least of his worries. His toe might've been broken.

Don't forget the bottles. There's bottles fuckin' everywhere.

If Alex drank, Xander went away. Or something. He shut up, at least. It was practically the only time he'd get any sleep, but he had to fight for that, too. Whatever it was that happened, Xander hated it. He'd struggle almost as fiercely as he did for his coffee if it meant getting away from any form of alcohol that could've been around. Naturally, he'd been getting better at it. Alex hadn't had a drop in days. It also meant he hadn't slept in days.

You wanna sleep?

Caffeine would keep him awake.

One thing, Xander spat. One fucking thing is all I'm asking for.

His jaw really did hurt. He must look terrible by now.

"Shut up, Xander."

He got up. His feet responded. That was a relief. That meant he didn't have to stab himself on the bottles that'd been smashed just to make his life more difficult. He hunched over what was left of the mirror, over the one piece that hadn't exploded when it'd been ripped from the wall and slammed to the ground. It worked, mostly. He had to keep turning his head if he wanted to see another part of it, but it worked. He counted that as a point for his side.

Alex's face was mostly intact. His head was roughly oval and the punches had been at the side pf it, so for the most part, he looked alive. There were circles under his eyes, though. His skin should've been darker, more olive. That probably had to do with the fact that he hadn't gone out since the Starbucks incident. He could barely remember what the sun looked like.

It's yellow, it's round -

"It's a figure of speech."

It's bullshit, is what it is.

Brown eyes, brown hair, cut short and kind'f choppy. He'd done it himself. He didn't trust Xander around barbers. Around anyone, frankly, but especially not people with shit that went snip-snip. It was fine. It was acceptable. He'd learned not to be picky about a lot of things anymore, especially not about how he looked. So long as he didn't come off as deranged, half-starved or completely insane, he was great. Plus, he was in good shape. Xander wanted to make sure whatever punch he threw hit hard, so Alex was on a very strict work-out schedule that, to this day, he'd never missed out on. That was the only thing Xander was good for, keeping him alive.

I'm taking this body once you're fuckin' out.

That meant Xander had to keep him away from the Agents. At a very early age, Alex had learned to run. As equally early, he'd found out about his special talent. Aside from the crazy demon in his head, he meant.

Someone's coming. About the noise. I'll scream.

"I'll make you coffee."

I don't want it.

"Just shut up. Please? For once."

Bitch, let's see you make me.

Alex's arms twitched again. Xander was still too tired. He could feel the little guy get even angrier and sink deeper into the back of his mind - or wherever he was - and sulk. Good. That was something that'd keep him quiet. He'd need the silence to come up with another excuse for why the sounds of the apocalypse had been streaming out of his apartment for the last hour and a half.

"Xander, I'm serious."

Xander didn't say anything.

The third and final thing Alex had learned when he was young: no answer was almost as horrible as getting one.

Fantastic. Just... fantastic.

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The Story So Far... Write a Post » as written by 2 authors

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Naturally, considering the current prickly status of their relationship, Osono expected Ben to be somewhat upset from being woken up in the particular way she'd chosen to do so. And she was prepared with a proud smirk on her face and a laugh as he sputtered angrily and gave her the most offended look she ever did see. What she did not expect, however, was for the dude to freaking smack himself in the face, twice. And despite how utterly bizarre it was to see the surprised/annoyed expression doubled each time it happened, she couldn't help the snickers that erupted from her chest in response. God, Ben was such a freak! But at least he was entertaining as hell.

The night had erased most of the bad feelings and tension that had built between them, but all of it had returned when she'd entered this room again. Watching him kick his own ass and get upset about it was just the thing she needed to erase that tension again and it worked wonders. She still hated him, but she was no longer loathe to be around him. What a great way to start the day!

Then he was hurrying off to the bathroom and she stayed put as instructed. But not without finding something with which to entertain herself while he was gone. The first thing she looked at was a hotel notepad he left behind on the couch, but she quickly lost interest in it when she saw nothing but dots. Nice doodle, freaking psycho, she thought to herself as she tossed it back where she'd found it.

She shook her head at her own thoughts, when something caught her eye. The other bag he'd been carrying, shoved against the foot of the couch discreetly. Checking to see if he was coming back yet, she crouched down next to it and started to gingerly go through it. There were a few women's clothes inside, but also what appeared to be Gwen's purse and she immediately picked it up and unzipped it.

Other than a conservative amount of junk she might need when going out, there wasn't much by way of personal effects. There was a wallet that had what she'd expect to see - no cash money, but a few membership cards for a clothing store or two and a bookstore, and identification cards which told her Gwen's last name - and a key ring with 4 different keys on it, and a small golden key chain of the word "LOVE" as decoration. Also amidst everything else, small things that gave her a little more insight into who Gwen was, there was a crumpled piece of paper as well.

She only had time to pick it up before she could hear Alex's footsteps shuffling in his odd limp back towards the room. Roughly, she shoved the purse back in the bag and stood while stuffing her hand into her pocket and attempting to stand where she'd been when he'd left. Her cigarette had been left unattended, stuck between her lips this whole time and a half an inch of ash had collected on the end of it. Carelessly, she flicked it onto the carpet and gave Ben an innocent look when he re-entered the room.

He came back over to the couch and started to inspect the little notepad he'd left in his spot and she started to relax again when he didn't seem to notice that she'd left Gwen's bag open. Even when he started to hum and murmur to himself again, she found she was starting to get used to it and waited for him to finish doing whatever - he appeared to be going back over his notes or something. As she watched him however, her eyes zeroed in on the odd little drawing on his neck and she was smirking quietly to herself again as smoke drifted from between her lips. She didn't understand his mental illness, but she was growing more and more fond of it by the minute - whatever made him do the shit that he kept doing to himself, it was keeping her in light spirits to say the least.

For the time being, she waited patiently and had her smoke, letting the nicotine fill her with it's bitter warmth, heating her lungs with every inhalation, but she let out a small sigh and stamped her foot in irritation as he once again left the room. Didn't he say they were leaving early or something?

"Why don't we ring up the room service and charge a few pay-per-view's, while we're at it?"

She was trying really hard not to be paranoid about him seemingly dragging his feet and she trying to be understanding, but there was an urgency in her bones that she could not explain. Mostly, she figured it had to do with a general ignorance of what they were even dealing with. All these years, Ozzie had only ever really dealt with these people on the outside and in public situations - usually in the form of a confrontation ending with several dead and her free as a bird. But...what happened when they caught someone? What were they doing to Gwen? Ben hadn't really explained what exactly the goals there Agent folks had except that they were after people with powers.

By the time he came back into the room, she'd finished her cigarette and had Gwen's bag slung over her shoulder. Ben could carry his own shit - she couldn't believe he'd made her do it last night! She would have been angrier at the time and tossed it back in his face if she hadn't suspected him of being a traitor. She didn't really know why, but holding Gwen's stuff made her feel better. These were things that were important to Gwen, stuff that even while running for her life, she'd hung onto. She would want them back when they found her and Ozzie was going to make sure she got it.

At the almost friendly tone Ben addressed her with, Ozzie quirked an eyebrow at him, but her eyes widened when he mentioned blowing stuff up. "Hell yeah!" she said with a sudden smile, her hand of it's own accord moving to make the sign of the horns as she grew excited at the prospect. "That's what I'm talkin' about! And Starbucks - it figures you'd have a few redeeming qualities, I suppose, but I wouldn't take you for one with good taste."

She was happy that he finally seemed ready to leave, but his mention of blowing things up made her pause. He meant her, didn't he? It wasn't something she could just do with a snap of her fingers and she didn't want to get there and be expected to perform the act and possibly screw things up because she couldn't. It was no longer hard admitting what her weaknesses, because she did trust him, but it wasn't something she normally talked about.

So, she waited until they'd proceeded to the elevator before she decided to speak up, playing idly with the strap of Gwen's bag. "One thing, before we go running into this. I...can't really blow things up. I mean I can, but the right stuff has to be present - I'm just a spark." She wasn't going to apologize for misleading him last night - at the time, she'd been fully entitled to bluff since he had been "the enemy", and besides, she thought it was kind of funny now.

She glanced at him as she stood beside him in the small space, and fiddled with the bag strap some more, her raspy voice slightly mumbled and forced when it came. "Sometimes...I'm attracted to chemicals and materials that are flammable and I can feel it when something is fire-resistant - like the suits worn by the guys who always come after me. Like...I love silk but I hate nylon and wool... I can smell things like lacquer, turpentine and phosphorous a mile away - not really a mile, but I kinda know when they're around... I can blow things up and have done so before - like, most recently, a gas station a few cities south of here - but I can't do it unless there's the right combustibles present. Mostly...I can just make and control fire..."

Ozzie shrugged. It was a bit uncomfortable having to explain it aloud to someone. She'd never told Rudy any of this and certainly none of the other random strangers she'd picked up along the way of running from place to place and the rest of the time...she was always alone. It was like telling him her bra size or something weird like that.

They were a few floors away from the ground level and she found herself once again wondering about whether or not Gwen was safe and when she spoke up again, her tone had become somber. "Are they going to hurt her? I mean...what do they do once they've caught someone...? What do they really want with people like her and I?" Her hand tightly grasped the strap of the bag on her shoulder, almost clinging to it as she waited for him to respond.

***

She hadn't slept for the whole rest of the plane ride. Not a wink. Mostly, she'd spent her time thinking about Gwen and trying to imagine what it would be like to finally get her hands on her - what would she say to her target after this long-distance and emotional dance they'd both endured? She almost wanted to congratulate her on keeping ahead for this long and making a problem where there hadn't previously been one, but that felt a little misplaced with Alexander's involvement.

Stephanie just knew she was going to cry when it finally happened, when she finally strapped her down. She would try her best to remain professional, but there was so much invested in this case, she knew she was going to get emotional about their reunion. Hopefully, things would be at a point where everyone would understand and forgive her for her sentimentality.

She also spent a bit of time thinking about Jason, even watched him sleep for a little while, secretly adoring the way he held his wine bottle loose in one hand and almost let it tip over and over, his wrist jerking it upright subconsciously when he felt the weight of it pulling down. But without him conscious, it was like a light had gone out and the feelings she'd been grappling with for most of the plane ride seemed to subside with his "absence".

When Eric stopped at the airport, as soon as she ascertained that they weren't in Charlton, she'd settled back in her seat and continued to quietly brood. Normally, she would have gotten mad and a bit impatient, maybe even put up a fuss about the stop, but it was tempered by the fact that Rudy would most likely not be in Charlton yet, and also she'd have to wait even more for the trip to Elmira. So, even though she abhorred doing so, since there wasn't a point in getting upset about it, she let it slide by without comment or protest.

Finally, when everyone was waking up in the cabin, Stephanie felt herself get wired again by the resurgence of consciousness that took over the atmosphere. But what really did it was Eric's sudden praise for her "private" talk with Jason. All at once, she felt herself bolstered anew by the A-1's attention. Especially when he mentioned "love". She supposed in a way that the way she felt about Gwen and the case itself could be classified as love, but in her mind, she'd assumed she was no longer capable of the emotion. All it took was to see a situation from someone else's perspective.

"I won't let the Agency down," she said duly before he was once again opening up his phone and talking away. Again a feeling of well-being and confidence filled her to hear what he said and she almost smiled a little bit to hear that Eric was so invested in Rudy's fate. Despite what she'd told Jason, a part of her had been worried about what the little twerp was planning - whatever it was, likely wouldn't turn out the way he wanted or even in a way that would benefit him, but it could still screw things up for her. She didn't have a lot of things to hide and she wasn't scared of her past coming to light, but mostly, she was worried that Rudy would do something stupid like bargain with her target's life in exchange for a free pass. The fact that Eric was stepping forward to personally deal with the guy, made her feel protected in a way.

An odd sound made her turn towards Jason before she realized it was the sound of him laughing - it was low and restrained but still it caught her attention and she stared openly for several long minutes waiting to see if he'd do it again. It had been a brief, yet beautiful sound and she was almost remorseful that she hadn't seen the smile that had probably gone along with it before it had disappeared from his face. Why did he have to torment her so?

Forget it. Focus. Gwen, remember Gwen. Just a little while longer. She was busy saying such over and over in her head when suddenly nausea hit her like someone grabbing her guts and wrenching them violently within her body. Quickly, without a word, she hurried to the restroom and shut the door behind her, barely making it to double over the appropriate receptacle before emptying the contents of her stomach. There wasn't much inside her except the short-bread cookies and the wine, and as the illness faded, she immediately blamed the alcohol for causing the reaction.

Standing at the sink and rinsing out her mouth, she tried not to look at the mirror which still buckled in the upper right hand corner from when Jason had been thrown against it. It was fine. She was fine. Splashing water over her face and dabbing it dry with a paper towel, she eventually let her eyes trail up to her reflection and surmised that she definitely looked worse than before. But she knew everything that was the cause - the obvious dark circles under eyes were a result of not sleeping, as was the slightly wearied look to her cheeks, and the new paleness was because she'd just violently lost her snack from a few hours ago. Even having an explanation for everything didn't make her feel better about the way she looked.

It was alright. She'd find the time to take a shower in Charlton and she'd just stay away from drinking from now on - no matter what Benoit or anybody else put in her hand. Having regained her composure and cleaned up, she proceeded back out and walked up to the galley where she knew the stewardess was hiding. Quietly, she demanded gum of some kind, and when she was handed a packet, she once again took her seat. She stoically chewed a few pieces of her newly acquired cinnamon flavored gum, the spicy sweetness burning her tongue and erasing the awful taste of bile.

***

On the road again and behind the wheel, Rudy whistled lightly to himself the dungeon songs from Super Mario World and tapped out the bass beat on the steering wheel with his hands. A new red and swelling bruise adorned his left cheek and after a few moments, he pulled out a small stopper made of tissue from his left nostril, sniffling experimentally to make sure the bleeding had stopped before tossing it away.

Gwen laid on her stomach in the backseat, practically hog-tied with her restraints and with a few new bruises and blood stains of her own. Duct tape was pulled over her mouth, almost wrapped all the way around to the back of her neck, and she rested her sore cheek against the leather seats, trying not to think about where they were going.

"That was completely unfair getting that biker involved," Rudy said in a disappointed tone of voice, sitting up in his seat to look at her in the rearview mirror. "Not that I was scared of him or anything. Also, I hope you realize that you totally got those guys killed trying to get them to help you. Not my fault. I explained all this to you last night - I have no problem with killing innocent people. If you put them in my way, you KNOW without a doubt now what will happen."

The scowl that had appeared on her face when he'd started speaking again, faded somewhat as she remembered what had happened at the hotel before they'd left. She'd tried to escape again. Rudy had drugged her while he'd slept for a few hours, but had allowed her to wake up this morning when the breakfast he'd ordered had arrived. Seeming to grow soft, he'd fed her a few things that he had been willing to share and even helped her drink orange juice when she got thirsty. And all the while, she'd frantically tried to think of a way to escape.

The idea hadn't come to her until he was busy lugging her forcibly down to the car, waiting until there was no one around before moving her through the lobby - which was more a section of hallways all converging at the front desk. In the parking garage, Gwen had been panicking trying to reach out to anyone who might help and lucky for her, there had been some rough looking guys who'd noticed Rudy toting her around like a sack of potatoes. At first, it seemed like none of them knew what to do until she called out to them with her special voice and spurred them into action. A struggle had resulted, and it seemed at first like the burly men had the upper hand, but it ended quickly with Rudy standing alone and holding the electric gun he was fond of using.

Even as disoriented as he was, they were still alone at that point so Rudy took a moment to "reprimand" her before taping her mouth shut and driving off. She'd lost her "speaking privileges" he'd said, as if he'd allowed her to speak at all before. Still, she felt incredibly guilty about getting those people killed. But she didn't know what else to do and desperation had taken over. Every moment she had to think about it, she remembered the visions in Nathan's head and she felt that deep, all-consuming hunger that had been inside Stephanie. She didn't want to die and she knew she was going to if she didn't do something.

"And after I gave you muffins," he said with a shake of his head and slapping the steering wheel.

Gwen was slumping into the leather once more not bothering to even reach out when she felt the phone in his pocket ring a few seconds before she heard the tone.

"Y'ello?" he said in his normal, cheerful, dorky tone as he opened the cell and put it up to his ear. "Oh? ...I bet he does. Yeah, yeah." Even without hearing the other side of the conversation, Gwen knew he'd hung up on the other person before they'd finished speaking. Keeping an eye on the road, Rudy dialed a number and put it up to his ear again and this time Gwen roused herself enough to listen in.

As soon as someone picked up, Rudy immediately started speaking, his voice running quick without losing his coherence and keeping his laid-back cool demeanor. "Hey, this is Quin. Now, I should have contacted you sooner than this about the recent turn of events, and it's probably not helping my case any, but believe me that I'm serious when I say, I've been a bit preoccupied lately. I know, I know, I've probably got an axe over my head right now, but just hear me out.

"It was an accident. I was in pursuit of my target and everything was fine - I was in the process of springing a trap on her, which under normal circumstances should have worked with how many men my partner tossed my way. But like she tends to do, Ozzie attached herself to some people and I had no freaking clue who they were. One minute, we were having dinner with this loser and his fat girlfriend and the next, they both start whipping out powers, like, 'Holy shit!'

"Have you read issue #234 of Teen Titans? When Terra becomes a part of the team and everything's cool until they find out she's working for Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke and it's like 'Oh, my God! No way!'? Anyways, it was kinda like that. And the dude freaking pulled a 'Batman' on me while I was trying to take a pee. I'm fairly discomfited about the homosexual overtones of the experience and I may or may not need counseling.

"And now I've been babysitting Bettsy, the empathic whale, and she tries to kill me every chance she gets - you'd think she doesn't want to be Agency property or something. It's weird. My assistant is fish food, I've got a freaking fractured skull, and I can't find my Magic cards anywhere - I was so sure they were in the glove box, but Hoskins probably moved them, the cheeky bastard, God rest his soul..."

Finally, Rudy took a breath to laugh and shrugged helplessly before saying in humored tones, "I gotta tell you, Sir. It's been a shitty fucking week."

Despite the defensive content of his conversation, Rudy was the perfect picture of calm, almost confident to the point of arrogance. Gwen still couldn't read any of his thoughts but when she reached through the phone to read who he was talking to, her body stiffened in alarm. Whoever was on the other line had as much of a mental "signature" as Vince Hoskins did this morning and his mind was a hole so much deeper than Stephanie had ever been able to conjure up.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Eric’s phone rang shortly after Jason’s lead had been sick. He’d almost moved as if to prove he was around to help – force of habit from the non-special cases he’d successfully completed – but the weight in his stomach kept him in his place. That, and he had to get helping her out of his mind. They were against each other. Still, he felt he should pretend to make an effort, if not out of professional courtesy, then just to keep her from realizing her stunts weren’t going to go work. The last thing he wanted was for her to change strategies. She might get lucky with the next one.

“Are you –”

“Be quiet.”

Jason’s mouth twitched at Frenchie’s intrusion. He was going ask what the problem was until he gleaned the reason. Benoit was looking at Eric, who hadn’t answered the call yet, and reclined as far as he was, he made it obvious there was nothing holding him back. The phone was neatly caught between his thumb and his index, trapped there, staring at its owner with a blank... fright, if it didn’t sound crazy to say. It was worried, unsure why the flashing screen wasn’t getting the alert across. It lit up faster, rang louder, doing everything in its small power to reach the man and growing panicked by the threat of failure. Eric still didn’t answer. If the phone was desperate, he was enjoying it, quietly holding a steady gaze Jason knew came with the same half-haunted smile he’d given when he’d first pulled rank to get Jean’s body. Until then, despite everything he’d seen, he wouldn’t have believed the A-1 when he explained he was dead. Now it was impossible to think otherwise, even if he forgot. The phone was shaking under the steel of it.

Inhale. It was soft and fluttery.

No, Jason wasn’t crazy. That phone was relieved to be put out of its misery. Now the only thing it had to do was stand back and work from the side. Whoever was on the other end, though, shouldn’t plan on anything as fun and inviting as Eric’s innocent “Helloooo?” outright lied. Benoit didn’t have to warn anyone – no one was talking. He could barely come to terms with knowing he didn’t have to hold his breath.

Or maybe he did.

Eric was either listening to someone who couldn’t shut the hell up or was holding off his response like he’d done to his toy. It came to the same end for the people in the plane: a stark discomfort settled over them. Whether it was for their personal safety or a subconscious guess at what that poor fool would soon run into – whatever it was drew ice through his spine – didn’t really matter. No one wanted to ask questions because no one wanted to know, but a sick curiosity pinned them down, or else they might’ve sought safety by leaving the man to talk to his friend alone.

Quin. Had to be. There was no one else it could’ve been. Somehow, it made the yawning peril much more real.

“Rudy,” Eric crooned, drawing out the name like a knife was slowly carving it. The morbid care gone into the note felt borderline psychotic, and he’d spoken so gently, like a man who thought too lowly of whoever he’d graced with conversation to bother being louder. Jason’s ears strained to hear what was said, and he was closer than anyone. “My name is Eric Patten. I’m level A-1 of the Agency to which you’ve confusingly been employed and I’m the man who owned the Agents you appear to have let die. I’m telling you this so you understand who it is you’ve been talking at. I’m your superior, Mr. Quin – your better, your greater, and your boss. Should I ever hear another word from you that would make a tear fall from my mother’s eye, I won’t wait for you to meet us at Charlton. I’ll find you that very moment, and after I take your jaw and remove it from your head, I will proceed to impale your body on the nearest stick my hands can reach.

Now, I’m not so cruel as to think you aren’t just jumpy. That’s all that was, right?” His voice still found room to hush, spiking up the dare to say he was wrong and letting the short lull after his question wave at a trap no one would possibly be stupid enough to walk into. “So. We’re going to try this again. I’m going to say ‘hello’ and you’re going to reply, ‘Hello, Mr. Patten’, and you’re going to do it in the voice of someone speaking to the gentleman who will otherwise come to kill you at his earliest convenience. It should be... I don’t know, something like humility. Modesty. Maybe slow and sleepy, but not so much that I drop off listening to you beg for me to spare you. That’s my favourite part.”

A light and a chime went on overhead. The chime saw its mistake immediately and dove back into the silence it’d destroyed, but the light, proud and perky, stayed put.

“We’re landing,” Benoit said. “Five minutes.”

He didn’t instantly die. Benoit had permission to talk when it was necessary. He even got a grin from Eric after it – a friendly one, the kind he’d been dishing out since he’d joined up. There was a flicker of hope that this showdown was over, but it smothered and drowned as the A-1 returned to his fairly one-sided conversation.

“We’re landing,” Eric told Quin. “I suggest you make it snappy.” He cleared his throat. A flood of warmth burst from nowhere and sent him into smiles and rainbows again. “Hello? Is this little Rudy Quin? How are ya, slugger? I heard you had some fun with Alexander – and caught Gwen! Nice! Now how about a recap on what the fuck happened down there?” And to the rest of them, Eric whispered, “I get to swear because I’m in charge. I love it. It’s great.” Then back to Quin. “Rudyyyy? Don’t hear ya talkin’ yet, pal.”

Frenchie had started relaxing. Jason took it as a sign to let go of the armrests.

* * *


“If you’re scared,” Alex said, “maybe you shouldn’t come. The one time you have something to do, you have to screw it up with ‘power limits’.”

She had no excuse. Gwen had her powers for two – three – days? She was allowed to have as many roadblocks as she wanted. Osono? She blew up a gas station and she couldn’t manage an office? And how many people had been in that place when she’d done it? What for? Someone was chasing her? Alright, he could see the reasoning in that. It still meant she’d destroyed probably a block and vaporized a family’s life. He knew a few people who’d worked at gas stations. It wasn’t always a one-of-a-hundred franchise. A lot of them were owned by people who scraped together the funds they’d oh God, just spare me. I’m so sick of you two squabbling.

“Just come on,” Alex told her, hauling his bag onto his shoulder and heading for the door. He thought about holding it open for her since it was one of those heavy types that swung shut the minute it was let go, but if she wasn’t fast enough to manage that waaaaaaah – mean ol’ Osono hit me in the face! How could she be so mean to me, after everything I’ve done for her?

Too late. He was in the hall. She was either behind him or – oh, she was.

“We’ll have to work around it,” Alex said, marching to the elevator. “If we’re lucky, we’ll just stumble on someone who has what we need, but if we’re not, we’ll...”

“Get some dynamite.”

“No – we won’t get dynamite, but –”

“Yes to dynamite.”

Alex pursed his lips for the moment he could manage it before it pulled into a wince. A few more of those, and his face would be permanently stuck that way.

It’d be an improvement, if you asked me.

“I didn’t.”

That’s not very nice.

“I’m not in a mood to be nice right now,” he spat. “Gwen is gone, we have to get to Charlton, we’re trying to hunt down buildings with addresses you aren’t even sure are right, my foot’s falling off and this is all your fault!” Osono’s and Xander’s. If he’d just stayed out of his brain to begin with, none of this would’ve happened.

Oh good sir, you wound me with your words. Try to remember the only reason I’m not wounding you with pain is ‘cause I might not have the energy to get your foot back after.

“If you’d shut up, maybe you could save a bit of strength.”

Also try to remember that I’m doing this as a favour for you. I’m not the pussy who can’t handle a bruise.

“You owe me this ‘favour’ because you’re the one who put that bruise there,” Alex snapped. “And my hand. And my face.

You’re so grumpy today, was his answer. Like – more than usual.

“I’m thrilled you took your head out of your ass long enough to clue in,” he said. “This is serious. You know how much is at stake.”

One, you’re almost shouting, so stop that. Two, she doesn’t know. How about filling her in?

Why? What for? What about that ‘trust level’ thing? If Xander wasn’t convinced she wasn’t an Agent, why fill her in on shit she probably already knew? He wasn’t playing that game.

“The Agents want to put one of their people into your brain so they can control your powers.” There. Was that so hard? “Also, that couch wasn’t comfy. Bad night means bad attitude.” Again.

“Don’t expect me to apologize.”

‘Course not. That’d be unrealistic. You just keep sulking and expecting things to magically get better ‘cause you’re sad. Geez – you almost have me wanting to break my rule and just tell her who I am. It sucks having her think I’m part of you.

What a tragically tragic tragedy.

“That’ll change soon.”

Not fast enough.

He got on the elevator with a furious storm brewing around him. He was surprised Xander hadn’t let go of his foot yet, especially with the endless opportunities he’d had that he’d’ve normally jumped at. It bothered him, even as he tried to vent by stabbing his thumb through the ground floor button. It didn’t work and now his thumb hurt, but at least it got some sense into him. He probably should explain what was going on. How much was another question. He didn’t know how far her sudden loyalty to Gwen was going to hold out in face of what the Agents did. She’d be walking into the lions’ den wearing a suit of meat and banging a drum. Still, better to find out now than when he had to depend on her.

“The people you keep calling ‘them’ are from an Agency. I know... bits and pieces about what the real organization is. They’ve got their fingers in a lot a different stuff – energy and pharmaceuticals, mostly, with some tech stuff they’re all about field testing. As for what they want and what they plan to do to you, they seem to think you and people like you have no control over your abilities. They you’re dangerous. Can’t imagine why, what with your sparkling record, but it got them to develop a way to put their people, trained Agents, into whoever’s body they can find. After that... I don’t know. I guess they live out their lives as us – as you – or just keep working to bring everyone else down.”

The elevator had hit the lobby. The doors swept open. Alex walked outside, torn between waiting for her to keep explaining and going out to check on the car. He wouldn’t mind taking it, but without a key, it was too much of a hassle to turn it on every few minutes. But a bus... Could they rent a car?

“Sir? Miss? Are you checking out?” A small-nosed blonde woman looked at them from the counter. She smiled politely with dimples in her cheeks. “I can help you here.”

Rent a car. It’d be less illegal and more convenient.

“I need a place to rent a car,” he said. “Something that’ll get me around and doesn’t use up too much gas.”

“We offer many cars suitable for a variety of needs,” the woman said, abnormally happy so early in the morning. “What do you plan on getting done today?”

“... Driving. Uh... a lot.”

“Ooookay.” She ducked under her counter and pulled out a binder of laminated pages. On them were lists of car models they had available. Where were they keeping these? The moon? “We have a range of comfortable choices.” She was flipping through the pages. “In terms of ‘affordable’, we have –” Alex’s finger landed on a name. “That’s an Audi, sir. The R8 is $1100 a day.”

Want it. Get it. Let’s bounce. And then his hand produced a credit card. I’m gonna drive the shit out of this thing.

“I’d rather you didn’t...”

“Sorry, sir?”

“Not you,” Alex said. “Just... Fine. Yeah. The Audi.” He pushed the card towards her. Three minutes ticked by, and then it – along with a pair of keys – were pushed back. “Thanks.”

“No problem, sir. Will that be all? Will you still be checking out?”

“Yeah. Just... Yeah.” His head hurt. He hadn’t gotten enough sleep. It was better than nothing, he supposed, but he might have to give inn to Xander’s crazy ideas and gave nothing but coffee for the day. He sighed at the notion, then turned to Osono. “I don’t know how much you want to know. I don’t know how much I should tell you. If you have a question... ask, I guess, but don’t get mad at me if it’s not something you want to hear.”

Audi Audi Audi Audi Audi Audi – we are gonna look so neat in front of Starbucks!

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Rudy didn't get easily rattled. It just wasn't something that came naturally to him and he had a wide, emotional buffer zone that kept him from even acknowledging such when it did happen. But as the man on the other line finally began to speak, Quin lost the cool grace that he normally had and felt himself swallow thickly as his breakfast threatened to make the trip back up his throat.

The original plan for this phone call was to exude confidence and familiarity and hope that the unexpected conduct would earn him some points with whoever he'd upset - he hadn't even been paying attention really when everybody kept saying he'd fucked up, so he'd kinda walked into a dark room with his eyes closed as far as knowing who he was talking to. He assumed whoever was in charge would understand the mistake and appreciate his honesty and that they'd be laughing together about it after a few minutes. Well, he was definitely paying attention now and scrambling frantically to come up with "plan B". And nobody was laughing.

A-1! A fucking A-1! Jesus! And oh, fucking God! Had he used a TT reference to describe the unexpected incident at the restaurant?? He was somewhat surprised that he hadn't been killed through the phone yet and prayed it was by the grace of whatever omnipotent being had his back enough to allow him a second chance to correct himself and not an elaborate ruse to draw out his torment.

His maddening pursuit of figuring out what to say next was abruptly halted as he felt an unfamiliar pressure within his skull, like a soft tugging on his brain. It was like someone watching and leering at him, making him paranoid except inside his head and immediately he stamped on the brakes, Gwen's body lunging forward and rolling off the seats to the floor in the back. As she landed with a hollow "umf!", whatever had been in his head instantly disappeared and he glared at her in the rearview mirror as he continued driving, reasserting the mental control he knew had kept her out until a second ago.

The phone was still up to his ear and he was startled as Eric prodded him for a response. "My bad--I mean..." he started hoarsely, pausing and shaking his head to clear it and taking a deep breath before continuing in a slower and much more wary tone, walking on eggshells as he frantically tried to think of a way to turn these events to his benefit. Or at least lead things to a conclusion that didn't end with him dead.

"Hello, Mr. Patten," he started again, almost saying the words as if he were asking a question - the questioning tone itself was more in the vein of searching for approval than anything else; was that right? Did he say it the way he was suppose to? - and the rest of the words that followed were hinted at with the same stops and starts as if waiting for some signal from Eric to show he liked what he was hearing before Rudy would move on to the next thing.

He figured it was safest to stay away from anything that hinted at familiarity - despite the tone of the superior Agent's questions - and he also decided to be as thorough as possible but keep it brief. "I caught up with my target in Elmira after following a trail of leads, where she was found boarding a bus to leave the city. By the time I came up to her, however, she was already with Gwen and Alexander, although at the time, I was not aware of who they were and they did not know I was an Agent - they used different names and there was no reason for me to believe that they possessed powers or were involved with the Agency in any way...

"Osono stayed with them, even when they got off the bus at Terreston, and seemed to make enough of a connection with them to accept an invitation to dinner. I tagged along of course, still undercover, but I lost contact with my partner almost as soon as we got off the bus. Luckily, I was able to send a signal to her when we reached the restaurant - a fancy French place that Alexander selected, called La Madeliene. Noel appropriated a small team of your men, without my prior knowledge, in hopes that the added levels of expertise would bolster the chances of success...

"It is not usual for Osono to make friends and she seemed to be warming up to both targets. I was worried that they might make trouble, so I sought to control the problem before it began and confronted Alexander in private with the plan to eliminate him. Right around that time, Noel's team of Agents arrived and began to engage Osono and Gwen back at the table. Also, not being prepared for it and not even realizing who Alexander was at the time - I've since been informed as much as I can be by Noel's personal knowledge of Agency lore - so I'm sorry to say I was overpowered and left for dead...

"Alexander joined the fray and along with Ozzie--I mean, Osono, they whittled down the numbers fairly quickly. There was a fire blocking them off and when I emerged from the washroom, Gwen was the only one I had access to. I became aware of her powers and decided to try and salvage what I could from the situation and took her with me when I left... "

Finally, the report came to a stop and Rudy waited nervously, briefly peering into the back to make sure Gwen was still alive - despite landing unceremoniously and swallowing her heart when she'd fallen, she was fine - and flip-flopped with hoping that he hadn't drawn out the report too long and worrying that he hadn't been thorough enough with the details of what had happened. Licking his lips rapidly, and realizing that the blackmail plot he'd had in store for Stephanie was no longer going to work - there wasn't going to be any jerking this guy around and casting any blame on anyone else right now would probably fall into the category of "words that would make a tear fall from his mother’s eye" - Rudy decided it wouldn't hurt to grovel and beg a little bit.

"I...had no clue at the time that I was even responsible for any Agents other than my own, even when Alexander's powers became apparent to me... It was just a mistake... I'm... I'm sorry, Mr. Patten... If I had known they were your men I would have taken the right precautions to make sure that nothing went wrong... As it is... it was a loss of communication and bad luck to encounter Alexander that was responsible for what occurred... it could have happened to anyone..." He paused. "Please...sir...Mr. Patten...have mercy..."

As she listened to the back and forth from her new position on the floor, Gwen blinked at the soft, pleading tone that had entered Rudy's voice near the end. The dynamic between the different ranks in the Agency was intriguing to watch - and "A-1"? What was that? Like, "President" or something? - and she didn't know whether to enjoy watching Rudy squirm or to worry herself about the man who was not a man on the other line. Even just hearing his voice, she didn't need to delve any deeper to know that Rudy asking for "mercy" was a lost cause. But she also knew that if she were in his place, she'd probably do and say anything to better her chances, especially if Eric Patten had the authority to make good on all his threats.

Even though the Agency car Rudy was driving was classier than most, the floor was still uncomfortable and the carpeting was not only stiff, with tightly packed fibers, but thin as well. Adjusting her position slightly, she contemplated reaching out for help with the other drivers on the road - even though her mouth was taped, she knew from her encounter with Osono that she didn't need to use her voice to put a suggestion in someone's head. But as soon as the thought occurred to her, she tossed it away with a sad wince, the images of the men from the hotel dying, flashing before her eyes. She'd forced her will upon innocent strangers to get them to blindly dive into a situation where they were severely impaired even compared with Rudy and she'd gotten them killed. It made her double guess the merits of even using it again. Without Alex and Xander here, though...it made her extremely vulnerable to just sit and wait...

***

Back in her seat, busily chewing away to distract herself from the emptiness and residual sickness that swayed in her stomach, Stephanie barely looked up when Eric's phone rang yet again. She did however glance in Jason's direction when he spoke up, obviously about to inquire after her well-being. She wasn't really sure how to feel about that... There was nothing particularly concerned about him asking her and normally, she would be irritated about him thinking her weak enough that he even needed to ask. And maybe it was because of their time together on this flight that was affecting the way she was feeling but...she read more into the almost asked question than was probably there.

Stephanie would have taken the moment to berate herself for her foolish flights of fancy, but luckily, Benoit cut the whole situation short and drew attention to Eric who still hadn't answered his phone. Remembering what he'd said about demoting Rudy a rank for every minute he didn't get in touch with him, she assumed he was doing it on purpose to get the guy to sweat a little. Or maybe he was just looking for an excuse to demote him? That seemed unlikely, considering his own rank; he didn't need more of a reason than what he already had to punish Rudy. So it was probably the former reason of getting Quin frantic before finally answering the phone.

Silence reigned for the next few minutes after that and she found herself internally rolling her eyes. Oh, yes...she remembered that about him. Rudy really liked to hear himself talk, often ranting and prating on about the most nonsensical crap, taking forever to get to the point. She'd been lucky in her conversation with him that he hadn't gone on forever, but despite herself, she sat tensely watching what Eric would say in response. For normal situations with those on his level, Rudy could get away with being an idiot who didn't know when to shut up. But as the silence wore on longer, she couldn't believe he'd be so foolish to do so with Eric.

As the A-1 Agent introduced himself in those low tones that made her strain to grasp onto, she knew right away that Rudy had indeed screwed up. The idiot probably hadn't even known who he'd been speaking to. The rest of Eric's conversation had her perched politely on the edge of her seat to even hear, but from what she could generally glean from the whole thing was that he was probably the most fantastic and utterly beautiful person she'd ever met.

Not beautiful in the traditional sense, but she wasn't even the object of his scorn or the threats he dealt with cold ease and it sent a shiver down her spine. That familiarity with violence and the power rippling off of him in waves was very magnetic and she enjoyed very much watching him work tearing someone down before smoothly shifting modes to a more relaxed state. The fact that Rudy was the target was just an added bonus that made her feel giddy and threatened to make her swoon in admiration.

Still...a small frown appeared on her lips to wonder what Rudy might have said to Eric and what he would say or do in what was probably now desperation. She worried about Gwen first and foremost. Would he hurt her? Had he hurt her already? Ever since her own phone conversation with Rudy and his mention of drugging Gwen, she'd imagined her target lying in a constant state of unconsciousness all the way to Charlton. It would be the most convenient plan of action to keep the target in such a state while transporting her. But Rudy wasn't a smart person...

Buckling her seatbelt, she prepared for their landing while still focusing intently on the conversation and anything that might be said about Gwen. Although another reason to physically hurt Rudy when he arrived in Charlton would be nice, the fact that Gwen was already so much a part of her made her anxious that he'd mistreated her in some way.

***

Was he fucking serious? Seriously? Just because she had powers didn't mean she was fucking invincible! And just because she felt obligated to share with him that she wasn't a bomb-factory didn't mean in any way that she had doubts about her involvement or that she didn't want to help! Well, screw him if she ever told him anything about herself ever again! You know what? Fine! She'd fucking deal with the problem - he didn't have to be burdened any further about what she did or didn't need!

Ozzie had to resist the urge to heat the room again, clenching her fist and grinding her teeth as he finished gathering his stuff, and helped the warmth threatening to overtake her subside by counting to ten. Do not burn Ben. Do not burn Ben. Do not consume Ben in a blaze of firey death... She could not comprehend what Gwen saw in this guy if he couldn't get over himself for even a few seconds.

She didn't really have anything to say to him - and if she did talk, she knew she was just going to start swearing and getting angrier and angrier until he ended up with his hair on fire - so she was silently following him into the hallway right on his heels and unperturbed that he didn't seem to want to wait for her. Adjusting Gwen's bag on her shoulder helped her stop imagining different ways to barbecue him though.

Ignoring his incomprehensible murmuring to himself kept getting harder and whatever conversation he was having was growing more intense by the minute. No longer did she find this cute or funny, so she tensed defensively when he finally addressed her enough to answer her question. She'd practically forgotten she'd even asked about that, with how mad he kept making her. They were like Body Snatchers then? ...She tried not to get unsettled when she realized the reason she even knew of that movie was because Rudy had told her about it - hmmm, maybe he'd been trying to hint at something...?

And Ben's quick little explanation for his bad behavior made her sneer at him. She'd fucking offered the bed to him and he'd said 'no' and now she was suppose to be understanding when he took it out on her? And "Do not expect him to apologize"??? Do. Not. Burn. Ben...

By the time they were on the elevator, she'd fully euthanized her murderous urges and had retreated back into a surly silence. Like she'd said before, they didn't need to be friends to do this - but damn it all if they couldn't be civil! It wouldn't bother her so much if she didn't own most of the guilt, so instead of letting his bad attitude roll off her back, she felt defensive with the way he kept treating her.

As he spoke up and explained further about these Agent people, she felt herself grow cold and a different tension enter her body. Not out of fear for herself, but for Gwen. So they were like Body Snatchers! Why wasn't he more worried? These people had Gwen and that meant they were probably putting someone in her head right now! Maybe he was worried... maybe that was why he was being such an asshole. It wasn't the bed or his foot that had him talking down to her every time he said something or kept him murmuring agitatedly to himself. It was because he was scared.

All at once, as they made it to the ground floor, even with her own worries about Gwen being in current danger, she found enough strength in her new realizations to not want to brutally kill Gwen's boyfriend anymore. Of course, he was stressed about whether they would even find her let alone make it in time to save her, and Ozzie was a convenient target to take it out on. Although she understood and it did make her feel better about things, she still thought he was being a super, big fat baby for dealing with his feelings in that way. Then again...considering how she'd been dealing with her own guilt by lashing back out at him, she wasn't much better in that regard.

Following him to the check-out counter, she waited nearby, watching as he first selected a car - an Audi! Sweet baby Jesus! - and passed his credit card across the counter without blinking an eye about the price. When he turned to her wearily with that offer of information, she smirked slightly.

"Me? Get mad you? Now you're really just making up stories, Penis-Neck," and despite herself, she actually laughed about that again. That new nickname was definitely a keeper. She could get through the rest of this without a problem and all she had to do was call him that and remind herself of the irreverent doodle he'd put on himself.

When she'd finally calmed down enough to speak clearly again, she clapped him heavily on the back in a rough gesture of camaraderie. "I don't know... If there's anything more indepth I need to know about Them that will help us deal with Them then fine, but the rest, I don't really wanna hear about it. Mostly, I just want to know where we're going and what the plan is for getting her out before a Body Snatcher takes her over."

She wasn't going to bring up the doubts she had about making it in time. No. They were going to get her back and she would be Gwen, the real Gwen. That was all there was to it. "Other than that... I guess I'd like to know your name. When I keep calling you 'Ben' it makes me feel like a dumbass." Not that she was likely to call him by it as much, when there were so many much more entertaining things to address him by.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
He shouldn’t have been eavesdropping. With Eric like this, the grating fear that he’d be set off into a monster hung thick in the centre of his throat. He couldn’t swallow without coughing on it, which was fine because his mouth had gone dry anyway. He didn’t know why he cared if he wasn’t being punished, but the man’s voice and his endless silence kept him from tearing his attention away. He was stuck giving it his whole focus, even as he felt the nose of the plane tip when they finally began their decent.

It was morning again. He’d left his window open because the night sky had offered no threat of daylight, but now the heat of the sun was on his legs. His lead’s and Benoit’s windows were open, too; Eric’s was not, and the shade around him seemed to suck the morning glow from the air. A dead circle of darkness lay around the A-1’s seat as he continued to... say nothing. Jason sat back and let the air tighten around his chest. His bottle was empty from last night’s binge, but enough drops were leftover to slosh against the front of the glass. The ground was more in focus, more centred in his view. It was too early in the landing for him to feel anxious, but the longer he waited for some definitive word that the ice in Eric’s voice had thawed, the more the stress would get to him. Worse than that, an impossible curiosity had filled his mind.

Here was a person who’d redefined what it meant to look on the sunny side of life. He might’ve had his quiet spat with Benoit at Elmira, but even then, there’d been an ease to it. Jason hadn’t felt a wrench of pain in his gut when the forms had been reoffered with a voice of stark authority, and as the too-white sheet brought out to strip him of his suit for good appeared, a quiet half-apology, half-‘my hands are tied’ came with it. There was none of that when he spoke to Rudy. He was the A-1 every Agent expected: cold, relentless, unforgiving and scraping for any excuse to tear his victim limb from limb. Whether it’d be metaphorical or otherwise didn’t matter. Quin was not getting out of this unscathed. Jason heard the steady breath as Eric readied his –

“Okay, I forgive you. But Rudy? I’m super serious about working hard from now on. Keep little Gwennie safe, or some adorable A-5’s gonna have his head mounted on my wall with the others. Cupcakes and sugar!” And then he hung up. The sun swam merrily around his head as he opened the window and smiled. “What a cute kid. You’ve gotta admire him for what he is.”

“He sounds like a pain,” Benoit muttered.

“Maybe,” Eric rolled out. “Then again, he has somebody captured. I don’t see Alex on this plane anywhere, unless he picked up ‘invisible, weightless and mute’ along with that eye thing.”

“Speaking of which,” Frenchie went on, “if you plan to take the girl to Elmira, I assume you also plan to leave me behind to handle Alexander.”

“Oh – no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Eric tut-tutted and shook his head. “That’s nowhere near what I want. See – I was thinking –” Benoit looked sick at the word. “Relax! This is a good idea!”

He was back to normal. It was as if Rudy had never called. The sting of his voice on the phone had faded and Jason was left wondering what was there to have been worried about. He felt stupid. Eric might have had his Agent-y moments, but everyone did. He was more like a teddy bear than anything.

... Right there, at that moment, he was more afraid of Eric than anyone he’d ever met.

A-1s weren’t normal. They didn’t count as people even if basic biology said they did. Every person on this plane was fully aware that an A-1 at his best was a psychopath at his worst, but somehow Eric had changed it for them. His smiles and delight had warped the view they should have kept clear: he was dangerous – more than any case, more than Alexander, maybe more than Jason’s target at her full potential. He had an unshakable grip on everyone around him and yet no one had noticed. He dug too deeply for them to argue. It took pulling rank over Benoit, throwing rules at Jason, and Quin could be brought in line just by scaring him shitless... Whatever chink in his lead’s armour she thought she’d hidden away was probably lit in neon to Eric’s eyes. But – still, Jason found himself shaking it off, because even if he was an A-1, he was Eric, and what happened on the phone was not the honed result of unnaturally honed manipulation. It was protocol. Pure protocol.

More rules. Jason would lie down on train tracks if there’d been a rule.

“I should hope you learned your lesson from the last time you had a ‘good idea’,” Benoit said. “I certainly did.”

“Right – don’t get your leg in the way of sharp sticks. Actually, I think that was on Sesame Street.”

“Yes. I saw that one. The letter was ‘A’ for ‘You’re an Asshole’,” Benoit told him. “Leave me behind. I can handle Alexander alone.”

Jason waited for it. The pieces were in place. It was obvious in a way he couldn’t believe he’d ignored. The set-up was there, and with the slightest touch, Eric could shatter the response and force it to go his way. He was in charge, after all. Why wouldn’t he act on it? Pulling rank again made –

“Alright, if you insist.”

Dammit!! That was the second time... But Jason wasn’t wrong about this. His senses were picking up and he was doing his own analysis. Eric was an A-1, A-1s were insane, so Eric was insane. Even if he didn’t act like it. Even if he hadn’t shown the slightest sign of erratic behaviour. No better and no worse than anyone on his level... If he was trying to keep whatever was inside of him tucked within his shadows, he was doing one hell of a good job.

“Sir?” Eric turned around. His face was relaxed in enjoyment. It was welcoming enough for Jason to finish asking. “Am I wrong in thinking you’re evil?”

He giggled. Jason was soothed by the sound until he cut it off with a frank, “No.”

“... You’re... you’re evil?”

“Hugely.”

Jason frowned. He tried again.

“Are you joking?”

“Nope. Evil? Me? You got it. Benny?”

“What.”

It seemed Frenchie couldn’t be bothered to play along right now.

“How evil am I?”

“As evil as you are annoying.”

“See?” Eric beamed. “Evil.”

That settled absolutely nothing. He believed him because Eric had no reason to lie – not to them, as long as they were his lackeys – but the honesty was overwhelming. He couldn’t trust it. A game was being played around them and knowing his place on the board wouldn’t help until he knew the man’s opponent. Something told him whoever it was would be just as deadly. Jason numbly picked at his suit’s sleeve. Then he held on tighter to the seat as the plane began to drop. It was ten minutes until they arrived in Charlton. One short drive later and they’d be at the lab.

“I’m confused again,” Jason said, his voice rising with each drop in altitude. “The plan keeps changing.”

“Because he keeps changing it,” Benoit said. “Listen up: when Quin arrives with your target, take her and go. I will be staying to neutralize Alexander. No matter what he says, that step stays as is.”

“That’s right,” Eric agreed.

“Prepare the system but do not begin until you hear from me. I will not have a botched transfer on my hands because someone refused to wait until Alexander was contained.” Frenchie kept his balance flawlessly intact while the plane descended. He turned gracefully to shoot a look at Jason’s lead. “I suggest you make yourself comfortable when you return to Elmira. You have a day to sit through before you can start. If, by that time, I have not made contact, panic.”

“But I’m sure it’ll be handled before then,” Eric said, “‘cause I’m gonna hang around to help!”

“No.”

“What? Why not?”

“No.”

“Benny – come on!”

“Try,” Benoit said. “See what happens.”

A long, whiny, agonizing moan flopped out of Eric’s mouth. He kept it up until Frenchie glared like he’d get up and slap the man across his face.

“I’d be such a benefit, Benoit! You’d do great having me around! Sure, you know ol’ Alex better than anyone, but Xander needs special handling that I’m historically and exclusively able to provide. Besides!” He tugged proudly at the collar of his jacket. “I’m a part of your team, aren’t I?”

Benoit had no immediate answer. His mouth curved into a faint smile, as if those words cut too deep to let him do anything but laugh. In a way that only an A-3 could manage, he looked away calmly, locked down his seething, and instantly began to smoke. He had a cloud wrapped around him in seconds.

“If you were part of my team, you would take the order to go to Elmira,” he said softly. “I can’t stop you. Do what you want.”

Eric didn’t have to pull rank. That dig had been enough to get the man to bend. So what else didn’t Eric need to do?

Underneath their feet, the wheels touched the runway.

* * *


Goin’ to the guh-raaaage! Gonna get an Awe-deeee! Gonna get –

“If you don’t stop singing, I’m throwing a fit in every Starbucks we find until you’re blacklisted,” Alex snapped.

...

“That’s better.”

Alex needed to concentrate. Osono’s question shouldn’t have been this hard to answer and the enormous time he was taking – two minutes so far! – had to have been putting her on edge. He got that feeling no matter what he told her, she was going to think he was lying, but anything was better than ‘Penis-Neck’. Dammit, Xander...

... guh-raage... duh-nuh-nuh nuh awe-deee...

“Shut up,” he spat. He timed it to his turn away from the counter, grabbing the keys and wrapping his fingers tightly around their teeth. “Thanks for the help. The garage is that way?”

“That’s right. There’s a line of signs that can point you in the right direction,” the woman behind the counter said. She smiled her plastic smile and then went back to work. Alex was glad to be rid of her.

He was still mulling over his response to her as he walked down the hall. He had the patience to wait for her this time, but with time bearing down on them – Xander was convinced they had room in their schedule for coffee, but Alex was feeling the pressure he’d missed out on when he’d demanded they sleep – he kept up a swift pace. His foot would hate him later, but it couldn’t get worse. He’d live. Hopefully. Was there a way to die from a broken foot?

“The plan...” He’d answer the easier stuff first. “The plan is to find an Agent. They have the codes we need to get into a lab where they should be taking Gwen. We go in there, we find her...” Find Xander’s body, get rid of him, make sure he didn’t immediately decide to sell them out. “I can’t hammer out the details until I see what we’re up against, but that’s the outline of it. First thing’s first: Agent. We have five addresses, we’re gonna go to them, we’re going to start a scene and that should send a clear enough message for them to check it out. That’s unless we run into one of them on the way.”

Has to be a high enough ranking one, though. The little ones aren’t always guaranteed access to the labs, just the crappy warehouse and office parties. A-9 and up is what we’re looking for.

“Yeah, but how hard could those be to find? We trip over them every other day,” he mumbled.

You’d be surprised how nowhere-to-be-seen they are when you actually need one. I imagine we’ll see plenty of A-12s and the rest of the Flunky Bunch long before we get a good one.

How long was this going to take?

We might get it on the first try if we’re really impressive. Hence the dynamite.

“We’re going to Charlton. That’s where the lab we need is located. With some luck, we get there before she does. We’ll be able to prepare that way. With more luck, while we’re preparing, we don’t get swarmed.” His back hurt. Why’d she have to hit him so hard? As if the fight he’d been unconscious for with the big hadn’t roughed him up enough... “Also, can you lay off on the ‘touching’ and the ‘punching’ and the overall... pain delivery? I’ve had a bad few days.”

Crutches. They should stop by a doctor’s.

Can’t. No time.

“If there’s time for Starbucks, there’s time to get crutches,” Alex whispered. The door to the rental lot swung open for them. “Now where’s this thing?”

... nuh-nuh-nuh –

Stop it. You’re giving me a headache.”

There, there, there! Oooh – it’s white! It looks so clean and pretty and fast! I love it. I want to marry it. Get me closer so it can have my babies.

It took longer for him to find it, but when he did, he was a little excited, too. He’d never driven a car like that without ruining it with paranoia. People were so quick to call the cops when their things went missing that no one was able to enjoy it. This would be interesting, except that interesting wasn’t his main concern. ‘Fast’ was the important part. He hobbled over to the driver’s side and blankly opened it up.

“... Alex.” If it’d been a bad idea, Xander would have said something. “My name’s Alex. Alexander – but... Alex is fine.”

Introducing himself always felt so odd. He’d given half his name away already. Offering up the four letters he had left struck him as losing a part of himself. He was exposed now. She didn’t know who he was but the fear was bubbling up anyway. He wouldn’t ask if she’d heard of him even if he wanted to; it’d be suspicious and the answer would be ‘no’. At least she wasn’t asking for a last name, too.

Get in! Get in, get in! I wanna drive!

With his bag in the back and Gwen’s soon to follow, Alex dropped heavily into the front seat.

“Where’s the first place we’re going to go?”

1447 Stokes Boulevard.

“... And...”

GPS! GPS!

GPS it was. He started the car and, over the excited squeal that rang throughout his mind, the quick chime of the dashboard surging to life greeted him. 1447... Stokes... There it was. Twenty minutes away, so not bad, even if it was in the other direction a bit.

“This won’t take long,” he said.

... Ahem.

“What?”

Alex’s hand reached for the GPS again.

Okay. Nevermind. First stop: Starbucks. Apparently.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
To say that Rudy felt some of the threat and overall malevolence from the man connected ear to ear with him, would be an understatement. It practically oozed through the phone dripping into his skull and had Quin sitting on pins and needles even while he tried to concentrate on the road he was still driving on. So, when Eric finally responded back to Rudy's long spiel and soul venting, the chipper tone in the other man's voice and abrupt disconnection felt like he'd crashed into a brick wall at 80 mph. Thoughts were swarming through his mind surrounding the man's last words to him and he couldn't believe the conversation was over. It was as much a relief as it was not.

"A-5? Waitaminute--Sir? Sir?" his voice was bordering on disrespectful as he shouted into the echo of the dial-tone. "FUCK!" And then the phone was no longer against his ear but flung out to clatter violently against the windshield where it stayed nestled on the dashboard quietly. "I fucking called you as soon as I could! It wasn't my fault! It was stupid, fucking Alexander!!!"

There was no question who Eric had been referring to when talking about an "adorable A-5" and what the implications were. The pompous ass! There hadn't been more than a minute between when he'd gotten the call from some "Lyddie" chick warning him about his time limit and when he'd phoned the guy. Although Eric had taken forever to answer, at the time, Rudy had let it roll off his back with the confidence that his conversation skills would smooth any and all threats over.

For almost 4 or 5 years, Rudy had been the Lead on Osono's case and an A-3 level Agent. And with how troublesome the pyromaniac metalhead was, it hadn't been easy to keep his position, let alone what it had taken to actually secure the spot for himself in the first place. Whereas others moved up the ranks in the Agency through hard-work and ingenuity, Rudy had done so by seducing the previous Lead on the case. His relationship with Noel went as far back as his first assignment as a lowly A-6 on her team, and ever since then, she'd done everything from covering his constant mistakes to pumping up his stats to justify an overly speedy promotion.

The most effort Rudy had ever put into keeping his position was allowing Noel to play "top" whenever she wanted to and whipping out the sexual contexts of their relationship whenever she was angry or stressed about his latest failure. Other than that, it had all been her doing. Never having filed a report for the case, Rudy was still the only living member of the team who had any idea what really happened on all the missions he'd led to take Osono down. And Noel was so dedicated to keeping her little boy toy, she willingly made up stories to fill in the blanks on records that would otherwise be damning and illuminate Quin as the incompetent fool that he was.

Even though there hadn't been a lot of effort involved, his position in the Agency had allowed him a certain amount of freedom, resources and power that he had grown well-accustomed to. Getting Osono was a side-option to be completed at the last minute, but the rest of the time, he enjoyed himself while still putting forth as little or as much effort to make it look like he was doing his job. He knew about Ozzie's hate-filled crush on him and that it would continue to keep her from killing him so long as he played the fool, so it was a win-win as far as staying on top went - and Noel had never questioned why Rudy remained the only constant, in fact growing jealous when she heard about Osono's deep-rooted feelings.

After the initial shock of his demotion passed, Rudy finally calmed down and let out a long, deep breath as he gripped the steering wheel. It was alright. It was going to be alright, he was still alive and could work his way back up again. At least that was the worst of his troubles now. Afterall, Mr. Patten had forgiven him for the mistake. Thinking positively once again, the usual haughty and geeky smile spread across his features and he laughed quietly to himself thinking that he'd gotten away pretty much Scott free once again. Well, almost...but he'd seriously thought the A-1 was going to kill him for a few seconds, so it was like he'd dodged a bullet "Matrix-style" in his opinion.

He glanced at the discarded phone and contemplated calling Noel for several minutes, but he suspected that she'd known all along who had his neck in a noose and had not told him - he'd fucking asked the bitch who she'd gotten the men from. And for that reason, he'd already thrown her away. It wouldn't be too hard to continue to manipulate her until he'd regained some semblance of control and then throw her under the bus later. He'd come up with something nice and crippling, just for her, and then take her position as the supervisor on Osono's case. When he was in charge, nobody could say "boo" to him. Ha!

Oh... that reminded him of the other thing Mr. Patten had said. He was suppose to "keep Gwen safe". Hm, maybe the little psychotic psychic was important to somebody afterall. Sitting up in his seat, Rudy peered into the rearview but couldn't see her. He had to glance back several times to get a good look at where she lay on the floor of the backseat.

"Hey, Porky," he said over his shoulder, while watching the road. "Did I shake ya up good? Funny little mind trick you tried to pull while I was talking to the bossman. Don't ever do it again."

This whole time, Gwen had been lying on the carpet trying to think while keeping an ear out for Rudy's reactions to the phone call he'd gotten. The other Agent's last words had not been what she'd expected from somebody like him - was "cupcakes and sugar" codeword for something or was Eric Patten just the gayest guy in the Agency, in addition to being a leader of some kind? - and she had no idea what A-5 or A-1 even meant. Alex might know. Xander would most definitely have an idea. At the thought of him, she once again stretched out as far as she could, straining her focus to find his mental signature, looking for that familiar pulse. It was like sitting in a boat out in the water and trying to see crabs walking on the seabed several hundred feet below. There were hints of things moving about but the actual ocean floor and the things on it were not even visible. He was too far away... She couldn't do it...

When Rudy addressed her, making another unnecessary jab at her weight - how long would he keep that up? Until he ran out of fat related names? - she turned slightly, on her side, to peer between the front seats to look in his general direction. He glanced back at her and saw fully for the first time what he'd done to her face and felt a sudden trickle of sweat coat the middle of his back through his shirt. He hadn't really thought about his abuse too hard when it had just been Stephanie he'd been delivering Gwen to - hell, he'd kinda let loose a little bit the two times Gwen had pissed him off, just to see the look on the woman's face when he finally dropped off her precious target. But now...the A-1 Agent was involved and he'd specifically asked for Rudy to keep her safe. Trying to predict Mr. Patten's reactions, he assumed he also meant keeping her safe from himself and he knew he couldn't deliver her looking like she was a hostage kept in somebody's basement for 3 days. That would be highly unprofessional and not fit into the 'working hard' criteria.

"Hey...how about we clean you up, huh?" he said, keeping an eye on the road but speaking loud enough so she knew he was addressing her. "If you promise not to make any other innocent people beat the shit out of me, forcing me to kill them, maybe we'll stop somewhere nice for lunch and get you in some new clothes or something."

Gwen blinked at that and shifted her lips under the duct tape that was starting to itch on her face. Was...was he being nice? She didn't know his reasons and she didn't want to know - although she suspected it had something to do with that phone call from his superior - but it was another opportunity. She knew that Rudy was currently going speeds that was bringing them closer to Charlton and that they'd probably make it there by late afternoon. Knowing what was waiting for her there, she had this one last chance to escape from his clutches. So far, her escape plans had been fueled by panic and desperation and they'd both failed. This time, she needed to be smart about it and ensure that if she was going to make another suggestion and enlist someone's help, that the risk to their life was smaller than the chance of success. But she also could not afford to wait until the opportunity passed her by. There was a fine line and she had to be sure the moment and the persons were right, otherwise, they'd be like flies on a windshield and more blood on her hands.

When he glanced back at her for an answer, she nodded and mumbled in agreement. Yes, she would be a good girl...

***

Taking the small piece of gum from her mouth, Stephanie very daintily placed the chewed chunk of rubber in it's wrapper and rolled it up neatly. The flavor had gotten bland and the tastelessness of it had been bothering her. But at least the taste it had been intended to cover up was completely gone now and every trace of her previous momentary illness was gone by the time Eric finally hung up on Rudy. At his statements, she almost snorted. Rudy? Cute and admirable? Only Eric, who saw everyone from such a high, cold perch could use terms like that and have it apply to the person he was talking about. Even when she'd sort of liked Rudy back in training, she still wouldn't have called him cute.

Airily, she listened to the current flow of conversation, making note of Benoit actually standing up to the A-1 for once, but her attention was fixated firmly in place at Jason's question. She had to hold back a long drawn out "aww" that threatened to escape her lips at not only the question itself but also her partner's reactions to Eric's response. Now THAT was cute! So innocent! Stephanie had never been the type of person to fawn or cuddle, but the urge to snatch him up and squeeze him tight was very real. He brought out the strangest emotions within her...

Truthfully, Stephanie did not consider things in such strict terms. In her personal opinion, Eric wasn't "evil", no matter what he said, but rather a man who saw what he wanted and had nothing holding him back from getting it. She had to admit, that as far as morals and decency went, there were very few things that Stephanie flinched at anymore and she'd tried just about everything. But there were still some things that tickled the emotional fiber within her and kept her restrained from action. These ideas and feelings held her back, whereas Eric had achieved true freedom from everything that would turn even the most hardcore Agent's stomachs. For that reason, she truly admired him, not only as a Leader and authority figure but also as a person. He was everything she'd, at one time in her life, hoped to be. Now she sought to achieve freedom in other ways...

As the plane shifted around her, she felt a burst of excitement fill her and a small smile came unbidden to her lips. It had less to do with the adrenaline of the plane's descent and more to do with their arrival in Charlton, what had become like a "Promised Land" for her. Even with needing to wait until Elmira to do her transfer and even with what Benoit was now saying they'd need to wait even longer while he got his shit together dealing with Alexander - none of it mattered. Charlton was where Gwen and her paths would converge and their destinies would twine inseparably together. Nothing could ruin her good mood barring Rudy showing up with nothing in hand.

As the plane touched down, she let out a conservative "Whoo!" and giggled a little, bouncing in her seat while watching the jet rush along the runway, progressively slowing down before coming to a complete stop. The Charlton airport was a tremendous relief to finally see and she cast a bright smile around to the others with her while unbuckling her seat belt.

"I'll be waiting eagerly for your signal, Benoit," she said, calmly but with an undercurrent of zealous energy. "You've been nothing but cooperative with my team on this case and I thank you greatly for everything. I also trust your judgment and agree, it would be best to wait until Alexander is no longer a threat before starting the transfer. The Devil knows, I don't want it to screw up either. And I'm almost certain, with Eric's help, you'll finally succeed in neutralizing your target."

She waited patiently, humming lightly to herself for first Eric and then Benoit to rise and proceed to the door of the plane before getting up as well and following them out, with Jason behind her. Standing at the top of the stairs that were pushed in front of the doorway, she breathed in deeply and let out a long sigh as a gentle morning breeze tossed a few strands of her light, golden hair about her face.

Turning back to look at Jason, she gave him a smile, her green eyes shining an emerald hue in the light of day and said excitedly, "She's almost here! I cannot wait!"

Near the bottom of the steps a limousine waited for them and a stony faced chauffeur dressed in black waited beside the rear door. At the bottom of the mobile stairwell, while Benoit and Eric proceeded to the car, Stephanie stopped suddenly and turned to Jason once again, her joy now dampened by a concerned look. Blocking his way down, she seemed to have forgotten the car and Gwen for the moment, fixated on this new worry. Seeing the car made her remember the promises and threats that had been made in the other vehicle.

Touching his arm gently, she looked over the suit he was wearing - sexy and slimming, she was just now realizing - and asked, "Are you going to be alright? The suit..."

This wasn't the time nor the place, she suddenly realized, once again becoming aware of the other two who were with them entering the car. Giving Jason one last, piercing green look, she turned and followed after the others, bending at the waist to slide into the stretched vehicle. There were two large seats in the back that faced forward, and a long three or four person seat along the one side, all covered in plush black leather, the car filled with the overpowering smell of it. Taking one of the seats along the side, Stephanie turned to Eric, suddenly intent.

"Are you still planning to kill Rudolph Quin?" she asked. "I do not mean to seem morbid or as if I'm overstepping personal boundaries, Sir, but... If you are, I would very much appreciate being there for it - if not an active participant in his leaving this world, then at least present to watch. If it's alright with you, Master."

Almost as soon as the word left her mouth, she knew it was wrong and a sharp blush filled her cheeks as she looked away. Oh fuck! Why would she call him that!? She hadn't called anyone that in years! Why now!? Gently, she smoothed a hand over her lap and cleared her throat, willing the heat to leave her face and trying to think of something to say in place of that to cover up her blunder - maybe he wouldn't notice? She could only hope that he wouldn't bring it up. God! She was such a moron!

"I'm sorry, if I seem a little scatter-brained at the moment..." she said hiding in her safe and secure monotone, keeping her eyes trained on the floor and then on her hands in her lap and then the windows. "I've been chasing Gwen for three days when I had originally expected to have her in my clutches within 5 hours of ordering her capture. When Rudy brings her... This will be the first time I've had real, face-to-face contact with her without needing to subdue her. I'm just a little excited..."

There, that was an explanation... sort of.

***

Osono didn't really expect him to take this long answering the questions she'd asked, but she supposed it might have to do with him not having all the chinks in the plan figured out yet. That was fine, she was willing to wait for his mind to work through it. Meanwhile, however, she had to think of herself. With only a few dollars left in her wallet, she needed to figure out a way to provide for herself so she wasn't stuck leeching off of the schizo. He may have had a cushy wallet, but she didn't want to add to the reasons why she wasn't an asset.

So, as they left the counter and proceeded towards the garage, Ozzie was busy looking over the few people they passed while still in the lobby, searching for a good mark. She found him when they entered the first hallways, a portly man in a business suit with a long overcoat with hems that dangled just over the ground. He glanced at Alex as he passed him first, but did not even seem to see Ozzie until she bumped heavily into the right side of his chest.

"Oh! sorry, dude! Ya alright?" she asked as he shook himself slightly and carried on as he'd been going, barely nodding in answer to her question and eager to leave her presence.

She watched him for a few seconds more before hurrying after Alex, just in time to hear him start detailing what the plan was. Find an Agent, huh? Seemed simple enough and she knew he'd wanted to find one before, but now she knew why. Of course, these guys were high-tech and classified enough to keep their "head quarters" locked up tight. Rubbing her hands together, she became eager to get started, now that she knew what they were suppose to be doing and that they had a definite place where they were supposed to be going.

As he elaborated even more, she started to search her memory for anything she knew about Charlton. Nope. Didn't ring any bells and she didn't think she'd ever been there before. Which was probably better for them, going someplace where she hadn't left behind a trail. Agents weren't likely to be the only ones to remember her in the cities she'd passed through.

When he warned her not to touch him or punch him anymore, she smiled and took her pack of cigarettes from her pocket. "Sure, thing, pussy," she said with a cig between her lips, quickly casting a glance around before starting an ember on the end of it just as they passed through the doors to the rental lot. Following him to the car when he found it, she blinked happily at the vehicle and ran a hand over the door before opening it and sliding in.

"Freaking Metal," she murmured around her cigarette as she petted the dashboard and felt at the seats before closing the door behind herself. The divider between the seats was complex and interesting and she spent a few moments opening it up and looking around in the small, empty compartments. Satisfied with her inspection, she turned and rolled down the window with a push of a button and flicked the ash off her cigarette outside before returning it to her mouth.

Ozzie waited until they'd left the lot behind before she dug into the wide sleeve of her army jacket and pulled out a tan leather pocket book. The wallet itself was long and rectangular, with a golden clasp on the front which she flipped open carelessly. Inside the long pocket for cash, she murmured appreciatively to find several high-marked bills. Quickly, she removed them and counted it out to be about $800, stacking them together straight in her hand before folding them and tucking them away in her pants pocket. Then she proceeded to look over the rest of the wallet, taking a moment to show Alex the photo of the guy fishing and muttering, "What a square. Nice shorts though, eh?"

The cards that lined the inner pocket were useless to her - a few bankcards that she didn't have the PINs for and several club and exclusive membership credit cards that they would never send the average Joe in the mail. When she grew bored with it, she tossed it flippantly out the window and blew a stream of smoke after it.

"So, 'Alex', huh?" she said with a smirk and crinkling her nose at him. "You couldn't come up with something more girly? Fine, whatever. If that's what you wanna be called. So long as you answer to it. As much as I'd like to scream 'dipshit' from across a room to get yer attention, I kinda have that reserved for generally everybody." She flicked her cigarette again and smiled meanly at him. "But 'Penis-Neck' is just special for you, I promise."

With that out of the way, she was now paying attention to the commands he'd been giving to the GPS and asked, "So, these places we're going to... What are they? Like...office buildings...headquarters? What? And sure, creating scenes. I got ya covered in that area." She could just start a really big fire and let it run loose and it was bound to grab somebody's attention. "Oh! But, I'll try not to melt anybody, since I know it hurts your feelings." She laughed lightly at that and turned on the radio, instantly searching out a heavy metal station and turning the volume up on a particularly brutal song.

"These speakers are the shit!" she yelled to him through the noise, bobbing her head lightly.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Nope. Never. Alex turned the noise off and then forced his hands to stay on the wheel before he tried to choke her.

“I’m glad you’re having fun, but I’m not kidding,” he said. “Nobody has to die if we do this right. These addresses are for office buildings and they’re supposed to be abandoned.”

By Agents. Who knows what’s there now?

He was ready for a fight if it came to that.

“If they aren’t and the worst happens,” he went on, “I have no problem turning you in if you get out of line. The cops might not believe me, but there’s one group who’ll be interested.”

‘Alex’ was a common name. She didn’t seem to think it was the truth, either. If the Agents caught her and asked who she’d been running with, she’d have no choice but to spit out ‘some guy calling himself Alex or Ben or something like that’. It wasn’t exactly hard evidence, and with his case buried as deeply as it was, he doubted it’d send out more than a vague memory let alone set off alarms. There was the chance the Frenchman would hear about it and put two and two together, but Alex was more worried about him hearing from Rudy than from anything Osono could say. But this was good. He had to play this part up. Yes, the thought of her gleefully burning anyone in her way churned his stomach, and it felt great to tell someone how sick they were for wanting to do it – and even better to have a response of guilt now and then instead of immortally smug pride – but I do it so well. He didn’t have to draw it out like this, though. He understood the reasons and what the desperate had to do when a gun was in their face, but so long as he kept her convinced the most she had to worry about was him running to the cops, he’d destroy any sense of a threat she’d gotten from him. Fantastic, because since she’d tagged along officially, he needed her to be as unafraid of him as possible. It’d throw her off-guard, make her underestimate him, and it set a clean way for him to blow up her mind if she went for that ‘final speech of how pathetic you are, Alex’ stunt the Agents were crazy about. That, and with her thinking he was too weak to do any heavy-lifting, she’d be running and he’d get to stay off his foot. The less danger he ran into, the less need Xander would have to get involved. It’d keep him focused on controlling the pain in his toes, and that was almost as important as getting Gwen back.

Almost, Xander put in. How much thought have you put into what’s happening after I get my body back?

“Huh?”

Great answer. Alex felt his fingers tingle. Drive faster, will you? The only reason I’m riding shotgun is ‘cause you won’t stop crying about the way I do it.

“I’d be more comfortable if you did things like recognize stop signs,” he replied. “What do you mean ‘after’?”

Where are you going to go?

“I’m going to get Gwen.”

Sure, sure. But the way I see it, we’ll be getting her back at roughly the same time. So what about after?

“... I’ll... do what I always did: hide until they give up and go home.”

Gwen’d be delighted to get sucked into that crap life. Hell – Sparky too, but she seems to be doing better at it than most people. I blame it on Rudy being half-retarded. A gun? I’m still pissed about that.

“I don’t think we should be discussing this when Gwen’s not here,” he mumbled. “She... might...”

Shit. Gwen probably had as much of an idea of what she’d do when this was done as he did. They’d made a mention of what would happen when Xander got his body back before, but it’d been under a different microscope: would it be another step in getting away or would they be unleashing something that’d drag them to their end? If he caught a whiff of the suspicion Alex let loose, and Alex knew he did, he didn’t say anything to call attention to it. Either he thought he’d explained himself enough already or he didn’t want to make anything worse. The uneasiness of trusting his answer and then trusting him when he was out of Alex’s head had been what’d stopped them from getting past this issue in the first place, because after that...

He’d never meant to run forever, but it’d been so easy with someone in his head doing the work that he hadn’t gotten around to making a permanent solution. And what was that supposed to be? If he killed the Frenchman, there’d be another Agent to take his place. Alright – maybe not. After all this time and manpower put in and failing to capture him, they might write him off if he took out his main attacker. But... if Xander was out, maybe they’d see him as a viable target again. Maybe they’d throw together a new team because he’d be practically defenceless. Six years and he’d hardly learned a damn thing – and he’d never asked before because until a few days ago, he’d been living under the full assumption he was simply insane. He couldn’t tell the guy to stay – he’d been straining at his leash for years – but maybe... if he hung around for a week or two or something... That didn’t sound so unreasonable to him.

Starbucks! Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks!

Yes. Starbucks. Mighty, mighty Starbucks.

“Okay, settle down.” He shot a wary frown at Osono. “Keep your eyes open for anyone after us. Don’t kill them. We’ll need them alive.” He wasn’t far from the door when he parked, and as he did and shut off the engine, he gave low sigh and a tired, “Let’s get this over with.”

* * *


Her smile might have been real, but it felt like she’d taken another swing at him, sticking it in his face like that. Did she want him to join in? No – she made her true purpose very clear soon after that. Despite it, he felt a little brighter, and that was out of the professional courtesy he’d maintained that insisted he come close to matching whatever his lead felt. It’d been hard with her constant blankness, but she’d been quickly showing more of herself lately, and she must’ve known it would’ve grown in him. That was why she immediately cut it down and asked him about his suit. And then she left, as if she’d only brought it up to make sure he hadn’t stopped thinking about how fucked he was going to be when he gave it back. Everything he’d worked for and everything he’d put into this...

Shut up. Stand straight. Everyone else was going to the limousine without a problem. Eric was almost skipping, so Jason wasn’t going to drag the spotlight over by dropping into any well-justified, thoroughly understandable moods.

His hands shook the second the word ‘suit’ came from her lips. She couldn’t let him live, could she? Not while there was entertainment left to be wrought out of him.

Or never mind. When he got into the limousine and quietly slunk into his new seat, legs tired and in need of a good stretch but otherwise prepared for the drive, it seemed like the fun was going to come from his lead instead. At the word ‘master’, his eyes widened and his eyebrow twitched in bewilderment. Benoit didn’t react much, save for getting a new cigarette since he’d already burned through his last one, but that might not have had to do with anything. Eric didn’t even notice, or if he did, his response was buried in his already blinding smile. He seemed to appreciate her interest in his work.

“You don’t have to explain,” he said. “I remember the first time I was about to transfer. And you’ve been working hard, Steph. Allow me to commend you on your tremendous contributions to the Agency. I don’t know if they ran you through the nitty-gritty of every promotional level, mostly because they’re infrequent beyond A-8, but it’s tradition to bump A-3s up to A-2s once they’ve successfully taken over. Who knows? Maybe you just being in the same room as her’ll be good enough for me to sign off.”

Benoit made a quiet noise. Jason thought it was a scoff at what’d been said, but when he turned his head away as if to remove himself from the conversation, a flickering smirk came over his face, lasting long enough to be seen before vanishing completely. He would’ve asked, but Jason didn’t know if he wanted the answer. And anyway, Eric wasn’t finished.

“As for Mr. Quin,” he went on, savouring the words and whatever thought was in his head to accompany them, “he’s definitely dead. I thought I’d be nice though, and wait until he brought Gwen in before I picked a method. It's normally a private affair, but... I think I can bend the rules this once. The more, the merrier! I like sharing my hobbies.”

“You never miss a chance.”

“Can’t help it,” Eric told Frenchie. “I wasn't kidding about that wall, and it’s in my best interest to have as many corpses around as possible. Y’never know when someone’s gonna pop up claiming they want revenge for... I don’t know. Whatever it is.”

Jason was curious.

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Every other day.” The man beamed brighter than the sun. Jason had to squint. “It’s not a good week until someone tries to kill me.”

“... Have they?”

It wasn’t a stupid question with powers like his. Eric nodded, thrilled.

“I walk in very proud circles, Jay-jay,” he replied. “If it’s not an old target who wants to take out his hate for Agents everywhere, it’s some other Agent who ‘disagrees with me’. Sure – I’ve been killed, loads of times. Don’t mind it, not if it’s quick, and there’s always something dead lying around, but you’ll notice I’m still here and they’re... not.”

“You play possum and wait for them to go,” Benoit said. “Then you kill them in their sleep.”

“In their bed,” Eric corrected. “I wake them up.”

“It amounts to the same thing.”

Eric cooed.

“Ever the advocate for a fair fight! That’s probably why Xander caught Alex in the first place. If I remember correctly, he drugged you that day.” The A-1 giggled. “Let’s be real. You couldn’t think to use a mirror before he did?”

“I refused to risk it,” Benoit said. “Alexander-the-guest was under the impression that killing one target only meant he wouldn’t have those powers. He was happy to take whatever came his way.”

“What a whore, huh? I love that crazy guy! You’ll love ‘im too, Steph. He’s nuts,” Eric said. “So! We should be there in about fifteen minutes. Anyone hungry or are you a ‘straight to work’ kind of crowd?”

“Stop wasting time,” Frenchie growled. “Get us to the lab.”

He said it without the slightest hint of irony.

* * *


Oh – gawwwwwd – this line is so looooong. Just let me get one of the little ones! I won’t do it hard.

What sort of parent brought a children’s soccer team to Starbucks? Xander hadn’t questioned the decision, just the timing. He, Alex and Osono were stuck behind a young couple, one businessman, and a grungy blonde mother with a rainbow of children nipping at her heels for caffeine. She seemed frazzled and exhausted by their yelling. Alex knew the feeling.

“You’re not kicking one.”

Dude. Look at their shoes. Those are cleats! I’m sure they get kicked worse all the time – they’re not gonna suddenly break ‘cause I nudge one in the knee and take his ass to the floor.

“I told you ‘no’,” Alex said, looking around the room. Everyone’s eyes were in their direction, but they were focused on the screaming, drooling, foaming kids dancing in the line. They wouldn’t stop jumping. They almost landed on his bad foot, but Xander, finally on his side, snatched it away before it got stomped on. That child had barely missed the brush of death. “Just... wait. They’ll probably only get those pretzel sticks. It’ll be one, fast order. Calm down.”

Or

“No.”

Okay – then – just... Just get one of them to look at you –

“You’re not mind frying a child,” he snapped. “Are you crazy?”

I’ll be doing everyone a favour. That bitch’s a booger away from cracking them in two anyway!

“Then you’ll let her do it and stop interfering,” he muttered sharply. “We should use this time to talk.”

In public?

“Nobody’s watching us.” And Osono had to be a little distracted by those monsters. Two of them were have a brawl across the floor. That’d nearly set Xander into a murderous rage right then and there – because how dare they sully the sanctity of Starbucks with their stupid fight if they weren’t even going to do the smart thing and make it to the death – but it’d gotten close enough to their new teammate that he was sure their ugly shorts had scraped over her boot. It was mesh and there were no buttons to leave a mark, but Xander was looking for excuses to shove one of them in a box and mail it to Elmira with ‘I have superpowers’ written on the front and it was starting to take root in Alex’s head, too. “What you said about having a plan for after you leave... That’s important. I think... well – I think we should talk about when that is.”

When we get to Charlton. Okay – seriously, this is why I hate kids! But he loved kids. I love babies, ‘cause they’re round and they make funny noises. I like toddlers ‘cause they look like drunkards who can’t walk. Anyone over the age of seven and under the age of seventeen should be put in a room and left there until they learn how to stop being so fucking bratty.

“Anyway,” Alex went on, “I want you to stay with us for a month.”

What for? After I’m back to being me?

“Yeah. I mean... it’s fine to ask what we have to do, because it’s obvious the answer is ‘get the Agents away from us,’” he said. “But you were one of them. If I’ve learned anything from the French guys who keep following us, it’s that there isn’t a whole lot of a life for them outside of work. What do you really have to go back to?”

Gee, thanks.

“I’m not trying to say you don’t have a life,” Alex said. “You probably wrestled bears or something but... if you’re not in a rush to get back to where you were, or you need some time to get used to being you again... why not stay for a month and show us how to get along without you?”

Unless he already knew what he’d be doing. Unless he really would go back to the Agency.

I’ll think about it. And as if he knew Alex was going to keep giving him reasons, he tacked on, Don’t worry about this now. And – please, kick one of them!

Another flawless change of the subject. Not quite subtle, but effective.

“I – argh!” That stupid bastard child had run over his good foot! If they weren’t on the field, why in hell didn’t they get back into their sneakers? He’d call it a safety hazard, but with the way everything was going, the woman at the centre of the pack might’ve told them to keep them on so they’d fall and she could leave them at the doctor’s. It was a horrible thought and he felt bad for not immediately taking it back, but this was unbearable. “Your coffee had better be worth it.”

It’s Starbucks.

Blah, blah, blah.

Alex needed direction. He’d take anything right now, even if it was to just cross it off his list of possible options. With that in mind, he turned around to face Osono, jerking away from one of the tiny demons racing past his waist. “So. You knew you were being chased, you knew Rudy was a creep... Were you going to put up with it forever? What was the goal?”

He’d had a hundred lives. Whenever the Agents chased him out of a city, he’d start up a new one in the next. The hard part was going to be keeping one life, because when he settled down and was safe, he didn’t plan on changing anything anymore. That already felt odd. He was incredibly removed from society. What was he even asking Xander for? No emotions meant no attachments. He’d never have to settle down if he didn’t want to. Alex was on his own with this one, then. It figured.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
When Eric spoke, Stephanie's eyes unwillingly drifted back up to focus upon him. It seemed disrespectful to look away from him while he was addressing her, as if she weren't giving him her full attention, and there was suddenly a very strong urge to give him every measure of reverence and obedience she could muster that hadn't been present when they'd been on the jet. She didn't understand it and the feeling was familiar, but at this particular moment, she was beyond the point of introspection and allowed her green eyes to latch back onto his face, giving him the appropriate amount of eye contact while he beamed gloriously at her.

There was a note of understanding in his voice that immediately set her at ease, melting away the mortification she'd suffered mere seconds before, but what really had her filled with comforting butterflies was his praise. She hadn't realized until that moment that his approval was something she had been looking for, but she definitely noticed it now. Again, the feeling was familiar, but she did not examine it closely, preferring to let it wash over her and striving to hear more praise for her coming from his lips. She wanted to be included in everything he thought was important.

Her eyes were shining so much at the prospect of being promoted and rewarded for achieving her long sought after goals, that she neither noticed the look that crossed Benoit's face, nor even considered the very real potential for her target to escape again once she had her hands on her. In her mind, right now, all that was running through the realm of possibilities was that this was it, the final leg of her arduous journey coming to a close with a new door waiting for her and ready to open at the end of the tunnel.

Stephanie wasn't too heavily invested in watching Rudy die, although it was something she knew without a doubt would bring her a great deal of pleasure. But mostly it was the combination of the identity of the victim and the fact that Eric would be the executioner that had her eager to witness it. The man was like a God when it came to dealing in death and the dreamy look in her green eyes deepened as he once again elaborated on his constant escape from the Fate that held the rest of them chained down to this Earth. And also, a small blush dusted her cheeks appreciatively when he mentioned "bending the rules" to allow her to be present to watch him deal Quin his last breath.

"Nothing will ever stop you..." her voice held just the tiniest bit of awe and it was reflected heavily in her expression as she looked at him. The moment passed quickly and with a blink her face closed again, but the look remained in a much more restrained form as she continued on. "I thank you for granting the opportunity to watch you work; just one more thing to look forward to today. As for...'Xander', is it? I must admit that I've been consumed and fixated on my own target through this to the exclusion of almost everything else." Almost. "With all the talk about him when I'd only heard rumors before entering the field, I am intrigued about the man who stole my little Gwendolyn's heart."

It was somewhat the truth. With everything else that had been occupying her attention through this pursuit of Stewart, a certain curiosity about Alexander had developed, especially with how fondly Eric and even Benoit seemed to talk about him. But even from the first moment she'd heard Gwen had left with him, she'd wanted to know why.

"I can reason it out and analyze her actions because of my personal knowledge about her - it makes the most sense that the trauma of her situation would push her closer to him, especially with his obvious familiarity in dealing with what she's going through. But from everything that has been said and has happened, I cannot help coming to the conclusion that there is something very specific and special about him in particular."

A soft smile came to her lips and she glanced at Benoit. "I am especially eager for the moment when you give me the call in Elmira. Not just for the obvious reason of allowing me to proceed to the next phase of this case, but also for the opportunity the event itself presents. The complete and utter collapse of the hope he is coming to save her, will be both heartbreaking and satisfying to watch as it finally descends upon her. Like the cherry on the top of a sundae, it will be a delicious start to the entire process."

Taking a break from fawning over Eric, she relaxed back in her seat then and glanced in Jason's direction. With the open nature of the inside of the car, there wasn't a lot she could get away with as far as physical contact. But her eyes wandered over him unabashedly, the green orbs filled with a sense of hunger and her lashes fluttering as she undressed him with a sweeping gaze, practically licking her lips as she did so. For several minutes, she silently entertained a fantasy of what it would be like to take him down in the luxurious vehicle, but eventually her vision cleared and she turned back to Eric.

Frowning briefly at Benoit, she looked fixedly at the superior Agent and said, "I agree. I'm very eager to get started. There's no need for further delays." The slight defensive and almost eager tone in her voice was like a rapidly moving undercurrent to the words themselves. Benoit was not going to win the award for being the most industrious, and although it sounded, with the offer he'd made, as if Eric wanted to stop for food, the positive connotations of the other option - them being a 'straight to work' crowd - was more emphasized with the way he'd said it.

The wine hadn't been very nice to her on the plane and her stomach seemed to still be in a temperamental mood, but logically, she knew stopping to get something to eat even when she didn't feel like doing so, was the smartest decision to keep herself working at optimal levels. However, the thought that Benoit, even growling disrespectfully as he had, would seem better and even more efficient than her made it impossible for her to back down. At this particular moment, impressing Eric was the most important thing in the world, and she'd cut off her own hand if it would put her in his favor.

***

Ozzie had of course, expected the music to go almost as soon as she'd started playing with the radio. She'd merely been pushing buttons and checking things out, enjoying the car in her own experimental way anyways. So, she didn't protest when Alex turned it off, and instead turned to open the glove compartment which was empty, as expected. She was somewhat distracted continuing to inspect what the other buttons did - she didn't touch the GPS for obvious reasons - but her attention zoomed back onto him when he mentioned turning her in.

That hadn't been something she'd thought about. The threat from Alex was no big deal and she didn't care what he'd try to do to exact control over her - she was much stronger than him in every way, especially with his gimpy foot - except when it regarded actually staying with him. She'd do the bare minimum to keep him happy and obey his "rules" just so she could continue to use his help in rescuing Gwen. She'd done just fine keeping ahead of Them and everyone else all these years, to the point where she considered the menacing group to be a bunch of idiots - in her mind, They'd gotten "lucky" stealing Gwen away just because there hadn't been anyone there to protect the other woman - and in his current condition, Alex would need her help as well. So, she wasn't too scared about him suddenly turning the tables on her. She'd deal with the problem just like she did every other thing - set them all on fucking fire.

Nodding at his instruction to keep an eye out for Agents, she nodded silently and exited the car, taking several deep sucking puffs on her dwindling cigarette, before regretfully tossing it to the pavement and crushing it underfoot. However, by the time they were in the queue from Hell, she'd forgotten all about that in place of focusing on the snot-faced demon-spawn that stood between them and coffee.

Osono didn't endorse conformity, and the past several years living out of motels and gas stations, taking what she needed from others, was certainly proof of that. But Starbucks was different, she reasoned. On a whim a few years ago, back when she'd been a normal member of society with an apartment and a job, she'd tried the place out, after going through a phase of active rebellion against it. Ever since then, she'd fallen in love with the place, and it was the only time she willingly followed the enmass zombified crowd that lurched into line every day without feeling like a sell-out.

A deep sneer curled her lip as she watched the little hellions run around, particularly focused on a pair that wrestled at her feet, and her fist tightened on the strap of Gwen's bag still slung over her shoulder. The only thing keeping her from heating the place up or starting any fires was the fact that it would be a violation of the heavenly place to fill it with the smell of burning flesh. She just couldn't allow that, so instead suffered in silence, glaring at the wild bunch of little psychos while alternatively casting murderous glances at the woman in charge of them.

She was only distracted from them when Alex turned to her with his questions and she glanced at him before thinking it over. "Goal? What do you want me to say? That in the back of my head, there was a distant hope that he'd turn out to be alright one day and that it'd be over, I'd be free and we could settled down, possibly start a goofy folk band together?" She shook her head and gave him a crooked grin that wasn't happy.

"I don't know. There wasn't a goal. Everytime he left, I swore, the next time I saw him, I'd just be done with it and cut off his head - and yes, alright? I knew he was connected with them constantly showing up, but I wasn't sure if he preceded them or if he called them to me and I didn't want to risk losing him as a possible 'alarm system'."

That wasn't much of an excuse and with the possibility of him actually being responsible for all of the attacks on her, it would have been much easier to just kill him, just in case. "I can't kill him." Ozzie didn't look at him while she said it, preferring to return to glaring at the still fighting brats on the floor. It was a hard thing to admit and she didn't know how to explain it - this was her life they were talking about and she'd basically shot herself in the foot over and over with this one, unexplainable weakness.

"I just can't. There hasn't been anyone but me to look after in years and other than the occasional company Rudy provided, I've been basically alone. No, there wasn't a plan or a 'goal' and there still isn't. After we save Gwen, I'll leave you guys to live happily ever after or what-the-fuck-ever and go back to what was happening before. Being on my own and worrying only about me."

While she'd been speaking, she seemed to grow more and more agitated, but it wasn't the conversation that was doing it to her. Suddenly, she turned her dark eyes to him and whispered in a harsh voice, "I'm sorry, I just can't fucking take this bullshit anymore. These little bastards are ruining my Starbucks experience!"

Turning from Alex, she stepped forward and turned the woman ahead of them around forcibly by the shoulder. "Hey, lady! If you don't wake the hell up and control your brood, I'm going to do it for you!"

"Excuse me?" the woman asked in obvious defensive irritation.

"You're not excused! You need to round these little shit heads up and quiet them down or get the hell out of here. I doubt the fuckers NEED anything they have on the menu here, at least not anymore than what you've already given them."

The woman snorted and rolled her eyes, already discarding Osono from thought. "You need to mind your own business, alright?"

As she started to turn away from her, Osono gritted her teeth and grabbed her by the shirt, turning her back to face her. "And you need to fucking listen to me before I get fucking serious. I'm not playing around."

"Are you threatening me?"

Ozzie wanted to slap the woman but she held back and gave her a restrained response. "Does the term 'deep fried kidlet' mean anything to you?"

***

When Rudy had said they'd stop at someplace "nice" for lunch, Gwen hadn't thought of the truck stop diner that he ended up pulling into. This particular side of the highway they'd been on was filled with large semis hauling their wares across the country, and they were the majority of the vehicles situated in the parking lot. Since it was around noonish, the truck stop was particularly busy and Rudy had needed to get aggressive while driving to secure them a spot near the side of the establishment. As a result, he hadn't made any friends with his fellow drivers, but just as he'd seemed oblivious to Osono's hatred of him, he whistled happily to himself and ignored the enraged gestures and horns blared in his direction.

Parking near the bathrooms along the side of the long building - which was both a diner and a gas station mini mart combo - he forcibly dragged Gwen into the unisex bathroom, locking the door from the outside before leaving her. Lying helplessly tied and gagged on the dirty floor, Gwen only had to wait a few minutes before he returned with a new shirt he'd bought from the mart. The red one she was wearing and had gotten while with Alex was torn and stained with droplets of blood from a nice little nosebleed Rudy had given her earlier that morning.

At first, Gwen was scared that he was going to dress her - and as a result, touch her while she would be half-naked - but, he took off the bracelets locking her arms around her back and tossed the shirt at her. "Change," he said simply, standing back and keeping an eye on her as she did so. Despite being somewhat shy under his eyes, he seemed completely incapable of seeing her as a sexual object and watched her with the minimal amount of interest and wariness that he'd probably give a man.

Several minutes later, Gwen sat across from him in a booth in the diner, wearing a cotton candy pink shirt that barely fit, with "Flirt" scrawled in glittered lettering across her breasts. Her face was cleaned up and her hair was brushed as much as could be expected, but even without the duct tape on her mouth anymore, there were still vague red lines from where it had been stuck to her face. The bruises on her left eye and right cheek bone were growing black and blue but she no longer drew attention, rather exacting the opposite reaction. It was obvious from the marks that she and Rudy both wore that they were in some sort of trouble and nobody around here wanted to get involved in any way. It would make escaping this time particularly difficult if she couldn't find anyone already willing to engage Rudy.

"So what do you want?" Rudy asked, scrutinizing the menu and idly playing with the salt shaker. "The home fries sound good as a side, and this 'biscuits and bits' thing sounds yummy. I always have such trouble deciding with these things and usually end up getting everything on the menu..." He definitely sounded like he was having a hard time of it and Gwen rolled her eyes at him.

Beyond him, at the front doors within her sights, Gwen watched as some truckers entered and approached the bar that bordered the one side of the room. There were a group of three of them and although one of them was skinnier than the other two, he was particularly tall with broad shoulders, making them all look like a heavy set group. The one that settled on the stool nearest them had the name "Earl" etched into his gold belt buckle that barely kept in his overhanging gut, and a baseball cap for some oil company adorned his head. Glancing in their direction, recognition blossomed in his face as he looked at Rudy, and he tapped the guy sitting next to him to motion at the Agent. Probing his thoughts, Gwen realized, Earl had been one of those that Rudy had cut off while driving into the truck stop, causing Earl and a few other truckers to be locked together in the parking lot for at least 10 minutes straight before anyone could move forward.

"Don't," even with the absent-minded tone in his voice, Gwen jumped when Rudy spoke. He wasn't done looking over the menu, but he glanced up at her warningly. "You promised, remember?" Yeah. Sure. She'd "promised". Was he seriously expecting her to keep her word about anything when he was basically threatening her life?

They stared at each other silently for several minutes before he sighed and set the menu down on the table, lifting his left hand to show it to her. Around his palm was a thin band of technology made of smooth grey metal and even as she looked at it and then him, she silently sent a pulse to the still angered truckers. "You remember my little friend, right? All it takes is one minor movement of my wrist and I'll have it out and firing in half a second. So don't you dare try any--"

As the large, bear-like fist closed around the hand he still held up, obscuring both the band and most of Rudy's hand, his voice cut off and he looked at the thick sausage-like fingers in confusion. He barely had enough time to drag his eyes upward to look at the face owning the fingers before a heavy fist slammed into his nose, breaking it. The next few seconds went by like a blur as Earl hauled Rudy out of his seat and threw him against a table, letting him fall to the ground amidst the napkin divider and condiments.

Blinking anxiously, Quin frantically looked around, blood gushing in a flowing stream down over his lips and searched for Gwen. Her spot in the booth was empty and he cursed under his breath while grinding his teeth, swallowing his heart and yelping as Earl grabbed him again and dragged him up from the floor. In the spot where he'd landed, the phone he'd returned to his pocket was left behind and forgotten as the men took their new punching bag outside to finish 'teaching him a lesson'.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Osono was lying. Alex could hear it as clear as day, and she must’ve known how flimsy the excuse for keeping Rudy alive was because she offered up a better reason seconds later. That one made more sense to him, certainly more than calling the guy an ‘alarm system’, and it gave him the answer she didn’t seem to want to voice. Maybe it had nothing to do with Quin after all, but the way her words seemed to drop into something real, he got the idea that while she might not have had anything official in mind, there was a will to start a life beyond running from the Agents. She could see a horizon even if she told herself she wasn’t going to reach it. And if that was all she ended up doing, wandering from place to place with no purpose besides keeping busy, it still gave her something. Hell, she seemed happy with the way things were going so far, and with her pretty damn flawless track record of not getting caught – Rudy’s stupidity might’ve been a factor, but she definitely wouldn’t make it easy for anyone – it didn’t seem like things would have to change. She could start a life right now if she wanted. This was her life. She wasn’t chained by anything.

The difference between them was more glaring than she realized. Whether or not she’d done it the minute the Agency had come after her, she’d taken a stand and forced them back. She’d been living a reactive life; there’d been planning shoved in a few places, but it boiled down to ‘melt everyone who looks at me weird’, and that freed her from having to waste her nights scrambling to find new apartments, new places to live, new passports and credit cards and identities...

The first mistake Alex had ever made was trying to stay a step ahead. It hadn’t worked, obviously, or else he wouldn’t have Xander in his head. The second mistake was thinking he could get away. He’d trapped himself in this world by insisting he’d eventually escape and... do what? He wanted his old life back – the one he’d had before he’d gotten anyone’s interest. All those years of town-hopping had wasted what could have been fantastic memories, especially when his personal dragon had thinned out the threat from a daily appearance to four times a year, and that was slowing down, too.

He’d missed out. He resented it. The Agents had been the cause of him putting everything on hold, but they hadn’t been the reason.

But – naturally – before he could get any sort of civil conversation started with her, one he’d wanted out of genuine interest instead of trying to dig out reasons for not hating her, she started up a fight. He wasn’t dumb enough to cut in, but he did roll his eyes at the both of them. Luckily, the pack-leader didn’t seem to notice, and Osono made absolutely sure she had the woman’s attention when she reached out and grabbed her. What a way to set off a reaction.

Child #1, a boy the spitting image of the lady, took one look at the situation, threw his head back and let out a bloodcurdling scream of, “Someone’s killing mommy! Someone’s killing mommy!” This was immediately followed by the rest of the children – probably adopted, stupid shits – standing around Osono and her enemy to excitedly howl – in considerably less distress than the son and with a bit of enjoyment any PTA would’ve blamed on ‘those violent computer games’ – “Mrs. Janet! Mrs. Janet! Someone’s killing Mrs. Janet!”

Way to go, Sparky! He started walking. Well – since they’re clearly too busy to order...

The barista got the famous I Love Starbucks smile and robotically returned it in the way Xander was so crazy for.

“Hi. I’m gonna need two six shot Venti vanilla lattes, two pumps hazelnut, one pump cinnamon dolce with whip and mocha drizzle and two iced Ventis mochas, four pumps gingerbread, light ice, extra whip and nutmeg sprinkles.” The barista hadn’t even blinked. That was okay because androids traditionally didn’t.

You want anything?

“Insulin.”

They’re fresh outta that, he replied, happily paying and skipping over to the pick-up table.

“I’ll be in a minute, too.”

The kids’ screaming was tearing at his ears. He might actually punt one of them across the room soon. The rest of the shop seemed evenly split between trying to get the hell out of there and away from this madness or enjoying the morning show before they dragged themselves to work. Wait – what day was it? Saturday? Maybe? No work today, then. And what the hell? What kind of mother brought a junior soccer team coffee and so early in the morning?

An awesome one.

“Is that what your mother did?”

I wish. The sweetest thing I ate in my house was Cheerios, and not the ones with that stupid bee. The old people kind. Xander turned Alex’s head around and shot over his shoulder, “Hey, you! If you’re busy, I can order something for you.”

“She shouldn’t be causing a scene right now,” he muttered. “This isn’t the place. There aren’t any Agents here.”

Nothing’s on fire.

“But I don’t want to spend an hour getting out of an arrest charge.”

Someone’ll have a seizure long before we reach that point, Xander said. Relax.

‘Relax’.

It hadn’t been too long ago when Xander pointed out he almost always ended his words with a quick ‘relax’ or ‘calm down’ or ‘stop panicking, you dumb bitch’. Alex should’ve listened. Things could’ve been very, very different. A lot of the stuff he’d wanted to do or what Xander had tried to talk him into doing hadn’t happened because he couldn’t get over the sick fear that, in the middle or when he was at his most defenceless moment, he’d be dragged in and killed. He hadn’t trusted himself to hold his own despite everything he went through. Gwen, though... When she’d come along, when he’d finally had someone to compare himself with... She’d be fine. She was tough. But she’d also shown him how much he knew about the Agency and how little he had to worry about after he’d spent so long solving their patterns and cracking their techniques. Running with her had left him feeling oddly in control of his life. For once, he wasn’t the guy flapping in the breeze. He was someone that someone else was turning to for answers, even if half the time she ignored them because Xander gave her a better – or flashier – one instead. It was great. And it’d led to this. Never in his darkest days would he have agreed to working with someone like Osono, no matter what was going on with his foot. He’d actually be in bed right now, cooped up in his latest hideaway minus the slightest desire to go anywhere near an Agency building, but today, he was in phase two of breaking in and stealing back a body.

Three days. This had only been three days. God – it felt like a lifetime. He had a lot of catching up to do.

“This is gonna work,” he said. “We’re getting into Charlton and we’re ending this.”

Ending what?

... Uh...

“You know...”

No.

“... Well... this.” He vaguely waved his hand. “We’re ending this.”

The ‘me in your head’ thing?

That didn’t sound very final. At most, it was one job off his to-do list. So maybe they weren’t ending anything by getting Xander back to where he was supposed to be. Starting, he realized. He’d be starting an entirely new chapter of his life.

“I think when this is done, I’m going to travel,” he said, as drink one was finished and then desperately snatched up.

You hate planes, Xander said, in-between drowning him in coffee. OH MY GOD, this is so good. OH. MMM. SO GOOD.

“Travel –” Glug, glug. “– by train –”

You hate trains. And you hate needles, so that’s bye-bye to Africa and half of Europe. SO GOOD, DAMN YOU. SO FUCKING DELICIOUS. Holy shit – just sit down for a sec. I need to sit down, ‘cause this is TOO DAMN GOOD to waste on standing up.

“I could get over –”

If you talk and spill my coffee, I’m going to rip out your throat. That inhuman snarl was one of the few threats Alex took seriously. SO. GOOD. SO GOOD. I could literally save an orphaned child, buy a puppy, fuck an elf, win the Nobel prize, find a unicorn who farts rainbows and still not approach the level of joy I’m at right now. The first latte was done. The second one slid over and Xander immediately put it down his throat, too. I love Starbucks. I love it. I would gladly kick a million squirrels in the face if it meant I could live here forever.

“Squirrels?”

Yeah – I like squirrels. Not as much as Starbucks, though – hot damn, why the fuck is this so delectable?

“As I was trying to say,” Alex said, working hard to time his words to the gulping, “I can get over the needle thing.”

No you can’t. Shut up. I’m savouring this.

“Maybe... Gwen would want to come...”

It’s been a short enough adventure for her to jump into her old life again. ... Oh. You could ask her. If you offer to pay, I’m sure she’d be into it.

No. Gwen had her life. He hadn’t thought this was going to be over so soon, but when it was, she’d be able to pick up from where she left off. He, on the other hand, would have to look at other options.

“Osono,” Alex called. “Stop fighting and get your drink. We’re on a schedule.”

“No, Sparky – for fuck’s sake, take your time.” I’m gonna need another twenty of these.

So basically, Alex wasn’t going to sleep for the next month.

* * *


This was not a good spot to be in. Whatever starry speck of fairy dust that’d fallen in her eyes was blinding her. She seemed so eager to please now, nothing like the cold-hearted fiend who’d first stormed into his life. He was getting worried. The EDP she’d developed was supposed to have been based around her inability to feel, and here was Eric, stirring up awe and adoration and – ‘Master’? Where had that come from, anyway? Whatever the answer, the A-1 didn’t seem to mind. Jason hadn’t frowned when the man had first said she could join him in watching him bump off Rudy, which was a sick thing to want to watch and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to think about her thanking him for the... opportunity? Anyway, he’d kept it to himself because he didn’t want to talk out of turn. As this kept going, however, and the tiny sparks of life fluttered into her voice, almost deafening next to the icy drone she’d been willing to give to everybody else, he felt his fingers going deeper and deeper into the cushions of the limo, trying to find something to quietly scratch at and failing.

He smartened up when she looked over at him. He didn’t meet her eyes, but he felt them. How much had she screwed in his mind where he felt a little more normal with her staring? Was it catastrophic or only a disaster if he thought he preferred this to her nearly drooling over Eric?

Ugh. His gut was whining. His lead had done the smart thing and had just been sick to get it over with. He shouldn’t be holding it down... And there was Benoit, unnaturally healthy despite out-drinking both of them put together.

“I certainly hope you get your wish,” Frenchie said. The smoke was nearly hiding him. Eric didn’t mind that, either. Jason coughed. “I will do my best to ensure your wait is as short as possible.”

“So – that’s a ‘no’ to the food thing, huh?”

“You were the one who said he wanted to be there early,” Benoit said. “You can find food at the lab. Or possess someone who already ate.”

“What? And give this up?” Eric proudly pounded on his new chest. “No way, Benny. I’m like the Rock meets Schwarzenegger plus two elephants of steroids. What’re they feeding kids these days? Goodness me!”

Benoit ignored him. From underneath his shades, he was probably rolling his eyes, or at least doing the most sophisticated equivalent. He then went on to tell Jason’s lead, “Saying you want to know about Alexander-the-guest is like asking me to ‘sum up’ a library. I can tell you it has books, but that response would be shallow and meaningless compared to the titles and names I would leave out. If that is what you want –” Nobody missed the scorn he was readying for whoever said yes to that. “– then I can explain he was an A-3 on the Alexander case, alongside myself and four others, who succeeded in capturing his target by sabotaging the rest of us. He is conceited, cutthroat and lacks the basic empathy even animals show for one another.”

“In other words, he was one of our top Agents,” Eric said. “Still is, technically, ‘cause he ain’t dead yet. What a badass. Eight years after a half-finished transfer and he’s still breakin’ backs like it’s Christmas.”

“I hold very strong apprehension towards anyone who lets that man ‘steal her heart’.” Benoit puffed in annoyance. “You must mean Alexander-the-host. Please tell me you mean that.”

“Alex is a wuss. Go for the badass, Gwen!” The A-1 grinned. “Stephie, you can tell us which one’s better. You’ve seen Alex. I’ll show you Xander when we get in there.”

“If the body has arrived,” Benoit said. “No report has been submitted to suggest it has been.”

“How d’you know?”

“Unlike you, I keep a grip on Agency technology. I ordered specific lenses for handling this case,” Benoit said. “I don’t know what you did with Jean’s. Congratulations on breaking that as well.”

“Uh – actually –” Not that Jason wanted to stand up for Alexander. “– they broke when Jean was killed. The charge must have melted or disintegrated them.”

Now he was sure Benoit had rolled his eyes.

“That again...”

“Yeah – hey, about that,” Eric said, suddenly all ears. Jason felt an ocean of enchantment get heaved at him. It felt... nice, actually. The worry for his lead was still there, but now he understood it. “Benny says it didn’t happen, you say it did and the old sunglasses Jean was wearing say ‘someone stabbed a pole through both of my eyes’. Did we ever pin a reason to this?”

“I am the sole authority on everything Alexander is capable of – both the host and the guest. Not once in my extensive list of interactions with him has he ever shown any ability to do what this boy says.” Jason must’ve hit a nerve by reporting something new. Benoit finished with a decisive, “Whatever it was that happened, it was done in the same way as the rest.”

Then again, he didn’t know about – or wouldn’t explain – the two month deaths that seemed to follow his old team around. Maybe there were other powers Alexander had that he simply hadn’t found a use for earlier. Or maybe it was the same thing with his target. The seizures had awakened her powers, so why couldn’t her telepathy have awakened some of his or made them stronger?

... That was a horrible thought. It meant next time, Jason wouldn’t survive.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
When Eric once again pressed about food, Stephanie cursed herself for making the wrong decision. So he was hungry! Stupid Frenchman! Still, she didn't dedicate too much thought to berating the other Lead for derailing her intent to warm up to the boss - even though she was hungry too and it would have been lovely to share a meal with him as a pre-celebration to everything they were going to accomplish within the next 24-48 hours - at least now, Eric thought that she was dedicated above and beyond bodily needs to Agency work. She left the thought behind with plans to find or make him something once they got to the lab - she could always use the pretext that she'd been hungry herself and that it hadn't been too much trouble to make enough for two... She only worried briefly about whether she would find anything and if it would end up being something he liked. And for some odd reason, that made her glance at Jason - was he hungry too?

When Eric went on to praise the current form he was in, Stephanie was suddenly struck by the humorous description he tacked onto it and laughter bubbled up from her throat as if the joke were funnier than it actually was. But there was nothing put on about the soft rush of giggles, articulating a genuine hilarity at the statements he made. This was the second time on this case that she'd broken into laughter and whereas the first had been a bout of cruel and haughty chuckles resulting from the realization that her target had reached yet another level of development; this was lighter and actually expressing joy for once. Her voice, fluttering up and over the rise and dips of laughter was rich and beautiful and her face lit up for the few seconds that the moment lasted before being chased away by a very un-embarrassed blush.

As Benoit went on to further explain about Xander, ending with the implication that Gwen should have fallen for his original target, she smiled at Eric's energetic cheer for her to have chosen the ex-Agent. "No, that sounds about right," she said nodding her head and thinking for a moment. "I've already explained her daddy issues and how badly most of her adult relationships have gone. Xander may not be the most romantic in an ideal sense, but in this particular situation it's more than just him taking her out to dinner or the movies. It's hard always being forced to be the strong one, especially with desires like hers to share the burden of control in a relationship." Her eyes moved to quickly glance at Jason then, when it occurred to her that the statement also applied to herself.

"But in this unfamiliar and frightening situation, she's looking for guidance and something upon which to ground herself. All he'd have to do is save her life once and the attachment would be formed with him fitting into a "protector" and "daddy" role. Then after that, a little flirting, a few small nice gestures, would indicate a level of 'returned interest' solidifying him as a prospective sexual partner. Not to say she's easy in any way, but the circumstances of being on the run and dealing with new, frightening powers, tends to exaggerate everything to these simplified interactions.

"In fact, I think I know the moment it probably started. In the apartment building, when I fought her, he interrupted and whisked her away, starting this whole crazy thing. She was worn out then and didn't know how to cope with the EDP - I would have had her if he hadn't interfered. Which, by the way, those are some very interesting powers he possesses. Benoit, you basically gave me nothing by which to prepare myself for such an encounter, so I was very surprised when he not only blocked my final blow, but hit me with that mind numbing stare."

Of it's own accord, her hand slithered off her lap to quietly insert itself within Jason's, squeezing him gently in a comforting gesture. "It's not a fun thing to be on the receiving end of," she said with an unperturbed smile, her eyes turning onto her partner. "Right, Jason?"

There wasn't anything hidden within her words - mostly, she was just making idle conversation to keep herself from excited giggling fits while thinking about arriving at the Charlton base - and as she looked at him, her eyes stayed longer than they should have, her gaze drifting down to look at his lips. The hunger drifted back into the emerald glow again, and her smile faded just the tiniest bit to a more thoughtful expression, her gaze fixated on his mouth - she thought she could still detect a small discoloration from when she'd bitten him in Elmira. Stephanie's gaze grew clouded with fantasy, suddenly alone in the car with him, and he with his suit opened down to mid-chest, leaning in close with those gorgeous lips and assaulting her bare neck. With half-hearted and cooed protest, she imagined being pulled close to him and allowing him to lay her down on these plush seats...

Blinking, the vision dissolved and she took in a deep breath through her nose as her eyes cleared and she refocused on him with a blush. God, he was being so sexy right now... even though he wasn't doing anything... Maybe it was the thick smell of leather that was causing her to feel amorous? It did bring back a lot of memories from her training days... Whatever it was did not endure any more indepth scrutiny before she turned back to Eric, her attention focused back on reality with barely a ripple within her psyche.

"So, Master, I have a question about something you said last night," she started, leaving her fingers curled within Jason's on the seat between them and seeming to have forgotten all about it. This time when the odd title passed her lips, she did not notice it, having let it slip out as if it were his name and not realizing she hadn't said "Eric". "I'm not sure if I understood correctly about your abilities - and forgive me, Sir, if I'm being too nosey; you're just a very interesting person." That last was said with a bit of humble concern and then followed up by a coquettish smile.

"But when you... transfer into the corpse of someone with abilities and then they die or you leave them for whatever reason, do you keep their powers? I'm not sure why but I got the impression from the way you described it that you seemed to 'collect' powers? Or am I mistaken?"

***

Ozzie hadn't really had a plan when she'd stepped forward to confront the woman. She just knew she couldn't take it anymore and sought to end it before she started rationalizing more drastic and violent measures to cure the problem - if everyone in line was suddenly ash, then that meant they couldn't order coffee, didn't it? Problem solved.

So, she certainly hadn't possessed enough foresight to predict that touching the "mother" would only exasperate the problem. But it was not like Osono to regret a decision once it'd been made on gut instinct like this had and she glared around at the bright and now very loud faces gathered in a small crowd around her and "Mrs. Janet". At first, a headache started to pulse within her skull and for a few seconds, instead of seeing children she saw a bunch of human sized matches standing around her. Then it hit her as she glared at one of the closer ones, seeing a small light within his eyes that she recognized.

It was not fear but excitement and a desire to play and it reminded her of a time long long ago when she'd had people to look after...

Releasing the women from her grasp, Ozzie turned to face the kids and inserted her fingers between her lips and blew, a sharp and high pitched whistle piercing the air. It cut through the cries and a few of them even cringed and cupped their hands over their ears, before it fell silent and they were left gaping at her.

"You all are a bunch of no good, dirty rotten scoundrels!" she yelled, her raspy voice deepening a few tonal notches and gaining a bit of gruff weight. "Line up against the wall, you filthy bilgerats! NOW, before I fuckin' keelhaul the lot of ya!"

There was no mistaking the threat in her voice and posture but there was also an undercurrent of something playful that they seemed to pick up on and reacted to. Eagerly, as if she were promising a game of some kind, they scrabbled to the nearest wall shoving and pushing one another as they squirmed to line up with their backs against it, a few dancing excitedly in place as she approached with her hands clasped behind her back like a general.

Walking up and down the line of them, turning on her heel, she looked them over once and said in the same tone of voice, "My name is Captain Ozzie van der Wallace, but if any of you turds call me anything other than 'Cap'n', I'll slit your throats from ear to ear and then make you swab the decks in motherfuckin' Hell!" It seemed an exciting prospect to a few of them - or rather her cursing had them giggling for whatever reason. Ozzie stood with a straight back and seemed to flow into the role she'd appropriated for herself, filled with an energy that hadn't been present before but was blended into her with a practiced familiarity. Even the nickname she'd given herself seemed like one she'd used before and was used to saying.

"You have got to be the most sorry-ass excuse for a pirate crew I have ever seen! Hardly deserving of the title 'pirates' at all! Well, lucky for you, I showed up just in time to fuckin' whip your sniveling carcasses into shape before you end up putting a stain on our good name. And I just happen to be in a good mood," she sneered in a very ugly manner at each of them, "that I'd be willing to take time out of my rape and pillaging schedule to learn you guys a few fuckin' manners.

"But first things first, I need to see if you guys even HAVE what it takes to be pirates. When you first board a vessel of potential hostages, do you know what the most important thing is? Intimidation. If normal people aren't scared of you, then you're not fuckin' doin' it right! So every pirate needs a good scowl and a growl to send fear trembling through his enemies and make all the little sissy Navy wimps piss their fuckin' pants when they see us comin'! Come on and give it to me! I wanna hear you scalawags say 'ARGH!'"

Her speech had done the trick to rile them up in her fantasy so when she asked for it, they gave it to her, all of them yelling as one a very loud "Arrrrrrrrrrgggh!"

"Oh, geez..." she complained mockingly. "What are ya trying to do? Ask me to marry ya?" There was a unanimous 'NO' and she winked. "Scare the shit out of me!"

As they tried again, "Mrs. Janet" had inched closer to where Alex was, seeming to recognize that he'd been with Ozzie before all of this started. "I didn't realize she worked with children... Do you know what camp she works for?" She had out a pad of paper and pen ready to take down anything Alex said.

"Very nice!" Osono said with a sandy laugh, obviously pleased with the results they'd given her. "Keep up the good work and practice it! Remember: If you don't see a shit stain down their backsides then--"

"You're not fuckin' doin' it right!" was the echoed response and she laughed again.

Turning to where Alex was, the animation in her face disappeared returning her features to normal before she said, "Are you done? Can we get out of here, please?" Even though she tried to make it seem like she was eager to leave, she couldn't hide the fact that she'd been having just as much fun as the kids had

***

.Landing on the asphalt face first opened the split in Rudy's scalp - that Xander had so lovingly given to him - so when he rolled over to meet his attackers, blood actively drizzled down the side of his face again, coating the impromptu tape he'd used to "stitch" the wound closed. I'm going to fucking kill that cow, he thought just before Earl's booted foot came swinging to catch him under the ribs. Even now, out in the parking lot, curled on his side, he still could not bring himself to admit that taking her restraints off and bringing her to a public place had been a bad idea, rather going for the 'easier' route and blaming the whole incident on Gwen instead.

After everything I've done trying to be a nice guy in this very un-nice situation! Unappreciative skank! And she'd promised! Now I know never to believe her about anything! Oof!

As soon as the first blow had landed in Rudy's face, Gwen had slipped from the booth and ran. Panic fed her limbs as she rushed out the front doors, blindly racing out into the lot and almost getting hit by a car pulling in. She had no clue where she was - it was just an exit outside of a sleepy rural town called Montrose; a place she'd never even heard of - and she had no idea what she was going to do, but just knew that she had to get away. She wasn't going to Charlton with Rudy - she couldn't! And even though she felt bad about getting more people involved in her defense - Earl had a wife and two little girls at home, Jessica and Sarah; all three of them were his 'Ladies' he always said - she knew they were strong enough and angry enough to keep Rudy busy long enough for her to get away. Also, she was somewhat hoping that Rudy wouldn't want to make too much of a scene and kill people in public and broad daylight.

Entering the maze of trucks, casting towering shadows in the morning light, Gwen frantically thought up a plan to hide from Rudy until he gave up or she could find an easy way out of here. Running through the rows, she made it to a spot where she felt far enough and safe enough that she stopped and sat crouched down beside the door of one of the semi-trucks. Panting heavily, she looked in both directions anxiously and tried to catch her breath while trying to find Rudy's foggy signature and making sure he wasn't near her.

"Get back! Stay the fuck away from me!" Rudy shouted, his voice cracking like a pubescent teenager as he wildly swayed on his feet, aiming the Aurora gun at the truckers who'd been assaulting him. Immediately, Earl and the other two took several steps back warily, instantly understanding that the contraption of complex technology knotting around Rudy's hand was a weapon of some kind. There was a wild, enraged look in Rudy's eyes as he pointed the gun at each of the men in turn, trying to keep them all in sight. "What the fuck, man!? What the hell is wrong with you!?"

Earl paused and seemed to think hard for a few brief moments before lamely shrugging and responding. "You...you cut me off..."

In truth, he didn't know why he'd decided to hit the guy over it, even though it had really pissed him off that the rich little snob had acted like he owned the road and could have caused a serious accident. And Rudy could see it in the guy's eyes. Gwen. That bitch. Even after skimming the indepth files Stephanie had hidden away about her and understanding how her powers worked, it still had Rudy cursing silently and biting the inside of his lip in irritation. He should have been able to predict this, but Stephanie's files had also said something about the girl being "nice". Yeah. Right. Nice like a trip to the emergency room.

It was clear that whatever had possessed the truckers to attack him was gone now so he lowered his gun with an exhausted slump of his arm and let out a worn out sigh. A few other patrons stood by the doors to the diner just a few feet away and watched silently, Quin finally noticing them as he was gingerly wiping his nose with the back of his hand. "What the fuck are you looking at?" Quin screamed defensively, causing a few of the more skittish in the crowd to flinch. "Fucking vultures..." There was a very significant nasally tone to his voice now and he glared hatefully at Earl as he grabbed his nose and twisted it back into place with a pained groan.

His beautiful, charming face... He was going to kill her. There was no doubt about it. The psychic had no problem with making attempts on his life, so he would return the favor, zealously and bless the whole fucking world with her absence. Turning to survey his surroundings, he watched for a few moments as cars came and went in and out of the off ramp. Nothing was out there except highway and he could see from here that she wasn't out there walking by the road. She couldn't have gotten a ride from someone this quickly, could she? Finally he decided no, that she probably hadn't, and turned to look at the area behind the rest stop - nothing back there except a rocky ravine that went below the ground level of the property.

By this time, he was alone again, Earl and the other truckers having drifted away back to the restaurant to puzzle over the experience, and Rudy turned with his back to the front of the establishment again. If she were running from there, she'd most likely stay facing this direction rather than risk running into him coming out by turning around. Off to the left was the gas pumps, lined up neatly together and on the right was...the parking lot. At least several dozen semis sat sleeping together in neat rows, fenders, grills and bumpers shining chrome in the sunlight. Smiling to himself through rivers of gore from his nose and thinking about his proficiency for cheating in hide-and-seek in younger years, Rudy proceeded in that direction, holding the Aurora up and ready.

Gwen sensed when everyone drifted back inside but Rudy's thoughts were still hidden from her. She'd felt his pain when he'd gotten up and a burst of satisfaction had filled her then - served him right! She'd also been very relieved when she realized the men she'd made suggestions to were still living enough to go back into the diner, but panic took over as Rudy the shark disappeared under the murky water of thought again, obviously still hunting her. Where was he? Her brunette curls whipped this way and that as she turned her head quickly to peer down both sides of the row she was in, but she couldn't see him. The urge to run filled her bones and she struggled with it for several moments because she didn't want to risk running straight into him. But as the minutes wore on, she became more and more frantic, to the point where she began to silently cry in fear at his eventual approach.

Occasionally, Rudy's pain showed up like a flickering light and she clung to it as much as she could whenever it showed. But it always disappeared without a trace after a few seconds, popping up again several feet away from where it had last shown up. Gwen started to relax a little bit as she followed his trail and it seemed he'd gotten lost and turned around somehow - or maybe he'd given up? - because he was heading in the opposite direction. It was for this reason that she wasn't particularly worried when he disappeared altogether, thinking to herself that he'd probably keep going in that direction and limp away to collect himself in his failure - possibly to crawl back to Mr. A-1 with his tail between his legs to get himself sweetly chewed out again.

However, this did not appear to be the case when he suddenly showed up at one end of the row she was in, his eyes brightening as they laid upon her. The gun was up and he was pointing it at her, and with a small cry, Gwen shot out from her spot down the other end as the beam of light left the nozzle of the gun to disappear into the door of the truck that she'd been crouched against. The metal of the vehicle reacted strangely to the beam and buckled with a screeching moan on impact, blue electric veins crawling along the length of the vehicle to disappear into the nose and the back where the trailer was hitched. Gwen didn't need to be a genius to figure out that if she touched the metal while the beam was still being absorbed, that it would affect her as if she'd been hit by it directly, the metal humming with an almost physical static as she ran alongside the truck.

Shying away from the buzzing metal of the semi, Gwen hunched low and fled around the corner down another row, Rudy following after her from his end, between the vehicles. In the next aisle, Rudy shot at her when she was halfway between the two ends and she flattened herself down to crawl underneath one of them. Apparently, either Rudy didn't know about the way the gun's beam reacted to metal or he was deliberately ignoring the fact for whatever reason, because he rushed after her, flattening himself to shoot under the truck, hitting the wheel instead as she emerged out the other side.

There was nothing going through Gwen's mind except the desire to escape, her heart pounding in her ears and her breathing coming in quick, harsh gasps. Thoughts and plans were abandoned in favor of the primal urge of fight or flight, and right now it was undeniably latched onto the "flight" response.

Rudy appeared again a few aisles down and Gwen once more flattened herself to the ground to crawl under the trailer of the next semi. However Rudy was closer this time, so by the time she was squirming on her stomach under the truck, Rudy had reached her and was reaching under to grab her by the hair and pulling her back out. She let out a loud scream, her fingers clawing at the cracked asphalt and her heart slamming into her ribs with terror.

ALEX!!! she internally wailed, reaching out in feverish panic for his distant signature and making contact that lasted for the few seconds it took for Rudy to pull her completely out and haul her to her feet.

All other cries for help, both verbal and psychic were instantly cut off by Rudy pressing the gun against the underside of her chin, the familiar warmth warning her that it was charged and ready to fire. The both of them were exhausted, panting as they stood, he restraining her and she standing stiffly in his hold, but when his voice came back he smiled hatefully, adopting a biting and sardonic tone.

"That was a lot of fun! No, really, I had a fucking blast through all of that and got a nice workout as well!" he shook his head and laughed weakly. "The Agency is having the semi-annual triathlon in two months; maybe you could help me train!? Oh, waitasecond! You can't because you're gonna DIE TODAY!"

Roughly, he threw her to the ground where she scraped her elbows on the blacktop, looking up at him fearfully as the gun was pointed straight at her. "Please...you can't blame me! You know what she's going to do me!"

"I can't blame you!? Like hell! Look what you did to my FACE!"

While the nozzle of the gun grew brighter, Gwen shielded herself as much as she could with her arms and whimpered. "Rudy...Please..."

At the sound of his name, his eyes widened suddenly and memory came rushing back to him. In his head, he heard the way Eric had said his name, drawing each syllable and letter out painfully, like a tiger purring and batting at a mouse it planned to make it's meal. Shit! What was he doing!? He couldn't kill her - for surely it was his own death sentence if he did. The gun stopped charging but he kept it pointed at her as reality descended once more upon him.

"Fuckit..." he said lamely and rolled his eyes. "Let's just get back to the car."

At the end of the row of semis they were in a man appeared and called out, "Hey, what's going on here? Everything alright?"

Rudy did not say anything but shot the man where he stood causing Gwen to flinch defensively. When he turned back to her, he gave her an impatient look and motioned with the gun for her to get up. "Come on!"

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Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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“‘Keep them’?” Eric seemed surprised. “Only in my wildest fantasies. Once somebody’s dead, everything goes away: thoughts, feelings, memories, basic instincts, reflexes, diseases. One time, I got stuck in a cancer kid, but the tumours died two days after I’d taken over. Couldn’t support them on my magic. Can’t support eyes, either. They’re the first to go and the best I can do are these babies.” He tapped the side of his glasses, then shrugged. “What’s lost is lost – especially powers – but... damn if I haven’t spent years trying to get them back. C’est la vie!” He snorted. “Well, my après vie.”

Benoit scowled.

“So you’ve never had any powers besides the – uh...” What was the nicest name for it? “... dead thing?”

“Hmm? No – I’ve had tons of other abilities. Great ones, like laser eyes and freeze breath and fancy stuff along those lines. That’s the beauty of being so high up: you get first dibs on a target before they toss it to the other Agents. There aren’t a lot of good ones lately, though. It seems like we nearly picked this generation clean. I’d toast to a new wave of awesomosity in their kids, but since we’re not stopping and somebody drank all the wine –” At the sight of Frenchie’s starkly unapologetic face, Eric flicked the A-3 in the ear. “– you’ll just have to feel it in your heart.”

“But how would you do it? If the powers vanish by the time you go in, it doesn’t make sense you’d have anything else,” Jason said.

“I’m not special,” Eric told him. “Well – I am, just not when it comes to this. I do it the same way as anybody: I transfer in.”

“Really?” That seemed like so much effort. Jason had assumed that with him being the level he was, he’d’ve had access to a faster way. “Doesn’t it take a while for you to adjust? The coma – you said its average length was four months. You have to go through that every time?”

“Yeeeeee-up.” The man clicked his teeth. “Sucks, don’t it? And then when I get in there, I have to dance around a hundred assassinations, and if I screw that up, it’s another coma if I want a new one.”

“It barely seems worth it,” Jason said.

“Barely,” Eric agreed, “but I’ve got as much need to do as our org’. They want people to make the jump to ‘drive the hand of progress’, and although my completed transfers aren’t actually recorded – it’d skew the numbers, so I brought it down to a nice one-per-Agent – I’ve led the troubleshooting single-handedly for a decade. It’s why Benny gets another shot at Alex and why dear Miss. March won’t have her head explode when she leaps.”

Which, Jason was sure, every psycho who wanted to kidnap and wear somebody else was grateful for.

“It still seems like a lot to take on if you have a list of names who’d do it for you.”

“Very true, but I’ve got a record of success, which saves us from having to hunt through a hundred candidates to find a guy who lives – and who won’t do it a second time even if he’s ordered. They get attached.” Yes, they did. Jason had been learning that over the past few days. “But don’t feel sorry for me, kids. I’m not doing it for free. You can’t imagine the serendipity I’ve run into. Twenty projects later, and I’m on the verge of revolutionizing everything again.”

The face of the kid in Elmira flashed through his mind.

“Does that include –”

“Ah, ah! A-1s only! At least until I’m happy with it,” Eric said. “But – uh... as a special sneak peek behind the grand ol’ curtain: yes. Very, very yes. My heart’s all a-flutter!”

That was the most Jason was going to get out of that. He had one or two ideas about what it could’ve been. He wasn’t especially interested since Eric had told him not to be, but maybe he’d keep an ear out for news regarding ‘Nathan’. That was his name, right?

“Does your heart really beat? That works again?”

“Oh yeah. That’s the simple, mandatory stuff. Brain cells, too – I don’t worry about it. And you’ll notice I’m breathing.” He proved it by sucking in a balloon of air, deftly avoiding the kind of gag Jason would’ve run into if he’d been beside so much smoke. “Try to imagine, instead of me making a dead guy walk, my great vibrance filling up the absence of that life. I’ll bleed if I’m stabbed. It’s pretty annoying.”

Yeah. ‘Annoying’. That was definitely an accurate description for anyone who didn’t have to worry about a permanent demise.

“That brings up one more thing,” Jason said, slowly growing more intrigued. He decided to not analyze why necromancy piqued his interest more than telepathy. Probably nothing, or maybe a part of him still felt the axe of the two month death over his head. He scratched at the cuff of his suit’s sleeve in response. “What happens if you die and there’s no one to go into?”

“More than once, I have been a raccoon. Dirty things.” Eric pulled a face. “They don’t think the way humans do, so I’m stuck jamming my thought process into some half-retarded rodent who’s picked on by its old friends ‘cause it doesn’t want to dumpster dive. Rabies are fun, though. It’s bubbly, in a sticky sort of way.”

“And what if none of those are lying around?”

“Insects. Haven’t had that misfortune, but it’s the most logical next step.”

“And if nothing –”

“Don’t know. Don’t wanna know.” A hard edge had appeared. Eric’s smile tightened at the corners of his mouth. “And I’d appreciate if you weren’t so keen to find out in my place.”

“Uh... sure.” Jason withdrew. “Sorry. I was – just...”

“Aw – it’s fine. Everyone’s curious,” Eric said. “I simply prefer to keep details close.”

“Oh. Yeah. Yes. That’s... understandable.”

“Good! Then we’ll drop it forever and never mention it again.” With that, he turned to look out the window, and following a moment’s pause, he knocked on the glass his with knuckle, calling their attention to it. “We’re here! The Agency’s picturesque Charlton laboratory-slash-regional base.”

Jason craned his head so he could see. They were somewhere near the centre of the city – considerably smaller than Elmira but larger than Vestal had been – and the sounds of downtown had been growing steadily louder as they moved in. The area had an aging feel. There were as many buildings here as anywhere, he guessed, but a lot of them, from the shops lining the road to the office skyscrapers looming overhead, were made of a deep red brick. The clothing stores looked older too, not only in their making, but also in their wares: gowns and tuxedos and other old-fashioned, high-end inventory pressed against the polished windows, marking a bright spot amongst the drabness of the architecture. It was an odd mix. It was like the city had been made dark on purpose. The stunning four-tier cakes Jason saw in a bakery they passed by was hauntingly lovely because its white flowers stood out from the empty alleys.

The Charlton regional base blended into the skyline, apparently more conservative – dare he say ‘shyer’? – than the Elmira building. It was eight stories tall and largely offices, no different from the other two on either side of it. Jason had to go off of the feeling he got when his eyes landed on its door. There was no other way to tell what it was.

His hands started shaking.

One minute. Half a minute. They’d be inside soon, and then those forms would go through. Jason’s suit... He’d lose it. His breathing picked up. This was coming to an end too fast and his body was beginning to mourn.

“I have word from headquarters,” Frenchie said. “The body of Alexander-the-guest will be here in an hour. They, I expect, should be here by night.”

“You’re sure?”

“As far as I can be,” Benoit replied. “I was tracking the exact path of Alexander before you pulled us off course. At the rate at which he was last seen travelling, I can only assume that deadline.”

“Okay. It’s a positive estimate.” Eric dug into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “I don’t see why I can’t hurry ‘em along, though.”

Benoit perked up at that.

“Who are you calling?”

“My boys. And my girls – I support equal opportunity among the genders,” he said. “So long as they’re being marched to their death, it might as well be on my orders.”

Eric’s orders were bad news for a lot of people. Jason couldn’t breathe. His throat was closing up. He was getting dizzy. The limo was pulling into parking stuffed underground, and the weak... he wouldn’t be able...

“Miss Agent,” he heard Benoit say. “Your pet is fainting.”

‘Fainted’. Past tense. Jason fell over.

* * *


“She’s good,” Alex said, watching Osono whip the hell-monkeys into silence. Sort of. They were still ungodly shrill, but at least there was a sense of order to it. Somehow. He shuffled away from the woman who’d come up to him, however. “Talk to her. Not me. Ever.”

Just because he was trying to inch his way back into society, it didn’t mean he wanted total strangers around him. He felt a little violated that the woman had spoken to him at all.

The iced mochas were ready. Xander started drinking like a meth addict. Caffeine and sugar aside, that level of obsession wasn’t healthy. He was taking the ‘my life depends on coffee and David proved it’ thing too seriously.

Whatever works.

“Well – I hope it does work. That much should be enough of a fix to last you a day,” Alex said. “Let’s get going. Oso–”

Yeah – wait – I just – Alex’s feet were dragging back towards the register. One more. For the road. Was he serious? Just one more!

“What part of ‘Gwen is in danger and we have to shove your idiot ass back into your real body so you can be the superhero you’re always bragging about and save her’ don’t you understand? Coffee, even your precious Starbucks, does not compare to what we’re up against, Xander. You keep saying you’re on our side, so... here it is! This is your time to prove it. So put the fucking coffee down and let’s go.”

... Okay. ... I see your point, Xander said, as slowly as he could manage. I’m simply saying one more coffee wouldn’t hurt. Then, faster, It takes two seconds to make! They’re professionals!

The first latte was drilling fire through his limbs. He was uncomfortably restless right now and the agitation tripled when he realized he wasn’t being allowed to walk away from the counter. Thank goodness for Osono and her little show, otherwise he’d be more than a freak who’d been half-paralyzed; he’d be a freak who’d been half-paralyzed and was the centre of attention.

His heart froze. There was a different voice in his head. It was only for an instant, but he heard it clearly. That was Gwen. Gwen! Panicked and gone instantly after he heard his name, but – alive! What more could he ask for?

What was happening? Why was she sounding so panicked? Rudy must’ve been doing something to her, but how far would he go? If he was as sure of himself as he’d tried to get everyone else to think, he might not have cared what that robot woman of an Agent would think if he hurt her. There wasn’t a lot of meaning he could dig out from only one word, but he hoped the intensity of it didn’t mean it was a last-ditch effort – one before Rudy tore her apart – to call to him. But why now? Was it luck of the draw that she’d gotten through or was she moving in their direction?

“Did that... do you....” He was falling over his words. This caffeine was not helping him. “Did that sound close to you?”

I guess. Can I at least get a dark roast?

A seething boil came over Alex in that instant. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped open, which was great for Xander ‘cause in went half of his mocha in one go.

No, you cannot get a dark roast! You cannot! I am not giving you permission to get anything – did you even hear her?

Alex’s jaw clamped shut, but only after it fumbled twice.

You’re being incredibly loud.

He didn’t care!

Yes, I heard what you heard.

Then what the fuck?

Alright, someone’s had too much coffee. “Sparky! You’re driving. I’m too cracked out, apparently.” Finally, his foot moved forward. Six years of me guzzling and you get the shakes from three cups? I’m ashamed of you. “Excuse me, kind sir! What delightful Starbucks masterpiece have you been allowed to purchase this fine morning?”

One of the businessmen, a patron sitting on the side by himself, looked up at Xander with mild confusion and alarm.

“Peppermint –”

“Fuck you.” Xander moved on. Alex kept seething. He couldn’t help it. There was too much... everything in his system right now. Gwen calling your name doesn’t change anything. I knew she was alive, I told you she had time, and – in fact – the only thing her getting in touch with us seems to have done, aside from making her feel better if she realizes she reached us, is sending you into a spazz attack. Everything’s fine. Try to remember that. “Dear lady! Such a pleasant sun greets us this early day. Pray tell, what wonderful beverage have you chosen for yourself?”

This woman was more casually dressed. An amused smile lit up her face at Xander’s words. Airily, she replied, “Vanilla –”

“Still full?”

That one caught her off-guard.

“Yes –”

Seizure. And in the middle of that, Xander took her coffee.

“You can thank that asshole,” he said. Peppermint. I hate him. And you know what? “Hey! Baldie!” The businessman looked over. Another seizure, except more violent. It’d happened so quickly that no one had time to look over before Xander moved to Osono’s side and smoothly guided her by the shoulder towards the door. “Let’s go, please. We’re supposed to be hurrying.”

How did he expect to cover that up? Huh?

She didn’t see anything. Chill out. Drink more coffee.

With an iced mocha in his left hand and a vanilla something in his right, Xander walked out the door, proud that he’d appeased the Starbucks gods and gliding to the Audi without a care in the world.

She better not have seen anything. With the cure for caffeine jitters a simple ‘more caffeine’, he didn’t have the mind to spare on explaining why whatever had happened was an unfortunate coincidence. But he would, if he had to, and he’d make sure she believed it.

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Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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She couldn't get enough of this man. Of course, it helped that his personality was incredibly engaging and magnetic, but the sheer depths of his magnificence was in his experience and long standing dedication to the work he did. It wasn't just about the hours he'd sacrificed or the effort he put into it, but also the fact he was good at it and seemed to enjoy his job immensely. It was very interesting to learn that even at his high-rank, there were certain levels to things that he still had to march through, just like everyone else. But even with that, he still went through with it all, paving the way for others and venturing ever further into the future of the Agency. Now, more than ever, she found herself idolizing him.

And Stephanie didn't mind sharing his attention with Jason actually enjoying the fact that she wasn't the only one interested in him. The direction of the conversation took a curious turn however, and she cast an odd look at her partner when he pressed further into Master's relationship with death. The thought of a world where Eric no longer existed made her feel scared and sad, like a wound she could not bear considering having. So when he ended the line of questioning telling Jason to "drop it", she was more than relieved to leave such thoughts and considerations behind. But glancing at her partner, she could see that he wasn't and her gaze narrowed to wonder what was going through that curly head of his.

Her attention was diverted however, when Master indicated out the window and she excitedly peered out as they drove alongside the base. It never ceased to amaze her how the Agency seemed to scout out the perfect locations in which to place their different offices of operations. Elmira had been a bit of an eyesore, but wielded a heavy amount of menace towering over the city from it's perch on the hill. The Charlton base was no different as far as the amount of subtle threat it exuded, except they'd found the perfect place in the city itself to put it.

Remembering why they were here, a beautiful and energetic smile spread across Stephanie's plush lips and her eyes shined excitedly as they passed the large building. Gwen... Again, she lost herself in fantasy while Benoit and Eric talked briefly about..whatever, imagining what it would be like to see her target captured and ready to be strapped down. What would she say to her? What would Gwen say, if anything? She had to have some idea by now what Stephanie wanted her for. Would she beg Stephanie for her life? Would she cry? She knew if it came to that, Stephanie would hold her and comfort her up until the very moment she drilled through little Gwendolyn's skull and shoved herself inside.

She blinked when Benoit addressed her, looking at him fully before realizing what he said followed a moment later by Jason's body falling over into her lap.

"Jason!" her exclamation held the weight of concern as she caught his bulk and kept him from rolling to the floor, her eyes looking over him frantically.

At first, she didn't realize what had happened and for several minutes she sat panicking that he'd suddenly, inexplicably died on her. With his head cushioned in her lap, she quickly undid the notches of his collar all the way down to his collar bone before pressing two fingers against the artery in his neck, not seeming to mind the still visible markings she'd left on him mere hours before. His pulse was going a mile a minute, but she sighed in relief that it was there, especially when she pressed her hand to his chest and felt it rise and fall with his uneven breath. Right. He'd just passed out... because that's what the word 'fainted' meant. Duh.

Still, the concern did not leave her as she stroked the side of his face urgently. "Jason, can you hear me?" she asked him worriedly, searching his features but finding no response.

God, what had she done...? All this time, she'd been so busy worshiping Master and fantasizing about her meeting with Gwen, she'd completely forgotten about what awaited him here. She should have taken the time at the airport to hear what he'd had to say and now she couldn't help regretting that she'd failed him as his supervisor on this case to make sure that he was alright.And now this had happened and she knew, from what he'd said about his relationship with the suit, that things would only get worse for him.

There was also a certain measure of guilt that filled her to remember that this was her fault in the first place. Even though Eric had specifically said that he wasn't going to share any information about Nathan, she hadn't liked the idea that he might have deliberately compromised her case by using the boy to do it in some way. And in the end, all asking him about it had done was to bring further pain to Jason. Master hadn't even known what the hell she'd been talking about.

When the car came to a stop, she finally drew her gaze from her partner and looked to first Benoit and then Eric. Stephanie knew what they probably thought of her at that particular moment, cradling Jason to her as she was, but she found herself more bothered by the fact that him passing out made him look unprofessional.

"It's the suit..." she explained with the hint of defensiveness in her voice. "My partner hasn't taken any of the drugs that are suppose to go with it, so it's just a little hard on him right now since he's going to lose it." God...did that make him sound weak? She didn't want that either.

"Just give him a few minutes to collect himself," she said, firmly, her usual monotone hinting at the emotions she was feeling underneath. "We'll catch up to you promptly, Master." Surreptitiously, the hand that cradled his head ran lightly through his short curls and her breasts hovered above him, practically shielding him with her body.

She wasn't going to let anyone carry him inside. Not only did she not want to move him - especially not into the building which made him freak out at the sight of it - but she also did not want to degrade his dignity even further by having him toted around like an invalid or something. He'd just passed out from an obvious panic attack. It was no big deal and he'd be back on his feet in a matter of minutes and be able to proceed into the base on his own two feet. She hoped.

It was an alien feeling being so protective of him and seeing him so weak and helpless like this. But even though his pain was something she normally delighted in, she could not shake the new desire to help him. She'd seen and felt the passion and strength within him; he'd shown it to her on the plane. Seeing him reduced to this and knowing that he was going to continue to suffer because of her, made her scared that she wouldn't see that side of him again. Even though she'd spent most of this trip playfully tormenting and abusing him...it was no longer her favorite part...

***

He was talking to himself again. And guzzling down coffee as if it were nectar from heaven. Ozzie did smile brightly when he said she could drive though - and she'd make sure to hold him to that, the freaking car hog - but he seemed to be stuck with his hip at the counter for the moment so she sighed and turned back to her newly acquired crew. She wasn't even sure why the pirate thing had occurred to her, except that from her experience, kids of this rowdy and untamed sort tended to like them, and the whole thing was intended to diffuse a bad situation from getting worse.

The little rascals were busy chattering amongst themselves, practicing their pirate growls on each other and sharing their newly learned vocabulary that she'd given them license to use - the sound of a child swearing always made her smile for some odd reason. For the first time in a long time, she felt like things were back to normal for her. But instead of making her feel good, there was a pain in her chest when she realized all the reasons why she couldn't go back to that. And she wanted to leave. Now.

Turning back towards Alex to see if he was ready yet, she froze and stared as he addressed the woman sitting at one of the tables. As she watched, she began to convulse in her chair, slowly sliding to the ground in a frothing mess and Alex...snatched up her coffee. That alone made her think he was somehow responsible for what happened, in addition to the fact that there was a connection to his close proximity and the timing of it. But still...she didn't know how to fucking react to that.

Glancing around she checked to see if anyone else had seen what she had and a few seconds later, he was there with his arm around her, ushering her towards the door. Ozzie didn't say anything to him but when they got to the doors she glanced back and saw that there was a man who'd suffered the same fate. What the fuck was that? What had he done?

Back at the Audi, Osono gave Alex a wide berth and looked at him with a narrowed gaze, trying to piece together the strange event. Slipping into the driver's seat, she was pulling away from the Starbucks and looking back before the gravity of what had happened started to take hold.

"Do you mind telling me what the fuck that was back there?" she asked in her raspy voice, pausing for a few minutes to take a turn, looking into the rearview mirror to continue looking at the establishment for a few moments more. "Did you... I mean that lady... she was having a fit or something... and you just...took her coffee... What is going on? Is it epilepsy day at Starbucks or did you do something to those people?"

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Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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“A few minutes, then,” Eric said. He was digging in his coat pocket. “Here –” A box. Small, white, half the size of an envelope, tossed onto the seat beside Miss March. It wasn’t hard to guess what was inside. “It’s a snack for when he wakes up. It’s noble he took the ‘just say no’ path to suit-dom, but if he gets too out of control, it’s best to stick it in his neck and wean him off later. Agency rehab’s great! So I hear.”

Wait for it...

“Come on, Benny!”

Fuck.

He didn’t argue. He got out of his seat and followed, already ill from the thought of being trapped with him in here. He’d want to chat and Benoit would have to listen to him ramble for hours because he was the A-1 and Benoit was the A-3 and the minute they walked by some shadowy corner, someone’s throat would be slit and purple fog would be everywhere and then they’d see what happened when there were no corpses for Eric to dive into. Or something like that.

“We will be on the ground floor,” Benoit said. “Do not waste time in here.”

Eric was waiting for him to catch up. The look on his face was one that’d decided to blather the whole way up to the lobby. Benoit bit down on his cigarette in severe dissatisfaction. Eric didn’t notice, or else he didn’t care. He seemed more focused now. His smile was reserved and thoughtful. Something was up or would be.

“So.”

That one noise set Benoit on his edge, especially when the man didn’t bother to follow it up. He tried to let it die by ignoring it, waiting for it to drown in the sound of their footsteps as they walked to the far side of the underground lot, but by the time they’d reached the elevator, Eric’s unusually relaxed posture had driven him thoroughly mad. Obligingly, reluctantly and still clinging to the calm before the storm of A-1 words, Benoit returned with a sullen and humourless, “So.”

“About Xander...”

The sharpness in his jaw crushed the cigarette in two. Without a pause along its fall to the ground, Benoit’s hands had another out and lit. There was his answer. It ended the conversation. Unfortunately, that silence continued to fester. He gave up.

“What about him?”

“Nothing. So – this is a nice place,” Eric said. “Nice and... orange.”

Yes, very orange.

“You bring him up and you deny it. Talk,” he told him. “What are you trying to do?”

Eric was quiet again, but now it was in favour of entering his code. He was the only person in the whole of the Agency who had that instead of using the hand scanners, but the reasons for it were fairly obvious. What surprised Benoit was that the option to enter the code was available here at such an off-site base. A-1s were welcome everywhere, it seemed. He politely turned his head away to let him finish typing, but snapped it back the moment the elevator opened.

“After you, good sir,” Eric said.

Benoit got on, but he stayed ready to run until Eric was on as well. Who knew what he’d done to this machine? And aside from the scanner, there was no security around it. They were alone. Completely alone. If Eric fell out with his neck broken, other than that he’d been in here with him, no one would have any reason to suspect Benoit of foul play. ‘Justified response’, he called it, but the Agency sided with whoever was the higher rank.

“So.” His silence didn’t have the same effect. Eric couldn’t care about anything that wasn’t himself. Benoit’s voice became more forceful. “What about him?”

“No – it’s – just...” The man shrugged. “He’s killed a lot of your guys.”

“Yes, he has. Why is that suddenly important?”

“It’s always been important. He’s dangerous. If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t hate me for taking Jean’s body.”

Eric meant that his hate wouldn’t have directly stemmed from the haunting of a long-time colleague. Benoit was rather assured that he would’ve found something else to loathe him for.

“That’s true. That is why I intend to be rid of him once he is removed from Alexander-the-host.”

He’d let the bastard drown in his stasis cell. The kill switch at its base was too clean and swift a dealing. Benoit wanted him to suffer for every last member of his team that had fallen to the traitor’s hands – at the power of the eyes he’d stolen through cheating. What sort of a person deserved such strength after that? At least what Eric had done, while cruel and unsacred, had been the act of an ability honestly obtained. The A-1 had no respect for what he used his powers on, but what was worse was a fool who didn’t care how he got them. Benoit could not forgive that.

“I see.” He was in even deeper thought than before. Then, at the chime of the elevator as they reached the lobby, his face exploded back into the sunshine he’d been waving around since he’d arrived. “Orange! Orange everywhere! Nice theme they’ve got goin’.”

Theme? Someone had been lazy. For all the might of the Agency, they didn’t seem to make it when it came to changing lightbulbs. His lenses clicked in with night vision. The elevator had opened to a tiled floor. It would’ve been white and the walls would’ve been beige, but the orange had spread and dulled everything. The rest of the floor, away from where they stood, had no light at all. Some sun trickled in through the front windows but it wasn’t enough to reach the full space. The dark wood of the desks tucked away at the reception were painted black by the shade, and the plants brought in to invite a sense of life seemed dead as they folded into mere silhouettes. The stairs had a small glow, however. Tiny lights – orange as well – had been embedded into the handrails. Eric wouldn’t need those. Vampires could see in the dark.

He wondered if a gun would be too ham-fisted. As little as he liked the other, he wouldn’t enjoy killing him with such a childish tool. No, Benoit could think of something better. He had time. For now, he wanted to get to the bottom of this.

“I told her we would wait on this floor,” he said. Eric immediately turned to lean against the wall, dropping so heavily against it that it shook. “Is that all you wanted? To remind me of how badly I want him dead?”

He was laughing and he wasn’t hiding it. Eric was out to piss him off.

“You know someone named Madeline Bergmann?”

No. But the Agency did. At the name, his lenses went to work digging through Agent profiles. It took seconds to find her. A-2, German born, black ha- ah, shit.

“Yes. I know the name.”

Eric laughed louder.

“I’m guessing you’ve met her too, otherwise you wouldn’t be so traumatized. Don’t worry. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of.”

“The last time I was in a room with Miss. Bergmann was eleven years ago,” Benoit said. “I left that room with a broken arm, broken rib and broken jaw.”

“That was you?” He laughed the loudest yet. “Damn, Benny! This’ll be easier’n I thought!”

Benoit blew out through his nose. Trying to stay calm, he slowly asked, “What will be easier than you thought?”

“I’m gonna need you to fuck her.”

Immediately, the cigarette flew down his throat, still lit and pleasantly scalding his tongue. He let out a wild hack, more from what this fucking psychopath had said than the fact that he was choking, only to be dearly saved by a massive crack on his spine as Eric slapped him back to life. Without waiting to get a breath, Benoit spat a hurried, “What?”

“My infallible sources tell me she’s in charge of this place now. You know A-2s get a building to lord over. Well, this is hers,” Eric babbled. “She’s back from Germany to run it and – let me assure you – she is doing one hell of a job. This placed used to be completely off the map before she showed up. It took her two weeks to get it working like it’s run on slaves. It’s incredible.”

“What – I – did you –”

“So I need you to fuck her, ‘cause I can’t kill her. Apparently, that’d be bad for business. It took so damn long to get that bitch out’f her ice cave to ‘save the precious Charlton base’ that the founder issued an express warning to anyone looking to interfere with her living. It’s kind’f gotten to her head. I can’t stand how smug she is about it. Right to my face – just total disrespect.”

“Did you actually ask me –”

“Told you and yes. You mind?”

Was that a serious question?!

“I don’t know her!”

“Get to know her.”

“She hates me!”

“Ah! That’s where you’re wrong!” Eric tented his fingers and smiled. His teeth glimmered under the light like they were made of fire. Fitting, because Benoit felt the heat of Hell rise from around him. “Turns out ol’ Maddy’s got a thing for Paris...”

“I am not from Paris,” Benoit snarled.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that. Canada’s not even a country in Germany’s eyes! There’s – like... a little blank spot if you check out one of their maps. So! As of two seconds ago, you’re from Paris, and that’s probably what she thought the first time, ‘cause even though she went on her assault sprees, the only bones she’s broken have been French bones. They’re love bites!”

That, Benoit believed.

“Agency women are insane,” he muttered.

“They’re not all nuts. Take a look at Stephie!”

She is leading the crazy parade. I’m not doing this,” Benoit cried. “And you’re sick for even asking! Since when are you a pimp?”

“I would be a fantastic pimp. Can you imagine the money I’d make off you? You and Jason – you’d be my headliners. Cash cows! Or – wait – what’s the French word for ‘cow’? Or the German word, I guess. Hey – do you speak German? That might come in handy.”

“Eric –”

“I’ll be straight with you, Benny. You need to sleep with her as much as I need you to. More, probably, ‘cause I just want you to distract her so I don’t accidentally tear her head off. Literally! With Jean’s hands, I could push her skull in with my pinkie. You, on the other hand, are running with someone she doesn’t like.”

“Someone who forced himself upon us,” Benoit clarified. “I only have to explain –”

“German. I don’t know a lot about ‘em but she’s a walking cliché. You’re working with me, you’re on my side, and that makes you the enemy. Aside from hanging me –” That could work. “– you’re gonna have a lot of ass to kiss if you don’t want her screwing up your plan. Hence the sex.”

Benoit’s eyes narrowed.

“What do you mean ‘screw up my plan’? The plan to trap Alexander?”

“That’s the one!”

“I have her signed agreement permitting us to use this building for our purposes,” Benoit said. “It is not something she can turn her back on.”

“You’d think it wouldn’t be, but she can flip a word around and stab you on the other side in under a minute. You might not’ve realized through the affectionate limb shattering, but she’s smart. If she wants to get you, she will, and with something this delicate, it won’t take much to ruin it.” Eric shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she sets her guards on you. She really, really hates me.”

Not one time had this man brought anything of value to Benoit’s work. He’d taken Jean, stolen them away from the path he’d been tracking – who knew where Alexander was? – and now he sought to ruin them again simply by dragging them into a feud they had nothing to do with. He almost told the man to leave and let them sort this out alone, but if Madeline was as vengeful Eric suggested, the fact that he’d used his code to get in would not go unnoticed. Why, out of everyone the A-1 had charmed, was the only person who hadn’t fallen for it was the one who could destroy his trap before it sprang?

“How much of nuisance can we expect her to be?”

“She can turn the truck carrying the stasis cell around claiming she doesn’t have the security to protect it. She can sabotage a form to say permission – or the right kind of permission – wasn’t granted. She could hit the kill switch on Xander’s body and eliminate the need for him to try to transfer back in – and considering that was gonna be your time to strike, I’d say it’s a crucial moment to protect.” Eric smiled, but it had the hint of a wince to it. Maybe he was being serious after all. “You don’t have to sleep with her –”

“I was not about to.”

“– but you will have to play nice. Y’know. For everyone’s sake. Mostly yours, though. If Rudy gets here before Alex does, that means Steph’ll be gone with Gwen to Elmira, but his call came from a back road. I’m not expecting him anytime before evening and an empath has to be a handful.”

“I would like to give you an accurate time for Alexander’s arrival, but you robbed me of my ability to do so with your plane.” Benoit curled his lip. “Among other things.”

“That’s why I called my boys. I sent them out to check in on him. They’ll report back with a confirmed visual. If you want, I could go a step further and damn near lead ‘im here. What does he need to find this place? Directions? Codes? We can give him that,” Eric said. “Anything to make this work.”

He thought about it. Not that – that was deplorable, but he went over what Eric was saying. He still had the bruises from those many years ago and his jaw still stuck from those fateful hours. Madeline was certainly a hard person to get along with, but if she had the protection of the founder, then an A-1 couldn’t scare her like the rest of them. Or he could, but it wouldn’t be a quick ‘shut up and do what I say’. It’d be a violent, bloody outburst and the security that’d be pulled would take ages to shoo away. By that time, Alexander could be gone. He couldn’t take that risk.

“I’m not sleeping with her.”

“But you’ll get close, right? Make sure she’s out of our hair?”

‘Our’. Like they were a team. Well, they were operating on a mutual benefit now. Benoit could kill him later, when he proved he wasn’t out to help them.

“I don’t know. I have to size her up before I decide anything,” he finally answered. “She might not even be like you said.”

Eric smirked brightly and straightened up against the wall, alert and observant. With a nod of his head and a point of his finger towards the darkness, he said lightly, “Here’s your chance. See for yourself.”

He heard heels on the tiles behind him. If it was her, she wasn’t alone. Why bring guards unless she was expecting a fight? Eric had the same thought on his face. With that, he believed him. The man would gladly lie about liking someone he didn’t, but he would never deny an enemy. Cautiously, Benoit turned around. Five of them stopped just outside the lights around the elevator.

Skinny as a stick. Black hair straight as a whip, sliced high before they hit her shoulders. The way she stood and the way she scowled brought back a million memories. His arm ached again. So did his rib and jaw.

“Hi, Maddy-waddy,” Eric sang.

“Miss. Bergmann –”

“KILL THEM.”

That piercing shriek... Yes, he remembered that, too.

“Well, Benny? Four guys.” Eric pat him on the shoulder. “Have at it!”

Every last one: insane. And speaking of which, where in hell was Miss. March?

* * *


It was over. Everything was over. He was shaking and sweating and hurting from the smallest thing, like the blood moving through his veins and the sudden suffocation he felt from his skin. His skin, not the suit, because now that was separate. He was on his own because he’d failed for the first time in his life. One mistake – one small miscalculation – and that’d set off a chain that’d wrapped around his throat. He could hear it clattering around him, weighing him down and pulling him to his grave. He’d be better off there. Misplacing his goggles was one thing, but losing the suit entirely was... inevitable.

Inevitable. It was inevitable. And now that word was in his head. What did he expect? Everyone saw it. His lead saw it, Frenchie saw it, the fucking Flunky saw it. Hell – his target had seen it and she’d probably been guessing to screw with his mind! Or else he was lying to himself and it simply was that easy to see. Eric hadn’t been breaking new ground when he’d handed over the demotion forms. The only part that was new was him been in the proper spot to act on his disapproval right away.

Here he was, poor Jason, moping about shit he couldn’t change. Had he fainted? That was pathetic. He should wake up and try to salvage what he could. Or he could stay here and die. That was an option. He was comfy where he was anyway. And warm. And kind of...

He opened his eyes. His lids were like razors against them. A massive shudder of pain went through his chest and he coughed, making it worse. The angle he was on had his head crooked, but it didn’t make sense. His vision blurred and his head swam, but he puzzled out one fact: he was lying down. He must’ve fallen over when he’d fainted. Terrific. And unless he’d come up with the kind of blindness that meant he couldn’t see people, only seats, Eric and Benoit were gone. They’d left him here. More importantly, they’d seen him like this and walked away. Wherever his lead went – probably after them because she to be up there to meet Quin, apparently better at Jason’s job by accident than Jason was after years of training – meant she’d gone back to being productive. He’d find her eventually. If she wasn’t going to sign him away so she could mess with him, he was bound to her until she’d had her fill or this was over.

Warm. That wasn’t the seat. He was lying on something.

His body went rigid. Please, please, please tell him what was happening was not what was in his head. Very slowly, hopelessly weak, Jason nudged his head to find a pair of legs.

Yup. Someone kill him now.

“Uh... I’m... on your lap...”

Very good, Jason. Next he’d say the sky was blue. Then again, considering his track record, the sky would’ve been green the entire time. Alright. How was he gonna play this? Shit. He couldn’t move yet. This was not a good place to be.

“Sorry.” Sounded bad. “Sorry – for... everything, basically.” But it really had started with Gary’s mistake. “This should’ve been over two days ago, but at least it’ll be done today.”

Sit up, Jason. Stop lying there like a moron. On top of his boss – holy fuck, how many ways could he destroy himself? Not that’d she turned out to be overly fond of personal space, although that stewardess would’ve said otherwise, but this was crossing a line he didn’t want to go over. He sat up awkwardly, but by himself because he wasn’t throwing one more flaw at her.

“Where did – uh... them... they...” His collar was open. Dammit, dammit, dammit – his neck! Had they seen his neck? Did they say something? “How long’ve...”

Forget it. No more talking. He shook his head and dragged his hand over his face. If Eric and Benoit saw, then fine. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been laughing at something much worse – which hadn’t happened because he was trying to be a damn professional. But it’d almost happened. Maybe. Something had gone on there and it was freaking him the fuck out.

Jason needed a very large amount of alcohol. Instead, his eyes landed on a small white box on the seat. Hers again? Had she asked for more? That wasn’t atropytamine. That was... suit... stuff...

“Where did that come from?” Like he needed to ask. It’d come from Eric – who else? “Why is that here?”

What the fuck did they expect him to do with it?

* * *


‘She didn’t see anything, Alex’. ‘Chill out, Alex, and drink more coffee’. ‘One more coffee wouldn’t hurt, Alex, ‘cause it only takes seconds to make’.

Alex would’ve liked to have followed through on the promise he’d made to himself to convince her nothing had happened, but it was then that Xander’s coffee started going into overdrive. He nearly dropped the mocha in his hands but that would’ve gotten the inferno of a latte thrown in his face as vengeance. He lasted until he made it to the car, ignoring her for now. For the moment, his priority was to get the coffee secure so he’d be safe, then he could spazz the hell out.

Awwwwwww, yeaaaaaaah. I’m lovin’ this.

A caffeine high was really a high for him. Well, Alex was delighted Xander was enjoying himself. If he could come back to reality for a moment and think of an excuse, he’d be very much obliged.

“I don’t get how you’re suddenly relaxed. My teeth are chattering.”

You’ve just gotta feel it. You just gotta take it in. Starbucks... It’s so... Starbucks.

... Brilliant. He had to open the door now though, which was hard if his hand was trembling too much to reach the handle.

Yeah, yeah, yeah...

Xander did it for him, then went back to rolling around in his post-Starbucks ecstasy. He’d be like that for five minutes and then he’d get pissy again. It was why Alex preferred places like Roasters, which never brought on that delirium, and it was also why he’d always order one more cup than he could drink; after the initial rush wore off, it helped to have something to keep him from crashing completely. Of course, it destroyed any hope of Alex living to a ripe, old age. This guy was very hazardous to his health. He couldn’t help but wonder if Xander’d left his real body ‘cause he’d smashed that one up from an overdose.

Wouldn’t be surprised. Beta-testing their stupid suits had me hopped up on a lot of shit – damn, that’s a good latte! And to think, I used to avoid coffee like the plague.

That was a terrible thing to say. Alex had had coffee since he was sixteen. If Xander’s obsession only started after he’d taken a sip from one of Alex’s cups... Well – there was David’s theory too, about the energy boost, but every bit about that kid struck him as suspicious.

“Xander...” Now that he was in the car, he was back to muttering softly. “She wants an answer.”

So give her one.

“I would, but our methods of dealing with problems seem to be wildly conflicting.” Xander told him to keep the voices in his head a secret, and yet he had no problem busting out a conversation in the middle of the street. Xander told him never to use his powers where other people could see, but for the sake of coffee, apparently there was a loophole Alex hadn’t heard about. No thank you. Xander had dragged this up, Xander could bury it. Five minutes? He’d wait. “Osono – can you start driving?”

The first address wasn’t far away. Thankfully, the Starbucks franchise had twenty locations on the way, so they’d been fortunate enough to have been spared a day’s trip starting this side quest to get the information they needed. The full time they were on the road, Alex was shivering. Too much caffeine, too much caffeine... Would he die from this?

Nawwww.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the voice of inspired confidence.

Two more minutes and I’ll be back to solving your problems. Keep her busy until then.

He could do that.

“So.. uh... Osono. You didn’t get any coffee back there. From what I remember, you were in line with us at Elmira. In front of us, actually. We saw you walk out. Just... weren’t in the mood for it today?”

Don’t let her take mine. She’ll find out pretty fucking fast what I can do if she takes mine.

“What I can do,” Alex murmured.

Sure. Minute thirty. Drive ‘til then.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Stephanie blinked as the small box was tossed beside her on the seat, looking at it as if she didn't know what it was for a few minutes. She heard what Master said about the drugs and on a certain level which required her to be logical and professional about this - it seemed like such a distant feeling now - she understood and knew he was right. But she could not help but feel reluctant to even consider it an option. Not only had it been Jason's expressed wish to not use them, but...she wondered what they would end up doing to him.

Stephanie had done her own experimentation with Agency drugs before and even her most recent use of them allowed her some knowledge of the different things the Agency had their hands on as far as chemicals went. And she hadn't done her research on Jason's suit, merely awed by the efficiency of his record so she hadn't known about the drugs until Benoit and Jean had brought it up.

Even before Benoit left, telling her where to meet them, she knew she'd already decided that she wasn't going to be giving Jason anything. She wanted him back to normal, but without any knowledge of what she was working with...and the fact that the drugs themselves would force him to go through a measure of withdrawal... it didn't seem like it made sense to substitute one addiction for another.

She was gravely rethinking this point, however when Jason began to rouse and his body trembled painfully across her lap. What had she done? Maybe it would be better for him to take the drugs? If it would stop his suffering now, then she was all for it. She didn't like seeing him this way, weak as a kitten, and he still had the suit on - which she didn't want to think about what it'd be like for him after he was forced to finally take it off. It made her feel even more guilty, running her hand through sweaty and clumped dark hair and she just wanted to take whatever he was feeling and make it go away.

Then he was talking and she almost laughed at the obvious statement, some of her relief coming back that he was alright enough to speak. And then he was apologizing to her - what for? She'd done this to him and everything had been her fault from the beginning. She'd been very selfish as far as guarding the secrets of her case and if she'd taken the time to be more personal with her team, information wouldn't have gotten lost and there wouldn't have been all this confusion. Maybe she was taking more than her fair share of the burden - maybe her sympathy for Jason was the cause of her feeling overly guilty - but her lapse of judgment that had allowed this to happen to him made her question and doubt everything else that had happened, all the decisions she'd been making.

And then he was asking about that. Glancing at the small box beside her, she picked it up and held it in her lap, looking it over thoughtfully. It would probably be best to answer the easy stuff first. "Benoit and Master are inside waiting for us. They haven't been gone for too long. And there's no need for you to apologize for anything, Jason. I didn't understand what happened with Nathan back in Elmira - I still don't - but I believe that you wouldn't just let them go without a reason... So, really, this whole thing is my fault."

She ran a gentle fingertip along one edge of the box silently for a moment, just looking the small carton over. "All I ever do is hurt you. If you understood... if you knew how beautiful your pain was, you wouldn't blame me... But now I see that it wasn't really what I wanted."

Finally she looked up at him, her green eyes regarding him calmly, but the color vibrant as ever. Holding up the box in two fingers in front of herself she said, "Master gave this to me to help you, but since I haven't been making the safest decisions when it comes to your well-being, I want to leave the choice up to you. Whatever you need me to do... However I can help you through this so that you don't fall apart on me before this is done...I'll do it. If you want to take them or feel you need them, I'll give them to you... but I can't bring myself to force you if it's something you don't want."

All through this, she'd been wearing her mask, flimsy as it was, emotion coming through her monotone and slipping through the cracks in her features. Suddenly, as she fell silent and held the small box out for him to take it, she was suddenly overwhelmed by it all and her face broke enough for her to pout sorrowfully at him. "I didn't sign the resignation because I wanted you to be there...with me when I finish this... Just tell me what you want me to do..."

She didn't know why she was crying again, but she hated feeling this way. Stephanie was on the verge of getting everything she wanted and she was not happy...

***

Alright, she was fine with him continuing to mutter to himself - so long as he eventually answered her, and she fully expected him to, it didn't matter what he did. And she was more than fine to start driving to where ever the hell they were going first. She really didn't want to stay in the Starbucks parking lot any longer than she had to, especially not if anyone had been watching what she'd been watching - which was unlikely because of her being the center of attention at the time.

But what Ozzie was not okay with was the bullshit he pulled a few minutes later: he changed the subject. And no, she didn't fucking remember seeing his crazy ass in Elmira. Already driving away from Starbucks, Ozzie abruptly stamped on the breaks coming to a halt in the middle of the street and glared at him, not caring about the cars that she forced to stop behind her.

"HEY! I'm fucking talking to you, asshole!" she yelled at him angrily, ignoring the honking horns behind them for now. "And I would appreciate you not treating me like a fucking two-year old when I ask you a fucking question! Just be straight with me, Alex: do you have powers or not? It's a really simple question and it's not a big deal - I just don't want you to freaking jerk me around as if I didn't just see you electrocute two people while stealing coffee from them - what? Did you run out of money? Were they Agents or something? I don't give a fuck why, I just wanted to know what happened. It's not something you need to talk over with your imaginary friend about.

"And who the fuck do you keep talking to by yourself? Is it Gwen? Has she been in contact with you this whole time? Is that how you know where to go to find her?" The guy behind her leaned on his horn heavily and finally Ozzie dropped out of her feverish rant long enough to flip him off so he could see it out the back window. Then she took several breaths to calm down and started driving again, shaking her head and silently steaming.

"And yes, I wanted fucking coffee, jerkwad!" she finally said, smacking the steering wheel. "Otherwise I wouldn't have been standing in the freaking line with you, now would I? No! Actually, I just wanted to smell roasting beans and babysit a bunch of snot-nosed bastards because I've got all the time in the world to just piss away!"

***

He wasn't going to stop for anything. No matter what, he was not going to pull this car over for anything. He was just going to haul ass straight to Charlton and drop this crazy broad off and wash his hands of this whole horrible nightmare. Rudy's stomach blurbed angrily at him, hollow from his missed lunch and knowing that to avoid any other mishaps, he wasn't going to stop for dinner. Already, he'd been delayed enough that he wasn't going to make it to Charlton until nightfall and he cursed himself for the mistakes he'd made.

Well, the only mistake he'd made, in his eyes was trusting the bitch; the rest of it was HER fault and he was just an innocent victim. At that thought, he cringed and sniffled at the pain in his face, the sticky blood repainting the left side now drying, in addition to the bitterness that still seeped from his broken nose. God, he fucking hated her and he'd been so close to killing her back there. The thought made him excited to stick the gun in her face again and finish the job, while at the same time nausea hit him to think of Mr. Patten's reaction when he showed up with a corpse. Rudy might as well take the gun to his own head right after if he decided to do that.

Snorting long and heavily, Rudy abruptly turned his head out the window to hock and spit a congealed mass of gunk that had been forming a knot in his throat and wiped his chin on the back of his hand before turning to glare at her. Gwen sat in the front passenger seat, bound hand and foot but ungagged, worn and torn but better than she had been before they'd stopped. She felt him look at her but she didn't return it, staring ahead and trying once again to reach out to Alex. She'd felt something back there... She'd touched him, she knew she did. She wasn't exactly sure the reason yet because he had not shown up on her radar as being anywhere close, so she was assuming for now that contact had been made under duress. Now...she just had to concentrate and recreate it without the panic.

On a side note, she felt absolutely no remorse for what had happened to Rudy, but was now even more hesitant than before to use her powers anymore on this trip. She was definitely starting to get the hang of it and understood that the suggestions she put into people's heads were not her controlling them but digging out already present wishes and hopes from deep inside them. That was why it generally worked better when she latched onto people who were already willing to hurt Rudy. And the actual mechanics of it were easy enough, inserting herself deep enough inside that they didn't recognize her implanted thoughts as not their own.

But there was an even bigger price to her enlisting the help of random people, other than the fact that it put their lives at risk. The effect the constant abuse was having on Rudy was making him even less stable than he'd been to begin with and it was no joke: he really did hate her. The only thing that kept him from killing her was some blind attachment to his job and a tenuous fear of his boss. Compared to the very real and growing rage he had for Gwen, it was becoming an even flimsier thread than it had started out as. She wasn't sure how much more abuse he could take from her without finally cracking and deciding in the spur of the moment that it would be better to suffer the A-1's wrath rather than to continue to deal with her.

Which was why she was trying to contact Alex again. Running from Rudy had completely worn her out physically and now she was back in the restraints which made her physically incapable of going anywhere. Instead of hoping that he'd be stupid enough to take them off a second time, the best she could hope for now was that Alex was still going to Charlton and that he'd meet her there and hopefully...be able to do something before it was too late.

So far, however, the more she sat trying to reach out to him, the more helpless and hopeless she began to feel. At first, she tried to concentrate on him, thinking deeply of his mental signature and trying to feel it. But she was soon frustrated by this when she couldn't focus on a location for him. Then she tried latching onto the feeling of the connection she'd had but that too seemed a wasted effort. Like when she'd first tried to talk to Alex psychically, it didn't matter how focused she was, her voice just echoed back at her inside her own head, making her feel even more alone.

"Shit..." Rudy murmured under his breath, causing Gwen to shake loose from the trance she'd been in. Looking up she saw that Rudy was being followed by a police cruiser and was forced to slow down on the side of the road.

Reaching out curiously, Gwen was able to discover that the man who'd owned the diner back there near Montrose had called the police. The cop currently pulling them over had not been specifically called but was a Trooper watching for speeders on the side of the road and had heard the call and description on his radio.

Rudy's hand whipped out to grab her by the hair at her neck and pulled her close to whisper hatefully in her ear. "Haven't learned your lesson? Making another attempt? I swear to fucking God, if you don't stop this shit right now--!"

"It wasn't me!" Gwen gasped hoarsely, her heart beating fast in her throat. "Y-your car fits the profile of the guy who was seen waving a gun around back at the diner!" The police officer hadn't left his car yet but was busy calling it in and waiting for orders on how to proceed. "And...I think some people might have seen you put me in the car..."

"...Oh." He glanced into the rearview but did not let go of her. "Make him go away or I'll kill him." It was obvious from the threat itself that Rudy didn't want to do that for some reason, probably because of the attention and obvious trail of bodies he was leaving.

Gwen didn't want the police officer to die either and her thoughts kept running through how to best proceed. From the way Rudy was cirrently holding onto her however, she knew that "snapping thread" was a very real possibility if she didn't try and dissolve the situation. Probing into the officer's mind, she saw that he was a good man albeit a little arrogant with a tendency to push his weight around on the highway - when he wasn't busy taking naps, that is. But as soon as he'd gotten the call about the "black Lincoln" and a beat up guy who was seen with a weapon at the truckers stop, and then seen the vehicle pass by a few seconds later, he instantly hopped onto this opportunity to be a hero.

Taking a calming breath, Gwen tried to nudge into his head and force the thought 'Let them go. You have the wrong car.' but other than a minor moment of doubt, he shook her off and finished up his radio call. She was about to try again when Rudy suddenly shook her.

"Well!? He's still getting out of his car! What did you say to him!?"

"Nothing! He's too strong! He won't listen to me!" not only was she worried about Rudy would do, but she knew he probably wouldn't believe her, even though it was true.

"Bullshit! You could get my own assistant to fucking shoot at me and you can't get some pansy cop to drive away?"

"I couldn't get him to pull the trigger, remember?" she cringed and waited while he mulled that over and watched as the officer approached the car.

"Good point. I'll deal with it," he finally said, letting her go and turning to give the cop his brightest smile as he walked up to Rudy's window. "What can I do for you, officer?"

Despite the pleasant tone to Rudy's voice, the cop took one look at Rudy's beaten and torn face, his eyes sweeping over to Gwen with her hands in the circlet cuffs in her lap and pulled his gun out. "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to please step out of your vehicle, nice and slow, with your hands where I can see them."

"Fuck me..." Rudy groaned in a low voice, staring at the barrel of the gun in dismay.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Xander put his hand over the two coffees at her words, because that was what was in danger. Did he forget Osono controlled fire and had only just stopped thinking they were Agent friends of Rudy?

One minute, more or less. He could stall for that long. He hoped Osono didn’t get antsy in the meantime.

“Well... as far as babysitting went, you did a good job. My ears hurt a bit, but – uh... it wasn’t bad. And you might be onto something with it,” he said, trying to draw it out for as long as he could. The pressure was on with so many pissed off drivers stuck behind them. Some were passing and flipping them off, but he kept his head steady. He wasn’t frying anyone while they were driving, so his focus would stay on her, for now, until he found something better to look at. “If you ever decide to give up running around and want to set up a legitimate shop, there’s always kids.”

If Alex had kids, Osono’s daycare would be the last place he sent them.

Awkward silence. Not good. Hurry up, roomie.

Mm-hmm...

What was his solution going to be? To tell her? Xander couldn’t! The stage Alex had been trying to set was one that gave her as little information as possible. He’d had no choice but to offer his real name because he honestly wouldn’t be able to juggle fake ones around and the ‘Stacey’ screw up proved it, but letting her in on his powers? No. It couldn’t happen. It was for her sake as well as his and Gwen’s. If they got split up and the Agents captured Osono, he wouldn’t let her use his eyes as a way for them to identify who they were dealing with. He couldn’t take them by surprise and the time they’d have to prepare could spell his end, especially if they dragged her to one of their bases. This was assuming they took out her powers, but she’d said she’d had some limitations to what she could do. It wasn’t impossible to disable her. And anyway, his point stood: should the worst happen, the Agents couldn’t know he was coming, even if they could technically guess. Any advantage was crucial, so the truth about that off the table.

The voice in his head, though. That was trickier. Alex trusted Xander to lie his ass out of that one only because the guy never stuck his neck out farther than he could shield it. The reason Gwen knew was because Alex had told her. She wasn’t stupid and she’d obviously known something was up, but there would’ve been something he – alright, Xander – could’ve said to throw her off the trail. ‘Crazy’ wasn’t as easy an excuse to believe as people guessed. If he was ‘eccentric’ or ‘loopy’, maybe, but full on hearing voices? The plan had changed to include her and he couldn’t afford to drive her off or have her dump him at the nearest asylum and do who-the-hell-knew-what while Gwen was out there and in danger.

“Okay...” He’d said it nervously, trying to keep his voice low and lips still. “Any explanation now would be great...”

There was one car behind them that refused to go around. It stood there honking, leaning into the horn like it was choking. No mind frying, he reminded himself, and definitely not while she was waiting for him to prove her right.

“I told you before Gwen had a gift,” Xander said. “I told you she had ‘mental powers’ and that she could communicate through her mind. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t telling you the whole truth.”

Did he know where he was going with this?

Do I ever not?

Sometimes Alex wondered. Xander ignored him.

Things had changed. He could see his shoulders slumping as he sat lower in his chair. His head turned down and his hair cast a shadow on his face. In his hand was his latte, but instead of drinking it in victory, he turned it numbly between his palms. His entire body changed from jittery and crippled to quiet and still and mournful. When he spoke, his voice was low. Every word ended with a grey pause as if he didn’t trust himself to say what he had to. The noises around them faded while a calm flowed into the car. This was about Gwen now. A weight came over him as the name rose in his thoughts. Whatever Xander was doing, it’d set the mood of loss.

“Gwen’s... strong. The Agents have wanted her for years. She’s got a way of reaching out that’s...” He fumbled for a moment, trying to think of the proper sound. He gave up, then he shook his head. “There’s no word for it, but it kept her safe. There’re these defences around her that lash out at anything that’s not on her side. Or there were, but... she met me. It didn’t happen right away, but eventually she split her focus to make sure I was safe. She must’ve gotten so used to sharing that she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – take them back to fend Rudy off. That’s why he got her, Osono. You can guilt yourself whatever way you want, but in the end, this wasn’t your fault. She would’ve gotten away, but she’d... sacrificed herself to make sure I wasn’t hurt. You don’t have to be here if you can’t trust me. It’s not your fight. ‘You’re free’, if you want to put it that way, but... I have to do this. I can’t let her get hurt more than I already have and I can’t let her go through... everything else...”

He was scratching the side of cup’s cover. A tiny tear had opened up at its edge. He watched it, gathering his thoughts, then slowly picked his words and pressed on.

“What you saw at Starbucks was that shared defence. She couldn’t explain it to me because it’s a part of her, but I think what it does is go through the minds of everyone around her – and now me. It looks for anything hostile and... well – you saw. It’s normally never just attacked like that, but wherever she is, it’s not close enough to keep it on a leash. I think right now it’s going off of what I feel isn’t right. I kind of... wanted someone’s coffee... and whatever that woman was thinking to keep me away from it must’ve set the defence off. Yes, I took it, and I shouldn’t have and it was wrong, but... now you know what let me. And now I know I have to keep it contained.”

How?

... You do realize I’m making this up, right?

... Yes.

Sure.

“You don’t have to worry about it. I want it to do that. I mean – I don’t want anyone hurt, but at least this way I know she’s alive. That’s more than I can ask for and it’s all I have right now. When we get to Charlton, maybe we’ll find more, but until then – just... try to put up with it.” And the voice? “As for who I’m talking to... You’re right. It’s Gwen.” He breathed out sharply and cut Osono off in case she was trying to say anything. She might not have been, but it seemed to fit anyway. “It’s not Gwen Gwen. It’s not... no. I haven’t heard from her since she was taken, but a few months after we met, I got separated from her. Agents. Lots of them. She got me out, but I’d been hysterical. She made me a small copy of herself and left it in my memories. It’s not like it says anything useful but, like the mind defence, it’s keeping me relaxed. And if the worst should happen...” The cup’s cover split. “At least that one won’t leave me.”

Got a pass to use my powers, got a reason for finding the base, got me covered... Did I miss anything?

“No.” Alex turned his head away and kept it to the window. “I think you got it all.”

Greaaaat! ... You gonna drink that?

Alex sipped the stupid thing. Even if Xander was the one tasting it, it felt bitter on his tongue. Gwen was hours away from being dragged to her death and they had no way of getting to her. They needed to be at those addresses and make sure she was safe. He knew she’d be doing something to get away. He could only hope it worked. No matter what happened, he had to get into the Charlton base, but learning she’d escaped and gone to... wherever – gone to Russia – would be the one thing that’d made this less than a total disaster.

She’d be okay. It was impossible for her not to be okay. She’d called to them, hadn’t she? Then alright. She was fighting.

She’s probably kickin’ his ass as we speak. Alex couldn’t help snorting. We’ll find her when we get to Charlton. I’m not worried about it.

Yeah... Yeah, Alex wasn’t worried either.

See? It’s fine. Now – can we get the fuck back to driving?

“Yeah. Osono – can you...” He gestured to the wheel. “If you’re satisfied with that answer...”

And that’d been a decent answer.

‘Decent’? S’fucking rock star answer, man.

“Was it real? The parts that weren’t...” In case Osono had the same sharp ears as Gwen, he stayed away from finishing that sentence. He didn’t her getting the wrong answer. “Was it?”

Stop asking me that. I’m an Agent. Ex-Agent, as Xander was all too quick to remind them. Ha, ha. Adorable. Where’s my coffee?

“The GPS says the first address is five minutes away. This place looks a bit empty, though.”

We’ll see when we get there. ‘Course, it’d be nice if we started moving...

Alex was sure the other drivers would appreciate it, too. He was glad he had some reign to use his eyes again, because if that asshole came up here, he’d get nothing but a face full of seizure.

* * *


This should’ve been worse than it felt. Here he was, in a limousine with his boss, sitting up but still so close to her, and she was crying before him. He should’ve been panicking and running to get help. Agents weren’t supposed to have emotions and someone like her, someone who’d gone out of her way to purge herself of humanity, was at negative that. She’d let parts of herself slip every now and again, but there’d been such control over everything she said. On the plane, there’d been tears there, too. Jason hadn’t trusted them in the slightest. Now... it wasn’t ‘trust’ exactly. It was more like a very strong benefit of the doubt.

He had to handle this. Somehow. He also had to keep in mind that she could kill him in less time than it’d take to blink. This would be amazingly more simple if he wasn’t shaking the addict that he tried not to be.

“Don’t –” Shit. He couldn’t think. “Don’t worry about the forms. I should see this out. It’s better if I stay.”

What a flawless answer. It was almost textbook perfect. Any A-3 would’ve been proud to have heard something so crisp and dedicated. She, however, didn’t look any better.

This case had taken its toll on her, too. There’d been a factory-fresh feeling of cleanliness when she’d first arrived. Over time, she’d lost that. He should’ve noticed earlier, but it was likely a part of him staying close to his usual way of business: do not comment on anything surrounding superior Agents. He’d blinded himself and that stunt with the goggles had ruined him for a full day. The thought of his reputation went through his mind and immediately took hold of him, but the warmth of her slowly brought him back to what was happening now.

“Look – boss –” Formal. Formal. The world wasn’t completely in focus yet – if it’d ever be again – and he couldn’t afford to say something stupid on top of everything. “This is your case. This has always been your case. What’s been happening between...” Don’t say ‘us’. Do not say ‘us’. “... you and I... It’s been very, very unorthodox, but it’s something I have to accept. Just... because. I’m on this case to help you, not the other way around. I’m here to get you what you need, and if that’s our target, the girl you’ve been training to transfer into, then I’ll do that. It’s what you want – what you’ve earned. Nobody deserves it more than you.”

He could do better. He was here and he was out of any watchful eyes. He could put his hands on her face, run his fingers along her jaw, touch down to her neck and across her collarbone, and that would’ve still been within what the Agency called appropriate. ... He couldn’t get away from that. Everything always came back to what they thought and what they wanted. They were taking away his suit but he still gave in to their every rule. What about his rules?

The box was there. Inside was everything ‘someone like him’ needed. It seemed ironic that the first time he’d genuinely considering going for them was when he was about to lose the thing he would’ve actually needed them for.

“I can’t –” use them. He couldn’t use them. It went against everything he stood for, everything he’d worked for, and he’d built an entire life around the pride he’d felt at turning them away. “I can’t use these yet. Not now.” He was light-headed and his cheeks were cold. If he could’ve torn his eyes away from hers for the moment he needed to, he might’ve tried shaking his head and getting some blood back through them. “But I can’t rule them out. I’ve never failed anything like this. If I can’t handle it, I’ll have no choice.”

His hand went out to hers to accept the small carton. Instinctively, his fingers destroyed any risk of touching her. It wasn’t as though it would’ve mattered anyway, not with the gloves he was pointlessly wearing, but a thin line of pain cut through the middle of him. He was pretty hopeless, in case anyone wanted his opinion. They wouldn’t since he’d been demoted, but it was there if anyone asked. Eric might. He seemed to be on the level.

Oh, shit. Eric. Benoit. Where were they?

Ah, so there was the panic.

“If they’re upstairs we – uh – we have to go up there, too.”

He was walking whether he could or not. Placing his fists firmly on the cushion, not on her, he forced his feet off of the seats and onto the floor of the limousine. He took a break. The sickness started up. Acid burned at the bottom of his throat and his eyes seared from being open. He should pass out again. It’d been his first real vacation from this mess of a mission since it’d started and he was almost annoyed that he’d been woken out of it. He was even more annoyed by how willingly he was trying to jump back into the thick of it.

But... one more thing...

“I’m going to be staying until the end,” he said. “My reasons for it have changed slightly, but it doesn’t matter as long as the end result’s the same. I’m not going anywhere, boss. If you aren’t getting rid of me, then I guess I’ll just have to chase you.” His gaze had been on his feet while he’d kept the sickness down. He lifted it to meet her eyes. “You are not going to break on me. So long as I’m here, you have me, and you are not going to lose everything you’ve worked for just because things got out of control.”

He wouldn’t let her. That was a promise.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
What was wrong with today? Why did everything seem like it was going from bad to worse the closer he got to his destination? Even with as troublesome and violent as Osono had been, he'd never gone through this much Hell while pursuing her. Then again, there was that little crush she had on him that kept her from hurting him too much, and there had always been a wide buffer of bodies between him and her that allowed her to take out her violent tendencies without coming close to touching him. And of course, Ozzie still didn't know he was an Agent.

Maybe that was it. He was operating out in the open now not hiding who he was and it suddenly made him a target for every bad thing that could ever happen to a person. Thinking back, there really hadn't been a moment for him to switch gears and suddenly become "Not-Agent" and it was certainly too late to play that card now. But fuck, if he just wanted some peace... There was no sense crying about it now, especially with a gun in his face. Alright, the best way to deal with this was like everything else: make the guy think he was a harmless idiot and then stab him when his back was turned. Well, shoot him, anyways.

"You know...this vaguely reminds me of that one Stephen King movie," Rudy started, glancing from Gwen and back to the cop, but not making a move to leave the car. "You know, the one miniseries where the cop is pulling over people on that highway and takes them to that town to kill them. And you kind of look a little like Ron Perlman--"

"Sir, do not make me ask again. Get out of your car now."

Gwen looked from the cop to Rudy and back again, and having an internal look inside the officer's head, she realized that whatever game Rudy was playing was not going to work on this guy. Again, she tried to nudge the thought that he should let them go, but it was past that point now. Even if Rudy wasn't the guy the report was about, there was enough probable cause for the officer to be suspicious that something was going on and he'd already seen Gwen in restraints.

"Look, I know it may seem weird, but we're into a little sadomasochism and bondage," Rudy said, trying again, holding up his hand a little to try and calm the cop down. "See, she just got done givin' it to me good and now we've switched places and it's her turn--"

"Get out of the car now," Officer Frewer was no longer waiting for Rudy to listen to him, but reaching forward and opening Rudy's door, the gun still fixed on the Agent.

"Alright...alright..." Rudy said in defeat, slowly stepping from the open door with his hands raised. Outwardly, he was fearful and seemed eager to please the man with the gun trained on him, but inwardly, he was cool and collected as ever, waiting for the right opportunity. Forced to his knees and then face-down on the pavement, Rudy did as he was told and laid there as the police officer stepped forward to address Gwen.

"Miss, are you alright? Are you injured?" Officer Frewer asked her through the still open driver's side door, giving her a quick glance but keeping his eyes and gun fixated on Rudy. When she didn't answer him, he looked at her and realized she'd been shaking her head "no" that she wasn't hurt. Probably in too much shock to answer him verbally.

And truthfully, Gwen was in shock. Was this it? Was it over? Had Rudy finally been defeated? Was she free? It was hard to tell because she couldn't feel anything from Rudy except his physical senses - which was mainly a lot of bruising and sharp pain in his face - so he was still probably willing to fight...but she didn't see how this could go wrong. She knew Rudy had put the gun he carried back into his pocket before they'd left the diner, but with him splayed out on the ground, if he made one move for it, the cop would not stop to ask what he was doing before shooting him. It was okay, although she was a little worried that the officer wasn't searching Rudy or cuffing him, she reasoned that he probably didn't want to get too close while he was still alone. And she knew he'd already called for backup.

"It's alright, miss. Everything's going to be okay now. Help is on the way. Can you get out of the car?" It was somewhat a relief to be around someone from the real-world again, a cop asking her normal questions and seeking after her well-being. It felt a bit odd that someone who had no clue about the Agents or people with abilities was trying to calm her down. It was even stranger that the worst was practically stopped in it's tracks by this untrained nobody.

But a little too late she started to get nervous about him continuing to look at her. He was just doing his job and she supposed she should have answered him, instead of gaping like a fish, because now he was trying to make eye contact to reassure her and make her feel safe. She could feel Rudy reaching into his pocket in the seconds while Frewer was addressing her and her eyes went wide sending him a sharp signal inside his head.

He has a GUN!

Officer Frewer did not wait for the thought to set in, his heart already jumping back up to rapid speeds as he turned to look back at Rudy. Quin was just rolling over onto his side, a technological mass of metal bits and pieces enveloping his hand and pointing up at the officer before Frewer pulled the trigger, automatically aiming for the chest area. Because of the angle that Rudy was lying on the ground, the bullet went straight through his right shoulder causing him to grunt harshly at the impact. Then in the seconds waiting for the impact to tremble through his shoulder and arm, Rudy pulled his own trigger.

Gwen cried out in surprise as Officer Frewer flew back against the car door violently in a flash of light that was becoming all too familiar to her, his body slamming into the metal like a limp rag doll. Then he slumped against it, eyes blank and arm with pistol still attached to his wrist hanging at an odd angle inside the car, the smell of gunpowder hanging crisp in the air.

For the longest time, Gwen sat frozen watching the opening between the car door and Officer Frewer's corpse, unable to move and unable to look away. Even though he was only a few feet from her, Rudy had gone off of her radar again and she couldn't tell if it was because he was dead or if he was just hiding like he'd done before. It was several minutes later when she heard the distant sound of sirens, that she was able to finally shake herself out of it and started to try and move in her seat.

A second later a sharp scream left her lips as Rudy's bloodied hand and body appeared in the doorway, dragging himself up to a kneeling position beside Officer Frewer's body. Pulling at the corpse until it fell over, Rudy shoved it away in irritation before pulling himself back up into his seat, cringing and hissing in pain as his right arm moved to help his ascent weakly. Probing his body, she could feel that the gun wound went all the way through his shoulder, but it didn't seem like it had hit anything major. Still, it was bleeding a lot and she wondered if it would be safe for him to drive like that. But he seemed to ignore the wound in favor of looking out the back window to see how close the cop's "backup" was before turning to close his door and start the engine back up.

As they peeled away from the shoulder of the road, still no sign of the cop's friends but hearing their distant wails, Rudy kept an eye on the rearview and let out a labored sigh. "Well, that went a lot better than I hoped," he said somewhat pleasantly. When Gwen gave him an incredulous look, he glanced at her and said defensively, "No, I mean, in that movie, that cop killed a lot of people before the main guys could get away. We got off pretty easy with what I was worried about. Which reminds me; you don't feel 'possessed' do you?" When she gave him an annoyed look, he grinned before looking into the rearview again. "Just checking."

***

Ozzie was sitting tensely waiting for a response from him, still ignoring the chaos she was creating in the street around her. She wasn't going to move a foot further until he'd given her some sort of explanation. Rudy liked to play that stupid "change the subject" game and although she'd dealt with it differently then, now that she knew what was going on with Quin, she really wasn't in the mood to let anybody else jerk her around like that. Least of all Alex whom she still didn't like very much.

When he opened his mouth she found herself caught off guard briefly when he went off on a brief tangent about how she'd been with the kids. It made her blush a little to remember how it'd felt to be in charge of those brats - kids she didn't even know, but it felt the same as it always had. And what he said about having a daycare center reminded her even more of a conversation she'd had with someone long ago about that very thing. So, for a few moments instead of jumping on his case about changing the subject again, she sat trying to collect herself enough to still be angry about it. By the time she was ready to explode on his stupid ass again, he was talking and the words coming out of his mouth were exactly what she wanted to hear.

One thing she immediately zeroed in on was the whole change in Alex's demeanor, becoming almost melancholy and somber as he spoke, thoughtful and stepping over his words carefully. It no longer felt like he was trying to hide something from her though, but as if he were grappling with information that was painful to part with. That grabbed her attention immediately, more than the actual words themselves and she found her own anger dissolving on a cloud as he continued.

Osono quickly found her mental image of Gwen shifting and evolving as Alex spoke. Remembering that sweet young woman who'd almost been timid in response to Ozzie's teasing, but at the same time strong and passionate when talking with Alex. After Gwen had been taken, Ozzie had started to see her as a victim, as a sort of damsel in distress and had included herself as one of the metaphorical 'knights' on a quest to rescue her. But now...with what Alex was saying about Gwen's powers, although Gwen still seemed vulnerable, she'd raised herself up to an almost 'Jesus' and 'warrior' status herself.

Sacrificing herself, even when she knew she was in danger just so that Alex wouldn't get hurt. And apparently, she was still sacrificing her power to help keep him safe. The romance between these two would almost be vomit worthy if..it wasn't so real and passionate. Here he was, uninvolved in the big picture except with his association with his girlfriend. Nobody after him, nobody threatening him and he was risking everything to help get her free. And then there was Gwen, who probably knew, even now where ever she was, that he wouldn't give up and would keep putting himself in danger and she weakened herself deliberately to protect him, when she probably could use that power for herself more than he could. The situation was all sorts of fucked up but a beautiful romance, even she had to admit. And she normally hated this mushy bullshit.

And then he further explained about Gwen making a copy of herself and putting it in his head and Ozzie relaxed even more, even though that bit of it confused her just a little. It was extremely complicated but it seemed too out there to not be true. And she did make a mental note of him practically destroying his coffee cup all while talking about this and she took it along with his words to mean he was going through some sort of emotional turmoil discussing these things. And Ozzie had to admit, these were the first other people who knew about the Agency that she'd met, so she really didn't know what the rules were as far as who had powers and how they worked. But Alex's explanation of things seemed to work and she couldn't ignore that emotion. It was his version of Gwen's googly eyes and you just couldn't fake that.

When he ushered her to start driving again, she did so without a fuss, waiting for another car to make it's pass around her before being able to move forward. As she pulled out and continued down the street, with a small shake of her head she murmured, "You two are so freaking Metal, I swear."

Other than that, she didn't really know what to say. He was dealing with whatever in his own way and she didn't feel comfortable putting her hand on his shoulder and telling him 'everything's gonna be a'ight.' But she wasn't feeling like her normal self enough to just slap him and tell him 'suck it up, pussy!' So, she left it at 'Metal' and that's all she wanted to say about that. She'd gotten what she wanted and she was happy not to hate him so much anymore. Right now, at least.

Driving along, she tried to keep silent but really she couldn't help returning to the things he'd said. Especially when he'd basically told her she could leave if she wanted to, but that saving Gwen was something he had to do. "You love her a lot, huh?" she asked with a wry twist of her lips. "If it's NOT love with everything you've got to lose, not being involved or anything, it doesn't make sense for you to keep risking it all just to save her when you know they'll be crawling up your ass the day after it's done. You said so yourself, they won't stop throwing guys at you until something breaks.

"And thanks for your permission and all, and don't get me wrong, I'm sure your Gwen power-up is as awesome as it sounds - and if the woman at Starbucks is any indication of how badass it is. But I have my doubts about how far you'll get without me, Sir Limpsalot. No offense or nothing." She cast him a grin and looked down at his leg but said nothing about it as she continued driving.

"And I'm not just feeling guilty - I don't know if you noticed or anything but I don't form attachments to people very good. I hurt everybody Alex, and I burn everything I touch. Not only that but I like doing it. I'm not a very good person and most everybody I come into contact with can either sense it or they feel sick from Rudy when he comes trudging up with his 'lost puppy' thing. Gwen didn't. Or maybe she did but she saw something in me I don't normally show.

"But... this is gonna sound stupid, because I only just met her yesterday and we were only together for a little while and I know it sounds crazy... but she's my friend. I don't know... maybe she's affected me too, but I don't want to give up on her now. The one person who didn't immediately flinch when I put my arm around her and who in the midst of everything that was going wrong said my name like she wanted to save my life or something. That guy in the restaurant shot at us and as soon as he was dead, she thought of me. I don't have that with anybody else...and I haven't in a really...really long time. I'm gonna see this to the end and I'm not stopping until she's safe and back in your arms. I'll burn every-fucking-body if I have to."

Despite the serious tone of her conversation, Ozzie tried to brush it off and put on the tough-girl act. She figured, if he could take a moment to be all sentimental then she could do it too but she wasn't going to get mopey or emo about it. They were nearing the destination and she took out her pack of cigarette's before realizing it was empty, then crushing and tossing it out the window, letting out a harsh breath through her lips.

"So, this place, it's just an office building right? And you don't know if there's going to be Agents or anything? Do you...want me to drive around the block first or should I just pull right up front?" Her hands tapped lightly on the steering wheel and the car filled with a crisping heat as she got ready for battle. It was nowhere near as intense as it had been in the hotel room and she had more than enough control right now that it was not possible for any fire to be around without her expressed permission. But her excitement to start something could clearly be felt pulsing heavily in the air, even as her body tensed energetically.

***

The tears started to clear up the more he spoke, his voice deep and soothing to her, grounding her back into reality. She especially almost laughed when he called her "boss" again, reminding her once more who was suppose to be in charge here. But she thanked him for not rubbing her face in it or making her feel stupid for her momentary weaknesses and the fact that he was so strong right now only made her feel that attraction for him grow. Even when she could hear it in his voice and see it in his face as he struggled to sit upright with his feet planted on the floor of the limo, he was trying to be the levelheaded one and she was extremely grateful.

Stephanie felt like such a mess as she became more and more aware of the situation she'd placed herself in. He wasn't going to die and he wasn't going to leave her - she'd already made that decision for him on the plane - so really her crying about whether he should take the drugs or not seemed all of a sudden really pathetic. But she could not deny the way it had felt just then... the weight on her heart to hold him in her lap and wondering blindly what she was expected to do. The thought of continuing this mission without him - whether because he was going to leave or fall dead on her - scared her. And that had been mostly what she'd been crying about. If she forced the drugs on him, he might hate her for ruining everything he'd created in himself, but if she didn't...she didn't know what the suit would do to him in it's sudden absence.

She was done crying about it now though, since she knew that wasn't what he needed to help him. She needed to stay strong and levelheaded if not for him then at least for her case - which, she'd almost completely forgotten about yet again, with her focus completely turned onto him. From now on, she'd just make sure to make herself available to him, something she hadn't been before, in place of playing and pulling at him like a toy.

And she understood and respected him about his decision regarding the drugs. But she would decide when she felt he'd had enough. From the way he was looking now, and the toll withdrawal took on a body, she was not going to wait for him to lie writhing on the floor in a mess before she stepped in to help him. She couldn't and it would be a failing in her duty as his superior. Other Lead Agents were willing to throw away the men and women on their team as mere numbers when it came to their cases. Jason was all she had left and she couldn't just break herself off emotionally like that. Not from him.

The last things he said to her as he sat on the seat trying to gather himself really hit everything home for her and when their eyes met hers shined with a vibrant inner light. So forceful... there was a hint of that passion deep inside and she could see it there. He may have hesitated to make any physical contact with her but she needed to touch him then. She needed to feel that strength pulsing within him and to let herself know he was going to be alright.

Sidling close to him on the seat, her arm reached around his back to tuck into his waist, pulling him flush against her with their sides touching and laid her head on his shoulder, golden locks falling over his upper arm. "Unorthodox is a good way to describe it and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm glad I chose you and I know no matter what happens, I will not regret the decision I made in signing you on."

She tossed her hair out of the way to look up at him, nuzzling close to his still bared neck. "I only hope that I can be something you won't regret..." her voice took on the hint of a sultry tone as she brushed her lips against all the skin she could touch.

Finally, having had her fill, Stephanie drew back to look him over, and her hand drifted up to touch the marks on his neck, a smile of pride forming on her lips. "Those look really good on you," she said fondly. Feeling the sudden urge to do so, she leaned forward and licked up his neck to just under his chin, delighting in the small shiver it produced in him.

Then she was pulling away and standing, half-bent over to open the side door of the limo. "Benoit is probably having a fit right now, being alone with the Master for this long. Are you alright to go or do you want to sit for a little longer?" The obvious suggestion in her flirtatious glance over her shoulder was that she'd "keep him company" while he did.

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2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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He assumed being ‘Metal’ was a good thing because she sure seemed to act like it. She was almost as relaxed as he was until her energy picked up while she talked. Alex had been right: Gwen had made quite the impression. For some reason, he was proud of that, even if he’d had nothing to do with it. He tried not to smile when she said she’d set everyone on fire. That wasn’t quite the way he wanted it to happen, but knowing she was ready to fight for their side gave him more comfort.

“If Gwen were here, she’d be happy to know the mass felonies you’ll do in her name.” They’d have to manage three to get past Charlton. “But let’s start with the basics: we only have to send a message. It doesn’t mean anyone needs to die.”

The air warmed around him. He would’ve told her to stop, but he was more interested in where the car was headed. The GPS had an arrow over where their car was supposed to be, and not only was it nose-to-nose with the tiny star for the address, but a tinny voice piped in with a thin, “You have arrived at your destination.

And it was burned down.

“Of course it is...”

Welp – on to the next one. 427 Al-

“Let’s look around. They might’ve left something.” He was already getting out of the car. “It could’ve just happened.”

No, this’s been here a while. Anything they left behind was shit they didn’t need.

There it was, the great land they’d been searching for. It might’ve been an office but it was shaped more like a factory. At three stories high and with hulking, barred windows at its top, it must’ve made one hell of a noise when it’d caved in. The roof hadn’t left any trace of where it’d been resting. The whole of it had slipped inside, tearing part of the fire-licked wall and revealing it’d crashed through the other floors. Alex could make out some chairs and broken desks among the soot, but Xander was right. This had been here for ages. Nothing he saw was worth taking, either. It didn’t have to be the Agents, but certainly someone had picked the office clean.

“Great,” he muttered. “So now what?”

427 Albert Drive.

“We wasted our time if we can’t do anything here,” Alex said. “I know it’s destroyed already, but we want to get their attention. Why can’t Osono light something up anyway?”

Basic science, pompom: fire needs fuel. I’d say we’re lacking on that. Whatever could burn had burned. Mix in the erosion and the rain, and short of a miracle gas pipe beneath their feet... You should keep moving.

The guy didn’t want to chat about alternatives. His hands were twitching, and not from the caffeine. They could have questioned Osono to see if there was anything she could do, but Xander put him back in the car before his seat had gone cold and went to work preparing for the second stop.

“427 Albert Drive,” he said again, punching it into the system. “That’s where we have to go.”

This place wasn’t important. Must’ve done... number crunching... computer work... communications and tracking, maybe. It’s not big enough to house any serious activity.

Translation: if they’d left something behind, it’d have nothing to do with what they wanted.

“How big would it have to be?”

The size of a hotel or a very large warehouse, enough to put up a front to the world that they’re a legitimate business and that’ll explain the comings and goings from the darker side of life. It’s either a seven storey building – minimum – or there’s levels underground. There could be levels underground here! Not likely, or else it wouldn’t’ve been abandoned. This was a limb they could walk without, mostly because it was a hundred percent legal.

“Amazing. The Agency does things that go against the law. Couldn’t’ve guessed.”

It goes against the Human Rights Act too, but who listens to those hippies? Alex’s stomach growled. Room for coffee? Methinks ‘yes’...

“Let’s hurry,” Alex told her. “Hopefully we’ll reach the next one while it’s still standing.” Lower-voiced, he asked, “If it’s not important, would it have mattered if we torched it?”

Hell yes. If there’s one thing the Agency protects, it’s its property – even if they’d left it for dead. They’re extremely territorial.

“But if they left it for dead, how did you know about it?”

I got a form sent from here once. It was a complaint about my ‘reckless behaviour’.

That was almost as shocking as the ‘The Agency is evil’ bit.

“What’d you do?”

You know how managers go from place to place to see how other managers are doing?

“Sure.”

You know how I said tanks were hilarious to drive?

“... Sure.”

Asshole parked in my spot. Xander sounded like he was shrugging. I did him a favour. His car sucked.

“You’re a good person, Gwen.”

I left him alive, didn’t I? Then the prick says I’m ‘too violent’.

Alex eyed the letters on the screen. It’d be twenty minutes to get there provided traffic was on their side. They’d have six minutes to do everything they needed, but he wasn’t sure yet if it’d have them scraping by or missing the deadline entirely. Then another dot caught his eye. It was a point of interest highlighted by whoever’d driven this car before. That was a gas station. As far as fuel went, Osono would have plenty.

“What’s the next place supposed to be? Another office building?” Could he check on the GPS? He started tapping at some other things. Nothing yet.

I’ve only ever seen the address. Your guess is as good as mine.

They would need luck, then. The universe had been screwing them for days, but since it’d been so overdue for giving them a break, the next one could be what they wanted. On the more guaranteed side, this put them back on the path towards Charlton. They hadn’t gone so far out of their way to waste their time here, but they wouldn’t be doing it again. The destinations lit up like Christmas lights, dancing along the main highway not two minutes from where they were.

“Osono, for the next one, drive up slowly. If it’s burned down too, we’ll charge in, but I don’t want a mob after us. Not everyone can make a run for it.”

He should’ve at least checked for crutches. He was doomed when he got back to being himself.

* * *


Jason didn’t know if he was supposed to be grateful for her having undone his collar, and he could say as much because who else would it have been, or disturbed that he’d taken so long to do it up again. His hands went to work immediately covering the skin that’d been exposed, but the feeling of her mouth... and more of her mouth... lingered on him. There’d be time to figure that out later. What she’d said – and done – had him as awake as he could manage beyond the pulsing of his head. If Benoit truly had been stuck up there with Eric this whole while, he, more than anyone, would’ve been counting the exact seconds it took for Jason and his lead to rejoin them.

“We should go,” he said simply.

He recognized the invitation. He wasn’t dumb. It was just that with all this other crap going on, he didn’t have the strength to consider being panicked by it. In that case, he’d do what he usually did in moments like these and ignore the subtleties to go out the door. But he did need a minute after he was outside. The whole of his body was wasting away and it was getting hard to breathe. This was where it was going to happen, he told himself. It’d be another few minutes, and that was if Eric felt generous.

The parking lot wasn’t as full as he’d expected it to be. Off to the side was a ramp leading deeper into the world, so he satisfied himself with assuming the rest of the cars were below him. And where had the others gone? How had they gotten up? He had to blink away the sweat that hadn’t actually gotten into his eyes. His goggles would’ve found the door immediately, but he wasn’t about to make it worse by using those. In response, his stomach gave a violent lurch.

“There’s –” Swallow. Just swallow it down. He was not going to hand back a suit that was covered in puke. “There’s an elevator. That’s the way up.”

He waited until she’d started walking before he moved, too. Then it was a half-dash to reach it before he fell over. His collar was cutting into his neck with a vengeance it’d never had before. It seemed to want him out and was furious an A-6 was in its seams. Sorry, suit... He’d be out of it fast enough.

One access code, one open door, one press of a button and then they were at the lobby. Three half-dead, orange bulbs waited for them, but the rest of the floor was eclipsed. Again, it was something his goggles would’ve cured, but he had to stop putting them on his list of options.

Where were they?

Eric and Benoit had obviously vanished, but they’d left a trail. Three bodies had slumped into shadowed mounds on the ground. The will to investigate came over him, and so he quietly approached the closest. He checked for a sign of life by prodding it with his foot. Failing to get a response brought him to turn the body over. An incredible weight fell off of him as the smell of blood flowed fresh from beneath his neck. That was a good sign. It meant the cause hadn’t been supernatural. Alexander wasn’t here. Squinting in the weak trickle of sun, Jason could make out a tidy vertical line on the left of the man’s neck. The line was a hair shorter than a full inch would have called for and it oozed a steady stream, run down from what had surely been a sharp spurt. The rest of his neck was abnormally clean – completely blood-free despite the pool he’d now noticed and the mark on the back of his throat that meant whatever’d stabbed him had gone through. Three guesses as to who’d pulled this off. He hadn’t even known the Frenchie was armed.

Three bodies and three perfect lines all in exactly the same spot. It wasn’t until his eyes had adjusted that he saw the fourth. That one wasn’t slumped like the others; it’d been laid out neatly with its arms crossed over his chest. The power of deduction told him it was Eric’s work. It surprised him. When Jason abandoned his current corpse to look over the folded one, he picked up on a sense of delicacy that felt too out of reach for the A-1. The man was noisy and blunt and – while relatively nice to be around – harsh when the mood struck him, but there’d been a care put into this. Without his goggles, he couldn’t get a complete analysis, but he knew enough about smothering to know that that’d been what had happened, and with hands as big as Jean’s, this really wasn’t too hard to manage.

“There was a fight. Eric and Benoit won this round,” Jason reported. “I don’t know where they are now, though...”

His goggles would know. Unlike his suit, they strained to be with him. From around his neck, they were called and pleaded and he blinked hard as if it’d bring him back to earth. It worked, mostly. His hands trembled.

Stephie! Jay-jay!” Where’d that come from? “Up here! Look up! Up, up, up, up, up!”

There was a small walkway attached to the stairs that led into the halls of the second floor. Eric was standing on it and waving to them. Benoit wasn’t around, but the man wasn’t panicked. Then again, if something had gone wrong, was the Eric the sort of person to stand and grieve about it?

“We’re coming up, sir,” he called. “May I ask what happened here?”

“It’s a welcome party! You know how these crazy kids are,” Eric shouted. “Come on up – you’ve gotta meet Maddy! Tell me she’s not somebody you wanna shoot in the first ten seconds.”

... That was promising.

Jason went upstairs with his lead, careful to keep his balance on the steps and managing a tight grip on the handrail. Too bad it didn’t save him from slipping on still more blood that’d apparently been used to wash the fucking stairs. He stumbled down to the lower step, caught himself – barely – and then hoisted his body back to standing before dryly warning, “Watch your step.”

Another body rested at the top. There was a line in his neck, too. ‘Welcome party’, huh?

“Bad job, Benny,” he could hear Eric scolding. “I can’t use any of these guys! Eight lackeys and you leave me with one?”

“I fail to see how your hoarding should have been my main priority.”

“YOU HAVE MURDERED MY MEN.”

The last one was new, and as Jason made it down the walkway and turned into the corridor – stepping over the last of ‘lackeys’ to get there – he was greeted by the sight of Eric, who looked no worse for wear, Benoit, who was scratching at his wrist, and a new woman, roughly the age of Frenchie but minus the slightest note of modesty. This woman was clearly in charge and she equally as clearly did not appreciate their presence.

“Stephanie, Jason, this is Madeline Bergmann. She’s the A-2 of this noble structure and she’s a second away from stripping me of my sparkling smile.”

Impossible. A bomb couldn’t take that thing off. Well – aside from Quin...

“MY FACILITY IS OFF-LIMITS TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOT RECEIVED MY PERMISSON.” ... That was – uh... ouch. Loud. “PATTEN, YOU HAVE NOT RECEIVED MY PERMISSION. YOUR INTRUSION DISGRACES THE NAME OF THE AGENCY.”

“I see what you mean about those ten seconds,” Jason muttered.

“I know, right?”

“Miss. Bergmann, I can assure you, we have no intention of disgracing your, the Agency’s or anyone else’s name,” Benoit said. “The trust you extended to this small group has ultimately been upheld. Mr. Patten acquired the form of my former colleague, who has since been disposed of in Elmira, and time has not permitted me to send word of the change in company. I hope you will see his arrival through the entry of his access code rather than the use of the scanner as a means to eliminate any threat of deception. We come to you in full gratitude of your co-operation and full disclosure of our work.”

“The full disclosure thing’s for A-3 and down,” Eric added, disdainfully. His smile had tightened again. “You understand.”

Madeline Bergmann had tense and sharp features. The air around her was either stiff and frozen and a too-polished, porcelain finish capped off her very essence. Her black hair had been cut in a fierce line above her shoulders, the same way the front of it had been cut above her nose. Her face was locked in a permanent scowl while her eyes were glassy shards of grey ice, stuck on whoever was talking at the time and measuring her disapproval through how wide they were. She wore a suit of sorts: the pants were long and nearly over the pointed toes of her boots while her top, backless and strapless – not a drop of modesty – and bordering a corset, managed to show off tons of skin while at the same time absolutely none at all. There was no cleavage, but the way it was made said there should have been. Naturally, the suit was black, and the thin grey stripes running down its length served to make her more rigid than was humanly possible.

“I WILL SPEAK OF THIS MATTER ONCE AND ONLY ONCE. FAILURE TO ADHERE TO MY CODE WILL RESULT IN THE TERMINATION OF YOUR PERSISTENCE HERE.” She had her hands together as if she was holding a whip, but unless it was invisible – and that was a terrifying thought – the sole reason for it was because her arms were too scared of her to do anything else. “MY WORD IS TO BE OBEYED. YOU ARE HERE TO USE MY EQUIPMENT AND TO USE MY STAFF. SHOULD I DECIDE AT ANY MOMENT TO REMOVE YOU FROM MY GROUNDS, YOU WILL OBEY OR FACE TERMINATION.”

Eric perked up.

“Does that mean I can stay?”

He’d almost sung it.

“YOU WILL BEHAVE, MR. PATTEN. I WILL NOT ACCEPT THE ANTICS YOU PROVE PRONE TO COMMIT.”

“... So... Yes?”

“YOU.” She meant Jason. “YOU WILL STAND AT THE DOOR. YOU.” She meant Stephanie. “YOU WILL SHOWER. YOU.” Frenchie. “YOU WILL COME WITH ME.” And with that, she whipped around on her heel and stalked down the rest of the hall, clearing a path through the air and the one soul unfortunate enough to be near her.

“Go on, Benny,” Eric said, with a heavy slap on his back. “Go.

Benoit had a look on his face Jason nearly stepped away from. But he went, dragging that bottled storm he seemed too dignified to let loose.

“What does she want with him?”

“I may have tricked him into saying ‘ne moi forcez’... uh... something French about him not wanting to have to stab me,” Eric said. “How’re you feelin’, kid?”

Nauseated. Dizzy. Tired.

“Fine.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Go wait at the door like she said,” Eric told him. “Don’t ask me why, but if the She-Wolf said it, it’s in your best interest. Stephie! How ‘bout you and me take a peek at some of the jars they’ve got in here? It’s nothing like Elmira – only four are here, I think – but I wouldn’t mind making sure you know what’ll happen to you once you’ve transferred.”

The switch of his attention from Jason to his lead meant Jason had been dismissed. Alright, he’d go, but he’d be back the second he had an excuse. With a small nod of his head, he excused himself and went back the way he came, careful to miss the slippery step on the way down.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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It was still difficult for him, she could tell, but she let him have his space as he searched out and found the elevator, proceeding towards it ahead of him so he wouldn't feel emasculated by her constant vigilance. But Stephanie was definitely more aware of him now - if that was even possible - even as the taste of his sweat lingered on her tongue, the rest of her senses were wide open to him, listening and watching when she could while appearing not to be focused on him. Her attention was a funny thing however and control was hard to pinpoint lately. As a result, even stuck in the small space with him, her body threatening to make the space even smaller for them both, she found herself drifting away from that the further up they went.

Gwen. Gwen was coming here. Just a few more hours stood between her and her precious target, the woman who'd dominated her every thought, every dream, and every breath for four years. And there would be nothing stopping her from having exactly what she wanted from her now, hand delivered and completely defenseless to Stephanie's will. The excitement of this glorious reunion trembled through her as the doors opened and Jason was shoved to the back of her mind as she took a deep breath and stepped forward. As she glanced around the hallway, her eyes sweeping over everything quickly, she chided herself silently when she realized she was already looking for her. It was only after Jason approached one of the first forms laying on the ground that she even became aware that there were corpses in the room. Silently, she stood by and allowed him to do his job, surveying the rest of the lobby in what little light filtered in through the windows, and searching for the Master and Benoit.

When Jason finally spoke, she nodded in agreement and let her gaze sweep carelessly back over the bodies. She would have figured that if Benoit didn't survive then at least Master, even if he hadn't been wearing that massive form, would have had no trouble dealing with a few adversaries. But the question remained, why had they been attacked? Weren't they being expected here? And with Master in their group, it seemed a bit contradictory that there would be any Agents foolish enough to set men on them like this if they even knew who he was.

The sound of Master's voice burst the contemplative bubble she was in and she looked up at his direction, a small, shy smile tugging at the edges of her lips to see that glorious face again. And he was unperturbed as ever - she took that as a good sign, although she found it hard to imagine that smile leaving his face other than to be replaced by an even colder, deadlier grin. The small vision she had of what it would look like made her shiver in brief delight.

Proceeding up the stairs with Jason, she watched with a small giggle of amusement as he slipped on the blood that had been left as a welcome mat, but tried to hide the expression behind a daintily held up hand. Goodness, he was so adorable. With the smell of blood in the air, she was practically feeling amorous and would have struggled to resist jumping him right then, if it weren't for the distracting conversation coming from above. Particularly the sound of another female voice pricked her ears up and her face grew serious as she walked the rest of the way up.

Immediately upon leaving the walkway, Stephanie's eyes zoomed in on the other woman and it took her a few seconds to collect herself. First off, the woman was absolutely gorgeous in that threatening, cold and domineering way that Stephanie herself had tried to achieve - even before she'd gone through a few days of personal hygiene neglect, the woman made her look incredibly soft and fluffy in comparison. She worked those suit pants a lot better than Stephanie did her own and even with the top she was wearing, Stephanie felt it achieved that sophisticated and seductive power that she was probably going for - the untouchable femme fatale.

Even though she was a few years older than Stephanie, she still owned her womanly assets and wielded them with expert experience that made her presence magnetic. Under normal circumstances, Stephanie would have been completely turned off by the shrill note in the woman's voice, but instead it had the opposite effect. To be fair though, it was a tad annoying for her to constantly yell while speaking, but seeing the effect it had on others - whether getting Master to barely hold back his loathing for her, or to reduce Benoit to trying to placate her - it was a very powerful display. Not one Stephanie would have used, personally, preferring to utilize the power of a 'softly spoken word', but for this Madeline person, it worked.

As soon as Master introduced Madeline, stating her rank and name, Stephanie instantly set her shoulders back in a efficient manner and smoothed over her features with what was left of her emotionless mask. There was the air of trying to appear professional in front of this other woman in hopes of impressing her on some level, but she didn't even seem to notice Stephanie or Jason, in favor of chewing Master out. That was the one thing Stephanie was not fond of, along with the sound of her screaming; the blatant disrespect for her idol and the one man in the room who outranked them all, but it did not diminish Madeline's powerful allure.

Apparently, Stephanie and Jason weren't as transparent as she'd assumed, because a second later, Madeline was indicating each of them and issuing orders. At first, Stephanie half-scowled when the A-2 ordered her partner to do anything - despite understanding on a reasonable level that Madeline's authority extended farther than hers, Stephanie still didn't like it - but her expression cleared and she blinked in embarrassment as her own orders were...to bathe. She quickly glanced around at the others but nobody noticed how on the spot she suddenly felt and she resisted the urge to inspect herself to see how bad things had gotten.

It was most certainly something she needed, as she'd made a note of on the plane, her hair falling limp on her shoulders, but she stayed stiff until Madeline had turned to leave, before tucking a few strands that had fallen into her face and been ignored, behind her ears. Great, she'd wanted to make a good impression on the higher ranked and more fashionable woman and here she was looking like a sleaze-ball. The men probably hadn't noticed or cared, but women were aware of these things and they filed it away as a label for the other person. And labels generally stuck once they were made. Hopefully, when she had a chance to clean up a bit, she'd be given a second chance to not look like a completely incompetent slob in front of the other female Agent.

And all too quickly, she felt put on the spot again as the Master addressed her, inviting her to join him for a look at the body tanks. As Jason took his leave however, her attention divided itself for a few moments more to watch him go, concern filling her eyes. He would be okay, she knew, but she couldn't help worrying with him leaving her presence right now. It couldn't be helped; orders had been given by two higher level Agents. And even if she'd wanted to order him to stay by her side, there wasn't a valid reason for it.

Looking back at the Master, a bright blush filled her cheeks when she realized this would be the first time she'd ever been alone with him. There had been a private moment at the airport before they'd gotten on the jet, but they hadn't really been alone then. Besides that, she felt like something along the line had changed. Certainly, from the first moment she'd met him and learned who he was, she'd been affected by his presence, but lately it had grown to an overpowering level that she couldn't deny. Her heart fluttered nervously and her expression softened to one of a barely restrained awestruck worship as she nodded her head in respect.

"Yes, Master. I would be delighted," she cleared her throat and tucked her hair again, looking away from him when she realized her tone had been a bit more 'swooning' than she'd intended. It didn't seem to be something she could help, however, because when she spoke again, stepping forward to politely follow him, it was a tone she could not shake from her voice. "I would be thrilled with anything you'd like to show me." The tiny smile touching her lips spoke volumes, but even so, when she came up beside him she made absolutely certain to keep her distance. She was not so far gone that she thought she could touch God, afterall...

***

She laughed slightly, her raspy voice catching a little in her throat as the nicotine urge pulled at her. "Yeah, yeah, I remember. Gotta keep one of 'em alive to get the codes and blahblahblah. But the rest of 'em can burn though, right?" She smirked playfully and then whooped in triumph as the GPS spoke up.

To say that Ozzie was disappointed would be an understatement. As she pulled up to the curb in front of the charred and abandoned building, her shoulders slumped and the heat that had been buzzing and crackling in the air of the car instantly evaporated as she pouted at the scene. Crap! What a fuckin' waste! And not even a scrap of paper left that would be worth the trouble to set ablaze.

For a few minutes, Alex had a lovely mumbled conversation with himself, which she rolled her eyes at and ignored, but she did pay attention when he made to leave the car. The place was gone, couldn't he see that? There was no use inspecting it for clues that had probably been eaten completely away - and she could feel it. The place was what she called "dead ground". Ozzie had only ever melted rock and metal twice and that had been under extreme circumstances. But other than that, there was nothing here to catch fire, thus, nothing important left to find.

He changed his mind about it however, climbing back into the car to punch in the code for the "next" location. Grinding her teeth silently, the steering wheel squeaked in protest as she gripped it tightly. They were wasting time with this crap! She understood the need for an Agent to get into the place they were keeping Gwen, but this was taking too long! And Alex didn't seem to have any idea of what these places were going to be like before she was driving up to their doorsteps. She didn't know where he'd gotten the addresses from but she couldn't help feeling like it was a wild goose chase taking them away from what they really needed to be doing.

On her own, Osono had caught the attention of Agents much quicker than this. It wasn't exactly something to boast about, especially most of the time it was because she'd lost her temper or lost control, but still, it felt pathetic to hop from one place to the other just to find nobody was home and hadn't been home in ages. Especially when she could get them hopping on their tail within 20 minutes. One time, she'd set a guy's mustache on fire in a tobacco shop in the middle of nowhere and 10 minutes later, Rudy had popped up as if he'd been in the neighborhood.

So, when Alex said that once again, he didn't know if this new place was going to be flammable or not, she smacked the wheel forcefully and glared at him. "Look, twinkle-toes! I don't got all day to fuckin' screw around playing scavenger hunt! And I'm sure Gwen doesn't have all the time in the world either! I'll tell you what we're gonna fuckin' do, Mister Pussy-Footer! IF this next place ain't the place, we're gonna toss your shitty 'playing detective' plan and we're gonna get Agents attention MY way, understand? I'm tired of this bullshit and I may not know where all their burned down fuckin' hideouts are, but you better believe I can get 'em comin' within 5 minutes flat! And don't think I'm fuckin' scared of a mob, Prancer! Skin is flammable too!"

After that, she pressed down hard on the gas pedal and glared out the front window as she sped towards the next destination, fuming again and ready to set fires just for the heck of having something to burn.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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Jason was on edge by the time he reached the bottom. It didn’t hit him until then how utterly useless he’d be down here. What was he supposed to do? Stand watch? Guard the door? From what? Obviously the answer was Alexander and whoever else he brought along to rain destruction on their heads, but that made this even stupider. Twice, Jason had been taken down by him, and considering the second time had been while he was watching Alexander like a hawk, the problem was more than the element of surprise. So maybe Eric – and the new A-2 – wanted him here to meet Rudy, except that didn’t make sense because it seemed unlikely she would’ve known about that part of their situation. She might’ve been told while he’d been... indisposed... but lead Agents played their cases directly against their hearts. If knowing lacked a dire consequence, no one else in the world would have any idea about what was happening. Besides, Quin could drag the bitch-thief up here himself. He might’ve had a problem with getting his own target captured, but Jason had the feeling he wasn’t blind.

This left him with two reasons for why he’d been kicked out of the sight of the others: either they’d put him here because they didn’t want to sully their presence with a lowly A-6 – and that was ridiculous too, because as far as ranks went in the Agency, being an A-6 had him in the upper level of staff – or there was actually a point to it that they’d simply hadn’t bothered explaining. Okay. That sounded better. He might’ve been out of the loop if it was true, but it meant they hadn’t forgotten he could still do his job. When the suit came off, it’d be a different story, but for now he brought something to the table.

Part of him was hoping Eric’d forget about the whole thing. It didn’t feel impossible, but those levels weren’t known to let things slip their mind. Ever.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting... He glanced up at the walkway bordering the second level, but everyone had left already. Of course. Abandoned. He shouldn’t have had anything to say about it because he’d have no choice to run off with A-1 if he’d asked, but she didn’t have to be so damn giddy to go along. If there was another reason for him to hate being dumped at the door, it was the time he had to overanalyze everything. He’d focus on the neatly crippled corpses still lying on the ground. Was Eric actually going to... keep that, the one that’d been smothered instead of stabbed? How often did he need to change over, if ever? Those were questions he couldn’t ask if –

Jason! Bro! No way – what th’heck’re you doin’ here?” A flood of Doritos came over him, wafting around his head like an ocean of... grease, and because suddenly everyone had the knack of sneaking up on him – the withdrawal was a nightmare – he was crushed around his chest and lifted off his feet and swung around like a maniac gorilla had gotten out of its cage – “You owe me those hugs!”

“Gary, put me the fuck down before I rip off your asshole head!”

Gary let go and dropped him, and Jason in his weak state fell immediately to the floor.

“My bad, bud,” he huffed out, in a merry way that nearly mimicked Eric’s glee – except stupid. “Where’ve you been? I lost the link to you two days ago! Don’t tell me you got all pissy ‘bout that ‘system reset’ –” Air quotes. “– thing-a-ma-deal. You wanted it.” Jason. Would. Kill. Him. “Hey – stop –”

With a slam that echoed through the floor, Jason grabbed that oily fucking sweater and hurled the guy into the door – the ones he should’ve come in through but hadn’t. Why did everyone know more about everything than he did when he was the person who was supposed to have the answers?

“You stupid shit,” he snarled. “I can’t even begin to explain how much crap you’ve dragged me through. Do you have any idea what’s been happening to me?”

“... Uh... no... ‘cause I lost the link,” Gary said, his mouth screwed into a tightly-balled frown. “Two days ago. I said that, right?” Jason drew him back just slam down again. “Bro – quit it!”

“You’re unbelievable! Why in fuck would I ever tell you to reset the system – my system, the one I’ve been fucking building for years like it was my goddamn child?”

“You okay, Jay? You’re lookin’ a little...” Gary barely noticed the fact he was being against a wall. The blubber must’ve cushioned it or something. “... crazy...”

Answer the question!

“Okay, okay! Geez! I told you I didn’t want you freaking out after you made me do it.” He shuffled around and grabbed at the black side bag, or blue or green or whatever the hell colour it would’ve been in normal light, and dug out a few sheets of paper. They were clean up until the instant that man’s hands touched them, and then a sheeny outline of where his fingers had been spread across them. “Here. Your orders. I did everything I was supposed to.”

‘Everything’, his ass. Jason let go of him and snatched the sheets away, stepping towards the windowed doors and using all the daylight he could grab to read it. Not five seconds had ticked by before he was back to shoving Gary into a corner again.

“You retard. How long have you known me? ‘OMG’? ‘You’re my angel’? Fucking ‘hugs’? When the fuck have I said that back to you before?”

“I just figured you were being friendly,” he said. “That, or you were in a good mood. Hey – somethin’ was going on if you were asking me to reset the system.”

“You’re an absolute fucking idiot,” Jason snapped, letting go of him again. “You have no idea the shit you did.”

“Uh – yeah? Which is kind’f why I’m tripping out about you manhandling me? Bro, I just got here,” he said. He started adjusting the strap of his bag as if that was what was out of place in his wardrobe. “Cut me slack. What’s happening?”

“What’s happening...”

Jason trailed off and shook his head. There was no point in explaining anything to him: the guy wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t care, couldn’t change it, and that wasn’t what had lost him the suit in the first place. Fucking Gwen... He would’ve been in a better state of mind if he’d never lost his goggles and that might’ve been the difference between telling that kid to screw off and what had actually happened. Hell – maybe he would’ve even had the sense to fall to the ground before his lead showed up and pull a weak ‘Oh, no, my head hurts real bad, I guess Alexander got me again, oh well’. She would’ve seen through it, but the risk of getting caught trumped getting caught for sure. Still, his target wouldn’t have gotten his goggles if she hadn’t stolen them, which she wouldn’t have stolen if Alexander hadn’t taken them, which he wouldn’t have taken if he hadn’t gotten involved, which he wouldn’t have bothered with if Gary hadn’t sent him to the wrong damn room.

It was hard to believe it’d only been three days. It felt like a lifetime that he’d been back at base, talking to this guy about his anniversary. Gary had beady eyes that lit up behind ‘practical over fashionable’ glasses – Eric’s had style, so it wasn’t as if it couldn’t be done – and a round, bulgy face that hung covered in slight sweat at all times and a beard that ran from cheek to cheek to double chin to neck. There were awkward sideburns on either side of his face and glistening, lanky, long, blond hair that’d lazily been pulled into some kind of a ponytail. He wasn’t the best looking person in the world or the galaxy and there probably some ants crawling around his feet that had more sex appeal than he did, but Diana liked him enough to stay with him for twelve years. That said something, Jason supposed. And he had to put the emphasis on what Gary’s head looked like because the rest of him was summed up in three words: sweater, jeans, sneakers. Nothing else.

“So... am I still in trouble?”

The way Gary phrased the question was foreign at first. It took Jason a minute to realize that, for once, at long last, he was in the presence of someone who was under him. Until he’d been on this case, he’d never even seen an A-2 and had only glimpsed A-3s as they sped by, let alone walk around and chat with two of them plus an A-1. In that short instant, Jason forgave him long enough to settle into the lost feeling of authority, then he went back into his anger and shot a fiery, “Yes.”

“Oh.” And he didn’t care. So much for rank meaning anything. If he couldn’t scare an A-10... “So – uh... you called me down here. What’d’ya need?”

“Huh?”

“You called? I got orders to come down and meet you here,” Gary said. “I heard they came from pretty high up. Dude – did you know there’s an A-1 walking around here?”

“Huh – uh – yeah. Yeah, I know. Eric. He’s upstairs.” Somewhere.

“Wait – Eric Patten? You saw him?” Gary’s jaw flew open. Right – Eric was a big deal. The novelty wore off a little after Jason’d been flying on a plane with him, trying to shut him up about what was happening between him and his lead. “Did you talk to him? What’s he like? Bro – you gotta get me over there!”

“Calm down, Gary. He’s with my lead,” Jason said. “They’re talking about... lead stuff.”

And now Gary’s voice got low, burning with interest.

“You mean...” His nacho breath had always been his biggest flaw. “They’re talking about the transfer stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“Dude.” He started laughing. “Dude. Unreal! Un-flipping-real, bro – I’m serious! So – what – you’re sayin’... all this is legit?”

“Of course it is,” Jason said. “You’ve heard about it.”

“I’ve heard about parts of it,” Gary corrected. “Everyone’s heard parts of it. And don’t look at me like it was obvious – you were the biggest sceptic ‘til you got assigned a case for it, and even then you still whined about it being a waste of time.”

Again, it felt like forever ago. Yeah, Jason had thought it was all bullshit, up until he’d been given a seizure and had someone’s mind going through his thoughts. Oh, and after he saw Eric’s cloud-death-zombie trick. There was nothing he wouldn’t believe from now until he landed in his grave.

“It’s real. Trust me.”

“No way. No way, no way, no way.” At least there was one person thought it was cool. “You think you can get me in on this? I'm not saying I’m not already great, but I wouldn’t mind a few bones made out of metal.”

“If that’s all you want, there’s surgery. And no, I can’t ‘get you in’. You have to be trained. You have to be a lead.”

“You’re almost a lead. A-4 when this is over, probably. Can I help you get your guy?”

Why the hell did Gary have to be here?

“I’m not an A-4. I...” The word stuck in his throat for a moment. “I got demoted. A-6.”

“Oh...”

“Oh.”

Gary fiddled with the strap of his bag. Then his face picked up and he asked, “Does that mean I don’t have to fix your suit?”

“Gary, dammit –”

“Are you still my boss if you’re an A-6?”

“I’ll break your face,” Jason warned him. It shut him up. “That’s all... little stuff I’ll sort out later. For now, my problem’s how to handle losing everything.”

“The withdrawal! Of course! Duh! That’s why you’re psycho,” Gary said. “Y’know, they’ve got drugs to help that out.” Yes, he knew that, too. He still had them in his pocket. He could feel the outline of the box pressing into his side. “So what’d you get demoted for?”

“Letting my target go.” That sounded atrocious. “Not ‘let her go’ – and it wasn’t just her. Alexander was there.”

“He was?”

Did Gary have even the tiniest clue?

“He got dragged into this because somebody gave me the wrong apartment number.” That squishy mouth rolled into an awkward ‘o’. “He’s... I don’t know. He’s in love with my target or something, but whatever it is, he’s been following her around. It’s cute in a messed up way. Anyway, she and him broke into the Elmira lab and went on a spree in there. He killed the last guy on Benoit’s team on –”

“Who?”

“The lead on Alexander’s case.”

Holy shit –”

Yeah, yeah, everyone was a legend.

“Anyway, he did a charge thing that blew his eyes apart, and then some kid comes from down the hall and tells me – get this – he tells me to let them go, but in this weird... authority voice, like I had no choice but to believe him.”

“Maybe it was one of those crazy powers,” Gary said.

... That was possible. That was very, very possible.

“That could be it. ... That is it.”

Eric hadn’t said a thing about that ‘project’ because it was confidential, and the only reason Jason had let the kid go was because it felt as if he should. Withdrawal aside, he knew he had enough common sense to belay that request. He should’ve, unless that project had a power... Why wouldn’t it? Why was that even remotely improbable? That was his answer! He hadn’t been stupid – he’d been possessed!

... Except that he had zero proof. Fuck. Thanks, Gary, for getting his hopes up. There weren’t any security cameras in the lab halls and he hadn’t had his goggles on so he couldn’t record it. The Flunky’s magic lenses supposedly could, but they’d melted along with the rest of him. How darling.

“How in heck did they get into Elmira into the first place? What happened to security?”

“It was part of a plan,” Jason muttered. “Stephanie – my lead – she’s... There’s something in the works. I don’t want to explain it.”

“But they’d need codes,” Gary pressed. “How would they get the codes?”

“From my head. My target’s got telepathy. She was in her hotel, I was on my way to Elmira –”

“More than a mile apart?” Jason frowned. That meant ‘yes’. “Bro, I peeked at your little ‘profile’ thing – and then I memorized it ‘cause she was hot so don’t tell Di-Di – and I distinctly remember it saying she only had about a mile of minds to work with.”

“Yes, except that it failed to mention she can use technology to... look – I don’t know how it works,” he huffed. “She had my goggles, she used those to –”

She had them?”

His constant interrupting was grating on Jason. He grit his teeth.

“Yes, she had my goggles –”

“So she reset them?”

“Yes, she reset them –”

“Bummer, bro. But at least it’s good intel.” Gary shrugged. “From the reset up to you snatchin’ ‘em back, you’re sittin’ on serious insider recon stuff.” Jason frowned again. Now it mean ‘what?’ “From the goggles.” He wasn’t following. “How they record everything?”

“That would’ve been great, except that I set my goggles to not record,” he said. More hope building. He hated it. “I don’t like knowing someone can re-watch my every move.”

“Yeah, but it’s a default setting. You turned it off, but the system reset turned it on, so if you...”

Gary kept talking, but Jason couldn’t hear him over the angel chorus. Fuck. Yes. Finally! Something in his favour – halleluiah – this was incredible! Gary was right – which was impressive on its own but – fuck yes! If the goggles had been reset, they’d gone back to the default, and since the Agency had to keep tabs on everything, auto-record was a start-up setting, which meant that even if he hadn’t been wearing the goggles, they’d still been working for him! Sure – he’d only have the audio if they'd been looking away, but the audio was point! He could show Eric what’d happened down there and then they’d see – and then they’d stop – and then they’d –

“You –” Jason grabbed Gary’s head between his gloves and forced him to look into his eyes. If he’d been Alexander, Gary would be dead by now. Instead, Jason was killing him with gratitude. “– are my angel!”

“See? I knew you talked like that,” Gary grumped, but he beamed happily. “Glad I could help, and good to know I know your suit better’n you do.”

“My angel, Gary!” With his energy fully restored, Jason bounded to the stairs, started flying up them – “I completely forgive you for the wrong number thing!”

“Great! Thanks! I’ll – uh... I’ll wait here. Go get ‘em, tiger!”

He had to find his lead. He had to find Eric. His goggles were around his neck and as light and free as they damn well should’ve been, and he was ecstatic to find his suit slowly reforming its body with his entire being. Where were they? Talking? He was interrupting. This was too important to wait.

* * *


Five minutes flat sounds good. Let’s do that.

“That involves killing someone,” Alex mumbled. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”

Would you stop? I don’t know what’s got you so self-righteous, but it’s really annoying. ‘Self-righteous’? Because he wanted to use a different tactic than ‘set everything on fire, who cares as long as it gets us what we want’? Uh – yeah?

“We’re going to find another way.”

Whatever.

“We don’t even know –” He stopped. He shouldn’t be chatting like this. It was a question he should’ve been putting to Osono anyway. “I get that you’ve got this ‘gift’ at getting Agents to swarm around you, but you’re forgetting two things: one, we’re only two people and my foot’s not getting any better to fight, and two, the reason you’re so good at getting them is because Rudy spent his time stalking you. If he’s gone with Gwen, who’s to say he’s paying attention anymore? He’s got one of you, he’s happy as a calm, he’s probably off to get his reward and then never come back. He’s probably glad to get rid of you, lunatic.”

If I hands, I’d be clapping in awe, because I could truly never be as heartless as you. And I’m the guy who’s trained at kicking puppies across a room.

“Great. What’s the problem now?”

You’d think the whole ‘I know he’s trying to kill me but I can’t quite seem to work up the nerve to kill him back’ thing would set you just a teeny bit more sensitive than normal. Hell – I don’t care – but as long as you’re still carting me around, I’d prefer to get into my body before she breaks down or flies into a hellish rage ‘cause you said the wrong thing. Coffee.

“No more coffee.”

Alex felt a tingle at his foot, followed by a stern and mildly depraved, Coffee.

Alex drank the stupid coffee.

“You’d be better off without him, by the way.”

Xander stopped. He’d been in the middle of saying something and he’d stopped. Seriously? He wanted Alex to talk? For what, to apologize? He hadn’t said anything!

Pussy.

“I didn’t –”

“Rudy’s a whiny bitch who shot an old guy in the bathroom. I don’t know what spell he’s got you under or what crazy act he’s pulled off year after year keeping you convinced he’s better than nothing, but if I had to choose, and I’m close to that decision, I’d sure as hell want to be on my own than with a guy who oozes sleeze.” Xander shrugged. “You can do better, Sparky. What’re fire powers for if not to get laid by someone who doesn’t suck ass? ... Or – uh... if that’s what you’re into...”

Charming.

Beats ‘he’s gonna dump your ass’. Dickwad.

Alex shut him up by drinking more coffee. He kept drinking it, as slowly as he could with the junkie tugging at his hand to tip it faster and his hand trembling from jitters that hadn’t come close to wearing off, and it lasted until he saw the arrow come nose-to-nose with their new star. Sure enough, there was the gas station, and there, after a fifteen minute drive and some silence, was an office building – a real one. It didn’t look abandoned and it didn’t seem worn down, but it was empty. It was Saturday so that was to be expected, but that meant no casualties.

Other than a few unlucky janitors.

Then that was a ‘no’ to fire.

Forget I said anything?

“We’re not burning it down.”

Then how the hell do you expect this to work?

Alex thought about it.

“The lawn. We can torch the lawn or the outside. I just don’t want anyone innocent to get killed.”

Boo-hoo, crossfire is sad, but so’s running for our lives and – oh, yeah – trying to get Gwen back.

“We’ll figure something out. Stop here,” Alex said. “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”

* * *


Jason hadn’t missed much, he realized. With the way they must’ve been strolling and the way he’d been running – he got turned around once or twice but he found the room they were in – he’d barely lost more than a minute, and if that...

He stopped. Breathless but silent and fading from of sight out pure reflex he couldn’t acknowledge until the feeling sunk in. This room was the size of a classroom and a half. Its door was a heavy metal slider that took either a special pass or the brute force of a recently reincarnated Frenchman. The room was dark, and while that shouldn’t have been a surprise because the hallways and the unused offices were lightless as well – the tiny glimmer of occupied rooms had been what had guided him so far – there was a stronger sense of night welling up. It might have had to do with the deep red glow stirring from its center. It might have been the very solemn stance Eric had as he looked upon his prizes. Mostly, however, Jason saw that the eeriness came from the four giant jars filled with red liquid and people.

Two men, two women, all of them stripped and clamped in place. Their eyes were closed and their hair floated around them, tossed slightly by the air bubbles swirling up. On each of their mouths was a dark mask attached to a hose, and that hose turned down and stuck into the bottom of the glass container. Stasis cells, all on dark stands about a foot and a half high. Enormous wires poured from the ceiling and connected to their tops, burning that gentle shade of fire as it caught the light falling out. The colour meant something. They were supposed to be green, weren’t they? He wasn’t versed on things like that.

They hadn’t noticed him. He’d faded in the nick of time. Despite the energy inside him, he forced it into a duller excited rush. His intent to interrupt had vanished at the first step of the A-1 towards the cells, so he hung back and kept close to the door, listening intently to sound of the man’s footsteps and the invisible hum of frozen life inside the jars.

“These four bodies belong to Agents,” Eric’s voice flowed. It echoed in the emptiness, stronger than it’d been on the plane and in Elmira. Was that because of the acoustics, or was there a scent he’d picked up? “All of them have very interesting stories. They’re successes, first of all, but they’re also traitors to what you stand for.”

He’d reached the second to the left and stood before it, then let his hand rise and nestle fondly on the cell’s surface. Underneath his touch, the glass seemed to shiver, and the feeling of solemnity spread out and danced. Through the reflection, Jason could see that smile of his still firmly in place, but now it held a softness, something new. There was peace across his face as he stared up at the sleeping eyes, as if he hadn’t truly belonged anywhere except here in this room with it.

“On the far right is Arthur. He picked a target with time control. He never could get it working properly, fortunately, but we had our hands full bringing him in. He was gone for four months, three days and twenty-two hours. He stopped because he turned himself in. I can’t imagine why he thought he’d be welcomed back.” Eric’s voice was hypnotically low. He was playful in the way he spoke, but content to share his world with Jason’s lead. This was a glimpse into something that wasn’t normally seen and here they were, having it explained. “Jillian, to his left, had the same idea. She couldn’t bare the thought of betraying us. She and her great strength were out of reach for two months and a day. At least she was smarter about her return. She came to us with information on the inner workings of their group. She sought me out, actually, because she knew I’d want to hear it, and I thanked her – really – but I can’t forgive that. She screamed the entire time she was placed into stasis. You can see it now if you try. She’s still angry.”

He said it like it was a joke. Jason, reunited with his equipment, zoomed in. Although the others’ faces were relaxed and accepting of their fate, Jillian’s brow was slightly furrowed as if there’d been a pain pinching her. To have kept it up for however long she’d been inside must’ve meant her fury was unbreakable. Jason wasn’t going near her.

“Sebastian – to my left – had speed. He fell in a panic when we had him surrounded. I think Benoit led that return. This one too, actually.” The one he’d had his hand on. Again, a shiver fanned out. “He decided he wasn’t going to come easy. No – he’d found ‘morality’ and the beauty of innocent life. He’d ‘awakened’ to find what we did to be evil. He was disgusted, and although he’d been thrilled to use our technology to further our insidious work, the hypocrite was going to spend the rest of his life fighting us to bring us down.” The smile in the reflection grew proud. “He lasted two days. I laughed in his face when he showed up. I and another A-1 watched the entire thing go on.”

His voice swam to a whisper. His fingers bent along the cell he’d placed them against and his nails clinked as they struck the surface. It was like he was trying to reach through to it, to the last woman in the centre of the group.

“This is Charlotte. This is her original body. She was the worst one. She had regeneration – the thing I’d always envied. Before I became an A-1 – long before the other three were captured – this was the power I was going to get. It was only fair, I thought, because the target was male and she was female, but she devised the brilliant idea of having a contest to see who won. It was her.” Clink. Clink. Clink. He was drumming his fingers on it now, letting the sharp sound pierce through the fog he’d lulled them into. “She’d thought she’d live an amazing life. She’d thought she was invincible. She’d thought she knew how to tear the Agency to pieces – not for some high moral glory, but because she didn’t want ‘us’ to become a threat to what she was trying to do. She wanted freedom to reign supreme and she’d come up with the very organization all three of the others had run off to. They’re called the ‘Anti-Agents’ – how very clever – and they’ve been a thorn in our side from the day they’d formed. With her at the helm, they dissected every one of our weaknesses and used it against us. I can’t tell you how in awe I was of her.”

Eric stepped back and looked at the cell. It was true: the man was in awe of her. It shone from his face unignorably, and though his back was turned towards them, the undaunted wonder could not be mistaken. Jason couldn’t turn away.

“Charlotte was more like me than any person I’ve ever met. We shared something: detachment from our work. We had missions and we fulfilled them because that was what was expected. We didn’t argue about what was right or what was wrong; we did and we did it beyond anyone else’s ability. She became the Agency’s priority because they feared her Anti-Agents would swarm to oppose the nasty things we deal in. Her entire army was built out of the people we were meant to capture to ensure the safety of the public. They didn’t understand what she was trying to do. I did.” Finally, he turned to Jason’s lead, giving her his smile rather than the other woman in the jar. “As she spread her word about the good fight against us, more and more gifted citizens joined and sat at her feet. The last I heard, she had two hundred abilities at her fingertips, all of them hanging off of what she said. She only had to point and they’d jump to serve her, and that, Miss March, was exactly what the Agency had asked for. ‘To the best of our ability, beyond anyone else’s’. We take over to bend one person’s strength to our will, and here she had a village.

“Her confidence got the best of her. As powerful as those people made her grow, they weren’t trained and scattered when we launched our full assault. With only her regeneration to help her, she put up an immaculate fight, but we got her and we brought her in. And now here she is, defeated.” He paused. “There’s no doubt that she’d hit the height of brilliance. If she’d been dealing with soldiers instead of skittish vigilante-rebels, we wouldn’t have been able to touch her. I’ve learned from that. I plan to turn her work into my work. I won’t give you the details because you don’t need them: that boy in Elmira? The one you saw? He’s Charlotte’s legacy, built by me in her name, trained, contained and indestructible.” The corner of his mouth twitched – down, and in annoyance. “I’ve hit a snag. I’ll get it sorted out eventually – I have time, damn near eternity save for an asteroid falling from the sky – but for now I’m here to focus on you. Maybe I – uh... went off on a tangent there. I dunno – it seemed like something worth talking about. It’s practically my purpose in life. But as it relates to you, Steph...” He gestured to the other jars. “These guys are what I wanted to show you.”

The solemnity receded. The air was getting back to normal.

“I’ve got high hopes for you. You’re dedicated and you’re smart and you’re willing to make this work, but so did those three, seconds before they got what they wanted and defected to those asshole Antis. There’s no point in getting you to promise you ‘won’t do that’. If you won’t, you won’t, but if you do, I’ll find you.” He gestured again. “And then you’ll be up there with the rest of them and I’ll spend the next week destroying your name. I’d be... well – I’d be sorry to have to do that. Benny – sure – no problem – but you.” Eric grinned. “Please don’t run off to the Anti-Agents. It won’t be fun when I drag you back. For you. Not me.”

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Stephanie was drawn along by Master's presence, practically floating beside him on a cloud as he led her through the halls of the base. Even when they first arrived to the room he'd mentioned, her eyes left him to widen and take in the four balefully red jars, but her attention was still completely focused on him. The world had vanished beneath her feet and she felt fragile and vulnerable, on pins and needles waiting to bend to his word. She didn't care where he took her or what he said. The honor of being in his presence had her hovering above the ground on invisible wings, giddy and yet calmly content to be with him, basking in his glow.

That changed the instant his voice filled the air with it's vibrant tone that echoed into and all around her carrying weight and slamming it down upon her body. It was like she landed on her feet again, the magic that had been filling her suddenly gone, replaced by a more realistic sense of worship. As he began speaking, not only did his voice chill her to her depths, drawing her focus to him like a bee to honey, but it was hauntingly soothing at the same time. As each of the four were indicated and their story told, she looked at them in turn with a gaze filled with wondering curiosity. What had possessed these people, once successful Agents, to turn their backs completely on the Agency? After all that dedication, she couldn't fathom it, especially not when they'd achieved what she sought so desperately. Just to turn around and throw it away like that...

Stephanie could tell right away that this was privileged information and even before he'd reached the end of Jillian's tale, she could feel where this was going. It was a warning. Master was imparting a lesson to her. What he was telling her hit home even more stolidly than before once she came to that realization and she let her teacher's words wash over her, allowing the conclusion to reach it's end.

When Charlotte's turn came up and Stephanie watched the changes come over his form, the flimsy emotion of jealousy came and went like a fluttering butterfly. There was so much to envy in the other woman, now held away from death but not living, but there was a lot to be condemned as well. Even the relationship and the past Master hinted at was not enough to rile Stephanie's jealousy. It would have felt like combating a ghost for his attention.

As he came to the meat of the story describing Charlotte's rebel group she wondered why she'd never heard of the "Anit-Agents" before. It was interesting information, to say the least, and she wondered what he was trying to say. Did he want to redirect her attention from her case onto this rebellion? Was he trying to make a comparison between her personal struggles and his own fight with those in the Anti Agent group? Or...was he just confiding in her? The last seemed unlikely. Master had too many well-crafted walls to choose to let them down in front of someone like her. No, whatever peek he was giving her into his private history and the conflict with this group, there was a reason for it.

When he finally turned to her and the cloud lifted from the room, she blinked and blushed at the last things he said. If you won’t, you won’t, but if you do, I’ll find you. It hit her core like a cord being struck, even coupled with that beautiful, mesmerizing grin of his. It was suddenly very clear why he'd told her about all of this but she wasn't sure if he was just threatening her in general or if she'd done something to give him the impression that she would fall for a pursuit so hopeless. Of course, she loved control and she felt that connection with Charlotte who'd had hundreds at her command. But Stephanie had been a submissive and she knew the power and threat of the Agency. No matter what, it would always win and she would never put herself higher on the food chain than where they directly placed her. She knew where she belonged.

The trouble now was struggling not to be offended. He had every right to give her this warning - whether it was a personal message to her or not - and his precaution was enough to make her admire him again, even as it made her withdraw woundedly. "I understand, Sir," she said levelly, her tone gathering together as much stone as it could and her crumbling emotionless mask fitting into place, emotions rippling underneath, half-seen and glimpsed even in the darkened room. "I may not have reached the level you have as far as abandoning the moral fiber I've been chained with and there are still a few things that hold me back in that regard. But the Agency has become a part of me. It raised me up from the sloppy, wild thing I stumbled in as, to what I am today. Everything I have sacrificed and worked so hard to gain would be for naught if I turned my back on this. And it would be a betrayal of everything I am and have worked so hard to become.

"I will not and do not ever plan on disgracing myself in such a manner and I would rather take my own life than betray the Agency or you. I...know my place, Sir... You may have noticed, Master, that I admire you greatly. Your excellence blinds me and every time you speak you take my breath away. And yet when I look into your eyes, there is nothing there. How will I ever achieve that level of hollowness if I stopped my progress and fell back to Earth to wallow with the vermin? THIS is the way to the top. THIS is the way to achieve the blissful death of every last inch of my humanity. And I want that more than anything else and I'm consumed by my need for it."

Her voice faded as she looked at the jars again, a thought occurring to her. One of the things currently holding her back: Jason. Stephanie had a moment of clarity with all this talk with Master, but it did not erase the still present feelings she had for her partner, even though she did not understand why she cared so much about him. Master had helped her put things into perspective and helped her remember why she'd joined the Agency and how her first years of training had been. She'd been ruthless and domineering, her desire for control turning everyone around her into a victim, consumed by her lusts and bent to her will. She still felt that way - vigorously - even towards Jason. But there was something else that was present and she didn't understand her sudden instinct to protect him from harm - when putting him in pain and agony got her so frigging hot in the first place. It was becoming too much and she was afraid she might lose him when he was forced to give up his suit. And if he fell...she knew she would fall with him. It didn't make sense to her, but her concern for Jason was just as much about him as it was about self-preservation.

Now that she finally had the Master alone, she felt it was the best time to bring this up and hopefully make things better and not worse for the only remaining member of her team. When she turned back to him, the mask flickered and she looked uncertainly up at him for a few moments before smoothing it back into place. "Master... I need to speak to you about Jason and...and what's going to happen to him." Her voice stopped shaking and grew more powerful as she took a deep breath and went on.

"I want to take responsibility for what happened in Elmira. I know what Jason said happened but I understand it more clearly now. Because of previous mistakes I made regarding this case, his equipment was damaged and he was not in the best state of mind at the time." It was partly true. She did feel responsible for the mistake about the apartments being mixed up. If she'd been less worried about counting all the eggs in her basket and preparing for the body transfer, than actually being an active part in Gwen's capture from the beginning, none of this would have ever happened. But the mystery of Nathan had yet to be uncovered, more questions than answers coming up every time Master mentioned the boy. "I fully admit that I'm not as experienced as a Leader as I should be and with the prize in sight, I was arrogant at first. But I've learned from my mistakes, I assure you.

"He's a good Agent," she said genuinely through the dull tone she only half-possessed. "I just ask that you give him another chance to prove himself or at least allow him to keep the suit until I've completed my mission. We're so close to the end but still so many things could go wrong. Having him feeble or wired on drugs is not something I want to have to worry about. Bringing in a replacement at this point will complicate things...

"I know it is inappropriate to ask you for favors...but I would be in your debt forever. And Master, I'll--" she briefly choked on her words but quickly recovered, the monotone shaking slightly. "I'll do anything."

Hopefully from what she'd previously said, he would assume she was talking about her case and getting emotional about wanting to achieve her goals with Gwen, rather than the truth which was that Jason was important to her beyond his usefulness. Still, it felt a bit like she was sticking her neck out further than she would have liked with just asking him for this period. She almost expected to get reprimanded for her weakness or be forced to pay a price she could not afford. Gwen. He wouldn't take her away from her, would he? It hardly seemed like he would even show her mercy that he had not yet displayed towards anyone. But if he did - and there was that hope - it felt a bit like what Stephanie imagined making a deal with the Devil would be like. It didn't matter. If it got her Jason AND Gwen, she would sign anything and pledge her loyalties to anyone.

***

Osono fully expected a retort from him. In fact, she was still so fired up from her rant that she freaking welcomed it. Anything to take out her frustration right now and get her pumped up again to do whatever they were going to need to do. But she stopped, driving the car on autopilot, and blinking in shock at what he actually ended up saying.

Rationally, she could agree with him. His foot was a pain in the ass and with Rudy preoccupied, there was a very good chance whatever she did to get attention wouldn't work as quickly as she wanted it to. But it was the way he said it... She'd pretty much told him in the coffee shop how she felt about Rudy, if not directly then heavily implied it. And it was clear from his lash back at her that he'd understood perfectly and he used this personal information, that she'd felt comfortable enough to share with him, as a weapon against her. It hit her right where it hurt.

She hated Rudy. She fucking HATED the little bastard and she was constantly thinking and daydreaming of ways to kill him. But...she liked him too. In the back of her mind, she'd always hoped and kidded herself that there was some sort of relationship between them. Even when he showed up and she was actively looking out for Agents to show up...it was nice to have someone around who at least made a good show of pretending to like being with her. Even in her old life before she'd met Rudy, her personal relationships had suffered from things she'd done in her past. So, when he came along, he seemed a necessary and even tolerable evil. Most of the time she tricked herself into believing she was too dangerous to love and that it was better for her and for everyone if they just all stayed away. Rudy was the only one who didn't seem to care if she burned him alive.

Now that she'd found out the truth, the official truth without a doubt that Rudy was only interested in capturing her and selling her out...she'd still held onto a vague hope that he'd come back and things would be different. Or maybe they could at least go back to the way things were. But ever since she heard that he'd been the one directly responsible for capturing Gwen, there had been a doubt that he would have gotten what he wanted and she'd never see him again. And Alex just harpooned that fucking weak spot. And for what? Because she didn't want to clown around, dragging ass to fifty locations!? He really was a jerkwad.

Ozzie was fully willing to shut up after that - she hadn't meant to get personal with him in the first place, but she realized she'd gotten used to being around him and had been too honest; so she decided no more fucking talking from her and he would get nothing else to wound from now on - but the asshole kept talking. It didn't matter that he was trying to console her or at least trying to correct his error - in the most crass way possible, she might add. It was the touchy subject that he just kept poking at and poking at as if he knew anything about it. Although, she hadn't known Rudy had killed anyone, and it was a bit astonishing to know that he'd shot an innocent bystander, as soon as Alex said "Rudy" she gritted her teeth and gripped the wheel even tighter.

By the time they were at their location and Alex told her to stop, she was practically seething with bottled rage. She could feel it swelling inside her like molten lava inside a volcano, ready to burst from her top. And she barely acknowledged his murmured plan to torch the lawn - probably because he was a fucking pussy. As she parked at the curb and felt the engine die down, warmth spread around her in a cloud as her rage continued to build. Slipping Gwen's bag over her head and setting it on the divider between the seats, she also removed her jacket and checked the gun she'd stolen from the Agent. It was loaded. Leaving the car, she met Alex on the sidewalk and as he proceeded towards the building, she let the top blow.

Ozzie was walking right behind him when she moved into action, charging into him hard enough to knock him off his feet with a loud roar. When he fell to the ground and rolled onto his back giving her a look like he wanted to start pissing and moaning again, she stood firmly over him and a halo of fire appeared over her hands. Her dark chocolate brown eyes which could grow amber in sunlight had turned pitch black, shining in the light from her balled up fists as she glared murderously down at him. Then she pouted and gave him a quick, small kick to his good leg.

"You ass! I don't fucking need Rudy to do this and I don't need you! You can sit this one out an' rest your widdle weak ankles and just sit there and mouth off, Pretty boy! Next time you wanna give me relationship advice, try and stifle the urge by tongue fucking the mental clone of your girlfriend some more!" Her clothes caught on fire then, but through the hazy whisps of red, yellow and orange, they appeared to stay untouched by the flames that hovered over them. "I'll get you your stupid Agents and your stupid codes AND I'll do it without killing anybody! How's that Jimminy fucking Cricket!?" She kicked him again as the nickname blurted between her lips and her hair ignited in a halo of golden and shining flames.

It wasn't long before everything, even her skin was covered in fire, licking over her limbs and her face and obscuring her eyes but leaving her features half-visible. She loved the feel of the flames on her body and they roared over her with a mutual delight, turning her into a wraith of flame. She made an aggressive move towards him but stopped short and snorted when she caught him blinking in a half-flinch, before moving past him towards the building. As she walked over the lawn, her footsteps left charred and crackling imprints but they didn't stay lit for very long. He'd said something about setting it on fire and she did so with a wave of her hand, releasing the fire that burst to life and letting it roam free. But the great bulk of it consumed the short and well-groomed grass quickly and died with lamenting crackles.

That wouldn't do. She needed more fuel. There were shrubs outside by the doors and they instantly went up, allowed to burn freely, but it still wasn't enough. Ozzie was itching to do some damage. Unsnapping a button on a pocket against her upper thigh, she pulled out a small metal flask and unscrewed it. The slight burn of whiskey filled her mouth and she let it collect in her cheeks, before turning to the front of the building and spraying it in a stream of fire against the outside, charring it and setting a few small fires sticking outside. Not enough. She needed more. Rage still burned in her gut and the fires covering her body filled her with their hunger, even as they imbued her with their heated life.

Stepping towards the doors which were glass top to bottom, she glanced back to where Alex was before stepping through a hole that melted in the glass. Like a curtain parting for her and welcoming her home. Maybe there would be something she could make an explosion with, inside.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
You know, you might have made her angry. With nothing but his voice, Xander gave a clear display of shaking his head in disapproval. So sad. And to think you two were having a moment in Starbucks. We should go back –

“She’s setting it on fire!”

... That’s bad, I take it.

“She’s burning everything,” Alex cried. He was unbelievably grateful he couldn’t feel whatever damage she’d done to his foot plowing into him like that, but it didn’t make it easier to stand up and jerk away from the flames. The heat snapped at his face as it flared up and fizzled out, almost blinding him and holding him back, but he saw her eyes turn over to him before she stomped in. He wasn’t letting Osono get away, for his sake, hers, Gwen’s and anyone’s still inside of there. “She’s completely out of her mind!”

Exactly what part of this isn’t in the plan?

“Fuck you and your stupid plan, Xander,” he said. “There’s a reason I don’t let you come up with any.”

‘I’m Alex and I’m angry. I’m gonna go back up to my apartment –’

“And stop bringing that up,” he snarled, grinding his teeth together as he dragged his dead foot towards the doors. “It was a one time thing.”

Riiiight. Because this is much better. ‘I’m Alex and I just finished pissing off a girl who can melt my cramped head with a wave of her eyelash. I’m going to go chase after her into a confined area now, through the fiery fire, utterly ignoring her intent to – as was expressed in my plan – destroy the shit out’f the rest of it. There’s absolutely no way this could be a bad idea.’

“I’m not going to sit by and let her...” The moment he needed to think of a word to finish that ended quickly. Although the shrubs were still burning and the earlier wave of flames still stung him, the shadows of the Agents, fully outfitted in black bodysuits that he, from years of experience, knew weren’t as armoured as they should’ve been, couldn’t have been more easy to spy than if they’d been wearing neon and holding signs. “Those are... like before –”

Recon. A line of acid wrapped around Xander’s words. Peter’s watching us.

Alex’s stomach twisted. Those two weren’t pretending to be stealthy and they didn’t stop their hopping-sprint all the way into the building. They were inside and out of sight in seconds. Where the hell had they come from? How did they know he – they were here?

“We need to warn her.”

No, now we especially need to stay outside. Give her space to work.

“But she –”

– is in better shape to fight them off than we are. Sorry, I meant ‘me’. Xander turned Alex’s head around, making him scan the horizon for the slightest sign of movement. There was nothing Alex could see, and from the way his eyes didn’t stop scouring the road, Xander wasn’t picking up on anything either. I don’t get it...

“Don’t get what?”

He only sent two, but they’re charging in as if they want a fight. They meant to be seen by us, he said. Peter knows we’re better than that. Two recons are barely a snack. Unless I’m missing the rest of the army, this is laying out a doormat to walk head-first into a trap.

Alex might not have liked the sound of that, but it wasn’t anything less than what he expected. Could they go in now?

“What type of trap are we looking at?”

If he sent us recon, it means they deal in information. We need information because it gets us into Charlton. That can only mean he wants us to go to Charlton, which we have no choice in doing, which we already suspected of being trapped and which he would know we already knew about.

“Okay.”

We’ve got two possibilities: either he’s biting the bullet and getting us to the trap as fast as he can, betting on having what we need to keep us from avoiding the place, or he’s got something else in mind he knows we won’t be prepared for. And then there’s always the third mystery scenario...

“So...?”

I don’t know, man. This was way easier when it was only the French guy.

“We got rid of Peter once before,” Alex said. “Well... enough to lose him for a few years.”

And until we have the answer to that riddle, we’ll be stuck with him for life. He sighed. Alright. Go in. We need to stop her before she sets our invitations on fire.

She would. Alex had that feeling, and those two were too lightly protected to stand up to much more than a candle – aside from the Agent training, of course, but how long would that last against... magma, or whatever she felt like throwing around? He began pulling his foot towards the building again, choking back the paranoia of the entire place exploding in his face the moment he got within lethal range, and peeked at the glass doors. She wasn’t one for keys, then. There were melted ripples along the edges and what hadn’t moved had spit up soot. If he wanted to look in, he’d have to go in. With a tense breath, he pulled his ankle over the cooled pool of door on the ground and entered into the silence.

Whatever damage she was planning on doing hadn’t happened yet. Dark smears of ash and the smell of a distant blaze were everywhere, but she must’ve been biding her time. What was it she’d said about the way she worked? She needed fuel or energy or something like that to get things working. In an office, where the lights were off and the floors were empty, where would fuel be?

“Xander?”

I dunno. Boiler room?

“And where’s that?”

Don’t know. Let me check my magical brain-map. Or we could follow the guys who’re trained to follow other guys. Fine, but where were they? You truly are gonna be hopeless without me. Here’s hoping Gwen doesn’t dump your ass so you get a heads up at least.

Alex stayed focused. He let Xander lead the way to Peter’s latest playmates with quick ‘left’s and ‘right’s, waiting to pick up on whatever was giving them away. Nothing. There were no sounds from any corner of the halls and no trail to follow. It wasn’t until he felt a warm air brushing past him that he realized they were on the right track.

“Osono!” Good. He’d found her. That’s good? “There’s Agents in here. We can’t kill them – they have what we need to get in.”

Hopefully. They should have it. They had it, right?

Can’t think of why they wouldn’t.

She didn’t look happy at all. He was assuming that, anyway, only because he didn’t have a lot of experience in picking emotions out of fire. Alex was not about to apologize for what he said. It was better that she got rid of her delusions now than run into Gwen and Rudy and convince herself that her ‘boyfriend’ was being ‘stolen’. The most he could do was not mention it again, even if he felt obligated to make sure she knew there was nothing between her and that guy other than what the Agency said.

... Huh. He really was a dickwad.

Yeah.

* * *


“You kids and your hormones,” Eric said, walking some steps away as if he were about to start pacing. He didn’t. Instead he stopped and squared his shoulders pointedly, relaxing them in a breath that seemed as much exasperated as it was entertained. “That’s the one thing we’ll never train out’f you. It’s disappointing. We used to be able to do it.”

Jason’s hand had found its way to the side of the door. It dug in and his nails clawed through his gloves. Why did Eric standing farther away from her seem more dangerous than when he’d been next to her? And what was Jason doing – readying a counterattack? A-1s weren’t A-1s because they sat around. If Stephanie was in trouble, there wasn’t a lot he could do. He’d try – but...

“I admire your loyalty. That’s the trade off, I think: heartless bastards like me don’t get those gooey threads of attachment. I’d kick the Agency in the head if their technology wasn’t so useful, so I can’t exactly blame you for doing the opposite and wantin’ to keeping the kid around.” Eric shrugged. “But I don’t recommend it. I’ve seen his record. He’s been amazing at everything that hasn’t related to ‘these kinds’ of assignments. Maybe he’s just not ready, and that makes it kind of unfair to keep him around if he genuinely can’t cut it.”

He could. Jason could. He’d screwed up once or twice – he knew that – and Eric had no proof that he was worth anything because of those mistakes, but he could do this. He’d only been caught off guard before.

“I’ll tell ya what: for free, if you cut ‘im loose, I can wipe away any trace of him having been involved,” he said. “He gets his perfect record back, you remove the wounded limb... hey, y’know...” The man smiled sagely. “If I put a reset on everything that’s happened, there’s no reason for his demotion. I mean – he wouldn’t’ve been around to do that ‘let go’ thing, and you, Steph, would then face a simple choice: if you don’t want somebody new, somebody potentially better to jump in and fill his place, you could always go at it yourself, and I can’t honestly think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to try, considering the problem’s never been that Gwen was uncatchable. You almost had her once before. It’s Xander who keeps getting in the way, but with him here and soon to be disposed of and you in Elmira getting ready to transfer, it looks more and more like smooth sailing if you aren’t lugging Jason around – who, I believe, was the one that got Alex in this to begin with.”

But if he could have his suit back –

“He’s not getting his suit back. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s like what I told him in the car: it’s protocol. My hands are tied with this level of offence, so it’s ‘feeble and wired’ unless you drop him, but if you can’t – well... I’d have to question that decision.”

A hard breath rose up Jason’s throat and refused to go down when he swallowed. Eric did know about what’d been happening, but he stopped before he went any deeper into the issue. It floated around like a playful hint of what could happen, and – dammit, even as he tried, Jason couldn’t hear a threat. What Eric had said sounded more like a... a brotherly warning than any kind of blackmail, which he was powerful enough to not have to resort to, anyway. If he asked Stephanie point-blank about their relationship, and she’d be the last to give away anything incriminating that’d force Eric to react, that’d fuck her over if evidence... revealed otherwise.

“People are going to want to know why you’re insisting on bringing Jason along,” he told her. “Gwen is your primary concern. Underlings and minions and subordinates are meant to disposable support. How do you think this organization could function if every lead spent a week crying about a lackey they lost? Look at Benoit! He had an army and Xander whittled it away, but he’s still going. He might be moody now, but by tomorrow, he’ll be happy as a clam.” ‘Moody’ was an understatement, ‘tomorrow’ was too optimistic, and ‘happy’ could only be in a sentence with an A-3 if it was used sarcastically. “And anyway, keeping him out of harm’s way gives you two more... possibilities after you’ve adopted a stable lifestyle. Say... after you’ve completed your transfer?”

So there it was. A hundred and one reasons for why Jason shouldn’t be on this case, and yet the feeling that he should go continued to linger in his mind. If he felt it, maybe she did. That was bad. In the face of what’d been said, if she continued to press for his involvement, Eric would have to play his hand. Would she? It didn’t matter. Jason wasn’t giving anyone the chance to ruin her.

“The transfer has always been at the top of our list,” he said. Jason’s voice broke the illusion: he wasn’t faded any longer. He stepped away from the door and walked into the room, holding his head up and hoping they didn’t assume he was spying on them in exactly the way he’d been spying on them. “What’s changed is the added variable of Alexander and the host of problems he brought into this. I understand that I made several faulty decisions and impeded our progress by working off of unverified intel, and the one that brought us here was undoubtedly the most severe, but – sir, if you’d humour me, I have something that might justify why I let them go.”

Eric was listening. Jason took the goggles off from around his neck. He was relieved to find the sense of nausea that normally followed in a time of withdrawal was nowhere to be found now. He’d stopped sweating, too. In another hour or so, he might stop looking sick.

“Our target reset my system. It’s been recording everything since that time, including a fair amount of their interactions up to the point of its recovery. Not only do we have an in-depth look into what their thought processes are, but I can show you exactly what I heard when your project told me to let them go,” he said.

“Hm.” Was that a good sound? “The loyalty isn’t lacking. Hey – maybe I didn’t have to worry about those Antis after all. Still, though, it’s good to know what’s out there.” Eric nodded. “Okay. Let’s see it.”

Jason’s hands got such a jolt of excited energy that he nearly dropped his precious equipment. In the first real gesture in line with what A-1s were supposed to act like, Eric twitched his eyebrow in a flat and all-too-readable reply. Jason wasn’t off to a good start, but he had it handled shortly after that. He started skipping ahead to the crucial moment in Elmira, realizing he could even prove his other claim – the one about Alexander charging – in one fell swoop. Pointing the goggles’ projection at the wall, lighting up the room with a sterilized blue and grey, the recording began at as close to the start of the whirring as he could get it. The volume of what was happening was strong. They could hear the sounds of Alexander’s and the Flunky’s fight, but the damn screen had never really been pointed at them. It’d dangled from his hands and swung while he’d been moving, and while he almost wanted to apologize, it’d be another strike against him. This was fine. This was good. The audio was the point and it was all he needed to prove his case.

... There’s another way out. It’s not protected. It’ll put you out at the street.

Eric’s eyes were masked by the glare of the projection and his glasses were a blinding reflection of the screen. Even so, it didn’t stop anyone from seeing he was paying full attention to what was happening – and what was happening, going by the sudden dimness in his smile, was not a good thing. As much as Jason would’ve wanted to go on to wonder whether that helped him in his case, his thoughts turned to more important matters when he realized oh for fucking shit it stopped recording.

“It cut out,” he said, dumbly. “But... there’s... no reason for it to cut out. Why did it stop?”

“Did that voice sound Australian to you?”

“What – no.” And then as if the video was mocking him, it snapped back from the dead-black and silent screen the minute his lead arrived and then carried on like nothing was wrong in the slightest! His goggles shared his rage, going fuzzy at the edges, matching his outrage as he let out a furious, “That’s not possible! This has to have been sabotaged!”

“I’ll leave you two to talk it out.” Eric’s phone was suddenly at his ear. “Show this to Benoit when you have a chance. I want his opinion on the fight. Excuse me.”

And he was gone. An incredible emptiness took his place. Jason felt it add to the hopelessness in his hands. Without anything else to do, he shut the projection off, staring into his goggles and looking for an answer. They were sad as he was to realize they didn’t have one.

What the hell happened? Why would everything shut off for those seconds? No one else had touched his goggles once he’d gotten them back – hell, he’d made sure of it, scanning through everything else when he’d rushed here to talk to them – so there was absolutely no explanation for it! What the fuck?

“Something has it out for me,” he muttered. “Something wants me out of here very, very badly.”

Setting

5 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace Character Portrait: Brie
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"Where the fuck is my phone!? Shit!" a distraught Rudy exclaimed, smashing his fist angrily at the dashboard as he cursed again.

Gwen flinched with the violent movement and tried to shy away from him just in case he decided to take his anger out on her, doing her best to become a part of her seat. It had been at least a half an hour since they'd encountered Officer Frewer and still, there was no sign of the reinforcements he'd called and the distant sirens had died back the way they'd come. In the meantime, Rudy had become more and more distressed, muttering openly to himself and cursing anxiously, his dialogue punctuated by these little bursts of anger that made everything, within reach in the car, a target for his frustration and rage.

"Dammit! Now I can't call in for a change of cars - and you KNOW that asshole wrote down my license plate number. I need to get rid of this car soon," he said, looking warily out at the other drivers sharing the road with him, before wiping the sweat off his forehead with his forearm.

That was another thing. In addition to the paranoid and almost frantic look in his eyes, Rudy had begun to sweat, even though she felt his body shivering occasionally. And Gwen knew it was his newly acquired wound that was the problem. The only thing he'd done so far to deal with the hole going through his shoulder, had been to stuff a bunch of napkins - handily kept in the glove box - inside his shirt. His seat and clothes were soaked in his blood and she was growing more and more worried about the very real possibility of him passing out.

"And oh fuck! What if Patten calls and I don't answer!? Another few thousand demotions, I just know it!" he ran a trembling hand through his hair and cast a wild look around that included another desperate glance in the rearview mirror. "Which sucks, because I just got done programming his ringtone as the Imperial March..." He glanced at Gwen and held her gaze for several moments before muttering, "Fucking epic, right?"

Gwen took that as his including her in a conversation and decided to voice her concerns. She didn't care if Rudy crashed and died, but with her tied defenseless in the car with him, it was another story - did this car even have a passenger seat air bag? "Rudy," she said hesitantly, pausing and licking her lips to wet them before continuing. "I think you need to stop. You're going into shock and you're losing a lot of blood--"

"OH! Thank you, Dr. Gwen, freaking medicine woman! When I want your diagnosis - which I don't and I won't - then you'll hear me...I don't know... I guess ask you or something..." He paused and thought it over. "Just shut the fuck up, alright!? God..." he moaned breathlessly as another sharp pain lanced through his tense body, leaning his head on the steering wheel and watching the road through the open sections on the leather wheel itself. "My whole fucking body hurts...heh..." As he leaned back up, a small uneven and breathy laugh left his lips and he glanced at her, his eyes sweeping over her with a thick glaze.

This was not good. She'd thought he'd been unstable before but this... What she'd hoped would be her moment of salvation had turned out to be the worst possible thing for her and was probably going to end up with them driving off the edge of the road into a hilltop ravine somewhere. Thinking that his weakened state would hopefully make him more susceptible to her powers, Gwen probed into his mind and nearly broke into a smile to realize he had let his guard down. As soon as she started to probe further into him however, she gasped as his hand whipped out to strike her quickly on the cheek, knocking her head back against her chair.

"Not right now!" he screamed at her, his voice cracking insanely. "NOT. RIGHT. NOW!!!"

She couldn't take this! She had to do something! But more and more, it was looking like all the room she had to move around in was just to get herself comfy in her seat and await her fate. Yet again, she tried to press the distance between her and Alex, pushed not by panic but desperation now, not really sure what she wanted to say to him but just wanting to make some sort of contact with him before her impending death in a car crash.

I...don't know if you can hear me... she said, her internal voice echoing with emotion as she began to cry softly. But where ever you are...

Gwen stopped and wept, uncertain if that foggy signature was really him or if she was just making it up inside her head to comfort herself before Rudy would decide to turn their car into a fast-moving weapon. She thought about all she'd been through with Alex and Xander both, and how she felt towards each of them and treated this as if it were her last conversation with them. She remembered her life before them, holed up in her apartment, distant yet friendly with everyone and not connecting with anyone. She'd been lonely but content, comforted by her routine and almost hermetic lifestyle, focusing on small things that she could control, like her books and the characters in her writing.

It had been that stalker who'd messed things up for her. John Tagman. A fan who'd shown up at a few of her book signings last year, gushing over her series, he'd been a bit awkward but enthusiastic, leading from a discussion of her character Elynsynos - one of the main male characters that he'd felt a connection to - into asking her on a date. She'd felt flattered by his almost boyish awkwardness, as if she were someone great and he was nervous about talking to, but had declined respectfully trying not to wound his feelings at the same time. He'd been fine with that, seemingly understanding of her decision, even playfully so and he'd left without getting weird or emotional. He'd just been a nice, quirky fella who liked her books - when the target audience was highschool girls and women, it was always a little funny to her to get the occasional man who liked her novels as well.

After that, she'd forgotten about Tagman and went on with her life. A few weeks later she received the first of what would be many packages, on her doorstep. It had been a simple rose with a love poem attached, the tone of which hinted at a personal relationship with her but the language used was of a general yearning. She hadn't thought anything of it but kept it nonetheless. A few more packages later, each getting more intimate than the last - the notes discussing things like lunch she'd had with her mother, her current relationship with an artist named Mickey and how the author of the note could tell he didn't love her and things weren't going to work out, discussing her favorite foods, favorite shows, wanting to curl up in bed with her at night, etc. - and the packages themselves had become more disturbing in nature. One of them had been a dead cat that looked like someone had tried to skin it with a lawnmower left in a box on her doorstep. Having read the note that said something to the effect of "When your boyfriend fucks you this is how I feel/what I feel like doing to you..." she'd fucking called the police.

It hadn't been hard for the cops to find him - apparently Tagman had a little bit of a record - and soon after that, they let her know that the situation had been handled and that she wouldn't be bothered again. And she hadn't been. The scar had been left however and the residue of that feeling of being intimately watched stayed with her until she didn't like going out in public anymore. She broke up with her boyfriend and spent the next year staying away from people, trying to move on with her life and finding consolation in writing the rest of her 5th and final novel in the Nightshade series. By the time Alex had come along, she'd begun to feel normal again, the trauma fading and she was even a bit lonely, her mundane life and the cage she'd locked herself in starting to feel less like home and more like a prison. He'd rescued her from more than just Agents.

I just want you to know... she started again, the tears clearing up and a calm descending upon her. That no matter what happens when I get to Charlton, I had the best time of my life being on this adventure with you and I don't regret a moment of it--

The flimsy contact she'd had was broken abruptly as she noticed Rudy turning off of the highway into another rural town. Gwen hadn't been paying attention to his ranting up until now, so she missed out on the cause of this detour, but was quickly filled in as he continued to murmur to himself. He was still looking to abandon the car and find a replacement. Maybe he would pass out while they were stationary afterall? It would definitely be better than while driving a moving car. So, even though she doubted the police were even close to finding them, she kept quiet as he drove through town, waiting and hoping that he'd fall asleep soon and she could get away from him.

At one point, they passed a large church with the parking lot filled and he slowed down beside it, looking at the cars. Probing inside the building, Gwen sensed that there was a wedding going on this beautiful Saturday morning. From the images in the different guests minds, she thought it was a very lovely event. Why was Rudy interested? Obviously the cars had something to do with it and she shook her head in disapproval.

"You're going to hijack a car from a wedding?"

"Are you sure it's not a funeral? I woulda liked to drive a hearse." He ignored or didn't see the abhorred look on her face. She had no doubt he wouldn't have any qualms about stealing such a vehicle, especially if it had the coffin and body inside it!

Driving past the church, he found a secluded lot on the other side of a small hardware store and parked in the shade of several ash trees. While he leaned across the seats to dig around in the back for something, Gwen reached out and probed the surrounding area for any allies. Maybe this was it. Another chance to escape. If she could just find someone willing to take an axe to Rudy's skull...

Then Quin had what he'd been digging for, a small folded fabric binder that she instantly recognized from her stay at the hotel.

"Rudy...please... please don't... I promise, I'll stop trying to hurt you! I promise I won't interfere!"

From out of the case he brought out a vial of clear liquid and a syringe and began to fill it with a very sizable dose. "Heh, yeah and we both know how good your word is, don't we? In fact, it's something I feel in my nose." Finally he turned to her, wielding the small needle in one hand and grabbing at her with the other as she whimpered in protest. She squirmed agitatedly as it stuck into the side of her neck, but she couldn't shake him loose before her movements became too sluggish and consciousness faded from her.

"There we go," he said pleasantly, tossing the syringe aside and casting a paranoid look out the car windows.

***

Through a haze of fire, Osono regarded the dimly lit space, the light of her body and sunlight coming through the front doors and windows illuminating everything to her shining eyes. The anger that swelled within her helped feed the core of the flames as the fire she now wore filled her with a sense of euphoria to be bonded with it so closely. As a result, she let herself forget for the time being why she was in here, mowing a path of destruction with every step, her heart pounding with the beat of chaos.

Fuel. She needed it in order to bask in the growth and life of the flames, and she searched the first rooms and entry hall for something to set on fire. Briefly, she waved her hand at the walls and a few potted plants setting them alight, but she didn't let the fires that burst into being stay. As much as setting the whole place on fire would give her that boost and strength she needed, it was dangerous to do so before she was ready to leave. Naturally, the fires that sprang up would never hurt her or touch her with more than a warm embrace, and with everything covered wall-to-wall in burning glory, she could walk out the front doors without a scratch. But in her experience, burning buildings tended to fall apart and with how eagerly the fires moved to consume everything with her around, she'd pose a danger to herself burning everything on her way in.

Other than a few accent plants, there was a large desk in front of the doors, but it was thick metal and would take more energy to burn; expelling large amounts of energy was not what she needed at the moment, but rather a big fire done quickly with little effort. An explosion would feel good right about now. Ozzie wasn't very well-versed in what an office building held - suits and desks were for squares - but it was a big enough place that she automatically assumed there would be a large and complex heating system involved to keep the building from freezing in the winter. Usually a room housing that equipment would either be on the ground floor or in the basement, so with that in mind, she made her way quickly, searching for it. She didn't have a map, but held onto the hope that her instincts would kick in when she sensed there was "food" nearby.

Even with her attention focused on finding something flammable, Ozzie let her rage build thinking back over the things Alex had said. He was such a jerk! He'd already mentioned it and she'd even said it herself - she didn't need to come along to help him as she was barely involved. Here he was limping along on a leg that was obviously damaged in a way that wasn't going to get better from running around on it and he was expecting to charge blindly into where ever they had stuffed his girlfriend away and not get himself killed. She'd seen him fight of course, and he could more than hold his own against these assholes who'd failed to even touch her with her "training" being nothing more than biker club hand-me down tips. And that boost Gwen had given him would definitely help to electrocute anybody who came too close with the intent to harm him.

But having her along would definitely even the odds if he were to be overwhelmed. It more than assured their victory in any fight and she was here on her own willing to help him, out of the kindness of her fucking heart because she knew he couldn't do it without her. So why he kept acting like she was just following him around for his damn company... And telling her not to kill anybody? Was he fucking mental? They were in a war with these people! And she knew They had a habit of mimicking regular people as well - that is, up until the moment they tried to jump you. So everybody was a possible threat and expendable. Not that she went around actively killing anyone who looked at her wrong, but if she needed to blow up a building or a gas station to get away and save herself from being overwhelmed, she wasn't going to wait and try and evacuate everybody before setting the "match." It was her or them and she was done looking out for the general public.

In her old life, having a "standard" hadn't helped her one bit and Ozzie was frustrated that Alex was trying to fit her into that restrictive mold again. And then there was Rudy... Clenching her fists tighter and grinding her teeth, the fires around her body flared up even brighter as rage pulsed through her again. She would show him. She would show all of those Agent fuckers. Next time she saw Rudy, she was going to bathe in his blood, no matter what Alex's conscience said. Redemption and moderation were not in her vocabulary.

She'd gone quite a ways within the maze of hallways, still looking for her new fuel source when Alex called out behind her. Turning, she sneered at him through the fire, feeling the heat of their argument blazing through her body all over again at the sight of him.

"What are you doing in here, scumbag?" Osono asked in her raspy voice, cutting through the air with her caustic tone. "Got a death wish? Or have you come to check up on me? I TOLD you I'm not gonna kill anybody, you pompous ass! I don't need you to babysit me! I'VE GOT IT UNDER CONTROL!" It did not occur to her the incongruity of screaming that statement.

God! Why didn't he just stay the fuck outside? Not only did having him around and hearing him speak remind her of how much she hated his guts, but the fact that he was here trying to prove something by reiterating exactly what she said she wasn't going to do! True, there was the whole explosion thing still calling to her, but she wasn't at a point where she could think rationally about this. He was trying to say that she was like a wildfire that couldn't be controlled, that he needed to be here to protect people from her! She hated him so fucking much!

As these thoughts bubbled up inside her, the flames on her hair and shoulders climbed higher until they licked at the ceiling, wraith-like tendrils of bright orange light snaking along the foam grid panels. A few sprinklers that had been sitting balefully quiet this whole time, eventually gave into the urge and heat of her and burst to liquid life, spitting rain frantically down upon them accompanied by a shrill alarm. The flames around Osono's body quickly went down as she was drenched until she was left looking down at her hands and blinking wetly at herself. Nothing had happened except now it would be harder for her to maintain a fire with the constant wetness soaking everything. She hadn't been thinking clearly but hadn't meant to get that upset.

Slowly, she looked up at Alex, obviously bereft from the absence of her fire and shrugged at him in the dim hallway. "Oops..." Then her eyes caught sight of something just a little ways from him, a short distance between them. There was a spot on the floor where the raining water didn't land like it did everywhere else. Alarmed, Osono pointed at it, "Alex! What is that?" Not having ever encountered an invisible person before, she honestly didn't know what to make of the weird spot on the ground - maybe there was something he could see from his end?

Not a second later after being revealed, the spot was suddenly moving and wet footsteps could be heard pounding towards her in a charge. Surprised by the sudden unseen attack being launched upon her, Osono stood there gaping with her fists half-raised before the imprint of a fist smashed into her face and knocked her off her feet. Landing with a grunt onto her side in the puddle that was forming on the floor tiles, she shook her head and grimaced before moving her legs in a swift sweep along the ground where the attack had originated. She wasn't quick enough to catch whoever it was and they'd moved before she had. What was worse, she was barely rising from the ground when a second hit took her in the gut, stunning her with the force of it.

What was this? Invisible Agents? Even with the movements of the "ghost" being half-discerned by the droplets they stopped from falling, she couldn't fixate on their body mass enough to land a blow and they moved too quickly for her to focus on them. On hands and knees and sensing that another blow was coming soon, she murmured, "Sorry, Alex," before she lit the match in her mind's eye and lashed out towards the moving target.

Flames burst instantly to life on the fabric of her foe's leg, despite the liquid covering everything in heavy layers, her will pushing the fire to consume more of him, letting it spread on his knee and calf, even as keeping it lit against the sprinklers ate away at her energy. Even so, the new fire filled her with strength and disoriented him enough to stay any other attacks, leaving an opening - and also identifying his location - for her to move forward and cram her fist into his stomach. One thing she became immediately aware of after that brief contact with the front of his body and the two mounds on his chest, was that her adversary was not a man but actually a woman and she was wearing some kind of slick, thin outfit.

The fire on the Agent's leg only gave her a brief advantage and the other woman didn't seem to care about it even when the smell of burning flesh filled the air, continuing to launch an invisible assault to subdue Ozzie. Luckily for her, the new fire eating away at her "friend" filled her limbs and muscles with a surge of power that ignored her fastly depleting energy stores, and the blows that were landed by the other hit their mark as if Osono were wearing armor herself. She'd definitely feel the blows later, though; this bitch could throw a punch!

***

So. He knew. It was the first thing that occurred to her as soon as Master began to speak again, the implication heavy even in those first words and then implied even more later on. Well, it was no great loss. If he'd known all this time and had failed to say anything until she'd brought it up, then it must not have been as important to him as she'd originally worried about. It was a bit of a relief, even as she was mortified with the realization of how she'd touched Jason while in the Master's presence. How foolish she'd been to think that his back being turned had meant anything!

When Master got down to the deal he wanted to make with her, Stephanie's heart flew for a few seconds before crashing back down to earth. Of course. Why would she even think that she'd get to have her cake and eat it too? Especially after basically revealing to her boss, the intricacies of her one weakness on this case. And the choice he presented was not one she wanted to make - she'd be losing something both ways. Then she chided herself for even thinking that. This was for Jason's benefit, to help him. It was why she'd even gotten enough courage to ask Master about it in the first place. And she even reasoned, that the warning he gave was a lot less serious than it felt. Mostly, she was interested in what her partner would get out of this rather than what she could possibly lose by keeping him around.

What would Jason want her to do? He'd wanted to leave before, to the point where he risked bodily harm to get it from her. But in the car, he'd said... But with the chance to get everything he'd lost - minus the suit - back, it changed things drastically. And everything Master said, made sense and hit home as things she'd considered and discarded because of her selfish desire to keep her plaything turned companion by her side. It made her realize that if she really did feel anything for him other than pleasure at his torment, she needed to stop putting him through this. Maybe Master was right. Everything was basically a done deal, and she'd be far enough away from Alexander to make the transfer go through without a hitch. She could do it on her own...

And then her body stiffened at the sound of Jason's voice suddenly filling the air and she blinked in surprise at the door as he stepped forward into the room. How...how long had he been there? Had Master known? Oh, God! How much had he heard? Everything? Even what she'd said? In place of worrying about that, however, she was suddenly more interested in what Jason was saying now about his goggles. A possible answer to the problem he'd faced in Elmira! She had to admit, she was very interested as well, hoping to find some sort of explanation for what had occurred with Nathan.

Watching the feed - well, more listening to it; so, Jason hadn't jumped to repair his equipment when he'd gotten them back - she tried to focus on what the "boy" had said before it suddenly went blank. It was like watching a suspenseful television show and having it cut out in the middle of the climax, and she felt the urge to shake the "T.V." Then it was back a moment later, as if nothing had happened and she heard the sounds of the Elmira elevator platform coming to a stop. As Jason lamented to Eric about the loss of the important part of the recording, Stephanie found her attention still fixed on what was happening in the recording.

She'd arrived and had demanded in her dead, monotone voice that he give her a detailed report on what had occurred in her absence. She remembered that and how she'd felt back then. There had been a burst of excitement inside her at the sight of Jason and the urge to physically hurt him had come over her. As they were left alone, she could hear it more clearly, the sound of her close to him, half-seen by the dangling goggles as he was grabbed by the hair and pulled violently towards her. She remembered the way that his hair had felt, the delight coursing through her fingers to feel the skin of his scalp shiver in a held-in, silent agony that she'd created.

When Jason turned it off, she blinked rapidly and took in a deep breath, blushing when she realized that had been a bit like watching porn for her. Looking at him, she wanted to hurt him like that again, her fingers itching with the desire to tug and pull at his hair--and it wasn't more than a second when she had that thought that she found her fingers smoothing through his curly locks, cradling the back of his neck gently as she latched onto his lips. Master and the whole discussion that'd been had, left her completely as her mouth melded with his, her senses suddenly overwhelmed by him.

For several moments, the room was filled with nothing but the small wet clicks and smacks of her lips moving passionately over his, before finally they stopped. She did not draw back right away however, keeping close enough to run her tongue along his upper lip, tracing it lightly, her fingers curling and recurling over his strands of hair. Finally, she seemed to remember personal space and moved back enough to talk to him.

"In that case, maybe it'd be better for you if I took his offer, then?" she asked in a slight whisper, responding to what he'd said in regards to something not wanting him to stay. Wrapping her arms around his shoulders, she nuzzled into his neck as if she could hide herself from the world just by being closer to him. "I don't know what I want anymore... There's Gwen... There's you... I...just want to stop hurting you so much. And it sounds crazy, I know, but I cannot help it and I cannot find the will to care what they'd think.

"I couldn't get him to give you your suit back... I don't know why I thought I could. Even now, Master's offer feels like he's playing games with me...testing me, trying to make me stronger... I don't want to give into it, but there's too much for you to gain - you could start over, wipe the slate clean. You could erase me and what I and this case have done to you. You could be perfect again..." She trembled slightly against him and took a deep breath through her nose, smelling him, calming herself.

"I know what you must think of me... that I'm some type of monster out to get you, and in the beginning, I did play that way. I just wanted you to look at me. I wanted to be your terror and your horror, to consume you like I do everything else and toss away your empty shell when I was done. But things are different...and I realize..I love you too much to destroy you completely..." She hugged him tighter then, her body molding with his for a few moments. Love? Did she mean that? It wasn't something she was aware she even knew how to say anymore. But it felt good to say it to him...

"I know the important thing is the transfer and the case. It always has been. But I just...couldn't help but feel like I wanted you there...by my side...to watch me become better than I am... I suppose it's silly to think it's a moment worth sharing..."

Letting him go, she stood back from him and ran a hand through her hair that had grown a bit stringy these past few days and she looked everywhere but at him. "I'll get the necessary paperwork and I'll fill them out - you won't need to worry about it. I haven't really given much thought about post-transfer, except to hope that I might become an A-2 and look after a base of my own or something. Maybe Master is right... Maybe after the transfer, it'd be better...for us."

There she went assuming things again. Formal. He liked things formal and here she was getting weepy over losing him and saying things that didn't matter in regards to her case. It couldn't be helped. Sure, she might not care what the higher-ups thought of her - so long as they got results, they didn't care as much about her sex life as she'd been led to believe. But it would not be good for him to continue to be dragged around on her leash just because she was lonely. Not when he could have everything back with the snap of an A-1's fingers. She had to make sacrifices somewhere and as long as it let her keep Gwen, she would do anything for him. Why did everything have to be so complicated?

Trying not to look into his face, she held out her hand stiffly as if she wanted him to shake it. This was a proper goodbye. Distanced. Generic. He would appreciate that, as opposed to the kisses she'd given him that he hadn't asked for and probably didn't want. Kisses she'd stolen from him. As she waited for his hand to join hers, she felt the sickness that had assaulted her on the plane start to rise up in her stomach. The weight that she'd originally associated with the Atropytamine withdrawal came as well, bearing down heavily on her shoulders as if gravity was intent on crushing her. A headache lanced through her skull as she internally chanted to herself that she could do this on her own, and she wondered if goodbye was supposed to always feel like dying...

***

Walking along the street, back the way he'd driven, Rudy whistled lightly to himself and glanced around warily while at the same time trying to appear as if he belonged here. A jacket covered up the wound in his shoulder but his right arm still hung limply by his side, swaying painfully as he walked back to the church. It wasn't too far and he'd hidden the car enough to escape a cursory notice, so he was more just worried about setting off anybody's red flags.

The pain in his nose had dulled to a dim ache that made the whole center of his face feel like a numb hole, so he'd forgotten about the broken nose. And he'd run out of things on which to wipe his blood to clean himself off, so he was pretty much stuck looking like this until he got to Charlton. Walking through the parking lot, he made his way through the aisles of cars, looking for one to use as his getaway. He didn't have his lock picking set with him, so he was really just praying someone would be stupid enough to leave the door open and even more, that they'd have left their keys behind.

Eventually, he neared the front of the church and noticed two guys standing around an idling car, almost as if they were waiting for someone. Rudy's eyes swept over the vehicle, not noticing the white drawings of smiley faces and hearts with signs like "Love" and "Forever" on the windows. He especially didn't notice the "Just Married" sign on the back window either. All he saw was an operational car and a quick and easy escape. As he approached, he glanced around to make sure there were no other witnesses at the moment and pleased with the empty street, he put on a smile and walked up to the two men in suits.

"Hey there," Rudy said pleasantly. "Special day, huh?"

The guy's stopped talking as soon as he came within ear shot and both stopped lounging on the car to look warily at him. "Man...are you okay? Do you need to be taken to a hospital or something?"

"Probably, heh," he said, nodding his head in an amused fashion before pulling his gun from his pocket. Both men fell in two flashes of light.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
The recording from his goggles cut out at the critical moment. Eric left the room without saying a word about returning his suit. Jason’s lead attacked him with her face again and then spent the next few minutes pouring out her heart. There were a lot of ways he could’ve responded to this. In fact, there were a few set choices he should have used, especially when his mind handily flipped through his Agency training and his rapidly evolving ‘list of things to say when you’re finished scraping your tonsils against your boss’, but despite that, all of that, there really were only two things he manage.

First, Jason politely declared, “Fuck it.”

Second, he started to laugh.

Shock, probably. That’s what it was. And stress – holy shit, the stress... It’d been bound to get to him sooner or later, but losing the suit must’ve officially been his over-the-edge. If he’d been able to choose, he would’ve picked a time to snap when he wasn’t in the middle of another too-serious, too-personal, too-close conversation with the woman supposed to be in charge of his career – now more than ever with the chance to fix half this mess by signing onto what Eric had offered, which was generous in the kind of way the rest of the Agency had expressly been warned not to trust – but given everything that was crumbling at his feet, what the hell else could he tell her?

So. Fuck it. And then everything else fell out.

“I have never been so thoroughly screwed in my life,” he muttered. “I don’t know what’s going on anymore. And I used to know – I used to be the guy everyone ran to when no one else could guess what was happening. Now – just...” It wasn’t actually a laugh. It was more a light huff that died in a crackling choke when he let it out, and the hectic sense of disbelief – that this had never been anything more than an incredibly complicated hoax – got his voice to rise. “You don’t make any sense to me, Stephanie. I’ve been killing myself trying to understand the warped rules you run on, but either they’re unreadable because you’re at some unfathomable level of genius, or you don’t have any because you’re ape-shit insane. What am I supposed to think when I’ve got two theories – two completely opposite extremes – and I can’t decide which one’s right because both of them fit you so damn well?”

He couldn’t feel his suit. It was back to being detached, but his mind wasn’t ready to register the loss again. For now, until maybe days, he didn’t care.

“I don’t care.” She wouldn’t know what that meant because he’d been thinking it, but – fuck it! Why not? He’d spell it out for her. “I don’t care. I’m losing my suit for the second time – unchangeably, ‘cause if Eric Whatshisface, the only A-1 I’ve ever seen in person during the first case I’ve ever destroyed, says something as black and white as ‘no, he’s not getting his suit back, I can’t believe you bothered asking’, I might as well get naked and run around like a psychopath – and I cannot bring myself to give more than two shits about it. Two shits! This is the one thing in my life that I’ve depended on physically, mentally and emotionally, but for some reason – some magical, made up, fairy tale whatever – my mind’s on you. And I don’t think you understand – or ever will hear it with anything less than sick pride – how bad that is for me, because I had a set order of priorities and you’ve been fucking it up since I met you. I don’t know what the hell you want. And – ‘love’? Is that actually – tell me that didn’t actually come out of your mouth. Be honest. Because I’ve seen people in love before and – you know, the damndest thing about it, I don’t recall it ever involving picking someone up and slamming them on the bathroom wall of an airplane after they were trying to help you stay away from something that’d take this already tanking assignment from ‘barely salvageable’ to ‘oh God, oh God, Gwendolyn Stewart is killing me with her brain’.”

This was likely a panic attack. Those were brought on by losing something important. His suit counted. That, and she was practically firing him. Still, it was nice that he could think in calm sentences inside his head even if he was half-shouting at speeds the sharpest recording in the world couldn’t play back properly. If he didn’t have that solace, that one comfort of knowing at least part of himself was in control, he’d –

Oh – he was grabbing her. Because that, clearly, was the next logical step.

Jason’s hands nailed her arms behind her back, and in one swift stroke of fury, his mouth crushed against hers, burning in a violence that set his teeth on fire as he pulled her into him waist-first. The thud of her body on his nearly knocked the sense into him again, but flush of heat that followed tore his will to its darkest strips. As if it wasn’t enough, the taste of her lips as his tongue ran through them broke down what should have been his mind telling him to very clearly step the fuck away before he made this any worse. No. Too late. If he hadn’t been able to stop himself from starting this, trying to reason with his fingers now, trying to be heard through their frenzy as they dug into her back, desperately reaching through both his gloves and her clothes to find the skin she was hiding from his touch, was... fuck – he couldn’t even focus properly to finish that thought. Every trace of her had taken his attention, and he could barely see past the raw strength in her form long enough to think of why his arms, which left hers to wrap her up completely, should have stopped grabbing lower and dragging her deeper into his grip. Whether she’d done it or he’d absently managed, her head had raised and her neck was suddenly his – “Whoaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Jason! Dude!

Was he fucking serious?! Could somebody please buy this company one fucking door that didn’t let everyone in? Or – better yet – find one room Gary couldn’t use to ruin every possible moment he thought of.

Jason put six feet of distance between him and his lead before he even realized he’d ripped himself away. His hand went over his mouth like he was trying to cover it, and for an unfairly long silence, everyone stood as if what’d just happened had been... not that. It didn’t work. Eventually, he had to say something.

“I was...”

Maybe he should’ve thought of something to say.

“Hi!” Gary was waving at them. “Uh... Sorry for... uh... getting in the way...” That man was going to die with every tooth torn out of his mouth and his face distinctly set on fire. “You two want more time –”

“Spit it out before I stab it out of you,” he snapped.

“Okay! Relax! I just got sent up here to find you,” Gary said. “There’s a truck with some box they’re not telling me about? Someone – uh... wanna sign for it or something?”

It’d been an hour already?

“That’s...” He couldn’t get his mouth to work. His muscles were frozen. The hand on his face awkwardly rubbed his cheek, working to loosen it enough to move his jaw. “You should talk to Benoit. He’s here. He’s somewhere. Look around.”

The smile Gary gave made Jason want to punch him. He’d earned a lot of free shots on the man during the past few days, but his dirty fucking grin seemed to beg for an extra-special backhand.

“Yeeeeeah... I think I can narrow down why you want me to go.” Two backhands, and maybe a solid kick to the face. “I’ll –”

“You know what? I’ll find him,” Jason said. “I need to find Eric, too. I need to... ask him... about my suit...”

It was a pathetic excuse and everyone knew it, but he wasn’t taking it back. It’d buy him more time if he still needed to think, and if he chose to run off and kill himself, he’d have a well-versed idea of what room wouldn’t end in someone bursting in on that, too. Decided, without the mildest insight on what else he should say, Jason walked out of the room and into the hall, but he didn’t get farther than that. His legs started to buckle and he uselessly leaned against the nearest wall, happy for the short breath of silence he’d caught on to before he had to move again.

Breathe. Keep breathing. He had to at least keep that on his résumé. He didn’t like being so close to the door right now, not while he knew she was still in there – and with Gary, who’d been eyeing her like his head was about to explode in fanboy glee – but he needed to breathe and sort this out. Analyze. That was his answer, like it always was. He needed to take the facts in front of him and sort them out so they’d make sense – on paper, he added, because this was not something he could answer if she asked. ... She couldn’t ask. She wouldn’t. She’d probably been expecting this so she’d have her own take on it. As for him...

Well...

He’d gone in, eavesdropped, taken out his goggles, had that all-too-perfect mishap with the video, and then... something, something, his tongue in her throat, something, something, Gary showed up. Right – well – considering the ‘something, something’ bits were the key parts of the story... And technically, she was the who started this crap, so if anyone was going to get blamed for what’d happened, it wasn’t going to be him. And if she did ask why – “Dude!” Seriously, again? This was not the time – “That was Stephanie fucking March, bro! You’n’her were...”

Gary didn’t end his sentence because he was too blown away to put it in words. His eyes were wide and his hands were spread out like he was waiting to catch some grand confession, explanation or just something he could take to headquarters and toss around at the water cooler. Ah, ha, no. Not in a million years. Jason went back to breathing and closed his eyes, abnormally on guard for any sign of his lead coming into the hall, too.

“I don’t know how that happened.”

“I could lob a few theories at ya,” Gary cried. He was enjoying this way too much. “So – what – you guys have a thing on the side?”

No!”

“You sure? Is it one of those ‘don’t talk about it ‘cause she’s an A-3 and you’re an A-5 – ex-A-5 –’”

“It’s a ‘shut your fat mouth, Gary, before I stick a bomb in it’,” Jason spat. His head throbbed. He needed to not think about anything for a while. “Sorry. I meant ‘big boned’.”

“Yeah. Geez. Talk about touchy, but don’t bring it down on me,” Gary told him. “You should be ridin’ this high, guy. She’s hot. More worse-for-wear than I thought she’d be, but you guys’ve been runnin’ around all over the place, huh? Plus – uh... that.” Jason stepped away from the wall and started walking. “Wait – where are you going now?”

“Whatever conversation you think we’re having, we’re not having there.”

The man looked over his shoulder and finally clued in. Unfortunately, it meant he was tagging along while Jason went down the hall, almost biting at him to get some trickle of gossip running. Jason... Jason was trying to walk in a straight line.

“... So... This’s been... how long?”

“I don’t want to go over it.”

Benoit had to be around here. Eric, too. They would’ve known about the truck showing up if Gary had. If that was the case, hunting them down would be the easiest if he went to the front of the building.

“What happened to you being all ‘work comes first, work is important, gotta stick to my work ethics ‘cause I’ve got a reputation to protect’? I mean – congrats on bagging someone like her – okay, wrong word, sorry.” Jason hadn’t even needed to turn his head to glare at Gary. Truly, their friendship was the stuff of legends. “But I’ve heard you go on for hours about how damaging it was for someone to hint you had a ‘more than professional relationship’ with some A-7, and here you are –”

“Gary. Stop.” He stopped. They both stopped. “This has to stay between me and her.”

“Wha...?”

“Until I can explain it, if I ever can, you have to pretend you didn’t see anything. Okay?”

Gary was very distraught by the loss of this story. His mouth flapped for a minute before he got around to squeaking, “But... it’s Stephanie March. Have you even read about the shit she can do? And you’re still alive after that! You’re like a little brother to me, Jason, but I started thinking up obituaries the minute I heard you’d been assigned to her.”

“That’s remarkably sweet,” Jason said, “and exceptionally disturbing, but I need you to do this for me. As a favour. And to pay me back for the last four years I’ve been picking out Diana’s anniversary presents for you. And her birthday presents. Plus Christmas. And then Valentine’s Day...”

“Alright, alright.” Gary looked determined to preserve this great secret. “Because you helped me out, it’s only fair.”

“Thanks.”

“But I still get to ask you questions.”

“Huh?”

“Third base? Did it happen yet?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.” From the darkness of the hall looming over their backs, Eric’s sunny voice shone through and filled the too tight walls. The grin he gave to both of them sang of light and warmth, and with a cheeky twist at the corner of his mouth, he added pleasantly, “Not that I’m encouraging anything. Keep your pants on, kids! We have to master our emotions!”

“They’re mastered. You don’t have to worry.” Anymore, but Jason kept that note to himself. Straightening, he gestured to Gary. “I’ve heard from him that a truck arrived.”

“Xander’s here! Hooraaaaaay! I’d grab Benny, but I’d rather let him kick off some steam. Then again, I slipped by that dank corner she’s got ‘im in. Pants were on – which was not what I asked for – but it’s fine, ‘cause it sounded like something horrible. I think she’s killing him! I’m gonna need someone new to pick on.” He shrugged. Then he laughed and threw in, “Grab Steph for me, will you? If he’s busy, she’s gotta sign for Xandy since I’m not ‘technically’ a part of this. Chop, chop!”

Jason steadied himself with a breath. Before the air did the opposite of what he wanted and pushed him to pass out, Gary, his new left hand, jumped up to say, “He’s not actually in the best condition to be running around. I’ll do it.”

He was helping out of loyalty almost as much as he was trying to sneak another look at Jason’s lead. Diana who?

Eric looked at Gary with a delightedly curious smile.

“Who’re you?”

“Gary. Who’re you?”

“Eric. Want a cookie?”

“... Hell yeah, I want a cookie!” So Eric took a cookie out of his pocket. He gave one to Jason, too. “Thanks, bro!”

“No problem! See ya in a bit, gentlemen,” Eric chirped, heading off again and disappearing around a corner on the way to the front of the building. If Jason was truly planning to talk to the man, he’d have to catch up right now.

He took another breath. Gary’d bought him a few more minutes away from her, and if he was smart and stayed close to Eric’s side, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for her to bring it up. And even if she wanted to or knew a way, the A-1 would probably keep her busy enough to get her to drop it.

“Take this.” The cookie. “I’m going after him.”

“Uh-huh – you have fun.” Gary had half his cookie eaten already, and only half because he’d shoved the whole of Jason’s in his mouth when it’d been offered. “These’re delicious. I could eat a million of them.”

Considering everything else he had in that jacket, a million cookies wasn’t so far out of the question.

“I’m surprised you’re not framing those,” Jason said. “They came from an A-1.” Only Gary could turn so red, so fast and so furiously. “He said his name was ‘Eric’.”

DudeEricisapopularnameanyonecanbenamedEricwhydidn’tyoutellmewhohewasIjustatethecookieanditwasagifthehatesmenow!

“... I think you’re exaggerating. I’ve got to go.”

“I ate his gift! I ate it,” Gary wailed. He was probably crying too, but Jason didn’t have time to baby-sit. “His pocket cookie – he gave it to me and I ate the pocket cookie!” And although the man knew there was even less time to humour him with an impatient – because there was no other way to respond to the crap that rolled out of Gary’s mouth – reply of, ‘You’ve still got half’, he went along and whined back, “It’s not the same...!”

Jason wished his problems were as simple as ‘I ate a cookie’. Instead, he had all the troubles of a pre-A-4 and all the rank of a minion. His vision was blurring again. He’d have to rest soon, but for now, he was trailing after Eric.

* * *


Three different things happened at once and Alex missed his chanced to comment on any of them. Osono wasn’t thrilled to see him in here – no surprise – but her explosion over it was more than he expected. His shock spiked again when it set the damn sprinklers off, and the water suddenly on his face was cold enough to get a yelp out of him. That said absolutely nothing about the stab of terror in his chest when she started pointing at a patch of ground that wasn’t wet. It didn’t clue in right away and the only sense he got that it was important was the sudden bracing Xander pushed him into, but the instant those footsteps rushed towards her, he lurched away and got his back to the wall.

I’ve got a weird craving for tacos. I don’t even like tacos.

“Xander, don’t go stupid on me now,” Alex said. “We saw two of them come in here. Where’s the second?”

Behind her, actually.

Alex’s head whipped over to Osono. Through the fire and the sprinklers and the awkward half-fight, he couldn’t see much of anything. He looked at the ground, trying to find more dry patches, but their stomping had kicked water everywhere. He couldn’t narrow down which splash was out of place.

“I can’t see him.”

It’s not like he’s doing a lot. Walking around, keepin’ his distance, trying to look chill... not that that’s hard, considering he’s the guy who’s not on fire.

The smell... It wasn’t going to leave him for ages. From now until maybe the day he died, he’d know the stench of a burning leg. He guessed it was a sacrifice he’d have to make if it kept Osono from getting killed.

“I have to get the back one,” Alex said. “I have to get who she’s not fighting.”

And he had to do it without setting her off. She was already wired to attack him on sight, and if he got too close to her, especially with her concentration split on trying to keep her fire up under the indoor rain, that’d be the end of everything he’d come here for. Whatever he did to help had to happen fast – and from as far away as he could manage. Having his powers would’ve been handy right about now, but if he couldn’t see their eyes because they were hiding in their ghost suits, that wasn’t going to be an option.

You’ve got a clear shot.

Really? So Osono wasn’t the only one who thought he couldn’t fight. Well – usefully.

“Do you think I can make it to that plant?”

The few trees and shrubs someone had brought in had been flooded only minutes after they’d been burnt to a crisp. They weren’t what he was interested in; the clay pot – it looked like clay – that was holding each of them was his ticket out of this mess. If he didn’t mess it up, he meant, and if he could get to it without looking suspicious.

Considering it’s three feet away, I’d say it’s a fair grab. Considering it’s you, let’s call it fifty-fifty.

Alex was more worried about what it’d look like to her. As he inched away from the invisible war, trying to make out more than an outline of the Agents by squinting, the sick thought that she’d turn around right when he had the pot in his hand popped up and strapped in for a long ride. It wouldn’t happen if he moved fast. Kicking a small river through the flooded floors, he turned and ran to the pot, knocked the thing over, brewed an ocean of ash and dirt, then hoisted the heavy thing onto his shoulder – it nearly slipped from being soaking wet – and asked, “Is he still behind her?”

Yeah.

“Am I still clear?”

Eh.

Good enough. Alex charged ahead, swung the clay pot down and braced himself for the startling crack as it broke against a solid skull.

Setting

3 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace Character Portrait: Brie
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#, as written by Ten
Standing there, barely a foot away from him with her hand held out stupidly between them, Stephanie trembled slightly and a cold sweat had started to collect at her temples and neck. She didn't understand what was wrong with her but there wasn't much room for conscious thought as her breathing became labored and she struggled not to hyperventilate. When Jason spoke and started to laugh, it drew her hazy attention and the feeling of nausea that had been threatening her stomach abated cleanly to hear that melodious sound coming from his lips.

In her semi-confused state, Stephanie almost wanted to laugh with him - what was going on? - but then all hilarity fled as he started speaking again, and she could not tear her gaze away from the tone he took with her. There had been a few things she'd expected from him in regards to what she'd said, and what she was offering, but the most probable in her mind had been that he would have been happy. Happy to get his life back and happy to be rid of her. But of course, he was angry at her after dragging him through the mud and hitting a few hidden rocks to get to this point. And the suit that she could--Oh, my God!!! Did he just say that!??? He DID! Her name! Not 'boss', not 'Miss Agent' - no, wait, that was Benoit - but Stephanie! Her partner had called her by name! Although the way he'd said it was hinting at an almost acerbic barb, it was even more delightful than his genuine, boyish laughter had been. And for several moments she struggled to hang onto the rest of what he was saying, purely and unalterably floating in the clouds that Jason had said her name - and she knew right then and there that she wanted to hear him say it again. Maybe not exactly like that though...

But no...he was angry with her, as he had every right to be with the explanation he gave her. Even as guilt started to eat away at her again, feeling incredibly sorry for confusing him so much and using him the way she had through all of this, at the same time...she felt her heart start to heat up and the feelings of illness and aching pain were subsiding completely. He was...angry with her...and she was growing inexplicably fond of the sensation being the focus of his emotions. Through most of this trip he'd been fairly restrained as far as emotion went. There had been bursts of anger and desperate rage when fighting with Jean and going through his withdrawal early on, but never had he faced her with that heated look in his eyes. And that tone of voice! She was his superior! Was he really speaking to her this way? It was like a dream come true...

Not only that but the things he was now saying... What did he mean he didn't care? Then the flippant disrespect of Master - which barely got a ripple on her emotional radar as she waited for him to make his point - and trying not to think of what a good idea it'd be for him to get naked right now. God, why did he even have to mention that? Now she couldn't stop thinking about it! Although skin tight, there were some things his suit left to the imagination and she cursed the Agency designers for their "clean" taste.

She stopped internally giggling over that and blinked wide-eyed at him as he continued on, stating his reasons that the suit no longer mattered to him. A ruby blush dusted her cheeks in two bright blossoming flowers and her head swam as she struggled with the urge to cry. She really was a monster... But it was true! The way she felt about him... The way he messed with her head constantly too! She'd never cared about anyone in years and now here she was at a point of giving back almost everything she'd taken from him not because it would remove the "weakened limb" as Master had said, but because she wanted to do something for him. And it really wasn't fair bringing up the bathroom incident in that way. She had responsibilities and pressures too and at the time she'd been in a very emotional state!

Stephanie just wanted him to leave now... She didn't care about the obvious implications in his words but rather focused on the fact that he blamed her for everything just like she blamed herself. Wasn't it enough that she was trying now? That she was trying to be helpful? And that pesky feeling of arousal would not leave her even as she choked down a knot of tears. So much force... So much anger... She loved and hated it and it made her feel all sorts of terrible and yet incredibly sexy. Which was why he had to...

And then he was there, grabbing ahold of her, his lips finding hers and taking her breath away even as the new inhalation opening her lungs, was filled with him. For the first few minutes, riding on the shock of it, her body tensed and she flexed her arms defensively in his hold. But when she felt the unyielding strength and power rippling through his limbs and muscles and their bodies met in a just as eager and forceful "kiss", she was melting in his grip and her curves were molding to his muscled form. God, yes! Just like this! Oh--Mmmmm! She wanted him. Just. Like. Thiiiiissss...!

Here was everything about his anger that she loved, the passion and hunger she felt pulsing in her own chest reflected back at her tenfold in his lips and his touch. The power in his breast and body as he seemed to tower over her without even trying, every little frenzied swipe of his tongue forcing her to cling closer to him so she wouldn't fall to the ground in a puddle at his feet. And then his grip left her only for his hands to start wandering... He was hurting her. Not a lot, his hold forceful and pressing, pulling at her and fingernails vaguely digging in through his gloves and she was just about going crazy because of it! OH FREAKING GOD! MORE! She needed more of this--it was definitely time to make good on his promise to get naked earlier!

And amidst all of this, she knew she couldn't let him go - his hands were wandering further!!! - she couldn't let him go anywhere now, no matter what she'd felt or what Master hinted at. There was no way in freaking hell she could stop or give this up! She couldn't remember the last time her heart had beat this fast. Even eagerly awaiting Gwen's arrival or getting ready to engage the target in battle could not compare to the excitement and breaths of life filling her right now. And Jason was in every vein, moving her pounding heart with every stroke of his tongue on her skin--

A very unfamiliar voice broke everything before Jason suddenly vanished to teleport several feet from her. Stephanie wobbled on her feet as she stood on her own once more, her head filled with a dizzy high, not even noticing the intruder before Jason addressed the other man in angered tones. Even then, the intoxicated state he'd left her in kept her from focusing on any details and she couldn't find it in her heart to be mad at the intrusion. Jason had called her by name. Jason had fucking yelled at her. And Jason had just kissed her so hard she was still trying to mentally get to her feet.

As her vision cleared and she took the chubby man in, shaking her head slightly to clear the thick cloud of sex-filled fog Jason had left behind, she realized what he was saying and what was going on. Oh, Alexander's body... How late was it? Briefly she wondered if Rudy was here yet too and got momentarily excited about that, but then Jason was leaving, uttering hurried explanations as he made his way to the door. Her mind still cluttered with him, she merely muttered "Oh...um...hm..." raising her hand just a little as if to ask him to stay before her body refused to obey any more commands. Alright...well...he could go, she supposed. For now, while she was still filled with his scent and his taste, her skin tingling from his rough-handed touch. But later... well, the suit had to come off some time, didn't it? And she would most definitely help then.

A small, breathless, girlish giggle bubbled from between her lips as she licked at her teeth and blushed again in the empty, darkened room. Goodness, she really was bad!

***

Alright. Osono was freaking done with this fight. Not only could she not see this Agency bitch who was wearing some sort of cloaking device and thus every hit she landed seemed to come out of fucking nowhere and was impossible to block - and there wasn't a wasted movement, every fist in Ozzie's gut slamming home with incredible force. But also this chick was impossible to pin down. Sure, the fire on her leg helped identify where the lower half of her body was, but whenever Ozzie threw a punch for her face or stomach, the woman blocked her or dodged out of the way. It was incredibly frustrating, notwithstanding the fact that the crippling fire seemed to have little or no effect on the woman's abilities, and besides the added bonus of strength that Ozzie felt filling her muscles and bones, the whole fight was starting to get on her nerves.

She wasn't even really aware of Alex or where he was, too focused on trying not to just kill the bitch she was fighting and be done with it - Ha! I win, Agent whore! - so when he passed behind her, even as he fled into her sphere of awareness, she ignored him. She'd deal with him later. For now, it was time to end this and get to the part where she wasn't actively fighting the urge to kill someone while she was fighting them and getting the shit beat out of her.

Looking to surprise the woman, Osono sloshed down in the ankle deep puddle at their feet and swept her leg underneath the other woman. As expected, the fire on her leg lifted several inches off the ground as the Agent jumped over Ozzie's legs. Before her feet had landed again, however, Osono was up, half-bent over, her foot whipping out to pound into the woman's gut. Since she still had air, there was no chance for her to catch her balance and she careened back into the opposite wall of the hallway. Ozzie was there, shoving the Agent's face into the wall and holding her still with her body. A fist poked into Ozzie's ribs, causing her to grunt, but she didn't let go, picking the woman's head up and shoving it forcefully back into the wall, before grabbing her by the top of her head and her neck and throwing her to the ground.

Then she was there, straddling the woman on the ground, pulling the gun still nestled in the waistband of her soaking wet pants, before pointing it where the woman's head should be. The invisible lady beneath her bucked and once or twice tried to use her legs to swoop up and wrap around Osono's neck, but Ozzie hit her in the face with the gun and the struggles stopped. Even when the woman regained her sense of balance, Ozzie had the gun cocked and pressing firmly into the woman's forehead and she didn't move.

"Let's...try this...again, yeah?" Ozzie said breathlessly. "If you don't tell me who the fuck you are right now, I'm gonna burn you alive and then shoot your brains out. In that order." Osono paused to move her short, blonde bangs that had fallen into her face and were dripping long streams of water down her brow ridge, out of the way before continuing.

"I'll start," she said, grabbing the top of the woman's head with her other hand and pulling off the mask that was covering her, revealing a harsh looking brunette scowling up at her. "You have something I need, and I'll be generous and ONLY blow your brains out, if you give it to me when I ask you for the first time. Codes. You have them - no, don't fucking argue. You have them. I need them. Give them to me now. Did I mention I'm on a bit of a time crunch? You have 3 seconds before I decide to just say Fuck it."

***

It took Stephanie only a few minutes before Jason's warmth and smell faded from her body and then the room, leaving her with only the sweet memories of the sensations. After that, she didn't really feel like being in that room alone anymore and left it, casting reluctant looks back over her shoulder and shivering and swooning all over again to remember how he'd stood there holding her.

Turning into the hallway, as she began walking back the way she and Master had come upon arriving at the room, there was a new bounce to her step, a gentle rolling of her hips and lightly she hummed a pretty tune under her breath. Now to figure things out. She'd already decided that she couldn't let Jason go - and with everything he'd said and done, apparently he was in the same boat as she was in just not caring about fighting it anymore. And she had to be prepared for people to ask questions about something that was none of any of their business. Briefly, she thought about coming up with an elaborate lie about loyalty and how she needed to keep him with her because he knew the most about her case than anyone, but everyone would most likely see through that, just as Master had.

Eventually, she found herself struggling to even stay focused on the current problem as a fantasy of Jason tying her down entered her head, filling her body with delightful warmth. Then she started thinking that was a little like what he'd done with her arms in there and how she would have liked if he'd had his hands free to do other things while still restraining her. Maybe next time if there was rope around? Would it seem too obvious or scare him off if she provided him with necessary rope? Maybe she could say it was so he wouldn't slip and fall on the bloody stairs again and hope he'd just use it on her when the time came again. Would he take it as a jab to his masculinity and possibly get angry with her if she implied he had no balance? God she hoped so...

Any further thinking about it was cut short as she saw the man who'd shown up before come walking down the hallway from the opposite direction than the one she was headed towards. That made a new set of fresh memories pop up inside her head. That man! He'd come to the room and interrupted them and he knew Jason by name. The way they had spoken to each other had been very friendly and familiar and she suddenly had the jealous urge to pick the man's brain.

"You! Puppy," she called out to him, turning around to face him. Snapping her fingers severely and then pointing to the ground at her feet, she commanded, "Here. Now." waiting with a rigid grace for him to huff and puff up to the spot she indicated.

"State your name, your rank and current position in the Agency," she said forcefully, her voice only mimicking the cold deadpan she usually possessed, but more just sounding angry than anything else. "Oh, and also, what is your relationship with my partner, Jason? You are friends? I want to know about him - and not anything that I would find in his file, which I've already read. What foods does he like to snack on? What's his favorite color? Are there any particular scents that he is fond of? What's his favorite song?"

While asking her questions a small smile and dreamy, far-off look had crossed her face and abruptly it vanished as she scowled at him impatiently. "Speak, Pup!" she demanded, smacking him twice, quickly on the chest. She didn't know why she was calling him "pup", since he was at least a few years older than her, but the whole doughy demeanor got her to thinking that he was on a lower level than herself.

"I would caution you to think hard about your answers," she said smoothly, in a voice that mimicked the sultry tone of a viper. "Because I will not accept incorrect information. It is alright if you 'do not know', but for every one of those responses I get from you, I will break off one of your fingers and then stick them in my pocket to keep as trophies." She made no move to grab him or make good on her threat, but there was a depth to her voice that left no doubt - she would do what she promised. "I do not think it is necessary to detail to you what will happen if any information you give me ends up being false."

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Huh. That was a girl.

Breaking things on other people’s head wasn’t exactly easy anymore. The last few days were taking a toll on him, and with Xander stuck hanging back to keep his foot under control, Alex was outside handling the brunt of everything. Alright – fine – that’s how it was supposed to’ve been, but if he was really thinking about how life was meant to be and how he should be in control like he wanted, then everyone else was going to have to remember if he’d been alone, he wouldn’t’ve be in this shit in the first place. All because of his stupid eyes! It wasn’t like he even used them half the time! He’d scared off a few assholes when he was a kid and he’d... y’know... decided thirty bucks for a few burgers was bullshit and wasn’t paying even if he’d eaten them, but Xander was the one who’d actually started killing people.

... He wasn’t... going to have to keep doing it, was he? Once they split up? ... He guessed it depended on how he ended things with the Agency, if he ever did. For now, though, he was going to have to do this the regular way. Osono had the right idea. The Agent he’d hit had dropped with a pile of brain damage he wasn’t going to shake off anytime soon, visible now that he couldn’t hold the illusion up. And fortunately, this one was a man. Far be it from him to start playing a knight when they went out of their way to stab him every few minutes, but it’d’ve felt weird having to fight a woman. Unnatural.

Sparky did it.

“I noticed.” Alex glanced over. The Agent Osono had trapped had as blank a face as the one in the restaurant. She’d put up much more of a fight than the other five, though. It looked like Peter was going at this in levels, sending the crap of the crap at them until the real threats started showing up. Not that she’d been a walk in the park. It was a good thing Osono was around to fight these psychos because Alex couldn’t handle them right now. “Does she look familiar?”

She looks like a chick.

“Is that a ‘no’?”

It’s a ‘we just had two women beating the shit out of each other half a second ago’, Xander said. Dude. That’s fucking hot.

“Great to know you’re focused,” Alex snapped, grabbing the mask off the fallen Agent’s face. Emotionless too, but that was because he was bleeding from his head. He hadn’t meant to smash the pot on him so hard, but they only needed one. “What about this guy? Is he ringing any bells?”

... Are... are you not watching this?

“Xander.”

She’s – like – on her –

Xander.

No one looks familiar to me, Alex. I don’t recognize anybody.

“You’re a huge help,” he said. “Thanks for trying to slink out of ever having to identify them.”

I’m serious. I have to see everything through your senses. It’s the one thing I hate about being in here ‘cause it’s so different from what I had.

‘One’ thing?

“It’s different how?”

Hugely, hugely inferior. If there was somehow an opposite of glasses, that’s what I’d be wearing. This sucks.

“Well – maybe you should’ve thought of that before you jumped in.” He wasn’t seriously having this conversation, not when they were in the middle of something important. Alex back glanced over at Osono and her captive. “She’s not going to talk.”

We’ll have to make her talk.

“How? By punching her?” Alex snorted. “I don’t see those people as breaking from a few bruises.”

I’ve got literally no problem watching Sparky try.

“Again, thanks for the help.” He took his eyes away to the sound of an aggravated huff. “Can you cut it out? You stopped a catfight with Gwen and that robot –”

Out of context. I figured it wasn’t the best time to bring it up. This guy’s gonna die in a minute.

“Huh?” There was a seeping glow of red trailing through the water. Alex knelt down and jerked back at the coldness of it, but reached out and tried to see where the blood was coming from. Nothing doing. The man’s hair was in the way and he didn’t have the motivation to dig through it to see if he could help. “Would she know that? Could we try... bargaining for his life?”

Ha ha ha ha ha!

Pain wouldn’t work. The Agents barely cared about themselves, let alone each other. What other angle did they have?

... What worked with Xander?

Booze?

No, that was on the other end of the scale they wanted. They needed her to talk. They needed her to... have to talk.

Booze. No. Hey – it’s better than anything else in your head.

Think. But it was hard when there was so much to go through. It’d be nice to have some help with it.

“Do you even want these codes?”

If they were sent here to dish ‘em out and they haven’t yet, then maybe that’s not why they’re here.

Or maybe Peter was doing his stupid ruse thing again and wanted them to ‘steal the codes’. Or maybe these two just couldn’t swallow the idea of handing over the keys to their front door. The fact that Osono and Alex had taken both of them out might have dampened their mood a little, too.

Think!

“Xander, seriously, I understand why you wouldn’t want to help with this, but we need to get through to that woman – or this guy – before he bleeds out and Osono shoots her.”

I legitimately cannot think of a reason for why I’d ever have to listen to you.

Alex sighed and dipped his hand into the water, trying to cool at least one searing pain. When this was over with, he was going on the run to someplace with a beach. Maybe Florida. Or he’d run back into David and learn about some Australian hotspots. Whatever worked.

“Okay,” he said, finally standing up. “Give me a minute. I’ll come up with something.”

Alex had to, so he would.

* * *


This was tragic. Awww – he felt sick. Sick. Very sick. Because this was tragic.

This was the most tragically tragic of the highest kind of tragic. This was tragic in the way most tragedies would be all, ‘Oh, dude, seriously? Dude – no joke – that is tragic’ about, and his tragedy would be all – like, ‘Dude I know! I can’t believe this even happened! I’m a second away from crying – oops, nevermind, ‘cause now I am’. And he was. ‘Cause this was so unbelievably tragic.

Eric Patten – a man he hadn’t even recognized ‘cause that guy was a thousand times more chill than he’d ever even guessed and that wasn’t even fair because he didn’t even act like an A-1 – had given him a cookie – holy shit! – from his pocket! If there was a way to’ve flippin’ insulted the guy more than by eating his gift like it was a... a cookie, Gary couldn’t think of it, ‘cause the way he felt right now and the way his gut was churning, he’d done the ultimately wrong and he would never – never – get that beautiful gift back.

Half of it. Half. Reduced from a whole. It was – okay, it’d been delicious – like – unfairly delicious – but that was no excuse in – DUDEITWASSTEPHANIEMARCHSHEWASBACKOUTSIDEAGAINTHISWASAWESOME!

She wanted him there? Heck yeah – sure! He bounded over and tried not to smile too brightly – Diana, Diana, sweet DiDi was at home still, but she wasn’t Stephanie March and she’d be okay with a late addition to his Free Five – and stood waiting for her lovely breath to float away in the mists as she asked for his name and his rank. And then before he could give it, she started asking him about Jason.

... Dude. Depressing.

There was no time to slouch in misery, you fool! Gary snapped to attention as she hit him on the chest. What’d she call him? Who the hell cared – she was talking to him. About Jason but... still!

“Ah... he’s – uh... he’s – um... well – Jason’s – like...” Wait, wait, wait! Calm down! He needed to talk slowly and make a sentence or else she’d think he was dumb and – ha, geez, after that thing with Eric Patten – pocket cookie! – he was not about to tick another Agency superstar off. Pocket cookie – dammit! “Well – he’s – uh... he’s – y’know –”

That was not slower and that was not a sentence. Gary, stop being horrible at this. Focus, Gary! Pull it together! This was going to end badly if he didn’t –

Whoa.

“Did you see that – did you see – you saw that – you saw?”

And from out of nowhere, stalking after the shadow that’d just whipped by and hadn’t stopped, someone else – HOLYSHIT ITWASMADELINEBERGMANN! He was literally being rewarded for every good thing he’d ever done in his life! Oh man – and Jason had laughed when he’d said the highest rank he’d ever talk to was an A-8! A-1, A-2, A-3 – he was collecting the whole set!

Madeline Bergmann did not look happy. She never really seemed to, not in any of the pictures Gary had, but now she seemed really not happy. She stood up straight and – why didn’t he have a camera or something – looked directly in his eyes. It was incredible, because she was looking right at Stephanie March, too! She was a master at watching everyone and everything at every moment, and Gary was honoured to be a part of this. This was definitely another add to his Free Five. Sorry, LiLo, but rehab had not done her good. Lindsey out, Madeline in. This was fantastic.

“WHERE,” she said, through gorgeously painted lips, “DID HE GO?”

Gary knew this! He knew the answer to this!

“Eric Patten? He went – ow!

“THAT NAME IS IRRELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS.” This was the greatest day of Gary’s life! “WHERE IS MY CAT?”

Cat?

“I didn’t see –”

“YOU WASTE MY TIME. YOU.” Her beautiful eyes had gone to Stephanie’s incredible face. “YOUR BOX IS AT MY DOOR. REMOVE IT.”

And then she left, the subtle wave of delicate perfume floating behind her in a gentle trail. Gary almost swooned. By ‘almost’, he meant he totally did.

“Jason is definitely my friend. He’s my best bud.” He was so psyched! So he couldn’t help Madeline – that was okay! He was Stephanie March! “Like – that?” He crossed his fingers. “We’re like that, except – uh... more. We’re tight – so I am definitely your open book on all there is to him.”

Okay! Question one! And then two and three and four and five and...

“Jason eats –” He got a fluttery laugh flitting through his heart. This was so cool! And she called him her ‘pup’ – this was a dream! “Jason ‘snacks’ on those cheap double-stuffed chocolate Oreo knock-offs. They have to be double-stuffed – he won’t even look at the regular ones. He’s totally driven four miles out of his way to get to a grocery store to buy them ‘cause they were out everywhere else. Uh... he... likes... blue... I guess – I mean – he wears that suit all the time and that’s just lame with no real colour. He likes... smells? Uh...” Geez. Talk about specific. “I know he doesn’t like the smell of seafood – ‘cause... y’know... allergies. And as for songs – well – considering he goes all Bon Jovi when he’s drunk – which is hilarious, I dare say – I’d say anything by that guy is on his top ten.”

His fingers twitched a bit. So some part of him had heard that ‘break them off, use them as trophies’, but – seriously? Stephanie March. If she wanted his fingers – it was her! She could take his whole damn hand!

“So – uh... Anything else I can help you with? I be almost anything you want me to be.” DIANA. “I mean – like – professionally! Professionally! That’s – yeah!”

Nice. Smooth save. He still felt bad about that pocket cookie, though.

... Pocket cookie... Tragic...

* * *


Osono could not have been comfortable sitting on her like that. Alex had kept them waiting for a while trying to scrape a plan together, and during that time, the bleeding Agent had started looking paler and hadn’t woken up. Yup, that was brain damage. He wanted to feel bad, but Alex was still sure he would’ve taken a knife and stuck it in Osono’s back if he’d had another minute. So, no, he wasn’t mourning the eventual death. He was just annoyed he couldn’t’ve used it to get a real answer out of the one who was conscious.

He’d narrowed it down a little. Outside of life and death situations, Xander would follow along with whatever he was told if it meant he’d get something out of it, he’d find it funny, he was too tired to stop Alex from doing it or... well, occasionally, he’d do it if Gwen was the one asking. Alex had to hope that that last one wasn’t his way out of this. He wasn’t in any position to start flirting and he honestly didn’t want to.

Good. Agency women are fucking insane. It’s a universal rule no one else should have to learn the hard way.

Plus, it wasn’t important. Unless it had to do with this, he didn’t want to hear about it.

Think. Think. Think. Think. Think. If it worked on Xander, it’d work on the Agents, and they had no other way of reaching them. He was pacing around now, his clothes damp but his legs utterly soaked. At least the sprinklers had finally stopped. That was one small mercy but, again, completely pointless.

So, what do you want exactly? Just some time when you and I agreed on shit?

“No – I want an example of when you did what I said just because.”

Uh-huh.

“It can’t be from bargaining, not because you would’ve done it anyway, not because you didn’t have a choice or else we’d die...”

You’re severely limiting your search.

It could be simple, if that was all he had, but it had to be after Alex knew Xander was an Agent. Before then, anytime they’d worked together could’ve been part of the act to make Alex think he was just crazy. After that, he’d know it’d been real.

After that. ‘After that’. As in ‘immediately following the revelation’.

What?

“I think I came up with something.”

Actually?

“Yeah – I...” He turned back to the other two. “Osono – just... hold her there for a sec. Just one more minute – I have to talk something over with –” Gwen. “– with Gwen.”

Quit fucking up my lies! You always do that.

Alex walked further down the hall, not enough to lose sight of them and close enough to jump back if the action started again, but certainly out of earshot – or else effective eavesdropping. He felt excited. He had a really, really good feeling about this.

“Okay – work with me here,” he said. “Do you remember when you told me you were an Agent and I got mad and we started going back to the apartment?”

Yeah, and I remember it going great.

“Before that. After you told me but before we went upstairs. Do you remember how Gwen was bleeding and I was worried? And how you started trying to help her?”

I’m bracing myself for something obscenely stupid.

“I distinctly remember you trying to grab my arm to help her – not because I told you, but because you wanted to help – and that means you had the energy and the willpower to do something, but didn’t.”

The guy’d always been inhumanly silent when he puzzled things out. In the old days – meaning last week – Alex assumed it was because they thought at the same pace; as he mulled something over, so did Xander. He felt it was a reasonable conclusion to come to and it wasn’t until they’d switched places for a while that he’d had to change his theory to a mental-anti-spy shield, but it meant the same thing: the few times he was quiet was when he was piecing things together. Now, however, Alex could literally hear the strain of Xander trying to follow along, which ended in a very short and very confused, ... And...?

“You stopped trying to take over because I stopped you,” Alex went on. “And after that, you kind of... you reached out a little, but you didn’t go for it. You backed off when you didn’t have to.”

... And... it’s...

“It’s exactly what we need to get the Agent woman to do,” Alex said.

Oh, of course.

“Whatever reason you had for listening to me in that split second, Xander, if we can pull it off with her, we’ll get whatever codes she has and – I don’t know – get an escort to the place in Charlton. We need directions, don’t we? She’ll have that at least.” The silence he got for that one was... less enthusiastic of a response than he’d been hoping for, but Alex knew this was the answer. “So what was it? Why’d you listen?”

... I...

“Well?”

There was a small, reluctant sigh as Xander returned to his silent thinking. After a minute of waiting impatiently and feeling the pool of water in his shoes and between his toes, Alex was given a half-assed reply of, Were we inside already?

“Yes,” he said.

... And this was before we went upstairs.

“Yes!”

Don’t remember.

He shouldn’t’ve been surprised, but he was and annoyed by it. Basically, whatever the hell had come over the guy was up to him to solve. Alone.

Fine.

“It couldn’t’ve had to do with me being angry,” he muttered. “That’s never made a difference. And you obviously cared enough to try in the first place, and even if it wasn’t worth fighting about, you normally take over just to spite me...”

So...

Think. Think. Think...

Got it.

Forget being excited. Alex had a new favourite feeling: inspiration. It was wonderful! His thoughts would be loosely tugged in one direction, idly bobbing along his mind as they tried to form a connection, and then – from nowhere – some demon of an idea would burst in and take his full attention. The overwhelming taste of victory was almost better than realizing he might’ve figured it out.

“Authority.”

Oh God. I didn’t brace enough.

“Authority – that’s what it is! Holy shit – Xander! You fucking listened to me because I was in charge of –”

A massive crack sounded through the building as Xander slapped him across the face.

No. Bad.

“Or –” Alex coughed, trying to recover. “Or completely –”

Another slap. He saw tiny dots that didn’t fade for a few moments.

Get those filthy thoughts out of your head right now.

That wasn’t happening. The burst of inspiration was roaring around his mind, screaming he was right and couldn’t afford to let this get cast off. It fit! It fit perfectly! Agents – they were soldiers! Sort of. They took orders anyway, and there were very clear levels between who was in charge and who wasn’t. If they all had a boss and they breathed everything the Agency stood for, it wasn’t so hard to think they had no choice but to fall back on it – on their ‘do exactly what I say before I break your neck’ corporate law, which he’d seen a dozen times with lackeys stepping out of line minutes before Xander swooped in and tore the rest of them to pieces – if it looked like someone else was running the show. Alex wasn’t kidding around back then. He didn’t know how much he showed it, but he’d been furious and Xander had the most direct access to his emotions. Six years was a long time for a habit to stick around, but nobody knew how long he’d been an Agent for. Or how strict they’d been about it. After a while, it’d probably been automatic, and there was always the saying about habits dying hard... Now they were facing someone who still was a part of that crazy group.

“What did they do to Agents who didn’t listen?”

What do you think they did?

“Killed them?”

Painfully and slowly, depending on who it was and how much psycho they had in their coffee.

“That’s perfect,” Alex said. He felt a very loud ripple of resentment. He rolled his eyes at it. “Knock it off. Your job was to kidnap people and stick them in jars.”

Alex?

“Yes?”

Fuck you.

“Back at ya, flunky.” The first two had landed, but he’d done this enough to dodge his hand by now. Maybe it was mean and Xander was clearly offended, but – hey. His foot. Whose fault was that? “She works for Peter.”

Another ripple, louder than before. Alex was pushing all his buttons today.

You’re paying attention. Xander’s voice had turned sickly sweet. I’m so proud of you.

“Peter is alive again. If we crushed his face in with a rock, he can’t be using the same look. Unless he’s got regeneration...?” Xander didn’t answer. “Okay! Thanks for your insight! So unless he has regeneration, he probably... changed his appearance or something. And maybe we freaked him out when he died and he stays in the back. His army – that woman – there’s a chance she’s never seen him before! I mean – he’s already proven he’s okay field work.”

Get to the point.

“Feel like being an old enemy? You make a great Gwen.”

I dunno. Is that an order?

Alex thought about it. Then he said, “Yes.”

I am going to beat the ever-loving shit out of you.

... He was being oddly sensitive about this. It probably wasn’t a good idea to get the man soon-to-be-released angry with him, but he was overreacting a little bit, and since the ripple from that brought a grin to his face and it immediately got Alex another attempted slap – he slipped by it, which was great because that one could’ve knocked out his jaw – he decided he’d earned the right to bother him. Xander had no problem rubbing things in. Why the hell should he?

Yes. Yes, this was a good idea.

Setting

3 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace Character Portrait: Brie
Tag Characters » Add to Arc »

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#, as written by Ten
Almost immediately, she started to lament over the fact that apparently she'd hooked herself an idiot. Most of the time, threats worked to get the desired results, but occasionally, there'd be that one or two people who couldn't seem to handle the mental pressure and stress the additional promise of physical violence put upon them. It was rarely something Stephanie encountered in the Agency, but it never failed to make her instantly desire to give them an early retirement from their job. This was no exception. Especially considering the Puppy's seemingly close relationship with her partner and the fact that his imbecilic brain was keeping her from the more intimate information she desired to have about Jason.

She could see it in his face as he grappled with the tongue occupying the fleshy cheeks on his face and Stephanie gritted her teeth while she waited for the right buttons and gears to start functioning. But they didn't. More nonsense came out from between pudgy lips, bordered by dark blonde facial hair above and below and she struggled with the urge to reach in and detach it from the rest of his body. He KNEW things that she didn't and she wanted what he had! It wasn't fair! Did he think he could be closer to Jason and compete with her!? The fool! She would unlock those answers and more, even if she was forced to crack his skull open and pour out the goop he called a brain to find them.

As she made to reach for his ear, she stopped as someone flew by them and she paused to give him a puzzled look at his questions. Yes, she'd seen something but don't change the subject, Pup-- Then the thought instantly disappeared as Madeline approached them, deathly beautiful as ever, seeming to weigh their part of the hallway down with an overwhelming shadow that was both delightful and terrifying to behold. As much as Stephanie imagined how lovely it would be to spend an afternoon with this woman, just hanging out, shopping and torturing people, she was immediately struck by the fact that Madeline Bergmann was not a "hanging out" type of person. And it became even clearer when she spoke, in that same loud, practically shouting tone of voice. And her eyes swept over Stephanie in the dismissive look that a superior gave to someone below them who did not matter. Stephanie simply did not exist on Madeline's radar and as much as it personally hurt, it made her feel even more enamored with the ice cold A-2.

One of the first things that she became aware of in the brief orders issued by Madeline was that she'd lost something - or rather someone; another one of those things that Stephanie could just feel about her, was it was very unlikely that Madeline was an "animal" person to any degree and that "cat" was a nickname for a person - and another was the reminder of what had brought the Pup to interrupt her and Jason earlier. The "body" was here. The main instrumental part of the plan to capture Alexander was being fulfilled and practically made ready.

The fact that she was being ordered to take care of it made a burst of annoyance fill Stephanie and even though she greatly respected Madeline, she couldn't help saying aloud after the woman was gone, "Tch! Where's Benoit? It's his package, not mine." She scowled a bit longer as she watched the Agent's back swiftly recede down the hallway, but the irritation immediately cleared up when the Puppy started talking in complete sentences.

Her expression calmed to a more pleasant look as she turned back to him - although a vague storm cloud passed before her eyes to see him twist his two fingers together in a description of his relationship with Jason - and a small smile appeared on her lips and only grew the more he went on. She even ignored the minor bumbling stops and starts as he tried to think of his answers, ecstasy filling her heart with each new revelation giving her the urge to squeal and giggle like a schoolgirl. Cookies, eh? Instantly, she mentally marked down the specific detail of the snack and made a note to herself that she would do all in her power to get said treat for him. And immediately after that, she found herself completely smitten by the color blue and the thought of him wearing it, struggling not to emit a sigh as the image passed within her mind. Blue was now her favorite color too! Screw red or whatever the hell it had been before!

Hm, smells were definitely something she'd have to experiment with to find something that he would feel drawn to - maybe something soft at first, like vanilla or some mellow type of fruit, like strawberries. If those didn't get a response, then she'd increase the intensity to the more flowery and perfumey scents. She didn't even mind that basically that answer had been an "I don't know"; it was still VERY useful information! Especially considering that Stephanie was very fond of seafood, particularly shellfish - she was always willing to try flounder at restaurants that offered it, but shrimp got her particularly weak in the knees. Given the option to add it to pasta, she usually did and would pay extra to have the noodle/shrimp ratio to be about 50/50 in her bowl. Now, however, she found herself suddenly loathing fish and swore to herself to never let it touch her plate again.

And then the last question answered DID get a squeal from her, a hand going up to touch her blushing cheek while a giggle escaped from her throat. Seriously? Bon Jovi? How delightfully hard rock! And the mere thought of Jason singing made her leg muscles threaten to turn into pudding. Even the thought of a DRUNK Jason...! Immediately, she added "something alcoholic" to her mental shopping list. He'd drunk quite a bit of wine on the plane but apparently it hadn't been the right kind because it had put him to sleep rather than got him singing to her. At this point, it did not occur to her that there would be something wrong with her getting her colleague drunk. In fact... the time restraints they were on and the case period did not even have a fighting chance of entering her head.

Ecstatic with all this new information, Stephanie was smiling brightly with small giggles erupting from between her lips as she quickly enveloped the Pup in a squeezing hug. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders and neck and she pulled him close, crushing him against her full, and round breasts while murmuring excitedly, "Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! You're marvelous!" Another giggle and she released him, looking him over with shining eyes, no longer seeing the idiot from before but something much more valuable. This guy was a gold mine!

Finally, the real world seem to remember itself around her as she cast a glance at the hallway and she realized once again that Madeline had given her orders. For a moment longer, she slumped and let out a heavy breath - why couldn't Benoit do it? Where was that smoking weasel hiding? It was his case and she would have expected him to be all over it - especially considering she'd have to leave the subject of Jason and Jason's friend behind, to tend to her responsibilities. Then she found herself perking back up when she actually started to think of what had arrived on their doorstep - the body of the Agent/target that had been keeping Gwen from her clutches this whole time. The man who'd given Benoit so much trouble all these years and who had Master practically squirming in fanboy delight to talk about him. Not to mention the fact that it was a body in stasis right now and she adored seeing them like that - she might get a peek right now if she wanted!

Glancing again at the chubby man before her, the considering smile on her face spread out in a seductive grin as she reached forward and slipped her fingers into his, to hold his hand in an unyielding grip. "How would you like to come with me to pick up the body of Alexander-the-guest, Puppy?" She paused and seemed lost in thought for a moment. "Hm... I don't even know his real name." Then she shook her head lightly and was once again smiling at him, the thought disappearing like mist in her scattered attention span. "And on the way there, you can tell me everything you know about Jason and possibly help me figure out where I can find some of those cookies he likes."

Then she was dragging him with her by his hand, pinching him with her sharp nails and smiling wickedly to herself as she stalked down the hall towards the front of the building and the stairs that led back to the first floor.

***

She prided herself on being a good Agent, particularly when it came to remaining undetected. So, when Brie found herself lying on her back, pinned beneath an untrained, clumsy, crazy woman, her pride was just a little bit more than hurt. More than that, she couldn't help but feel like she'd screwed everything up by being so quickly identified, let alone the fact that the other woman had taken her down in 15 minutes. She'd been prepared for the fire thing, especially with the state of the building when they'd entered, but she certainly hadn't expected the bitch to use it on her! Even so, the drugs pumping through her body that kept her chemically balanced and focused, helped turn the burns all up her right leg into nothing more than a discomfort than actually painful.

"I'm waiting," Osono said with a raised eyebrow, the gun pressing more firmly into the Agent woman's head. She'd become fully visible now, so Ozzie got a clearer look at the form-fitting "cat-suit" she wore and the thin athletic body underneath it. The woman's face wasn't particularly remarkable. Pretty, but with a strong chin and dark eyebrows, her expression blank despite the gun in her face and the threatening tone in Ozzie's voice. And her brown bob haircut floated in a small halo in the ankle-deep water.

This was aggravating and not something Ozzie had ever encountered before. Course, then again, she'd never really needed to interact with people this way before either, so she was at a bit of a loss for what to do with the emotionless "doll" that lay beneath her. And the strength had already seeped from her by this point, now that the fire was gone - having been instantly put out when the Agent had been thrown to the water covered ground. Everything was so wet in here, it would take a bit more effort to create a fire right now and she really didn't want to unless she absolutely had to.

Outwardly, Brie revealed nothing, her training fitting in automatically to shield her emotionally and physically from anything in the real world. Meanwhile, she thought wildly, her mind working a mile a minute to try and come up with a solution to the current problem. She knew what she was here to do, but there was no way she was going to make it easy and she certainly wasn't going to be overpowered by this trailer trash who fought like a toddler throwing a tantrum. If they wanted something from her, this lowly scum was going to have to drag it out of her on her last breath.

Where was Six, the bastard who'd been assigned on this mission with her? Any time now would be great for him to get involved - unless the other had gotten rid of him somehow? Unlikely. Six had done even better than she had on his assigned missions. No, he was waiting for something. Didn't matter. Even though they were a team, they both operated as separately working units and she could not waste time depending on him. She'd figure something out.

Then she was suddenly tensing as the gun in Osono's hand came flying out and smacked her in the face again, no reaction passing on her face as a dull pain filled her jaw and cheek bone. Then the gun barrel was grinding into her temple as Osono hissed, "You've got five seconds, Agent bitch! One. Two--Hey! I'm fucking talking to you!"

While Osono started counting, Brie's eyes had drifted to look at a distant point just over the other woman's shoulder, her vision clouded and unresponsive. Ozzie was about to hit her with the gun again, when Alex was suddenly leaving her to --what??? He was going to talk to Gwen NOW? Seriously, what a big fucking pussy! Couldn't he do anything without consulting that internal image of his girlfriend first? And she thought he said it wasn't even a real connection to her; what was the big deal???

So, she hesitated and gave him a scowling look, before saying, "Oh, yeah, I'll just wait here, ass--!"

As soon as Osono's eyes left her opponent, Brie took the moment to make her move reaching up for the hand that held the gun. For several moments, the two women were locked in a struggle once more as they both pushed and pulled at the weapon, each struggling to get it pointed at the other. Finally Brie wrenched it from Ozzie's grasp but it was knocked away a second later, disappearing under the five inches of water a few feet away. Brie's fist lashed out to punch Ozzie's chin, slamming home with a grunt from the fire woman, knocking her head back and stunning her enough to flip them both over and reverse their positions on the floor.

Unlike the Agent, however, Osono squirmed enough underneath her to flip onto her stomach with Brie straddling her back. An arm wrapped around and locked on Ozzie's neck, pulling tightly as both women panted heavily. Osono's hand reached up to pull at the Agent's arm, grimacing against a bloodied lip before whipping her head back and smacking Brie in the face with the back of her skull. Brie did not let go, but it gave Ozzie enough leverage to move them both so that the Agent lay on her back once more in the water, Ozzie's back pressing into her chest. The arm around her neck started to tighten, holding Ozzie close to her as she gasped for air, Brie's legs moving to wrap around her waist from behind. Then the two squirmed like fish in the puddle, clothes and hair slick and wet with liquid and breathing coming in laborious grunts and gasps.

Osono reached up to pull viciously at the woman's hair, and bucked violently in her full-body hold, trying to make her let go, all the while hoping and praying that Alex wasn't too much of a pussy to get involved. Otherwise, the bitch was going to be fucking barbecue - codes or no codes! Afterall, Ozzie had already done everything in trying to be "nice" about it. Enough was enough!

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Character Portrait: Alexander Stall
Character Portrait: Xander
Character Portrait: Rudy Quin
Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart
Character Portrait: Stephanie March
Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
Character Portrait: Creasy
Character Portrait: Fin
Character Portrait: Brie
Character Portrait: Haggins
Character Portrait: Anjelica
Character Portrait: Richard Graninger
Character Portrait: Salvatore Robinson
Character Portrait: Tommy McConaugh
Character Portrait: Todd
Character Portrait: Noel
Character Portrait: Karen Kraft

Newest

Character Portrait: Karen Kraft
Karen Kraft

Agent working in the Charlton sick bay.

Character Portrait: Noel
Noel

The Lead Agent on Osono's case.(Deceased)

Character Portrait: Todd
Todd

Delivery truck driver from Boston.

Character Portrait: Tommy McConaugh
Tommy McConaugh

A paranoid taxi driver.

Character Portrait: Salvatore Robinson
Salvatore Robinson

Taxi driver.

Character Portrait: Richard Graninger
Richard Graninger

Stephanie's ex.

Character Portrait: Anjelica
Anjelica

The Docimasy medical examiner on Creasy's team.

Character Portrait: Haggins
Haggins

Creasy's apprentice.

Character Portrait: Brie
Brie

A loser with a suit.

Character Portrait: Fin
Fin

Mysterious new addition to the Agency.

Trending

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart
Gwendolyn Stewart

A romance novelist with empathic abilities.

Character Portrait: Fin
Fin

Mysterious new addition to the Agency.

Character Portrait: Brie
Brie

A loser with a suit.

Character Portrait: Creasy
Creasy

Leader of a team of Docimasy Agents.

Character Portrait: Xander
Xander

The other roommate.

Character Portrait: Haggins
Haggins

Creasy's apprentice.

Character Portrait: Noel
Noel

The Lead Agent on Osono's case.(Deceased)

Character Portrait: Anjelica
Anjelica

The Docimasy medical examiner on Creasy's team.

Character Portrait: Todd
Todd

Delivery truck driver from Boston.

Character Portrait: Salvatore Robinson
Salvatore Robinson

Taxi driver.

Most Followed

Character Portrait: Todd
Todd

Delivery truck driver from Boston.

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall
Alexander Stall

The Host of this mental fun-fest.

Character Portrait: Haggins
Haggins

Creasy's apprentice.

Character Portrait: Karen Kraft
Karen Kraft

Agent working in the Charlton sick bay.

Character Portrait: Richard Graninger
Richard Graninger

Stephanie's ex.

Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
Osono "Ozzie" Wallace

Loner on the run with a hot attitude.

Character Portrait: Xander
Xander

The other roommate.

Character Portrait: Rudy Quin
Rudy Quin

Probably shouldn't be an A-3. In fact, why is he in the Agency at all?

Character Portrait: Noel
Noel

The Lead Agent on Osono's case.(Deceased)

Character Portrait: Stephanie March
Stephanie March

The cold-hearted Agent on Gwen's case.


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