The door to Lazaro's office slammed open with a force that rattled the windows in their panes and echoed around the closed-in walls with their faux-wood paneling. The man seated at the big mahogany desk didn't even bother looking up from his paperwork as he shuffled it idly between two wrinkled hands— the conference hadn't ended more than an hour ago, and he knew exactly who it was threatening to send his door flying from its hinges. Only one individual would really have the gall for that sort of rash action in the face of Sovereign City's designated saviour.
"How did it go?" Lazaro asked. There was a certain disinterest to his query that suggested he knew full well how it went.
Noah Fei's chest rose and fell hard, as though he had just run a marathon. First to reach the finish line earns the right to beat his boss's face in with a lead pipe! He leaned a heavy hand on the edge of the desk as Lazaro continued stacking papers and pushing them aside, like Noah was barely worth his notice. Noah's eyes sparked with an uncharacteristic, barely contained anger as he fought to catch his breath, his fists curled in frustration at his sides.
"Lazaro," he began, taking a deep breath to help steady himself, "you…"
Lazaro finally looked up from the all-consuming task of sorting papers. At the sight of the calm, collected, and apparently perfectly healthy man sitting in front of him, Noah cut loose with a string of the foulest expletives and vilest threats that Lazaro had ever been subjected to. As his name was abused up and down, right and left, he placed his pen at the top of his desk, parallel with those various stacks of forms and legal documents. He let Noah rant. Mad sweeps of arms and a series of rather unmistakable and not very kind hand gestures conveyed clearly enough what Noah couldn't quite get across with mere words. Lazaro waited patiently until the man seemed about finished, having worked himself into a renewed state of breathlessness and disheveled black hair, before he cut in.
"I had no idea you had such a vested interest in my mother, Fei."
"What were you thinking?!" Noah raged, his calm exterior well and truly cracked. "Do you have any idea what the consequences of this will be?"
"I'm vaguely aware, yes." Lazaro sniffed lightly and plucked a small black address book from one corner of his desk, leafing through its pages with slender fingers.
"Lazaro—Mr. Palmer—this ruins everything we've worked for. You just told the whole city—the whole world exactly what we've been trying so hard to hide! That's what you set this thing up for?"
His boss gave him a severe look over those crisp white pages. "Don't speak to me like I'm an idiot, Noah Fei. I know exactly what I've done, and I know why I've done it."
"Then tell me, please!" Noah dropped himself into a black, straight-backed chair in front of Lazaro's desk that had just enough cushion to look nice without providing any real comfort. He looked exasperated. "Don't just throw me to the wolves like that. It's not just your ass on the line, you know."
Lazaro was silent, gazing, unfocused, out the window opposite his seat. It offered a view of the jagged skyline, a partial cityscape he found no more beautiful or awe-inspiring than a pile of dog droppings on a park sidewalk. His personal quiet expanded and filled the room until it became something large and oppressive, much like the man who spawned it. Noah was about to demand a response when Lazaro finally spoke of his own accord.
"Do you know how many people live in Sovereign City, Noah?"
The man hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders. "Couple million, maybe."
"Try twelve." Lazaro's eyes flicked from left to right, taking in the dense cropping of buildings that spotted the horizon like a badly played game of Tetris. "That's twelve million people crammed together inside the city walls, and still a good percentage of the streets are always empty. You don't just come back from an undead apocalypse, Fei. They won't leave their houses after dark, but they won't move. This is their home." His thin lips twisted themselves into a frown as he spoke, a show of disapproval for the words leaving his mouth. "Sentimental morons. If they didn't rely on me to do everything short of tying their shoes, I'd get off this ruined continent the first chance I got."
"Touching," Noah snorted. He wasn't finished being angry quite yet.
"Mm. Whatever the reason is, they're terrified but they won't leave." He stood from his chair, then, and moved over across to the window, peering out. "So with twelve million paranoid refugees - and that IS what they are, most of them - suffocating in this hellhole, looking for the first sign of trouble and the first sign of someone to blame for it, how long do you think it'd take before someone noticed our violent new friend?"
Noah frowned, beginning to catch on.
"...you wanted to tell them before they found out through him." Lazaro nodded once sharply at Noah's statement.
"It was risky enough with Jeremiah and Anthony running around making fools of themselves." He muttered bitterly. "But who knows how long the other one would have played along? He's not in our pocket. He has nothing to lose if people found out what he is, so he had an edge over us there. Until we find and capture him, we can't let him have any sort of advantage. Bar none."
"Okay," Noah rubbed his forehead, sighing a little. "But why did you run out like that? You could have stuck around and leant me a hand, you know."
Lazaro's posture stiffened, and he tightened his jaw. Noah's eyes ran over what he could see of the man's face, but it was unreadable. His mind flicked back to that moment, and he remembered vaguely how Lazaro had seemed just before he had run out. He was so pale, so hoarse. Oh god, if Lazaro was throwing up blood again it was no small wonder the man had left in such a rush. But he could tell whatever had happened, Palmer wasn't likely to offer it up too easily.
"So then," Noah decided to change the subject, righting himself a little in the chair. "What now? What does this mean for the institute?"
Lazaro's brow furrowed, the multitude of lines patterning his worn face deepening in thought.
"Well it won't be easy," He mused. "People won't like it. There'll be all sorts of ridiculous conspiracy talk, of course, and naturally they'll want to see our test subjects." He picked at a loose stitch on the cuff of his sleeve irritably as he thought. "I think we'll have to double our efforts to bring in that menace, too. It's infuriating, but he's just too good. I have no idea where he learnt to evade capture like he has, but nothing we throw at him seems to work."
A steely silence followed. Something in Lazaro's air struck Noah as a little off though, and he thought he could tell what it was.
"You have an idea, don't you?" Noah frowned a little at Lazaro. Whatever it was, he was clearly hesitant.
"Mm." He chewed a thumbnail, and sighed. "I think we'll have to use Sutton."
Noah's face twisted in dislike.
"Ugh, her? She creeps me the hell out."
"She's the only one I've ever met who can bring in an aware." Lazaro turned to face Noah. "And I'm sure she'll be happy to have her old position back, once we tell her she's free to open him up. If there's anyone in the world who'd object to an autopsy on that pest I'd be very surprised."
Noah pursed his lips. Autopsy talk - definitely Marianne's area of expertise.
"But you two didn't exactly part on the best terms," He stated, sitting up a bit in his chair. "What if she doesn't listen to you when you ask her to come back?"
"Me?" Lazaro gave Noah a disdainful look, folding his arms across his chest. "I can't be dealing with every little thing, Fei. You're in charge of public relations aren't you? She's the public, go and relate."
Noah's stomach curled as he spoke and he groaned inwardly. Of course. Lazaro's pride wouldn't let him go and beg some ex-employee to come back personally. The thought of even talking to Marianne Sutton made his spine crawl - she just made him uncomfortable, and he was one hundred per cent certain Lazaro knew it, too. God dammit all, he had to be the hardest working man in Sovereign City - and that more than included Mr. Lazaro Palmer himself.
"You drive me insane, sir." Noah sighed, running a hand back through his hair and getting out of his chair.
- - - - - - - -
At the exact same moment, outside of an electronics shop in the inner city suburbs, Owen was watching TV. Well, as much as you can when you can't hear anything. He was up close to the window of an electronics appliance store, wearing a sweater he appeared to have stolen from a girl twice his size which almost reached his knees, the hood flopping over his face with ridiculous sewn-on cat ears. He had thought it was funny, and the fatass couldn't argue him taking it if she had no head, could she?
Krissy peeked out of the inside of his sweater, curled up in the hastily-made sling he'd constructed around his neck for quick getaways - he'd grown very fond of the little cat in the past few weeks. She mewled up at him and he scratched her head, distracted, sucking in through the gap in his teeth with a low whistle as his well-hidden eyes scanned the subtitles. It was a slightly delayed broadcast, and the newsreader was just going over the highlights of the press conference.
"Sneaky little prick." Owen snorted, shoving a hand deep in his pants to rearrange his shiny new hacksaw where it hung. (He could feel the blade digging into his skin, and even though it didn't hurt that didn't mean he wanted it swinging around down there.)
So Lazaro caught on! He grinned in a satisfied manner, knowing he'd gotten on the guy's nerves that bad. He was making a stir, and that's all he really cared about. Whatever, the wrinkly old douche could say what he liked - he knew he was better than them, and he'd keep taking advantage of that fact as long as he needed to. Didn't matter if the general population eventually found out what he was.
Something grabbed his attention from the corner of his eye, and he glanced across. A woman who looked about thirty-something standing near the window as well was staring at him disgustedly - he was pressed up close to the glass, with one hand still wedged firmly in his pants.
"Afternoon honey!" He crooned, pointing downward with his free hand. "Want a look? No charge!"
She muttered something foul and stalked off, shouldering past him despite his shoulder only coming up to her chest. He laughed and watched her go, patting the kitten's head. Krissy meowed and rubbed herself against his chest.
"Nah, not her." Owen responded softly as the woman left - he often had conversations with the cat. He considered it mildly less crazy than talking to himself. "Somethin' younger, I think."
He was pretty hungry, though. Owen had never really faced starvation before, exactly - he'd first eaten flesh within hours of finding himself undead, and had enjoyed it so much he'd never even considered going back. It meant he never got any of that pesky feral nonsense, but it wasn't exactly as if he needed to be any more of a savage. He hadn't eaten today, however - he'd treated himself to a sleep-in, then zigzagged around the city to keep anyone who may or may not be following off his trail - every little bit counts - and had on his way overheard a good deal of excited buzz about the conference. He wasn't exactly Mr. Current Affairs, but it had aroused his interest at least enough to take a look.
"Hurry UP, god! You're so slow!"
"In a minute, okay, I just want to see!"
Owen's eyes slid to the side again with interest as again someone approached, this time at a run, and pressed up close to the window. This looked more promising - it was a boy, about the same height as Owen if not a touch taller, with girly blonde hair and a ridiculous red and white striped sock cap, the rest of him dressed in a highschool uniform. His breath fogged the window a little as he looked excitedly in at the TV, his eyes scanning the subtitles.
"Is it over? Did it finish already?" The disappointment was thick in his tone as he spoke, fingers curling against the glass.
"Of course it did, it finished at like three thirty." Another boy in uniform, this one pale as a ghost with immaculately styled black hair and nails painted the same colour walked up to the blonde and gave Owen a disgusted look as he clamped a hand over his nose to block out the stench none too subtly. Owen just looked back ahead with a private smirk to himself, pretending to be interested in the TV while he listened. "I don't know what you're so eager about anyway, it'll be rerun all over TV tonight."
"But I want to know now!" The blonde boy looked crestfallen, and glanced across at Owen. "He talked about Maggot Boy, right? What did he say?"
Owen raised a brow and went to respond, but the pale boy cut in.
"GOD, Parker! I'm TIRED, I want to go home. Let's just get out of here." Parker just waved him off irritably in response, pressing his nose to the glass and sighing.
"I wish they'd tell us who he is." He mumbled wistfully, tracing a pattern against the glass. "It's so AWESOME that we have a superhero at all, you know? We should totally go walk down a dark alley sometime so we can get accosted and he can come rescue me, don't you think?"
"Ugh, NO." The other boy snorted as Owen fought back a fit of laughter. "The whole thing's so stupid. Maggot Boy. I can't believe you're INTO that, PJ." He eyed the TV critically, his brow wrinkling at the sight of Lazaro. "Bet it's just that guy in secret, anyway."
"Ew! Micah!" Parker gave his friend a disgusted look. "No it is NOT! Maggot Boy doesn't sound a thing like him, anyway."
"Well that'd be a relief at least. You can't do much worse than Lazaro." Micah shouldered his backpack as he talked, wrinkling up his nose like he'd swallowed something nasty. "He looks like someone's peeled off all of his skin, run it through a rinse cycle, tied it to three elephants running in different directions and then tried to staple it back on his face."
PJ gagged and shoved Micah's shoulder, which earnt him a reproachful sound. "You are so DISGUSTING! Come on, let's get out of here before you make me puke."
"Gladly." Micah gave Owen a pointed glare and took Parker's upper arm, steering him away from the boy and whispering to him in a scandalised sort of manner as they walked off - most likely about Owen. The redhead watched them as they walked, and his mouth stretched into a broad grin, fingers tightening on the saw down his pant leg. As soon as they rounded a corner he turned to follow at a leisurely pace, watching around the corner until they were a safe distance away and moving to scale the opposite wall silently, completely unheard under their banal chatter. He kept to the shadows and pressed himself against the brick wall, trotting across the buildings' concrete edging with surprising ease. He crouched in a shallow recess near the next corner as the two parted ways with a wave, watching with narrowed eyes. As Parker headed off in one direction, Micah in the other, Owen's eyes flicked back and forth between the two in a silent game of 'eenie meenie miney mo'.
A finger pointed in Parker's direction, and a grin split his face.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The concrete floor rose up to meet Parker with a dull crack as he fell, shoved, onto the floor of the musty room. His eyes swam with bright lights for a moment or two as the blow dazed his senses, but soon he could feel the press of a sneaker digging into his back, shoving him down harder. He squeezed his eyes shut and screamed as hard as he could, but it came out muffled and barely audible from behind the electrical tape gag. Owen smiled in a satisfied manner and brushed his hands off on his jumper as the other boy burst into tears, shrinking away from the undead and sobbing as best he could behind the tape. Terror gripped his stomach so tightly it felt like it was being twisted into balloon animals as Owen brandished his hacksaw, holding it up to the light and examining it.
"Stop whining, seriously." He rolled his eyes a bit as PJ bawled at the sight, a sorry mess of tears and screams and misery. He dumped the thing in front of him with a metallic clatter, Parker's bound feet jerking back instantly. The original blows to the head Owen had given him had made it hard to discern exactly where they were, but he knew it was somewhere off a main street (he would consider that a little reckless of the guy, were his mind in any state to consider such things), it was underground, and he could detect the faint, acrid smell of stale blood. His fingers shifted as he pulled at them, wrestling with the rough rope binding them together, but it wouldn't come loose and he couldn't concentrate with the guy circling him like he was.
Owen knelt down in front of Parker, wrinkling up his nose thoughtfully. His breath REEKED. After a moment or two, he reached out. Parker squeezed his eyes shut and choked out a gasp, pulling away, but Owen's fist bunched in his shirt and pulled him closer. He yanked the hat from the boy's head and examined it silently for a second or two, before snorting and tossing it aside.
"Crap, crap, crap. Got anything good?" He pulled Parker's backpack over to him, unzipping it and sifting through, largely ignoring the quiet sobbing from the boy as he tossed books aside disinterestedly and eventually just overturned the bag, shaking it to empty everything out onto the floor and doing the same with PJ's pack. He didn't protest too much - he knew that what was on the line here was a lot more important than anything he had brought home with him from school. He shrank back against the wall and tried to make himself as small as possible, watching and choking back more quiet tears as Owen kicked boredly at pencilcases, smashed Parker's phone underfoot, pocketed his MP3 player and flicked through a Spiderman comic tucked into the front pocket of his bag. Owen noticed without a whole lot of interest that almost everything Parker owned had some sort of comic book superhero motif - though it was mostly related to Spiderman.
"Sensing a pattern here." He muttered boredly as he picked up the Spidey wallet at the bottom of the pile, flicking through it and relieving it of its cash. He didn't really need money, honestly, but it was a force of habit that had him taking anything that struck his fancy before getting to work on his victims; the invasion of privacy seemed to REALLY get to them sometimes. With that in mind he unclipped the photo window and held the wallet up to the light as a bunch of snapshots unfolded, pics of Owen with friends and family, a few with Micah, one or two of movie stars Owen didn't recognise and wouldn't give a damn about anyway. He was about to jeer at a particularly stupid one of Parker when the boy looked to be about eleven or twelve when something made him stiffen, mouth still forming the first vowel of whatever he was going to say as he focused. Parker cried out against the gag as Owen tore a photo right at the bottom from the window and shoved PJ against the wall, fingers tight on his neck and voice reverberating loudly in his ear.
"If you scream," He hissed in a voice that made PJ's skin crawl, dirty fingers picking the edge of his gag in indication, "I'm going to break your neck. Understand?"
Parker forced back a sob and nodded slowly, terrified eyes focused on what he could make out of the hooded figure's face - not a whole lot. Owen squeezed his throat a little in indication, making Parker squeak in fear against the gag, and then tore the tape back enough to reveal the boy's mouth in one rough, fast movement that tore a layer or two of skin from Parker's lips and drew another cry from him.
"Oh god!" PJ sniffed, curling up on himself a bit and pleading desperately. "I don't know w-who you are but please, please don't hurt me! Let me go, please, I won't tell anyone you-"
"Shut up!" Not at all interested, Owen was shoving the photo in the boy's face, up so close PJ had to pull his head back tight against the wall to try and focus. "What is this? How do you know him?!" He pointed at a figure in the photo. It was a boy, tanned, taller and more muscular than Parker with a clown's grin, holding a grumpy-looking Parker in a rough headlock. PJ hiccupped and let out another sob of terror. Owen slapped him across the face roughly and shoved the photo up again, a degree of urgency to his voice. "Tell me!"
"That- that's my brother!" He choked, his toes curling in his shoes and his cheeks stained with tears, eyes flicking from the photo to Owen's face. "My brother Davey, Davey Jones!"
"You two get along, do you?" Owen demanded, fingers tightening roughly on the edge of the photo.
"No, he's dead! He died last year, look, can't you just let me-"
"And you haven't seen him since?"
Owen shook his head. "Forget it." He turned the photo around to take a look at it again. He was silent for a good half minute as he stared, Parker's quiet crying the only sound in the room. Eventually, Owen pocketed the picture and looked at PJ, studying, deep in thought. A gloved hand raised and pushed the hood back off his head. His face was split into a cruel grin, eyes sparking with the possibilities. Parker pressed back against the wall tightly in terror and let out a shriek, which was cut short when Owen's hand slapped to his mouth. The undead looked up at the entry to the room, eyes narrowed. Satisfied nobody heard, he looked back at PJ and raised the hacksaw with a warning expression that said everything. Fresh tears spilled down Parker's face, but after a moment or two he nodded softly to show he understood. Owen let go, satisfied the boy wouldn't act up again, and sat back on his haunches.
"Son of a bitch." He gripped Parker's forearm in one hand, yanking it over closer and hooking two fingers under the knots he had made. With a sharp tug he tore them loose, tearing the rope under his fingers and tossing it over his shoulder. Confused, Parker looked from his hands up to Owen, who patted him on the cheek lightly, still with that grin that turned PJ's blood to ice, "I reckon we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other from now on."
Before Parker could respond other than for a terrified widening of the eyes Owen had flattened the gag back over his mouth with his palm, filthy fingers pressing into PJ's face to shove him back against the wall. He righted himself, brushing off his front and pulling his hood back down over his head. Parker couldn't keep his eyes from the boy, terrified any moment he would turn around and follow through with his original murderous threats; and yet though he was sure he hadn't moved his gaze, he told himself afterward he must have imagined the boy call out and whistle until a little white mound of kitten bounded out from the dark corner and jumped into his outstretched hands. Because that's just ridiculous.
As Owen headed back up the steep, inbuilt concrete steps leading back up to the main street, bounding up two at a time, Parker tore the gag from his mouth, wrapped his arms around his knees, and let his shoulders shake with the force of his sobs.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Lily Rose Bakehouse was tucked into a fairly quiet little corner of the CBD, off a main street and wedged between a print shop and a post office. The building was painted pale yellow with blue windowsills, a white-framed door and a white roof. In all the time it had been there it never appeared dirty or peppered with graffiti like many of the central stores - not to say that it never was, but it was always cleaned and taken care of in no time at all. It looked starkly out of place, like a children's drawing of a house or a dollhouse of some sort, and it drew good business because of it.
Noah eyed the cupcake-looking building from the sidewalk with immense dislike. If it wasn't for his wife's nagging love of their strawberry bunlets he'd avoid any contact with the place whatsoever, but today it was completely unavoidable. He straightened his tie and marched up the path, feeling ridiculously out of place as he pushed the door open.
A pleasant tingle met his ears as the door opened, and he was instantly greeted with a rush of warm air and the smell of freshly baked bread. The inside was painted in the same manner as the outside, with yellow walls and blue racks of baked goods lining the walls, and a chalkboard up top behind the counter listing the specials. A few businessmen on break sat at one of the benches waiting for their order, and two staff busied themselves behind the counter.
"Can I help you sir?"
Noah started a little and glanced at the girl who spoke to him, a great chubby girl with a broad smile and a stupid little hat with Lily Rose on it in pink cursive, carrying a tray of muffins to one of the racks. He smiled a little, distracted.
"Er- does Marianne Sutton still work here?"
"Oh yes!" She smiled wider, balancing the tray on a raised leg with ease as she used her hands to steady the rack and load onto it. "She's out back right now - she'll be off at four."
Noah dreaded the thought of waiting another two hours for the woman to finish. He took hold of the tray to help this girl and gave her his best look of slightly anxious hopefullness.
"Well I mean I was really wanting to talk with her NOW is all. Could you just tell her it's Noah for her? I think she'll want to see me." He flashed her a brilliant grin and she flushed a little.
"I'll see what I can do, sir." She mumbled, nodding and waddling off to go return the empty tray. Satisfied, Noah sat at one of the spare benches and folded his arms on the bench. At the other table the men had stopped talking and were now watching Noah as subtly as they were able. Noah's face was fairly recognisable by now to some. Really, he was more the face of the Institute than Lazaro himself these days. Noah busied himself flicking through one of the magazines left on the bench, glad for the fact that they weren't approaching him. He wasn't in the mood for any sort of professional discussion today.
"Excuse me, sir!"
He glanced up, and the girl who had served him before was gesturing him over. "This way." He replaced the magazine with a nod and got to his feet, following her through the side door to the counter and into the warm kitchen behind the partition. The pleasant smell of baking was far stronger in here. At a big white table in the center a woman in a summery dress, apron and heels stood with her back to them, kneading bread dough roughly.
"Ms. Sutton?" The girl gestured for Noah to come in from the doorway, and as he did Marianne looked over her shoulder. Her bright smile lit up the room as she turned, wiping her hands off on her apron and reaching out to Noah with one.
"Mr. Fei, what a surprise! Lovely to see you again."
"Hope I'm not interrupting." He responded, shaking her hand once firmly and pulling his fingers back maybe a little too quickly.
"Not at all, not at all!" She waved it off, moving around to the other side of the table and pulling out a chair for Noah. "There's always time for bread, I've always said." She laughed musically and gestured for him to sit down.
"Er...right." Noah took the seat as it was offered and watched her bustle around the kitchen, clearing off the table a bit. Marianne's bubbly, homemaker attitude had always been warm and sweet. She never seemed to drop it - not even with a knife in her hand and a blood-spattered surgical gown. Actually, he had never known her to smile more than when she was taking part in her calling; the reality of which was that it had absolutely nothing to do with baking.
He jerked a bit as she dumped a plateful of cookies in front of him with a flourish and took her seat.
"Oh- er, I don't really eat sweet th-"
"Oh go on," She smiled and pushed the plate closer, and Noah had a sudden vision of the witch from Hansel and Gretel in her face, "Try one."
Noah looked at the plate helplessly, but not wanting to seem rude, he took a cookie off the top of the pile, examined it silently, then broke a bit off the corner and tried it hesitantly. As soon as he'd determined it was safe to himself, he relaxed a touch and took a slightly larger bite. It wasn't that Marianne was evil, exactly. She was just completely unpredictable, and Noah didn't trust the madwoman as far as he could kick her.
"There, see? It's a new recipe I'm trying." She beamed. "Pumpkin and ginger."
"S'good. Thankyou." He responded, swallowing his mouthful and tapping the briefcase in his lap with his fingers, feeling awkward. Marianne didn't seem to experience the same, however, taking a cookie off the pile and breaking off a bit herself.
"So, Mr. Fei," She popped the bit of cookie in her mouth, swallowing without seeming to chew, "How can I help you?"
Not wanting to mess around, he snapped open his briefcase and took out a folder, placing it in front of Marianne on the table.
"We need your expertise."
She eyed it for a moment or so before flicking it open and flipping through with only a cursory glance, stopping at what appeared to be a police sketch. One of her brows raised lightly, and she ran her fingers along the picture, following the curve of the large, angry stitches patterning the sneering face. Noah watched warily as the corners of her mouth twitched, trying to gauge her reaction.
"Another one?" Her eyes flicked up a bit with a private sort of smirk. "In case you hadn't noticed, Noah, that's not exactly my area anymore."
"Come on, Marianne." Noah folded his arms on the table, looking imploringly at her. "We both know you'd much rather be behind a knife than a cookie cutter again."
Her smile faded instantly, and her eyes took on a fairly cold look.
"Yes well. Maybe your boss should have thought of that before having my medical license revoked." Her tone was particularly spiteful at that, and she pressed her hands to the benchtop to help her get to her feet and move back over to the cutting board. "If you'll excuse me, I have orders to fill. If you don't mind-"
"You can keep him."
That earnt him a pause, and Marianne's expression froze. Noah watched her closely, his tone careful as he continued.
"You'll be paid exactly what you were when you were on staff. Same pay, same benefits; but Lazaro doesn't want this one. You can do what you like with him, so long as you bring him down for us. Owen, his name is."
Marianne eyed Noah silently as he spoke, folding her arms slowly, her mind racing a million miles per hour.
"Anything? After that unfortunate incident with Mr. Jones?"
Noah tried not to let his queasiness show at this. Though he wasn't in the business of sympathising with the undead, he didn't feel there was anyone alive who wouldn't feel for what this woman put Davey through. He could only try to imagine having this sparkly, musical woman chattering friendily over you while you were strapped alive to an operating table, her hands feeling out, touching and examining exposed stomach organs. It was enough to make him churn, so he didn't like to think how Davey felt on the matter. It was why she'd been axed in the first place - not because Lazaro felt any sympathy for Davey, of course, but because she'd been expressly forbidden to perform any surgery until they found out what made the thinking undead tick from the outside. Davey Jones was the only one of his kind; he was in no way expendable.
"This is different." He said sternly, tapping his fingers on the table. "Nobody knows how to bring them down except you. On the other hand, if you were willing to sell us the formula for-"
"We've been down this road, Fei." Marianne gave him that sweet smile again, her voice singsongy. "A gentleman never asks, a lady never tells!"
"...Right." Noah lapsed into silence as he let Marianne consider it, tapping her chin, her expression thoughtful.
"...All off the record, I assume. I'm quite certain this is fairly illegal."
Not that she particularly minded, of course.
"Completely off the record. Nobody will ever have to know, if you're discrete enough. And you'll have full access to the Institute's funding and facilities again." That seemed to strike a chord in her, and her eyes lit up. Not for the first time Noah tried to imagine what working for a living in a bakehouse kitchen must feel like for a disgraced ex-surgeon of Marianne Sutton's caliber.
Silence hung over them like a cloud; tense and wary in Noah's case, contemplative in Marianne's. It was a good minute or two later before she extended her arm to Noah, her mind brimming with possibilities and her painted lips turned up in a smirk as he took her hand and shook it, their eyes meeting for a firm moment before she let go.
"Alright, Fei. I'm in."