"Did you sleep on our doorstep?" Jack asked, watching a tired looking Nick who stood outside the front door of Wales Land – someone had named the fake store years ago and no one had bothered to take down the sign. His brown hair was a mess, and there were dark circles under his eyes, yet his suit looked perfectly pressed. Did he always look like that?
"Coffee?" Nick asked, offering Jack a steaming cup of coffee, totally ignoring the question. Jack stared at it blankly. What did he think he was getting at, as if hot drinks could get him in so easily?
"Didn't see you leave last night," Nick said conversationally, distracting Jack out of his thoughts.
"I took a different exit," he lied quickly, but Nick wasn't buying it. The Welshman looked at the parking lot beyond the small store.
"Your car's still there. Didn't see it leave."
"Will you forget about it, kid? I should have you arrested for stalking me."
Jack tried to close the door, but Nick took a step forward, blocking it with his foot. He winced as his foot was slammed in the door, and then forced it back open.
"Aw, he's cute, Jack," Brit said.
She stood behind him and looked over his shoulder at the scrawny boy on their doorstep. Jack turned to look at her; she was so close he could feel her breath on his neck, her chest pressed into his shoulder. When he turned her red hair hit him in the face. She backed up slightly and offered a smile, her crooked teeth framed with freshly-applied red-lipstick. She held up a file full of papers when he looked at her angrily.
"I just came to get you to sign these," she said, using the folders as a shield between them. "We've got to send them out today."
"You know you're not supposed to come up here with things like this," Jack said darkly.
She started to back up but he snatched the folder from her. He went over to where the register was to sign the forms, leaning against the over crowded counter.
With him out of the doorway Nick cautiously stepped into the store, still holding his cup of coffee hopefully. He looked around at the store curiously, eyeing the little merchandise they had sitting around. T-shirts and sweatshirts with the Welsh flag, snow globes, bobble heads, and so many knick-knacks he didn't know where to look.
"What's that you've got there?" Brit asked, curiosity written all over her face.
She was short, and pleasantly plump, with fiery red hair and freckles that dotted her nose. Nick liked her; she was so much nicer than Jack.
"Oh! Coffee?" Nick offered, and she took it before Jack could stop her. She sipped the coffee and grinned.
"Oh, Jack, you must try some, this is delicious! Better than that sludge Owen makes, anyway." She shoved the mug at Jack so fast a little of the hot liquid sloshed over the side and got his shoes.
"Watch it!" he said too loud, making Nick jump and Brit blush.
She kept offering the mug to him despite it, so he reluctantly sipped the coffee she'd shoved into his hands and he couldn't help smiling too. When he saw Nick looking at him hopefully, he scowled.
"I drank your coffee, doesn't mean I'm going to hire you," he snapped. Nick opened his mouth to speak, but Brit interrupted him.
"How much have you got?"
"How much what?" Nick asked, confused, and she nodded toward the cup Jack was holding onto despite himself.
"Oh! I didn't know how many people you've got on the team, so I only brought the one," he said, "but I could make more if you've got a coffee machine."
"You made this?" Brit asked. She grabbed Nick's hand and started to pull him toward the secret door that led to the lift. "Come on, you've got to make some for me and the rest of the team!"
"Wait a second, Brit," Jack snapped. "This is probably just another trick to get inside."
Brit pouted and looked up at Jack with her best puppy-dog face.
"National security-" Jack started.
She tugged on Nick's hand and he mimicked her, looking at Jack with big, sad blue eyes that made Jack's heart flutter a little. Oh, this boy was good. No, no, he couldn't let him in! It was a breach of security, they didn't know anything about him, or not much, anyway, and what Jack did know he couldn't share. He looked at the two of them again and gave in.
"I want him within my sight at all times," Jack said. What was the worst he could do?
"Yes sir!" Brit said, and then she pressed the button to open the door and led Nick inside. Hoping that this wasn't the biggest mistake of his life, Jack followed.
The hub was like nothing Nick had ever seen. The floors were all metal, the walls a mixture of white plaster and the same rusted metal as the floor. It was lit by recessed lights in the ceiling that were oddly spaced, leaving corners dark and patches of hallway unlit. The rooms were oddly shaped, walls meeting at strange angles. Each time he looked it was like things were slightly different than before, but he was probably just imagining it, finding new things in this place he didn't know well. Still, it was strange, dark in some corners and very well lit where it needed to be.
Once he got down the small staircase to the main level of the hub it was mostly one big hall, moving from a landing area with stairs to his left which led up to an office with windows all along the front. His gaze continued along to a narrow point and then to a big room with two work stations, then to stairs to his right which led down to an autopsy area a few feet below the main level. The work stations were two half-circle desks with rolling chairs before them, a keyboard on the desk and what he estimated five or six screens each, all flat, at various levels above the station. The screens were clear so that one could see what was going on from the other side as well.
Along the wall behind the autopsy area, where Nick was glad to see no body lay at the moment, were three big white glowing panels that looked like they could be turned into screens as well. On the opposite wall from autopsy – behind the work stations – were three square offices with two desks each, facing each other, and regular looking computers on each desk, on the part closest to the doors of the office. All three office doors were open, and all three rooms were empty aside from that.
On the wall at the very end of this open space was a metal door, rounded at the top, which was firmly closed shut. To the right, beyond autopsy, in a dimly lit portion of the room, it looked like there was an archway that led down another hall, which was labelled "Archives." He tried to look down the hall, but he couldn't see from where he was standing.
"Wow," Nick said as he looked around the main room. Something was pumping up and down to one side of the room, like a round orange accordion, making strange whirring noises. There were various machines in different places that whirred and beeped. He was surrounded by blinking lights, strange buttons labelled in writing so small he couldn't read, and switches that looked very important. It was like nothing else he'd ever seen.
"Welcome to the hub," Brit said proudly.
"The hub," Nick repeated, "it's amazing."
"Of course it is," she said with a grin. She took his hand and led him back a bit, toward the main office with glass windows. "Coffee machine's over here, by Jack's office," she said, and showed him where it was in the corner. She leaned against a plaster wall and nudged a light mounted to it a few inches above her shoulder. It flickered on, illuminating the most average looking coffee machine of all time.
"Place like this I was expecting something a little more bizarre, like everything else," he admitted. It looked so out of place it was almost like a slap in the face, a jolt back to his normal, boring world up above.
"Oh, yeah, well, I guess whoever bought it didn't care too much about coffee," she said, giving a pointed look at Jack. Jack raised his hands in mock defence and backed toward the steep steps up to his office.
"Don't look at me," he said. "I don't even remember when we got that thing."
"My point exactly," Brit said dryly.
Nick chuckled and began to start a new pot of coffee. He tried not to let himself become distracted by all the things going on around him, but that seemed inevitable. Up above him Jack's office seemed to be filled with the most mundane things, and yet it was so interesting. The walls were plaster painted a faded green, his desk rusty and metal, a computer on it with a screen he couldn't see through. There were piles of papers all over the desk, and a file cabinet on the far wall that had seen better days. There was a coat rack where Jack hung his military jacket when he entered, and behind the desk there was a ladder leading up to something Nick couldn't see from where he stood.
"Having fun?" Brit asked, startling Nick out of his thoughts. He jumped and looked at her, turning red. She raised an eyebrow. "Like watching Jack?"
"Uh, oh, sorry, just, um, looking around," Nick stammered. "How many people are on the team?"
"Counting Jack and myself, four," Brit answered. "It's okay, you know, we all do it."
"Do what?" he asked, getting out four cups, then putting one back when he remembered Jack had the cup he'd made earlier.
"Watch Jack," she said with a knowing smile. "He's gorgeous, isn't he?"
"Oh, I don't-" Nick started, and she finished for him.
"Swing that way? It's okay, dear; we're all open minded here."
"No really, I don't-"
This time Nick was interrupted by the octagonal door near the stairs where he had also entered opening with a whir. A man and a woman came in, carrying their respective bags – the woman a purse, the man a medical kit. No sooner did they step off the short flight of stairs (only about three steps in all) then the door slammed shut behind them and the lights flashed red. A siren went off, and suddenly it was like everyone in this place was on fire except for Nick.
"What the bloody hell is that?" the man that had just entered asked.
He looked remarkably like a weasel, his strange looks masked only by the sharp accent that revealed he was from London originally. Nick recognized the accent at once, it was reassuring and familiar. Brit's had a hint of it, but it wasn't so strongly cockney. Jack was so blatantly American there was no question where he was from.
Nick didn't try to dwell on the accents of the team, however. There seemed to be much more important things going on, like whatever was causing that siren.
"We're locking down," Brit said as she ran from Nick's side to get to one of the work stations. She brought up several things at once, typing in commands as fast as she could. As she looked over the programs before her, Jack burst from his office and slammed the door so loud it drowned out the alarms for a moment. Nick jumped at the noise, but no one else did.
"What the fuck is going on here?" Jack yelled, stomping down the steps and pulling on his coat as he went. It was an amazing thing, stretched down to his feet and was vintage military.
"No bloody idea," the weasel-looking man said. "Brit says we're locking down."
He went down the steps into the autopsy area and put down his medical bag on the table before checking the jars of strange liquid along the counter on one side of the area, against the wall with the three big screens. The woman who had entered with him followed, and went to the other workstation, where she brought up her own set of programs on the screens. When Jack followed them Nick did too, stopping in a shadowy corner where he could get a better view of what was going on and stay out of the way.
"Brit, what tripped it? Are we under attack?" Jack asked.
Nick noticed he had a gun on his hip, and he seemed ready to draw it. He almost couldn't hear over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. What would he do, if they were under attack? What would happen to him?
"No idea," Brit said, "my program's not giving me anything… it looks like nothing's wrong."
Suddenly something else buzzed and Nick, Brit, the woman, and the weasel-faced man all jumped.
"What was that?" the woman asked.
"Coffee's done," Jack said, and looked back toward where the coffee pot was. His eyes landed on Nick, and for the first time all eyes landed on him.
"Oh, err, right, I'll go get that, then, and be on my way," he mumbled and started toward the coffee machine, uncomfortable beneath their strong gazes, but Jack shook his head.
"Sorry, Nick, we're on lock down," he said, "it looks like you're going to have to stick this one out with us."
AN: I removed the original first chapter because I felt like it was redundant and frankly, boring. This chapter introduces the characters better and has more of a plot than the old one, so it's the new first chapter of "Tea Boy."