Look at that. Peter did leave a manual.

Told you. Right, like he was supposed to be proud. Alex didn't need more proof of what was happening here, but having it shoved in his face like this started pumping him full of dread. I don't know how you've lasted this long without having a stroke. Your blood pressure must be insane. Maybe an aneurism. A heart attack. Something is gonna happen by the time you hit thirty.

"And –"

Oh no you don't, Xander cut in. That one is not my fault. If anything, I got you to lighten up.

"You did a bang-up job," Alex muttered, weakly sitting up in his spot. Osono was saying something to the tech – whatever it was, the guy looked like he was paying attention – but Alex's eyes were following something else. His left hand was pressing lightly on the ground. His back was getting tense, too. Xander was distracted. He also wasn't sharing so, once again, Alex had to make him. "You hear something?"

Feel something... Then he shrugged. Never mind. Doesn't matter.

"Well… yeah, it does," Alex said, starting to pull himself to his feet. He had to grab the control panel to hoist himself up. "You might be staying, but Osono and I have to run out." Hopefully, they'd trip over a charred corpse on the way. Just because Alex didn't like killing didn't mean he didn't know when it was useful. Where was Rudy? "Is it Agents? The invisible ones?"

No... He was distant. Alex heard him breathe out a frustrated puff and say it again, sharper. No. It's not.

There was that tone. A cold sweat set up shop along his spine.

"Oh. So, you're just freaking out because…?"

I'm not freaking out, Xander said, definitely annoyed. I'm pissed off.

"Ah." That was significantly worse, but apparently the 'never mind' wasn't a suggestion. Osono explained where she was going to be and the tech gave his shy instruction, and with a quick kick of adrenaline to his good leg, Alex was made to start walking. Xander's little… 'magic chair' was waiting. He did not appreciate it being reclined so far back. As if he didn't have enough to worry about, now he had to hope no one noticed his neck being completely exposed and took a stab at it. With a knife. Or with whatever else these people wanted to use – he had no clue what they liked. Right away he figured out where that came from. As he very hesitantly tapped the edge of the damn thing, just to be sure it didn't fold shut and snap his hand off, he felt a ripple of impatience go through him. Xander. Of course. The trouble was it wasn't about Alex taking his time to sit. Xander – pissed, not freaked out – still had his mind on whatever it'd been stuck on downstairs. Now, it seemed worse. There was an uncomfortable ball of stress near the bottom of his chest, directly in the core of his body, and whether it was because the guy didn't have the strength to hide it or because it truly had gotten that bad, it was there. He wasn't okay. That meant Alex had a blank cheque not to be okay, either. "You're sure you're not freaking out?"


"Because it's alright if you are," Alex told him. "I just wanna know."

Alex, shut the hell up and get on the chair.

Alright, alright. Alex… sat. He sat very carefully, certain he wasn't touching anything that looked like a switch and ready to jump off the instant something sank too far, in case he set off some kind of pressure-controlled trap. It seemed okay, he guessed, but he was now officially inside Agency transfer technology. How 'okay' was he supposed to be?

"What're you doing?"

Xander had fished the tensor bandages out of his pocket.

Fixing your stupid leg. He went to work unravelling one of them. Alex didn't get to see. Xander'd already looked over at Osono. "'Cause you missed a few things, I'll bring you up to speed: I'm staying behind, you two are gonna go, find Gwen in Elmira, then I'll catch up when I'm walking again."

"He's not turning on us," Alex added quickly. Xander rolled another one open. He'd taken – like… four of them or something. "He just can't – he says – get up as soon as he's back in his body. He says it takes a while because he's been in there for so long." Should he have pointed to which one Xander was? "Uh… tech guy! Make sure you put him in the right one."

The middle one. It was pretty obvious. If Peter had actually left his minion here, then the tech already knew. Still, Alex jerked his head towards it, a bit lamely.

"I'm gonna say the same thing I said to him and Gwen," Xander said. Wait, what? No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no! Hey! Fuck off – I was talking!

"I know! Are you trying to get me skin grafts? You can't tell her that," Alex hissed under his breath, because what Xander had said to them before was basically a fat, 'Hey, I might rejoin the Agency', rather than the nice 'Hey, I might be tricked back' he'd said in front of Osono when they'd all been in the car.

I operate in the interest of free information. She should know what's going on.

"No, she shouldn't! Look – I get what you mean when…" Alex had half-turned his head away. Before he said anything else, he gave Osono a quick, tight smile, a 'just a second' gesture, then turned right the hell around in the chair so she couldn't read his lips. Xander yanked back the other way, enough so he could still do whatever with his leg. Alex silently agreed to it, fine, but he kept his head pointed towards the tanks. … And his eyes on the ground. Modesty. Whatever. "I get what you're trying to say when you say 'nothing is off the table, I haven't crossed out my options, blah, blah, blah' – but listen. She knows something's going on. She knows as well as I do that Peter's after you. She's been unbelievably patient about it so far. Do not get it in her head that you're crossing over like you want to. That's exactly what she's going to think. She's not Gwen. She doesn't need you."

You don't think this counts as 'hiding it'? Tell me, if and/or when she finds out, what's gonna be worse?

"If you're serious about doing everything in your power to get away from them and come back to us, that's a huge 'if' and a big 'she won't'. Keep quiet."

Sure, 'cause now she won't be suspicious at all.

"Just do what I say," Alex whispered. "Okay? As a going-away present."

What's my going-away present?

"That you get to go away."

Oh, aren't you thoughtful?

"You're dying. You don't get to choose." In his head, Alex could wag a finger at him. This was gonna be a lot more difficult when Xander was running around on his own. There was no way he could muscle Xander into doing anything. Those were details he'd sort out later, though. "Justdon't." … And – uh… "And cover for me."

Make this somehow not suspicious? You want me to clear up that gravity problem, too?


Fine. Cheap asshole. Xander looked back at Osono, sulking. "What I was trying to say before I was so rudely interrupted, 'cause this jerk doesn't have any damn manners, is that the most I can say is 'yes, I will eventually catch up to you'. I don't know how long it's gonna take. If we're lucky, no more than a week. If we're not…" He gave her a wince. "As far as uncomfortable schedules go, this is one of the top slots on the list."

'A week'?

"How are you going to find us?"

"I'll find you," Xander answered lazily. "They've got so much shit set up to hunt me down already – you, I mean – that I'll barely have to look to find something to use. It's in everyone's best interest for me to stay just because of it. I find the system, I break the system. I've been meaning to do it for a while. Too bad Alex is a pussy, 'cause I would've forever ago. Saved us some running."

"What happened, happened," Alex said. "We're okay with how this worked out."

Don't speak too soon. It's not over yet. I still have to make it out of that tube alive.

... Yeah.

... Alex... wanted to come up with something better. He wanted to ask if Xander was sure there was nothing he could do to help. With those thoughts floating around in his head, Xander should have picked up on them, but the guy didn't say anything. So Xander wasn't budging: he was doing this alone and Alex and Osono and later Gwen would have to run and – just… cross their fingers. A lot of their fingers. There were so many things that could go wrong and only one – one – way it could go right.

"You okay?"

Xander was distracted again. Like Alex shook him out of it, he forced his head out of the clouds.

Fine. Alex grunted at him for that. Xander ignored it. "Good luck getting out of here, guys. Sorry about…" He vaguely waved his hand. "… this."

An enormous rush flew by Alex's ear. He jumped horribly, and although it got an excuse for Xander swearing at him - he shook his leg doing that - no one was allowed to call it unjustified. That'd happened out of nowhere! The inside of the center tank had just started frothing with bubbles. There was no more 'Xander'… no – Marshall, wasn't it…? Close to that? Alex couldn't see him anymore. The bubbles streamed up from the bottom of the glass and streaked to the top, over and over and endlessly. The light inside was changing. At first, he figured – when his throat relaxed enough to get some air to lungs to keep his brain going – the breaks in the - uh... water... were shifting it around. No, it was different. It was getting lighter. Orange, it began, then yellow, then finally it gave up and went a solid white, turned peach at the very edges by the two red chambers on either side of it.

The inside was… crackling

"What's going on in there?"

My body's revitalizing. Just like before, Xander was moving around, as if mentally limbering up. Actually – no. He was mentally limbering up. It's getting pulled out of nap time.

"And…" There were bolts of brightness ripping through it. Thin tendrils of energy – almost blue. "Why does it look like there's a lightning storm?"

'Cause it is a lightning storm. It's using a live current. Nice, raw bolts. Scienced up, naturally. He sounded like he was excited by it! The Agency takes all its ideas from horror stories. This one's Frankenstein.

"Wait. That's real electricity in there?" Could one damn thing happen in this place that didn't scream of terror and agony? "Xander, isn't that gonna hurt?"

Ohhhhhh myyyyyyy. You have no idea.

"What?!" Out! He wanted out of this chair! Out right now! "You never said I'd be electrocuted!"

Calm down, diddle dick, Xander said soothingly. Nothing's gonna happen to you. Stay put.

"But the current –"

– is for me. It's just for my body. I'm the one who's coming out the stasis cell. If this was a fresh transfer, there wouldn't be any at all. … And if it wasn't a rush job, we could wait the three hours this part takes to finish.

"This takes three hours?"


Alex was confused.

"But we're not waiting? You're going in now?"


More mental limbering.

"You're… allowing yourself to be electrocuted," Alex said slowly. "You're aware of this. And you're okay with this."

Fuck. Yes.

"Could you try not sounding like such a maniac?" It helped knowing Xander wasn't bothered, but sounding that excited… "That's not normally supposed to happen, is it?"

No. You're supposed to wait until the current's done its job. People go insane from this shit. Xander bounced around. It's another reason why being me is fucking awesome.

"So before we do anything, you've already changed stuff," Alex cried. "What is wrong with you?"

They heard a groan. They heard a loud, impossible groan. No sooner had Alex spoken than the entire building let out a bellowing, tortured strain. Nothing moved – not that he noticed – but from the sound of it, every wall, ceiling and floor in this place bent, the wood shrieking as it turned, the plaster cracking as it rumbled, and the metal howling as it stretched.

And just like that, it was over, its dying echoes fading as quickly as they'd begun.


"What the fuck was that?"

That is officially the 'hurry up' bell, Xander said. "Hey, stupid tech, you wanna move this along?"


Shut up, Alex. Everything's fine.

"Yeah, and that's what I'm afraid of." Alex's hands gripped the sides of his chair. Xander had finished wrapping his foot. His entire ankle was tied up in a very intricate weave. It only took four bandages for his ankle to be completely immobilized. Alex probably still couldn't stand on it, but as far as riding in a car went, he should be okay. ... Thanks. "I think we should get out of here."

You're paranoid. Nothing about the way Xander said that made it seem like it was a bad thing. He was yet again distracted and yet again not explaining why. We don't have another chance.

"You want to intentionally botch –" Not 'botch'. "Fine – alter the transfer, to get electrocuted, in the middle of whatever the hell is going on in this building. This is sounding worse and worse and that's not even counting the crap we already agreed were awful circumstances."

It's fine, Alex.

"It's not fine! Something's going on! I'm not joking anymore – I will get out of this chair if you don't fucking tell me what you know!"

I don't 'know' anything –

"Then what you think! Anything!"

Make that 'a stroke before the year's done', Xander said. You're scaring yourself.

"Don't care," he retorted. "Tell me."

There was another groan, but this one was tiny compared to the first one. Was someone attacking?

"Yeah. Maybe. I think so, but I'm not sure." Xander, everyone: the master of certainty. "Shut up, Alex. Don't bitch when you get your way."

"Sorry. Just… say it."

You gonna sit in the chair?

"… Yes."

Good. "Tech, hurry the fuck up. I wanted this thing done two days ago." Then Xander sighed, agitated. "Alright. Don't panic." Alex immediately got ready to panic. "… Great. Anyway, so… You know how I've got that whole 'holy shit, yes, there's about to be a fight', secret sixth sense bullshit?"

"The one you use exclusively to get us involved with those fights?"

"Yeah. That one. It's something they try to train into every Agent who's there to fight. Not everyone gets the hang of it, but the more you practice, the better it is, and the better you are at knowing when something's going to happen. Depending on the kind of Agent you are, the thing that triggers it varies. For Pain Eaters, because they're usually attached to some other senior Agent – our supervisors, if you want to call 'em that – and because we basically work as their bodyguards if we aren't working on a case, it's – like… hostility. We know when someone's going to attack them. It's a feeling. It's specific."


"So, idiot, I wouldn't bring it up if it wasn't driving me insane. Shit's going down soon, and that fucking noise got louder the farther we went in. Here? It's the worst. Whatever's happening, this is where whoever the fuck is coming is headed for."

"… I still don't get it."

"Not surprised." It was Alex's fault he didn't understand Xander's psycho-hunter instinct? "I'll spell it out for you: I got the feeling we were gonna get attacked the moment we got in. I started getting a worse feeling as we walked into the room. Whatever trap that's been laid out, it's centered around here. That means it doesn't involve those fucking invisible bastards, wherever or how many ever there are. And if they're not here for us, that means they're here for someone else."

Alex swallowed nervously. He wasn't sure why he was nervous, but this sounded like a ghost story Xander was telling.

"For who?"

"I don't know, but if it's not you, it's for someone worse."

Xander's agitation quadrupled.

"Wait. But you said that! You said Peter wanted you to fight," Alex pointed out. "You'd wake up and then you'd be in the middle of a fight? Remember?"

"Dipshit." Xander was adamant in emphasizing every consonant in that. "I said it's happeningsoon. I'm not a fucking psychic – I can't see into the future, so if I'm picking it up, it's big and it's happening in minutes from now. Minutes. So you're fighting your way out of here. I'll be trapped." Then he grumbled more to himself, "Whatever Peter wants me for, it's not this. I won't wake up in time." But if Peter didn't need him to fight, how did Xander know Peter wanted him back at all?Because he had a hundred chances to kill me when he was around before. He must think I'm worth something.

"Ever think maybe he just didn't want me to die? I've got powers. I'm worth something."

Hate to break it to you, kid, but the first real sign of interest he's ever had in you happened during that phone call. He likes your new eye beams, but it still doesn't mean he wants 'em. That's the French guy, and A-3s can't say shit to A-1s.

"So… I can get away. It's alright. Osono and I – we can fight our way out," Alex said, giving her a determined nod. "If there's a fight, that's even better. The Agents'll be distracted. We'll slip out."

Xander's agitation, already dangerous, doubled.

"Whoever's attacking has two things: brains and balls. They're smart enough to have planned to take on an Agency base. Their enemies? They can't be seen, so when these guys do attack, they'll be looking for everything that's hiding. Nothing will escape. You can't 'slip' out. They'll find you. As for a distraction, yeah, the Agents are gonna have their hands full, because I've heard of a couple of attack by randoms against global bases. Nothing lives, Alex. They don't know who you are. We have teams – the Agency has teams of people trained in infiltration. Plus, there's transfers. Just because you have powers and you're dressed like a civilian doesn't mean they won't think you're one of them and slaughter you like the rest."


… Slaughter?

"How… bad… is this…" Alex's voice was disturbingly fragile to his own ears. "… gonna be for us?"

Let's just say… Xander thought about it. 'Thank fucking God your powers have a boost'.

A third groan. It was deeper and more insistent.

"Okay. Well. Then out of curiosity," Alex asked, "and because I am really, really, really desperate to hear this answer –"

You shouldn't've heard any of it. I warned you.

"Alright – great – shut up. Ten minutes ago you said you weren't sure there were any more of those invisible guys. Why are you suddenly convinced there's an army?" It doubled. Doubled again. Alex had nothing but pain in his chest from the stress Xander was piling into it. He tried to relax into the chair, but then he remembered what chair it was and then he was adding to the problem. They made a fantastic team. If Alex got a stroke, this was the reason why. "You're not convinced?"

"… No. It's a theory. Everything I say is a theory. Parts of it just get more and more likely as I go on," he said. "I know there's gonna be an attack because Peter said there would be. I know it's happening soon because I can feel it. I know this is gonna be at the heart of it all, so either they want the cells in this room or they're tearing the whole building down, and I know from experience that when the Agency's attacked, it's destroyed. And then there's a gigantic Agency fist that goes out to fucking demolish whoever did it. The only thing I know about the invisible people is that they exist. One, at least. Who knows if there's any more? It might not matter, though. There wasn't anything from that first guy, so I don't think he was here to fight. Couldn't dodge, that's for damn sure." He shook his head. "I don't know. I've never had to be precise with this. It's just supposed to be a warning to take a closer look. I don't think anyone's used it to actually find someone else."

"Well, then, I guess there won't be anyone for those people to attack," Alex said. "We'll go out the side or – okay, don't just stop talking when you're in the middle of this! What now?"

Remember when I tossed around the other idea that one of the ways Peter was going to have me work for him was by dropping me into the middle of his fight and either expecting me to die or shooting me in the face when it's over?

"If I do or don't," Alex snapped, "what's it matter?"

Peter's got a fight, we've jumped into the middle, but I'm gonna be in a stasis cell. Where do you think you're gonna be?

Alex very firmly put his head in his hands and squeezed. He had a headache now and this helped, but part of him wondered if he wasn't subconsciously trying to strangle Xander by his mental throat.

"Are you seriously trying to say that Peter wants us here to fight as his surprise soldiers?"

"That's the worst-case scenario, but yeah."

"And you're sure there's no one else to fight instead?"

"No," Xander said, "but if there is, they're not exactly getting ready for it."

"You know who'd know for sure?"


"Yeah. Gwen. Good job." All in all, this was too much for him to wrap his head around. He wasn't even sure he wanted to believe it, but Xander – the unbelievable liar that he was – didn't lie about fights. But – screw it, Xander said it was a theory. In a burst of confidence he was positive came from some kind of hysteria, right before reality sank in and just after he decided to delude himself until it did, he decided to stick to that. Just a theory. It was just a theory, that's all. "So that's it. That's what you were worried about."

… Sorry, was the fact that you're about to be the frontline in Peter's personal army not enough for you?

"You admitted it was a theory. Osono and I will be okay. You just worry about getting back to us, Xander. And not getting crushed by Gwen when she asks where you've been."

Xander paused, like he wasn't sure he wanted to leave it at that.

I'm actually sorry, he said after a while. For what's it worth, we officially set the record for resisting capture. You've got all your years of running before I caught you, too.

"Tell them to mail the trophy," Alex said.

Nah, I'll bring it with me. Heads up: it's Peter's skull on a stick, real Lord of the Flies-like.

He grinned. Peter better pray someone killed Xander in his tank. Alex didn't need to have a 'theory': when that guy got out, he was ripping the Agency apart. There was no doubt about it, and another bar of courage dropped into Alex's lap because of it. If Xander was ready for what he had to do, Alex would be, too. He wasn't the one who was going to be trapped inside a tube and he wasn't the one who was going to spend three hours getting electrocuted. Besides, he had Osono, and after one more day, they'd have Gwen. Xander would be on his own. Alex didn't like it, but there wasn't much of a choice.

"Have fun," he said. "I'd say 'be careful', but I think 'don't die' is better advice."

Definitely the more realistic of the two. Xander went back to limbering up. "You stupid tech, aren't you done yet? I've got places to be, shit to do." To Osono, behind the tech's back, he mouthed, "Someone's killing him after, right?" Then he gave her two thumbs up, like they'd instantly agreed.

Alex almost joked that Xander didn't need to ask if there was already a 'dark force' on their way, but the humour in it died before he could open his mouth. It wasn't funny. But… for now, at least, he didn't have to think about it.


"No," she said. "I have not."

Out of every answer she could have offered, Squiddie, without a drop of interest, picked the most boring one. Benoit was disappointed. He hadn't hung up on Madeline to watch her polar opposite. Things were getting miserable. No one was doing anything to distract him. He didn't know where his jacket was – he'd chucked it somewhere, and wherever it was, he'd chucked his tie in the other direction, so those were two things he'd lost in under a minute – and although he'd killed ten minutes laughing over how wonderful the small swipes of vengeance were to bask in, like the fact that he was one step closer to being at her desired level of dress and she would never get to see it because she'd destroyed her phone, he was over it now. If he didn't find something soon, he'd be thinking again. Swearing his undying loyalty to Salcon was one thing, but if he kept it up, he'd talk himself into killing Eric for what he'd done. 'Killing' – sorry, he should get that right. Eric couldn't die. And technically he hadn't 'done' anything wrong. Benoit was being foolish. Jean was dead, who the hell cared what happened to his body?

Don't think, don't think, don't think – arghhhh! Dammit!

Where'd his schnapps go?

Shit, he felt awful. Usually his response to this would be 'drink more', and usually his only counter would be 'it's not professional'. Well, the first thing wasn't working and fuck the second, because he'd lost all professionalism the minute he'd let Jean do as he pleased. Once again, as he sat in this god-awful chair and twisted as far as his propped up legs would allow, he pondered that decision. He'd had a duty to kill Jean and he hadn't, and while he'd reaped the rewards of that over the years – and the Agency, as it related to Benoit's work – technically, technically it meant he'd allowed Jean to live and therefore die a more gruesome death and then get worn like a coat. So in that sense, Benoit admitted this was his fault, so – ooh! Schnapps! Just in time! That'd been about to go down a dangerous line of thought and the Agency – Salcon, at least – needed him alive. So Benoit busied himself with that for a while, occupying the rest of his presently limited attention with the possibly-a-robot.

She wasn't saying anything. Screw this woman – honestly, why someone like Eric would insist on working with a person so devoid of entertainment –


"Eric, if you sneak up on me again, I swear to God, I will gladly end you!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa – easy there, buddy! It's okay! You don't have to jump up – come on, sit, sit, sit. And weapons away, please. I don't like anything I can cut myself on waving around in the air. Come on – sit!" Eric wasn't remotely fazed. He was used to death threats. He collected them. Benoit didn't see the point in glaring at him for it, so he regrettably sighed and did as he was told: he sat, but he was tired of sitting. He was tired of a lot of things, lately. "There ya go – all better! Nice and comfy, right? Hey, your shirt's untucked!"

"Is it a problem?"

Let it be a problem. Give him any excuse.

"Not at all! It makes you look much more relaxed," Eric chirped.

"What a coincidence. Looking 'relaxed' was exactly what I'd intended. What's in the bag?"

"Back to English, are you? Well – I know you didn't stop drinking, so I guess you got drunk enough to loop back around to being sober," Eric said, thrilled by this notion. Fucking idiot. "Two things, actually – one's still kicking. Gotta say, Benny – Jean was a damn good choice in hired help. I'm not one to carry things around myself, but I'm really enjoying that I can practically toss a car around. I can't tell you how fun it is."

"Another coincidence, I'm sure."

He needed a cigarette. Ten, tied together. It'd been the one habit Jean hadn't complained about. 'Everyone is allowed one flaw', he'd said. Benoit had been flattered at the time. Part of him now worried that Jean was encouraging a slow, steady death. … No, that didn't sound right. If it were true, the man wouldn't have gone berserk whenever Benoit tried sneak the smallest cake – which was made with both eggs, flour, and milk, so that was three food groups right there. He still didn't know what the problem had been.

Everyone was allowed one flaw. Jean was a flaw, apparently. The fates had deigned to let Benoit smoke instead. Funny.

He lit one up. Eric was already dead; he wouldn't mind inhaling anything. Frankly, Benoit was disappointed by it. Could he take offence to anything, or was everything doomed to be dealt a cheery smile?

"Definitely a coincidence. Where'd Squiddie go?"

Benoit had turned the chair to face this barbarian when he entered. Now he turned it again to face the screens. Eric was right. Squiddie was gone. The building might have had cameras everywhere, but the monitors only showed so many. He didn't see her. He didn't care very much, either.

"Agent Quin called you," he lazily reported, speaking over the muffled sounds poking from the bag Eric brought in. He turned the chair back around. "He wants to talk about a deal you made. Squiddie answered. I imagine she's on her way here."

"Awesome. Check this out," Eric said, dropping the bag on the floor. A sharp cry of distress rang out. "Consider it a peace-offering."

Benoit sighed.

"Eric, you are an A-1. Jean is dead. You had every right to take possession of him. He's property now."

It was true. He couldn't deny that it was true.

Back to smoking.

"Don't sound so depressed, Benny. Y'know, I'm gettin' kinda worried about you." … Was he actually worried? Could he – "Anyway, it's totally not about that. This is for what I'm about to do to you. It's one of many, but I figure just in case they don't come in here, at least you have one to erase off the planet."

What was he talking about?

"What's in there?"

"Before I show you, I want to be clear." Eric had knelt over the bag, ready to open it, but he'd stopped with his hands on the tie he'd wrapped around its mouth to look up at Benoit with what he'd assumed was a 'sincere' smile. Bullshit. Eric didn't know 'offence'? He damn well didn't know 'sincerity'. "I'm not doing this to upset you. You're just the best person for the job. You need to understand that I accept your insistence on keeping these professional, and that when I give you assignments to complete, it's derived from that. It's fully for business purposes."

"Eric," Benoit said, "what's in there?"

"Anti-Agent." He beamed, then he yanked the bag open and out tumbled two bodies, a man and a woman, though the man did not move. The woman, on the other hand… "I went shopping, picked up one for a little 'side quest' and decided to see if it worked." He beamed brighter. "It does! So – this is Victoria, she's twenty-six, and she readily informed me of why she was having trouble contacting me – I didn't have the earpiece on, you see – and that I had to come downstairs and meet her to let the Nordic branch in." Benoit's fingers curled into the chair's arms, scraping them along the way. "I politely enquired as to why she would want to let them in, and shesaid she'd rather not have them smash the door open and waste time banging up the place when she could guide them instead, especially because after today, she had no intention of pretending to be an Agent anymore. I said, 'that's great!' Then I waited for her to turn around and slapped a collar on 'er." Eric gently tipped the woman's head up. "See? Same one I use on Nathan. Alright, it's a weaker version, but it does the job of taking out her powers. She walks through walls! Tell me that wouldn't've been a pain to stab!"

"I suppose," Benoit said quietly.

The woman's eyes were fierce. She had been gagged and bound and it disturbed him to realize how little he gave a shit. This was a traitor before him. This was someone who had joined the Agency purely to destroy them. Benoit could feel the hate in him beginning to grow. At it, he saw hers fade into a bitter realization of what was to come for her – and a sudden fear in knowing she could not flee with her life.

He spared no other thought to describe her. She didn't deserve it.

"What'd'ya say? Peace-offering accepted?"

Benoit snapped his eyes to him. God, how he wished he hadn't. Even through that ghastly smile, his friend was there.


So he stopped looking.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Babysit! Bodysit, at least. See – I really like Jean and I don't wanna have to lose him just 'cause I was too lazy to find a guard and risk the Antis stumbling across him and messing a perfectly good corpse up. I'd like you to watch him, make sure he gets through the next… mmm… hour? I'll call it an hour."

"Get your pet to do it," he said, releasing a long breath of smoke. He leaned back into the chair, trying to remember why he'd thought it a comfort before.

"This is important. I like to assign important things to people with personal motivation." Yeah. Benoit had noticed the trend long ago, mostly recently with March and her pet. And now, if the messages Eric was well aware Benoit had been spying on were any indication, Elias. Eric never missed an opportunity. "Benoit. I know this is hard for you." He put his hand on Benoit's wrist. Idiot. He'd rolled his sleeves up ages ago. Eric whined that there shouldn't be sharp things 'waving in the air' but he'd drop his hand on the arm with the knife attached to it? "I know it's not something you want to do – I know you need time to grieve, but I need you focused before all that."

"No, you're trying to delay my grief in the hopes I'll be permanently crippled by it. I know your tricks, Eric."

"And allow me to assure you, as far as I've seen, you're the only one who does," Eric applauded. He kept his somewhat-sombre note, however. His grin was still 'sincere'. "But this isn't a trick. Youmight be trying to push it down, but all I want is to get as much use out of you before you snap and do something crazy."

"Crazy like what?"

"I don't know. 'Not rationalize something'? That's crazy for you, right?"

"I don't rationalize. If I have a reason for acting the way I do, I stand by it. I don't need to excuse myself."

"Rationalizing the rationalizing – that's pretty meta. So, you'll watch him?"


"It'll give you some time to think. I'm gonna be busy anyway, running around, screwing with the Nordics," Eric said. "You've got two options: keep him here and intact, or let me risk putting him somewhere they'd find him."

"I don't want him here."

He tried to sound respectful. It sounded selfish instead. After everything that'd happened, he could spare an hour to watch over his friend? But Jean wasn't alive – what obligation was he supposed to have?

God, he needed more to drink.

"Benny. Please?" Eric tapped his arm. "I don't wanna have to order you."

"You have to. That's the only way I'll agree."

Eric shook his head, understanding but disappointed.

"Okay. You're ordered."

Benoit had already finished his cigarette. He was going through these too quickly. That was his answer, though. He blew out, and not in Eric's face. Eric was overjoyed.

"Mr. Eric Patten." Squiddie had arrived. She had her owner's phone with her, outstretched and politely waiting for his attention. "Agent Rudolph Quin has requested your assistance in overturning his demotion."

Her voice was completely level. Every syllable had an equal length of duration.

"'Kay – one sec. Uh – why is he calling about this? I thought we discussed those terms."

"He cited time as a key factor."

"Right, right. They always do! 'Kay, one sec, for real." Eric went to the corner of the security room and sat down, nestling in. "Roll that dead one out for me, Squiddie."

Squiddie did so, juggling the phone all the while. When she was done, Eric closed Jean's eyes, and as if the world had dimmed in an instant, the glorious shine faded from Jean's face. That purple mist crap was back. Benoit was curious: what would happen if he'd saved his last puff to blow at that soul-cloud? Would Eric resurrect himself coughing? An amusing thought. Pointless to dwell on, but amusing. The purple cloud sank into the other man's skin.

"So you're an Anti-Agent now," Benoit blandly noted.

"Indeedy-do!" The man woke up. Without a break in its existence, the smile had settled in and picked up with its full force. This body was considerably smaller than before. That was to be expected – anyone compared to Jean was pathetically tiny. The man had brown eyes, pale skin and light brown hair. His jaw was round and his brow was low. He was also dressed in an Agency suit. Oh, if only that child were here to see how easy they were to attain. "I've gotta do a tiny bit of spy stuff, then I'll be back. Won't take long."

"By all means, don't rush yourself," Benoit grunted, pulling out another coffin nail.

"Phone please! Squiddie, get my glasses." Squiddie delivered on both accounts. She had Eric's glasses in his hand before the phone had reached his ear. Despite every ounce of his sanity telling him not to, Benoit glanced back at what Jean looked like now. The accessory had truly transformed his face. This was what he was supposed to look like. If someone didn't find himself something else to get drunk on, Benoit wasn't going to make it three minutes. "Guttentag, Rudy! What's crackin'? You having problems on your end?"

"He claims he is capable of capturing a target if you provide him the authority and tools."

"Sooooo… he's not capable of capturing a target. And if he is – if you are, Rooty-roo, and you're just not moving 'cause you really want your rank back, I'd say that's pretty darn selfish of you. TheAgency should be your priority, not your own piddly goals. I think that right there affirms my decision. Clearly, you don't have the dedication required of an A-3."

"Agent Rudy Quin assures you his bargaining chip is en route," Squiddie informed him. Look at that – she was relaying Quin's speaking points. She was certainly going above and beyond what she usually did. Benoit had little experience with her, but this was undoubtedly, uncharacteristically talkative of her.

"And? If he's not here, Rudy," Eric said, "I don't know why you'd bother owning a phone, let alone use one to call me."

"I was listening to the call," Benoit put in. "He used the f-word. He also said 'balls'."

Eric gasped.

"Rudy! That sort of language is not appropriate for an A-7! An A-8, maybe, but A-7s are supposed to be above that! I am extremely disappointed in you!" Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha… "In fact, I don't care to speak to you anymore. Sin seveder!" That didn't sound German. "Squiddie, go find this guy and hurt him." Squiddie set off. Eric snapped his phone shut. "The nerve of these people…"

"Quite. Now is that all?"

"Yeah, I think that handles everything. Thanks again, Benny!" Eric waved. "Take care of yourself, okay?"

He went away. Unfortunately, that left him alone again with his thoughts.

And the traitor.

The woman was watching him. She expected this. To them, he was still a monster. He could not help his satisfaction in this understanding, but he kept a steady face as he stood, rolling the chair away. With a practised twist of metal, Benoit slid his knife from the outside of his arm to its top, leaving it to point over his first knuckles. It wasn't a conscious decision. Subconsciously, then, he wanted this to hurt.

He was glad Jean's eyes were closed. As the spring released and the blade sliced out, he realized, dead or not, he didn't want his friend to have to see this.


Maybe he was snapping.

… Well. That was going to make Jean decidedly harder to ignore.


Someone say he didn't have to convince her, because his lead was getting closer to Elmira by the second, meaning she was getting farther away from him. He didn't have time for this! He had to catch up! Planes could only go so fast, in case anyone here needed a reminder!

"I'm leaving because I asked to leave. There's nothing left for me in there," Jason said. "And I have permission straight from your boss' mouth. See this?" The papers Eric'd given him were already coming in use. He grabbed the one with his signature – not one of the ones that mentioned his demotion – and held it up to her, not letting her touch it, because knowing her type… And by 'her type', he meant someone who'd taken the effort to get a suit but had stopped short of going for the goggles. Ugh. Druggies. There was a reason the other kind of mask was so popular: they just wanted their fix. He didn't even see them as suits. Half-suits, and that was generous. He wasn't feeling any nicer than that right now. She wasn't getting in the car and he had to get to his lead.Hurry up. "I don't work here. I'm visiting this base. I'm on a case that's getting wrapped up in Elmira and I need to be there. As far as I know about here, it's about to get attacked – so, maybe, if you're interested, get in the car and let's get the hell out of here. Everyone inside already knows about the intruders. It's a trap."

Was it anymore? The plan kept changing every other minute. Benoit wasn't supposed to kill Elias, no one had said how they were going to catch the real Alexander, and they hadn't been clear on what the protocol was for him bringing a buddy, which he had. It looked like Alexander didn't pride himself on faithfulness. As soon as one woman was gone, he picked up another. Then again, there were two of them in there. Maybe they swapped.

He shouldn't be this rude. It was just that a lot was falling onto his plate. Narrowly – by the grace of Eric – recovering his suit only emphasized how at a whim he could lose it again. Her job might have been on the line, but his suit was. He almost wanted to explain that to her, but he didn't trust a half-suit to sympathize. It wasn't anything personal. They – just… didn't get it.

"Eric is aware I'm leaving. If you'd like to check, you can give him a call."

Something caught his eye. Down the road – way, way, way down there, he saw a few faint lights. He normally wouldn't have cared beyond noticing them, but those were… an awful lot of them. Eight. Then twelve. They were getting closer. Oh, they were cars. That was alright. … Except those were a lot of cars. Why come this way?

"I seriously hope this city has a street racing problem," Jason mumbled. It sounded exactly as stupid coming out of his mouth as it had in his head. "I'm not trying to you rush or anything, but… alright – I'm definitely trying to rush you, but only because I'm hearing a lot of loud engines heading this way, and I'd like to go before they get too close. If you're going to call Eric, call him in the car, then you can jump out if you still don't trust me." Why the hell wouldn't she trust him? He'd be hurt, if he hadn't already written it off as part of – was that a fucking rocket?!

No! No – it was a… firework or something! Some sparkly… ball, like the size of a basketball, was shooting over to the Charlton base. It wasn't even following a straight line. It was twitching and spastically switching directions like the thing was on meth, and the light trail it left behind was like a child had scribbled it. And he knew it was heading for the Charlton base because a) where else would it be headed, and b) what the hell, it just slammed into the Charlton base!

… And… stuck!

… And then sat there, glowing. Huh. It was almost out of view around the corner, but it was bright enough for Jason to seenow it exploded! What the fuck? And the cars were almost on them – they had to move!

"Get in," he ordered. "Get in, or I'm leaving you here."

With that said, he started the car. She had three seconds before he drove off.


"Yup," Glue said, pulling her hand back inside the window. "She got 'em. Defences are down. Go Russia."

"Yeah, like they wanted to help," Magnus said. "How do you know they're down?"

"See where I hit it?" She had her hand back out there, because apparently she couldn't point unless her finger was outside the car. "The windows? They're supposed to be covered by a shield by now. See that metal line kind of just above them? Those are the shields. They aren't coming down."

Magnus squinted. Glue flicked open the glove compartment and handed him the binoculars. They'd be close enough to see in another few moments, but he was impatient. Sure enough, when he took a closer look, he saw what appeared to be thick, metal strips, barely covering the top inch of the now broken glass. But she was only half-right. The shields weren't coming down, but they were still moving.

"I think they're stuck. They're trying to close," he said.

"Trying 'isn't', so we have that to be grateful for," Glue told him. "Wait – so are we gonna be stuck listening to that the entire time we're in there?"

"Don't start, Glue."

"That's not fair! She said she'd have it handled! I don't want to listen to that – again," she complained. "Remember Krakow? How old did that get in five minutes? We couldn't hear anyone over that junk."

"Deal with it, Glue."

Glue chewed on her finger. Then she went back to the glove department, right as the Cuban drove them up to Agency's front door. They parked on the empty curb, soon surrounded by the other twelve cars carrying their allies, but while the others got out and stretched, Glue dug out a small radio.

"Buzzy," she said. Magnus rolled his eyes. What, she expected the Russian to care about her delicate ears? He flicked one of them as he opened the back seat, scooching out the passenger side, hoping to remind her to get out, too. She didn't, but she opened her door. The Cuban stayed behind the wheel. Their branch was for transport, nothing else. They'd circle around until the attack was over. "Buzzy – what's going on in there? Do you have their defences down or what?"

"I'm trying," came Buzzy's very peeved voice, "but someone in the cell room flicked a switch that almost locked the room down. I had to kill it in the middle of the whole thing being blocked off. So,sorry, but I was told no one'd be touching any defences until I got to them first."

Someone had tried to lock down the cell room? Magnus shared a look with Glue. She read it, then asked, "Who set off the defences? Did someone find out we were coming?"

"Ha! Listen, lady, I don't know what you Vikings were told, but Eric Patten is here. Of course they know we're coming."

That set a spark of rage off in Glue. Magnus felt the same. They were sick to death of the Russians and their 'Patten is unstoppable' crap.

"Listen, Ruskie, that's not what I'm asking. Are we clear to go in or did you fuck up?"

Buzzy sounded scandalized. Now Magnus was wondering if they couldn't make a stop at wherever she was hiding and cook up some collateral damage. Glue was thinking the same thing.

"If that's how you're gonna talk to me, why don't you just find out?"

With a little click, Buzzy had shut her radio off.

"Unbelievable," Glue said, stepping out of the passenger seat at last. "These fucking Russians! It's like we don't have enough people to fight."

Magnus disagreed. Their strike force only carried twenty-six people. This was going to be overkill, even with the invisible soldiers Patten now allegedly had. The intel had come straight from the Germans and that alone should have let him believe it, but the fact that it'd been so last minute had raised a few eyebrows. Not Danielle's. Never Danielle's. So what if she was a little insane from the build-up of her energy? Patten doing something like this had not gone unexpected and she'd've called it adorable in any frame of mind. What this meant was their branch's favourite flag had been waved: everything got demolished now. Any shadows in the corner? That corner went to Hell. They were supposed to leave the building intact overall – Bergmann and her cronies might have changed their minds about pulling out of this after, Danielle said, and it was supposed to be a back-up in case this didn't work – but the Germans seemed to have gone AWOL already.

"Isn't Bergmann on her way to Elmira?"

"To help the Russians or something. I heard she flipped when Patten showed up and took off because of him," Glue said. "Here's hoping she won't wear gloves. I could do with a few less of Cryptic's crew and you know they love their handshakes."

Magnus was about to laugh, but he brought it down to a controlled grin. Danielle was stepping out her truck. It was a symbol of respect to keep from showing any too strong of an emotion in front of her. She hadn't switched in a while.

"You think Dalton's going to be alright?" Dalton was the one who'd be fighting for the most part. Danielle would throw her punches, but she was the strategist. What her main contribution was to set her brother down where he needed to be, turn 'ghostly' and float off to a safer or more convenient spot, then point to where he needed to float to before they switched back. It was a powerful tactic. It was an incredible inspiration. Danielle and Dalton were two of those the branches called 'unfortunately blessed'. Their powers, in a word, were supposed to be useless. Instead, they'd turned them into a harbinger of war and death. Half the Nordic branch was recruited by that alone; the idea that even the weakest of them could still be such a threat was one that'd carried far. "How many times has he fought with them so…?"



They both meant it with the most love they could muster. Harbinger or not, Danielle and Dalton's powers were still filled with drawbacks. Only one of them – until their powers deflated and they were both 'normal' again – got to have a physical form. That physical form was… interesting, to say the least. They weren't gifted with super-strength or any great advantage. What they had was 'the power of two men' – specifically, the power of Danielle and Dalton. Their body – the non-ghost one – grew until it was exactly the size of both of them combined. Their strength was exactly what both of theirs were, their speed was what those two of had found, and their faces… Well, it was still a 'two eyes, two ears, one mouth' scenario, but the features had changed to giant, twisted parodies. They looked like a blond Neanderthal. All that was missing was the club. Hell, even their hair length averaged out. Danielle had hers long, Dalton had his short. The Neanderthal's was directly in-between. Oh, and their knuckles dragged. Literally. Their arms had also doubled in length.

No one asked what happened in the 'personal' parts of their body. They assumed it checked it out down there. After all, Danielle didn't become Dalton when she switched. They just swapped density. Still, no one was planning to confirm it.

The rest of the Nordic branch was like a lake of lightly coloured hair and fair skin. Glue and Magnus – they were no different. Magnus was taller, obviously, and he'd had to have the back seat to himself to fit. Glue was smaller and almost wirey. Her powers didn't depend on physical strength, and so she hadn't bothered. He had, although he got the same free pass when his abilities activated. He simply enjoyed looming over people, and the sense of accomplishment he got from working out kept him happy. The same could not be said for his peers. Out of the two of them, Glue was closer to the norm. It worked in Danielle and Dalton's favour. They pumped iron like lives depend on it, and in times like these, it truly did. As leaders of this branch, they had an image to uphold. Just as the Cubans specialized in transport, the Nordics were here to search, capture and destroy. Yes, that meant 'the Vikings' pillaged and plundered. The Cubans had no end of jokes about it. The problem was that it had spread to the other groups, particularly the Russians. If nothing else, the Germans had earned their respect by refusing to comment. They had no sense of humour. The Nordics liked that.

"Danielle," someone in the crowd shouted out. "Are we ready?"

Danielle was moving slowly, crushed under her weight. She was strong enough to carry herself, but when her mind was pressured, she could barely act. She needed to think. She needed to switch. When the voice rang out, she stopped shambling forward and leaned on her knuckles as she stood in front of the door, her face reflecting in the glass and the streetlight, her eyes staring through but seeing nothing. She wasn't listening to her people. Dalton must have been discussing something with her. He was the only one who'd have her ear. Right now, he might have been reminding her of the plan, long-forgotten, and then he'd step in. Dalton was a good friend of Magnus but that didn't stop him from pointing this out: if either of them was going to be able to fight without a brain, it was Danielle's brother.

"Yes," their Branch Master's voice grandly boomed. "We're ready."

She vanished. In the same instant, Dalton appeared. In the instant after that, the door was torn to pieces.

"Valhalla's a-waitin' f'you guys," the Cuban in their car bubbled. Magnus was sick of him. He burst into his armoured skin and death-gripping, iron talons, then gave the Cuban's precious machine a new sunroof. "'Ey, what t'hell, man!"

"Pipe down in there or we'll find out how much dynamite you 'didn't bring'," Glue snapped. "Let's go, Magnus."

"'Ey, yeah, don't mind me! I'm jus' t'e guy s'pposed t'get you Vikings out alive!"

Glue ignored him. Magnus followed suit. It sounded like the fight had already started in there.

More importantly, it sounded like Valhalla would have to wait.

Well, that was easy. Haggins was in the middle of his second drink and already the kid was drunk. Fin didn't know whether to feel disappointed that there'd been no challenge in it or to feel triumphant that things were going according to plan. He supposed there was no point in being haughty about things, so he was pleased that Haggins turned out to be such a lightweight.

That had been twice that Creasy somehow interrupted or interfered with the conversation concerning the team's current case. And although Fin would have liked to believe the snoring fit that had spooked Haggins was just coincidental, he comforted himself with the fact that, short of waking up and ordering the conversation to stop, there was nothing Creasy could do now. The boy's inhibitions were completely shot and his tongue was looser than Anjelica's bra clasp.

"And then after he set the baby on Jared's lap, the Mohel turned to get his instruments. He was so nervous about the whole ceremony being performed right in front of him, by the time the Mohel turned back, he'd passed out with the baby still on his knees! Haha!" Haggins giggled before taking another long sip from his glass.

"That's hilarious," Fenton said with a dry smirk, sparing a short glance to the seat behind him, his smile widening as he turned away from the deeply sleeping senior Agent. "A timid, Jewish teenager fainting at a bris; definitely a knee-slapper. Although, I do understand where he's coming from."

The alcohol in Haggins' system prevented him from recognizing the sarcastic tone in Fin's voice, so the lad nodded and said, "Luckily, the baby didn't fall or anything."

"Right. Luckily." Fin was just finishing up his first Sea Breeze and barely feeling a buzz, while Haggins was gulping down the remains of his second and on the verge of losing his balance while sitting motionless in his seat. If there was ever a time to start digging, this was it. Especially if he expected coherent results. After the flight attendant brought them both refills on their drinks and wandered away, Fin casually asked, "So, forgive me for saying so, but you're a pretty high-strung guy yourself. Have you ever passed out while working on a case for the Docimasy? Like, when dealing with sensitive situations or gory scenes?"

Haggins was in mid-swallow - taking his third glass down to a quarter empty already - but shook his head. "No, but Anjelica handles most of the... gross stuff. She likes that sort of thing. Mostly, the cases I've done were just investigations of fraud... Misappropriation of Agency resources, record errors, false reports, that sort of thing. You know, when people don't do their jobs and use Agency money and equipment in ways it's not meant for and then try to hide the fact."

Fin nodded thoughtfully as Haggins swallowed another quarter of pink liquid from his glass, and getting ready to use his contemplative tone, he stopped as the boy continued, talking over him. "Like for instance, this current case we're on... the guy has been Lead on a single case for years..."

Wow. Lookit that. He didn't even need to ask. Seriously, was there going to be any work involved in this? It just didn't feel right to have Docimasy secrets handed to him so willingly. But Fenton really wasn't the type of guy to complain...

"You know, sometimes it AMAZES me how much work some people will go through just to get out of doing what they're being paid for. The guy's been working on this case for 6 years.. 6 years, Fin. There are a thousand Agent team requests that have been submitted, approved and filed during that time and there has not been one report from any of those guys and nobody's ever heard from them again. No death reports. Anything. Just disappeared... Then, recently, the other Lead on the case tried to file the same phony reports that she'd put in before, to hide the missing Agents but it was declined because someone else's property was involved."

"What does that mean?"

"Oh, it was just some A-1's elite team that were requested for the case and then killed in the field," Haggins said with a shrug, not noticing the way Fin's face turned white at the mention of the rank. Was this a different A-1? Please, let it be a different A-1. "The guy refused to let their deaths be buried under the rug, so the termination reports were actually submitted and reviewed outside of the local base. Once those were looked at, the incident was reviewed - dangerous and amateur planning was the initial verdict - and after demotions were handed out, the rest of the case work was looked at. Within hours, they found the mountains of Agent team request forms tucked away in the record room at Grissom base."

"Wow..." Wait a minute... "But I thought you guys were investigating a murder case?" That's why they had the slutty coroner on their team. "Are you saying you think these two Leads actually killedthose Agents? Jesus... Talk about trying to cover up slacking off on the job."

Haggins laughed. "No, no. That's the other case we're investigating in Charlton. The two cases are related, so we were handed both at the same time. See, and here's where it gets kinda weird, Fin... The female Lead for the first case was murdered by the Agent under investigation in the second case," Oh, God... NOT Patten. Please, tell him Patten didn't kill her for revenge. If Haggins meant Eric Patten, he would have said "A-1" rather than "Agent". ...Right?

"They use to be working on that same case together but this other female Agent-" Wait. Otherfemale Agent? "-has been working as the Lead on a different case for a couple of years. She's supposedly a real hot-shot and so far all we really have on that case is a body. It's like, zero communication coming out of Charlton - faxes and emails were sent to the A-2 in charge, but no response has come back. Docs don't need prior notice and we're always allowed admittance into every base, so, really, it's a courtesy to even ask her before we get there. So, details about why Harper Anderson was killed are still a mystery..."

"Why is that weird?"

"Well, it's just... so... unexpected. From her files, she's supposed to be some sort of prodigy - joined the Agency young, moved up the ranks like a rocket, developed her own system to combat psychic abilities, which is pretty impressive-"

"Wait! A psychic?" Now that the concern over whether or not his new boss was involved had fully faded, a new sinking feeling filled Fin as he began putting the descriptive puzzle pieces together. Apparently, Haggins misinterpreted the thoughtful faces he was making, somehow thinking the issue was the 'psychic abilities' part, rather than recognition of this Agent's personal bio..

"Yeah... Listen, I know the sort of stories that trickle down and I know the hazing that lower levels go through. You A-12 guys aren't let into the inner circle yet, but let me tell you..." Haggins almost fell out of his seat as he swerved his head to look back at the two seats behind them - Creasy was lightly snoring and Anjelica was brooding and sipping at her drink, still listening to her music. Turning back to Fin, his slurred voice got lower as he leaned across the aisle, his eyes drooping and yet still maintaining an emphatic look. "From my own personal dealings and what I myself have witnessed, I swear to God, the stories are true."

"Stories?" Fin asked, trying to hold back the creeping smile that threatened to burst forth on his face, pulling back a little from the strong smell of alcohol and cranberry juice on the boy's breath.

"About the people with powers."

"Oh-h-h." It took all of Fin's willpower not to burst out laughing and he had a feeling that with more than half of his second glass already in his system, it really wasn't helping the fight for self-control.

Again, Haggins misinterpreted Fin's reactions and grabbed onto his arm as he spoke, trying to get Fenton to see the truth of what he was saying. "They exist, Fin. The stories are real."

"No doubt, my friend," he said politely, prying the boy's fingers from his arm. "I wouldn't be here if they didn't. None of us would." Releasing Haggins' hold on his arm removed any support he had, so the lad fell back into his seat heavily, swaying slightly in his chair. A somber cloud began to drape itself over the boy's shoulders, seemingly put there by the odd and sudden shift in the topic. Not wanting to lose Haggins before he was done with him, Fin cleared his throat and asked, "So, do you mind if I ask you this woman's name?"

That instantly buoyed Haggins out of the mood he'd fallen into and gulping down the rest of his drink, he set his glass aside and went digging in his briefcase. After rifling through his papers for a minute, during which, Fin made a halting gesture to the flight attendant to stop her from bringing the new drink she'd mixed, a paper was pushed into Fin's hands and he took a look at it. "Hm, 'Harper Noel Anderson'," he read. "Interesting middle name. But I meant the other one. The female Agent that you think killed her."

Handing the paper back, Haggins grabbed it and stuffed it back into the briefcase, with little care for order or neatness as he closed it. "Oh..uh. Her. Um.. something with a holiday..." Haggins giggled and rubbed a hand on his forehead, his face flushing a heated pink as he mumbled, "Gosh I can't remember... April?"

"Yeah... that's not really a holiday. That's sort of a month." Hesitantly, he offered, "Stephanie March, maybe?"

"Yeah! That's it! March." Yeah, that's what Fin thought. He knew it wasn't a coincidence that these guys were on her case and just happened to be riding on Graninger's plane. "Do you know her?" The recognition must have shown on Fin's face and since it was a little too late to hide it, he rolled with it. With how drunk Haggins was, it wasn't hard to distract him.

"Yeah, I sorta do. Hey, uh... how exactly do Docimasy teams get notified of a case anyway? I mean, what happens to make you guys go out and go after someone? Do you just have someone poring over the files all day, looking for inconsistencies?" Fin would bet his right ass cheek that Graninger was somehow responsible for sending these guys on the hunt for his ex. All of a sudden, he found himself gritting his teeth as he waited for the answer.

Which Haggins was having difficulty giving, struggling now to keep himself sitting upright, almost as much as he was fighting to concentrate on the conversation. Scared that the boy was gonna pass out soon, Fin gulped down most of the rest of his drink and signaled to the flight attendant to bring him another. When she arrived with the drink in hand, Haggins' eyes brightened, licking his lips as he made to reach for it. Luckily for Fin, the alcohol had slowed the lad down some and his hand swept the glass up before Haggins got more than within a foot of the drink. "Whoa there! I think you've had enough, little camper!" Patting the disappointed Agent's hand, Fenton turned to the attendant and said, "Can you get some water for my friend here? In a nice tall glass, please. Thanks."

With the kid revitalized by the almost-promise of more alcohol, it didn't take more than a sip of water for him to willingly return to the conversation - after Fin reminded him of the question, of course. "Well... a case will usually come to the Docimasy if someone reports something. Missing equipment, paperwork errors, sexual harassment... Someone fills out a form that is directly addressed to our office. With murders, it's different. Every Agent death comes to our desks and gets looked at, but it really only becomes an official case when there's a suspect. Then a full investigation is launched. Even if at the beginning it looks like it might have been an accident, the Docs dig into it to make a final call on it."

"But how did you guys get these two cases? Who assigned them to you?" Honestly, Fin didn't know why he bothered asking. It was obvious; they wouldn't send these guys all the way across the country unless someone had a personal stake in the outcome. A personal grudge to be fulfilled, perhaps? And the other case with the missing Agents was probably just a cover to make it look like they had more of a reason to be here than a 5 year old break-up.

"Granininger," Haggins said, drunkenly stumbling over the syllables in the guy's name. "Richard Granimger."

"The A-2 in charge of the Spokane, Washington base." Fenton nodded, feeling both relieved that he'd solved the mystery and that it had nothing to do with Patten at all - if he WAS the A-1 that Haggins mentioned, then he was only peripherally involved. Honestly, what the fuck was Rich doing now? Even drunk, Fin heard Graninger's voice reiterate the warning he'd spoken before he slammed the car door in Fenton's face. This was about Stephanie and now that he knew, he was supposed to stay away from it. But it was like an itch now, one that refused to be ignored while he just sat by and let this guy's agenda play out in front of him... whatever his goal really was. Either way, Fin had a very strong feeling that it wasn't going to be good for Stephanie.

"AND the Chief of the West Coast division," Haggins continued, nodding agreement and raising his glass as if in salute and then making to drink from it, only to be disappointed by the fact that it was water.

"Wait, what? Chief? Division of what?"

Haggins looked up at him, trying to keep his gaze steady - Fin couldn't figure out if that look meant that he couldn't believe he'd revealed this information, or he couldn't believe that Fin didn't already know about it. "He's the Head of the West Coast North American division of the Docimasy. All Docs stationed in and working on cases from British Columbia, Arizona, Washington, Vancouver, Oregon, and California to... Arizona, Utah, Winnipeg, Montana and Alberta report to him."

"..." Fin openly gaped at him, unsure of how to respond - or, really, how far he should take this information, since the list of territory seemed a bit...dubious.



"...ha, what?" Haggins was stupidly amused.

Alright, this conversation was going nowhere and Fin's level of inebriation was starting to catch up to Haggins'. He was finally ready to admit, he'd drained the boy dry of everything he needed - and hadn't really wanted - to know. It didn't matter anymore anyways. Haggins was seconds away from losing consciousness or throwing up. "Nothing, nevermind. Now, finish your water, like a good boy. God forbid this ends up being a bad first experience for you."


What the hell?! What the fuck did he mean 'he was staying behind'? How could he say it so flippantly, as if he wasn't completely abandoning her and Alex? Yeah, and Alex could go fuck himself with his explanation. She didn't need to be consoled. And now that she was here, she wasn't even close to being worried about Xander turning. Ozzie remembered the phone call with Peter and how insanely mad Xander got - not to mention his bloodthirsty, fired up comments after that when he got used to the idea of possibly getting a shot at revenge. She wasn't concerned and she wanted to punch Alex in the groin for being useless and even bringing it up. As if 1. that was really the first thing her mind would jump to and she'd freak out about it and NEED to be talked down and 2. as if HIM, Alex, saying anything would make ANYTHING 'better'.

She wasn't stupid and she understood the why and all that bullshit. She even understood that Gwen was depending on them and that she could only carry one fool on her back on the way out of here. ...Osono just didn't want to leave him. She thought things were going to be different. She thought it'd be like an outpatient procedure. In, then out, and on to saving Gwen. There was a promised future in that and she had the urge to punch Xander in the groin too for taking it away.

She was being stupid and she knew it, so she remained quiet, silently agreeing to the change in plans... until Alex pointed out which of the bodies was Xander's real one. Up to this point, she'd completely avoided looking at the tanks, partly because she didn't care - those people were asleep or something and not a threat; until they started moving, they remained unimportant - but also because what they represented scared her. They were 'asleep' for a reason and it probably meant that they were "empty". It wasn't something she wanted to think about.

Now, however, with her eyes starting at a bare chest and moving up his neck to his half-covered face, she actually stopped and let herself stare. And then she continued to let her eyes wander, always coming back up to his face and flowing hair, picking out different details on each additional sweep. Osono had never been one to ogle or gush over men or boys and they'd never really been an important aspect of her life, except as comrades or brief sexual adventures. It didn't mean that she wasn't interested in more, though. Laying her eyes upon the man that she was just starting to let herself feel something for - completing the attraction with a pretty package - she called dibs on him right then and there.

After that, Xander spoke again, but she wasn't done with the first thing he'd said, getting herself ready for an argument she was GOING to win. Then Alex did something or they were talking or fighting to themselves in that weird, annoying way, and she rolled her eyes at Alex's pathetic apologetic gesture. He needed to knock that shit off. Honestly, it wasn't like she got mad about stupid shit. Anyway, it gave her a moment to think and she stood by planning how exactly she was going to fight him on this. If both men thought they were leaving without her Xander then she'd say it right now so there wasn't any confusion: screw fucking Gwen. In the span of 10 seconds, she'd made up her mind and she was okay with admitting it was selfish. It really was too fucking bad if Gwen was dating one of them because she wasn't getting that one and as much as Osono felt guilty and as much as she did truly care about Gwen - although she struggled to explain why, even to herself - Gwen was NOT here and Ozzie wasn't going to wait until she was. He may have made saving Gwen a goal on his list, even now giving it a point of importance above Ozzie's feelings, but Xander had made it clear he kinda liked Osono too. You snooze, you lose and she'd made her choice. She wasn't leaving him behind in this place.

When he was finally back to talking to her, she continued to disagree with him in her head, ready to object to everything as soon as he shut up. The small almost regretful face he made gave her pause, finally seeing some sign that this wasn't the ideal situation for him. He didn't want to leave her, but for some reason, he felt he had to. True, it might have something to do with his old body needing time to adjust - she didn't know how the fucking thing was supposed to work, so whatever - but she had a feeling it had more to do with Peter than anything else. She couldn't deny that him finding this guy was important - she heard how insane Peter was during the phone call, the creepy fuck; he needed to die or he'd be another Rudy on their asses... except as an actual, plausible threat - but there was a big part of her that didn't want to be reasonable about this. The part of her that was used to solving her problems with brute force and shouting.

The more Alex talked with him, bringing up different points and concerns, the more upset and aggravated about it she became. Because Xander - or Marshall or whatever; honestly, she'd thought he was joking when he said that was his name, but now she was more than willing to call him that when he finally stood up and showed her a smile untainted by Alex's ugly - but anyways, he was HERS, dammit! She just finished branding him with her eyes. If they left him behind, there was a good chance she'd never see him again.

All thoughts fled from Osono's mind, her body reacting defensively and heating the air around her when the sudden noise started up from Xan-Marshall's tank. With her heart pounding fast, she glanced threateningly at the tech but he wasn't paying attention to her - she was hoping that with his skittish personality, if he WAS doing something against the procedure or possibly harmful to Marshall's body, that the idiot would be guiltily watching her over his shoulder. Since he wasn't, instead, professionally focusing on what he was doing, then she assumed that this was how things were supposed to go.

There wasn't exactly confirmation from Alex and Xander's half-conversation, but Alex was asking the right questions for clarification and despite freaking out briefly, it seemed like Xander was letting him know this was procedure and stuff. Or at least he was at first. Then it kind of seemed like Xander was going to be electrocuted or something? Squinting at the lighted tank in the middle, Osono thought she could maybe see what he was talking about from where she was standing. But before she could offer her own opinion about whether it was a good idea for Xander to be a pussy like Alex, or just go through with the damn thing like a man with balls, her whole body froze.

What the fuck was that noise? Adrenaline pumped through her and she got ready to sling fire - although aiming at 'what' was a bit difficult since it seemed like the sound could be coming from the walls themselves. Finally deciding that the only direction she needed to worry about was the doorway, she headed in that direction, only halfway paying attention to Alex talking to Xander. Leaning out, she looked into the hallway where the red lights were still flashing in some parts of it, but it was still as empty as it had been when she and the tech passed through. There was a moment when she worried that whatever the noise was had to do with Rudy and she growled low in her throat at the thought. She knew it was weird that he gave up so easily! After clinging to her leg since she got here, it seemed improbable that he'd just go away because she told him to. Then she began to get angry at him again for whatever he was planning or doing right now since hepromised to leave her alone. The little fucking liar!

Impossibly, things had changed dramatically since they'd parted ways and a gargantuan, protective violence began to soak into her body and clothes. First of all, she'd claimed ownership on Marshall and his body and that alone made Rudy seem even less appetizing or attractive than he had before - and that feeling of distaste for the shrimpy dork was growing by the minute as she let her eyes peek over her shoulder at gorgeous... slender... muscles, elegant sloping abdominal lines leading from hips down towards his barely hidden groin. Oh, yeah. Totally gonna hit it, she thought as she turned back to the door with a smirk. Second of all, she was not going to let anyoneor anything harm Xander or destroy this moment for him. Whatever she needed to do, Rudy was NOT getting into this room. In fact, if she even spotted the idiot down this hallway...

Xander shouting at the tech guy to hurry up brought her back into the room briefly and when she glanced at the Agent their eyes met for a moment and she pressed her lips together in an ugly frown and pointed threateningly at him with a small flash of her eyes. Nervously, he turned back around and after making sure he was still working, she went back to searching the hall for whatever had made that sound before. And she started to get irritated... and worried... Because, it occurred to her that it possibly wasn't Rudy who made that noise... Were the ghost Agents doing stuff? They obviously had to know the three of them were here - if God damned Rudy knew where they were and was able to find them, then it was likely something the entire Agency figured out the second they parked the car by the curb.

Idly listening to the sound of Xander's voice and finding comfort in it - and feeling uplifted by the occasional reprimand and insult he directed at Alex - she turned back into the room when she realized he was describing or explaining what that sound might have been. Walking forward a few steps, she stopped to listen and gave Xander a penetrating stare, ready to smack him. THAT was more than a good enough reason to drag Xander with them when they hightailed it out of here - Alex could fucking crawl; she didn't care - if this guy Peter had plans for him. If she left while he was defenseless, there was nothing she could do to protect or help him. Stupid ass...

At Alex's nod, she curled her lip, but tried to keep herself from exploding. Instead of giving him more nasty looks, Osono let her eyes wander back to the tank that housed Marshall's bod, finally close enough to see the "lightning storm" that Alex mentioned before and she wondered if maybe she really didn't have a choice. What if it hurt him when she pulled him out of the tank? Could she really risk that? Caution had never been her thing - she just wanted her fucking Marshall; to know that he was safe and still with them. But then again, friends and... attraction had never been her thing either. A few instances of casual sex during her teenage years and adult life - before she met Rudy - but never... fucking googly-eyed feelings.

Huffing a breath at herself, she reluctantly settled down to the idea that she wasn't actually going to be leaving here with him. If not for the fact that she might accidentally kill him if she tried, but also that he'd never forgive her if she took him away from this opportunity to get close to Peter and finish things - hopefully for good this fucking time. As much as she was starting to care about him, he didn't need her here watching over him - and she didn't want him to need her like that either.

Back to paying attention to Xander, talking now about an attack on this room by unnamed enemies wanting the 'cells', as he called them, she watched him with an air of stubborn fondness. Eventually, Alex came to the point that they were going to need to fight Peter's battle for him against whoever was coming, as if being used in such a way was something he didn't agree with. Osono didn't have a problem with that - she was actually excited about it. They weren't Agents - or at least, Xander indicated that they weren't - so she was very interested in seeing who this new enemy would be. As much as she wanted her life back and to stop running, Ozzie wasn't a crusader and she didn't care about the moral justice of destroying the Agency for good. As long as they left her and her friends alone, what the hell did it matter? So, she had no qualms about fighting those who were against the Agency. If they were in the fucking way then she'd enjoy handing out a massive ass-kicking. And she really didn't care if it was something Peter wanted or not; she personally didn't have a beef with the guy, except for the fact that he was a threat to Xander.

For a moment, Ozzie stopped, annoyed and insulted when Alex mentioned Gwen 'crushing' Xander when he rejoined their group, but it was a minor hesitance. Especially when moments later, Xander turned to her, after shouting more abuse to the guy controlling the machine, and confided in her a plan that she didn't even have to agree with for him to know that she totally did. Which instantly brought a grin to her face. Then it dulled just the tiniest bit. This was really it. The tech was on the verge of moving things forward and whoever was coming was already making the building groan. She didn't have another moment and after this... there'd be no other chance to say goodbye. And she hated the way that sounded and felt inside her head. Osono really was going to make herself throw up if she didn't stop it.

Stepping forward so that she was standing right beside the chair, she glanced at the door again to make sure it was clear before turning her attention back to Alex and Xander. Smirking, she nodded at the middle tank and raised an eyebrow and said, "Nice 'skin' ya got there. I'm a little ticked off that I wasn't informed of this prize for getting you guys split up. I mean, I knew it was gonna be great but..." She whistled and let her eyebrows dance a little as she looked back at his body, finally letting out a small raspy laugh when she returned her gaze to him. Then her joking demeanor sobered and her eyes grew pensive and melancholy. "I know we don't have a lot of time and I really don't want to keep you from this, but this'll only take a second..."

Taking in a deep breath, Osono licked her lips and prepared herself. After calculating the distance and the force necessary, she aimed and began to lean forward... her fingers latching directly onto Alex's nipples through his shirt and without a single pause, she gave them both a harsh twist. "That's for leaving me with that whiny bitch Alex, you bastard!" she said, giving him a frown. "A week orMORE? Are you fucking shitting me?" Throwing a finger into his face, she squinted and said in a low voice. "You owe me for bringing me into this and not telling me what I was really risking, beforehand." A mean and slanted smirk danced on her lips as she lowered her hand and said, "But I have a feeling you'll make it up to me. Somehow." Subtly, her eyes fluttered to shoot an approving look at the middle tank but they didn't stay long as she finally backed off and turned away.

"Oh, and if I got Alex with that instead..." she said, stopping on the way back to her original spot by the door. "...you deserved it just for being a pussy, you big pussy."

There. Goodbye and good luck, Marshall. For now.



...did he just say Squiddie was coming? He did say that right? Right after he finished shitting on Rudy again and right before the dial tone echoed in his ear, Rudy could have sworn he heard Eric order Squiddie to find him and... hurt him. His whole body trembled with shivering excitement and heat pulsed in his neck and groin at the thought of being punished by her again. And they'd be completely alone this time. His beloved, the cold, merciless, robotic angel that injured him with such finesse and creativity-Holy shit! Rudy was gonna get bopped again! The sudden, growing tightness in his pants made it hard to jump for joy, but he managed a few uncomfortable hops.

Oh, right, yeah... all of that crap Patten said sucked but Rudy found it really difficult to be pissed about another demotion - fuck! Did he call him an A-7? A fucking A-7? - and having his request smacked back into his face so glibly. Because not only did Squiddie answer the phone but even with Eric talking, he could hear her talking to Eric, telling him the stuff that Rudy said while he thought he was talking to the higher ranked Agent. And that alone made it difficult to not only concentrate on the conversation but also made it difficult to get mad about any of it. He hadn't realized how much of an impression she'd left before, but he felt it on a primal level, even as he looked at the dried bloody carpeting beneath his feet, remembering the agony and the faintness that threatened to swallow him during every moment of his crawl to the locker room. The tension had been so strong, that Eric's order seemed like a promise of release for him.

Hanging his phone up, Rudy stood in the hallway with a dorky grin on his face, glancing expectantly in either direction. Should he just wait and let her find him or would she like things better if he actually ran and hid from her? Would she be extra rough with him if he prolonged things with a game of hide and seek first? What if she couldn't find him though? Would she eventually give up? That wouldn't be fun at all.

...What was he doing before? Something about sandwiches, right? Oh! Ozzie! Yeah... Well, as much as he hated to admit it, there really wasn't any contest. Between his bff and his future wife, of course he'd choose to have his lust sated before he tried to get under Osono's skin again. A beating was a beating and forever now, Squiddie would come to define his ideal, while Ozzie represented nothing but blue balls - which were fun and all, but... Licking his lips and already breathing heavier, he reached a hand up to the crown of his head and pressed his fingers teasingly into the soft bruise that Squiddie gave him. Briefly, he let out a soft groan and his eyes fluttered, while his erection pulsed in time with the pain lancing through his skull, transported from the NOW back to the room where Squiddie inflicted the damage that he prayed would never go away. The remembered sound of bone meeting hard wood flooring made his balls tighten.

That's it. Rudy made up his mind. He was going to propose to her. He'd never felt like this about anyone ever, even that horrible skank Noel. For 6 years she'd been his Mistress, their hatred for each other only alleviated by what they could do for each other - he got to play victim and she got to play tormentor. It was how their... 'love' worked. Intimacy through violence, as Noel did terrible things to his body and he begged and worshiped her for every moment of it. But she'd been more of a whips, chains, and hot candle wax kind of gal, getting off on torturing him in different ways, each session filled with new and exciting pain as she attempted to push his limits to further heights. Without even trying, not only had Squiddie filled the massive hole that Noel had left - only his penis was sad about her death, not the rest of him - but she surpassed his late boss in the level of extremes she'd gone to. Rudy probably suffered permanent brain damage from what she did; Noel's scars and bruises always healed.

Squiddie was special and even as aroused as he was, while waiting for her, he also felt, in his heart... well, okay, so really, he was just excited about the physical aspect of the "relationship", but that was what marriage was, yeah? Commitment to only fucking - or just cumming from the efforts of - ONE person, right? Property rights and shit. As a special person, she deserved a special proposal and since he was eager for her to claim ownership over him as soon as possible, he was gonna have to do it without a ring.

What could he do? Something to impress her and possibly make her happy. Well, she seemed to like her boss a lot - it was... a little hard to tell and the mask was only half of it. Maybe if Rudy did his job a little bit, it would make Eric happy and thus, make Squiddie happy? That meant trying to capture Osono. Ooo! AND if he did that, it'd show her that any attachments he may have had to his target were gone; that after years of protecting his best friend, he was willing to give it all up for her. So long as she "gave it up" for him. Zing!

...it occurred to Rudy that maybe he'd suffered more brain damage than he originally thought...

How was he gonna do it? He knew where she was, or at least where she'd said she was gonna be, so finding Osono wasn't a problem. It was just the method of capture that he needed to decide upon and knowing all of her weaknesses, it was just a matter of focusing on what was most likely available right now. His body pumping with adrenaline and his mind a blur of ideas and hastily thrown together plans, Rudy set off in search of something to aid him in his romantic quest. Walking the halls, with his eyes scanning every surface with focused concentration, everything fell away before him as he thought of his future with the lovely masked creature he was smitten with. Everything he'd ever worked for - his cushy job with the perks of having the freedom to do whatever he wanted while still commanding respect from people who normally wouldn't give him any; his friendship with Osono and all of the grudges he'd held onto over the years - all of it seemed irrelevant now when he thought of marrying the love of his life.

Turning down another hallway, at the end of it, hanging on the wall, he found what he sought and he jogged towards it. Maybe he could even work for Patten? The guy said he wasn't useful but that was only because Rudy wasn't really trying. He was fucking awesome when it came to actually putting effort into things and he'd do it if it meant he got to be closer to her. Hm, he'd have to remember to ask Eric later if he actually had to keep pissing him off to get another "date" with Squiddie or if it was something he could just request to have happen.

Rudy laughed at how insane he'd become, shaking his head in amusement as he unlocked the hose wrapped on a cylindrical peg against the wall, unraveling lengths of it before he turned the wheel next to it and water pressure began to hum through the thick snake in his hands. Pulling it with him, causing the cylinder to turn as more of the hose was released, he began running back the way he came, finding the blood trail again and heading back to the red, pickle people room. Smirking to himself and panting as he jogged, he thought of all the pleasant ways Squiddie might express her admiration when Eric clapped his hands and squealed "Bravo!" - would she choke him, maybe? He really liked being choked and the effect asphyxiation had on his orgasms wasphenomenal. Would she break some of his bones? Oh, sweet baby Jesus! That would be so... excruciating. He couldn't decide upon a body part that he'd most like her to break, though. Everything seemed like it'd be really painful especially if she didn't hold anything back from the effort.

Giddy and filled with a rush of overwhelming hormones, Rudy sped up, letting the hose hang back over his shoulder while he ran and feeling the tension in the line as he went around corners. Up ahead, he could see where he and Ozzie had parted ways before, and he blindly rushed towards it, knowing that the room with the jars was only a bit further than that. And suddenly, he was breathless, his heart lodging itself in his throat and rupturing while the arm gripping the hose was yanked backward, the force of which made his feet fly out from under him, slamming him flat on his back.

Blinking and coughing in a daze, it occurred to him that with as many turns as he'd taken to find the thing, he hadn't planned this through very thoroughly; the hose wasn't long enough. Even as he tried to get his bearings back, he was already planning again how he was going to fix this problem. Stupid Agency! Why couldn't they invest in bigger hoses that actually reached important rooms in their bases? Love was at stake here!


It wasn't as if she didn't want to trust him - especially since she felt an almost familial bond with him, seeing him donning that equipment - but Brie had been tricked once already tonight. Not only did it make her feel hurt and abused to have her trust twisted and broken like that, but she felt embarrassed and stupid for allowing herself to be victimized so easily. She wanted to believe this guy, but she also couldn't afford to make any more mistakes right now.

First thing was first, she inspected the paper he held out, quickly skimming what it said and noticing the signature at the bottom. That was a pass given directly by Patten... whoa, then did that mean this guy was important? Immediately, Brie began to get nervous, debating with herself about whether she should risk doubting someone higher up than her, or if she should take the chance that he'd end up not being who he said he was. Biting her lip, she paused when he said that there was a trap already set up inside the base. How was that possible? How could anyone know where the two imposters were headed? They'd questioned her about this base as if they didn't know where they were going. ...Maybe this base was just extra prepared for intruders and always had a trap set up for unwelcome guests? What about this attack he was talking about? Who was attacking and why? Were the man and woman who kidnapped her in on it somehow?

This all seemed very strange... First of all, who would be stupid enough to attack the Agency? Nobody even knew about the Agency except Agents and possibly targets. This almost seemed like the spontaneous "test" that fake Eric had said she'd failed. Outlandish and bizarre and there was something wrong with the reasoning behind it. She felt uneasy. For some reason, he was trying to manipulate her into getting in the car with him. Maybe he was working with those other two? Maybe he was sent to take care of her while they thought she was in the trunk, but now that they discovered she wasn't, they'd decided to try and lure her away from the base while they finished doing whatever it was they were doing.

Brie especially began to get uncomfortable when he started urging her to get into the car because of some "phantom" thing heading this way - according to him. That is until she began to hear the engines too and saw the rocket swirling around. Her mouth fell open as she watched the light show, finally seeing where it hit the base. Shooting an astonished look at the stranger - a silent 'did you see that?' articulated in her eyes - she jumped and jerked back defensively when the explosion went off.

Holy fucking shit! Someone was attacking the base! Forgetting her training and letting the coward inside her take over, Brie didn't need to be told twice and rushed to put herself within the safety of the vehicle, barely having time to close the door before he was peeling away from the curb. As he drove away, she knelt in her seat and turned halfway around to watch the base as it receded through the back windshield, shocked and really disturbed by what was happening. Sure, okay, she believed the impostors were up to no good, infiltrating the base and possibly digging into Agency secrets. But an actual attack on something as large as the Agency? They'd need a freaking army to do something like that!

Finally turning around to sit facing forward in her seat, she sat quietly, thinking of all that had gone wrong tonight and realizing how much she didn't know about everything. Glancing at the guy who was driving, she thought of maybe asking him about it - she certainly trusted him NOW - but driving away from the action, she came to the conclusion that this wasn't something she was expected to deal with. And if and when she was, they'd most certainly brief her on it, rather than leave her asking questions, right? Even though she knew they weren't really in the Agency and that guy wasn't really her boss, Brie couldn't shake the paranoia about "hidden tests" now. She probably never would, since that still seemed like something her boss would do.

"Buzzy, we're in."

So let there be darkness. Another twenty seconds of fingerwork and it all shut down. Finally. The Vikings whined about security 'not being totally turned off', but she was the one who had to sit here listening to it. The acoustics in her little nest were a nightmare! She couldn't wait to get out. She'd been trying before, but then everyone had a bunch of other garbage she had to sort through and she'd been stuck even though Marshall was downstairs... Actually, since her job was done, she was getting out now. She stuffed her laptop in her backpack and crushed it with the pillow her butt had been planted on. Ugh – her legs! Out of everything that sucked about this stuff, circulation was definitely at the top of it. She had that... prickly feeling around her feet. So gross, but being a brave solider, she shut it out to focus on gathering the wires she'd snapped into their system. Total disconnect, like she was never here.

If she got paid, she'd so be making the most. She was the reason they were inside. Someone tell her one thing that didn't scream 'We are completely in your debt, Buzzy, 'cause the rest of us are underlings that hit people and fight and have no appreciation for everything you do, without which, we'd be lost'. 'Cause – like... seriously. Why was she here with them when her branch was in Elmira? Because the Vikings were hopeless and she was the only one Cryptic trusted to be on her own. She could've done this blindfolded. Ha! Maybe she should've done it blindfolded, just to rub it in! Whatever – it was over, this place was dumb, and after they got finished with it, she'd never have to come back. Unless someone screwed something up, but even then she wasn't budging. She'd served her time. Buh-bye.

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall – eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, she could take a peek! Scissor wasn't good for anything and she didn't know how he'd wormed his way to Danielle's left hand, but so long as he was running the stasis cell show, she was going to get everything she could out of it. They had to be headed there by now! Okay, so – trying to plan it out, she went over who was supposed to be doing what. They'd brought one of those Cubans to drive the truck – awesome, 'cause it wasn't enough that she had to hang out with Vikings, so she was here to kick it with drug lords on the side – but that meant that guy wasn't gonna come up. He'd stay down there. Well – good. Show a Cuban that didn't spout a thousand words a minute and she'd show you a twitchy corpse. But then the fat guy – Gus? Yeah, him. What was his power? Did he even have one? Buzzy couldn't keep track of who did or who didn't anymore. It was so stupid! They were the only ones doing it right! Cryptic didn't let anyone join up unless they could fire something out of their nose, but there was everybody else saying, 'No powers? No problem! It's not like it doesn't instantly make you an undercover spy!' And they wondered why the Agency had zero trouble finding them whenever they wanted? Don't even think about Eric! When the Agency could find them on their own, there was a serious issue they needed to figure out. Whatever, she was Russian. She didn't care what they did. They didn't care what she did, either.

So Tops was downstairs. Gus was downstairs too, 'cause he was the one who had to put the box in the truck. Nightstalk was gonna come upstairs 'cause he was the 'ooh, I control shadows' guy, and Scissor, even if he didn't have a job to do, was on his way to hump her leg. So disgusting. Like feeding a stray – do it once and they didn't go. But anyway, his job was the other half of 'get to the cell' security, though if Nightstalk couldn't keep them covered in the pitch blackness from Buzzy's gift and from Bergmann a) boarding up the windows, b) finding – like – the oldest building ever, too old to have anything but perfectly identical hallways everywhere instead of jazzing it up real you-are-here style, and c) sending everyone that didn't have a reason to get down to the lobby and fight in the big fight straight home, then she just wouldn't know what to say. This was an impossibly easy job: stay in the magic shadows to knock out any night vision or infrared tech, and let Scissor cut up anyone they couldn't somehow walk around. So those two had to be on it. She could meet them there. The path would basically be clear once they went through. She'd make it!

She twirled her pretty, blonde pigtail and giggled to herself. Yup, she had lots of time before they had to run away. The Vikings were grabbing Alex before he transferred, so... they probably had him by now. That wasn't good. She wouldn't get to see him... well – right now. Thanks to the horrible team-up the branches were doing, all the main groups were bunking together. The Vikings would bring Alexander straight to their international base. She'd get to spend as long as she wanted with him! With Marshall, and no one could stop her! She could even be part of the interrogation! She'd be the good cop! And then he'd start to realize she was here to help him and fall in love with her dedication and then fall in love with her and then they'd just be together...! She'd planned this for forever!

Ooh, Marshall...

Wait – what the hell? Buzzy squinted at one of the other fuseboxes. The tiny interface on the side was supposed to be off. It wasn't. In the corner, a baby light was blinking, and that one was a warning light. It meant there was a spike of energy going on, one that was dangerously close to tapping out whatever generators the building had running. Bergmann's vault wasn't connected to this grid at all, so if anything was happening in there, she wouldn't've been able to see it. Whatever was going crazy was an Agency-certified instrument. But... the power was off. Completely off. The back-up lights, the building defences, the electronic locks – all of it, whatever had been left. Technically a 'fridge light would've thrown on the alarm, but there wasn't anything else that... Not when the only generators running now were for... Right, because the stasis cells had their own system to keep the life support up and to run the rest of its... 'related operations'...

Oh my God, Buzzy! This was totally happening! Move – get to work! Where was her computer – where was it?

Wires – everywhere! She ripped them out and slapped them back in the power grid, diving through the rest of her bag to hook up to her laptop again. Her screen lit and almost blinded her, but shehad to be sure this wasn't some glitch. This had to be real – the alarm couldn't be joking!

"Scissor! Scissor – oh my God, you idiot, answer me," she freaked into her radio.

It couldn't be him doing anything! Scissor – that's who she meant – was supposed to be yanking a cell out. That didn't add to the energy output, and whatever fluctuation couldn't possibly – OH MY GOD, DTD 05 was engaged!

She was hyperventilating now. Things were... oh... wow... wow – this got... so real, so fast. Years of preparation were...!

Buzzy frantically checked it out. She had to be sure. She was not going into hysterics over a false call! There were five cells in Bergmann's building right now and they were all listed DTDs. It wasn't an easy status to get. It stood for 'deserter, traitor and/or defector', which was the worst of the worst in the Agency's books. Anti-Agents couldn't even get it if they were found out. The person had to be a committed employee who joined the dark side randomly. That was so rare, they didn't even have a profile classification. Cell classification – sure, but cells always had to have a label 'cause those damn things were kept forever. It was only supposed to be for the 'transferred into' body, though. There wasn't any value in the original one so those got tossed away. Except for Charlotte, who was the point of this dumb raid, and except for one other very special guy. But a profile listing? Hell no! Profiles were temporary and only for active cases. Once those cases were closed by catching whoever was being chased, the profile was snapped shut and their case number was swapped for the next one on the big Master List. DTDs were taken down so fast that the longest anyone managed to keep it active was Charlotte, once again. So there was no point in specifying. Those who knew what it meant clued in, and those who didn't get it would just shrug and think the info was missing.

Now, who did Buzzy know that had an unspecified profile number of... '05'?

She wanted specifics, so she got specifics. It wasn't a fluctuation – duh – or any other sort of anomaly; this was fact! The energy was being used by someone, and it was for the beginning of a full transfer of one mind into another body. More to point, it was a retransfer!

It was – like... everything about him was this... amazing survival story.

Buzzy sat back, exhausted by the revelation. Marshall was transferring. TRANS-FER-RING. She'd never thought – okay, she'd always hoped and suspected and sort of assumed she'd be able to talk Cryptic into letting it happen once the Agency was gone – this day would ever actually come! Her toes curled. It'd be the least she would do once he got out! And this settled it: there was no chance he was not getting out. Her man was practically magic! Did he know how crazily close he'd cut it? Was he too freaking awesome to care? Once a transfer finished, the Agency had a one month countdown of a grace period until it said everything was working great and it binned the old bones – his sexy bones – 'cause the case was wrapped up. On day 30 of 31 – September30th, she recited perfectly – Marshall broke out, that popped the DTD profile, and the Agency had no choice but to keep Marshall's stasis cell to pull him out of Alexander 'cause they had to find out what the heck had made him go nuts to stop it from happening again and because they couldn't risk damaging the body that had powers aaaaand because there wasn't any guarantee Marshall would survive a transfer into a different empty body. The timing was so miraculous that it felt like divine intervention, but she'd chucked that theory when he continued on. No one was that lucky. Marshall was – just... Marshall, and that'd been enough. The Agency couldn't get close to him to drag him back. Her majestic warrior was invincible. For a really weird reason, though, no one else thought that, and there were lots of bets going on that he'd be stopped before he made it two months. Well, 'cause Lamarre was one of the ones told to catch him, although he never got around to it. She wasn't sure when the infamously late Breton started interfering, but she was so not pointing this to that France guy. There'd still been others running after Marshall, too. But then it turned into a year, and suddenly everyone had their eyes on her soulmate. She couldn't be prouder if she tried! Cryptic thought it was still just entertainment. Someone said – the Germans said – the Vikings were interested, but they weren't planning on investing in him. Instead, they would just let her love do what he was trained to do – dodge capture, smash faces, kick up a wave of damage the branches could only dream about – until he died and they went back to handling it themselves.

She remembered precisely what she'd been doing when she heard the news that'd changed it: she was painting her toenails Peach Pink with her hair wrapped up in rollers, sitting on her bed after a job well done decoding the Transfer OS that Bergmann sucked up and sent over. The Germans were as annoying as any other branch, but at least they were polite and stuck to what they were good at. The Vikings – ugh – they were horrible! If the Agency hadn't wiped out the other major groups, Buzzy knew Cryptic would have never partnered with them. They wouldn't've even talkedif Marshall hadn't done what he'd did. Thinking about it now, when a dreamy smile climbed over her candied lips, got her to want to thank him. Not for getting the Vikings involved – ew – but – like... well, she'd said it before, hadn't she? They couldn't've gone this far without him, which was funny, 'cause when the others clued in that was what the situation was, it happened at the same time the Vikings had decided to cut their losses before it was a loss. So maybe Breton had done more than she gave him credit for, holding back Lamarre until that stupid branch came to stomp everything out, 'cause if the fight had been off by even a little bit...

The Agents'd brought out the big gun. The Germans only ever had the facts; the Russians and Vikings were the ones with opinions. Danielle said Eric had to help because the Agency had forced him. Cryptic said Eric had never had a problem, and with the way it'd all unfolded, he'd meant to be sent in. Whatever anyone wanted to say – of course Buzzy agreed with Cryptic – the Germans were clear about explaining what had happened: Eric was minutes from 'fixing' the Marshall 'issue', while the Vikings couldn't wait any longer and swarmed before the job was finished, and then Lamarre and others had to fight them off. When the smoke cleared and the dust had settled, Marshall was gone, Alexander was gone, and there was a new body walking around 'cause a different one had just had its head disintegrated. The Germans passed on the cause of death, and it wasn't supernatural. The Vikings had been about to shrug and move on, except the Germans sent along the rest of the report, too. So Marshall had actually turned against Eric Patten. EricPatten! The one behind everything! The Agency's problem-solver! Charlotte's go-to guy!Charlotte's! After three months of a deal being worked out – a deal, the report said, Marshall accepted the very second it'd been explained, no matter how raw it'd been – the bottom just... fell out of Eric's toy box, and Marshall devoured him for it. For the first time in recorded history, Eric Patten failed.

It was the shot that rang around the branches. There'd been a terrible silence as everyone tried to understand. The Agency had been completely blown away. The Germans went into overdrive confirming everything. Cryptic hadn't even seen it coming. The Vikings...

Basically, the Vikings hit the jackpot.

This started. Danielle spent years looking for Eric's weakness, and now she thought she'd found one. She didn't trust him – DTD status so didn't mean Marshall would want to help them – but France had Breton already in place and they'd gone from there. Danielle didn't want to stop with just this one attack. Eric's corpse-jumping powers were too strong to not recover, but she said she saw answer in what Marshall did. She said it was the chaos the Vikings created. Buzzy rolled her eyes. Cryptic would only shake his head, but she'd say it if he wouldn't: bullshit. Charlotte and Danielle were like best friends! If anyone should have known what utter crap that was, it was Danielle, but she didn't care when the Russians explained it and just went on a rampage – getting help from Marshall – through the Agency's forces. She figured Eric needed those guys to be dangerous, and that this was the absolute last straw. They were taking Charlotte in the 'ultimate show of force', and there were rumours – just rumours, because as fucking dumb as the Vikings were, they couldn't be this dumb – they were going to use Charlotte as ransom to try and get Eric to turn on the Agency, too. She didn't know that part of it, but apparently Charlotte promised shewas gonna keep Eric from only going so far, even in death, and Danielle must've thought this was what the woman'd meant. In the end, the point was to keep Eric's attention here so Cryptic could wipe out Elmira, then there'd be nothing for Eric to use. Buzzy didn't want to believe it was working, but... Eric was here. The Germans just said there were invisible guards around too, so there was the proof they needed to say he was protecting his... okay – seriously, one of these days, they were gonna have to come up with some word to describe what the hell had been going on with him and Charlotte. 'Girlfriend' was not it. 'Mortal enemy' was closer. Maybe 'with benefits'? Anyway, he had standing around. Cryptic wasn't convinced.

So they hadn't seen what'd stopped Eric from fulfilling his promise of bringing Marshall in. Big deal. That didn't mean it was a failure. In fact, not seeing made the very solid argument that Eric haddone it on purpose. Maybe he'd wanted Marshall to be loose or... or maybe he'd wanted his telekinetic body destroyed. It didn't matter. Cryptic had signed on out of curiosity. The Russians only wanted to watch how far Danielle would take this and how badly she'd miss the point. The Germans sent everyone the same reports: the Agency was strained. Cryptic – and Buzzy – totally got that. If this dual-attack worked, Buzzy might even admit the Agency was losing. Except there was a whole other part to this. Every so often, Eric fought back. Lamarre was out of the game so long as Breton was around – oops, that was over – but it just proved how independent Eric was if he didn't even need that guy! And 'every so often' had been slowly dropping to 'infrequently', with 'rarely' set to go to next, and each time, like clockwork, the fighters Eric sent out dropped in number – sometimes more than they should've. She'd say it again: Danielle, wake up! Becausethose documents said the total opposite! When Eric stepped in, they burned to the ground. So – yeah, it was nice the Vikings were whittling the Agency away and it was great that they'd teamed up with whoever was left, but the Agency wasn't the problem. Eric wasn't trying and he was kicking their butts when he felt like it! Just… he never felt like it anymore.

Cryptic wanted to know why Eric wasn't always fighting. The Agency now actually had to tell him to get involved. If he'd kept at it, the branches could've been buried already. Buzzy frowned to herself, hearing her leader's theory in her mind. He'd come up with an answer. She shivered remembering it.

'He was busy.'

Oh, and they had no idea with what. That's why Cryptic was leading the Elmira attack. Dr. Grace Li ran that show, and Eric ran her. Whatever he was busy with, that's where it had to be. They'd told the Vikings. Danielle said it proved twice as much how obsessed he was with Charlotte. Why would he leave his more-important-than-the-branches project alone if that was really what he was up to? It's what Cryptic was finding out. He, with Danielle for once agreeing, was going to find the project and take it. In return, Cryptic sent Buzzy to Danielle to help steal Eric's girlfrenemy – nope, not the right word – but only to prove a point: it wouldn't work. And if it didn't work – and no one knew about the invisible guys, so there was the red flag – the Russians were pulling a France and getting the hell out of here. Buzzy already packed. She'd probably have to re-pack because one last part of the puzzle had changed.

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! MARSHALL WAS COMING BACK! Great work, you stupid Vikings! Your one chance to control things – to get Marshall before he transferred – had just gone up in smoke, and Buzzy was loving it! There was no way in hell she was going now! Not without her Marshall!

"Buzzy?" AHH! What was that?! "Babe? What's wrong?"

Scissor! So annoying!

"Um – nothing," she radioed. "Nothing – it's okay!"

She was hearing clanking, so they were going up the stairs. They weren't in the cell room yet. Then Marshall had puh-lenty of time to get inside. They weren't gonna stop him.

"Buzzy, this is Night." Ewwwwwwwwwww. "We're aren't screwing around. What happened?"

"Nothing, you loser," she sneered. Nightstalk. How pathetic. Bad enough Scissor had wormed his way to Danielle's left hand, but it was twenty times the insult when Nightstalk – the guy supposed to be in charge – actually lost to the freak. He must've been so embarrassed. "I said it was okay."

"Then stay off our channel."

What a jerk. Like she'd wanted to be on his crummy channel anyway. She was just making sure they weren't gonna interfere. It wasn't her fault the Vikings were so awful that they couldn't even interrupt a –

Oh, fuck.

Fuuuuuuuuck, fuck, fuck!


Her voice crackled in the air. Pick up, Nightstalk! Don't be an asshole!

"Buzzy, what?"

Panic-started-coming-in-'cause-she-just-remembered-something-that-Nightstalk-and-Scissor-were-going-to-the-cell-room-'cause-they-had-to-get-Charlotte-and-if-Marshall-wasn't-in-his-body-and-he-killed-those-two-the-rest-of-the-Vikings-would-know-and-they'd-come-in-and-kill-Marshall-or-break-his-stasis-cell-or-else-Marshall-was-already-inside-'cause-he-transferred-and-then-that-would-mean-Nightstalk-and-Scissor-would-see-a-stasis-cell-engaged-and-read-the-name-and-know-what-was-happening-and-hit-the-kill-switch-and-Marshall would be dead!

"Ah – nothing! Really! I'm – just..." Total lie. Total lie! Oh crap, what was she trying to say?! She lovedMarshall, but this was gonna be the end of her if she did something stupid like help him! "I – just..." She couldn't. Buzzy, don't! Her passion was endless and pure and innocent but the Vikings wouldruin her if they found her protecting an Agent! "I don't trust you Nordics. Stasis cells are serious technology and... and you guys don't have any clue about what you're doing!" She-was-doing-this-for-love– "I'm coming with you."

Nightstalk sighed. Buzzy was having a breakdown!

"Coming to work, or coming to gawk at your boyfriend?"

He was so rude! How dare he think she was anything less than a professional! She didn't have to be here! Besides, if there was a transfer, there'd be bubbles everywhere. She wouldn't see anything.Duh!

"I'm coming to make sure you don't screw anything up," she said, throwing her stuff in her bag again. "Where are you?"

"We're on our way to the second floor. We'll be at the –"

"No – stay!" Shit! She was basically on top of the building! "Wait for me. I'm not gonna let you two screw this by tugging the wrong wire and killing Charlotte."

"This might be hard for you to believe," Nightstalk said, "but our branch has handled stasis cells before. In fact, we've handled all of them from the beginning."

"So?! I'm supposed to be impressed? You stay right where you are, Night. Cryptic will snap you into pieces if I have to walk there by myself and I get hurt. Wait for me!"

"We don't have time to wait, Buzzy."

"Then maybe I don't have time to keep these lights turned off, then maybe you won't have time to explain why there's a giant ball of shadows wandering the halls!"

Come on! Come on...!

"... Just hurry up."

HAHA! She did it! There was no second glance at her nest. Either she had everything or she didn't. She threw her backpack on and streaked to the stairs. She had to get there! She had to save him!


Yeah, a week or more. That was how long he was stuck with her. She wasn't the only one who hated how it sounded, but he was trying to be mature because this was supposed to be for Gwen. She didn't seem to want to think that way. He didn't get it! He knew they weren't best friends, but almost everything she did had to scream that she hated him. What did do to her that kept having this happen? The Rudy thing? He didn't know how to apologize! He wanted to but – seriously, could she give him one chance to take a breath before he got attacked again? So to sum that up: "What the fuck, Osono – oww! What is wrong with you?" And he glared at her the hardest he could without starting to melt her brain. Yeah, like he could find it.

Alex, I'm not even gone yet. Don't start shit with her already.

"She –"

But Xander clamped down on his jaw, so she got to do her little goodbye or whatever the hell she was saying, but he batted her hands away so they were not on him during it. She put a stupid finger in front of his face, and that made him jump enough to almost rear back in the transfer chair. Yeah, it went straight to his leg, thank you, along with everything else he'd hurt during this crap. He glared at her the hardest he could without starting to melt her brain. Any other expressions she wanted to make weren't gonna be about touching him. At least with Xander, he got half of second of warning 'cause he knew the guy.

Awwww, you're gonna miss me.

Xander was flattered.

"What'd you say you were? Like… a tidal wave putting out a volcano?" Well, Alex could swim. "Yeah, I'll miss you. You're the lesser of the two evils."

'Lesser'? Do you know what tidal waves can do?

"No. But volcanos have worse movies. What she said – she's right." Not about the 'ha, ha, you're a pussy because I nearly tore your nipples off' shit, but the other part. "You're just leaving her with me? 'Cause I really don't see why we can't take you."

Touch the cell. You'll figure it out.

He didn't have to. He could hear it, that powerful hum. The crackling of the lightning storm had gotten worse. He watched nervously.

"That's actually safe?"

Yeah. 'Basically'. Which meant 'no' as far as Alex was concerned. Oh, but it was 'fine', right? If, by some miracle, you figured out a way to get me out, I've still had my body shut down for years without moving it. I'd suffocate because I wouldn't have the strength to breathe.

"And just to be clear: this is voluntary electrocution. And according to you, some people goinsane?"

The pussies. Ha, ha, ha. Which I am not.

Alex sighed. He didn't like this. The technician guy was glancing over his shoulder meekly, like he wanted to tell them something – 'start', probably – but couldn't get himself to say it 'cause… well, Osono. If this was how she treated her ally

"You're going to be okay?"

For his sake, his nerves, plus to be extra sure he had some word to take back to Gwen, and maybe even Osono if she ever bothered to ask, he needed to hear it, because he still felt like he'd be abandoning the guy.

I get why you're asking – and fine, in a creepy and back-away-a-little way, it's cute – but if you ask again, it's gonna translate in my mind to, 'You're a whiny bitch, Xander. You hang on while I find a tiny stroller – I'll just roll you out so you don't break a nail walking'. Relax, Xander said sternly, while Alex tried not to wonder if that was going to be the last time. I got this. And it came with the warning that Alex didn't believe him, purple nurples wouldn't be all he had to shake off.

Alex frowned at her again. He could feel Xander shifting in his mind, ready to shut him up before he said something dumb.


Cut her some slack. She isn't used to you. You take getting used to. Yeah, barbarians always had trouble with forks. Easy, bunny balls. You play nice while daddy's gone.

"How? This whole time, she hasn't done one thing –"

You started that. She's got it in your head you don't want her here. Gee, really? Where on earth could she've picked that up from? Exactly what I'm saying. Let it go. Alex heard a wince at the end of that. It was followed by a snap of pain from his leg and vague resitting of it on the leg rest.

"Xander? You hanging in there?"

Yeah – I just… can't… He trickled off irritably, sounding annoyed with himself. The pain went away, but Xander went to his corner like he was dropping in exhaustion. He played it off like it was normal.It's on you to fix, he was saying. You set the pace for her to think you're a prick and she plays too rough for you to join in. There's nothing to connect with right now.

"So I'm screwed?"

Make the effort, Xander said. It's gonna piss her the fuck off, but if you keep making the effort – anddon't fuck it up by being… you – she'll get the message that you're trying. And it doesn't mean apologizing every three seconds. That won't change anything and she'll set you on fire.

"If I do or don't, that's still a given," he muttered in his throat.

Hey. He knocked Alex's hand on the armrest. Stop that.

"Tell that to her."

The both of you. You're distracting me from my philosophizing.


"... Like the creepy euphoria you were in?"

I'm arguing semantics, Xander said. How many chunks can you put a guy into 'fore he technically becomes a soup?

"That's not philosophy."

You're right – it's biology, and it's about to get as hands on as fuck.

Splendid. To go from talking about Osono, they would talk about Peter. Actually, it made him feel a little ungrateful. Xander was the one having to deal with him after the betrayal Alex barely knew anything about because it'd been so fast, and he was the one ready to climb into a jar and spend three hours getting zapped on every skin cell, and he'd still taken the time to give him some sort of idea of what to do with this firewoman. Alex had to get a grip on his sense of perspective. Who was really screwed here? Who could actually use the support? … but –uh… quietly, because that 'you're calling me a whiny bitch' thing was probably still going.

"Did you figure out how to get rid of him?" Alex settled back into the seat. "That whatever project you think he's got – are you going after it first?"

Eventually. It's just concrete on his coffin, for making sure he doesn't pop up a third time, however the fuck he did it a second, Xander said. I've still gotta kill him before anything else.

"But you've figured out how to do that."

Maybe. He shrugged. It doesn't matter. I'm just gonna end up in a blackout rage. That's the only part of this I'll regret: not remembering how I fuck him up. But it's fine. It gives me something to laugh about later.

Peter was going to be done with soon. He was a bad memory that'd floated back to the top, and Alex hated feeling like he'd never shaken the fear of running into him again. Hearing he was alive had been a shock, but talking to him on the phone was like... It felt like they'd been expecting it. His everlasting supply of paranoia refilled and the sense of eyes on the back of his neck kicked in as strong as ever, but it was more an explosive frustration than any real disbelief. That wasn'trenewed, just strengthened inside of him. Then the feeling was right: he'd never shaken it. He'd pushed it down instead. That was his 'secret sense ability': no matter how bad it was, he'd live with it. He might not make the best decisions and more often than not, it'd dictate his whole life, but he'd always find a way to think of it as the best of a shitty situation, like a warped optimist. So... he looked at Osono. No, he wasn't getting out of working with her, so yes, it was time to accept her. Eventually, if he kept his mouth shut and she kept her hands to herself, they might balance out and find... some version of harmony that didn't involve flames. But Xander couldn't do that.

Alex knew he couldn't. This 'Peter' thing, something that'd stretched to grab every day up to and including the betrayal, had always been the guy's sore spot. Xander was so sure he'd put an end to this years ago, and to have Peter show up now, happy and healthy and forcing a reunion, must've... Well, he didn't need to guess. Alex's ears were still ringing from the sound of Xander snarling. He was quiet now, but his fury hadn't gone anywhere beyond moving off to the side. And he was supposed to stay in control when he saw Peter alive again? 'Blackout rage' – that sounded right. And it sounded like something Peter would see coming. With as much time as he'd had to prepare for this, maybe Xander couldn't – ohhhhh crap, what was that?

"What's –"

The head gear. For your head. You don't have to freak out every time something happens.

Thin wires had come out of the top of the chair, curling into a wide circle that ran around his forehead. There was lots of space between them and his forehead, but there were three and the little halo they made was dotted by tiny globs of metal symmetrically spaced and pointed at him. Did those turn into spikes? They might turn into spikes. It felt like the kind of dick move the Agency would pull.

"Does this look familiar to you?"

T-minus two minutes, was Xander's reply.

Two minutes. AKA the last call for panic.

"This is the easy part, right? Be honest," he said, trying not to sound out of breath. "I don't want to find out as soon as it starts than I get my molecules rearranged or a giant saw comes out to hack me open."

You're fine. "Goin' now, Sparky. Keep this guy in one piece. And add it to my tab – I'm good for it."

"Right. I'm fine." Alex sat up straight. He'd shrunk away from the wire-halo. He completely shrank away again when the chair started humming. "And this –"

Calm the fuck down, man – Christ! I'll tell you when something's wrong.

Okay! Okay – then this was all standard procedure. This was supposed to happen. The chair was rumbling and he didn't see that coming, but that was standard procedure, too. And the tech didn't seem worried. Wait – would he be worried?


Fucking – what? What is it?

The wire-halo was making Alex's hair stand on end. His teeth were chattering ever so quietly in his mouth. His body was tense and his eyes were too wide and he was uncomfortable no matter how he tried to warp it.

"Nothing. Nothing, I can do this. I do – what the fuck is that?"

They're restraints so you don't move, Xander explained, impatient. They're normal. Everything is normal.

This was normal?! Thick – too thick – metal bands had spiralled out of the chair and around his neck, arms, legs and – right on top of Osono's fingerprints – chest. Alex was good and helpless. Very good and helpless, he could say, and the chair reclined even farther until he was almost completely lying down. They were now in full control of him. The Agent operating the buttons over there and the ex-Agent inside his brain had full rein to do what they wanted. Xander's tank flashed dangerously, ominously painted with bolts throughout its core. Alex could see it from the corner of his eye. It was all he could see, other than the ceiling and... red.

"I don't want to do this anymore." Fuck it – he didn't care if he looked pathetic. "Xander? I don't want to do this."

Should've said that before the restraints came out. Stop moving, asshole!

His leg was burning. And how many times did Xander say he'd seen this? He thought he remembered everything? God – the worst thoughts he could think of were all he could think about, and they screamed that this was a trap and he had to get out.

"I heard an explosion," he babbled. "You heard it?"

It's probably just those people here to kill you, Xander said. He thought that was funny?! Alex,relax. Take a fucking breath.

"Wow – really? Just breathe? That'll magically do it for me?" Full panic mode. These restraints weren't budging 'cause it was probably a fucking trap. "I can't! I can't – I can't – I can't – I can't – I can't!"

You're gonna, so breathe.

This fucking thing around his neck – was – choking him –

"You do it!"


"Do it," Alex gasped. "You think it's so easy, you do it!"

… What, breathing?


… Breathe. You want me to breathe for you.


Um… Alright…

Xander took over.

Everything around him turned off.

The light dulled. It could've gone black for all he knew. Alex stopped hearing the tank, and the vicious snarl of thunder faded. The chair disappeared from under his legs, its shaking dimming down to the faintest pressure on his back. The nerves in his foot were on fire, but his mind wouldn't focus on it. It was too busy moving. It was too busy guiding his lungs. In one, sudden, almost too-cold breath, a wash of air went down his throat and stayed there. It didn't leave. His lungs started burning. He felt them get too full and stretch, and his mind still wouldn't focus. Just before he thought he was going to pass out, the air flew out of his lungs and he collapsed in his own style of exhaustion. Everything left him. He was soothed to the point of being numb. He was tranquilized. One breath, and then Xander dumped control back into Alex's hands.

So this was what he meant when the guy said 'relax'. How the hell was Alex supposed to do this on his own?


Yeah. He was still a little freaked, but he wasn't tense, and the kick-start had brought his breathing to a ragged but steady rhythm. … He could hear disaster out there, though. And for that, Xander almost smacked him. Just think about something else, would you?

"Like what?"

I don't know. Anything. Spiders. So now he was thinking about spiders. Thanks, Xander. Hey, you could've picked kittens.

"… I don't want to do this."

'This' referring to willingly undergoing a transfer.

I noticed, but it's happening. It'll be done soon. Don't move. And if you panic again, I'll choke you.

That sounded like a promise. Out there, he heard another quake through the floor. He didn't let himself think about it hard enough to gauge whether it was closer.

"See you in a week," was all he could think to stay.

Yup. Don't kill yourself. Ride the lightning!

Xander had great timing, because the humming picked up. A spike of dread shot through him as he heard the machine, but a fuzzy tingle spread across his face and he was suddenly cut off. There was a divide in his mind. It felt like a vacuum. Xander's order to breathe echoed in his head and Alex put it on a loop, feeling the raw edge of terror start creeping up on him. He could not think about this transfer. He could not start questioning its safety. A sharp buzz ran between his ears, and just now did he find out he couldn't shake his head to clear it. He was paralyzed. His jaw was glued shut, and while his fists weren't clenched, they were locked into place. Xander wasn't going to hear him if he asked whether this was normal.

This was it. This was the transfer, and he was trapped until it finished. Someday, someone was going to ask him what he had noticed first: the tearing crest of pain overloading his knee or the sudden...

... flooding...

... space.

If he could scream, he would have. Instead, he thought about spiders.

Oh, and about how much his nipples hurt. He couldn't forget that.


That... sound...

He heard it.

... So familiar.


It broke him from his work. It told him to pay attention.

He knew those eyes. They asked what he hadn't answered in many years.

Eight years.

So familiar...

Dear God, how things had changed.

No game now. No choice. No breath of basic mercy.

He wasn't sure who to blame for this. And that stir in his blood as he saw it all...

He didn't know who to thank.

Underneath it all, buried but alive, was his relentless understanding of that sound. That... ringing.

'Will you kill me?'

And those eyes.


It was so unusual for them to ask. She was so honest in her request. But he had killed her. She would die. He had a standard to uphold; he wouldn't fawn over this. The act was enough without details, without tracing a line into a path. This was art. A man much worse than he had ever been would have called this 'art'.

'What are you waiting for?'

His canvas, his paint...

This was not how he fought.


She was alive. He knew her limits. Whether they walked through walls or stood as mortals, he would always know their limits. He stopped short of hers, but then he pushed her again.

'More what?'

She was watching him down there. She was waiting for the man she had heard about. He knew what she expected. The beauty of saving one of them meant a full trade of information. He had been their terror back when he had put the effort in. He didn't wait for them to attack. He hunted them, understanding why they had to fight. He saw the break in this system as plainly as anyone. There was his mercy: he empathized. It wouldn't stay his hand, but if they asked, he could answer.

'More of you.'

He let them go. The choices...

He hated them for their conceit.

'You're an evil man.'

They never bothered to dig. They took what notion they fell upon and ran with it to its bitter end. All their ideas were scraped from the surface. Self-absorbed, because they wouldn't understand. Wouldn't, because they didn't want to.

He tried in his little ways. His mercy led to choices, led to games, led to life. He tried to have them choose. He tried to have them see the danger. They thought him a monster because he sliced, carved and gutted their friends and strung them up in full view. When he destroyed their homes, he did so in ways even he found disturbing.

'Only today.'


Once upon a time, he disturbed Eric.

Eric couldn't wait for him to do that again.

'I don't have to kill you.'

It was the story of his life: the greater good was outdone by its tragedy. He killed to break them. He wanted them to scatter. He wanted those deaths to strike a fear in their hearts that drew out their surrender. They took it as a challenge.

They never saw his other work.

'Haven't I suffered enough?'

This blade could hurt in two ways. It struck from the side of his fist, or from its top. The first was unwieldy; twisting his arm to slash left him awkward and exposed. He had to strike quickly instead. He had to stab. The violence of the word swallowed its gift. One, sharp, straight, clear pierce through the throat, towards the brain. Done. It came with a glow of victory. With the blade on the outside of his arm, he spared them their pain.

But resting flat against his wrist, over his knuckles...


It took time. It took flourishes. It took sacrifice.

She endured it quietly. He hadn't made up his mind as to whether it deserved approval or disgust. He took no pride in dealing pain, but for her to not acknowledge it was an insult.


'Then why won't you end this?'

She hadn't played fair, he protested. But neither had he.

'Because I haven't.'

He should have untied her.

'That's ridiculous.'

She spoke with only her eyes.

There was nothing left of her mouth.

There was so much blood around her...

'I never asked for your opinion.'

The collar had been wise. It could never be a level ground; such a risk, such a fair fight against an enemy defied his duty to this cause. Maybe it was why Eric found him so amusing. Fascinating, one might suggest. It was the kinship around the twist of terminology – he fought a fair fight for as long as he was able. He simply chose to use 'fair' in a specific way. To him, it meant 'just', and 'just' meant 'right'. It meant 'moral'. Eric thought the concept hilarious. Here were these people he was assigned to kill, and he gave them a chance to give up and run before he murdered them to stop any problem they might cause. They could always choose to live. He would never taken a life that didn't ask to be taken.

'I never asked for you to kill me.'

But let them win? Give them any hope they could? No. That would be lying. Lying outside of what was he comfortable with. He was an Agent, after all. In his soul, he heard his own words: always trusted, never believed. He would let them live, but he would end them if they resisted. How he went about presenting these rules was his own clever game. He tailored it to the circumstance.

... So familiar...

That sound...

He had to win.

He was the only one he knew who could handle whatever path this world was leading them down. The others – all of them – always had a catch to their competence. He didn't listen to what they said they could do; he watched how they moved and studied their shortcomings. Where they showed promise, he stepped aside. Where they didn't, he took over. It was why he couldn't rise through the rest of the ranks yet. There was so much work left to do as an A-3 that going on would only serve to abandon it.

'That was beyond my control.'

He'd given himself too much responsibility in a group that recognized none of it. If he finished his work, would they notice? Would they hate him? Their existence depended on them always having an enemy to fight. If he took down that opponent, or in an ideal world, befriended them, the Agency would have served its purpose.

Everything, as it stood in this dark day, hinged on that not happening.

'You can't really believe that.'

He wasn't sure it was worth stressing over.

He was thinking again.

'Why wouldn't I?'

He didn't appreciate it. Thinking led to trouble. He knew that. He'd stop.

'You had your chance to stop this.'

'Did I.'

The Agency was a good idea. Salcon believed it; therefore, he believed it.

'You chose not to.'

Eric was a steadfast ally. The Agency trusted him; therefore, he trusted him.

Stop thinking.

Stupid. Pointless, stupid, unchangeable – it didn't matter what his drunken head wanted to gorge itself upon. In the end, he couldn't do anything about it.

'I have a feeling you resent that.'

He just didn't understand why he kept coming back to that point. He'd done it before, back when Eric had joined the Alexander case. He couldn't... stop... thinking... something had to be...

He didn't know how to explain it.

'Fuck you.'

It was an instinct. Therein laid his dilemma, because an instinct was not about thinking. On that alone, there was no reason for him to suppress it. There was more thinking to be done arguing against this urge than not. But something else rose up, stalking out of the corners of his mind to talk to him.


Perhaps he was arguing against this... not to suppress it...

'For that, I suppose I'll let you bleed to death after all.'

... but to delay.

'You don't mind waiting?'

Something was wrong with Eric. That point had been made so oppressively clear that he hated himself for saying it. But now there was a new note attached.

'I'm a patient man.'

Something was wrong with Eric, but now was not the time to find out.

'I'd hate for you to get bored.'

'I won't.'

... So familiar...

He blinked. He blinked hard and snapped out of it.

Ringing. That's what that fucking sound was. It was an alarm. One of Madeline's screens had lit up in excitement. Benoit walked over to it, proud that he'd pushed the chair out of the vault to give him more space to deal with the girl. Bad enough he had wade through a red puddle and mar his shoes without tripping over everything else in here.

What was going on? Because he needed to ask, as if he hadn't seen it a thousand times already.

"Your friends are here," he murmured to the German. Somehow, he was intrigued by the lack of response. He turned his head to look at the woman, then raised an eyebrow at her. She was dead. She hadn't made him wait. That was polite of her. Going back to the screen, he saw a recognizable face. Danielle. Then Dalton. Then Danielle. He made a ballpark estimate of how long they hadn't switched to get as big as they were: five days, possibly six. The twins would never make it to eight. Danielle hated being out of control for long and she wouldn't mentally endure the agony of being reduced to a drooling idiot. Benoit should say hello, considering they were the branch he'd been about to blow up a few weeks before Jean interfered. Speaking of whom – "I'd normally say your friends were here too, but I'm assuming they've abandoned you by now." Far be it from them to 'try again'.

No good. Any of this. He called himself lucky for having this debacle pan out as it had. Eric was the one to tie her up and Benoit, as an A-3, could not overrule his decision. He'd worked with what he'd had and... he'd gotten carried away, but the energy said he'd done so down lines he remembered from the past. Within him, it clicked, but the challenge came back as well: balance. Malice did not become him. It'd be easy to lose himself to it if he didn't maintain his distance. His rule was that the search and the kill could never become something personal. As for the chase...

Well. Total aloofness was trouble, too. He had to have some give in it, or he'd be no better than an executioner. Always keep that balance, above the games, the choices and the mercy. In the end, it'd be worth it, even if he spent the lead up wondering how much of it was borrowed from Eric's book.

... That sound...



"Is that the best you can do?"

Yes, Dalton. It was. Magnus had been watching. He could taste the air around them. The carnage on his tongue was... moderate. But loud.

"I'm never washing this off," Glue shouted, ripping the fuse she'd streaked through the air. Magnus cleaved the spine from the Agent that'd tried to stop her. He hooked another with his talon, carving a hole through its belly as it squirmed, trapped, and tore itself. Glue cast her fuse out again, catching her bomb on the back of her latest sight's head. "You've been doing this longer." She ripped it. The Agent's head burst. "Has there been a mess this bad?" She cast the fuse back out, almost fishing. She was quite skilled at fishing.

"Knowing Patten's around has everyone excited," Magnus yelled back. The spikes on his arm plunged through a guard's mouth. Great strips of flesh tugged away as he pulled this Agent off of him. The body's throat sprayed a frenzied mist and landed on a different corpse. They were running out of room to stack them. Magnus crushed one under his claws. "Get the Agents on the stairs."

"Are you telling me or Dalton?"

"Your blood will spurt from your veins!"

"Whoever gets there first." Dalton did, followed by Ricochet, who led with his knives as he sprang from ceiling to wall to corner. The Agents dropped their guns in horror, showing their ranks. Bergmann had done them a favour by choosing a base tucked out of the way; she'd been able to argue for novice security. It gave away the fun, but the Germans never left them disappointed. Three of her floors – two upstairs and one sub-floor underneath – had been filled with guards that Buzzy's rampage through the power had locked in until Danielle gave the word. They flooded out when the warning lights shut off. Dalton's voice brought them to the lobby. Their plan to rule the floor as the Agents crowded in and strangled themselves had worked. The fight began at eighty-seven to twenty-one, minus the five Danielle made scout the rest of the building. Dalton began with his fists coated in a stiff shade of red. Now the floor lay carpeted with the teeth and limbs the Nordics had split from Agent torsos, and Dalton's hands, the triumph of their branch, dripped with life he had claimed. "Are we saving one?"

"I thought that was the plan," Glue said through the war. Part of the wall collapsed beside her. Auldegg flew into it, stabbing somebody in place. That would be their banner: one man, one face, pinned and screaming to the drywall. Their gifted seamstress pulled her thread through his arms, piercing every organ she could reach before he died. Glue waved to her as Auldegg dropped down, tossing out a smaller bomb to rupture the legs of one fleeing. Auldegg waved back, pleased she didn't have to chase the damned fool, but screeched at Listless when he consumed the thing before she could sew through its heart. Even with so many, the Nordics fought over their kills. They lived for competition. "We should hurry. There aren't many left."

The Agents had wasted their ammo. Whatever guns hadn't emptied, Frysskal froze in their hands. He wasn't as strong as Heat Storm; where every hand she warmed would have melted at the wrist, Frysskal had only burned three with his cold. Those frostbitten palms shattered, and he went for their eyes as they cried. Slakt Tand had given up his talent; he and Cradle were using their axes. They moved as a team through the shattered floor. Cradle morphed the broken tiles into a grave, and Slakt Tand made certain it was occupied. Nine Agents had been cleared by them already; a good number for such a slow choice of strategy. Dalton was whipped away by Danielle. When he came back, he was behind the last large group. Those eight were boxed in on every side. Danielle switched over whenever one tried to run, and Dalton did not forgive their desperation when he returned and wrapped his hands around them.

Magnus didn't hear swishing. The brutal din of Hell seemed silent without it. CryShadow was still on patrol, it seemed. Whether it was with the other four remained to be seen. Danielle would refuse to call this off until her best spy was back. They had time.

"Pick one," he barked at Glue's back. His elbow impaled another guard, spearing it – a woman now – into the ground through her jaw. "Not that one."

"Or this one," Glue said. The line of light wrapped around her finger was yanked back. Her bomb went off again. She'd stuck it to an Agent's shoulder. Riposte ran past, dragging his toy by the chain he'd wrapped around its neck. "Riposte! Stop there! Hand it over!"

Riposte had started climbing up a column to string the Agent up from the second storey's walkway. He paused where he was, his nails digging him into place – as good as Auldegg, though he lacked her web to hang his prey – but he frowned and whined, "Glue! No! This is one of the invisibles and I found it!"

That was one of the invisibles?

Magnus was not impressed.

"When you have your husband abducted and murdered, you can have your pick," Glue said. She held her hand out for the chain. Riposte sulked but heard her point. He dropped and brought the gasping Agent over. "Thank you."

"What am I supposed to do now?"

"How did you find him?" Magnus needed to know. Riposte wasn't a dumb kid, but he wasn't a hunter like the rest of them. "Did he attack you?"

"No – I tripped on him," Riposte said loudly. Dalton was pulling the stairs apart. "It wasn't hard. I surprised him. He tried to shoot me."

That gun was a dangerous weapon. Magnus towered over it. The Agent wailed piteously.

"What gun is that?"

"I don't know the name," Magnus told Glue. "I only know the Russians like it and they're building their own. A shot would have killed you, Riposte."

"I was wondering when I'd hear something like that. This mission isn't anything special. Patten's supposed to be obsessed with keeping Charlotte." Glue huffed. More Agents screamed behind them. Dalton had taken the stairs apart to beat them with it. "I'll never call the Russians 'right', but I didn't think they were completely full of shit. It's about time we found out what these invisibles can do."

"And that they exist at all," Magus added. The Germans, once again, succeeded in their report – however last minute this detail had been. "Riposte, tell Danielle."

"Then do what? You took my bad guy!"

"Give Auldegg a hand with hers," Glue said, pushing him under where their seamstress was hanging. "She's an old woman. She can't catch everyone by herself. Auldegg!" Glue made the decision official. "Riposte wants to know if he can get anyone for you!"

"Aren't y'a blessed soul, love! Yes – gather what's around! I'm afraid these legs aren't'as spry's they used to be."

"That means I don't get to kill them," Riposte grunted, still sulking. "She does."

Glue shushed him and sent him on his way. He jumped back into fray happily enough.

"We have until CryShadow comes," Magnus said, able to lessen his volume now that the Nordics had taken over. "Keep your ears open."

"I take it it's your turn," she noted.

"No. It's yours. But I'd appreciate the favour."

She clicked her teeth.

"You keep asking for these favours and I'll never get my revenge."

"That's true, but as you explained to our friend just now, 'the bigger the loss, the better the choice', and I have three lives to avenge." He wrapped the chain around his hand, pulling it tight and crushing the links together. The Agent – dressed in a suit so much sleeker than what he'd seen before – kept gasping. "I win."

"How long're you gonna pull that card? It gets old," Glue poked at him. "Alright. You win. But I get the next one." Magnus bowed in thanks. She bowed back, accepting the praise of her generosity, then led the way to a room behind the lobby's front desk. A deeper receptionist area was in there, it seemed. "Don't wreck what he's wearing. The Russians'll want it."

"Unless this suit doesn't come with something for a head, I'd say it's already wrecked." The Agent's face was bare because Riposte liked looking them in the eye – or at least the one that was left. The other was swollen shut. Amazing. Usually it was gouged out. "We'll find one later."

"I think I already saw this suit," Glue said, building a bomb in her hand. Magnus threw the whimpering Agent into the room. Glue shut the door with a solid slap. Her bomb filled their eyes with a yellow glare. "No, I know I have. Sunder had three of these. Slakt Tand – he had two."

"The invisibles are already out there?"

"You're as disappointed as I am," Glue sighed. "I guess Patten doesn't want Charlotte that much." She took the chain off the Agent's neck. They wouldn't need it. Magnus wouldn't. "But he is an idiot, and this a... very nice gun."

"He spent his money on technology." How dull. "I was hoping for a challenge."

"It's sad that Bergmann's guards are better. More guards than there's supposed to be," Glue said. "We'll have to thank her for the present."

"... P... please..."

"Oh look. He's talking."

"That's never smart." Time to begin. He stretched, hoping to build his enthusiasm. He looked the part, and that he could always count on. Magnus shone in Glue's light. The spikes on his arm were still wet with blood. His hair turned to razors when he transformed, and its length, grown beyond his back, had its own body count. By itself, it slashed the minds of six as he had sprinted through this weak, sobbing, bald man's colleagues. His talons clinked as he flexed his hands. "What is it, little Agent?"

"... Please – I... I... have a wife –" Glue's eyes snapped open. " – and kids..."

Magnus ran his tongue along his teeth. His spikes shimmered as her bomb flared.

"We have something in something in common," he told the bald Agent. "I'm a father, too. But mine are dead." The Agent was smart enough to not shrink back. If there had been any truth to what the Russians had said, he would not have been caught at all. Not by Riposte. Patten had failed to deliver, but Magnus smiled absently at the effort shown through what was assuredly an expensive investment in equipment. "Care to guess how that happened?"

"Anyone else who's finished here, get cooking," they heard Danielle call. "Riposte, find the rest of these fucking 'invisibles'."

"Guess," Magnus said.

"I... I don't –"

"Sure you do," Glue stepped in. "It's the reason we're here, Agent. You heard the man: guess."

The Agent didn't want to.

"Fucking Patten thinks his pretty suits did shit to stop us – can you hear me, you son of a bitch? We won! The next time you buy your power, pick up the talent to go with it! Wrap this up, people."

"Don't listen to what's outside. She isn't talking to you." Magnus leaned over the man. "Guess."

"I... we – I –" The hope was draining from his face. "They... were... held for transfer –"

"Try having some trust in your processes," Magnus said. "The transfer holds them in a vegetative state. That's not how they died."

"I –"

"Tell him, Magnus." Glue's bomb burned brighter. "Or I will."

She wanted to skip to the good part. She still craved their torture. Her loss was a fresher wound in her memories. They'd somehow agreed his loss was fiercer, but they'd done this so many times, it was hard to get excited by the Agents' begging. When had this become into work? There was no passion in it anymore. He spoke like he was reading line off a card, disinterested. He fought like it lately too, lost in the thought of doing this forever with no respite. Glue stood as his inspiration. That was the malevolence he needed to reconnect with. Any less, and he could never earn his family's peace.

He had to feel something tonight.

Magnus' feet scraped closer, his claws landing at the Agent's toes. With a delicate touch, his talons tipped the Agent's head up. Magnus stared into the man's one good eye. The Agent understood what was coming for him.

"I killed them. I killed my children," Magnus said, blankly. "All because your company decided they were a danger to the public, and that was it best to replace them with their own soldiers. It's a sad story, and I have ways of telling it that would bring you to tears – truer tears than the ones you have blubbering for your miserable life. Unfortunately, I don't have time to share it." Magnus straightened up again, looming over him. "Not with words. I've never been good with words."

"CryShadow will be here soon," Glue remarked, sounding bored from where she stood by the door. "Once it's done scouting the building, we'll have to go. The Cubans won't wait."

Magnus brushed a talon across that other eyeball. Glue enjoyed the trembling fear.

"No. I'm not good with words. I'm sorry, little Agent. It's not what you're used to. You're not supposed to be killed unless the mood for it's been built, and I can't do that," he said. "There's too much out there and I don't have the patience." The Agent tried to shy away. He was already pressed against the wall. There was nowhere for him to move. Patten's best? "I'll just have to slice the skin from your body and pick the muscle from your bone."

"It'll be more pain than your brain can handle," Glue said. "You'll go insane before he's finished with you."

"Please!" The Agent was pleading. "Please! I have kids! I have – Goaaaaaaaaa!"

Magnus snorted.

"'Goaa' is a new sound."

New was good. The good filled him. It didn't last.

"I think he was saying 'God help me'," Glue mused, swirling in delight.

Magnus wouldn't ask. It would have had more to do with words, and at any rate, he'd already drilled his hand into the Agent's stomach and slid his talons through his lungs, cutting him, cutting him, cutting him...


"Here! I'm here! I –"

"Shut the hell up," Nightstalk hissed. He lunged at her and pulled her into shadow cloud, covering the hand she'd been using to light her way. "Do you want to get us killed?"

"What, what's the problem? I'm here," Buzzy whispered, managing to get her mind around that. She suddenly looked at the ground, and then kicked at it, still with her hand flashing. "What's this thing?"

"It's a fire hose, my bumblebee," Scissor explained. Nightstalk scowled at him. Scissor didn't see. "An Agent brought it with him. He's sitting over there."

Buzzy looked at Scissor, then Nightstalk and the edges of the cloud. Finally, she stuck her head out, having the sense to keep her hand in and use the light trickling down the hall from the Stasis Cell Room instead. SCR, as he liked to refer to it. After assessing the situation with her cotton candy excuse of a brain, she looked back as if they were the ones being silly and shrugged at them, saying, "So? Why is that a problem?"

"He's an Agent, Buzzy. That is the problem," Nightstalk spelled out. Scissor wouldn't do it. He was 'in love'. This was who Danielle trusted more than him? He'd grown up with this man, but all it meant was he was the authority on how wrong for the position he was! "We're not moving until he's handled. We can't risk going around. He's dangerous."

"... Are you fucking serious?"


"No, screw that, I'm not whispering," Buzzy said, ensuring the only thing keeping the Agent from whipping around and finding them now was his shadow cloud absorbing the sound. She held her hand up. "I'll take it care of it. He looks like a wimp."

"No, because he's an Agent, you fucking simpleton," Nightstalk snarled as loud as he trusted himself to do. "They don't hire just anyone, Buzzy! These people are professionals and they're trained to kill whoever has anything to do with us. Don't move. I've called CryShadow –"

"You called CryShadow for this? This?" She cackled. "Give me five seconds to fix this."

"I've called CryShadow and it's on its way," he said. He tried to mentally force this child-woman to get with the fucking program. These Russians couldn't think the way they were supposed to. They'd already told themselves they were alive at the Agency's choosing, so they'd thrown out their basic sense of preservation. This was an Agent, he wanted to scream! Even with Scissor here, Nightstalk wasn't taking the risk, especially not if Patten was around. "Don't move until it's over. CryShadow will kill him."

"Scissor, did he actually call CryShadow?"

"Don't worry, Buzzy," Scissor smoothly said, sliding up to her as if he was made of oil. "I won't let the big, bad monster get you."

"You're both fucking stupid. Get out of the way," Buzzy told them. "I've got work to do."

"No – don't move!"

"Let go of me, Viking!"

Stop, stop! Let him concentrate! Nightstalk had had about enough of her and he was ready to give her a piece of his mind, but he felt a push from the back of his cloud and he froze, because someone else was here. It wasn't CryShadow. Someone completely different had just walked in and he felt nothing but panic as grabbed both his allies – he used 'allies' loosely when it came to the air-headed Russian – and pulled them against the wall, tightening his cloud.

"Buzzy, baby, hush," Scissor said. "Something's wrong."

Scissor wasn't an utter twit around her, then, and the growing-up-together insight had him accurately reading Nightstalk's reaction. Buzzy glared at him. She didn't fight, however. Good – Nightstalk could focus on what the hell had walked in his cloud. The Germans said there were other types of Agent now, like invisible ones, worse than the regular cloaked kind. It was up to Night to protect his team, as it was to proper leader. He drew his cloud in tighter, giving the intruder plenty of room to walk by without stumbling into them. He was staying with his idea to wait for CryShadow to handle it. Maybe, though, they'd get lucky and this stranger would draw the Agent away.

Unless it was another Agent.

"Shit. It's a suit," Nightstalk muttered. "Shit!"

CryShadow had to hurry. Like Nightstalk feared but expected, the suited Agent had stopped walking, and it stopped walking very close to where they were hiding, then started tapping on its... helmet. Well, the helmet was new. Usually they had a mask or goggles, but he recognized what the tapping meant: 'What is wrong with my equipment?'

Shit. Shit! He hadn't retracted his shadows fast enough.

"What's the damage, Night?"

Scissor was obliviously unconcerned. Nightstalk took it as a compliment in trusting his cloud to work.

"The damage is that that walked into my shadow shield. A suit'll get its sensors scrambled because the shadow goes over it; they can't see anything unless I let them, and I didn't let them. Dammit – it's gonna look for us." He swallowed heavily. No, be a leader! Take charge! "Alright. Scissor? Get ready. You might be up. Buzzy, you too. We're going to work together." He heard a sound. "Buzzy?"

"Night?" She was whispering again. He was almost pleased with her, except he was aware of the tone she spoke in. It was the Russians' 'Patten is here and he's come to end us' tone. "You don't know who that is, do you?"

"Other than 'another bastard'?"

That wasn't the quip of a man getting ready to fight a suited Agent.

"Do you?"

"Uh-huh." Buzzy was terrified. Nightstalk could see in his cloud as if it were broad daylight, and he saw her face turn pale. In one of the rare times she ever had, she clung to Scissor out of her free will. "I know who that is." The Agent stopped tapping. Nightstalk knew what was next. He tensed as it stood with its back tall and alert, turning its head to scan the corridor and confirm a malfunction, and therefore the absence of mystical shadow clouds. The Agent would shrug it off if they could escape. The trouble was that they were now between a rock and a hard place, because the Agent with the fire hose was still an issue, and any chance that they could have been Bergmann's 'Agents' was gone when he remembered the Germans' plan to get out of here. "It's Squiddie."


"Oh my God, you Vikings don't know anything," she squealed. "Squiddie! It's Squiddie! Eric's right hand!"

Scissor's face wasn't picking up on it.

"Who's Eric?"

"Patten, dummy." Sometimes, Nightstalk resented Scissor more than usual. "She means Patten."

"Oh my God. Oh my God." She was breathing too fast to be safe. "You're sure you called CryShadow? Oh my God – tell me you called CryShadow."

"Buzzy, I don't know who –"

"Shut up, Night!" She was pulling herself against the wall now. Where was the 'thank you' for not letting go of her? The Agent, meanwhile – Squiddie – was taking a slow step forward. He knew that, too: it was trying to check if there was simply something wrong with this specific area that would show up again if it walked back through it. Nightstalk could reach the cloud out if the Agent stepped back to where it'd been. He'd done that once before and it'd worked. It'd been a good distraction and he'd run away unnoticed. "This dumb stuff better hide us!"

"It will as long as we're quiet," Nightstalk said, "and as long it doesn't come in to find us."

"How the hell do you stop her from doing that?!"

Oh. It was a 'her'.

"Mostly I stay out of the way and wait for the Agent to leave."

Nightstalk's powers weren't offensive. They were strictly for support or defence, two very crucial roles that let him plan from the shadows he found refuge in. Even Danielle did that, in a way. When Dalton was out, she was like a ghost. She led from a distance like Night. They could have bonded over that had he moved faster. He should be the one leading this SCR mission.

"Buzzy-bee. I'm here. I won't let the scary squid get you," Scissor assured.

"You Vikings don't get it! We are fucked if we don't get out of here right now!" Buzzy was panicking. This wasn't the best time to notice, but Nightstalk liked her better that way. "Squiddie isdangerous! Eric doesn't trust anyone, but if he was going to, it'd be her! She's his assassin!"

"Hey, what kind of name is Squiddie?"

"Don't worry about the fucking name, Scissor! Can you two pay the hell attention?! We have got to get out of here! We have to run when there's the slightest chance!"

"We'll wait for CryShadow." But they didn't have long. This 'Squiddie' character was now positive something was amiss. He'd be sure to put a cloud over her if she found them, but he didn't see a lot of point. Agents were trained to fight in the dark. The good ones could fight blind. "It's a tight spot, but we'll handle it." Through his guidance, certainly.

Buzzy put her hands over her mouth and made a muffled whine, like she was smothering a scream under there. Then she put them up as if she were stopping the conversation, apparently struck by inspiration for how to better explain herself. By all means, Buzzy. With her Russian awe for all things that hinted to Patten, enlighten the wayward Nordics.

"You know who Lamarre is, right?"

Don't patronize them.

"Yes, we know," Nightstalk said. "Is she like him?"

That could be a problem. That could be a big, very big, problem.

Hurry up, CryShadow. Nightstalk knew the tiny demon didn't like him because he controlled shadows and that was essentially what CryShadow was, but they were on the same team. Work together! Wasn't everyone supposed to want to?

"Yeah, she's like Lamarre, if he was bionic," she spat. "You don't get to be Eric's personal guard if you can't topple over an army single-handedly!"

"Lamarre can do that," Scissor said. "Remember the Americans? Ooh – remember the Moroccans?"

"Would you Vikings just drop it with the ugly Moroccans?! That was – like – forever ago, and Squiddie could've done it with her eyes closed!"

"'Squiddie' could've trapped a full branch in a cave and drowned them? I don't think so." Nightstalk was proud of his encounters with Lamarre. He'd only been through two, but it put him ahead of the other 80% of people who'd been through just one and hadn't lived. Buzzy wasn't going to smudge his personal triumph by piling on paranoia about a 'personal guard' that didn't seem to stop the multiple occasions they'd killed Patten before. "Tell me she's a great Agent and that I'll believe. Tell me she could destroy a branch by herself or with her eyes closed, and I'll say it's hyperbole."

Buzzy blinked.

"Okay – Scissor? Remember when I said that if Eric killed anyone, I hoped it was you?"

"Yeah. And you said I could touch your boobs."

"One. And I take it back," she said, glaring at where she figured Nightstalk was. She'd put her hand down. "I want you to live and Night to get his butt kicked."

"That's a great team spirit," Night said.

And it didn't stop Squiddie. She'd taken more steps while they'd bickered, and again she stopped to study her environment. This time, she was standing in front of them. If she reached to put her hand on the wall, she'd touch Scissor's shoulder. Nightstalk braced for impact. Scissor was prepared to defend himself. Buzzy's hands shot back up, but they were shaking and weren't charged.

Swish, swish.

Perfect! Night relaxed again. Scissor looked somewhat disappointed. Buzzy was still going nuts because... well, Patten.

Another swish, swish. Squiddie turned as thought she'd registered the change in proximity. Nightstalk wasn't a fan of CryShadow's methods, but he got a certain satisfaction out of seeing suits torn apart. He felt a bit daft for being troubled at all. Ever the actor, or actress as the case remained to be seen, CryShadow had a knack for tension. Night wasn't the one to do its grace justice, but he'd certainly try. He'd watched this enough to put a clever narrative to it. He liked the arts; he would not disgrace them by clumsily barking out details of CryShadow's show.


Swish, swish.

"She's backing up," Buzzy whispered, adding nothing to what they were already looking at. "She's going away...!"

This Agent was on her toes. She had stopped trying to find Nightstalk's cloud – he should have really drawn it back as soon as Buzzy arrived, but the girl could knock Buddha from nirvana – and, with her arms held somewhat away from her sides, stiff as though set to block an attack, she walked down the hall to where the first Agent was. A friend? A colleague? What did they call themselves? To the chorus of faster and rising swish, swishes, Squiddie arrived at and turned to the other. Ah, they'd grouped together! CryShadow would enjoy – Squiddie kicked the other Agent through the wall.

... Yikes.



"That's a room," Scissor realized out loud.

Certainly a room. He'd been mistaken. Squiddie's leg had curved as it lifted into the other Agent's gut, not just hitting into him, but actually scooping the surprisingly small man up. Replaying it in his head, it wasn't quite a kick then, because after she'd scooped him, she'd flung him from her tibia – recognized as the main bone in a leg, for those who were not aware – with such force that he'd utterly blasted through the door that he'd been resting on the ground beside. In went the other Agent, disappearing into it. His impromptu flight must not have broken the door itself, however. Squiddie had left enough of it in one piece for her to pull it shut. Nightstalk couldn't tell if she had locked it. Then, Squiddie stood, her arms held above her sides as though they had never left. She was waiting, it appeared to Night. Had she run, CryShadow could have given them more of a show.

Swish, swish. Swish, swish. Swish, swish.

From the ceiling, and then the floor. The noise was all around them, echoing from everywhere and yet no where all at once. Scissor was excited. Buzzy was not, but she'd at least clasped her hands together instead of having them up. She rested them on her chin anxiously.

Nightstalk felt spoiled. He could see in a way the others simply couldn't. They'd get whatever they could catch from the CSR's light. Admittedly, that was more than okay, but they lost the detail. It was black-and-white against full colour and high-definition – there wasn't a contest! So while they heard the sweeping and held their breath, Night stared as the walls rippled, unseen in the cloak of lost power, slithering around and around in a great circle, blackening everything behind it. The living shadow was picking its angle, and as it twisted like a snake to move along, it gave anotherswish, then another, and another. CryShadow could not walk silently, whether out of its choice or its talent's limitation, but – oh, did it do wonders for its audience's atmosphere.

Squiddie would have seen it by now. Her head didn't turn, but if the helmet was like the goggles at all, she wouldn't have had to. The sensors would have been picked the creeping blackness that cut into the CSR's red and white blaze. Wait, white? There shouldn't have been white in there. It –swish, swish. Swish, swish. CryShadow had its scent. Actually, Nightstalk didn't know if it could smell. That made its next move so much more... titillating.

CryShadow had been watching movies again.

The entire section of the hallway Squiddie stood in was surrounded. The shadows had painted every surface, though they left an empty ring around her feet. The neatness of the lines used in the boarder was impeccable, and at last, Squiddie, by now having all the information she could expect to have from her equipment, turned her head in a slight tilt to the side. She was listening. The swishes were gone now that CryShadow had settled its space. Squiddie was listening to something else. A growl. A low, faint growl, pulsing from the two walls and ceiling. Squiddie was waiting.


Yellow teeth.

Their tips grew from the shadows above her head, slowly coming from the darkness as a mouth formed around them. The teeth were sharp and lined in a jagged row, and the black gums forming to hold them together lowered those diseased sabres closer. The ceiling was twice the height of Squiddie's stance, but that distance was cut by a quarter by the time they all emerged. Its jaws hung open for a reason, and Night knew there was a tongue wiping the hungry drool before it dripped. Coming after the teeth was not the head of animal; instead it was ebony and eyeless, shaped to coil into nothing less than a starving snarl. Ridges lined the sides of the sleek cover housing what would have been its brain, its roundness reflecting the light – "I fucking knew it – it's stealing that shit from Alien!"

"Scissor, shut up," Nightstalk hissed again.

"That's bullshit," Scissor whispered, outraged. "Heat Storm drags that thing around and treats it like it's Steven fucking Spielberg. Yeah, well – I think I know now she means James fucking Cameron. What a hack!"

So anyway – because that wasn't important at all, Scissor – CryShadow, hanging with the face of what-one-could-say-resembled-the-alien-from-that-movie, began to growl deeper. An ephemeral fog of dusk breathed out of its fangs like smoke, rolling down to curl past the Agent's shoulders and run the length of her spine. Squiddie didn't move. CryShadow didn't mind. Its teeth split wider, folding back until the bottom of its jaw could touch the ceiling. Now the drool did drip, but vanished in the air before it struck her. With a bob of the throat it made for itself, it lowered a second – "Hey, it did rip Alien off!"

"Right?! Another mouth? Like that's not what the movies are known for?"

Nightstalk said CryShadow had probably been watching movies. Good to know what'd been on TV last night.

"Oh my God, if you two don't shut up, I'm pushing you out there."

The second mouth of knife-like fangs let out a reclusive but high-pitched screech. It moved as though sniffing the Agent's head, lapping up whatever fear it invoked. Whether satisfied or finished, CryShadow coiled its copyrighted tongue. A flicker of thirst bent along its face as it growled from above once more. They stood like that, the five of them: the hunter, the hunted and the watchers. Squiddie would try to fight, as they would always.

And... as it... always would...

CryShadow-lashed-through-the-air-and-plunged – and Squiddie grabbed it by its second mouth and yanked. Pop. It snapped off the wall. Then – poof, because it vanished like the drool: into fog and into the shadows. No more Alien.


The cube of darkness didn't waver. No one could kill the darkness. They heard a bright chitter from a corner, and then a swish, swish as it circled around. Night saw it. CryShadow moved like ink in water. Squiddie was still, powerless to find any possible trace until it made its move.

Therefore... she waited, until... it was... time –

CryShadow plunged.

Like a column of death, a pillar simply appeared from the ceiling and punctured through the ground. Moving faster than Nightstalk expected, Squiddie strafed to the side. She stood still there, too. The pillar didn't disappear. It marked the centre of the hallway it'd painted, and from the left –plunged. It wasn't attacking, Night saw, as Squiddie was trapped from behind. It was herding. It was fencing her in like she was cattle. Another streamed out, thinner and sharper, and when Squiddie moved, the beam whipped itself to follow and block her escape. Then dozens appeared like wraiths, stabbing from one wall to the other, from the floor to the ceiling, from corners and bends, always burrowing through to the other side and ripping holes through every surface it owned. In seconds, Squiddie didn't have anywhere to go. She should have run while she had the chance.

Hundreds. Thousands. Millions, some as thin as wire, others as thick as branches, all of them closing in on the Agent as she danced through the spears it teased her with. The Agent was fighting her life now, planning to disappear if only she could outlast the shadowy spikes, but she didn't notice the hallway that'd been sectioned off now melting. Night didn't blame her. She had a fair list of preoccupations. But the darkness took on a shape, no longer a harmless design cast by light. As though it were oozing from rafters, the lines Nightstalk had admired for their neatness fell and curtained over her. Scissor and Buzzy witnessed a terrifying sight: the Agent's tricky footwork disappearing behind a deafened wall of black, until it finally consumed her and left nothing to see through. Nothing for them. Nightstalk had a full view of what was happening. CryShadow's spears had tightened, and the Agent, despite her dexterity, was caught in its web and strangled.

"Did he get her?" Scissor poked his head out. "I can't see – is she dead?"

Without the light from the CSR, they were blind. Buzzy lit her hand up. The cold bolts writhed between her fingers. Their brightness ended at CryShadow's solid wall. They were stuck out here until the skirmish was done. On the bright side, the fire hose Agent was, too. CryShadow might have even covered his door, locking him in.

"She's not dead," Buzzy said. She was going off her Russian garbage, though. She was right, but accidentally. "She's too good to die."

Nightstalk frowned.

"Buzzy, who exactly are you cheering –"


"Oh – fuck," Scissor yelled, clamping his hands over his ears. Buzzy nearly electrocuted herself by not shutting off her hands before she did, too. "What the fuck was that?!"


Nightstalk couldn't see anything. CryShadow's wall – it was still solid, but that shouldn't be a problem for him. The last image he'd seen was a spear wrapping around the Agent's neck and hanging her, adding on by grabbing her feet to rend her in two, or three if it was in the mood.

God, that sound

And it exploded back into the shadows, its shrieks howling through the building, its walls collapsing into nothingness. The Agent dropped to the ground. CryShadow didn't care about her. It thrashed in twenty directions, breaking the halls apart as it screamed and that noise slit their minds into shards of madness. The Agent stayed on the floor where she'd landed, tiredly, not immune to what CryShadow had done to her, but whatever she'd done to it to make... that noise was unending!

"CryShadow, get out of here! Find Danielle," Nightstalk could barely heard Scissor shout. None of them could press their hands any harder. They'd crack their own skulls if they tried, but the soundwas telling them to try – "Go, skitstövel! Dammit, go!"

The spears CryShadow had left behind didn't fade, Night saw. They crumbled. Not once had they ever gone like that before. They blew up into powder as what was left of it mauled its way across the ceiling, recoiling from the joint between it and the wall as if it – a shadow – had run into it by mistake. Still it screamed, wilder, savage, torturing them in three voices as it spasmed, desperately amassing enough of itself to find the way it'd come from and fly. It slithered erratically, untouchable in the darkness but screaming as it left. The Agent didn't wait for the sounds to die before she was on her feet. Now, as though she'd recovered, she strode to the room she'd thrown the other in and reached inside. Like he was no heavier than a sack of potatoes, she dragged him out by his leg and took him down the hall, too. She, however, found the stairwell Nightstalk and Scissor had entered from. She went in. She was running away.


Night hadn't been the one fighting, but he was gasping for air anyway. He couldn't take his hands off his ears. Part of him felt like the screaming would come back. Buzzy had been floored by it. She'd dropped, her shaking knees too weak to keep her standing. Scissor was panting like the rest of them, but he'd let go already. He was the closest to the SCR and his silhouette was turned towards it. Was he planning to move? So soon? After that?

"What happened to CryShadow?"

It could have been any of them who'd asked. Scissor was the one who had a response.

"The Agent... hurt it..."

But that wasn't possible. CryShadow was a shadow. Shadows couldn't be hurt. Scissor's face said he was thinking the same as confusedly as Night, until he remembered he was in love and fell over himself rushing to help the Russian.

"Squiddie's gone," Nightstalk said. "The way's clear."

"How about we take a minute to put ourselves back together?"

Scissor said it scoldingly. He couldn't believe Night would want to do anything while Buzzy was upset, even though he was the one with the glint in his eye telling everyone he'd go by himself if her and Nightstalk weren't ready that absolute second.

"That sounds good to me," Night said.

A break: smart idea, Scissor. Smart thinking.


The Russians thought they were idiots. The others could jazz it as they wanted with words like 'fiendish', 'destructive' or 'uncontained' – the Russians thought they were idiots, and as Oscar would say until his face turned blue, nothing helped them with that like the patrols. The main group was in the place they were supposed to be, the place they'd informed the other branches of, led by Danielle and her brother; meanwhile, these fringe gangs ran around corners to cause whatever chaos they could amongst the leftovers. It wasn't satisfying work for them – Oscar had been here for only six minutes and all six had been used ignoring Luke's complaints – but the fact that that was the point wasn't explained to outsiders: everyone on patrols were there not to flank or scout for Agents that got away, but for punishment. Consequently, nobody expected them to stumble onto anything. They dealt with 'leftovers' ironically, in that there were no leftovers, and as such, when Oscar was usually called by one of them, it was to stick back on the arm they'd blown off of themselves because they couldn't sit still for any length without something needing to bleed. Short-sighted, but vaguely entertaining. Oscar looked down on the patrols with contempt, but the goodies they came up kept them close to his heart.

"Do you hear screaming?"

"I dunno. Whatever."

Today was full of surprises. The patrol had outdone itself, which wasn't a hard hop over the bar they'd set so low, but he wished them his thanks all the same. Monkeys chewing on the Mona Lisa... Whoever was thrown into the patrols wasn't very smart to begin with. Oscar was amazed they'd had the sense to call him before they did whatever patrols did to bodies left lying out. He knew what, but he didn't want to waste time explaining it. There were so much better to things to run his eyes across than them.

"Do I have to wait for it to send? Can we go? Bergmann's office smells like booze and blood."

Phil and Luke. Matt was in the corner, puking to himself, outside the vault he wasn't nearly as comfortable in as the others. Matt was new, and he had unfortunately picked an ailment Oscar couldn't do much about. He pieced things together; he didn't heal them. Whatever was in Matt's system would have to find its own way out.

"Your favourite smell in the world," he mumbled, still hunched in the corner of Bergmann's vault. He didn't look up to talk to them, partly because the gesture wasn't likely to be returned, and because he was busy putting skin back enough to build up some semblance a face. It was slow going, as it should be. "How does it feel to miss the party?"

"We should've never talked shit about Dalton," Luke said. He'd taken the chair to swing around on it. More than once, he'd kicked Oscar in the back. Oscar would hold onto that. Dalton wasn't the only one who could hold off on bringing down his wrath until it hurt the most it could. "That ghost hears everything. I told him I was joking." He heard the squeal of the chair turning, then felt another kick. Oscar frowned. "How's the meat?"

'Meat', Luke said, because none of them knew what to call it. When they had walked in here and found a body – two bodies, but the other was quietly being dead in the corner and well outside of Oscar's circle of any mild interest, although he noted that that was the France fellow they'd learned had dropped off the map recently, whose startling appearance here drove his sense of timing wild with glee – mutilated in ways he hadn't seen for years. Phil was watching him twist a torn hunk of cheekbone over until it matched up, having already pressed the eyelids into place and teeth into their homes. It could be one of theirs, and more than likely it was, but it could have also been an Agent. He wouldn't know until he had it held properly. The other two could not stop pestering him over when that would be. This was a puzzle, not a show. Oscar was being polite by not telling them they weren't supposed to be in here. Apparently they'd gotten it into their heads that they had to show up to send out whatever data the Germans hoarded back to their united base, on the off-chance it'd been overlooked. That was quite the insult to the Germans, but they were well-mannered enough to forgive it if they heard, especially if the data the patrol was sending was, as it seemed, something they'd left behind. Oscar didn't concern himself with it. He was swimming in nostalgia.

"I'm fairly sure," he murmured, thoughtfully, "that this..." He twisted the jaw. "... was a woman."

"You'd think the tits would've pointed that out."

"I'm not looking at her 'tits', Luke," Oscar said crossly. "I'm looking at her face. This was a woman." What was left of her. "I'm missing her ears."

"Here's a hand," Phil said. He'd been sitting on the computer system's console. He leaned over to pick up something beside him, making a face when it flopped like a glove. "No – uh… bones."

No, he wouldn't expect there to be.

What were you thinking, Lamarre…?

Likely it was too early for him to have his hopes up, but after six years of following Alexander, he'd been overwhelmed with hunks of flesh thrown about carelessly. The man was supposed to have been a Pain Eater – Oscar wasn't sure what group that put him in under the Nordics' classifications of the Agents – and it suited his nature, but it'd been boring. One severed head was another severed head. The Nordics blessed their darling pet's kill count, but Alexander was single-minded in the worst way. Everything had to die. He had a grudge and the Agency needed to be torn apart. The branch could never tire of or stop telling this or that story of how they walked in and found fourteen, fifteen, twenty bodies strewn across the room, broken, but he, for one, had had enough. He loved his Nordic family, which was why he knew he meant it when he said they were easily entertained.

This was a story. This was like the old days. The cuts were methodical; each one had to be finished before he'd started on the next. Part of him had always wanted to meet Lamarre to ask him how he did it, why he did it, why he insisted on lifting his blade every single time rather than saw back and forth to save the effort, and that part of him left up again as he saw the trails of blood along the unbroken slivers of what hadn't been destroyed. And how destroyed – honestly… To do all this with one sharp edge must have taken some time to manage. What had he been thinking, if this was his work? Oscar pinched the jaw in place. It held, mostly. What he'd give to have the others let him take this meat back to base. On its own, he'd be consumed for months, trying to understand what it stood for. It was so unfocused, but it was so precise… Oscar's mind ached in a pleasant way he'd thought he'd forgotten.

"I could kill somebody if Dalton hadn't stuck me on patrol." Luke was seething again. "I could've killed nine Agents easy."

Luke didn't have to be here. Here specifically, because part of being on patrol meant he had topatrol. They could wander off and inexplicably run back missing a leg for all Oscar cared. They were interrupting. Hadn't whatever file they were trying to send been sent by now?

"So Oscar," Phil said from his spot on the console, "how's it look?"

"Amazing." Bloodthirsty idiots with no appreciation for art… "Intricate, I suppose would make more sense to you. Look at the lines, at how clean they are." Aided by never sawing, only cutting. The skin never tore. "Whatever was used was remarkably sharp." Only the best for the best. This was a line sung into the body with a delicate grace urged by… madness, almost. Some loss of control – loss of mental control, like he'd given himself a full pass on restraint and… let loose. "Look at the directions they go in. They're overlapping. The skin's raised from being…" Oscar had a tendency to talk with his hands. Oftentimes he didn't say the word, but rather did the motion for it. Just now, he'd done 'gashed'. "… repeatedly."


"Very," Oscar agreed. Luke was being sarcastic. "It says the whole act was impulsive." The nose wasn't on right. It might have been too high. Fairly close, considering this was a rush job. "It says this was personal."

"Yeah? Can it tell you who that is?"

He didn't mean 'personal' in that sense. Lamarre – if it was Lamarre – hadn't done this for anyone. This had been his show and it'd been for reasons only he was intended to benefit from. Two things Oscar was certain of: the extent of the damage wasn't hurried, even if the motions had been, and it was too early to call a motive for it. But… if Oscar had to guess… He looked over his shoulder at the other body. Breton. So maybe… therapy? Agents weren't known for 'healthy grieving', but even if they were, this would count as 'burying himself in his work'.

Interesting. Extremely. Why was Lamarre – if it was Lamarre – here? More than that, if he was here, and it was him, then what his goal? Following Breton? No. Oscar knew what the Agency thought of as 'professionalism', and Lamarre – if it was Lamarre – chasing a corpse around was not that.

Oscar sat up.

"Why is Breton here?"

"Patten was wearin' him," Luke drawled, now kicking Phil.

"Nobody told me that," Oscar said.

"You're the medic. You don't get those reports." And Luke was patrol, because he'd shot off his mouth behind the wrong person's back. "That's what it is."

… Interesting. That's what it was: interesting. Because if Patten had been in possession of Breton's body and Lamarre was here, which could by no means be a coincidence in that particular scenario…

"Does Danielle know where Lamarre is?"

"No," Phil said, quite quickly. "Why – why would – why would she need to know that – I mean… why?"

"Nice," Luke said. His voice turned grave after that, however. "Why would anyone need to know where Lamarre is?"

"I think…" Oscar's hand was bouncing in excitement over the meat, although his face was contained and organized. "… he might be here." 'Here' wasn't said, but gestured.

"He can't be here. He's gone," Phil said. That was getting close to a 'yelp'. "Breton has him running after Alexander and – ooooooooh…" The picture finally came into focus for him as his eyes wandered back to Breton's corpse. "… Wait. You… You really think he's here?"

"I'm not jumping to any conclusions without a thorough investigation," Oscar replied. "I would like to comment on the extreme happenstance of what appears to be his work on the scene at the same time Patten is."

Luke's face was more serious than Oscar had ever seen it. Phil joined a while after Breton got his claws into Lamarre, but Luke had been around for quite longer. He and Oscar were in their thirties. Anyone over that age or who had been involved for longer than six years would have made the same face. He also stopped kicking around in his chair. Oscar appreciated that, too.

"You think Lamarre is working with Patten?"

"To give both men their credit, it would be 'working for Patten' and 'not a chance'. Lamarre is for the Agency, which is a bigger concept than what Patten offers. He may be an A-1, but that doesn't make him their king," Oscar explained, "no matter how much the Russians seem to think it does. Patten has his own plans, and unless they follow the Agency's intentions, Lamarre won't touch them."

Luke didn't miss that Oscar hadn't provided an answer.

"Are they working together or aren't they?"

"As I said, it's not time to reach conclusions," Oscar said, "but keep in mind what's happening in this building. We're attacking Charlotte Carter – kidnapping her. That's all the evidence we need of Patten's interest. And Lamarre is a known authority on 'our kind'."

"I don't get it," Phil uttered.

Patrols: they weren't very smart. Luke, on the other hand, had experience to run off of.

"You're saying if Lamarre's not working with Patten now," the young man worked out, "he will be after this."

"Breton isn't around to advise him anymore," Oscar added. "Except that he is, and now in favour of Patten's projects. It's an emotional tie to a professional one, and if the Russians are right about nothing, they're at least right about that."

"Lamarre might be back in the game?" Phil was close, but not exactly understanding what they were up against. "Well… he's on his own now, right?"

"On his own with Patten – herregud…" Luke sat back in the chair. "This is… fucking… Oscar, do you think he…?"

"'Planned this'? Come now." Oscar gave him a tiny tsk with his teeth. "What is it we always say?"

"Patten's retarded," Phil blurted out.

"Right. He's dangerous, to be sure, but his specialty is turning chaos into order, not planning the vision for the order to fit within. That's Charlotte's job," Oscar said. "Danielle has given us a fully reasonable statement: anything that resembles preparation is simply a thousand chimps spelling out a lengthy verse of Shakespeare. He has so many things in motion, eventually one has to work." So went the Nordic's assumption. The Russians gave Patten considerably more praise. "Although… it makes you think."

"What does?" Luke leaned forward. "What makes you think?"

"Nothing, really," Oscar said, finally standing and slinging his bag over his shoulder. He couldn't solve Lamarre's riddle in the strict deadline the Cubans had given if he wanted a ride with them. With a deep ache of regret, Oscar had to abandon it. His heart hung heavily at the understanding. It was fair to say the one comparison he could make was if he'd neglected to mention the upcoming iceberg to the captain of the Titanic. "It's just that I find it hard to believe an entire branch could be so deluded as to think Patten controlled the universe without at least acceptingthat they might have had some justification at the beginning."

"The Russians are idiots," Luke said. Phil agreed.

"Maybe so. Still…" Oscar righted his shirt and coat and brushed off his pants, now stained at the knees with blood. "You have to wonder, if Patten didn't plan for this… what did he plan for?"

On that pleasant note, he strode from the vault, half-basking in the eruption of protests and arguments at his back, which devolved into a screaming match between the two over why – and it was amusing because they were fighting while being on the same side – everything he'd said wasn't true, half-waiting to hear more Shakespeare accidentally tumble out of them. There wasn't any. Well, he supposed once was the most he could expect in a day. He had paused a step from the vault door, looking back to catch enough of Breton's leg as the Frenchman's body remained slumped against the wall. Perhaps it was an odd word to use, but he had found that body to be quite clean. If the hand-me-down memos were worth their weight, there should have been more progress made in the process of decomposition. Patten? Could that theory float? Surely, but at any rate, it wasn't the style of mystery he wanted to surround himself by. He'd leave it be. At that, he turned to walk to – oh.

Sweet mother of God.

"– full of shit, Oscar! Patten can't think –" Luke stopped, too. He'd charged out of the vault intent on a fight that wouldn't mean anything because it was pure speculation and froze mid-step because his eyes landed on the same phantom Oscar thought he was crazy to have seen. "... Lamarre?"

"Hello boys," Lamarre said from his shadows. They heard glass rolling over something. It was… coming from him. The man was… sitting at Bergmann's desk. His jacket was thrown over it, his tie was on but loosely looped, and his feet were atop the wood surface, damn near leisurely. In one hand, he was smoking a cigarette, and in the other, as Oscar's eyes adjusted to the low light and gathered up the details, he had an emptied bottle that he rolled by its neck across the tabletop. His eyes were locked behind a pair of sunglasses. Oscar certainly wasn't about to question it, even if the electricity was out throughout the building. Frankly, he couldn't believe they'd managed to see the Agent. For a short while, the man had only been the barest silhouette. Oscar could have walked by. But… Lamarre must have wanted to be seen. His simple presence was a message on its own. Another puzzle. Another story. "You picked a piss poor night to attack." Shit. This story had an ending: grisly.

"… Are you drunk?" Luke would know. The outburst drew a stitch of panic in Oscar's throat. "Are you actually fucking sitting here and – you're drunk?"

"Ohhh, I think you have more pressing matters to attend to than that." He, of course, slurred this. If anyone in Heaven was listening, now would be the time to assist… "For what it's worth, I left 'drunk' a good while ago. I should be able to sneeze on a scalpel and sterilize it by now." He flicked ash on the ground with his little finger. "That really is the sign to stop inhaling an open flame."

Lamarre was half-finished with his smoke, and after that, they'd… but he was calm. Didn't he know what Luke could do? And Phil – Phil had abilities! And yet the man lounged in his place as though he were on vacation! Oscar couldn't look away from it. He had the feeling that if he blinked, this phantom would vanish, and the single sign of his return would be the knife – did he still have the knife? Yes, yes, he had it. The single sign of his return would be it inside Oscar's jugular.

"What the fuck are you doing here? Ready to die?"

Quite calm. Purposely calm. He was above the hostility in Luke's person because he simply couldn't be bothered. Luke wasn't his focus. Then…


He'd mouthed the word – in his head, on top of that. Lamarre was calm, yes… but… because he wanted Oscar to be calm. He wanted… something… The Agent blew lazy smoke rings in the air. He was not concerned about Luke.

"Hey," Luke raged, now itching to strike. "Hey! I'm talking to you!"

And he wasn't listening. The embers on his cigarette burned bright red. He and Oscar were on a level that the idiot patrols weren't ever to be a part of. The problem was that Oscar didn't understand. The Agent wasn't killing him, but there was no sign insisting he wouldn't. Lamarre was just observing them, seemingly prepared to meet whatever they did with an action of his own. Oscar wasn't ready for this. In his head, he'd… boyishly wanted to meet with him, to try to learn what turned such morbid scenes into expert sculptures of devastation, handled with both interest and a short of leash of apathy before it ever became enthusiastic. He had never thought it would happen. Even now, it wasn't. He'd examined Lamarre's handiwork as it was stumbled on; those who knew how to read the lead up before then were no longer with all ten fingers or toes. One had been lobotomized. Then no, he wasn't an explorer landing on the horizon he sailed towards. Oscar was an architect made to scale the side of a building against his will. He was outclassed in this. He wanted to step away, but Lamarre's patient waiting led him on to think that would be a very unwise decision.

Bergmann might have turned ballistic if she'd known there were shoes on her desk. But the manwas French…

"I know what I'm not doing," Lamarre quietly said.

Like a hint.

"You…" Luke was a boiling ball of violence at his side. Oscar had to struggle to keep his inner peace in place, shaken though it was. "You heard what I said?"

The Agent was silent. What happened now… It was up to Oscar to decide. The fear of the freedom to choose and choose wrong crawled out to him. He swallowed heavily, then carefully brushed the beads of sweat at his collar away.

"This is perfect. I couldn't ask for a better set up," Luke snarked. "You're drunk, you're outnumbered, and I'm gonna kill you. I just wish I had the library of names you wiped from the Earth. Guess maybe I can't have everything."

Lamarre didn't move, but the message was clear: that was Luke's fate sealed. What would his be?


"Let's call it a trade," he murmured cautiously, pausing between his words. They scratched like gravel against his teeth, but he couldn't spare himself the guilt. The other two weren't getting out of here. Oscar could. "It's a theory. That's all. But it could make the difference."

Especially if Lamarre hadn't realized the potential for it. In his response, the Agent finished his snack and crushed it on the desk, then brushed his hands after dropping it into the empty drink. Luke's hands swung up like he was going to go boxing – ha, ha, ha, what?! Lamarre gave a softly amused snort, too.

"Oscar, what the fuck? Back us up," Luke said, turning fiercer as the man sat up properly. Patient. Waiting. Because there was the door, and no one had gone through it. Oscar felt immense when he realized what he could do: think about it from Lamarre's perspective. There'd been no golden agreement and he was as liable to have his throat slit as the others, but the Agent had a worthy reason to delay. He wanted to know whether he'd had to wipe from his shirt the blood of two Nordic patrolmen, or two Nordic patrolmen and a recently exchanged German doctor. "Oscar, fucking –"

"I'm leaving," Oscar said. He scrunched the strap of his bag in his fingers. "I won't fight him."

"Pfft. I should've seen that coming. It's the German blood in you," Luke sneered. "Gotta get out and let the real Nordics handle it."

He didn't take offence. Oscar adored his adopted branch. A shitty question of loyalty from thepatrol wasn't changing it – although it did assist in lifting that guilt.

"I wish you the best in what comes out of this," he said, finally trusting the silence to serve as his cue to leave. Lamarre was no more content than before, but he specifically satisfied by this declaration. Good. Good! He'd… genuinely be there to tell the tale, not through the carvings designed into skin, there to be picked at by minds he used to work with, but through his words and reports. He was being let go. He was free! He… was… free… but his eyes fell to the floor, to the side, to the cabinets at the wall that the vault's light could scarcely reach. Matt. The third of them. Matt was dead. The relief in Oscar's belly sharpened again. He recognized what it was: the awkward shape of his outline on the ground meant a full story had been etched into Matt as well. It wasn't anywhere as severe as the meat made out of the woman but – "Wait!"

That patient waiting grew a point to it. Lamarre was standing now, while Luke continued to glare, fists ready. Oscar's luck with all its limits saw the notes of danger but tried to go beyond them anyway.

"Fucking say it and go, you coward," Luke growled.

Say it.

His vision darted over Matt's corpse.

"Breton," he gently began, "was not harmed in my presence." His imagination caught a puff of approval. "Another trade?" Now more amusement. "Painlessly." It struck Oscar as the sole thing of reason he could demand. It was an easy favour, but the Agent had been gone from the war for years. Had he learned a taste for blood? Oscar hoped not. The grace of those stories counted on it. "I know… you can manage that…" He was certain. "… despite her in there."

He didn't see it coming.


He'd shut his eyes. Fast.

Then he waited.

And then Oscar opened them to see Lamarre not murdering the overly bold tongue out of his mouth for daring to ask any request, but having twisted his right wrist. That… that was the wrist that housed his blade, wasn't it? It was strapped to the man's arm. What he'd done was… tug it from the top of his forearm… to the side of it. Was that special? Oscar's head wanted to stretch out to give his curiosity a closer look. The memories of the cadavers he'd examined jogged together to the rhythm of his heartbeat. He couldn't solve it right now. He'd… have to trust him…

"What're you guys doing out there? Ha – Luke, check what's stuffed under Bergmann's console," Phil said, emerging. He had a – was that a sex taser? Ah – not – not that he knew what a taser forthat purpose would've looked like. It… wasn't like there was a brand – but… oh, come on – even in the dark, the pink graphic on the side gave it away! "Who's he?"

Phil was so young in asking that.

"Lamarre," Luke told him.

"And believe me, that's not the start of what she has in here."

Oscar was going to fall down if he didn't leave, and they now appeared to be waiting on him to do so. Well – he wasn't challenging that! He walked and nearly stumbled into the hall, in time for him to close the door on the sound of nobody moving then becoming everyone moving, and the triumphant cries flying into remarkably slaughtered howls. Bergmann's office was soundproof. If it hadn't been, he would've known how long those yells lasted and whether Lamarre agreed to the second trade. Rather than that, the door hushed it. He'd have to content himself with a 'maybe'. He walked two feet, then collapsed into a temporary mess, giggling deliriously at what on earth just happened.

So then, he'd lived. A happy gasp flew from his lungs as it occurred that he had lived. He'd just joined the ranks of the rare and chosen few. The others would never believe him, and Lamarre had… killed… the only witnesses.

"Ich bin der glücklichste Mann der Welt," he decided.

As well as the luckiest man breathing.


"I can't believe you two called CryShadow. I am never getting that noise out of my head." Stupid Vikings thought everything was fixed by hitting it! "I told you – I told you – that was Squiddie. You didn't listen to me!"

"Let it go, Buzzy," Nightstalk tried to say. "It's over now."

"It's 'over'? Let me tell you what's 'over', Night." She stomped to a stop right outside the opening to the cell room. "Your whole branch? Is over. O-ver! 'Cause whatever Squiddie just did to your pet is exactly what she's gonna do to the rest of you. You think you stand a chance now? That's it! It's done! The party's over – which, by the way, totally sucked."

'Ooh, we're the Nordics! We were the first branch Charlotte organized! We don't need to listen to Russia 'cause they're all paranoid and dumb and don't know what they're talking about, even though they're the largest branch formed both before and after the Agency started a purge. No way, we're definitely gonna do this all by ourselves! Oh, but Russia, do you want to lend us your best people so we can pull off these ridiculous plans that have no way of working?'

"Buzzy's right," Scissor said. Yeah, of course she was! "CryShadow can't be hurt. This is a huge deal."

"I'm well aware," Nightstalk said. HA! Who was he trying to kid? "But Squiddie is gone now. We'll have to explain what we saw to Danielle, but we can't waste precious minutes here and risk her coming back with enforcements. Get the stasis cell: that's our primary concern."

Buzzy scowled at him. She wanted him to know she still hoped Eric whooped his ass. Scissor was annoying, but he had good taste in company. Night, on the other hand, walked around like soggy diarrhea. What a tool.

"Whatever, Nightstalk. Play all you want. Danielle put my Scissorhands in charge, not you." And she made her point twice as loud by grabbing Scissor's arm and linking hers with it. He decided he didn't want a fistful of electricity and just appreciated the gift he'd been given, so Scissor was acting just like Buzzy expected. Night was, too. She didn't know if it was 'cause she was Russian and his best friend – even though Night didn't act like they were friends – was Nordic, or maybe just 'cause he had a personal grudge against her he'd pulled out of nowhere, but that tiny sidle up to the 'official' group leader? It sent him grumbling. That was his version of punching a wall. Buzzy was content, so she led them in to meet their prize as her personal gift.



"Hey," Scissor said. "There's people in here."

And VWHOOMF – Night put a cloud over everything. Buzzy barely had time to look at what was going on before it all vanished in a puff of black. She thought she saw someone standing by a very important and super specific console, and she knew she caught a glimpse of a very important and super specific chair, but other than that and a teeny peek at someone else, some chick, standing around, there was nothing but nothing to see because that jerk didn't open up his cloud to her! She stomped at him again, and 'cause she knew where he was standing – he breathed like a cow– she was gonna redefine the meaning of – "You dickhead! How am I supposed to work like this?"

"I thought you harpies used sonar," Nightstalk oh-so-wittily said, before letting her see freakingshapes she could barely make out. She heard Scissor letting out one of his Big Slices – he called it that and the dumb name got itself stuck in her head after a while – and definitely saw the guy by the console get snipped into two smaller halves right through the waist. But that damn Slice of his –dammit, Scissor! Couldn't he keep it in his pants for once? Lose the enthusiasm! It shot right through the console guy and put a hole, a big line, right in the wall on the other side! Daylight – no, it was dark outside, but the open air lit up like night vision from inside this stuff – popped through. She couldn't let him keep that up! Not with Marshall – oh-shit-she-was-in-the-same-room-as-Marshall-now! Don't-panic-don't-panic-don't-panic! "What's your problem?"

"You don't know what you're doing," she cried angrily, whipping her hands around for added effect. "Scissor, you stop what you're doing this instant! Let me do it!"

It was called 'moderation'. Look into it!

One shape, two shapes, and one was in the chair. Ohhhhhh, somebody say that was Alexander and only Alexander! This was gonna hurt her a hell of a lot more than him if it wasn't! Agents didn't build anything that couldn't take a few knocks, but she was a circuit breaker and those were some delicate circuits. Please-don't-break-please-don't-break-please have already transferred!

She leapt out and sparked up her hands, and they crackled with white-blue static that slapped across Alexander's face. Well, the restraints holding him in were awesome. Thanks, Agency! And as for his hussy friend, she leapt at her –

"Oooooh. You got clocked in the face there, huh?"


Fucking whore fighting back like she was gonna win! Buzzy shocked her twice as hard and didn't let go until she fucking settled down! Only then did Night get off his ass and do something, like take the freaking cloud down. Like they needed it? What was the worse that was gonna happen?! The fight was finished!

"Buzzy," Scissor gasped, running up to her. "Buzzy bee, are you alright?"

No, she was not alright! Her cheek had an elbow smacked into it like it was trying to break a hole through! Furious and feeling worse in the stupid red look of the room, she shook him off her when he came around. Nightstalk was just grinning.

"Now, did she actually hit you," he said, "or did you run into that?"

That ugly twerp! Who did he think he was?! Why was he suddenly extra obnoxious today?!

"Do your job, barbarian," she snarled, holding her hand to face. "Get the cell! I'm tired of you being lazy!"

"I thought the point of you telling us to wait was that you were going to do it for us," Nightstalk responded. "So…?"

… If she killed him, could she get Danielle to think Eric did it? She'd have Scissor to back her up on it, unless he never wanted to see Buzzy naked ever, ever again. Fat chance.

"Fine. I'll do it. You'd blow it up anyway," she said. "Stand there, don't touch anything. Need me to draw you a picture?"

"Buzzy, Night, come on," Scissor stepped in. Nervously! Some leader! How did he get picked over that loser Night? "Let's try to hold it together until we're home."

"Home for her is in a bat cave," Nightstalk said. "And she'd still find a way to sleep with everyone."

"Night, stop it! I'm not joking," Scissor ordered. Finally – authority! Night frowned, but gave it up. Buzzy rolled her eyes at him. Scissor gave her a little wave. "Um… do you want to do the cell?"

"Sure, whatever," she said. "Handle the other two."

Actually, this helped her out. She turned to face the five glowing containers, doused in more red light when she glided in front of Charlotte's. Their more-or-less founder was floating around naked – nice try, lady, but she knew a cheap pedicure when she saw one – and that was fun, but besideher…

Oh. Oh, beside her…!

The rejuvenation process was in full effect. The inside of the cell had churned to white foam, and all of it shone like a bright star in a sea of flame, like an angel standing on the highest mountain of Hades. She could've swooned if she wasn't so pissed with Night and now doubly pissed he'd cut into this moment by being awful, but as she flipped open a panel at the base of Charlotte's cell, getting on her knees to make it more comfortable, she stared at his. All the real data, like vitals and mental status – that was on the console the man Scissor'd killed been using. She didn't need it. Her breath was holding on for a pretty blurb of info, one small enough to be wrapped up in another baby light no bigger than pinky nail, sitting somewhere… arooooooound…

There – ohmigod! Ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod-there-it-was-it-was-yellow! It was yellow – didn't theworld know what this meant? Tucked to the side of the base of the cell, an smidgeon away from the kill switch, was a friendly row of little lights that had to match whatever was in the rest of the tank. All these others? Their light rows were red. But Marshall's was yellow! And yellow stood for something! Yellow meant mental activity was registered! Marshall was in there! Better than that –better than that – he was awake! That was the point of yellow! Awake! Awake-awake-awake-oh, geez, the rejuvenation was going on. … Was… he going to be okay…? Wait, they'd put him in there during the middle of it?! In the middle of that?! What the heck were they thinking, thoseanimals?! The thing took fucking hours! Marshall was gonna be in there and awake for –

"Are you working or gawking, Buzzy?"

Dammit, Night! She'd jumped and banged her funny bone.

"Quit rushing me. Why can't you do something other than hover?" And ow, stupid thing! She might be electric, but she could get still get shocks! Charlotte had better be worth it. She didn't see how this would ever make up for the trouble, but being her put in her the perfect spot. She just needed to buy a minute. "Take care of your hostages!"

Just turn around or something. She needed privacy!

Almost… Allllllllllllmooooooost… argh – Nightstalk turned back around! Ridiculous, these two! Worse than rodents, they were their own breed of pest!

It wasn't them. Okay, no – total lie, 'cause it was – but it wasn't them exclusively. Buzzy was thinking of everyone – all the Vikings, down to the tiniest, up to the dumbest, and that was a huge range to handle. No one really thought she'd come down without a plan, did they? Like she was going to leave this up to some last minute improvisation? Please! Her idea flew to her as soon as she'd wanted it, and she'd fleshed it out on the run downstairs to cut Scissor and Nightstalk off. The Vikings attacked anything that blinked, stared or looked shiny. They were bears, but the helpful part about that was they didn't touch what was already dead. Enough technobabble would get the cell team to quietly leave, but Danielle's patrols – well, Dalton's, 'cause from what she'd gleaned, patrols were on… like… garbage duty, and that sort'f detail Danielle shoved off to her brother – were haunting some corner of this base, too out of the way for her to ever casually stumble into them, plus the risk of someone else wandering around, and she couldn't leave unless she knew there wasn't anything to let Marshall catch their eye. So she had to kill him, except not. That was what would save him.

Complicated? Idiotic? Well, it took a fool to stump a fool. But she needed these ones to turn around. She had to get her hand in the base of his cell, into his beautiful glass of white light, and she had to shut it off.

"Hang on." She heard Night walking closer to the chair. "Is that Alexander?"

"No fucking way. Is it?"

Yes! Good! Stay like that! She reached her hand towards Marshall – "Buzzy." AAAAH! "Did you kill him or knock him out?"

"I gave him a jolt," she blasted at him. "Would you shut up? Those of us with brains need silence to think!"

"Then why are you snippy?"

She'd let it go for now if he'd turn away! She'd make him pay for that later, though.

Turn around!

Ahhh. Finally. Slyly, she reached her hand towards Marshall, silently picking open his cell's panel with her nails.

"The chair's sitting up. There's no wires around his head," Scissor was saying. She snaked her fingers around Marshall's wires. There were hundreds in there, but she was looking for one of the big, thick ones. … Ooh. Cute. She liked that. "The transfer isn't on."

"Elias' cell is white." Buzzy whipped her head over her shoulder. No – okay, whew. Night wasn't looking. With one hand on Charlotte's side and one arm buried in Marshall's, even she'd have a tricky time trying to explain. "They were trying to revive him."

"We got here in time." Clank, clank! Scissor or Nightstalk was taking the restraints off. "Danielle'll be happy to have him where she can see him."

"Yes… I suppose," Nightstalk said. "My question, however, is 'did we genuinely get here in time, or were we a little too late?'"


Then a whoooooooom…, dying as the angel light powered off. In that new cloak, Buzzy's hand zipped away. Nope, not her! She didn't touch anything! She was just playing with Charlotte's cords when all of a sudden, something must've happened!

A-hem. She cleared her throat.


Stupid CryShadow. If that thing hadn't already deafened them, Buzzy definitely would've. How could something that didn't talk actually out-volume her?

"Buzzy? Buzzy?!" Something dropped. Buzzy's guess? They'd had Alexander mostly out of the chair and now that poor boy had nosedived into the ground now that Scissor'd run over to help her. She felt a little bad since that was the person who'd been caring for her honey-marsh, but priorities were different now that Marshall was out. Hands wrapped around her. Awww, Scissor was adorably noble when he wasn't such a pig. "Buzzy!"

"What the hell just happened?" Nightstalk was always a jerk. "What did you do?"

Couldn't tell, could he? Nope!

"Th… th-th… th…!" Heaping splashes of tears were streaming from her eyes. She could almost hearher mascara running. She must look so pathetic and distraught. If she wasn't hard at work at that, she would've smiled in sheer delight. "Th-the… th-th-th-th…!"

"Buzzy, say it," Night ordered.

Whoa! Sharp words, Nightstalk. He'd had better ideas, because instantly Scissor was up and slamming him against Charlotte's cell. Night's head gave a pleasantly hollow clunk against the glass. She loved having a little protector!

"I'm telling you this for the last time," Scissor said, sounding… wow. That was the kind of strength that made her stop regretting that they'd fucked. "Back off and leave her alone."

"We're in the center of enemy territory! We can't wait for her to finish stuttering –"

"Back off or I tell everyone that… Squiddie bitch came back," Scissor bellowed in his 'best' friend's face. He had Nightstalk choked by the collar of his shirt, set to break him into perfect halves if Night's eyes even flickered the wrong way. Buzzy turned down her crying. She couldn't miss this. It was too funny! "Got it? You back the fuck away from her!"

Message received. Night looked like he wanted to pee himself.

"I-I'm… sorry. I… was… only asking that she tell us… what was wrong," Night squeakily mumbled,disastrously slow. "We can't know if she's okay if… if we don't know what happened…"

"Buzzy!" Ha! Well done, Night. Scissor was on her again, checking and re-checking that was okay. He really wanted that goodbye sex, huh? "Buzzy, you have to tell us what just happened!"

Check and mate was what'd happened. Marshall, in two seconds, was a free bird. Or as free as she could get him. After that, his life was out of her hands. She hoped he'd be alright…

"Th-th-th-th-th!" Just for Nightstalk, she stuttered extra hard. Fine, fine – she actually was nervous that Squddie could come back. "Th-there was a power surge!" She tugged on one the cables she'd needed to pull out from Charlotte's cell to get it ready. "I-I was doing what Night t-told me to do, b-but there wasn't enough power to m-move her and keep up w-whatever they'd done to Marshall's cell!"

"Night said they were reviving him," Scissor explained, like she didn't know.

"They were transferring," Nightstalk added. So someone's bladder was reigned back in. "If they did it before we took Alexander out of the chair, Elias would be in there."

She heard what he was really saying. 'This solves that problem'. Horrible Viking. But did everyone understand what she meant now? They were bears. Night was waving bye-bye to his worries now that the light was turned off. Not shiny? Not alive, not interested. How did they function when it took that much effort to think? Danielle was the only one with a working brain cell in the bunch!


Were they taking Alexander or what? And that hussy friend of his – what about her? Her, too?

"Over here, bumblebee," Scissor said, getting her on her feet. "Let's go over here instead. Scissor, work on Charlotte. Shh, shh, Buzzy – I'm here for you."

Yeah. Her hero.

"I can see a current in there," Night said. "He's still being revived. Scissor, maybe it's only the lights –"



"Never mind, Scissor," she sweetly sniffled. Eyes – just… blazing, Scissor came back to guide her to the other end of the room. She wanted to giggle. "You're so sweet, Scissorhands. I just can't wait to show you how grateful I am for being so sympathetic." It was hard to be certain when the room was red again, but it seemed like the blood had dropped out of his face. Three guess for what part of him it did go to. "Could you tell Night to really hurry it along? I simply have to get back to base to grieve!"

Crack that whip so Night didn't suddenly think of another 'maybe'. She wanted to leave, too. She was coming with them when they staged their getaway. Buzzy wasn't waiting to spend any more seconds with Nightstalk – or really even Scissor – but a truck was bound to put a cap on the crazy driving the Cubans were famous for rather than the cars they'd brought. Whoever was handing out licences needed to take a couple back. But her job was over. Scissor had helped her sit on the side before he scuttled off to do her bidding, and she stretched and relaxed against the chilly wall, happy with what was transpiring.

Yellow was awake. Marshall was awake! In searing agony because of the revival – how could theydo that to him?! – but alive.

And he was going to stay that way.


"Fourteen Agents in a line, thought they'd make it out in time, took too long and then got caught, now they're in the cooking pot!"

The stew was about ready. Slakt was pouring in the gasoline. Cradle had, as one of his official duties, hollowed a jagged crater in the ground, and though normally the branch put in whatever Agent limb they could fit, tonight they'd found enough stragglers to keep it exclusive to what was alive. It'd be a slow cook with a serenade of tears, both the best and the rarest. Her branch's away-team huddled by the edges to look in. A few had swung their feet over the side, kicking more rubble down. Danielle didn't see Magnus or Glue among them. They were likely off managing a private stew. She allowed it. The two were worthy warriors, and the deal they'd made when they had joined was that they be allowed a moment of 'therapy' in every fight, as long as they weren't critically required and as long as the branch had a handle on it. They'd come along eventually.

"What a waste of his work." Thinking was easier, but the pressure in her mind hadn't lessened. She'd be better to say it'd been gathered in a ball she had to crawl under and squint around. Days it took to earn this. Earn. The only part stopping her from losing it on them was knowing the gesture outweighed the strain. Sage flashes of wisdom like that were what turned her mind in directions the others couldn't bring themselves from battle to notice. She didn't mind: the full satisfaction of her people had been part of the goal. She just wished they'd had more to do. Patten normally didn't get involved without filling his pockets with doom. "These suits are spectacular, but to fill them with… amateurs…"

"Yeah. Weird."

Dalton wiped his hands on the floor. Tile wasn't a great towel, but he was getting somewhere with it.

Invisible. It was an incredible take when she thought of the theoretical challenge. Had Patten honestly put himself into it – and had the Germans been slacking for whatever possible reason – this could have been the sideswipe that'd done them in. She'd had her best here. She never suffered cold sweats, but the potential loss was leaning on her. It came with questions like 'why go this way', 'why turn down the opportunity', 'why have guards here at all, if they were going to be tossed like rags'. It hadn't been Bergmann's intervention, because she'd alerted them only today. Danielle had to put a face to the aggravating discrepancy, or she might wind up downgrading Cryptic from 'hideously delusional' to 'understandably misled'. God knew she didn't have the hours to lose divining whether there was more to Patten than she'd thought, not when the great response was assuredly 'no, there isn't, and there has never been'.

"Why start now, but Patten might think this is clever," she said. "This is his version of a trap." The bulk of his forces were either killed or trapped in a pit, no further reinforcements were available thanks to communications having powered down, nothing else had been in the way to stop the theft of Charlotte – certainly, to her, it had every typical Patten 'I am trap' traits. Most. Where was the overwhelming firepower? Bergmann's security had put up a fight; Patten's friends hadn't been remotely productive, and the silence set into the building seemed to say they were alone. No second wave? No surprise attack? "Don't kill them. I'm not done."

"No matches," Dalton ordered. "Danielle wants to talk."

The branch would get something out of it. That part was crucial, because they needed entertainment. Danielle's branch might have loved her, but they loved killing Agents more. These interruptions were a gamble to find something better buried between the lines, or next time they wouldn't be so cooperative in delaying their stew when it mattered. Her branch was not an easy family to manage. She got by. Nothing else so deserved her concentration.

"Tell Auldegg to get one out. String it up."

"Auldegg." Their seamstress always found the best view in the room. For now, the old woman hung over the pit, staring down with her crinkled eyes. She was pleased to help wherever she could. "String."

This would be fast. Their seamstress' webbing flicked down and stuck onto the arm of somebody. Three more pulled out the rest of the limbs. Steadily, Auldegg hauled out an Agent, raising it until it could slowly spin on its chains at the branch's eye-level. A girl, they were elated to note. She was younger than the others, and would therefore be the easiest to intimidate. She was already crying. These types always gave the best shows. Did this count as something buried?

"Tiny Agent's spinning 'round, 'cause now she's pulled out from the ground –" Cradle was their ditch digger, so Slakt Tand had taken it upon himself to master the ceremonies. They'd grown accustomed to the rhyming over the years, so much so that the first time they'd had a stew without Slakt, the branch refused to cook until they'd come up with a jingle to mark the occasion. To put that into perspective, Frysskal once knifed a Cuban over a pun. "Thinks she's safe 'cause she's much higher, but she's our first to catch on fire." Then Slakt doused her with whatever gasoline was left. The Agent sputtered. "Hope your web's not flammable, Auld."

"I kinda hope it is," Riposte said. "Because – like… it'd look cool when Auld drops her."

The branch was in vocal agreement.

"Put a littl' gas on the thread, love," Auldegg called down. "Mind y'fingers! We don't want nothin' singed down there!"

"You're the awesomest nana ever." With the branch still in agreement, Slakt Tand basted the webbing, too. "Is Danielle switching out?"

Hell no. She'd served her time for the month.

"You're translating," Danielle said. She pointed at Dalton. Their strength had run down enough for the rest to see a ghostly ripple give its answer. A few hours would flesh her out to a Hollywood-style of spirit. CryShadow, were it here, could've made a flowchart about what movie she'd fit in with as she went along. Despite it, the branch understood. "Ask her how long she's been here."

Dalton liked being a hulking brute. He gnashed his teeth like he was chewing through bone. What a ham, even if it looked as impressive as it sounded. He heaved his legs towards crater and the Agent hanging over it. The branch got excited because they thought he was going to fall in. Not to comment on their faith in her brother's dexterity, somewhat justified given their unusually extreme build up for the attack, but she'd switch before he would fall if he did. That was how they worked. As it quickly turned out, to the modest disappointment of the others, Dalton knew how to walk. He lazily batted the Agent on the web, hitting her with a hollow thud that nearly prompted Danielle to ask Auldegg to pull up another, but he knew how to hit, too. The Agent was intact. Good enough.

"How long have you worked here?"

"Three years." There was no pause in the weeping. The Agent was praying her prompt answers granted her mercy. There were calls of protest from the pit that Cradle put a stop to, but Danielle knew what they were really complaining about: not getting the same chance. Patten called anyone who worked for him an 'elite', but these were of considerably lesser stock. Semi-elites, if she could prove it. These were Patten's, but they weren't Patten's… quality. "I don't do much. I'm new – I'm not important…"

"There goes keeping you alive for ransom," someone said.

The branch swelled with laughter. The Agent would have hung her head in shame if she was able. If Scissor was here, he would have cut it off.

"Ask who she works for. Ask what she does do."

Dalton curled the questions out, breathing fog from his throat that sunk into the Agent's face. The branch thoroughly enjoyed it. The sharp face of horror at the heat of his breath wrapping over the girl gave them one of the few instances in which they were actually jealous of Danielle's power. Dalton was an entertainer when he stepped on this blood-drenched stage.

"I'm – just… I watch," the Agent said. "I only watch, I just get information for Eric Pa–"

That was as far as she got. The hacking chukles of the branch stamped over whatever else she would say. Dalton batted her again, and the immense surge of exultation from the others encouraged him to beat her almost to death where she hanged.

On the other end, merciful hell, did this girl just say what Danielle thought she'd said?

"She's a damn spy." A damn spy! A spy! "Who was she spying on?"

Dalton crowed it at her. The Agent was a sobbing, bleeding, broken mess.

"I'm – just – Agent Bergmann," she pleaded, like it was her ticket out of here. "He sent – my boss – he asked us to – we're just here to watch her! Just to find out what she's doing!"

"Did you find anything?"

Dalton didn't ask quite as nicely as Danielle had.

"No – not –" She was bawling and coughing and snivelling at once. "We weren't trying to find anything wrong. He told us not to worry about anything being wrong – he wanted schedules and… and routines and… he wanted to know what she was doing, not what she was up to!"

"Holy shit, you missed out," Slakt Tand said. The branch found that uproarious.

"Why did he want schedules and routines?"

"To keep track of her. He didn't trust her," the Agent said. "She had – I mean, she had Charlotte Carter in here! He had – he didn't –"

Dalton got her to shut up. The other Agents in the pit didn't seem as envious of her 'chance' anymore. Her brother turned back and lobbed over his shoulder, "What do you think?"

Was that a trick question?

"Patten's retarded," she said back. "What else do I ever think?"

Their powers were too built up for him to understand an explanation more advanced than that. Okay, this was how it worked: a fucking spy? Patten had flooded Bergmann's building with spies? That explained the huge bias on getting the best stealth suits, which had been… dammit, the Russians were supposed to be on top of Agency technology and the Germans were supposed to know where the development funds were channelled. There was no telling how long Patten had had these people and how many more there were, but a budding relief hit her for the second time when she remembered they were spies. Really! That she believed! And the fucking order to 'not worry about what was wrong' – yeah, that had Patten over it, too. What the hell was he looking for? He'd spent the last so many years going bananas over appeals to have his girlfriend moved, but he stopped short of digging out real dirt? … Alright, that was something she couldn't dismiss right away. She'd confer with Cryptic and Bergmann when they were back at the united base, but for now, she'd treat it as a separate issue. Spies! That destroyed everything the Russians had been saying. The pieces were in place and they didn't look like the picture on the box. Whatever Patten had wanted the spies here for, it proved two things: he was more than willing to send his forces in, and he had failed to do so. More importantly, he'd outfitted his Agents with such marvellous armour and guns that it said he'd been happy to try to protect his assets. These were guns any idiot could shoot. These suits didn't need the training. Again, again it said everything she'd been pointing at. Patten put in the effort where he'd thought it was useful and hadn't where he didn't, and when there was the slight potential for his forces to pitch in, there was still the overlying order not to get involved. It was clear why. They were shit at hand-to-hand and even worse at their aim, although Plaster would be on doctor duty for a few of Danielle's family. What did it add to? What was the total?

Patten did not plan to be attacked.

The Russians were wrong. Try to explain it. She challenged anyone to try. Come up with an answer that explained how Patten, who'd cut himself off from real information, who'd neglected to send in real forces, who hadn't issued any protective measures, who hadn't even had a reason to come here in the first place, could have possibly had this as part of his almighty scheme. There was no way! There were – fucking – just – look at the state of this place! It was ruined in the best way the Nordics knew! There was a fucking sinkhole in the lobby that they were about to turn into a gas-powered flame Jacuzzi! Focus on what she was saying here: Patten had influence everywhere, and if the Russians wanted her to concede that he'd known in advance, that was fine. But he didn't plan for it. He'd been completely uninvolved. The swarm of security – and according to Bergmann's records, not only were her guards of particularly crappy stock, but they'd only arrived last week via very sneaky paperwork and resource requests, completely untraceable thanks to the woman's expertise – had the complete façade of competence and the defences in these walls… That was Patten, having taken tour after tour of this facility and testing all of Salcon's budget with 'defensive suggestions'. Without Buzzy slipping in and Bergmann leaving the door open, this was an impenetrable fortress. Good work, Patten. Sorry that it didn't pan out.

It was funny. Charlotte had been protected. Both the building and the security staff count – increased on six separate occasions by the man himself – had Patten's seal of approval over it. Danielle could relax. This was what it felt like. Things had gone fast and smoothly because they'd been made like that.


Dalton had noticed.

"Dear brother, I think this is the first plan that has ever, ever gone the way it was meant to."

This was what a flawless victory tasted like. Oh God… She never wanted this taste to end. She knew joining the branches would pay off.

"I figured he'd do more."

That's why she'd been alert when the alarm rang out about the invisible Agents. Patten's retaliation? On the contrary. They were leftovers from his original arrangement because what had been 'planned' on his end was supposed to have worked. It'd been a blessing to have him here. Elsewhere at a desk at some headquarter, he might have noticed Charlton going dark and sent out everything he owned. Here, he'd stayed back because he'd assumed something else would pop up. That was a false sense of safety, and she was glad her branch had killed it for him.

"We did well. Charlton is down. I imagine it won't be long before the Agency sends out its best scouts." It wasn't to her surprise because this had been accounted for: the best scouts were in Elmira. Them leaving meant it all was disastrously unguarded. Cryptic, it was your turn. "Is that Plaster?"

The good doctor, moving quickly down the stairs and – whoops, careful now. Dalton had ripped those to pieces. Fortunately, they'd run out of Agent-on-a-String and Auldegg had her hands free to scuttle across the ceiling and lower a thread down to Plaster to join. The doctor did, nodding his head tightly, mushing his face into an interesting combination of fear, awe, illness, discovery –


"Translate." Because she might have spoken too soon. That was Plaster's 'I found something really good but that's my version of really good that's actually bad news for you' face. "Ask him what he found."

Dalton's head swivelled, languished, until he'd turned and backed from the crater's edges. Plaster had something important to share. They would have to break off from the stew and leave the branch to it, who, on their part, didn't mind and went to work chopping vegetables and throwing in spices, since nothing said 'thin cover for setting people ablaze' like legitimate ingredients. Slakt Tand's idea.

"Danielle," Plaster said, rushing up. He was straightening the corners of his coat in agitation. His knees were stained with blood, and it'd been smeared on the cuffs of his pants as well. "Danielle, I –" He squinted. "Danielle?"


"Oh. Then anyway – fine – the both of you," Plaster said, acting the excitable fellow he often was after every morbid sea of serendipity. He fidgeted with his bag strap when he tired of playing with his coat's zipper, and he, after reaching them, stepped farther away, prodding them to put more distance between their unscheduled meeting and the others. "Hi. Danielle. Where are you?" She waved. He caught the outline. "Ah. Well. Alright. Um…" Take your time. The annoying part of adopting a German was that they weren't quick to shake their etiquette. The Nordic branch wanted things spelled out fast; the Germans measured each word for maximum neutrality. She respected that, but this wasn't the time to be caught on it. "Lamarre's here."

"Dalton, switch. Alright, people! Light it and leave – we've got a new deadline and we're out in three." Her fucking head was crushing in on itself! Fuck this – she'd be dealing with it all week and now it was back! She lumbered over to the pit, ready to bash in anyone who said shit about it. "Plaster, where'd you leave him?"

"Upstairs, in Bergmann's office," Plaster said. He was quiet 'cause he didn't want the others hearing. They'd start a riot and that be a new fucking pile to clean up after. "He found the patrol."

"The patrol wasn't supposed to be in her office," the ghost said, floating at her shoulder.

"I think I know where the patrol was supposed to be, Dalton," she chomped. "Move it, Slakt Tand! Get them burning!"

"You told us we had until CryShadow came back," the branch whined. They whined in a group – their voices, argh, they scratched at her ears. "Why is there a new deadline?"


"That's why."

What the fuck was that? The branch jumped in fright. Danielle's fists closed into heavy cannonballs of density. She'd sling them into any Agent's face, no matter who the fuck he thought was cominghere for no fucking reason. Second wave? Was it the second wave? Did Patten – fuck, wasLamarre the ambush? That son of a bitch! Did he have a goddamn suit, too?


Out from the halls of the second floor, ripping over the ceiling of the lobby, came a burst of darkness moving on its own. CryShadow. Their night fiend was insane. The branch scattered back into the defensive order she'd drilled into their heads, watching as the shadow broke itself against the walls, moving like it couldn't help itself, crumbling – crumbling?

"Danielle," Dalton asked, "is CryShadow coming off?"

"I don't know. Switch. There could be a fight."

Like melted cheese peeling from a roof, great strands of shadow pulled from its back and stickily snapped in the air. When they snapped, they faded into nothingness. CryShadow had to have a base – it couldn't move on its own. It skimmed untouchably under the surface or submerged some part to stretch the rest into a solid form. The way heaping drops of its shape began to vanish wasn't a concern; CryShadow did that for fun. But Danielle's eyes saw it. When the strands snapped, the ends curled and broke into dust,as if they'd died instead of dissolved. CryShadow was shattering like stone and it just kept screaming


And then it fell, suddenly deathly silent, touching nothing even though it needed to. The branch stared as their hell beast spiralled down, the remains of its body on the ceiling cracking into tattered chunks before bursting into dust like the strands. A wave of darkness tore through them as it finally hit, splashing into the floor like water. Gigantic ripples flashed out and withered away, and for several minutes, no one dared to even breathe. They were waiting. Danielle was waiting. A perfect circle of black lay where CryShadow sank, still save for the smaller rings it let out – steadily, like it was shivering. In the corner behind the receptionist's desk, Danielle saw a flicker of movement. Magnus and Glue had looked out from another room. They waited, too. Everyone – just… waited.

"… Is it dead?"

Someone had asked. She didn't know, but it'd been someone, and now the questions and the gasps picked up steam.

"Did it fall off the ceiling?"

"What happened to it?"

"Is it moving?"

"Stay the fuck away," Dalton roared at the few that dared to creep closer.

A perfect circle, rippling as though a pebble dropped in a pond. Danielle was glad she could float. She couldn't fly or move as fast anymore, but she hovered over the ruined ground to settle over the black circle. She had no way of telling what had happened. Heat Storm was the only one who talked to it, but that was in a I-talk-to-my-dolls way of kidding. And CryShadow wasn't making sound.

"Plaster," she said, speaking through Dalton. "Who did this?"

Plaster knew what she meant. A bit unsure, he fiddled with the strap of his bag, then definitively said, "I have never seen that before."

The doctor had every record of Lamarre's missions in a mental cabinet more accurate than half the real reports. It wasn't that Agent, then. That Agent. … But…

"Dalton, get them moving. Start the stew and head out," she said. God dammit. This was her fault. Whatever happened to her people was always her fault. Patten was not going to survive this mistake. "We're going to ask the Russians what they think."

"And CryShadow?"

"It's –"


Swish, swish.

"CryShadow's alive," Cradle cheered. The whole branch whooped in delight. Then they threw a match on the web they'd hung over the edge because Auldegg wasn't holding her up anymore, losing their minds was the fire zipped down and sent the pit up in fire with a noisy vwhoomph. "The shadows can't be stopped!"

Yes. CryShadow was alive. So alive – and from what she could tell, so okay – that it'd, twisting out of the black circle, had given itself a shadow shake and then swish-swished away, sneaking under Danielle's ghostly legs like it was brushing by as a friendly pat. It didn't stop before it went out the door. In seconds, it vanished in the night.

"Plaster, did it look…?" 'Did the shadow look healthy?' Because that's what she was about to ask. Plaster shrugged. Alright, fine. "Dalton, switch with me. Great, stew's on. That's it. Go." Took their fucking time to leave, but they kicked more crap down and spat on the fucking Agents and shoved off, heading home. The Cubans – where were the fucking Cubans? On their way. Whatever had fucking happened to it, CryShadow never forgot its role, and its role meant that thing couldn't leave until they all good. Better than an egg-timer. "Magnus. Where are you heading?"

"The cell team found Alexander."

That got everyone excited.

"I didn't say 'stop walking'! Move it, people – pick up the pace!" And to Magnus: "So what are you doing? Gonna get him?"

"They say there's the other girl too and they can't juggle her with Carter." Magnus' pointy hair-metal head jerked over to Glue. "She's not staying. I'll be back with the bodies. Tell a Cuban to drive around once or twice for me."

"It's a good thing we're on nice terms, because that's one hell of a favour to ask," Dalton said. "They're skittish. There's a reason they aren't parked outside to wait."

"Do you mind not fucking narrating every branch quirk in my ear? I know that," she said back. "Okay, Magnus. You can stay. But talk to Plaster first – he's got a newsflash you need to know." God dammit, Patten! Bringing all his fucking friends – goddammit, Breton, fucking dying in the first place!


"The Cubans are here. Find your ride-buddies – Slakt Tand! Enough with the gasoline!" She didn't have a problem with burning the building down, but it'd take too long. "Magnus, you keep that fucker Alexander contained. Don't let him out of your sight and don't let him wake up if he's out. Don't make eye contact. And as for his friend, have a grip on her, too."

Was that it? It was hard to hold a mental checklist together in this pressurized brain. She banged on her head with the side of her fist, loosening up. That had to be it. Everyone was accounted for, alive or otherwise. Fucking Patten… What she said didn't change because it was more proof: if Lamarre was here, why wasn't he out? Patten must've told him to stay put. He must've been so sure the guards would handle it… and then when it was clear they couldn't, it got too late to send him out. But the fucking trouble was both of them being here at all.


"Have it organized. Where's my truck?" She proudly trudged to the open air. The glass from the door crunched under her feet. "Let's get the fuck gone."


There was no hope of walking quietly in here. His footsteps rang like hammers through thick ice. So it was in the aftermath of a Nordic-led attack. The halls themselves wept from the scars they now bore. He felt selfish seeing them. Part of him, however, was back inside its element. He knew these marks. They came from organic steel, for lack of a better term until the Agency had its chance to study it. Magnus: another old face. Walking here, Benoit had gone around a small hill of a person cut in squares and piled to say they'd crumpled on themselves seconds later. The Cube was on TV last week. Then this was CryShadow's signature. That gash at the corner, though, was not one he recognized. It'd pushed through the wall – several walls – and in the distance he could hear the wind whistle. All of it drew from the smell downstairs. The Nordics called it 'stew'. He called it was worse than what had ever been done to them, but that was only his opinion.

They'd done well. He saw the base was ruined from the second floor to the first, both thoroughly and with an air of open pride. It'd been on fire for the half hour he'd waited before venturing out. He'd been trying to clean a little there. No luck in it, but… he'd be fine to blame the party on Eric. Speaking of which, there he was, as calm and quiet as anyone could expect. He didn't react when Benoit joined him.

"You should have told me," he said, eyeing the changes in the room. Carter was gone. That's what they'd been after, was it? Elias' cell was dark, too. "I would have stopped them."


Eric was posted at the wall in line with the freshly emptied space. His Anti-Agent face was aglow of the dark red from having one less body to light it. So the A-1 was thinking, and his smile was dimmed in accordance. He looked reflective underneath it, his arms crossed in meditation, and although he was naturally amused like always, by what this time couldn't have been good.

"I'm sorry about her." But only out of professional courtesy. "I know you were close." In a way. In a way that said if that'd been 'close', then Eric and Madeline were damn near best friends.

"Hmm?" Eric had vaguely turned his ear towards him, not paying attention, not really caring, and not budging his eyes from the gap in the row. After a second moment, he clued in that, yes, Benoit was here, and then finally turned to look at him, too relaxed to move anything else. "Whassat?"

Clearly, the man was devastated.

"Carter," Benoit said. "She's gone."

"… Yeah – that's… uh…" Eric twitched an eyebrow at the space. "It's come to my attention."

Oh, right. Benoit was the stupid one.

"Well, I'm glad you're taking this so well," he said, letting out a long breath of smoke. He leaned against the wall as well. He wanted to enjoy being taller than German-Eric until he jumped back into Jean body's. "Normally one would have more to say about it, given your affiliation."


"Carter," Benoit said again. "I'm not so naïve to think you'd be grieving about it, but some word in regards to what happened would be nice to hear. Speculation on who was involved, what they did to breach our defences, how they got in, how they took her."

"Sounds like I'm not the one 'affiliated'," Eric said, grinning.

"The Anti-Agents are my job." Used to be. Since then… "Remember it's on all of us to gather facts on such an extreme violation." And here he was, explaining it to someone who'd just snickered at 'violation'. "You realize this is serious?"

"I'm handling it, Benny," Eric told him, gone back to the empty space. "It's what I do."

"Sit on your ass and not bother? Maybe you weren't paying attention, but I was," Benoit said. "The Anti-Agents broke in and destroyed us. Bergmann's security was chewed through like candy andyour personal spies –"

"My what?"

"Your spies," Benoit snapped. "The ones in the suits."

Eric stared at him with a blank face. Completely blank. He wasn't joking. But then something triggered in his head and he laughed, going, "Oh – yeah, them. Ha – no, they're not mine."

… Problem solved? In Eric's book, certainly.

"What do you mean they're not yours? You put them here," Benoit said.

"Yeah." Shrug. "You can see those guys?"

"Yes. I can." Reluctantly, he remembered his rank again. "I sent in an order for –"

"Those lenses – right, right, damn."

"That's bad, I take it?"

"No, not bad. I guess. For you. I'm just disappointed I have to fire someone else, and his name starts with 'Derek Brewer, recently deceased'."

"Please say you're joking," Benoit said.

"Aww, of course I am," Eric replied, shooting off a glittery smile. "And if anyone else asks, that's exactly what you tell 'em! Also – completely unrelated – remind me to send a fruit basket to his wife. Hey, what's better for 'sorry your hubbie inconveniently fell in a vat of acid': pears or peaches?"

"Why choose? Send them both." He'd been sarcastic; Eric seemed to take it as advice. "Can we get back to the real matter?"

"Sure! Or – wait, actually, do you mind? I'm kind'f trying to enjoy this." Eric pointed with his chin back to Carter's old place.

"'Enjoy' – what?" Already Eric had begun ignoring him. Benoit refused to accept it. In two fast strides, he was standing in front of the A-1, blocking his view and getting a tickled roll of eyes for his efforts in trying to stay focused. "What about this are you enjoying?"

"All of it."

'All of it'?

"That was an entire squad of security that died, Eric! Those were people with families –"

"And I assure you," he cut in, "those sacrifices will not be in vain. Grr, those Antis! What were they, the Swedish guys?"

He didn't believe what he was hearing. Benoit couldn't believe it. Even Eric, even someone as cavalier about murder as… What?!

"Over a hundred die, none of whom were our enemy, and you want to make jokes about it?"

"No, really! It won't be vain. Look – if you're not gonna let me gloat about it in peace, I'm just gonna get another sandwich. I'm starving," Eric said. "Sure, tag along. No day's complete without the mighty knight of Salcon crying about bruises, 'cause it never gets old. So can you see Squiddie?"

They left the room and walked into the shadows. He was guided by his lenses switching modes, but Eric puttered along like he knew precisely where everything was. And true to his word, they went up to the third floor's kitchen via the stairs to get the man a sandwich for his stupid fucking hunger.

Benoit was mad by the time Eric was eating.

"I have the feeling you didn't tell me of the attack because you knew I would stop it."

"Uh-huh. You want anything?"

He'd said it with his mouth full. There wasn't the faintest ounce of… anything in his voice! Just the happiness – the fucking, smug, dead cold joy of everything else around him not pestering his bubble of mirth. Benoit knew there was a strong degree of distance from any personal responsibility in the losses the Agency might suffer, but he had never known it could be like this. For Eric to admit it so placidly, it was like he'd killed the other Agents himself!

"I don't think there's a word in any language to explain my opinion of you now."

"You should ask the Russians. They'll give you a million." He giggled. "I love those guys. I almost feel bad for terrorizing them so much. I mean – sometimes even I don't think I deserve so much credit. But I am pretty awesome, so I probably do. Are you sure you don't want a bite? I haven't seen you eat anything that wasn't liquid and in a bottle. I need you in fighting form!"

That Anti's words came back to him then. Benoit was consumed by a cruel repulsion to the very thought Eric might have been forcing them to work together – in a different way than the way they were now: willingly. It certainly sounded like it! If he'd been alright to dump so many of their people into a pit to burn, why not add a bit of this angle to it, too? He was ill from the idea, and only the shock of this falling upon him kept him from backing away.

"Fighting form for what?"

"Odd jobs, until we're regrouped. You're gonna be part two of reining in Xander. Squiddie'll be part one, but since she'll be wrapped up in that and the world keeps turning no matter how much you want it to pause, I'll have to have you take her spot for a while. Temporarily – totally temporarily, and of course I'd never dream of asking anything near as much of you as her. I just need some help with a few things."

"Like what?"

"Ah! And here's where your insight into Anti-Agent behaviour comes in handy," Eric said. "We're gonna have our counter-attack –"

"Then now you see a point in doing something?" He was enraged. "Why bother? Why kill a hundred – let the whole thing fall!"

"Benoit! I'm amazed at you! I have nothing but the Agency's survival at heart."

"By not telling me there's to be a raid and then letting our forces be slaughtered? You sick fuck – I can't imagine what psychotic things have been running through your thoughts all this time, but if you think I'll be a part of it –"

"Squiddie's here!" Eric set down his sandwich and clapped his hands. "And she brought a flashlight! What a darling, isn't she? She's great." Squiddie moved in and put the flashlight in his hand, then stepped into the kitchen's corner without a break amongst her silent work. She had her sack of crap again. Benoit glared at it, but then turned it onto Eric when the A-1 hit the switch and stuck the light under his chin. "Oooh – spooky!" He would not be getting a response to that, unless a searing hatred counted. "Come on. Lighten up. Wait, was that a pun? That's hilarious! I gotta write that down!" Deigning it was a horrible mistake to continue playing like this, he sighed and put the flashlight on the table. "Okay, Moody Pants. What's your superior A-3 take on things?"

"'A-3'," Benoit snarled back. "As though I'm somehow lesser than you."

"… Uh… no, not 'somehow'. I can draw a picture if you want me –"

Every nerve in his body woke up, teeming with a horrendous lust for blood. He had never wanted so badly to kill someone before, and he tasted the scent of it in the back of his throat.

"You're the monster," he said. "Not me. You."

"Cute. About those Antis…"

"You're on your own. I'm done. I can't do this."

The words left him weak.

Eric laughed, like it was the most childish thing he'd heard before.

"You're quitting? What, the Agency?"

"Just you."

"Well, I wouldn't recommend that," Eric said. "You'll cause more deaths than I did, and that'll be out of spite, not a bigger purpose."

"Don't you fucking say this was for a purpose," Benoit told him. "I don't know them any better than you, but I won't treat them as pawns."

"Benoit, we're all pawns! Some of us just don't lose sight of that back row of the board. There's a method to my madness," Eric said. "There always has been. That's why I'm an A-1."

"Bullshit, you asshole – you're an A-1 because you murdered one of the last ones!"

"That's just a rumour, Benny."

"And that is fucking hilarious and you should write that down, because I remember hearing from you that you always take rumours as a fact," he spat. "Why would you think I'd treat this as anything less, now that I see how natural it'd be to you?"

"Ouch, okay? My feelings are hurt."

"T'me fais chier, tabarnak, so fuck you, fuck your plan and fuck everyone that tries to help you! I said I was done."

And he left to – "I put a bomb in Charlotte's cell."

… He saw the path he'd have to take if he turned back now. But…

As cold to him as he'd been to this massacre, Benoit stayed in the room and returned his attention to the man. His face was one of expectation and polite welcome to Benoit's audience.

"A bomb."

"Not a real one. A virtual one. They can't have her in a truck all day, and to put her on a powered system means uploading her to theirs. I know their tech. What I don't know is their location." Eric's smile was serious, firm in what it was explaining. "They put her in, the bomb flies out, we get the signal that tells us what they think is the most secure spot in their territory."

"One of a thousand."

"But one of the few everybody involved has access to. You know them, Benoit – probably better than me." Not true. He did, definitively. "You've been out chasing Alex for a few years, but the basics don't move that fast. The branches hate each other and that's been since day one, but they're working together now. The Nordic branch, Danielle? She's got it in her head that this'll be her final strike. She's cut deals in every way to get the Germans and Russians on board, and then their all their friends jumped in after that, but those three won't change the bottom line. Wherever they took Charlotte, it's where they all are, 'cause they can't trust only one of them to have her. You tell me that's something you're gonna walk away from - and I swear to you, if you leave, you aren't coming back to it. I'll forbid it, I promise, and you know we need you involved."

Nothing in his mind had wavered, but Benoit conceded that last point: though there hadn't been many experts to start with, thanks to Alexander, he might as well be the only one left. Certainly the most experienced. They did need him.

But this was Eric.

"What else is going on?"

There was that look in the man's eye, the one that said he was about to pull rank and shut him out. No – that was the end of that. A deal with the Devil was going to be on Benoit's selected terms, and those would be subject to change whenever he fucking felt like it.

"This is a two-part strike," Eric said, giving in when he understood. "The other half? Elmira."

Benoit's eyes widened.

"They're attacking Elmira?"

"Ballsy, I know."

"We were there, Eric! We were – fucking – you let us – you let me leave?!"

"I didn't need you there. Not yet. We're going back – that's kind'f why I joined you guys," Eric said. "You're free to do your own thing – sure, whatever, but because I need you in Elmira –"

"I can't do anything from here, dammit!"

"When I need you in Elmira, which is after the second half of the attack anyway, so no matter what you were thinking of doing, I'd have to shoo you out of that place, I have to make sure you're there. That means keeping you out of the know so you aren't wiping away every intruder so they can do what they came to do and what I've already accounted for. And hey, it would've been nice if you weren't off to Charlton so I didn't have to dance around with Maddie, 'cause she's such pleasant company and I'm glad I got you quality time with her too, but also 'cause – gee, I dunno, the Nordics may have changed their minds once they found out I was here? Yeah, I'm super sorry I dinged your holy sense of ethics by letting some guys die the way they've been trained to expect and agreed to, but this is more than them. They'd understand if they gave a fraction of the shit that you do."

Eric did not mix words when he knew he couldn't afford to.

"Why after the second attack?"

"Those are details you don't need."

Of course.

"And March? Where does she fit?"

"Somewhere separate from you."

Benoit frowned at that.

"So you have planned for her."

"I plan for everyone – as I meet them or when I hear of them or when they get involved. Case in point: Xander. That is a fun fucking bonus. Rudy? Hilarious curse! That's twice the kid's screwed something up for me! One more time and I'm just gonna give him to the Antis to play with. The guyruined my element of surprise."

"What surprise?"

"The spies," Eric cried, annoyed behind his grin. "Shot one in the face – can you believe that? Sorude! I figured it wasn't gonna be an issue 'cause they're all rookies anyway –"

"Explain it. Now."

Eric's eyebrow twitched. His smile did, too. Benoit didn't care.

"They're new suits – the next level. They're completely invisible." Invisible? "You didn't know. They all show up the same to you. But they are. Fully. Unlike the old ones, like what Jason has, they don't show up on anything, except for one very, very special piece of equipment." The lenses. "Ourlenses. I dunno what the hell happened to Jean's, but he wasn't supposed to have them anyway." Eric tapped the side of his glasses. "Just me. And those wearing that suit."

'Brewer', was it? Derek Brewer? Benoit would have to thank him, provided the fool escaped Eric's wrath.

"Why are they here?"

"Training. They stay for a month and practise stealth techniques, and I make sure they do by telling 'em to individually provide some part of Maddie's schedule. Simple stuff, but to confirm they're able to pick out information on request. After a month, they're weeded out to go to bigger and better things or not. Surprise: this class didn't graduate."

Then he'd been right. They were never guards.

"And what was the point of that?"

"To get 'em good and ready," Eric said. "The Anti-Agents, I mean. When they find my invisible suits in Elmira, I don't want them holding back."

"You're letting them die, too?"

"What? Nooooo – I'd never let anyone die, not even these ones here! It might have happened that Rudy shot one and then the cat was out of the bag and then that ambush opportunity was lost and the Antis went on safari, but it was just an unfortunate turn of events that, really, works outquite nicely for me, 'cause I technically didn't have to have these guys crowding around but doing it like I did means I might as well pop the champagne if you haven't it guzzled by now. These ones here are unassigned. Check them – there's no mark. I imprint all my property." He tapped his glasses again, this time on the stem's design. "See? So wherever you got the 'mine' thing from, put it back."

"They still died," Benoit said.

"Yes they did, but they were unassigned, not mine, like I keep saying. That's okay – it's an easy mistake to make. The Antis'll get it. It's not like they're gonna run into Elmira thinking the ones there are the exact same as the ones here. I mean – wow, talk about underestimating your opponent," Eric laughed. Then he stopped, filling up on a friendly, considerate tone. "Although – gee. Imagine if they did. That'd bring back a whole lot of the surprise, wouldn't t? And in such close quarters with – like… two ways of getting out…" He had actually thought about this. And if Benoit helped… "So?"


Eric was patiently at ease. The shine from the flashlight almost seemed to come from him, pure and honestly.

"We need you," he was told. The sincerity in Eric's voice was overwhelming. "Are you on board with this?"

"I don't know."

"It's your choice, and it's whatever you decide, but you do know."

… He was right. Although quite frankly, it felt more like Benoit had to help. The Agency needed him. They would try regardless but fail if he wasn't there. The damage would be catastrophic. He…

This was how it started.

Deep within his chest, Benoit's heart was ice.

"Order me."

"… Excuse me?"

"You heard what I said."

Eric was confused.


"Because, Agent Patten," he replied, "I'm an A-3, and you're an A-1. That's my only link to you." It'd been subtle, so subtle, but the choice was not a choice. It was a death sentence. "And because, Eric –" This deal was on his terms. "– I'm not doing you a fucking favour."

"… This is doing me a favour?"


"It will be, because I told you I was done."

Eric wore that surprised face well. Benoit knew he was safe. He had the only shield against this man's power-through-hysteria: undivided indifference. If Eric really needed him, he'd have to accept he'd only get what he asked for, and there was nothing Eric hated like predictability. Besides Carter, but she was special.

"You're serious?"

"Unless you're not." Benoit had earned another smoke. "Unless you lied, and this isn't as 'for' the Agency as you'd like me to –"

"Alright, you're ordered. Geez."

"Was that so hard?" For him? Oh yes. "Get used to it, because I won't change my mind. The instant you leave it up to me, I'm gone."

But for now, he was simply gone to bed. He'd search for a nice one. There would have to be at least one room here the stew's stink didn't reach.

"Squiddie, could you let dear Xander out of his cage," he heard Eric ask as he was left behind.

Benoit snorted at it. Good luck, Elias. Remember: the key to surviving was not to kill him.

Right away, Elias was doomed.