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Devil With A Blue Dress (45)

1 .

Eh, I wanted to edit those chapters, anyway. One more time with feeling!

A mysterious woman in blue recruits the nine classes

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Devil With A Blue Dress
 
Chapter 1
 
Somewhere mad…
 
“I got the German; it wasn’t difficult.”
 
The woman in blue glanced at her left arm where a bandage was hidden beneath her jacket’s sleeve.
 
Well, not terribly difficult.
 
Standing at a pay phone with the receiver held between her ear and shoulder, she took a moment to flip through a little notebook produced from a pocket and made a thoughtful humming noise.
 
“No, he didn’t say anything definitive, but expect a call from him within twenty-four hours.”  She paused and a rueful little smile crossed her features.  “Just trust me on this. It's why you hired me, after all.”  Looking up from the booth she allowed her gaze to trail up the stark, concrete walls of the building before her as the voice on the other end rasped into her ear.  “I’m about to talk to the girl.  I assume you’ve already gotten in touch with the staff here?  Good.  Anything else I should know beyond what’s in the dossier?”  Nodding slowly, listening, she picked at an imaginary piece of lint on her jacket front.  “All right, then, I’ll contact you once I’m done here.”
 
Hanging up the phone and stepping outside of the booth, she spared a last glance at her parked Bel Air, a dormant, silver predator gleaming in the sun, straightened and murmured under her breath with an arched eyebrow.  “Just trust me on this.”
 
* * *
 
Dr. Carlyle Schmidt had small teeth, a suit the color of mustard that had been left out of the jar too long and a way of looking at the woman in blue that made her want to shove a finger up her nose just to make whatever lecherous fantasy he was entertaining about her collapse like a flan in a cupboard.
 
But because she was a professional, she refrained.
 
Instead, she returned his smile and bobbed her head as he said, “Of course, we’re always happy to do what’s in our patient’s best interests.  We were very pleased about the inquiry concerning case 451.  She has been unresponsive to most therapy and medication combinations and we’d felt she would do best if moved into an adult facility upon her majority.  However, if Helen is willing to sponsor her for the program that was outlined for us, we’ll do everything in our power to cooperate.”
 
The familiarity almost made the doctor’s companion roll her eyes openly.  He was about two steps away from an actual, ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ and it was beginning to annoy her.
 
I am privy to sensitive information.  I am being trusted to do this job.  I am name-dropping because I get to talk directly to The Boss.  I am Very Important.
 
“And we appreciate that,” the woman said with a polite smile.  “Of course, I’ve been sent to ascertain conclusively whether or not she’ll meet the criteria we’ve established.  Charts, files and statistics only go so far.”
 
“Naturally!” Schmidt replied with an eager expression as he got to his feet.  “Follow me and I’ll take you so you can have a word with her.”
 
Orderlies walked up and down the hallways the pair traversed, seeming to perform a mass, synchronized ritual whose finer points were secret to all but the participants.  The woman in blue fiddled, grinning amusedly for a second, with a tag indicating she was a guest in the facility named Aster Hargraves.  As her guide babbled away beside her, she busied herself by counting doors and emergency exits, noting the lack of windows and watching the practiced, ant-like patterns of the facility’s employees.  Presently they arrived at a small, glass-encased booth beside a door in which a bored-seeming nurse sat, looking up from her cup of coffee as Schmidt and his guest approached.  A nod from the physician elicited a jab at something on her side of the station, the door buzzing like an upset swarm of insects before the mustard-suited man opened it and led the way into a more open area.
 
A number of tables were spread throughout a spacious room, their tops strewn with books, board games and art supplies.  The occupants were exclusively girls, appearing to be between ages ten and seventeen.  They had no particular order about them, a few of them in knots of three or four doing one activity or another while others went about solitary pursuits.  Over the whole of it hung a peculiar pall through which they all moved that the woman calling herself Aster Hargraves likened to honey bees whose keeper had engulfed them in smoke. How much was induced by whatever medications they were taking and what was merely the soul, or lack thereof, of the building getting to them all was difficult to tell, but the woman in blue found the target of her visit immediately.

Solidly built, the girl had a vaguely Asian or Native American cast to her features, with elegantly upswept eyes. Her black hair was short and boyish, which only made more of her high cheek bones and revealed small, well-formed ears. Her skin was smooth and coppery, bringing the burn scars into sharper relief.

They were, admittedly, not numerous, but undeniably present. Chiefly centralized on her hands and lower arms, their glossy, mottled, uneven texture played a stark contrast to the skin surrounding them. Beneath her patchwork hands was a sheet of paper upon which the girl was drawing with colored pencils. It seemed an abstract work; a piece consisting of varied swirls and spirals all in warm, vibrant shades. Crimson blended into vermillion and mingled with canary and scarlet that all bled together into a deep, velvety heart of maroon.

There you are.

Schmidt was going on about something, but the woman in blue was already leaving his side, no longer having a use for the man and eager to do away with him as one does the wrapper from a candy. Her passage was heralded by halted conversations and eyes lifting from their tasks and past times to take in the stranger in their midst. At times such as this, the woman in blue had a way of moving that hinted at something panther-like living in her hour-glass figure. Something about the swing in her waist or the motion of her arms and hips called to mind primal, vestigial memories of things living beyond friendly circles of firelight and laws that could be articulated in anything besides instinct.

While 451 did not move until the woman was standing close by, a slight tenseness in her shoulders communicated that she was well aware of the new presence. Looking up at the facility's guest, she revealed eyes the color of charcoal that seemed oddly flat and lightless. The guest calling herself Aster smiled to the young woman. "I hear there's a garden. Would you care to walk with me there for a while?"

The younger of the women furrowed her brow and spared a glance at Schmidt, who stood in the nervous uncertainty of a man carrying a baton in a relay race and finding himself with no partner to whom he might pass it.
 
“Don’t worry about him,” reassured the woman in blue with a smile, gesturing for the other to join her as she started toward an exit whose security was tended to by an orderly.  “In fact, why don’t you not ever worry about him again?”
 
Setting aside her art supplies, the charcoal-eyed girl got to her feet and followed her visitor, a nod from a rather put-out doctor to an orderly allowing them passage through the back door and out into the yard beyond.  Currently empty of personnel and patients, the garden was a simple affair, having had to have been made without the aid of any sharp tools, and its plants were of a hardy variety easily tended to.  Walled in, its two occupants were nevertheless favored by a breeze warmed by the day’s fair weather.  Watching the girl’s gaze linger on a riotous gathering of fiery nasturtiums, the blue-jacketed woman smiled and spoke in a tone like molten caramel.
 
“Why did you kill your baby sister?”
 
The girl wheeled around, her previously lightless eyes now bright with the fearful, animal anger of a cornered dog.  Her fingers curled, talon like, and were held tense at her sides as her shoulders hunched.  She sputtered a few inarticulate noises before finally spitting out words like water spattering from the spout of a boiling, over full kettle.  “Who are you?”
 
“Someone,” the woman continued in a soothing tone, “who can keep you from being institutionalized for the rest of your life.  In fact, I can make one phone call and you can leave out the front door in a cab; whisked away from here forever.  But that will depend largely upon how our conversation develops.”

Seeming at a loss and thoroughly unsettled, the girl eventually came to an uneasy stance, shifting her weight from foot to foot and holding the woman in blue in an unblinking gaze.  “Okay.  What is this about?”
 
“This is about you potentially coming under the employ of the entities which I represent.  You fit a particular profile for a position they wish to fill.”
 
“What kind of position?” the girl said incredulously, raising her brows.  At this, the older of the two withdrew a tiny box from her pocket from which she removed a single match in one liquid motion.  Instantly the youth’s eyes became fixated upon it, her mouth hanging open fractionally and her lower lip quivering.  “How…did you get that in here?”
 
“I’m a clever one,” she said simply, twisting the object between her fingertips.  “No one believed you about your father, did they?”
 
A quavering breath passed from the charcoal-eyed girl’s opened mouth, her frame watery-seeming and vulnerable.  “I don’t…he didn’t…”
 
“Who would believe a shifty, tricky little chink girl, anyway?  Not even your mother would hear it, so why would anyone else?  You had no one to turn to – no control over your life and what course it would take.  But that’s what you craved over any other thing, wasn’t it?  Control.”  She struck the match, the head flaring to life like an inflamed nerve which drew a soft gasp from 451.  “That’s why you became so fixated on this.  This was something you could control – something dangerous and potentially destructive that obeyed you.  Even if you had no say over what happened to your body, you had this under your thumb.” 
 
The breathing of the girl began to become ragged as the match burned down and was eventually flicked out with a deft motion of the blue-clad woman’s fingers.  “How did you…I never told anyone about why…”
 
“Like I said – I’m a clever one.  They found you outside of the house in your back yard with your arms plunged into the koi pond, the inferno you started to your back.  Now, I wondered a while if this was a case of you losing your mastery over the fire itself, but I don’t think it was. I think it was a different loss of control.”
 
Shaking her head, the facility’s resident let out a pitiful bleat.  “I didn’t know it would hurt like that.  I thought…I thought it would be all right.  I didn’t understand…I was sure I knew!  Then it started happening and it hurt so much!  I couldn’t think…I didn’t even know I was running until my arms were in the water.  I didn’t mean to – I didn’t!”
 
“No, I don’t think you did mean to run.  I think you meant to have everyone in that house, yourself included, die in a way that you could control.  You’d finally have a say in what happened to you – and everyone else, too.  Now, that I can understand – taking along your mother and father.”  The woman in blue tilted her chin down and fixed her companion with a probing gaze.  And then she lied.  “What I can’t understand is the baby.  Why kill her, too?”
 
Tears cut crooked lines down the young woman’s face and she let out a bitter, humorless laugh.  “And if she lived?  Then what?  Have her dragged off to live with some foster family?  People who would do the same thing to her as was done to me?  Put her through that?”  She shook her head and her voice lowered, becoming intense and heated as an ember.  “No.  I wasn’t going to let that happen.  I didn’t kill her – I saved her.”
 
For a while nothing was said between the pair; the young woman’s visitor watching her as a cat might watch a mouse’s hole.  “Do you want a job, girl?”
 
“Where would I be going?” she said thickly, rubbing the tears from her face.
 
“Somewhere you could have that old control back; somewhere where your race and gender won’t matter one bit.  Somewhere without pills and head shrinkers and all this other useless folderal designed to make other people feel better about themselves.  Most importantly, somewhere that’s not here.”  The older woman said, taking in the expanse of the facility with one dismissive gesture.  “And isn’t that reason enough?”  She extended a hand to the charcoal-eyed girl and gave her a smile like a knife.  “Shall I make that phone call?”
 
* * *
 
People don’t usually consider shower curtains to be fire hazards.  She liked that.  It was a good place to start – cutting off a chief source of what could potentially be relief in all this. 
 
There wasn’t going to be a reprieve this time – no excuse and nothing to hide behind.  No lie would grant safe passage.  The fire didn’t care about lies and denial.  It was inexorable, unstoppable; consuming and cleansing.  The doors and windows were all jammed, sealed or obstructed.  She’d been reading – people could sleep right through the smell of smoke and succumb to noxious gases.  That was the chief killer in house fire – not the flames themselves but the smoke.
 
A splash of whiskey from the bottle she’d retrieved from the cabinet in the drawing room, the casual strike of one match, the ozone smelling of finality, and the curtain became a blaze of color.  Fire flickered upward, gaining purchase and nibbling eagerly toward the ceiling; feeling not at all like a separate thing, bur rather an extension of the girl’s body.  Fierce joy surged within her, ricocheting through her limbs and gaining momentum until it became audible as a high-pitched whine in her brain.  She realized she was smiling only after she felt pain at the edges of her mouth.
 
There was a stove downstairs which she’d prepped – kitchen towels to be set alight and a sack of flour ready to burst into the air.  The explosion would be a fine thing to see at the end.  But before that…
 
She exited the bathroom as the persistent crackling began to grown into a roar and entered the room whose walls were decorated with fanciful images; a basinet surrounded by frolicking sheep, vividly colored balloons and swooping birds.  The tiny figure within was snug and sleeping, not a care on her little features.
 
“I’m sorry it has to be this way,” the girl said softly, withdrawing her box of matches and striking one down its side, “but I don’t know how else to save you.”


Those who say the past is not dead
Stop and smell the smoke
- Smoke, Ben Folds Five

2 .

This post has been deleted.

3 .

Chapter 2

In the middle of goddamn no where...

"His name's Champion, if yer wonderin', ma'am."

Dell Conagher ambled up to the woman in a blue dress standing at the fence who was gently stroking the nose of the Appaloosa that had wandered over to greet her, reaching into the pockets of his overalls and holding out a sugar cube for her to take. "Give 'im one a' these an' he'll be your friend forever," he said with an amiable smile.

Nodding and returning his smile, the woman took the proffered sugar and, upturned palm held flat, offered it to the horse. Champion nickered softly before taking the treat, ears pricked forward.

"Such a gentleman," she said with a grin. "Champion...like Gene Autry's horse, right?"

The man beamed.  “That’s jes’ right, ma’am.  If y’don’t mind me inquirin', not many come this way.  What brings ya to my neck a’ the woods?”
 
“Something’s going on with my car,” the woman replied, gesturing to the Bel Air with the popped hood.  “I can’t figure it out.  I was actually going to ask if I could use your phone to call a mechanic.”
 
He gave a warm chuckle and waved her over.  “You couldn’ta picked a better spot t’break down, ma’am.  Don’t you bother calling a mechanic – I’ll have a look at it.  I’ve been workin’ on cars since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”
 
“Could you?” she said, tucking a lock of dark hair behind one ear with a demure smile.  “I can pay you.”
 
He held up a hand, shaking his head.  “Don’t worry about that, darlin' – happy to be of service.  C’mon inside and make yourself at home.  I’ll get my tools and take care of it for ya. I'm Dell. Please t'meet you, ma'am.”
 
“I'm Iris, Iris Tan. Thank you.”  She purred the words in such a way to make the hairs on the back of the Southerner’s neck stand on end.  Nevertheless, he escorted the woman in blue down a long driveway of hard packed dirt that ran alongside the horse enclosure to a ranch-style house with an impressive porch upon which stood a pair of rocking chairs and a sweating glass of sweet tea set on a small table between them.  Opening the screen door for her, she was struck immediately by the smell of parchment and old leather and the soft, subtle hum of clockwork.  As her eyes adjusted to the light, the woman drew in a soft breath at floor-to-ceiling shelves in the living room; packed neatly with volumes interrupted occasionally by items of curiosity such as miniature globes, ponderous metal or wooden figurines of indeterminate origin or tiny, impossibly intricate structures built in glass bottles like ships and little, turreted castles.  The walls sported almost nothing in bare spots, every inch seeming occupied by diagrams of machinery, architecture, animal and human anatomy, replicas of famous paintings; shelves that held microscopes and old radios as if they were works of art to be venerated.  A guitar rested in its stand nearby a worn, but well loved arm chair.
 
Above all, though, were the clocks.
 
They were everywhere; on tables and the mantelpiece and all over the walls.  Their designs ran the gamut – simple clocks of many regular geometric shapes, flowing, organic lines, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks and even little fob watches hung by their chains from standing hooks.
 
One might think of a living space so densely occupied as busy, but he’d somehow managed it all in such a way as to be tidy and ordered.  Everything seemed just exactly in its place; as if it could be arranged no other way.  The overall effect was that of a living thing – its anatomical lines etched out on the walls with shelves and countless book spines composing its skeletal structure and dozens of hearts ticking away to so many different beats they ceased to be separate and joined in chorus; a single, steady murmur.
 
“I have sweet tea, if you’d care for any, or ice water if that’s yer preference,” he said, slipping past her and seeming oblivious to the bones of the beast he called home.  He tried leading her to the kitchen and paused, blinking at the woman behind his spectacles when he saw she seemed unable to move.  “Y’alright, ma’am?”
 
“You…did you make all of these?” she inquired breathlessly, eyes still moving from clock face to clock face; each seeming to mark the time of a different city or country.
 
Dell followed her gaze and let out a little laugh.  “Oh!  Yeah, I did.  Bit of a hobby of mine – keeps the hands busy.”
 
It was her turn to laugh, the woman in blue arching an eyebrow.  “Deprive the Devil his plaything, hm?”  Shaking her head slowly in wonder, she took a few steps forward, kneeling to observe the working of a little fob ticking away merrily.
 
“I bring ‘em in to town now and again,” he said, running a fingertip fondly down the side of a nearby cuckoo clock. "Or use 'em to teach classes." 
 
“They’re wonderful,” she breathed.  “Do you ever do anything bigger?”
 
“Well,” he said slowly, “I work on farm equipment and cars for my neighbors every so often.  Do a little in the way of industrial art now and again with scrap I get in and can’t do nothin’ else with.”  He lifted one hand and removed his glasses, critically watching the woman as she straightened herself, trying to read in her body language. "I've worked on and off at the university in the city teaching classes, doin' lectures and the like."
 
“So, nothing complex like this on a grander scale then?” she continued.  Her voice had lost its awed tone and the demure gratitude she displayed before evaporated from her features as her posture changed.
 
Sighing, Dell pinched the bridge of his nose before perching his spectacles back on it and surveying her with a glint of weariness in his summer blue eyes.  “Lemme guess – the Company sent ya?”
 
“Very astute; although I would have thought you’d have figured that out by now,” she said with a slightly impish smile.
 
“Figured I’d give ya the benefit of the doubt,” he said, gesturing toward the kitchen.  “Still tea if ya want any.”
 
“Please,” she said, striding into the indicated room and having a seat at the table.  He followed a moment later, opening the ice box and removing a pitcher. 
 
“I get one a’ you folks out here ‘bout once a year,” he said, pouring her a glass with a shake of his head and setting it on the table for her.  “My answer ain’t changin’ – I’m jes’ fine where I am.”
 
“Out in the middle of no where, working on watches, pick-up trucks and tractors? Lecturing at universities to people who will never grasp your brilliance?” she said coolly, taking a long sip from her drink.  “You’re wasted where you are right now and you know it.”
 
“I’m perfectly content,” he insisted calmly, folding his hands on the tabletop.
 
“Your father wouldn’t agree.”
 
The man’s mouth drew into a hard line and he gave her a look that could have made a bear think twice.  “My daddy,” he said slowly, “had a different set of priorities than I do.”
 
“Oh?” the woman said, the word hanging like a mote of dust in the air as she drained another mouthful of tea from the glass.  She allowed the moment to draw itself out between them in silence for a while before meeting his gaze, smiling.  “May I see what’s in the barn, then?”
 
He blinked at her owlishly, expression like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Even so, it was difficult to mistake the gleam in his eye and the tiniest smile he tried unsuccessfully to hide.  “You know about that?”
 
She grinned back at him, running a fingertip along the rim of her tea glass.  “I do now.”
 
In spite of himself, the Texan laughed and shook his head.  “Well, alright, little lady – you finish up your drink and I’ll let you have a look.”
 
“Outstanding.”
 
The tea disappeared in long sips, the woman in blue unhurried and at ease in the kitchen as if it were her own. She teased him a bit about Gene Autry.
 
“Singing cowboy, eh?  Do you play the guitar, too?” she queried, spinning the remaining ice cube in her glass.
 
He nodded.  “I do.”
 
“You’ll have to play, ‘Back In The Saddle’ for me then, Tex.”
 
Chuckling, he got to his feet, the woman doing the same.  “Maybe later.”  Pointing toward the door leading from the kitchen to the back parts of the property he said, “Follow me.”
 
Twilight was just beginning to settle over the landscape, crickets singing as he led her toward the red barn, pulling a ring of keys from his overalls and flipping through a few of them before settling on a silver one and inserting it into a lock, letting the double doors yawn open before gesturing the woman in blue inside.  The interior was dim, and she could make out vague shapes in the gloom until he closed the door behind him and plunged them into darkness.  A click preceded a low humming noise above them and there was a sputtering sound before a series of florescent lights flickered to life, bathing them in their harsh light.  Blinking against the sudden brightness, Dell Conagher’s guest surveyed the previously shadowy shapes and made a soft noise of genuine wonderment, her eyes luminous. 
 
The first thing that sprang to mind was topiaries – works of industrial art he had mentioned standing among a series of desks and platforms being what she noticed immediately.  There were pieces that were abstract, flowing lines of silvery metal calling to mind argent flames or enormous cogs and gears welded together as if they were pieces taken from some unknowably gargantuan machine whose purpose one could only imagine.  Others were clearly made to be particular figures – a few birds and a lounging feline among others.  Most striking among them was a rust-colored Venus de Milo haloed by electric light bulbs.  Toys and knick-knacks were strewn about as well, including delicate dragonflies whose wings pumped slowly up and down or little robots resting beside remote controls, ready to be commanded.  Among the more fanciful creations, however were pieces that seemed to aspire to actual function, but appeared incomplete or had a directive the woman in blue could not even guess.  There were engines that powered nothing or objects that seemed to be half-built guns with peculiar designs.  She saw partially constructed prosthetics whose digits twitched when stimulated by electricity.  Desks were stacked with paper and schematics and diagrams were pinned to the walls.
 
It all suggested tremendous potential stymied by lack of resources or some puzzle piece not yet discovered. 

"It's wonderful," she breathed. "I'm not surprised, though. I've seen the things your father did for the Company."

"I am gonna say this once an' once only," the Southerner stated curtly. "I am not my father."

“No, you aren’t,” the woman replied simply.  “Your old man didn’t try to hide from what he was; what you are.”

Dell’s entire frame went rigid and his eyes blazed.  “And if you don’t mind me askin', what exactly are you insinuatin’ I’m hiding from?”

“The thing that made your wife leave you.  The thing you’re hiding out here in a barn in the middle of no where because you’re letting the tyranny of mediocrity and ‘reasonable voices’ dictate the terms of your life.”

The man’s face went through a few extraordinary shades of the spectrum before he spoke again.  “Ma’am, I don’t know who you think you are or where you get off talkin’ to me about my life like you know it better ‘n I do.  But my daddy let alla this consume him, and I ain’t lettin’ the same happen to me.”

“It’s already ruined every relationship you’ve tried to have and I assure you, that pattern will continue into the future.  There’s nothing you can change about that.  What you can change, though, is the Limbo you’ve stuck yourself in.”

“Of all the folks they’ve ever sent out here,” he murmured lowly, “none of them have had your unmitigated gall.”

“Well then I’m about to go a step beyond too far, so fair warning,” she said with an unconcerned shrug.  “You’re not able to hold down the meaningful relationship society keeps telling you you ought to have because none of it is as good as this.”  The blue-clad woman made a wide arc with one arm to encompass the barn's contents.  “No matter what you do or whom you do it with, you have been and always will be more satisfied by what you do out here.  And I don’t blame you one bit.  Look at all of this.  You’re a genius, Dell Conagher, and you don’t have to live by the standards of a society that would rather have you dial back your talents for the sake of their fear and convenience.  You can tell yourself otherwise, and I assure you there’ll be a ready chorus to sing along, but at the end of the day the rules and regulations that govern the masses don’t apply to people like you.  I am sorry that your father didn’t hug you as much as you would have liked or played catch with you, but you two are more alike than I think you care to admit.  The difference between you is that he embraced what he was where you’re trying to fit into a role you weren’t made for.”  Her voice lowered to a midnight tone that walked down his spine in a soft, subtle feline stride, “This life you’re living is a lie; which I do not need to tell you.”

A tense silence settled over the pair like a mantle, the woman surveying him through half-moon eyes, neither of them moving. 

“I think you need to go,” he said finally.  The words were quiet; hollowed out of any emotion or argument. 

She nodded before reaching into her pocket and pulling out a card, extending it to him from between her fore and middle fingers.  “I doubt I need to give you this, but our phone number is here.  Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – we can have a transport out to you in half an hour if necessary.  Good evening, Mr. Conagher.”

The woman excused herself, exiting out the double doors and making her way along the pasture back to a perfectly functional Bel Air whose hood she closed.  She slid into the driver’s seat and glided through the Southern evening like a silver serpent to a gas station where she plunked a few coins into a pay phone.

“Helen?  Consider him yours.” 

* * *

”Git along there, Champion!  Them gall durn injuns done come for our women folk again!”
 
Champion the tortoise took a moment to crane his neck slowly in the direction of the nine-year-old boy with a precariously balanced ten gallon hat on his head and overly large goggles before turning his attention back to the romaine lettuce he’d been progressing through. 
 
The boy made a face half a second before his hat slipped over his ears and fell down around his shoulders.  Letting out a muffled yelp, he pulled it back up again and sighed, giving his pet a pat on the shell.  Ever since he’d been given the little creature from one of the scientists at his father’s work, he’d expected it to, given the right stimuli, do something amazing.  It had been a test animal, after all, and considering the things that were done at his father’s job, he could only imagine what sorts of incredible trials and serums and procedures it might have been subject to.  He was certain that if he just said the right word or tapped its shell in a particular pattern, the little creature would reveal rockets hidden within and fly around the room or grow to gigantic proportions so Dell could ride it.  So far, however, the extent of the reptile’s repertoire seemed to be eating vegetables and mucking about in his water dish.  It was disappointing, but he did not blame his friend; it was not his fault.  One makes due with the tortoise they have, not the giant, rocket-powered tortoise they wish they had.
 
Dell Conagher was sure that he was the only boy in his school that didn’t look forward to summer vacation.  Not that it
was much of a vacation for him as he still had schooling to do.  He remembered coming here for the first time when he was six, and having been made to answer some questions and solve a few simple puzzles.  Ever since then, once the regular school year ended in Bee Cave, where he lived with his mother, he would pack his things, be loaded into his father’s pick-up truck and whisked away on a two day drive to the place where his father lived and worked. 
 
While he did not look forward to reaching the destination, the boy loved the journey.
 
They would eat at restaurants on the way where Dell could order whatever he wanted and they'd stop at places where they could look at such wonders as the world’s largest ball of twine or vegetables that bore uncanny resemblances to former United States Presidents.  Sometimes, if he was lucky, they would come across a traveling fair or circus and spend a few hours watching acrobats or riding the ferris wheel and snatching up prizes in the midway.  Dell’s father always had ways of confounding the carnival folk by winning seemingly unattainable items at games like the ball-toss.  When the boy questioned him on it, his old man would just smile, eyes crinkling and say, “Physics.”
 
His daddy was a broad-shouldered man with strong arms and hands.  These stuck out in his mind as the defining features of his father for a few reasons.  When one is a young boy strapped into the passenger’s seat of a pick-up truck looking to the driver, the driver will turn and look over the curve of his arm to smile at you; face underscored by muscle and sinew under a clean, cotton shirt.  As to the knotted hands that gripped the steering wheel, they were capable of feats of engineering the child was told by the teachers at his summer school he would someday match, as his father done before him with Dell’s grandfather.  The youth had seen a few examples of his paternal figure’s genius, often in the form of toys for his birthday or Christmas presents, but he knew that the robots, remote controlled cars and mechanical birds were probably not the creations to which his teachers referred.
 
Dell loved these road trips because he had his father entirely to himself.  Summertime was the only part of the year besides Christmas and Thanksgiving and sometimes his birthday when they could be together.  The rest of the year his father spent in the giant, hollowed out mountain with the laser in the top (because sometimes them green skinned fellers from Chiron Beta Prime forget their manners and need to be shown whose boss) working for the Company far away from his wife and son in Bee Cave.  While the boy’s every need was attended to by staff members and his tutors, he rarely was able to spend time with his dad as, Dell was told, he had important work to do.  Work, he inferred from the tone of his teachers and lessons, he would one day do as well.  It was, after all, the family business, and there seemed to be some tacit understanding that the Company’s pupil would fall into line once the time was right, following in the steps of his father and grandfather. 
 
The realization as to precisely why this made him upset would not occur to the boy until later in life.  But the younger Conagher found a tiny grain of irritation in his mind over it of which he could not rid himself.  He adjusted the goggles which his father had given him the year before.  Even ratcheted to the smallest setting, they left room to grow. 
 
He’d just lifted Champion into his arms when he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye.  Turning, he felt his heart leap at the hard hat and overall wearing figure that moved amid a few others. 
 
“Pa!” he cried, tucking the tortoise under one arm the way one might do a frisbee and running to the little gathering, beaming.  “Pa, y’wanna play cowboys and injuns?  I been teachin’ Champion some new tricks!”
 
Pushing up the brim of his hat and kneeling, the boy’s father gave him an apologetic look.  “I’m sorry, kiddo, but I got work to do.  Maybe later?”
 
“Y'always say that,” grumbled the child.  “We were gonna do it last week an’ then you got them Canadians what could start fires with their minds comin’ in, an’ the week b’fore that it was talkin’ with them mole men ‘bout drillin’ rights!”
 
“We ain’t here t’play, Dell – you know that.  I got work an’ you got your schoolin'.  It’s real important we both do our best.”

The man’s son muttered, “Yer always workin’.  Ain’t never got time to do nothin’ else.”
 
A look of sympathy flitted across the engineer’s face and he placed one knotty-knuckled hand on his son’s shoulder.  “I know it seems that way, an’ I know it don’t feel fair t’you, son.  But when y’get older, you’ll understand.”
 
The younger one of the pair felt a hot little flush of defiance wash over him, but held his tongue; Gene Autry had been quite specific, after all, about respecting one’s parents.  Instead, he only pursed his lips and nodded, taking a squirming Champion back into his hands.  Giving his child’s shoulder a squeeze, the boy’s father got back to his feet.
 
“I’ll make it up to you, Dell.” 
 
His father turning and walking away, Dell waited until he was out of earshot, placing his ten gallon hat back on his head before murmuring, “Y’always say that, too.”


"I was told when I grew up I could be anything I wanted: a fireman, a policeman, a doctor – even President, it seemed. And for the first time in the history of mankind, something new, called an astronaut. But like so many kids brought up on a steady diet of Westerns, I always wanted to be the avenging cowboy hero – that lone voice in the wilderness, fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth and justice. And in my heart of hearts I still track the remnants of that dream wherever I go, in my endless ride into the setting sun…"
- Bill Hicks

4 .

Chapter 3

In a place where arteries are punished for their insolence…

Jane Doe believed in red meat the way other men might believe in God.

The rib house was usually one he ordered from instead of coming to directly, but every once in a blue moon Jane felt the need to be in the vicinity of other men who knew their rightful place at the top of the food chain.  These were his fellows whose colons were dedicated to the cause of striking fear into the hearts of farmyard animals everywhere.  He was about a quarter-way through the rack he’d ordered when the woman in blue slid into the seat at the booth across from him.  Before he could say anything, she’d flagged down a waiter and put an order in for a full rack of ribs, two shots of whiskey and a pint of beer.

The expression on his face was like that of a dog that had just been shown a card trick.  “Lady, what in the name of Liberty’s sweet, crotchless panties are you doing?  Do I know you?”

“Not even a little, but we can change that.  My name is Viola Quitely,” she lied before giving the waiter an appreciative nod as he returned, setting down a shot of whiskey in front of each of them.  “And I’m buying you your meal tonight.”

It was a bizarre twist to the man's evening, but considering it came in the form of a raven-haired, sloe-eyed woman in a clingy, cerulean dress that revealed nothing and promised everything footing the bill for booze and ribs, it was difficult to walk away from. Nevertheless, this deviation from the norm, from the plan he'd had for the evening, raised a few red flags and he found himself rather conflicted as to how to react until she raised her shot glass with a puckish smile.

His reaction was automatic, taking up his own shot between thick fingers and lifting it, though still bewildered.
 
“To the blood of my enemies and the lamentation of their women,” she said with a dip of her chin and a wicked smile before knocking back the liquor, hissing through her teeth at the searing strength of it.
 
The lines of his posture relaxed somewhat and he let out a raucous laugh.  “I’ll drink to that, sister!” he growled and did so.  Rumbling approvingly at the heat in his belly, he looked over the woman currently sipping on her chaser.  “And what brings a pretty little filly like you here?”
 
The woman shrugged and smiled at him while looking up through her lashes.  “What can I say?  I love a man in uniform.”
 
She was being a bit generous with the term.  What he was wearing didn’t exactly seem to be regulation.  It looked more like something he’d coordinated from military surplus stores, second hand shops and hand-sewn items.  He seemed to be a pretty fair hand with a needle and thread, which was to his credit, but he looked less like an actual soldier than he did a caricature of one.  These observations the woman in blue kept to herself, bidding the waiter to return with the bottle of whiskey when he deposited the sizzling rack of ribs before her.
 
Her comment seemed to go over well, Jane grinning at her under the rim of his helmet. "Think your eyes are a little big for your stomach there, pumpkin," he chortled, tearing into another rib.

"Oh, really?" she said, leaning back a little and arching an eyebrow. "I'll bet I can go rib for rib and shot for shot with you."

"Are you challenging me, missy?" he growled, face flecked with barbeque sauce. "I'll have you know I have been subjected to unrelenting Nazi 'wurst torture! Do you understand what that is? I have had an entire pig crammed into its own intestine forced down my gullet without the benefit of any namby pamby masticating! We are talking fiber in the form of a bran muffin the size of a man's head to move that volume of pork product through twenty-eight feet of star-spangled digestive tract and back into the faces of those kraut munching back births! So, if it is a gauntlet that you throw down know that I have the gastrointestinal fortitude to deliver, princess!"

"Alright, tough guy," she replied coolly as the waiter set the bottle of whiskey between them. Pouring them both a shot and lifting hers again, the woman said, "What are we drinking to this time?"

He considered a moment before saying, “I’ll drink t’you, cupcake,” raising his shot with a craggy smile.  “There aren’t many ladies out there with your kinda spunk!” 
 
“I take it as a mark of pride,” she replied, returning his grin before they swallowed the liquor simultaneously.  The second shot went down a bit easier than the first, although she still shook her head as if to dissipate the alcoholic burn.  Her companion laughed before continuing with his rib, the woman in blue cutting one from the rack and starting on it.  Whatever else might be said about her dinner partner for the evening, he evidently had discerning taste in barbeque.  She nodded with an impressed look.  “It’s been a while since I’ve had anything like this.  It’s a nice change of pace.”
 
“What’s usually on the menu?”
 
“My family’s Irish,” she said with a little smile, “so pretty much anything boiled to the point where you could drink it through a straw.”
 
“Ah, so maybe this whiskey duel is no idle threat,” he grumbled with a toothy grin.
 
“Not at all; although you struck me as a whiskey man,” she replied, cleaning her fingertips and tossing the meatless bone to her plate, pouring them each another measure of liquor and raising the glass.  “Still, there’s nothing quite like family.  Here’s to them.” 
 
The pair shared another shot, the effects of the spirits beginning to become a bit more evident in each of them as they started into the next rib in their meal.  “D’you have a family, soldier boy?  Some lady waiting for you at the docks an’ a whole mess a’ kids?”
 
He shook his head, chewing his mouthful slowly before answering.  “Nah, nothin’ like that.  Had me a high school sweetheart, but that was years ago.”  There was a long pause as he seemed to reflect, and while she could not see his eyes, the faraway expression was easy to read on the lower half of his face.  Another shot of liquid, amber fire found its way into each of their glasses and he raised it along with the woman in blue.  “Here’s to her.”
 
They each took a drink, the duo wavering ever so slightly in their seats.  There was a long silence in which they each neglected their food, the make-shift soldier breaking it finally with, “Goddamn sons of bitches.  Manzanar.  Jesus.  She was seventeen.”
 
“Yurie’s a pretty name,” the woman in blue slurred.
 
Jane nodded heavily, fiddling with a clean rib bone between two fingers.  “She wuzza pretty girl.  Never met anyone like her b’fore or since.  Kissin' her was like comin’ home to warm apple pie. Smile like fireworks.”  He stopped mid-reach for a new rib as a dull epiphany came to him.  “Waittaminute, how d’you know her name?”
 
Her lids were low and her smile was pure, poisoned cream as she cooed, “How are the feet treating you, Jane?”
 
He made a flailing, clumsy attempt at leaping to said feet, succeeding only in a hang-a-ma-jang pose with his body caught awkwardly between the booth seat and table.  Once he righted himself, he slammed a fist down that rattled their plates and cups, glaring at her from behind his helmet.  “The state of my feet is classified information, you sneaky little minx!  Who sent you?!  Was it the Reds?!  I’m not giving up a thing, you Soviet seductress!”
 
“Right out of high school, they were taking boys left and right and you were passed over.  No - worse. You volunteered and you were rejected. It must have seemed like the stupidest reason to keep you out of the armed forces.  Flat feet.  Otherwise you were healthy as a horse.  Most young men would have thanked their lucky stars or just given up and considered another career option.  But you took it upon yourself to buy equipment and a plane ticket to Poland where you slogged around for years even after the war was finished. Maybe you had some military aspirations in your head before you even laid eyes on her.  My guess is that you at least had the seeds of it.  I think she was the reason you went through with it all, though.”  She shook her head with an inebriated little grin.  “My God, you are one ballsy bastard.  Though I guess that sort of comes with the territory of being a boy named, ‘Jane.’  Her daddy must have been furious over her dating a big lug of a white boy like you.  I admit it’s romantic in a way, though; the Romeo and Juliet of the War Relocation Act.”
 
Jane looked conflicted, his jaw quavering slightly, unsure of where to direct the tumult of feelings within him.  He finally burst out with, “It wasn’t fair, goddamnit!  They were Americans!  She was an American!  Spies for Japan…disloyal saboteurs…Jesus all you had to do was sit down with ‘em for five minutes t’see that was a load of humbug!  Somebody had to fight for ‘em!”
 
“No boys in the family to join the service,” the woman in blue added, idly spinning her shot glass, “and for once the rebellious Ms. Suzuki submitted to her parents and didn’t join the WAC.  So you took on the responsibility of defending their honor; you poor, noble son of a bitch.  Bad enough you were fighting a war, but you were doing it all on your own.  No material support, no comradeship from fellow troops, no formal training.  The isolation alone must have been staggering.  And you had no fanfare to come home to, either.  Four years too late for that and because you weren’t officially a member of the military, you didn’t have any support or benefits to help deal with the aftermath of what you put yourself through.  You sacrificed your peace of mind for their well being and nobody gave a damn because you didn’t do it within their established boundaries.”  She lifted the whiskey bottle again and poured him a measure which he quickly knocked back.  “Now that boy is gone along with the girl he went to war for, you’re who’s taken his place, and the world doesn’t make sense anymore.”
 
“Sister, I am not crazy,” he growled, hackles rising.
 
“Didn’t say you were,” the woman told him, holding up her hands placatingly.  “What I’m saying is you’re not in your element.  I represent a party interested in changing that.”
 
He gave her a puzzled expression, “Are you saying you wanna hire me to bash Nazi skulls in?”
 
“Well, I can’t really speak for the skulls’ political affiliations, but something like that, yes.  By the way, it’s Mrs. Takitani now.”  She withdrew a few photos from her pocket and tossed them onto the tabletop casually.  “She’s living in Osaka with her husband; has two kids.  Very happy.”
 
Jane felt his stomach give a cruel and sudden twist as he peered down at black-and-white photographs of a woman with long, black hair and a dazzling smile.  His eyes fixed on one of her standing in a playground, singular and unmistakable even years afterward amid half a dozen other women.  A boy and a girl held each of her hands and the whole of her seemed to glow with contentment.
 
Something inside made a noise he’d never heard before, curling in on itself and going dark. 
 
He set his mouth in a determined line, nodded once, curtly, and said, “Where do I sign up?”
 
* * *
 
”Please, Jane, take it and keep it safe.”
 
Jane Doe stood in the woods surrounding his town – a little clearing he’d come to almost every day after school since he was a freshman.  It was a bit of a trek, but it was a place safely beyond the eyes and ears of his classmates and neighbors.  He’d gotten better at navigating the wilderness over the years and now knew the place as if it were his own backyard.  At first he’d had a few instances of losing a boot to thick mud or stumbling over roots and getting himself banged up, but he did not let that deter him from his goal.  He had good reason to eschew the company of his fellows and she was standing before him in a cardigan with her long ponytail and eyes that had recently been crying.
 
He’d never been terribly sociable – being a boy named, ‘Jane’ tended to put a chip on one’s shoulder and children can be cruel.  It did not stop him from participating in after school sports when they came into season, which provided a decent outlet for him.  The boy spoke little, and most people came away from him with the impression he was stretched tense like a drum skin; ready to boom if struck the right way. 
 
Yurie hadn’t been the least bit intimidated by it.
 
Jane had been seated in the bleachers having his lunch on a crisp autumn day when all five feet of her sauntered up and plopped itself down beside him, plucking an apple out of the brown paper bag his mother had packed for him and biting into it without so much as a, ‘please’ or, ‘thank you.’  He’d sat there gawping at her in all her audacity for a little while before she finally said, “You looked like you could use some company.”
 
He adored her at once.
 
They tried to be reasonably low-key at school.  There were no overt signs of affection, but they would meet eyes in the hallways and share small, knowing smiles or eat their lunch together on the bleachers.  The open secret was something they reveled in for a few months before rumor about them got to Jane’s father and the boy received one of the soundest thrashings of his life.  Yurie’s parents were not physical with their reprimand, but were nevertheless disapproving.  From then on it was the woods after school and feigned ignorance of each other during.
 
“It’s not us that’s wrong,” she’d said, holding ice to the shiner Jane’s father had given him.  “It’s the rest of the world.”
 
Pearl Harbor brought the rest of the world to their doorstep.  And now the WRA was about to take her right out of his hands.
 
Staring at the lumpy, brown paper-wrapped parcel in his hands, Jane’s brow furrowed.  “I still can’t believe it,” he murmured distantly.  “Yurie, it’s not right.  They can’t just evacuate everyone Japanese here.”  He shook his head, feeling ill.  “They haven’t given any of you enough time to even get ready. Seven days? It's ridiculous!  What about the farmers that have land?  What are they going to do?  Who’s going to look after their crops?  Where is your family going to keep all of their things until they get back?”
 
“They’ve sold a lot of it and taken what they can to the Community Center,” she said, blinking back a fresh round of tears.  “Oh, Jane, there’s furniture stacked to the ceiling there…trunks and boxes…”  She drew in a shaking breath and pulled herself up to her full height, eyes becoming bright.  “Earlier the FBI came to our house and took everything they thought was Japanese; my father’s shakuhachi and my mother’s kimono. Illegal contraband," she said with a bitter laugh.  "They arrested father and took him away. They went around arresting everyone.”  Her mouth drew tight with defiant pride, looking at the package in the boy’s hands.  “But they didn’t find that.  I hid it.  They can’t have it – I won’t let them.  I need you to keep it safe for us until we come back
 
"Yurie," he said with a solemn intensity, "I know they're gonna draft me anyway in June, but I'll do better than that. I'll volunteer - I'll join on my own. I'll fight for you and your family. I'll do my part to help end the war so you can come home. And when you do, by God I don't care what anyone says - I'll marry--"

He was cut off as the girl threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, the little bundle he'd been entrusted with pressed between the pair. She had a warm, fragile strength to her that made Jane feel weak and brave at the same time. Her tongue flickered into his mouth; a wisp of heated velvet and then she slid backward, looking up at him with teary eyes and an unreadable expression. Before another word could be spoken, she turned and ran out of his life.

For a long while he stared after her, watching the undergrowth and wilderness as if she would emerge from it again; some honey-skinned sylvan nymph. After it became clear he was alone, he turned his attention to the item to which he had been entrusted, peeling away the brown paper and twine. Nestled in the handful of packaging like some regal bird was a helmet with a golden crest.

Softly, to no one; to the world, he whispered, "I promise."


If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding.
- Sun Tzu

5 .

Chapter 4
 
Up a damn mountain…
 
By the time the woman in blue smelled smoke, it was already too late.
 
She hadn’t wanted to come to this part of the world at this time of year.  Although she had expressed her misgivings to her superiors, they’d assured her she’d be outfitted with the latest in Mann Co. extreme weather survival gear and equipment.  In response, she expressed her misgivings to her superiors concerning Mann Co. developing gear and equipment that had a tendency to spontaneously combust.  To this, her superiors assured her that these allegations were a load of hog wash and the result of bad PR and lily livered cry babies.
 
Which brought the woman in blue to her current situation: in a snow storm up a damn mountain with her parka on fire.
 
There was a burst of searing heat and an accompanying flash of red-orange light from her side.  She let out a yelp of pain and panic before dropping immediately into the nearest snow bank to quell the flames.  For a short while she lay there, hissing at the injury and spitting curses at, ‘that denim underpants-wearing Australian mental abortion.’  The outburst made her feel better, if only for a moment or two.  She was badly in need of a bit of catharsis in light of her recent assignment, even if it was just yelling at an empty mountainside.  The gravity of her situation, however, quickly set in.  Rolling over, she took an agonizing moment to expose her skin and assess the damage done.  Thankfully, the burn wasn’t that terrible – something she could care for with fairly minimal trouble.  It was, however, the least of her problems. 
 
The Company had outfitted her with a suit and coat that generated their own heat.  She was not entirely sure if the process was chemical, electronic or a combination of both – Australian technology was, she had to admit, remarkably complex and difficult to grasp without the aid of a native.  They said the suit and parka could keep her at an optimal temperature with fewer layers, lending her greater mobility.  And while it was true that it had indeed kept her quite comfortable so far on her trek, now that it had malfunctioned and she could feel the heat quickly draining from her, the woman in blue had to face the fact that she was well and truly screwed.
 
Sitting up, she swung her pack around and unfastened the top, hoping to find her salvation among her equipment.  She was met, instead, with a billowing black cloud of smoke from her now-smoldering supplies that swelled into her face before dissolving into the snow-thick air.
 
She swore once, loudly. 
 
Tossing aside the useless pack, she took a moment to press one palm to her forehead, gathering her wits.
 
You can’t stay here.  If you want a chance, you must keep going.
 
It was cruel and unfair and she climbed to her feet and dealt with it. 
 
You aren’t that far away, she told herself.  Just a few miles.  You’ve been through worse and come out alright.
 
Both of these statements were true, but with every moment that passed the current situation was climbing the ladder to claim the prize of, ‘Worst Jam I’ve Ever Been In.’  As far as her chances went, the woman in blue knew a few miles, even if they were in the right direction, was probably more than she was going to be able to get through alive.  Her teeth chattered as her entire body began to shiver in earnest, feeling as if she’d swallowed an earthquake.  This was a good sign, though.  She just had to keep moving.
 
Time passed oddly.  It seemed unreal to her; after everything to have this cold, bloodless death in a place even God forgot.  Would anyone find her?  She was supposed to have a tracking device in her suit but she was fairly confident that had ceased to function.  Her communications equipment had been in her pack, so there was no chance there.  Frozen to death and eaten by wild animals, then?  There would be nothing to bury or burn – just a hunk of dead meat in the wilderness without a story it could tell.
 
Dead; and your death comes with another’s.
 
“But that’s not for certain,” she muttered.  “It might turn out alright for him, too.”
 
Come now, don’t kid yourself – she’s all but guaranteed he’s done for.  And you’ve stopped shivering.
 
The woman in blue blinked slowly at the realization, looking down to see she had, in fact, ceased to shiver.
 
She cursed again, with less intensity, and continued her trudge.  Visibility was terrible, the woman unable to see a foot in front of her.
 
You did everything you could.  You got about half of them – that’s not bad.  This was too much of them to ask from you.  It was never right in the first place.  It’s okay.  You should just rest now.
 
“No,” she murmured, her lips moving with difficulty.  “No, I have to keep going.”
 
Really – it’s alright.  They’ll understand.  He’ll understand.
 
“He doesn’t even know.  I’ll just have disappeared without a trace.  He’ll never know--!”
 
She stumbled in the drifts, toppling into the snow.  The woman in blue gave a single, piteous sob.  But the snow was soft and she found, despite her expectations, that it was quite warm as well.  The burn on her side no longer hurt her – she could not even feel it.  Her gloved fingers flexed without sensation and she watched them with a detached fascination.
 
There were worse places to die than here on a fluffy bed enclosed in whiteness.  Only a single, nagging regret still pierced her.
 
“I’m sorry.  I’m so, so sorry.  I did try.  I just wanted to save you.”
 
Unsure whether or not she had actually said the words or if she’d just thought them, the dark-haired woman felt a sudden thrill in her heart as a familiar voice answered her.
 
Hey, it’s alright.  Y’did all ya could.  I don’t blame ya f’none a’ this.
 
“I should have told you.  I don’t know what, but something; anything,” she continued.  There was half a second where she wondered if any of this was happening, but it passed quickly enough when she felt her eyes sting with tears and her chest tighten.  “Oh, my baby, I’m so sorry--!”
 
Shhh…don’t cry.  I’ll be okay.  An’ hey – if anybody comes f’me, I’ll just run away.
 
The smile in his last words elicited a delirious little laugh from the woman.  As it faded she found the world of white replaced with warmth and sunlight.  She was no longer on the mountain, but somehow safe and happy, sitting at a table at an outdoor café enjoying a galette and lait ribot.  She took a cigarette from her case and was about to light it when she felt a hand touch her own; feather-delicate as a voice rich as warmed honey purred into her ear. 
 
“Allow me.”
 
There is a color in Brittany that they call glasz, unique in all the world.  Some from the region have eyes in that shade – a pale, blue-green color like the child of the sea and the sky.  The man who withdrew a lighter and ignited the end of her cigarette was one of these, his smile making her feel as if a cool finger had just been drawn up her spine.
 
Slowly, she smiled back, said his name as if it was a rare and fragile treasure and then there was nothing.
 
* * *
 
The woman in blue woke to the smell of spices, cooking meat and cabbage and someone singing lowly and off key in Russian.  Every part of her ached and there was a particularly vindictive, throbbing pain in her side.  Opening her eyes and adjusting to the light, she found herself lying on a bed under a thick quilt.  Staring up, she saw the ceiling to be made up of rough-hewn rafters and hung with dried fruits, vegetables and meats.  The walls were lined with tools and a large, heavy coat and hat hung by the door along with a length of rope tied solidly to a peg in the wall. 
 
“Hello?” she said in a tremulous tone.
 
“Ah, you are avake!  Good!  Food is almost done,” a deep voice boomed at her merrily.
 
He began singing again as the sloe-eyed woman sat up and took account of herself.  Her defunct suit and parka had been taken off and she was dressed in a woven wool shirt that fit her like a tent.  Lifting its hem, she looked at the spot from where the pain had been radiating and found it had been patched up, although a bit clumsily.  There seemed to be some kind of pungent ointment on it.  Looking around she discovered she was in a large, one-room cabin with an intimidating-looking but rosy-cheeked wood stove over which labored a man who seemed just as ursine as human.  Dressed in a wool shirt similar to hers, as well as thick slacks and sturdy boots, he appeared to have shaved his head rather than have gone bald. He looked over his shoulder, and gave her a broad, toothy smile.
 
“Imagine my surprise – go out to get bundle of vood, find stray cat on doorstep!”
 
She gave a tiny, snorting laugh in spite of herself.  “Stray cat?  That’s flattering.”
 
“Vell, vere not looking your best, Katya.  Vere burned and half frozen.  Confused how you manage this.”  He ladled out two bowls of the soup he’d been making and pulled a chair up to her bedside, handing her one. 
 
“Australian efficiency,” she said ruefully, taking the soup with a grateful nod.
 
“Almost dead,” he continued his voice softening somewhat as he touched the side of her face.  “Katya knows better than to be outside this time of year in thin, flimsy suit.  Is good to see you again, but vhy you come here?”

"I'll tell you after I get some of this down," she said, lifting a spoonful of cabbage from the bowl. "Was I really just outside your door?"

The man shrugged. "This kind of weather, man can get lost one meter from house. People have died like this before." He pointed to the rope knotted securely to the peg by the door. "In spring time, I measure rope to vood pile and smoke house. Make sure I have enough length to get from cabin to there and tie to self so I do not get lost. Vas out to get more vood for stove, found leetle cat half buried out front." He gave her chin an affectionate tap. "I bring you in, varm you up. No frost bite - very lucky."

"Nine lives," she said with a little smile before having a few spoonfuls of soup. "It is good to see you again, Zheleznyy Kulak."

He chortled with a fond smile. "Have not been called that in long time. T'ink you may be last person to call me that."

"Hasn't been that long," she sniffed, trying very hard not to think just how long ago it had been since the end of the War.

Her companion gave a boisterous laugh at her flash of vanity. "Last I checked you are having many leetle vuns. Vhat are you doing here? I am sure they need their mama."

She paused, brow furrowing as she looked into the bowl she was holding. "Not so little anymore. Most of them have left in one way or another. In prison or run off to God only knows where. I haven't been a very good mother. But I'm trying to make it up to my youngest." Pursing her lips, she stirred the soup once. "That's why I'm here."

He gave her a quizzical look.

"I represent a company interested in hiring you on as…well I suppose 'mercenary' is the most fitting term for it. They know about your record in the war and they're impressed. Zheleznyy Kulak. That's what they want."

"I do not understand," he said slowly, narrowing his eyes.

"Listen…I know a lot of people seem to have forgotten that whoever Russia sided with was going to win the War. Let's be honest - even if the Axis managed to take all the other countries, they'd still be facing eleven time zones of Joseph Stalin."

He tensed a little at this, his blue eyes turning steely.

She raised a hand. "Sorry. The point I'm trying to make is--"

"So, are they wanting Order 227 then?" he said grimly. "More of, 'Ni Shagu Nazad'?" He sighed heavily and ran one massive hand over his face. "Kitten, I thought ve vere both through vit this."

"Please."

He stopped and looked at the woman unable to meet his eyes, her entire frame rigid. Never had he heard her say that word in that tone.

“I’m not at liberty to go into the particulars,” she said, still not meeting his gaze, “but if you take this job, you’ll be helping my child.”
 
“I do not understand, still,” he said, the edge leaving his voice.  "If you are vanting to help leetle vun, vhy not go home?  Be good mama to him?”  He paused, looking thoughtful.  “If you are vanting, maybe I come vit you?”
 
She looked up at him, features softening.  “That’s very sweet of you,” the woman said, genuinely touched.  “But I think we both know that couldn’t work for a great many reasons.”
 
He shrugged with a grin.  “Vorth asking.  Alvays thought it might be nice to be papa.  But, vell…have difficulties vit that.”  Her companion gave a sheepish smile that looked peculiar on his rough features.  “Still t’ink baby better off vit mama.”
 
The woman in blue shook her head.  “It’s a bit late for all that.  He’ll be eighteen in a few months.”  Her mouth pulled tight at this; the fact hanging over her like a Sword of Damocles.  “I did the best I could by him.  He’s had me in his life more than any of his siblings, but this is something I don’t have the influence to help him with alone.”
 
Her host let out a low, grumbling hum of consideration.  “Do not vant to be shooting comrades again.”
 
“You won’t have to; quite the reverse, in fact.  They’ll need support you are uniquely qualified to provide. Your heavy weapons training, demeanor and history make you an ideal candidate." Her voice lowered by half an octave. "I've seen you fight. I know Order 227 went against your nature and poisoned what you found meaningful on the battlefield, but don't deny that there was meaning there for you. I'm asking you to find it again, if you think you're able to."

His eyes were distant, the Russian somewhere beyond the reach of his guest's subtleties. She could only guess at the veils being parted and the places being revisited. There was an acute pang of guilt she had not felt with the others; regret gnawing at her. Something was coming to a close between them.

When he looked up again, her savior seemed, at first, aged. Beneath the weariness, however, there were gears beginning to turn; an ember long neglected being breathed upon and coaxed slowly back to life.

"For your leetle vun, Katya?"

"Yes."

She placed a hand one one of his own; tiny and fragile in comparison.

"Please."

* * *

This is madness.

No, it is the only thing that makes sense. They're criminals; cowards. If one is at war, what higher crime can there be than betraying one's own country to the least of one's instincts?

The men stood ready, pale early autumn light filtering around them to wash the color and depth from the world. To the man called, 'The Iron Fist' by his comrades, they were oddly flat; the shtrafbat. He was not sure why this was, but they seemed to be ghosts already standing there at the edge of the mine field.

He readied his gun.


Not long now.

There was a part of him that could see the sense in it. These were men who had, in one way or another, betrayed their country in the eyes of their superiors, had been tried and found guilty. One did not allow oneself the disgrace of becoming a POW or letting their fear get the better of them. Not when so much was at stake.

And yet…were they not taken from the same iron bones of Mother Russia? Were they simply found wanting and in need of a forge?


Is that not what this is?

Why did it have to come like this; cleansed in their own blood? How could their Mother desire the precious blood of Her own children? And us? What does it make us if we send them to places we dare not tread untried?

They pelted across the field in a frenzy.

He knew they must have been running very fast - they had no where else to go. Advance and trample the ground, clearing it for the regular unit or be shot by the zagradbat. In his mind, though, they moved so, so slowly as they died by the score.

He could feel the mines going off just as much as he could hear them. One moment a man was running and the next he was simply gone. Over and over again it continued in a crazed pattern across the field, the ground seeming to shiver beneath his feet.

The one that turned he swore he could sense before he could see. It was like a thread pulled tight in his mind, attached from himself to one flat, colorless man. The trampler slowed, and as he did, the man called Zheleznyy Kulak raised his firearm. Their gazes met for half a second, and as the weapon discharged, its wielder saw his victim mouth a single, silent word.


"He died well, that should please you. No bribe attempts or blubbering. He simply said, 'Please. Please, I need to live.'"
- The Man in Black, The Princess Bride

6 .

Chapter 5

In fucking Scotland…

“This is ridiculous.”
 
“Ach, I told ye I’d listen tae ye if ye came with me, lass.  There's work tae be done an’ I cannae waste time.  Got lives dependin’ on me, I do.”
 
The woman in blue gave the back of Tavish DeGroot’s head a withering look and readjusted her jacket, inwardly grumbling at the weight of an iron horse shoe within its pocket.  Her neck was itchy from the red wool yarn around it that was threaded through a smooth, doughnut-shaped rock the one-eyed man called a ‘faery stone’ in some kind of childish necklace.  It was supposed to help ward her against…whatever it was they were out and about to look after.  He hadn’t been clear; in fact he’d confessed he himself didn’t even know precisely who or what their target was.  All either of them knew for certain was that its future involved an unbalanced Scot and a truly obscene volume of explosives.
 
It was just before midnight, the air chilly and damp; the pair of them standing at a crossroads waiting for what DeGroot had called his, ‘contact’.
 
As her watch struck the hour, the sloe-eyed woman saw Tavish straighten and look down the road a bit.  Following his gaze, the woman saw the outline of a short man walking in the moonlight along one of the wheel ruts, his gait unsteady as he sang something unintelligible; clearly inebriated.  Believing the situation she was in could not possibly annoy her more, she was proven wrong when she saw the way her guide’s face lit up upon noticing the precariously swaying man coming toward them.
 
Probably a drinking buddy, she thought, expression twisting as if she’d just bitten into a lemon.
 
“Mind yer manners, now,” he said to her lowly.  “The Good Folk can be easily offended, although Wallace Moss Whiskers ain’t at all a bad sort.”
 
Resisting the urge the grimace, she only smiled tightly and spoke through her teeth.  “Oh, I’m sure he’s just super.”
 
Earlier…
 
Tavish there’s some Yankee tart ‘ere tae see yer idle arse!”
 
The woman in blue pulled a deadpan expression completely wasted on the short, blind woman standing in the doorway before her.  She found her ankles and calves being prodded at by the older woman’s cane as if she were being assessed by them. 
 
A deep, thickly accented voice called back. “Ach, I’m oot back, mum!  Give me a moment and I’ll be roight ‘round!”

"Fah! An' wot are ye doin' 'round back, lad? Nappin', no doubt! Or playin' with them ruddy horse shoes a' yers! Dinnae think I haven't heard ye oot back this mornin' clankin' away! Right disgrace, ye are playin' horse shoes while all them children gone missin'!"

“Tha’s exactly wot I’m workin’ on the shoes for, mum!”
 
The woman in blue felt her heart skip a beat as the owner of the voice emerged from behind the house.  He was possessed of an impressive build, a white, carnivore’s smile and she found the planes of his face pleasing; good cheek bones and a jaw line that was angular but masculine.  Even the missing eye lent a certain roguish appeal and she was half tempted to bend her professional guidelines (she had needs to be met, after all, and it was proving to be a long assignment) until she caught a whiff of his breath and realized he’d been drinking before noon.  By the strength of the scent standing even as far from him as she was, she could only imagine what sort of ungodly brew he must have partaken of.
 
“Oh, aye?  An’ wot exactly are ye plannin’ tae do, Tavish?  Invite the babe-snatchers tae a game a horseshoes?  If yer father could see ye now, God rest his soul, he’d box yer ears an’ be right tae do so!”
 
“Yes, mum,” he said patiently before turning to the woman in blue.  “Ach, beg yer pardon, Miss.  How can I help ye?”
 
“I’m actually wondering if I might be able to help you,” the woman said, extending a hand.  “Lissie Grieves.”
 
“Tavish DeGroot,” the one-eyed man replied, shaking her hand.  “I do apologize, Ms. Grieves, but I’m a lehttle busy at the moment.”
 
“I can talk while you work, if that’s alright.  Actually I wanted to discuss some employment opportunities with you.”
 
“Ha!  Good luck gettin’ an honest day’s work outta this one,” Tavish’s mother spat, batting at her son with her cane before letting out a rattling cough.  “Right lazy git an’ no manners besides!  Is this any way tae treat a guest, child?  I raised ye better than tha'! Invite ‘er in for a cuppa if nothin’ else!”
 
“Yes, mum,” the man said again, offering the woman in blue a smile.  “My apologies, Ms. Grieves.  Fancy a cup a’ tea?”
 
“I’d love one.”
 
Mrs. Degroot stepped aside for her son and his guest.  The interior of the house was cozy but uncluttered, tartan and lace the primary theme in the parlor to which she was led.  Tavish gestured to an armchair set by a short table in front of the fireplace.
 
“Wait here a moment an’ I’ll be back with tea,” he said.  “D’ye have a preference, lass?”
 
She shook her head and replied, “Whatever’s clever.”
 
“Brilliant; I’ll get some a’ the gunpowder black, then,” he said with his carnivore’s smile as he exited.
 
The woman in blue spared a moment to take in her surroundings.  A coat of arms involving several bombs and a bottle of liquor was placed prominently above the mantle piece and a number of photographs featuring three family members were spread liberally upon the walls.  Each of them had a frame with a pronouncedly different shape or raised pattern upon it, and they all seemed to be within easy reach should a short, old blind woman wish to hold them.  From the look of the wall behind each one as well as the lack of dust, it seemed none of them ever stayed neglected for too long on their hooks.  It made Tavish’s visitor smile privately in her host’s absence.  Quieting herself, she didn’t have to strain at all to hear the man’s mother continuing her tirade of disapproval from the kitchen, the younger of the pair replying with an ever patient repetition of, ‘Yes, mum.’ 
 
He returned carrying a tea tray with a pot, two cups with saucers, sugar, cream and a little stack of biscuits.  There seemed to be a distracted air about him as he set it before her and made her up a cup with two sugars and cream.  While he poured himself some, it almost seemed more to put up appearances than to drink.  She took the opportunity to have a leisurely sip of her own, her host clearing his throat a little and removing a flask from his jacket. 
 
“Beggin’ yer pardon, lass, but I’ll be havin’ somethin’ a mite stronger ‘n tea.  Ach, I hate bein’ rude; I really do have a lot tae be doin’, though.”  He took a quick swig from the flask, the strong scent she’d caught before filling the space between them.  “Ye were talkin’ aboot havin’ a job for me?”
 
“Yes.  The people I represent have been made aware of your clan’s particular skill set and they were interested in recruiting you for a project that would make use of them.”
 
“I hate tae say it, but is there any other time we might discuss this?” he said with a grimace, looking out the window. 
 
“I’m afraid the offer is quite time sensitive,” she said with an arched eyebrow.  “I beg your pardon, but what on earth has you this preoccupied?”
 
“I dinnae if you’ve heard,” he said, “but our village has been subjected tae a rash a’ kidnappin’s.  Three wee ones been taken without a trace.”
 
“That’s quite distressing,” she concurred.  “Do you have any children yourself you’re concerned for?”
 
“Nae, but I’m aimin’ tae find out wot took the wee bairns.”

“You don’t think that’s a job better left to the police?” she queried before pausing with a furrowed brow.  “Wait, what do you mean, what took them?”
 
His remaining eye twinkled and he smiled to show his bicuspids.  “S’why I can’t call the police – won’t be any good on a case like this.  We aren’t dealin’ with a human abductor, lass.  We’re dealin’ with somethin’ outside a’ most mortal men’s jurisdiction.”
 
The woman in blue felt her stomach make a peculiar twist as precautionary lines began to draw taught within her mind.  Either the man was serious or he was putting her on, and judging by the look on his face and every fiber of his body language, she was fairly certain it was the former.  While she’d been warned he was an eccentric this seemed like a bridge too far.  Things were going south very, very quickly.  Regretting the words even as she spoke them, the sloe-eyed woman asked, “And just what are we dealing with?”
 
Leaning over, grin feral and eyes alight, he said, "Faeries."

"Faeries?" she echoed flatly.

"Aye! Well…alright, I dinnae know exactly wot it is, but I get the feelin' it's something tae do with the Good Folk or their kin." He held up the flask. "Part o' the reason I'm nippin' off a' this. The fae have a soft spot for drunks, children and the mad. It's served me well in the past!" He let a laugh roll out of him like someone playing on a snare drum. "Nowadays ye dinnae see many of 'em venturin' oot and aboot tae steal children, but every once and a while…" He shrugged. "Not many o' the Good Folk left, but tha's nae gonna stop me from blowin' 'em tae Kingdom Come if they start lookin' at me village as if it's a buffet!"

"Wait, you think whatever this is is eating the kids from your village?"

"Ach, lass…I hate tae say this but when it comes tae supernatural bein's, we humans are like the be all, end all a' snack foods. Soft with crunchy insides and full a' fat an' salt? S'like crisps - can't eat just one!"

The woman in blue only nodded, smiling politely. Jesus God I would hate to see the fruit salad this one came out of. "O…kay."

“So, I thank ye kindly for yer job offer, Ms. Grieves, but if it comes down tae gettin’ paid or savin’ the wee ones, the choice isn’t hard tae make.”
 
“I’m not saying you can’t…do that it’s…well…would you at least hear me out?  Would it be a huge distraction to talk while you work?”
 
The man gave her an appraising look.  “Are ye sure, lass?  We could be treadin’ on some dangerous ground.  Can ye hold yer own if it comes down tae it?”
 
“I assure you, I’m quite capable,” she said.
 
“Been a while since I’ve had anyone join me for this sort a’ thing,” he said thoughtfully.  “It’d be a welcome change a’ pace, but we’ll have tae get you properly outfitted.”
 
“And what, exactly, does that entail?” she queried apprehensively.
 
His grin broadened.  “Come with me.”
 
Later …
 
Wallace Moss Whiskers lived up to his name.  He was short, had a pot belly but wiry limbs and draped over his frame was ratty coat whose age and design suggested it had been made in the previous century.  What hair the woman in blue could see peeking out in an unkempt plume from beneath his hat was black, but the rat’s nest of a beard that grew from his chin, jaw and jowls was an undeniably algae shade of green.  She half expected a baby bird to stick its head out from it and peep plaintively to be fed.  His eyes were beady and bright and his smile was the color of cheddar cheese.  When he spoke, the scent reminded her very strongly of a peat bog.
 
“Why as I live an’ breathe!  Tavish DeGroot!”  He let out a boisterous laugh.  “It’s been a dog’s age, lad!  What brings ye out here and who’s the bonnie young lass?”  He made no attempt to hide the lust in the gaze he cast on the woman in blue.
 
“Oi, she’s no concern a’ yours, ye old lecher!” Tavish said, joining his friend in a laugh.  “Sorry tae say I’m here on business, nae pleasure.”
 
“Aye, I thought I might be seein’ ye b’fore long.  ‘tis about the wee bairns, I take it?”
 
Tavish nodded.  “I wanted tae know if ye had any information about them.  Is nae a case o’ changelin’s – there’d be something left behind if tha’ were true.”
 
Wallace Moss Whiskers shook his head.  “Nay, none a’ the kin ‘ave been in tha’ business for a while.  Now, I don’t be knowin’ wha’s takin’ the wee ones, but ye may want tae be talkin’ to the Wulver.  He’s been complainin’ aboot poor fishin’ for the past month.”
 
Tavish nodded and gave his friend a hearty pat on the back.  “Thank ye kindly, Wallace.  I’ll have a word with him an’ see if anythin’ comes of it.”
 
“Ach, it’s good tae be seein’ ye again!  Come by more often, y’old rascal – we’ll have a night of it like we used tae!”
 
“I’ll make a point a’ it!” the Scotsman said with a grin.  “Keep yerself in good health, Wallace!”
 
“And you, laddie!  Tuck sends his regards!”  The green-bearded little man continued on his way past the crossroads, singing something as he went the woman in blue could just make out.  “Elm he do brood, and Oak he do hate, and Willow man go walkin’ if you stays out late…
 
“Well then!” said Tavish, beaming.  “Tha’s as grand a start as I could hope for!  Good luck, ye are!”  His companion found herself on the receiving end of a pat on the back that caused her to stagger forward a step.
 
Resisting the urge to mention the irony she found in the statement, the woman in blue instead gave him a puzzled look, brow furrowed.  “A tip about fishing from a hobo with a bad dye job?”
 
“Ach!  Lass!  D’ye nae know one o’ the Good Folk when ye see ‘em?”  He paused, looking her over before shaking his head.  “…Nae, I suppose ye wouldn’t, would ye?  Most don’t.  Ah well – just stick close tae me, keep the horse shoe at the ready and dinnae take that stone from ‘round yer neck and ye should be fine.”
 
“Where are we going now?” she asked as he started off down the road and then onto a rarely traveled trail. 
 
“Goin’ tae see the Wulver!  S’a bit of a trek, but it’s nae a bad night oot.  An’ we can have tha’ talk ye wanted.”
 
The woman in blue felt more than a little out of sorts.  She wasn’t operating from her typical position of control and she felt significant doubt about achieving her goal.  Considering what the stakes were, this was entirely unacceptable. 
 
“The company I represent has need of someone with your particular skill set.”  She paused and offered a tight smile.  “That is to say – the skill set your clan has cultivated and passed on to you.”
 
“So it’s a Demoman ye’re needin’?” he said.  “’aven’t had a lot a’ tha’ sort a’ work in a while; spates o’ it here an’ there.”
 
“Yes, I know.  I thought you could use something a bit steadier.  It can’t be easy to provide for yourself and your mother with such infrequent employment.”
 
“Ye’d be surprised,” he said with a shrug.  “I have a lot o’ odd jobs and we get by alright.  We’re nae rich, mind, but we’re nae uncomfortable, either.  Ye live in a village and make a name for yerself like me family has, ye get people willin’ tae help ye oot.  Ye’re American – ye probably wouldn’t understand.  Everythin’s new an’ proud an’ lonely o’er there.”
 
“I’ve heard sentiments along those lines before.  You’re very sweet to your mother.  The picture frames and all, I mean.”
 
He stopped, turning to look at her with raised eyebrows.  “You noticed tha’?”
 
“Sort of hard not to,” she said.  “It’s very thoughtful.  A blind woman can’t see a photograph, but if the frame is a certain shape or has a raised pattern on it she can feel it and associate it with a particular memory.”
 
“Ye’re clever,” he said at length.  “How’s tha’ workin’ out for ye?”
 
“Being clever?”
 
“Aye.”
 
“Well, it’s got me this far.”
 
“Out in the woods in the middle ‘o the night huntin’ faeries with a black, Scottish Cyclops?” he said with his carnivore’s grin.
 
“Worse places to be,” she said, grinning back.
 
“Ye say that as if ye speak from experience,” he chuckled.
 
“The world’s an interesting place,” the woman in blue replied as they started off again into the woods.
 
He handed her a flashlight from his kit, taking out one for himself as well.  The moon cast mottled shapes through the leafy canopy around them, speckling the forest like the hide of some spectral jaguar. Nearby she could hear a river or creek babbling to itself.
 
“I was reading up on your clan’s child rearing techniques.  It’s an…intriguing method.”
 
“S’cruel,” he said curtly. "Abandoned at birth an' then accidentally killin' me first set a' adoptive parents goin' after Nessie. Could a' avoided tha' if I'd had proper trainin', but tha's over and done with. I know me parents did it because they love me and wanted me tae grow up in the tradition of the clan."

"You're like lions, then. Thrown off a cliff and made to climb back to prove yourselves."

"Somethin' like, aye. She's a pet o' the Unseelie court o' the fae, ye know."

"…Sorry?"

"Nessie! The Loch Ness Monster, lass! She cannae live on the fish in the loch itself, so the Unseelie court feeds and keeps her! Evil faeries, they are. Shh…" He froze and narrowed his eye, casting the beam of his flashlight between a pair of trees where it reflected off the surface of a rushing little creek.

The woman in blue caught her breath as she glimpsed a hunched figure seated on a rock on the opposite bank, features obscured by shadow and moonlight. Through the gloom, she could just make out that he held a fishing pole and appeared to have on some sort of hat or hood, his head seeming misshapen. He was unusually hirsute, skin uneven in the dimness. Tavish motioned for her to keep her flashlight down, striding out to the creek's edge and raising a hand in greeting.

"Greetings tae ye, Wulver! Good fishin' in these parts?"

The figure on the opposite bank shifted and let out a gruff noise before speaking in a voice that seemed like the growl of an agitated dog. "There b'ain't been sae much as a minnow," he grumbled. "Trouble's only been recent. Somethin' botherin' me usual stock."

"Aye, Wallace Moss Whiskers was tellin' me as much. What d'ye reckon?"

"I dinnae know," grumbled the man, "but it started happenin' 'bout two months ago with all the screamin'. Three times I've heard it. Haven't seen the source o' it, though. Been travelin' up the creek a way tae see if I can't get passed it, but sae far, I have nae had any luck. Empty hooks for the Wulver." He shook his deformed head. "What's the world comin' tae?"

"It's a crime, tae be sure," Tavish said with a nod. "Me friend and I'll be travelin' up the creek a spell, then, and see if we cannae find wot's causin' ye so much strife."

The seated man turned to look at the woman in blue, nodding in acknowledgement. She caught, for just a moment, a flash of amber eyes and felt all the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. The Wulver turned back to her companion and said, "Ye're a good man, Tavish. I hope ye find wot it is. Be careful."

"Thank ye kindly!" the Scot said with a smile before gesturing for his potential benefactor to join him. "This way, lass."

Going along with him, she allowed the uneasiness of being in the Wulver's presence drain from her before saying, "Who's Tuck?"

He gave her a mystified look as if she'd just performed a magic trick before shaking his head with a short laugh. "Ach, right - Wallace mentioned him. Friend 'o mine," her guide said with a fond smile. "Although I have nae seen him in quite a while. Glad tae hear he's well, though."

The pair continued, walking alongside the creek, which was steadily broadening into a river, diverging from it when the surrounding brush became too dense, but keeping it within earshot. 
 
“Despite everything, you still treat your mother with more care and respect than a lot of people I know.”
 
“Like I said, it was cruel, but they did it because they wanted me tae be successful in life.”
 
“Are you?”
 
“There’s more than one way tae define success, lass.”
 
“I agree.  You’ve made a name for yourself in town and have a good relationship with your mother.  That’s important; something money can’t buy.”
 
“If ye have somethin’ tae say, Ms. Grieves, come out with it,” Tavish said, turning to look at her.
 
“You can’t buy the kind of relationship you have with your mother, but you can’t buy more time, either.  Her line of work hasn’t been kind to her lungs, has it?”
 
His gaze hardened and he spoke in a steady, colorless tone.  “Nae, it hasn’t.”
 
“And Scotland doesn’t exactly have the best environment to help her with it.”
 
“Nae, it doesn’t.”  His shoulders were set and his hands were clenching.
 
“And you don’t make enough money to relocate her to a better climate.”
 
“Nae, I don’t.”
 
“She needs someplace warmer and drier.  If you take the job I’m offering you, you’ll have more than enough money to get her where she needs to be and you’ll be doing the job your clan trained you to do every single day.  We’ll even advance you enough to get things all squared away for her prior to your first day at work.”
 
He opened his mouth to say something when the air was rent suddenly by a shrill scream, the pitch of it enough to elicit a cry of pain from the duo, both covering their ears. 
 
“What on earth--?!”
 
“Bean-shìdh!” the Scotsman said, eyes alight and teeth bared, any irritation he had concerning his hunting partner forgotten completely.  “Stay here, lass!”  Before the woman in blue could protest, he’d charged off into the wilderness, leaving her to herself.
 
For half a moment she stood there staring after him, protest dead on her lips before it could even be uttered.  Embattled frustration and fear wound an uneasy trail through her mind.
 
What if you can’t do this?  What if he won’t come?  What are your options?  Are there other candidates?  What about kidnapping?  It’s not as if the Company’s averse to a little mind wiping and reprogramming.  Why do they want him so damn badly, anyway? In the woods chasing after hobos and shrieks. You know that scream sounded less like a person and more like a hors—
 
As if reading her thoughts, the dark-haired woman started a bit as she heard a soft nickering sound behind her. 

Turning, she saw a great, black horse standing just beyond the wilderness. It was sturdily built and its hide glistened in the moonlight. As her eyes focused, she saw that its mane was tangled with water weed and the whole of it was sopping wet; as if it had just emerged from a pool. It pawed the ground once or twice, ears pricked forward as it took a few mincing steps toward her, then back again.

The yarn of the necklace itched fiercely around her neck; the stone attached to it becoming suddenly very heavy. Wincing, but not taking her eyes from the beast before her, the woman in blue tugged at the yarn. It was so uncomfortable and as she tried to think on the matter, she couldn't remember precisely why she was wearing it. Details about this entire situation were suddenly vague and fuzzy. It was very peculiar because the sloe-eyed woman knew she was quite certain about the whole affair only a little while ago. She tried to focus but it was very difficult with the itchy yarn, heavy stone and prancing horse. So many distractions. If she could just clear her head…

Reaching up, she undid the knot of the necklace with deft fingers, tossing the little thing away and rubbing her neck with a sigh of relief. As she did, the horse stopped its odd little dance just out of reach of the woman and paced in her direction, snuffling curiously. Smiling, she remembered the horse on Dell's ranch and wished very much that she had a lump of sugar to give to this one, too. It was such a beautiful animal; all glossy strength and luminous eyes. Someone must have lost it out here, although she couldn't imagine who could have let such a marvelous thing go.

That must be why I'm out here, she thought to herself. Yes, I must bring you home.

Reaching out, the woman cooed to the horse, "That's a good boy. Come to mother! You poor thing; you must have fallen into the river. It's alright - we'll go home and get you dried and cleaned up. How the little ones will love you!"

Sidling up, the horse allowed her to pat its neck and withers, the woman in blue finding them remarkably cold. Something in the back of her mind stirred and fluttered in alarm, but before she could heed it, the horse let out a sharp whinny and its raven-haired companion found herself unable to release her hold upon the creature. Panic breaking the glamour's hold on her, she let out a truncated cry before the horse reared with a scream of its own and began thundering off through the brush in the direction of the river; half carrying and half dragging its prey along with it. She wailed in pain as she was taken, underbrush, roots and stones tearing at her helplessly dangling legs as the sound of the river came ever closer. Managing to turn her head, she saw them swiftly approaching the banks. This part of the river was wide and clearly quite deep. Terrified, she came to the sharp conclusion that this creature, whatever it was, intended to drown her.

"Lass, use the horse shoe!"

For a split second the Scotsman came into her field of vision, just breaking free of the woods and gesticulating wildly.

What the Hell did he want her to do with it? Shoe the damned horse?

With the water quickly approaching and no better idea occurring to her, the woman in blue moved her free arm with great effort, pulling the iron shoe from her pocket and gouging it into the horse's side.

The effect was instantaneous.

It reared once, its too-human scream momentarily deafening the woman as the smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils and the adhesive properties of its hide lost their hold on her. She crashed gracelessly into river rocks and shrubs as her equine adversary staggered onward, eyes rolling and features sunken in a truly ghastly manner. It made a plunge for the river, appearing to have decided to cut its losses, when someone swooped in to scoop up the woman in blue and she caught sight of some small, dark object moving through the air in an arc aimed at the monster.

She was thrown to the ground again, blinking up into the face of Tavish, who was shielding her with his body as a loud boom shook the world. There was a moment of silence before the woman heard a great many soft, pattering noises all around them and, sparing a glance away from the Scot, saw countless chunks of bloody, red and black meat showering down upon the river banks.

"Oh, they'll have tae glue tha' bastard back taegether in Hell!" he laughed merrily. "Kelpie," he said, as if this would explain everything that had transpired. "Ach, hopefully that'll take care o' the problem. Ye did well, lass!" Looking down at her, gore still raining around the pair, the Scotsman said, "Sae, aboot that job offer o' yer's…"

* * *

"Dinnae take another step, lad! Ye've got tae watch where ye put yer feet in this place!"

Tavish DeGroot blinked up tearfully, looking around to try and catch sight of who had spoken.

It was the only time he allowed himself to cry, far away from the other children at the orphanage. They all regarded him with a certain level of terror and awe. He'd told them all how he'd accidentally blown up his first pair of adoptive parents on a hunt for the Loch Ness monster, and had been laughed off by most of the children. A few of the younger ones had watched him with saucer-eyed, fearful reverence and soon everyone else did, too, after someone had made the terrible mistake of gifting him a chemistry set one birthday. While none of the chemicals included in the kit were
supposed to be able to create an explosion like the one that Tavish had used to reduce the kitchen to a smoldering pile of ash and a collective shattered sense of security, he'd found the most fascinating ingredients in the cupboard under the sink and he had no intention of letting them go to waste doing something as boring as disinfecting the loo.

It was all well and good, but he had no one to confide in or play with. If it wasn't his skin color, it was his penchant for finding new ways of creating explosive substances. It created a bit of a horrible feedback loop; his inability to find playmates making him turn to explosions which, in turn, drove off the other children. It mightn't have been that way if only he hadn't lost his eye to one of his earliest experiments and brought into sharp relief just how detachable body parts could be.

If he couldn't have the love, he'd do what he could with the fear. And who would be afraid of him if they knew he cried? So, out he was on his own in the sparse wilderness nearby, releasing what was pent up inside. Or at the very least, he'd believed he was on his own.

Looking up, he caught sight of a young boy, perhaps a year his junior, seated in a tree who was waving him backward with one hand and pointing to something at his feet with another. The other child was no one the orphan had ever seen before. His hair was scruffy and red, his face flecked with freckles and nose upturned with his teeth a bit over-large. Whatever he was wearing looked very old and over time had adopted the shade of its surroundings; a drab, green-grey with a contrastingly bright red scarf around his neck. Dropping his gaze, Tavish found his foot just outside the edge of a ring of white mushrooms.

"Tis a Faery Ring!" the redheaded boy told him. "Ye mustn't step intae them or ye might get caught by one of the Fae."

"Oh," said Tavish, rubbing his grimy, tear-stained cheek. "Sorry - I didn't know."

"Ach, not know a Faery Ring? Ye got tae be more careful - there's plenty a' stuff in this place tha's dangerous, ye know." The boy swung down with a fluid grace and landed nearby Tavish, smiling. "I'm Tuck!"

"I'm Tavish," the one-eyed boy replied.

"Ha! Both our names begin with the same letter! Tha's good luck!"

"Is it?"

"Ach, maybe. I dunno! Anyway, it's nice tae meet ye, Tavish!" He shook hands enthusiastically. "I've seen ye walkin' 'round these parts bawlin' yer head off before."

"I weren't bawlin'!" Tavish said indignantly, drawing himself up to his full height and puffing out his chest while hurriedly rubbing clean his runny nose. "And it's nae polite tae watch people like that!"

"Ain't polite tae blow 'em up, neither," Tuck said.

"How d'ye know about tha'?"

"Well it made a big enough noise tae be heard through all 'o Creation, didn't it? How couldn't I know! Fine bit 'o mischief, tha' was!"

"I haven't seen you with the others," the orphan said carefully. "D'ye live 'round these parts?"

"Aye, fer now!" the freckle-faced child said. "I live in the woods with the Faeries."

"Oh," Tavish said with an owlish blink, taking in this information with the same factual simplicity of someone being told the time of day. "Are ye a Faery, too?"

"Nae, I'm a changelin'," Tuck said with a shrug. "When I was a wee bairn, they switched me with one 'o their own. They do tha' sometimes. S'nae a bad life, though! Dinnae have tae go tae school or eat sprouts or nothin' like tha'."

"Could I come with?"

"Hmm. I dinnae know if it's a good idea. Sometimes they do awful things tae wee ones. It's been a long time since I've been with 'em, an' I grow slower 'n other children I've seen. Everythin's kind of slow with them. If they come for ye, go with 'em. But I wouldn't go tae them on your own - they might eat ye or somewhat awful."

"Well, I wouldn't like tha'," Tavish said decisively. Looking Tuck over, he asked, "D'ye wanna play or anythin'? I dinnae have any mates back at the orphanage."

"Sure! Ach, come with me, I'll show ye 'round sae ye dinnae end up dinner for a Kelpie or nothin'!" The redhead caught hold of his new friend's arm with a smile. "You went after Nessie, I heard! Bad bit 'o luck with yer parents, mate. Still, I'm nae surprised. She's a pet o' the Unseelie court, ye know! Let me tell ye all aboot it!"


"Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men."
- The Fairies, William Allingham

7 .

Still gonna be adding to this? I love it :)

8 .

Yes indeed! I'm currently plugging away at Sniper's chapter, which is being particularly stubborn. I think I've hit my stride with it, though, so hopefully I'll be able to post something before too much longer. I'm glad you're enjoying what's written so far!

9 .

I'm not sure how I feel about this chapter, but I'm considering expanding upon what's in the last bit of it. Enjoy, folks!

---

Chapter 6

In the gaping, gleaming eye of the Southern Hemisphere…
 
Australia shone.
 
The whole of its vast expanse appeared to be studded with silvery cabochons around which darted hovercrafts like neon and argent fireflies.  She was trying very hard not to look impressed, but the woman in blue could not hide a lingering smile as her transport descended amid the forest of bauble-like buildings.  It was, in its way, quite beautiful; like a pulp sci-fi utopia come to life.  Of course, after over twenty hours hopping through various modes of transportation with nothing but coffee, fast food and force of will to sustain her, the woman in blue suspected anything would look beautiful.  What a shame, she thought, that she’d only be in the city proper long enough to gather supplies and secure transportation.
 
A two-person hovercraft had picked her up to take her along the last leg of her trip.  It was smooth and lozenge-like, its exterior’s high gloss finish reflecting everything around it.  “Can’t undahstand why a little thing like you’d wanna go wanderin’ about in the wild,” said her pilot, luxurious mustache shifting as he spoke.
 
“It’s business,” she replied.
 
“Must be some line a’ work you’re in, sheila.”
 
“Oh, you have no idea.”
 
He spared a glance at her in the rear view, eyebrows raised in concern.  “You be careful out there – it’s where all them unsavory types wind up.”
 
“I know.”
 
Before long they were setting down on a landing pad.  She disembarked, stepping off the little transport and drawing in a breath as she took in the city around her.  It was an immaculate chrome hive alive with activity.  Mustached, muscle-corded men and women traversed the streets, their golden brown skin fairly glowing from some inner light.  A fight erupted close by, and those present simply cleared the area around the two brawling men, some stopping to watch and nearly everyone that passed cheering them on.  Judging by the looks on their faces, they seemed to be fighting for the sheer, unbridled fun of it.  The Australians walked pet wallabies and crocodiles without appearing to think twice about it.  Flying crafts passed overhead, floating fountains of impossible design hung above verdant parks where children played games of tag using teleportation devices.  It was as if the world recognized and went down on its knees before them; as if it were there solely for their benefit.  The whole city and everyone in it looked to be composed of miracle after miracle and nobody gave any indication that they knew or cared. 
 
The woman in blue felt small, pale and conspicuous in comparison.  She was unaccustomed to the feeling and did not find it to her liking.  Walking briskly past these golden people, she ducked into the nearest outdoor supply shop and began to amass the necessities. 
 
Going over the information she’d been given in her head, the cerulean-clad recruiter tried to gauge what exactly she’d need to take with her.  What had been given to her was quite detailed as to her target’s childhood, but had very little to say in the way of his adult life.  She knew a great deal, therefore, about the trajectory, and would have to take what she could from that to determine where the arrow had eventually fallen.  The last documented encounters with civilization he’d had concerned contracted assassination and while those hadn’t been but a few weeks ago, it was difficult to guess where he could be at this point.  He had no fixed address and his encounters with known entities and locations were sporadic.  She’d identified a pattern that frequented this general area of the continent, but it still left a pretty vast space to explore.  Somewhere in the outback beyond of the city limits was where the bushman resided; she just had to find the bastard.  It could mean weeks of travel and fruitless searching.  Trying to compose a supply list, therefore, was a bit trickier than usual.
 
In the end she walked away with a bedroll, a basic first aid kit, a flash light and lamp, one-person tent, two sets of clothing appropriate to the terrain and climate, rations for a week, a fire starting kit, binoculars, communications equipment, a map, a water purification kit and a few gallons of water.  In addition to this, the woman in blue also purchased a hunting rifle with ammunition, a fishing pole and tackle as well as the appropriate supplies for cleaning wild game.
 
It had been some time since she’d gone hunting, but she’d done so in the past always with the aim of filling her belly.  It was a potent motivator.  She’d read everything she could get her hands on about that particular area and she was optimistic about finding game if it came to it.  Not all of her research, however, had filled her with hope.
 
The outback she was going to be searching was uncomfortably close to the Citizenship Arena.

Just thinking on it caused her to slow in her trek to the lot where she planned to rent an ATV. The Arena presented the ultimate wild card; she could, literally, encounter nearly anything out there. While she couldn't speak for the veracity of the accounts she had heard and read, there was a plentiful and varied collection of horror stories to peruse. Tales circulated of people who had gone out hunting being bitten by insects with mutagenic venom or finding themselves being tracked by dogs whose perpetual hunger was matched only by their sleeplessness. Those that didn't make it through the Arena successfully were not always sent home - it was said that sometimes they escaped into the wilderness, gripped with insanity and blood lust.

That her target chose to live in such a place, even as a mobile entity, spoke volumes about him. He would be smart, capable and resourceful. Possibly, he could also be completely bat shit. As long as she had been in her line of work, the sloe-eyed woman was no longer surprised when those traits converged. Not a week ago, she had been hunting faeries and legends in Scotland with one of the Highland Demomen, so she was hardly going to go pointing fingers at anyone, all things considered.

There was, of course, always the possibility that it was all a lot of nonsense used to scare tourists and foreigners; a sort of 'drop bear' writ large.

She was reassuring herself with these thoughts as she strode over to the ATV she had rented, keys in hand, when a burly, blonde-haired man pulled up in his own blood and mud-flecked vehicle, to the side of which was strapped an antlered, snaggle-toothed half-canine, half-bear-looking monster the size of a small pony.
 
God.  Damn.  It.
 
Turning her gaze to the contents packed into her vehicle, the woman in blue reminded herself she had a very big gun that fired very big bullets.  It offered little comfort to her, but she took what she could get as she climbed into her vehicle and rode off into the outback; surrendering her place at the top of the food chain to monsters and mad men.
 
Arid with its reddish landscape dotted by scrubby bits of brush, the area had an undeniable beauty about it – especially enclosed as it was beneath a cloudless, contrasting blue sky.  The regularity of it all caused the woman’s mind to wander.
 
She tried to determine how long it had been since she had embarked on this whole, crazy endeavor.  Two months?  Three with all the research, information compilation and slow, steady conclusions she’d culled from the exhaustive patterns she’d put together?  There were so many long, braided, historical filaments woven into backgrounds and plans of approach and persuasion.  Some of them had been easier to figure than others; some she’d had to silence her conscience over.  She’d been surprised at how readily she’d slipped back into old habits.  It was as if her former employment had never been interrupted by some eighteen or so years of child rearing and domestic life.  Once she’d gotten over the first hurdle, the rest came with practiced regularity.  But that was the way of things in this line of work – crossing the line was only difficult the first time.  As soon as that was done, something in one underwent a sea change; twisted and reformed into some dangerous, sharp edged other.  In her head she combed out the languages she knew, trying unsuccessfully to find some appropriate word or phrase to unknot and define the phenomenon. 

Her thoughts made their meandering way to her youngest son.
 
The woman in blue tried to imagine what he might be doing at the moment; the things a young man ought to be doing at his age.  Maybe he was eating breakfast, having a jog or meeting friends at the comic shop.  Possibly he was doing something a little more destructive.  Like his older brothers, he was a fighter, although it had taken him longer than the others to really get into the thick of things.  Her guess was that his older siblings, much like when the family sat down for dinner together, would always get the ‘good parts’ first.  While he wasn’t built for brute force, the littlest of the litter recognized and cultivated his talent for running.  He was the darling of the track team through junior high and high school, and every year since he’d been eligible to join the school’s baseball team, he’d been a center fielder.  Since his joining the track team had coincided with his returning home with swollen lips and black eyes, she supposed it was about then that he started, quite literally, beating his brothers to the punch.  Sports made a good excuse for the ‘badges of honor’ he earned getting into tussles.  The youth had thought he was being very sly when he tried to pass off his bumps and bruises to track and baseball.  All the same, going to watch him at his games and meets it was clear he genuinely enjoyed himself.  She’d hoped eventually he’d grow out of the fighting and re-channel the energy entirely into his athletic pursuits, but so far as she was aware, he was still burning the candle at both ends in that regard.
 
Maybe he was flirting or out on a date. He’d kissed some girls before – she knew that.  He was still a virgin, though.  The boy had all the subtlety of a hammer to the forehead and the puffed up swagger of a bantam rooster, so she felt quite certain there’d be no mistaking the smug satisfaction in him should that milestone come to pass.  Of all his brothers, he seemed to have the most sensible taste in women, for which his mother was grateful.  Whenever he brought a girl home or went out on a date, he had about him a puppyish sense of nervous excitement leavened with a bashfulness that cut through his usual teenaged arrogance.  His mother remembered the time he’d come to her, eyes on his shoes and pink to his ears and asked her if she could teach him a few dance steps.
 
That had been for Molly’s sake, she was sure.
 
It warmed her to see him happy.  His brothers ragged on him constantly about being the baby of the family, and it was true that she afforded him a certain level of tenderness that might have been absent in the lives of her other children.  Reflecting upon that, it was as if it were a form of repentance on her part.  Largely, she hadn’t been the mother her children deserved.  Though she understood it hardly made up for the neglect of the others, doting on him in any way she could was a comfort; especially after the family in general and he in particular had been dealt a rather nasty hand by fate so early in his life.  The whole concept of anyone ‘deserving’ anything on a cosmic level wasn’t something she usually agreed with, but for him, she was willing to make some exceptions. 
 
Night fell in a star-scattered mantle over the red, scrubby landscape.  It was interesting to see how it did so.  In the woods with Tavish, evening was an animal that crept out from behind the trees to catch you when you weren’t looking.  Here in the outback, it rolled in like a tide; surging down through the twilight with a sudden and surprising depth.  Somewhat annoyed with herself, she pulled into an area mostly free of brush, hurriedly clearing a camp space in which to build a small fire.  She should have stopped sooner – it was darker than the woman in blue would have liked and she hadn’t been able to properly scout for a preferred camp space.  The fire was soon crackling comfortingly, although she would probably end up sleeping in the ATV for the evening as it was too dark now to set up her tent.  Reluctantly, she turned on the headlights for a little while, two blazingly obvious beacons in the dark, to prep her rifle.  As soon as she was done, she clicked them off and took a seat by the fire, finding some rations to prepare, and giving herself time to think.
 
So far she’d heard back from HQ and confirmed that everyone she visited had agreed to work for the Company.  Some had taken longer than others – Dell in particular had had himself a lengthy rumination before finally agreeing – but eventually each of them had thrown their lot in.  A few were already going through preliminary processing and testing.  With each name and classification filled, she felt a swelling of reassurance and encouragement.  After she was done with this one, this hunter, she’d be headed back to Europe, and then home again. 
 
There was a bittersweet jag as she thought on the next leg of her journey.  Dread and excitement played a discordant strain through her, setting all her senses on edge with a sharpness that was not entirely unpleasant.  Closing her eyes, she let her memory drift, recalling the feel of lambskin gloves tracing the contours of her hips and the sweep of her waist while a dark, velvet baritone glided down her ear and resonated like a stricken bell through her head.  Murmured adoration and promises bled and blended together, losing the identity of specific language; transcending it.  Like speaking in tongues: valentines from the brain stem.
 
She realized that she was breathing hard, heart thumping in her throat and cheeks flushed. 
 
Get a hold of yourself, girl.
 
This was, she supposed, the reason she’d been saving him until the end.  All the optimism and momentum was going to be necessary if she was going to get this last one right.

Something moved in her peripheral vision.

Rifle in her hands immediately, the woman in blue climbed to her feet, head snapping in the direction of the motion.  Drawing in a breath, she was met by a pair of eyes gleaming eerily in the gloom beyond the light of her campfire.  It was a difficult thing to make out, but in the dimness she could discern streamlined, predatory lines of anatomy; strong shoulders and glistening, knife-like teeth.  It paced a slow circle outside of the firelight, a low, guttural noise between a growl and a purr rumbling from it like the steady roll of timpani drums.  Getting into position, she exhaled slowly, following the creature with the business end of the firearm and preparing to squeeze the trigger.  Sensing the change in equilibrium, the beast stopped in its pacing, crouching and gathering itself with a cat-like undulation of its haunches.  Its potential prey was just holding her breath and preparing for the kick of the gun when something went whistling past woman’s ear close enough to ruffle her hair.  It embedded itself squarely into the eye of the native monster, sending it flopping to the ground with the all the harmlessness of a discarded stuffed toy. 
 
She drew in a gasp of surprise, almost firing a round out of shock before turning quickly in the direction the projectile had come from to find a rangy, slouch hat-wearing man standing in her campsite, just lowering a short bow. 
 
“Y’looked hungry,” he said, “an’ them rations don’t look a bit satisfyin’, so I figured maybe ya’d like somethin’ more sustainin’.”
 
The Company’s recruiter blinked at the man blankly for a moment before lowering her gun and raising both eyebrows in astonishment.  “…Are you asking me out to dinner?”
 
He swept off his hat with a grin.  “If ya like.”
 
A second’s pause was the prelude to a peal of laughter on the part of the woman in blue.  “Alright, my charming savage – let’s do.”
 
“Aces.”
 
She turned on her headlights again for a short while and he handily cut off a haunch of meat from the beast, skinning and separating flesh from bone with practiced precision and speed.  The creature was a bizarre amalgamation of a jungle cat and something reptilian; scales interrupting its golden brown hide in regular, grey-green stripes. 
 
“The rest oughta keep ‘til mornin’,” he said.  “These state-made things tend t’have a longer shelf life.  S’long as we don’t cut open the belly, it shouldn’t smell too bad.”  Already there was a strong odor of musk mingled with the coppery scent of spilt blood.  If it bothered the bushman, he gave no indication. 
 
“Something like this is really safe to eat?” she asked dubiously.
 
“Tastes like chicken,” he replied with a grin.
 
It did.
 
He made a spit without too much trouble with a bit of equipment he’d brought along with him and roasted several pieces of meat with a bit of borrowed salt and pepper from the woman in blue’s kit.  The texture was similar to calamari or alligator and the recruiter found herself quite enjoying it.
 
“Right through the eye,” she observed, looking back to the creature from which their supper came.  “Show off.”
 
He shared a grin with her.  “Ain’t often I get to see a pretty lady traipsin’ ‘round the outback.  Gotta take me opportunities where I can find ‘em.”
 
“Fair enough,” the woman conceded, cleaning her hands.  “Found me awfully fast.”
 
“Didn’t do much t’hide your trail, love,” he replied, shrugging.  “Been trackin’ ya for a few hours b’fore ya set up camp.”
 
“And are you satisfied with the spoils of your pursuit, O mighty hunter?”
 
“Good meal, lovely company; can’t complain.”
 
“What were you doing out here, anyway?” she queried.
 
“Live out ‘ere,” he said.
 
“You’re one of the naturalized, aren’t you?” the woman in blue said with a curious glint in her eye. 
 
The hunter paused before nodding.  “Me mum’s from the UK, so I didn’t qualify for full citizenship.  She only ever got residency – wasn’t up for the naturalization process.  Don’t blame her a bit.”  Something appeared to dawn on him, a wariness creeping into his features, and he furrowed his brow, leveling a look mingled with concern and scrutiny at her.  “You’re awful close to the Citizenship Arena, sheila.  Ain’t safe.”
 
She quirked an eyebrow at the downed beast and gave him a wry smile.  “So I see.”
 
“If ya don’t mind me askin’, what are you doing in this part of the outback?”  His tone was careful; an animal pacing around an object it hadn’t yet decided was treasure or trouble.
 
There was a lengthy silence on her part, the woman watching the glowing embers with fascination, looking at him when she spoke.  “Here I was thinking I’d be searching for weeks, and then you come right out and find me instead.”  She smiled.  “I really shouldn’t be that surprised, though – your reputation precedes you, Mr. Huntsman.”
 
While his face remained impassive, she watched fight-or-flight instincts flash in his eyes.  He finally relaxed, though he didn’t take his gaze from her.  “And what do ya want of me, love?  Y’ain’t state – I can see that much.”
 
“No,” she said with a shake of her head.  “I represent a private interest.”
 
“And just what are they interested in?”
 
“A professional.”  She smiled.  “Allan Quatermain.”
 
He let out a raw chuckle, shaking his head with a smile.  “Well, ya’ve done your homework, luvvie, I give you that much!” Nostalgia played across his face, tugging at the edges of his mouth. Tilting his head back, he looked skyward at the uneven river of stars above them. "Good ol' Allan. I must've read King Solomon's Mines about a dozen times while…" He trailed off, waving a hand and looking at the woman in blue. "They let us bring one 'comfort object' in when we went for the Arena." His expression twisted and his eyes found the hypnotic pulse of the embers within the campfire as he fell quiet again.

He can see it.

She wasn't surprised. It was hunting; baiting. Give a tiny piece for the hope of more in return. With the right presentation and just the right piece of information, you could show little and be assumed to have a great deal.

"Ya remind me 'a that poem by Kipling," he said presently. "The Female of the Species. He was right about it, too, y'know." Shaking his head, the Australian grinned ruefully. "Wot am I saying'? 'Course you know." He still seemed to be debating internally.

"It must have been terrible," she said, sympathy in her tone. "I've heard stories, but it's hard to tell what's true and what isn't."

"Well, wot goes on in the Arena can change from year t'year. But after the written and the basic physical, anyone still remaining gets carted out there. Y'get…" He stopped again, looking at her. When he spoke again, the hunter was free of his stumbling, demeanor business-like. "Listen. If we're gonna do this, I suggest we head back to me caravan. It's got a proper bed for ya that'll be more comfortable than your vehicle's seats and I'd feel a lot safer waxin' nostalgic," he said with a wry grin, "and talkin' business if we're a little less exposed."

"Of course," she agreed, getting to her feet as the lanky man did the same. "You'll drive?"

He nodded. "Let's get the fire out, gimme a hand with the beastie and we'll be on our way." As she moved to help him with the carcass, he shook his head with a wondering look at her. "Y'ain't even the least bit afraid, are ya? Not a' me; not a' the outback."

Her eyes traced the sky above them before returning to meet his. "But when hunter meets with husbands, each confirms the other's tale --"

"…The female of the species is more deadly than the male. Too right, love. Well, then, let's be off."

He navigated the landscape so surely it may as well have been high noon instead of the dead of night. Truthfully, he had not come terribly far; his camper perhaps fifteen minutes away from her original campsite. Pulling up, the pair climbed out of the ATV and approached the truck with the camper attached.  The man’s companion raised a brow at the fact he’d locked the camper, to which he said, “You can never tell out 'ere,” before opening the door, flicking on a light and offering her a hand up.
 
“Quite the gentleman,” she said with a grin.
 
“Livin’ 'ere’s no reason to forget me manners,” he replied.  “Here’s where they matter the most.”
 
“Agreed,” the woman in blue said, taking a glance around the camper’s interior.
 
The space was cramped, but what was present was used efficiently; nothing without a purpose.  As he stepped inside, he replaced his bow, quiver and kukri on their wall mountings beneath an SMG and sniper rifle.   He hung his hat on a hook beside a small shelf on which rested a pair of aviators and few jars whose contents she had little doubt about and caused her to make a face at.
 
“It’s more useful than you think,” he said, noting her reaction.  “You pour it around your campsite and it helps keep certain critters away.  It’s also good for treatin’ animal hide.”
 
She nodded with a polite smile.  “Fair enough.  Something you picked up during your naturalization?”
 
“Yeah,” he said, gesturing for her to have a seat and taking two bottles of BLU Streak from a mini fridge, uncapping them both and offering her one.  His eyes flitted briefly to the armaments on the wall.  “Among other things.”
 
“Your experience is what caught my employer’s eye.  Because of how jealously the Australians guard many of their processes and procedures,” she explained, “I wanted to learn a little bit more about it from someone that had gone through it first hand.  From what we know so far, your credentials are…most promising.”
 
“Well,” he began, steel-blue eyes going somewhat hazy with recollection, “like I said, I wasn’t eligible for citizenship because of me mum.  Just bein’ born here ain’t enough, s’far as they’re concerned.”  The hunter took a swig of beer and leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees.  “We were hopin’ I’d take after me dad more in looks, but it didn’t turn out that way.  Scrawny as all get out and couldn’t grow a moustache.  I caught Hell from me school mates about it.”  He pursed his lips before saying, “You’ve seen ‘em, I’m sure – full blooded Australians; tanned, muscled and mustached from the day they’re born.  All anyone ever saw in me was a weird little cripple.”
 
“If it’s any comfort, you’ve got a pretty magnificent set of sideburns,” the woman in blue commented, sipping her drink.
 
He laughed with a flash of teeth, shaking his head a little.  “Mum took me t’England once, but I didn’t fit in there; hated it, in fact.  Only place for me was Australia, but the bloody powers that be wouldn’t recognize me as a full-fledged citizen.  I didn’t want t’live the rest of me life second class, so when I turned sixteen I applied for naturalization.”
 
“Jesus,” she breathed. 
 
“I wanted it out of the way,” he said.  “It was the first year I was eligible and, truth be told, most of the applicants were just kids that went along in our group.  We got our numbers and after they culled the pool with the written and the basic physical, there were four of us left.  They packed us into a transport and took us out to the Arena.”  His eyes focused a bit more and he straightened, looking at his guest.  “The designated area’s out away from civilization and it’s partially natural, partially engineered terrain.  They do what they can t’make it as diverse as possible; the whole continent in a few miles’ diameter.  Nothin’s marked – that’s part of the test.  They give ya a map, and if ya don’t stick to it and go beyond the perimeter, they disqualify ya.  Sometimes people can’t take it – go mad and wander into the outback.  Most of ‘em don’t survive too long, but a few of the tougher, crazier pikers stick around.  Same goes for the animals.  The state engineers some of the ones y’find in there along with natives.  Nasty buggers like the one we shot at your campsite.  Most of ‘em have devices in them t’keep ‘em where they oughta be, but every now and then one’ll slip through the cracks or they bloody things’ll actually breed and the offspring won’t have the appropriate tags or gadgets to track and corral ‘em.  Y’don’t see many come out here voluntarily.  Mostly its state officials or stupid kids out on a dare and once a year its potential citizens.”
 
“What do you do once you’re inside?”
 
“Survive,” he said, “for one year on your own.  You’re monitored at all times.  You get to bring in one state-approved comfort object, a map of the Arena, a state-issued wrist-watch, a state-issued pocket knife and each applicant draws lots for one random state-issued piece of equipment.  There’s an initial twenty-four hour cease fire, and after that anything goes as long as you stay within the designated perimeter and operate on your own.  If you work with anyone in a partnership for more than twelve hours and you both survive ‘til the end of the year, you aren’t disqualified, but you are penalized.”
 
“How so?”
 
The hunter went wordless, retreating back into himself again.
 
“Sorry,” she said, glancing away.
 
“Ain’t your fault, love.”  He took a long drink of beer before continuing.  “Once the year’s up, anyone who survived is granted citizenship.  I came out of it in once piece, more or less, and I tried me hand at livin’ like a fair dinkum Australian.”  There was a quiet before he shook his head.  “Couldn’t do it; not after that.  I needed t’be outdoors livin’ wild.  And even bein’ naturalized, I can’t change the way I look.  Still skinny and moustache-free.  I take contracts so I can send money home to me folks and keep enough for meself to stay out here.”
 
“No wonder they want you,” she said with a flat laugh.  “Christ, you’re just what the doctor ordered.”  The sloe-eyed woman leaned forward, looking up at him.  “They need someone like you – a hunter; a survivor.  You may not have been in the exact situation they’re looking to have you work in, but it sounds like the experience of your citizenship trials are highly applicable; to say nothing of your current occupation.”
 
“They’ll have me killin’ blokes, then?”
 
“It’s a bit more complex than just that, but yes, that’s definitely part of it.”
 
“How long are we talking?”
 
She removed a pen and a pad of paper from her jacket.  “Your initial contract will be for two years with potential for renewal at the 18th month mark based on the work you do and whether or not the operation will be marked for continuation.  Your compensation will be determined and quoted precisely after an evaluation by representatives of the Company in question, but it will be no less than this.”  A sum was written down and the note pad handed to the Australian.
 
He observed it with a quirked eyebrow and a low whistle.  “Well, you’ve got me attention, luvvie.  What about room, board and transport?”
 
“All taken care of.  You just have to say, ‘yes’ and we can get started.”
 
Looking thoughtful, he chuckled roughly.  “Y’know, me parents hate this line of work.  They were hopin’ I’d settle down proper after I got naturalized.  Dad’s given up on me, but Mum still hopes I’ll come home and meet a nice girl.  She still sends me prosthetics thinkin’…I dunno…that I’ll suddenly feel inspired t’give up me life a’ machinery-assisted murder.”
 
“Prosthetics?” she queried with a quizzical look.
 
With nothing more than an amused little smile on his face, he got to his feet and opened a cabinet, revealing the interior to be lined with false beards and moustaches.  The man’s guest bit her lower lip, but was unable to hide her mirth.
 
“Oh, God,” she said, snickering.  “Put one on.”
 
Grinning, the Aussie turned his back on her for a moment, selecting a handle bar moustache from his collection.  Looking back at her, the woman burst out laughing.
 
“You look,” she gasped between peals, “like a desperate old queen!”
 
He joined in with her laughter, giving her a nudge and taking another pull from his beer.  “Which one d’you want, Ms. Female of the Species?”
 
“Give me the one with the mutton chops!”
 
* * *
 
”Who’ve you got your money on?”
 
“I’m bettin’ on Six.  Tall, good reach; skinny guys got somethin’ t’prove.”
 
The applicant in question found three sets of eyes locking on him in the dimness of the van’s transport bed as the vehicle came finally to a halt.  His long fingers gripped around his book and he pretended not to feel them.  He was trying very hard not to think about how arduous the process up until this point had been and that it was all only a comparatively brief and pleasant prelude for what was about to come.
 
They’d been traveling for at least four hours.  With the monotony of the lightless gloom and the hypnotic hum of the van’s engine, applicant Six’s wits felt as sharp as tapioca.  As soon as the engine cut, the fuzz began blessedly to lift and his thoughts regained coherency.  Hearing the foot steps of their state-employed chauffeurs approaching the back doors, he had presence of mind enough to reach up and shield his eyes from the light about to pour in.  Groaning from his fellows was accompanied by a flush of dry, hot air swelling in from outside and the gruff commands of the testing staff.
 
“Alright, you lot; on your feet!”
 
‘You lot’ consisted of Six and three other applicants.  They’d all been part of a larger pool and assigned numbers prior to the culling that took place during the initial written and physical parts of their testing.  Besides Six, there remained Seventeen, Nine and Eighty.  They all were male except Nine and quite young, Six guessing none of them beyond their twenties at the oldest.  In general, one wasn’t allowed to see much of the other applicants as they went through their exams and testing, but now and then a glimpse might be caught.  Between what he’d managed to spy of his fellow hopefuls as well as what he could read of them by sharing a few meals and conversations, assessing their body language and verbal tics, he’d come to a few conclusions.
 
First and foremost, Eighty was a killer.  Sandy-haired and green-eyed, he was just shy of six feet tall and every inch of him was lean muscle and sinew under golden-brown skin.  His smile came often, but it inspired no ease, and he might have been handsome if not for the way he carried himself; posture reminding Six of a coiled snake ready to strike.  Eighty’s demeanor was like that of a wasp - everything about him saying he’d sting for the sake of stinging.  While killing your fellow applicants was by no means necessary to achieve citizenship, it wasn’t forbidden within the perimeter of the Arena.  Conceivably, all of them could emerge one year later as citizens, but Six wondered if Eighty was going to allow that to happen.  His comfort object was a length of heavy-duty chain three links long which he would turn over in his hand whenever he seemed to become thoughtful; metal clinking out a koan only he could hear for the sake of his contemplation.
 
Nine was a woman, which meant she had worked twice as hard to get half as far as any of the other applicants.  In the Arena, she would be resourceful, thorough and quick to respond.  Her frame tall and boyish, she had a face with clean lines and thin lips.  Grey, almond-shaped eyes seeming to suggest that she was always turning something over in her head, the girl seemed to have the knack of being able to stay in the present moment while still minding whatever was on the back burner.  She wore her shoulder length brown hair in a ponytail, and around her neck hung her comfort object: a brass locket.  During their preparation, Six had seen the almond-eyed applicant looking into it, the sweet, heart-shaped face of a blonde woman staring up out of the picture within.  Whatever else she might have been, Nine was also in love.  If anyone had it in their mind to keep her from her goal, they would have the devil’s own task doing it.

Seventeen was going to be a father. He'd said as much when they were all eating together; trying to start up conversation between them as if a friendship would benefit them somehow. His fellow applicants had greeted the news with stony silence and the wiry redhead hadn't made any attempts since then to engage them on any level that wasn't absolutely necessary. His comfort object was a letter, folded in half, which he would occasionally remove from a pocket and turn over in his hands with great care, its envelope still sealed. Some might have mistaken his confession and attempt at making friends with the others as a weakness, but Six knew better. While he wouldn't achieve citizenship before his child was born, there were certain loopholes and provisions that could mean benefits of Seventeen's citizenship would be applied retroactively. If he could spare his flesh and blood the same ostracism he'd faced, Six felt sure Seventeen would do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals. Perhaps he was just being sly about letting his fellows know this.

The Arena itself looked a bit odd. Some of it was certainly the outback with its red, scrubby landscape, but there were also plateaus, hills and green wilderness that stretched out before them. It looked as if they'd tried to cram as much variety into the landscape as possible given the limit of a few miles. While he'd read about this and seen pictures, encountering it up close like this was entirely different.

Lining up before the cut-off wearing, shirtless state officials, the four applicants looked at a table. Arranged on its top were four tagged items: a sniper rifle, an sub-machine gun, a kukri and a pair of aviator sunglasses. There was also a small basket in which Six could see four slips of paper.


Here we go.

"As you know from your briefin'," one of the pair announced, "you will be allowed, along with the knife, map, watch and comfort object, one piece of state issued equipment which you will draw lots for momentarily. Before that, I would like to remind you that once you are in the Arena and the twenty-four hour cease-fire period is over, which will be marked by your watch issuing an alert, you are permitted to do whatever you need to do to survive. This includes eliminatin' any a' your fellow applicants as long as you are within the Arena perimeter! Should you choose to do so, their equipment is yours to keep and use, although you may also relieve them of it through non-lethal methods such as theft or bargainin'. There will be a finite amount of ammunition to be found in the Arena for those who receive the firearms. The locations will not be marked on your map, so finders, keepers. Be aware that cooperation between you and any other applicants is to be limited to twelve hours total! This can be broken down however you want it to be over the course a' the year and there is a function on your wrist watch specifically to monitor this time. Should you choose to use this, do so wisely and be aware that any time over twelve hours will result in penalization that will be administered at the end of your year should the two applicants violatin' this rule still be alive. If any a' you drongos is too bloody stupid to read your map and stumbles outside of the Arena you will be disqualified. We will be monitorin' you at all times. Keep in mind that should you be disqualified, you will be unable to re-apply for citizenship. This is your last chance to step away from this."

No one moved.

Grinning, the second picked up the basket of paper slips and held it out to each applicant.

Six felt his heart pound in his ears as he took the paper, willing his hand not to tremble. Sparing a glance at it, he found it to be blue. A quick glance around revealed they were all color-coded. The officials took a step back and allowed the applicants time to claim their prizes.

Six felt his heart sink.


Piss.

Sunglasses. He'd gotten what amounted to the gag equipment. They didn't have to make a sound - he could feel the laughter of the officials.

It didn't matter. It wasn't like he hadn't dealt with the same thing before with everyone else on the whole bleedin' continent. Nature's joke. Fine - let them laugh. He had more important things to do.

If the sunglasses had made his heart sink, though, looking up made it leap into his throat.


Bloody Hell.

Nine was holding the kukri, Seventeen the sub-machine gun and Eighty had the sniper rifle along with a glint in his eye.

Of course.

Unwilling to give the officials the satisfaction, Six folded the temples of his aviators and tucked them into his collar, turning his gaze to what would be his home for the next twelve months.

"Well then, have at it, kids!"

Without looking back or glancing at the other three, Six began into the wilderness.

The four of them had been stripped of everything and now they were free to do anything.


"Fuck damnation, man! Fuck redemption! We are God's unwanted children? So be it!"
- Tyler Durden, Fight Club

10 .

Oh man, I am happy to not only see this thing back up, but see it updated. Seriously, I love everything about this chapter, especially since TF2-verse Australia is something that we definitely don't see enough of, in canon or fandom.

As for potential expansion on that last bit, I'm gonna say yes please, although I think we all know now how it ultimately ends since Sniper now has what used to be the other applicants' equipment. Even so, I'd definitely read it.

11 .

Please. Please work this last part out. This is just to ... wow. You definitly created a new headcanon for me.

12 .

This is amazing. I'd actually love a whole new fic detailing Sniper's time in the arena. My favorite chapter so far, for sure.

13 .

I love you. Can I have your babies?

14 .

I agree with all of the above-- the Origin of Sniper is a great and wondiferous thing to have!

15 .

YEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!

This chapter has to be one of my favorite, if my my actual favorite, origin story of this or any other fic.

16 .

I will never see Sniper in the same light again. I love this, I love you, it's awesome, you're awesome, and you should feel awesome.

I really wish I could read on how he defeated the three. I want to see this Sniper in action.

17 .

This chapter of Sniper's past really reminded me of a certain sociological experiment conducted a while back. It consisted of college-aged men, divided into two groups-- Guards and Prisoners. The Guards were given aviators and a uniform, and it was eventually found out that the sense of anonymity that the aviators gave (shielding them from direct eye-contact with the Prisoners), combined with the uniform, let the Guards do pretty much whatever they wanted to the prisoners without restraint.

Basically, I guess the aviators let Sniper kill/rob the others without hesitation.

...Therefore the aviators are the best item to draw, I suppose.

18 .

>>17 That would be the Stanford Prison Experiment, but I'm pretty sure that the aviators were only important as being a part of the guard uniform. The glasses were only part of a symbol of absolute authority, and as far as I know, didn't function as some sort of talisman of sociopathy.

I think it just goes to show how badass Sniper is if he took out three heavily armed people using only a pair of aviators.

19 .

Why didn't you do the medic man? WHYYYYYYY?!

20 .

Thanks to everyone for the comments! I'm glad you're all enjoying. Beg your pardon for the wait, but I've had a number of things to take care of in real life. Things are beginning to settle, though, so hopefully I'll have a bit more time and energy for fic-writing soon. I'm slowly but surely working on the Medic chapter at present, so no worries - he will appear. My Medic muse is being a bit stubborn, but I'll coax this chapter out of him one way or another. After that, expect Spy, then Scout.

21 .

Uhm... are you still with us? What can i do to get a new chapter?

22 .

Still here! I apologize again for the delay, but I'm doing my best to find time to work on this. I'm currently preparing for a new job as an assistant English teacher overseas, so that means I'm picking up overtime hours whenever I can at my current job to save some extra money. There are some other real life issues that I've been addressing which have eaten up time and energy as well. I'm expecting some down time this weekend, so hopefully I'll be able to get a good portion of Medic's chapter done. Thanks again to my readers for both their interest and patience!

23 .

...
I´m saddened this post felt so far down.
I´m still awaiting eagerly a flashback to medic.
Love
Someone who really wants to see a continue

24 .

Thank you very much for the comment, Anon. One of my problems with this particular chapter has been setting and I've had a few false starts, but I'm about four pages in at this point with a setting I think works well for this bit. Again, thank you so much for your patience. Real life turmoil has begun to settle a bit, so hopefully I can dedicate more time and energy to creative pursuits.

25 .

Just so you know, I am never, ever, ever taking off my Killer's Kabuto again. Ever.

26 .

A new chapter of this fic would be great!

27 .

And it's on the way! I'm mostly done with Medic's chapter - I'm just working on the flashback part now. Thank you for all your patience and comments, everyone!

28 .

I'll be damned if they release 'Meet The Medic' before this chapter. Sorry for the wait! My real life kind of exploded. Hopefully the next couple of chapters won't take as long. Thank you so much to my betas! Enjoy!

Chapter 7

Earlier…

“If you can get the German, you can get any of them.”

The woman in blue stood at the pay phone nearby which she had parked the car she’d been supplied, listening to her employer’s smoke-ravaged voice. She spared a quick glance at the silver Bel Air; it was good to be reminded of the perks this job was going to entail.

“He’ll set the bar; all the information we’ve compiled and the conclusions you’ve come to suggest he’ll be the most difficult.”

Her gaze dropped to the files in her hand. Eight tabs with eight names. “Then you don’t know the Frenchman.”

“Not like you do, in any case.”

She shot a venomous look at the phone. “Speaking of,” she said, “you advertised the gala, right? Anyone RSVP yet?”

A list of names was quoted to her. With a sardonic smile, she shook her head.

“That last one’s him.” Arrogant little… The woman ran a hand distractedly through her hair. “Anyway, I’m going in now. Is there anything else I should know?”

There wasn’t.

“I’ll call you with an update within forty-eight hours.”

Hanging up the phone, she drew in a breath, letting it gather up her anxiety; sweeping through her and collecting into her head all the jangling feelings and uncertainties before exhaling them out in one steady stream to float through the air like the smoke from a cigarette. Her chin tilted upward and her stride shook off the dregs of domesticity; though not of maternity. That potent tool she held close and ready, honing her will and wits against it.

Don’t you let him down.

The day was deceptively sunny for the chill in the air, and walking up to the young man working the ticket booth, the woman in blue was unsure whether or not the goosebumps she felt prickling along her skin were due to the cold or some lingering apprehension. Straightening in his seat, the teenaged attendant looked the woman in blue up and down; little subtlety in his features as his Adam’s apple bobbed slightly.

Clearing his throat, he gave her a little nod and a watery smile. “How can I help you?”

“Just a day pass, please.”

“Oh, s-sure. That’ll be five dollars.”

She laid the cash down on the counter, smiling pleasantly as he took it and printed off a ticket.

“Are you here for the moon jellies? They’ve been really popular.”

“Actually, I’m here to see a particular surgeonfish I’ve heard about.”

The boy brightened. “They’ve got some really nice specimens in the tropical section,” he said enthusiastically. “Welcome To Underwater Friends Ms…?”

Smiling coyly, the sloe-eyed woman shook her head with a flash of dark hair, pressing a finger to her lips and heading through the entrance. “Ah-ah,” she said. “That would be telling.”

Few patrons could be found milling about the aquarium. Chiefly it was elderly ladies and gentlemen with children; probably grandparents looking after their grandkids for the day. It made the woman in blue smile in spite of everything, warmed by wide-eyed little ones discovering new corners of the world through the creatures that inhabited them. The above ground displays and exhibits were occupied by lazing seals, frolicking penguins and whisker-grooming otters. Having been built fairly recently, the murals, statuary and snack booths had yet to succumb to any sort of fading, and their candy-like colors practically glowed beneath the sun. They were the sort of thing that a child would find engaging, but the woman felt she’d probably get a headache if she looked at it all for too long.

He wouldn’t be here.

Fat, contented animals fawned over by children in a setting that looked like a rainbow had vomited on it would hardly serve his needs.

She had a very good notion, though, of where the doctor would be.

Stopping at a snack vendor, she ordered a cup of ice water, eyes straying to the part of the aquarium that would lead to her target.

It isn’t too late. You can still turn away from this. You can get into the car, go home, fetch your son, confess everything and run. Once you talk to the German, you’ll have crossed the threshold. There are places you can go; people who will help you. With your wits and resources, you can keep yourselves safe.

Her fingers closed around the frigid, plastic cup and she strayed a few steps in the direction of where she guessed the German would be, pursing her lips.

No, not safe. If you turn away now and take him down that path with you, there’ll never be a ‘safe’ for either of you ever again. There’ll only be ‘safer’. He’ll never have a normal life; never get to settle down and have a family or any long-term attachments outside of you, and even that could become negotiable. The only way to run would be to let him know enough to put him in danger, and that would defeat your purpose. He’s not capable of living that kind of life; especially if you ever get separated. If they get him, anyway, it won’t be on good terms. The Company is fueled by spite – there’s no way the people running it would treat him fairly if you both ran and they got their hands on him, anyway. You made the deal. See it through.

She straightened her shoulders, fixed her eyes on the entrance to the below-water exhibits, and strode toward it.

Pushing open the double doors and stepping into the dimness within, the soft hum of machinery and pulse of water created an odd sense of pressure around her from all sides. Light filtered through the displays, mottled and always in motion, casting nebulous, dream-like illumination over the floor and the woman. The area seemed empty of human life, the quiet and peace of the moment juxtaposing sharply with the other living occupants of this place.

Turning her head almost against her will, she looked at the sleek, streamlined creatures moving effortlessly through the water; mouths opened just enough to show a jagged crescent of cruel-looking teeth. Reaching out, she brushed her fingertips against the glass as one slid silently past, watching its muscles work smoothly beneath grey skin; eyes nightmarish in their vacancy. Somehow the quiet made the sharks all the more sinister. Everything about them spoke of little beyond single-minded predatory impulses. And what separated the woman from them? A few inches of glass?

“Zhey vould not harm you, fraulein, unless provoked.”

She was not startled by the comment; in fact, she felt her stomach sink fractionally as she looked up and saw the man standing a few feet away from her. He was smiling in an avuncular fashion, his wintry blue eyes crinkling at her over the rims of his spectacles, amused. Dressed in a knit vest and long-sleeved shirt, his short, dark hair was neatly groomed, his carriage was dignified and the lines of his face and posture were characterized by refinement.

“Grey nurse sharks,” he continued, inclining his head toward the sea creatures. “Zhey are razher sluggish, actually. Adaptable, zhough. You see zhem often in aquariums because zhey tolerate captivity vell und have an impressive set of teeth.” He displayed his own in a pearly grin. “Forgive me – you vere looking concerned.”

She gave a breezy laugh and smiled to him sheepishly. “It’s just not something you see every day. Looking at them…if you didn’t know any better…you’d think they’d tear you limb from limb.”

“Zhey certainly aren’t anything to take lightly,” he admitted with a bob of his head. “Any animal, zhough, ought to be allotted its appropriate measure of respect. Even ein maus can bite.”

“Very true.” The woman took a few steps toward him, still looking at the slowly swimming animals. “You seem knowledgeable about them. The sharks, I mean. Do you work here?”

“Nein, just visiting. I find zhem fascinating, zhough, und being here is qvite relaxing.”

She let out a little snort, raising a brow. “Give me a day spa any time. They put me on edge.”

Making a little noise of concession, he pursed his lips and shrugged. “To each zheir own. For me, zhey are magnificent; an uncomplicated creature at the apex of a complex environment. Zheir design, zheir behavior, zheir history…”

“Should I leave you two alone?” teased the woman in blue with a smile.

Returning her smile, he adjusted his spectacles. “Zhis time of day, not many people come here. Zhere is a peace to be found among zhe sharks unique to any I have ever experienced.”

“Now that I think about it, it is rather…whimsical.” She leaned forward to rest her head against the glass, pulse leaping at the closer proximity to the predators behind it. “Like you’re on some kind of wonderful drug.”

There was a pause in the man’s breathing and his eyes darted briefly to the side at the woman. “…Ja.”

“Peace and predation right next to each other; a dream sustaining a nightmare.” She ran a finger down the glass beside her. “And all it would take is a bit of blood to completely change the environment.” The cup of water shifted in her grip, the rattle of the ice within causing the bespectacled man to shiver for a second.

“It…takes very little to alert zhem,” he stated, clearing his throat, “to potential prey.”

“Mm-hm.” Her hair still pressed to the glass, the woman turned her face and smiled to her companion, the filtered brightness casting undulating bands of light and dark across her features. “Like a whisper, a word; a rumor in water. They can be fast when they catch a hint, can’t they?”

The German looked distant, his ice-blue eyes staring at something the woman could not see. “Oh, yes. Zhey can be upon zhe hunted before it even knows zhey’re approaching.”

“I imagine it would be difficult to try and defend oneself.”

“No fighting,” he murmured, “against somezhing like zhat. Only fleeing…und hiding.”

“How does that usually work out?” she queried, straightening and fixing her gaze on him.

“Zhat depends on a number of zhings.” He shifted and something changed in his expression; face alight with some phantom urgency. “Being clever is good und so is finding a safe hiding place or some vay to blend in. In zhe end, zhough, being lucky is best.”

“A bit of luck can ruin everything, either way.”

“It just takes vun slip up…vun unguarded moment.”

“Then you’ve got them.”

“Ja.”

“They take well to captivity, do they?”

“Some bettah zhan ozzahs. Once zhey’re in zheir place, zhey are easier to manage. Zhere are zhose among zhem zhat die very quickly, unable to endure zhe new environments. Some are tenacious, zhough – diminished and drained, but stubbornly, impossibly alive. Und even captives turn against vun anozzah if zhey see ozzahs as veak or somehow different; anyzhing zhat might open make zhem vulnerable to punishment. Vun vould believe zhere to be some sort of solidarity, but it isn’t so. Often zhose who have zhe fight in zhem to resist are beaten to submission by zheir fellows wizh no need for zheir captors to lift a finger.” He shook his head. “Zhe roles come so easily it’s shocking. Jailor und jailed; guard und prisoner.”

“It must be difficult to transport them.” She spread one hand, sea star-like, on the glass.

“Not as much as you’d zhink. Zhey might struggle initially, but zhey succumb wizh surprising speed.”

“I wonder how many could fit in one transport unit. Can it be hazardous?”

“Perhaps fifty or so at first. But far along enough into zheir captivity, you could get as many as vun hundred per transport.” He swallowed. “Survival vouldn’t be guaranteed, of course. So many days wizh so little to eat or drink; zhe living would find zhemselves vaking on top of zhe dead. Perhaps ten percent vould pull zhrough to zhe end. Und for hazard, vell…it could become truly savage if a scrap of food vas dropped among zhem. Zhey vould tear each ozzah apart for a mouzhful.”

“Blood in the water.”

“Exactly.” The word came out in a husky breath, the man’s eyes very wide behind his spectacles. Right hand reached to left forearm, the area caressed as if he were trying to soothe an ache.

“What about those released back into their natural habitat?”

He gave a low, humorless laugh. “What home can zhere be after zhat? Even if a place still physically existed upon liberation, its soul vas gutted. Zhose still living zhere could turn upon zhose returning, und depending on zhe place und zhe offense for which zhey vere initially captured, zhe liberated could find zhemselves re-imprisoned all ovah again.” He shook his head. “Nein, zhere is no going back. Not mentally, spiritually or physically. Zhere is only retreat und zhe hope of anonymity.”

“And long sleeves for the rest of your life.”

His right hand clamped abruptly around his left forearm and the man’s posture became rigid as he appeared to be snapped back to the present time and place.

“It is nice here, but it doesn’t compare to what they have in the hospital, does it?”

The color drained from the man’s face and he opened and closed his mouth, fish-like, as if to say something.

Somebody got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” she sang in a low tone.

His lip curled, baring a few teeth and his hands trembled momentarily before he mastered himself, leveling a look at the woman so cold it could have burned. He spoke in a tone to match, each word slow and deliberate. “Who are you?”

“If I told you, would you believe me?”

He said nothing, mouth drawn into a hard line.

“Didn’t think so. Then again, if you don’t go by your own name, I imagine you’d be hesitant to believe someone else is abiding by their pre-packaged identity.”

“Ve all have different faces we show to zhe vorld,” he said tersely.

“For many different reasons; I know. Different lies we tell. And like most lies, yours works best blended with truth.” She straightened herself. “Your dismissal was unfortunate, although not entirely unexpected. You had to have known you couldn’t have gotten away with it forever, Herr Doktor.”

“Smart people can still do schtupid zhings.”

“As you’ve clearly demonstrated.”

“Vhat is zhis?” he spat, glowering down at the woman.

“People love a feel-good story of someone who goes through a traumatic event and comes out strong and determined on the other side; it’s life affirming and reassures everyone that things are okay,” the woman pressed on. “People don’t like to think about a victim's anger. It makes them uncomfortable when human beings react to horror like human beings. They shame the victim for being upset or anything less than phoenix-like. They want to feel that justice has been done and forgiveness meted out to all parties so they can feel better about themselves. It brings on a creeping suspicion that if forgiveness won't be granted to others, maybe it won’t be granted to them. If justice is not done, perhaps they truly live in an unjust world. They don’t like to think about pain because it reminds them of their own. But pain is something you can never escape, can you?”

He gave her a sardonic smile. “I’m afraid zhat condition is terminal.”

“And you feel it more keenly than the average person.” Shifting the glass in her hand a bit, the woman freed two fingers and turned up her jacket sleeve to expose her bare forearm. “That’s what the business with the morphine was about. You were trying to find a way to control and suppress it.”

His companion’s movements were watched scrupulously, the doctor nodded slowly. “It started with smaller zhings, of course – it just built over time. It vas easy to access the supplies at zhe hospital; diluting zhem vizh vater or placebos vonce I’d used some or all of zhem.”

“And after a while you dropped your guard.” She reached into her jacket, and with a single, smooth motion, withdrew and flicked open a pearl-handled pocket knife. He seemed past the point of phasing, however, and merely watched her with calm, cat-like eyes. “And that was all they needed.” The blade flicked in a silvery arc, the woman wincing as the tip of it scored a crimson cut along her exposed inner forearm. Shifting the glass of water, she held her wound above it and allowed a few sanguine beads to collect and drop, cascading in poppy-colored clouds through the water and between the ice cubes.

The doctor’s nostrils flared and his pupils dilated, a soft breath drawn in through the teeth as he fixed his eyes on the blood-tainted liquid.

“Ah.” She smiled, watching him and lowering her injured arm. “In my opinion, you’ve been dealing with your pain the wrong way. You’ve been trying to control it; diminish it, restrict it and fence it in.”

"You speak of it as if it vere a living thing."

“That’s not a bad way of looking at it, actually. The harder you try to cage and tame it, the harder it struggles against its bondage and the less control you have. What you’re doing isn’t working – that much is clear. Your strategy has only led to bigger locks and heavier doors to keep an increasingly powerful and aggressive beast in check. It’s cost you quite a lot and if you continue on this trajectory, you’re going to wind up as some sad statistic.”

“Und you have some ozzah suggestion, fraulein?”

“Yes, actually, I do. I represent a company interested in seeing you do an about-face on your pain management methods; take the chains off and let it out to play. Instead of keeping it bottled up inside, let it flow outward and have someone else feel it for you; like administering a watered-down anesthetic to a patient.”

“I take zhe measure of relief,” he said quietly, “und zhey take an equal measure of pain in exchange.”

“If you agreed to work with us, we’d have your record wiped and give you additional treatment to help cope with the withdrawal you’re going to be lapsing into. I’m sure you’ve already begun to feel it creeping in.”

Frowning, he averted his eyes.

“We’re interested,” she said, taking a handkerchief from her jacket and winding it around her cut in an impromptu bandage, “in what you have to offer us. And we’ll be happy to help you do what you need to in order to heal while you’re in our employ.” Lifting the tinged drink to her eye level, she smiled. “Somehow I don’t think that will be a problem for you.”

Looking at the blood-clouded cup, the doctor’s eyelids lowered to half moons. “Nein, not at all.”

“That’s what we like to hear.”

* * *

If he could just make it until five o’clock, it would be okay.

The doctor tapped his finger nervously against his desktop in an irregular rhythm in a futile attempt to distract himself.

Though it sat in a storage cabinet in the room across the hallway, he swore he could palpably feel the little vials of medication that waited there. Each was like a miniscule weight resting upon his brain, but if he could hold off on using any of them until five o’clock, it would mean he was still in control.

That was why he’d implemented his rule: he needed to demonstrate that he was not a prisoner.
He dictated terms here, not the medicine.

And that’s what it was; medicine. It was a tool he was using to handle a complex health problem he could go to no one else for. How could he? Inevitably, whatever provider he saw would begin asking questions he would be unable to answer. If he was honest, he could lose his job or worse.

Half an hour. He could hold out for half an hour longer.

His left forearm itched fiercely and he gripped it, teeth sinking into his lower lip.


It’s nothing. You’re better than this – you can overcome it.

As the thought crossed his mind, the doctor smiled bitterly.

Oh, yes, overcoming it most admirably. You’re triumphing to the tune of a needle in your arm every evening.

He could feel regret pulse in his temples like a headache. Where had his restraint been? Why had his senses and forethought abandoned him to the screaming madness? It was always there waiting for him just behind a thin and fragile membrane, but in a moment of weakness, he thought he could build a more stable wall with a stronger substance. Stronger, yes, but more dangerous. All it took was a moment to lose all respect for that danger and embrace the strength.

And now look at you.

Five o'clock five o'clock five o'clock.

Fingers trembled and lost any sense of rhythm upon the desktop, groping for objects that were not there as a high-pitched noise began ringing in his ears.


So like a violin. Oh, listen to the song sawed out when your nerves are stretched taught and horror holds the bow.

”Keep your hands above your blankets where we can see them!”

The pain and the craving fed off one another. Agony and ecstasy in a feedback loop with him caught in the center. They surged in his skull, rushing and thunderous.

For heaven’s sake, just go and get your fix. It’s going to come out the same no matter when you get it. Just spare yourself the agony and do what needs to be done.

”I’m in control here.”

No, you’re not. You’re every bit the prisoner they made you all those years ago. You’ve never escaped. Liberation is something that happened to other people.

”Stay toward the middle and you won’t get hit as much.”

He hadn’t remembered getting to his feet. All around him, the room shook as if it had just stopped spinning and he caught hold of a wall to steady himself. Glancing at the clock hanging in his office, his stomach gave a cruel twist at the mere seven minutes that had passed.

Sweat beaded on his upper lip.

Five o’clock.


It was to be an execution. The boy they presented was completely nude, figure stark and pale against the iron-colored sky. He could have been carved of marble or ivory; an emaciated saint. His eyes were very green, the flash of them like a spark being snuffed out as a sack was pulled over his head.

Hanging was expected, perhaps, or maybe shooting. Instead, they seemed in a more novel mood.

Still as statues, the dogs waited with their masters.

There was a single, hard-edged word, a scrambling of claws against earth and their teeth tore the pale saint’s flesh to crimson rags.


His skin went cold and he felt nausea clench at his belly.

There was no need for this. What did it matter? The result would be the same.

He felt something within him lift at the surrender and his body moved seemingly of its own accord.


"Wake up! You must move! They're coming to take you from the car! They'll take you to your death!"

Do you think you’ve managed yet to scrub the stink from you? Remember how your supposed liberators recoiled from you lot because of it? And you always thought you’d get used to it with enough time.

"Oh, Jesus…just like cattle. Look what they've got on their arms…"

He hadn't heard the nurse approach.

"Doctor?"

She gaped at him, standing in the doorway with her mouth twisted in distress.

"What have you got in your arm?"


Whatever trepidation you may feel
In your heart, you know it’s not real
In a moment of clarity
Some little act of charity
You gotta pull me out of this mud
My sweet baby, I need fresh blood
- Eels, Fresh Blood

29 .

I really liked the conversation about the sharks. It showed a lot more going on underneath the surface than their conversation let on and I am a sucker for that sort of thing.

I really like this chapter and I'm glad you decided to update again. I was afraid this was a dead fic.

30 .

Yes! I liked it very much. The story is really going somewhere - somewhere really exciting.

31 .

<i>sweet Jesus</i> do I love this fic.

32 .

this was last posted in over half a year ago
why must the mighty fall

33 .

Hey, there folks!

I have not forgotten about this fic, and I apologize for not updating in so long. A big part of that is that I've moved out of the states and am now living in Japan as an assistant English teacher for elementary and middle school kids. This has been a not insubstantial adjustment for me to make. I am not, of course, complaining - I've been working toward getting this job for quite some time and I'm super happy with it.

A few days ago my friend pointed out to me that a TVTropes page was actually made for this fic. I was shocked and really flattered, and then reminded, as the above Anon just pointed out, that this had not been updated in about six months.

I've been a bad mommy to my fan fic.

That said, I've gotten in the head space to do some more writing on this and I have work on Spy's chapter done. I'm considering posting it pretty much as is, although it does break the pattern of the chapters thus far as that it has (as of right now), no flashback. I've been turning it over in my head for a while and considering what I might write for a flashback, but part of me is wondering if I should just keep Spy's chapter free of one what with the nature of the character. It just seems like it might be better to leave his past obscured. When it comes to writing the flashback itself, I was thinking of doing something with him and the Woman in Blue having a conversation, but a lot of the scenarios I can think of are quite similar to other ones that are already in the fic. I'd also thought of doing something with their going out and working together on an operation in the past during WWII, but that feels like something that could be an entirely new story altogether and might run a little long.

So, I ask you, gentle readers, what do you think I should do? If you like, I can post the draft flashback-free and you can offer your opinions.

Thank you all for your patience.

34 .

>>33

If you want to go along with the pattern of flashbacks. It doesn´t need to be a world/lifechanging flashback one. It could easily be a scene which doesn´t give much away from Spy, but to the same time may let us have a look in his character. I don´t know how to really describe it. Maybe him visiting a museum the previous day? Reading a paper with news and some of his thoughts to the headline? Him interacting with a random woman/man. If you want him and the woman to have a conversation, why not their last one? Their first one? A random one who shows how far their relationship went, a turn in their relationhsip (good, worser, friends, companionship, accepting each others skills, this one crack which can´t never be healed and looked over...) A flashback doesn´t need to go back all deep down in the past. It also can just be a few days prior, before she goes to him.

What i liked about your flashbacks are not how far in the past they are, but rather that they showed a side of the character which makes him THIS character. They explained a bit about him or adopted a feature and went along with it. Even if Spy is a mysterious figure in the shadows, we all know he has some features which makes him Spy. (Good taste in suits, a rather childish attitude sometimes not far behind scouts, preparing children to stab christmasfigures with a icicle and so on.)
I hope i gave you now some ideas for the story. If not, than just post the one without flashback, please.

35 .

>>33

I NEARLY PEED MYSELF WHEN I SAW THIS. I THOUGHT SOME BUTT JUST BUMPED IT.

Ahhh what a fantastic gift! I just recently got into the TF2 fandom and your fanfic is probably my most favourite of all and I was so saddened to see it had stopped updating when it was such a fantastic read and so little to go!
I'm so happy you have returned, for entirely selfish reasons unfortunately, but I hope if you still have the fire in you to finish this fic, then you'll do so! It's also great to see that you have been busy and have had good things happen instead of some terrible reason to your absence!

36 .

Ahhh will you continue this after all???

37 .

still
waiting
anxiously

38 .

Anon 37: please put the word sage in the email field to avoid bumping the thread. I was sad that this wasn't an update. Thanks!

Perhaps for Spy you could do a flashback for the woman. They do, after all, have a history together. However, no flashback would work just as well. The Spy is certainly an enigma.

39 .

This post has been deleted.

40 .

Hello! I've decided to post this flashback free. If I change my mind and decide to write one later, I'll post the edited chapter here or a link to my fan fic tumblr. I apologize again for the lateness of this. My life has been...interesting lately. In any case, enjoy!

Chapter 8

At a fancy pants party…

The "Wit of Lupin" was a fake. But that did not stop the well-to-do of Paris from fawning over it and glutting themselves on canapés and champagne. The woman in blue lost count of how many times she heard some self-appointed expert on gemology proclaim the 'diamond' was unsurpassed in quality and size, but it never failed to make her smile.

As far as the public was concerned, tonight was a gala event in which a generous benefactor was selflessly donating a diamond the size of an orange to a museum from his private collection. A few articles had been published in the local papers, a number of television appearances had occurred, and invites had been issued to the "right people."

It was a beautifully cut hunk of glass, to be sure, and did a truly marvelous job of catching the light. A few of the gala attendees were looking at it as if they wanted to put it in their mouths. The fact that such "stone" existed not three months prior to this did not stop people from spinning yarns about its history. Some of them were actually quite entertaining - the woman in blue was particularly fond of one that involved pirates and acts of daring-do on the high seas.

Then again, perhaps the nature of the gala was contributing to the general air of duplicity.

The woman in blue adjusted her mask and straightened her gown. She had chosen a glittering sheath of navy blue so dark it looked black until she shifted and the light caught it just so. It clung to her every curve, her body a midnight-colored hourglass that glided to and fro, weaving in and out of the assembled upper crust. The garment had been selected with care, but perhaps not quite so much as her mask. What it would be had been a foregone conclusion, but finding just the right black cat mask had proven more challenging. Finally, she had settled on one made of leather. A bit larger than a typical domino mask, its impishly shaped upper lip, which covered the area just above her own mouth, suggested a perpetual, mischievous grin. Silver rimmed its eyes, edged its ears and a few delicately placed whorls and spirals gave the impression of whiskers and fur.

The rest of the gala was a galaxy of colors, shapes and styles. Some wore plain but very tasteful suits, gowns and masks - they seemed more concerned with clean lines and designer brands. Others were more preoccupied with flash. They were whimsical and jewel-like - nymphs, kings, seasons, stars and flowers; enough animals to fill a zoo. Still, even among all of the attendees, the woman had not yet found her target.

While she had no idea what he would be wearing, the woman in blue knew there would be no mistaking her target when he arrived. That was how it was; how he was. If he wanted to be seen, no one would be able to take their eyes off him. if he wanted to disappear, he was as good as a ghost.

She plucked a flute of champagne from a passing server and closed her eyes, turning it in her gloved hand. The chill of the drink was enough to be felt through the gloves' fabric and provided a welcome juxtaposition to the heat that flushed across her skin.

Steady, girl.

This would be dangerous. On his own, the Frenchman would be formidable, but she had the rotten luck of being in love with the bastard on top of everything else. It wasn't as if she was alone in this, however. He was, to be fair, good about not boasting of his conquests. She never heard the name of another woman uttered in her presence, but she was not so naive as to believe a man such as he would be lacking in companionship. Even knowing this, however, she felt no jealousy; it seemed so pointless. She might as well be upset for a wolf hunting or a bird flying - it was simply the man's nature.

"I can always tell when you're thinking of me, ma petite chou-fleur. It's like the tug of a pole star."

"Or an article in a newspaper."

The voice had come from over her shoulder, the words tickling the lobe of her ear. Every nerve came to life, her skin prickling from head to toe in waves as her mouth watered.

He was wearing cologne - something with sandalwood and clove in it. Not strong, but just enough to be noticeable if he stood close; something to put her at ease and invoke exoticism at the same time. Turning her head, she look to the man straightening himself and smiled beneath her mask's Cheshire grin. She couldn't help herself.

His suit was a deep, earthy crimson with impeccable lines, tailored so well it seemed less like a suit and more like his very skin. His mask, too, was not so much a separate thing as it was an extension of himself; something which made up the natural contours of his face.

He was a fox. His mask was also of leather and was obviously molded with care; it fit cleanly to his facial features and was colored a few shades brighter than his suit. It covered roughly half of his face, cheeks feathered with cunningly cut and curled leather, snout going only a bit further than the end of his own nose, ears and eye holes trimmed with gold. At present, his hair was dark and combed back neatly. The woman didn't know if she'd ever seen it in its natural color. It all did a truly stunning job of making his blue eyes stand out by contrast.

"Yes, well," he said, grinning back, "thank you so kindly for throwing the party for me, ma belle. Before we get down to why you've gone to the trouble, shall we enjoy a dance or two? It's been too long and it would be so dull and such a waste to have our business without a measure of pleasure to go with it."

"Naturally." The cat-masked woman finished her champagne and gave the flute to a passing attendant. "Cordial rim for a bitter cup."

"Ah, so bitter, ma petite?" he said softly, taking her gloved hand into his.

"More than I'd care to admit most of the time," she replied, still smiling as he led her to the dance floor.

A string quartet and piano were just beginning a waltz, and the fox-masked man led the woman into the music with ease.

"You've lost your accent," he said, a note of disappointment in his voice.

"I'm just not speaking in it at present," she said simply. "I didn't want to draw any more attention to myself."

"You couldn't help that if you tried. You're singular. There's not a man in the room that does not envy me."

"Laying it on pretty thick, aren't you Mister Fox?" she said with a chuckle.

"Ah, it's only because it's been so long, Ms. Cat." There was a meaningful pause before he continued, "Or is it Mrs. Cat?"

She shook her head. "No Mr. Cat at present. I haven't really been looking. A few gentlemen here and there, but nothing serious." After a beat she smirked. "Oh, wipe that look off your face - it's not because of you, you Narcissist."

"Then why?" The man continued to smile, a certain smug satisfaction in it he did not bother to try and hide. "I wouldn't think someone like you would have a hard time finding companionship."

"No one's seemed worth the trouble," she answered with a shrug. "I tried a few years ago, but things just never worked out. Some were jealous of the boys, others resented my independence…it just seems like no one can keep up."

"Now who's the Narcissist?"

"Just telling the truth. People have such a hard time, it seems, with having a love life that is part of a larger life. I don't want anyone to be my whole world any more than I want to be someone else's. It's too much pressure and it isn't enough for me. I've had people say I'll change my mind, but it hasn't happened after this long; I don't think it will any time soon."

"Most people don't like to share, petite. Even with a concept or idea."

"Well, an Irish Setter will sit for hours with its head in it's master's lap, staring up at them with undivided adoration. Maybe those people should invest in one."

Her partner laughed and spun her beneath his arm.

"Oh, ma belle femme sans pitié! I've missed you terribly." Drawing her close again, one hand settled on the small of her back and the other interlaced with her fingers, he smiled his knife-like smile and purred beneath his mask. "I should have followed you home."

"You did."

He gave her a sheepish look from his foxish features.

"I don't know who you thought you were fooling," she sniffed, although there was affection beneath her words. "You didn't kill that milkman, did you? I never asked."

"Better that you didn't," he said without elaborating. "In any case, I needed information. In the end…I couldn't sacrifice other parts of my life for Boston and I knew you couldn't leave your life in Boston for Brittany."

Her features softened. "Is that where you ended up?"

"At first. I needed it. For many reasons, really. It helped even me out a bit after the War; reminded me of who I was and where I'd begun. Everyone was rather surprised to see me return. I can never fool anyone back home."

For a few beats they danced in silence, the woman in blue watching him before an amused smile stretched her lips. "I still don't know if that's genuine or a complete load of horse shit."

Grinning back, he shrugged. "The nature of the game, I'm afraid," the man said with an exaggerated sigh. "Really, though, I do miss your accent. Won't you say, 'Parked the car in Harvard Yard' for me?"

Arching a brow beneath her mask, the woman in blue gave him a lopsided smile, speaking out of the side of her mouth. "What ah ya? Wicked retahded?"

The waltz ended to a smattering of applause. A few of the dancers began to wander off back into the crowd and the cat-masked woman was about to follow them with her partner took a firmer grip on her hand. She gave him a quizzical look and was about to ask a question when the band began a new tune that made her heart leap and her body go cold.

"Special request I put in for," he said, opening his arms to invite her to dance.

She returned to him, closing her eyes and allowing their bodies to press against each other as they swayed and spun gracefully across the parquet.

"D'où viens-tu ? Quel est ton nom ?
Le navire est ma maison…
"

"Please don't do this to me."

"La mer mon village…"

"Do what?" he murmured, not even bothering to feign innocence. It sounded less like an inquiry and more like a challenge. Pressing his cheek to hers, the leather of their masks scraped together; the cleverly cut curls of the fox's whiskers tickling her cheek and his voice buzzing warmly in the curve of her ear as he hummed along to the music.

In spite of herself, the woman felt a euphoric languor moving through her. He felt right; familiar. She felt safe with him. It wasn't the kind of white picket fence, chicken-in-every-pot, mythological American Dream variety of safety, though. It was the safety in that, even if they never knew each others' real names, they would understand the instinct behind their actions. Their natures, as duplicitous and merciless as they could be, were something that each could recognize and appreciate instead of merely tolerate. Perhaps the trappings surrounding what they did would be a mystery, but the core of who and what they were would always be something within the grasp of their comprehension.

"Damnit."

"…Mon nom, nul ne le saura."

"Something the matter?"

His lips brushed against her earlobe with every syllable and the woman in blue drew in a quavering breath.

"This is hard enough already."

"Is it?" Briefly, he pressed his hips against her suggestively, a puckish note in his voice. He waited just long enough to feel her blush against his cheek before resuming their dance. "I suppose it must be - your heart is beating so very quickly." He closed his eyes and a tremble entered his words.

"So is yours," she hissed, straightening to look him in the eyes.

"And I would never deny it," he replied, opening his eyes to watch her. "But you? You are so beautiful and so cruel; so cold that you burn." He reached up a gloved hand and ran a fingertip along her jawline, eyelids lowering halfway over his glasz-colored eyes.

A dreamy heat originating in the pit of the woman's belly began to grow; tendrils of it creeping up through her torso and suffusing her limbs.

"Ma belle femme sans pitié."

The woman in blue watched her target, scrutinizing him through the eyes of her mask, reading between the lines around his mouth and beneath the glint of his eyes. At length she spoke, her worlds slow and edged with a cautious surety. "My God. You actually love me."

Sadness shaded his face for a split second before he cleared his throat. "You know, I've heard the most incredible story about that diamond there." He inclined his chin toward it. "Don't tell anyone, " he murmured, leaning in close, "but it's actually a fake! It's really a cleverly cut hunk of glass. Still, it's lovely for what it is. All the same, it's only a prop in a rather elaborate hoax. It's quite amusing, actually, to see so many of the city's elite come to make fools of themselves. I've heard and told some whoppers in my time, but that one about the pirates was really too much."

He pulled her close as he spoke, his voice low and dangerous; a velvet-wrapped knife. Whatever sorrow had been in him only a few seconds before was replaced by a low but intense heat, glowing like an ember under his words.

"Anyway, the whole thing was set up by a quite remarkable woman who has spent the past few months going around the world talking to a number of men with extraordinary pasts and skill sets. Shortly after visiting with them, all of these men have left their homes for some God forsaken spot out in the middle of the Badlands in the United States. So far as anyone can determine, these men have no previous meaningful associations - in fact, they have never met one another before. Their selection has been rather a mystery, although they seem to fulfill various roles which a combat unit might utilize."

Setting her teeth, the woman made a motion to pull away from her target, but he held her close and swept along with her movements to keep her from making an easy escape.

"It's also known that, historically, this land has been at the center of a dispute between the Mann Brothers of Mann Co. One might surmise, then, that the twins are looking to launch a new offensive to gain supremacy over this, and likely other, pieces of land whose ownership is something which has never been conclusively settled between them. One could conclude, then, that the woman behind this diamond hoax is recruiting talent on behalf of one, or perhaps both, of these twins. In actuality, this whole gala was orchestrated to catch the attention of a man possessed of yet another skill set that might compliment those of the others previously collected."

His eyes locked with hers, and any gentle, sea-colored affection had drained from them, leaving them hard and icy. A sardonic smile stretched beneath his mask; the romance of his vulpine disguise discarded for a more honest and feral aspect.

"It was quite successful in that respect, actually. He could not help himself, even knowing it to be a trap. And the truth of that matter was because the man could not understand why the woman was doing all of this in the first place. She had everything she could ever need to be happy - a home, a family she loved, a community she had an active role in, money and benefits from her previous employment that would easily last her for the rest of her life. What could compel her to embark on such a strange and arduous endeavor?"

The cat-masked woman's heart thundered within her and her mouth tightened into a hard line as her body seemed to go hollow.

The man in the red suit closed his eyes and let out a sigh, his features losing their ferocity as the intensity evaporated from him. When he opened his eyes again and met hers, a weary sadness bordered his words. "Why, petite? Why?"

The band began to wind down, the dancers stopping and dispersing. Squeezing his hand, the woman in blue led the man in red to a table, sat down, ordered some more more champagne, and answered his question.

If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner, take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I'm your man.

- Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man

41 .

It updated. It actually updated.

I have so many feels for this fanfic, I have so many feels for these characters and the wait made this update so much sweeter. I feel like I could just keel over and DIE. It was so good.

42 .

You know I like this already, and I want to reiterate it just to be safe. It's a powerful ending you've got here - we as readers know why, from the previous sections, so there's no need to repeat it. Cutting to black like that tells us what we know is true, and that there's more the characters have to say, which is a good balance to strike.

A lovely penultimate chapter, and I'm waiting with patience for the last.

43 .

AAANnnnnd I'm spent. What a great chapter and I am so happy to see you continue this. I have been looking forward to the Spy chapter for the longest and I was not disappointed.

44 .

Thank you so much, guys! Cosmic Tuesdays and LittleMeesh, I love both of your guys' contributions to the fandom (Tuesdays, you really ought to be published and LittleMeesh, I have a kind of embarrassing love for TentaSpies), so I'm really flattered by your comments. Thank you again.

I'm just starting on Scout's chapter. I don't want to jinx myself, but hopefully it won't take as long as Spy's did to get posted.

45 .

"The man in the red suit closed his eyes and let out a sigh, his features losing their ferocity as the intensity evaporated from him. When he opened his eyes again and met hers, a weary sadness bordered his words. 'Why, petite? Why?'"

Excuse me for a moment while my heart breaks...
I don't know how to explain myself without sounding like an utter sap, but this was sad.
Not gut wrenchingly boohoo sad, but a subtle pull at the heartstrings, just enough for it to hurt.
This was worth the wait, in my opinion, but right now I'm at the edge of my seat for Scout's story.
Ever since finding out who the mysterious blue woman was, his is the one I'm anticipating the most.

46 .

D'awwww there's really something about that romance <3
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