David North (AKA Maverick) belongs to Marvel. No money. Don't sue.
Everyone else is mine, but the only ones I care about in this are Kai, Darius, Zach, and Three Eyes. Touch any of them without permission and I'll pierce both your ears with a single icepick at the same time.J
Here's a story that happens a couple of years before Kai even hooks up with the X-Men. This'd be set roughly in 1992 (four years before the main run of the K&Ls starts) and takes place a few months after a certain vital influence on my girl's life dies. It's a lot longer than I meant it to be. Who's surprised? ;-) And I stamp this story with an official Angst Warning™. Though there ARE a few snicker-worthy parts, methinks...
This monster is dedicated to Jaya Mitai. If it wasn't for her, this wouldn't have been written. (That means all flames should go thataway. ;)
Special thanks to Abyss for the Maverick-tips and for taking the time to semi-sorta beta this thing. Thanks, Thingamasquishy!
Comments toKaylee@subreality.com. (New addy again! Gracias, Kielle!) Some people say writers will wither without feedback. I say that we'll find out where you live, stalk you, burn you in effigy on your own front lawn, and eventually pounce on you in a dark alley and noogie you to death. It's not worth the grief. Trust me. Send feedback. ;-)
Kai & Maverick: Humanity
I swore mentally -- violently, and creatively -- when the over-muscled lunks sent me staggering into the cell with a hard push. Bound arms fouled balance, and I damn near went sprawling to my face... which woulda really been enough to ruin my temper beyond reclamation. A little humiliation to drip down into a bucket already full of the stuff, that's what this was.
Still, I managed to keep my balance halfway decently, and I even managed to turn and give them a look that I was willing to wager made them think twice about following me in there to rough me up, so at least a little of the humiliation was drained away...
The door shut with a loud, ominous clang. I barely kept the oaths down in my throat. Rotten lousy sons of undersized over-uddered heifers! Treat me like that, would they... Wait'll this rib heals, you rat bastards...
Before I could get fully involved in my swearing I realized that I wasn't alone. I try to save the belligerent fuming for when I don't have an audience of a total stranger, so I fought the scowl back and looked around with as blank an expression as I could call up under the circumstances.
The guy was against the back wall, tucked into a corner. Shadows cloaked him and covered his face, but it was obvious that I had his full and undivided attention. As he had mine, come to think of it. Since he was so open in his silent appraisal of me, I figured I might as well be likewise. There was something vaguely familiar about his build, I thought, and maybe about his posture, which was upright and confident even in this situation. I frowned slightly and tried to place him in my memory. Where had I seen this guy before? Where had I caught this scent? And why--
Why was he suddenly coming towards me in long, angry strides, thrusting a hand for my throat faster than I could backpedal, slamming me up against the wall...?!
"You," he said low, voice layered with more disgust than I knew a person could put into a voice. I felt my feet lifted off the floor and was reminded again why I shop in the 'petite' section at K-Mart.
Breathing was hard enough past the vice-like grip the bastard had around my throat. Words were harder still. "I... know you... from somewhere?" Stay loose... no struggle yet... get an idea of what's going on...
His hand squeezed. Vision blurred a bit, his good-looking face fuzzing around the edges. "You... don't... remember?" My breath rattled as that hand tightened more. I closed my eyes and concentrated on sucking in air. "You don't remember nine years ago? Is that too far back for you?!"
Voice was gone by now. He might as well have gagged me. I suddenly found myself wondering if 'playing along' had been such a great idea, and a flash of fear and anger hit simultaneously. I gritted teeth, eyes still closed, and slammed a knee up as hard as I could. His stance protected the family jewels, but I wasn't aiming for them anyway. His grip loosened gratifyingly when I connected solidly with his floating ribs on his left side. I shoved at the wall with my bound wrists, twisting, and jerked free of his hand with a deep gasp, lunging sideways and blinking my slowly clearing eyes at him.
Evidently that knee had been luckier than I thought -- looked like he had some problems with those ribs other than my half-effective blow. Maybe he'd been worked over earlier himself...
"Okay..." I panted, keeping myself warily to the other side of the cell and adjusting my balance to accommodate the hands. "... wanna tell me what the fuck this is about??"
His voice sounded strained -- rib worse than I guessed? "You... Germany... '83... assassins..."
"That was..." My voice trailed off. I hadn't gotten a good look at him... I'd just seen one more faceless gun aiming for my people...
Not that it would've made a difference if he'd been a person to me. Not back then.
I swallowed hard. He wasn't coming after me yet. Didn't know if he would. Wouldn't surprise me... not considering what'd happened back then. "Things were... different then. I was."
"Leopards don't... change their spots. Killers stay killers. And you were... are... a killer."
"You don't understand--"
"Shut up!" he hissed, raising shadowed eyes to glare furiously. "I don't give a damn about your excuses. You led them -- I saw you -- and that makes you responsible."
A thousand denials sprang to my throat, but I wouldn't let a one pass my lips. He was right, goddamnit. I'd led them. Didn't matter that I didn't want to. Didn't matter that I hadn't been me. If I hadn't given in... if I hadn't let them break me in the first place...
"I'm sorry," I said inadequately.
His voice went flat. "Shut up."
"Shut the fuck up!"
Under any other circumstances, I wouldn't have. Telling me to shut up is about the quickest way to get me talking, most times. Try to put out a fire with bourbon and you'll get the same sorta effect. There were times in the past where I had no desire to rebel against an order like that.
And it's exactly because of those times that now I do rebel. Constantly. With great enthusiasm.
Yet when I looked at him, half-hunched over his injured side and giving me a glare fit to melt boulders, I clamped my mouth shut on the words and gave him a short, tense nod instead.
Silence was the least I owed him.
"You," the guard said, pointing towards him unceremoniously. "Come quietly." She had more than enough muscle with her to handle things if he decided that 'quietly' wasn't his method. He stood from the bench, trying not to show how much he was favoring that left side, and walked to the door steadily enough, not so much as glancing towards where I sat on the opposite side of the cell.
Questioning, probably. Not the pleasant kind. I'd be next. Been through sessions like this before... could handle it. Would hate it, but could handle it.
I inhaled deeply, slowly, and closed my eyes. My senses were more than keen enough to warn me if anyone approached, and I needed as much semi-sleep as I could get. While I sought for that calm, quiet relaxation, my hands worked methodically towards freeing themselves.
An hour passed.
Arms'd been free since halfway through hour one, though I kept my hands linked behind my back and didn't budge from the sprawl I'd lowered myself into a little while ago. I could hear the guard breathing outside the cell as she walked a circuit, then retreated behind her locked door. I could hear the quiet 'clink' of change in her pocket even past the bolted door at the end of the hall. I could hear the rustling of a small creature -- probably a mouse -- through the thick concrete wall. The mouse and the wind and the whisper of dying desert grasses brushing together.
Outside was just through that wall.
I kept my thoughts on that rather than the past they tried to drag me to.
Shuffling, cursing, bitching outside as they brought him back from behind that thick door that led to the guard's booth and more. Before they even opened the cell I knew that he was being carried -- or rather, dragged. Two bulky men held his arms, and between them he sagged almost lifelessly, body limp. I stayed back, arms still tucked innocently behind me, and gazed steadily at the woman behind those two men who trained the rifle on me. I could probably manage to take her out even from here. Might get a bullet or two in the process... but it wouldn't be the first time by far.
I couldn't manage it with the two men there, though, and the three others I heard milling quietly in the hall.
To my surprise, they didn't gesture for me. Just dumped the guy on the grimy floor and walked out unceremoniously. The woman held the rifle on me for another minute, and then a man came back with a tray -- two cups of water and some bread, my nose told me. Not bad. A little food would be helpful, even if it was barely enough for Mr. Mouse and his family outside.
The door clanged shut, the bolt shooting home with a solid, disheartening sound. They hadn't planned to untie me to eat -- did they realize I'd free myself, or expect the guy to hand-feed me whenever he came around? Or was it a test to make me toss out my ace of freedom and lay my cards on the table?
Well fuck it. I'd be in this cell a while. Couldn't hide the arms very long anyway.
I straightened with a quiet sigh and brought my hands around, massaging at one then the other 'til all the feeling returned. The guy didn't move in the fifteen minutes or so I spent doing that. I watched his prone form, feeling the urge to go to him, to turn him over, to do what I could for his wounds and--
To do what I could to make up for nine years ago.
Give it up. There's no fixing what happened back then. Any of it. He was just one more.
He wouldn't appreciate my help. Should leave him be.
Yeah, that's the spirit! Leave him bleeding -- you smell the blood, so don't deny it -- on the stone floor. Let his wounds get infected from alla this scum covering the place. Way to be a human being, Kai.
I went to the tray first, hoping without much faith that he'd wake up before I reached him. Two half-full cups of grimy water and a hank of crusty bread. I took a wary sniff of both -- smelled clean. Of drugs, anyway. Tipped one of the tin cups back, grimacing at the metallic tang of the water inside. Disgusting, but sustenance. I'd had worse. I'd cooked worse.
I ate a little of the bread -- not minding the hard crunch to it overmuch, since it was pretty much tasteless anyway -- and washed it down with half the water I had left in my cup, grimacing even more. The thought of a hunger strike was tempting, if only to get them to serve some water that didn't taste like liquid iron.
Still the guy hadn't woken up.
Couldn't really put it off any longer. I picked up the tray, put on my blank face, and walked over to drop into a crouch beside him. His eyes were closed, head turned sideways, mouth slack. Drying sweat carried the faint traces of something unpleasant that'd been introduced to his body. He'd been drugged, then. Nothing I recognized. Designer, maybe.
Get on with it.
Putting the try down and reaching a hand to his shoulder, I rolled him slowly to his back, careful to support his head as he turned. The blood smell grew stronger. My eyes took in the extent of the damage, and my heart gave a sudden hard, angry pound. They'd done some extensive... work... on him; from chest to as far down as I could see on his bared torso. Nothing serious in and of itself, but the combination was bad news, and the pain had to have been... not good. Had they gotten anything from him? I didn't know who he was working for these days; he'd been freelance before, of that I was pretty sure. Who sent him in here?
There was a rip in the left leg of my BDUs. I put fingers to it and tore a bit more until I had a strip of the tough fabric free. The guy didn't budge, but his breathing was fairly steady and his heart sounded okay. I dipped the cloth in the water left in my cup and went to work on his cuts. Had to get them as clean as possible if his body was supposed to fight the infections that might set in. And since I'm not one for coddling when something unpleasant needs to be done, I didn't bother with 'dabbing' the wounds, but rather scrubbed at them with slow, strong strokes that worked away the small beginnings of scabs and got the blood flowing again. Blood would clean the wounds better than anything I had, so long as they were kept as sanitary as possible afterwards.
And that was another thing. The cot was pretty gross, but it was a good bit better than the floor. This fellow wasn't a light guy, though. I wasn't anticipating an easy heft.
Still, I'm stronger than most people, and it'd be best to move him while he was still out. I wasn't particularly looking forward to getting his reaction to my sudden bout of Samaritanism. Something told me he'd be even less pleased with it than I was.
I lifted him -- staggering under the weight and cursing quietly-but-fervently -- and managed to get him to the cot. He'd given a groan halfway there when I'd shifted him, so I put him down quickly, set the tray beside him, and took myself back to the other side of the cell to sit down and watch and wait.
Another groan, deep, fairly strong.
Took him a few minutes all in all, but eventually I saw his eyelids flutter and a hand twitch. He laid there for a while, motionless except for his breathing, probably trying to shove the pain down somewhere that it could be managed. Guess he did it, too, 'cause he slowly pulled himself to a sitting position after a while, keeping his groans so quiet that if I'd had normal ears I wouldn't've heard 'em.
Then he looked at me. His arm was gently cradling that left side in a gesture I almost thought he couldn't help. An utterly ridiculous stab of guilt nudged me. As if he wasn't in enough pain already...
Oh, puh-leez. He didn't exactly give you much choice.
I sat with my arms linked around drawn up knees, and when his eyes met mine I nodded towards the tray. "Bread and water. No great culinary success, but edible."
He wiped a half-steady hand across his jaw. "Why didn't they take you?" It came out hoarse -- a few notches up from a croak. His eyes flashed, daring me to remark on his weakness.
I didn't. "Dunno. Grapevine doesn't extend this far, evidently."
He grunted, bending slowly, slowly to retrieve the tray. I almost got up to help him.
What the fuck is wrong with you, Kai? This man'd be happy to see you dead!
Not that I didn't deserve it...
Save the recrimination for later, the business part of my mind admonished.
He wanted to gulp the water, I could tell... but didn't. He wanted to wolf down the bread... but didn't. Guy was high in the self-control department. Even with him taking it slow, the food and water was gone in moments. They hadn't supplied enough for one of us to be comfortable, let alone two. All part of the game. All part of weakening us so we'd be that much easier to break.
I didn't think he'd broken yet. He didn't have the look of a man who'd broken; half-relieved, half-self-loathing. No... his face was blank and his eyes were still hard and his doubtless bruised shoulders were still squared. Definitely hadn't broken.
Been battered, though. He finished the 'meal' and stretched himself with aching pauses to lie back down on the cot. I stayed quiet, though something in me wanted to talk, to make him listen, to make him understand. He wouldn't, though. The words I had were reasons... not excuses. There were no excuses.
So I was startled when he started talking. "Knives," he said hoarsely. "Their guy... he's good with knives. Real good."
I'd gathered that from his wounds. "Yeah?"
"That only comes... after the bruisers've given you a workover, though. One of them... he's got this old wooden baseball bat..." He touched his jaw again. "And another's got brass knucks."
"Not that I don't appreciate the warning," I said quietly, "but I'm more interested in what they'll ask."
He laughed softly -- a sound lacking any trace of humor. "I'm not informing you to help you. I want you thinking about it. I want you anticipating it. I want you to dwell on it so much you can't sleep."
Didn't know me too well, obviously.
But he was striking, and I still owed him some hits.
So I found a little fear inside, dragged it up to nestle in my throat, and heard my voice tremble satisfyingly when I told him-- "Fuck you."
I couldn't tell if that pleased him or not, but he didn't say another word through the rest of the evening and on 'til morning.
It was my turn in the morning, and the sons of bitches didn't even have the courtesy to let me eat the breakfast they brought -- more dry bread and tinny water -- before putting me at gunpoint and inviting me to accompany them. I figured my companion wasn't about to save me any of the meal; he'd be just as glad to see me starve. Or worse.
Either he'd exaggerated what the scuzzbags did -- not likely, considering his condition last night -- or they had some compunctions about treating a woman the same way. They started questioning me before even giving me a bruising. Nice of them. Still, I had a role to play; so I slid my gaze back and forth between the two over-muscled gorillas bracketing the chair I was tied to and did my best to convey nervous silence.
It worked. Of course. They started in with fists after a minute -- strong enough blows, but few, and poorly placed. Gorilla One stood in front of me and spent whole seconds setting up how he'd sock me in the gut... giving me plenty of time to quietly exhale everything in my lungs and diaphragm and tighten up my stomach muscles. When he hit, it was actually mild enough that I had to fake a grunt.
The benefits to being female in this world...
Well, that was a lie, actually... being female has its own problems... but in this case, at any rate, it was helping me.
I let them have a few rounds of punches before I started talking, growing a bit less patient with it when they moved on to my face. No way to ease a blow there. When the fourth or fifth punch in a segment sent a white-hot dart of pain directly into my damned brain, I figured I should play the card.
Though a part of me was tempted to hold out, just to prove I could... just to show that the guy they'd spent yesterday working over had nothing on me.
Think of the job.
The next punch landed square on the spot I was pretty sure now sported a crack in my jawbone, and I didn't have to fake the cry of pain. The interrogator seemed pleased with that, the fucker. He stepped forward, waving the lug away, and smiled smugly into my face as he spoke in that heavily accented English. "It can all end... I know it hurts... we just want to know who sent you..."
Gasp... tremble... wheeze... moan... that's a girl, make it good... "I... can't..."
Little shit, you are so gonna pay for that...!
"You just have to tell us, and you won't hurt anymore."
... I'm getting really sick of this...
"Who. Sent. You."
I almost put it off another round or two, but realized I might be laying it on a bit thick, all things considered. Almost a half-hour into the interrogation by now. If I was what I was pretending to be, I'd be about ready to sing at this point.
So sing already.
"... Tekkinkof," I gasped out. "Tekk... in... kof..."
I could feel the smug bastard grinning, though my eyes were downcast so I couldn't see the expression.
"Do you work for Mr. Tekkinkof?"
My head shook weakly. "Hired... me..."
"And who are your regular employers then?"
Sonuvabitch, you're supposed to believe that!
"Tekkinkof doesn't have the connections to get a freelancer in. Who do you work for?"
Fuck fuck fuck... Okay, Kai, think fast. "I'm freelance." Okay, Kai, be stubborn. Idiot. But I hated it when someone didn't believe a lie they should've! Especially a lie that was usually true. It slandered my lying ability when someone doubted me, and that was damn irritating. "Freelance."
All in all, my stubbornness earned me a good bit of blunt-force trauma, but not so much as a glimmer of a knife blade. My guess is that they just didn't have the stomach for slicing up a woman. Damned good thing, too, because cuts healing immediately are a lot harder to cover than blood-stained bruises and swellings that don't stay swollen. I feigned a great deal more weakness than I actually felt and did my best to look beaten -- which rankled my pride in a big way, and was one of the hardest things I'd done recently. Bowing down -- even pretending to -- for these bastards was low.
By the end I think I convinced them that I was freelance. Either that or they figured I was a government spook who was working on the wrong side of law and order, and who therefore wouldn't be able to count on any support from my agency. Whichever, they eventually half-dragged me back to the cell and tossed me in much the same way they had my cellmate just yesterday.
It was tempting to fake unconsciousness and just lay there for a bit while my body recovered... but the floor was really disgustingly filthy, and the odors were unpalatable enough to make a bad headache damn near unbearable. I pushed back to my knees, then dragged my arms up to brace, making the movements as labored as I could. It wasn't hard to do. The world gave a sickening lurch and my right eye fluttered shut involuntarily at an unpleasant pressure in my head.
Played it a little... too good...
"As bad as you anticipated?" my oh-so-considerate companion asked, sounding very much as if he hoped I'd say yes.
Had the cell been bugged, I'd've said yes in a heartbeat. These folks didn't have the money or the tech for that, though, and I'd already been humble enough today. "Been through worse."
"Done worse," he clarified icily. "Haven't you?"
Well what was I supposed to say to that?
I settled on nothing. He didn't seem all that surprised at that. I got to be surprised, though, when I tottered to my feet and found that he'd left one of the tin cups of water full and what looked like approximately half the bread sitting on the tray by the bunk. The cot itself was empty -- he'd settled down to sit a bit stiffly against the opposite wall. Why would he...?
I looked at him. His face was still impassive; his eyes were still cold. Glanced at the tray, blinking to make sure I was seeing right.
Then, belatedly, I noticed the stiff scrap of black fabric laid casually out on the tray -- the bit I'd torn from my BDUs last night. He musta found it... put two and two together...
I flicked my gaze to him again. Misjudged him, had I? Looked that way. So he might hate my guts, but he wasn't likely to jump me in my sleep or anything. He was even showing a bit of the spirit of fair play.
Thanking him would ruin the gesture -- he sure as hell didn't want my gratitude. I just held his gaze for a moment or two in acknowledgment, then paced slowly -- and painfully -- to the bunk. Ate the food with forced patience, drank the horrid water, and stretched myself out with a groan I didn't bother to suppress on the bunk, drawing a forearm over my eyes and firmly telling myself to sleep and recover.
He didn't say another word, and after a bit I actually was able to drift off...
... into guilt-laden nightmares where I was called KI-5; and worse... I answered to the designation.
Day five for me, more for him. They took him for interrogation every day, and remembered me when they got bored. In this interesting twist on chauvinism they kept bringing him back unconscious while going lighter and lighter on me as they started to believe I'd given them all I knew. I felt sorta distantly guilty at that. Sure, it wasn't my fault that the sons of bitches didn't have the stones to treat a woman the same way they treated a man; but I saw the sardonic smile and cold, angry eyes that my cellmate turned on me when he or I returned from a session, and I added it to the already heavy list of reasons to feel like shit.
Still, he held up rather well under the abuse. Amazingly well, actually. Didn't seem to be carrying any bone injuries other than those left ribs, which was strange enough, all things considered.
It was palpable, how much he hated me, yet still he left me half the food and water, and still he vacated the bunk whenever I was brought back in after my own bout of questioning. I did likewise, and other than that we spoke as little as possible, tended to our own needs, and for all intents and purposes ignored each other.
On the surface, anyway. Beneath that, I saw him watching me coldly more than once, and for my part I couldn't get the bastard outta my head, or the op I'd seen him on, or the hundreds of others just like it or worse I'd participated in over the decade I'd spent as KI-5...
On day six I felt that preparatory surge of energy sweep through my blood, and it was a helluva lot harder to pretend intimidated fear during the almost perfunctory interrogation. They were outright bored with me, thankfully, and turned all their real attention on my cellmate.
I still didn't even know his name.
That night they worked him over harder -- did nasty things with old wounds and didn't so much as rinse the infections that were starting in some of the deeper cuts. Both of us were weakened from lack of food; him moreso than me. It took him an hour to swim back around to consciousness, and I spent most of that time cleaning his wounds and wishing fervently for some damned soap to help. Somehow, in my twisted little mind, his wounds had become my fault. I couldn't find a way to make it right, either, and the frustration was burning at me even through the angry growling of my empty stomach.
I'd look forward to a bit of action.
His breathing shortened after a while as he started to come around, and I stood to head off. Before I took a step, though, his hand suddenly closed around my arm, moving more swiftly than I'd've thought him capable of, given his condition. "What's... your name?"
The grip was surprisingly strong. I didn't let myself jerk out of it. "So you can tell them?"
His voice was hoarse, yet nearly steady. "I want to know."
Yeah, I'll just bet you do... I'd led the team. Found out later that Marks -- after disobeying my order to pull out -- took out one of the guards; a lady guard. I vaguely remembered seeing this man and a woman working back to back... playing it like a pro team, actually. Hadda be her that was killed. A friend of his, probably. Maybe more than that.
I hadn't cared at the time. I felt like shit now.
So I made yet another concession to the completely righteous anger this guy had for me and told him-- "Kai."
He blinked at me with half-focused eyes and shook his head. "They called you something else... a number..."
My stomach gave a sickly twist. I ignored it. "KI-5. They called me KI-5."
Aren't you Mr. Curious alluva sudden... Keep voice level... stay calm... "It was a designation. The only name I had back then."
Suddenly the opportunity to make him understand was here... and I was finding the words difficult to come by. "Because... that's what I was. KI-5: K-class Initiate, designate 5."
"What about... your real name?"
He shook his head impatiently, then grimaced at the pain. "Before that. I couldn't find... anything on you. Not a name, not a DOB... nothing. Who were you when you were... KI-5?"
I shook my own head. "What," I corrected quietly. "Not who." Tell him... he has a right to know... "I didn't have a name. Just a number. And I was everything you think I was. And more."
His lip curled. "Murderer."
His eyes shouted his disgust. With a low curse -- one that was clearly directed at me -- he let go of my arm. "You went after a wife. All she did to be worthy of being attacked by your people was to get married."
"Hoffen was the target. His wife was a bargaining chip."
He swung up sharply and shoved to his feet, seemingly ignoring the pain of the ribs. "People like you are what made me go freelance. I couldn't stand working with someone with no respect for human life."
It stung. Hard. No respect for human life? No understanding of the consequences of death? He thought this of me when I'd just lost the only person who meant shit to me in this world only a few fucking months ago?
He doesn't know... calm down... he can't know...
I did manage to keep my hands at my sides, but I couldn't quite stop myself from crowding in close, craning my neck back to look directly into his eyes, baring my teeth in something completely unlike a smile. "You," I spat, "don't know what the fuck you're talking about. You don't know what was going on then. You don't know thing one about who I am now." He was looking as angry as I was. At the moment, I didn't care. "You wanna get all self-righteous on me, soldier-boy? Fine. But y'know, for every one-liner you get in, I've got a thousand more takedowns I use on myself. You saw the slightest peek of who I was. I lived it! So if you wanna be a sanctimonious little prick because your girlfriend died in the line of duty, take it up with someone who doesn't already hate herself over it! And--"
The 'and' was cut off when he shoved me back. Hard. I'd been expecting something like that, though, so kept my balance pretty well. Good thing, too. He came in fast-- thought he was fucking injured! --and seemed to have no compunction whatsoever about hitting me, 'cause a fist lashed for my jaw -- which happened to be still tender after being rebroken earlier today -- without hesitation.
But like I said... I was expecting as much. I dodged to the outside, feeling the uppercut whish past my face, and decided that he needed to go down hard, fast, and now. From my position it was only a twist of the hips to bring a sharp right into play, and I slammed my fist unceremoniously directly into his injured ribs.
And nothing happened.
I'd been ready to follow through... to chase him down and immobilize him 'til I could talk some sense into him... to see what I could do to keep both of us from getting hurt before some sort of real truce was made...
But nothing happened. I was there, in position, and he was there, in a perfect setup to go down, and... he didn't go down. In fact, I thought I heard what sounded like a short half-bark of laughter from him as his body barely rocked back under a blow that -- while not my strongest -- was more than respectable.
And then something happened. Something in the form of his elbow slamming back to meet with my temple, knocking me to half-sprawl over the cot before I managed to roll to the side and take my feet. I backed warily, off-balance, watching the blurry form before me slowly clear into his face.
I blinked sharply. My brain sloshed. Good blow... might even have given me a concussion. "Lemme guess... your ribs... are fine."
"About as fine as those bruises of yours that fade inside of hours."
Guess the layer of dirt I'm sporting doesn't cover enough... "Observant, aren't you?"
"When it comes to an enemy, yes."
But he wasn't attacking... "I'm not your fucking enemy!"
"You settled that nine years ago when your people killed Tasha," he growled. "That was her name. But you wouldn't have bothered to find out, would you? She was just another body in the way... not even valuable enough to be a 'bargaining chip,' was she?"
I couldn't justify it. I wouldn't. All I could say was-- "I'm different now."
"That doesn't bring her back!" I was drowned into silence by the vehemence of his response, and I wondered briefly if he would come for me now, if I'd have to fight a man I was already in karmic debt to. "That doesn't bring her child back!"
My mouth was open. In the thundering silence after his words, I closed it with a 'snap' that made my jaw ache.
In storybooks, guilt is an amazing thing; half-pleasurable pain that nestles somewhere around the heart and makes it tighten, reminding you that though you've done bad things, you're human enough now to regret them.
If that's guilt... I've never met it.
In my life, the feeling doesn't settle on the heart; it travels lower, curling like some thick, cold, noisome snake in your stomach, making you want to puke, to sit down, to close yourself off from everyone else because a kind word is more than you have a right to hear. It doesn't tell you that you're human now. It tells you that you weren't human then. When it mattered.
And nothing you can do will ever make it right again.
"Pregnant," he confirmed bitterly.
Oh fuck no no no... Ten... twenty thoughts at once, but only one that escaped: "What the hell was a pregnant woman doing pulling guard duty??"
His jaw clenched, unclenched, and something in his eyes changed. Either he'd just become a lot more dangerous... or a lot less. To me, at any rate. And I couldn't tell which.
"That's not your concern," he said after a minute. I studied his stance warily... the set of his shoulders. Didn't look like he was about to press his advantage -- and it was an advantage, as I was still a bit unsteady after that elbow. "What matters is that your people--"
"They're not my people anymore, and I sure as hell didn't choose them then. Or that life."
"You were there. You were pulling the trigger just like the rest of them."
I was. "Yeah, I was."
"So don't tell me that you had no choice!"
Frustration grabbed me by the heart and squeezed hard enough to hurt. There was so much I wanted to say to explain...
But he was right, goddamnit. There was a choice. It took me ten years to beat what they did to me and to make it, but there was a choice. And maybe there was even a choice there, at the beginning, when I was just learning exactly what the word "conditioning" meant. If I'd tried hard enough... been strong enough... even if I wouldn't have been able to hold out forever, surely I could've found a way to end myself and keep from becoming...
"Fine," I said coldly, hating him almost as much as myself right then. "Fuck you, and fuck me, and fuck anyone who's ever picked up a gun. I'm worse scum than you because I pointed mine at non-coms. I admit that. Maybe I deserve to die. I admit that, too." The pain and dizziness in my head was receding. I took a few steps towards him 'til I was back in his reach. "You gonna be the one to play executioner? Without even knowing why I'm here, in this place that I think you know I could get out of as easy as I'm thinking you could?"
He didn't move. "Why are you here?"
"Ten to one it's the same reason you're here."
He snorted derisively. "Same goal, maybe. Different reasons."
"So I'm automatically planning to kill someone? Lemme guess... I'm doing this for money, aren't I?"
"Aren't you." Not a question, and the smug sonuvabitch sounded so damnably sure of himself...
"Wrong," I said levelly. "But you're not gonna believe that, are you?"
"No. I'm not." He still made no move on me, though I could tell he was tempted. "And I'm not going to indulge your little game here, either. I touch you, I hit you, I attack you... and that makes me just as bad as you, doesn't it?" He leaned over me slightly, perhaps trying to intimidate me with his height. "Know something lady?"
I had a name, and damnit, he was gonna use it while he insulted me! "Kai."
He took it willingly enough. "Kai, then. I hope you have changed, Kai. I hope you feel really damn bad about yourself. I hope you spend every morning asking why you even bothered to wake up. If you're doing that... then I don't have to think about how much I hate you."
There'd been a time that I had spent every morning asking myself that. And true to my sometimes twisted logic, I'd taken that frustration and anger out on someone else. Luckily he happened to be someone who could take damned good care of himself, and who knew enough to stop me when I let things go too far. More... he taught me how to control it... to vent, and to externalize without turning all that self-loathing on someone else.
Goddamnit, I missed him so much.
Amazing how everything emotional links back to him in my mind...
Though not too surprising, on reflection. He was the biggest influence on my life during the time when feelings that'd been dead for a decade started to resurface... with a vengeance.
And I drew on his memory now to keep from lashing out -- verbally or otherwise -- at this man. My jaw clenched, but I only gave him a short, tense nod. Step back... don't be aggressive... make peace... "All right." It was all I could think of to say that didn't involve more colorful language. I took a step back, giving another nod as I held his eyes. "That's the way it is, then. I can accept that."
"I don't much care if you accept it or not."
"Yeah. That, too."
I'd like to think it offset him. Maybe made him think twice about what he was saying to me.
But regardless of what I'd like to think, the truth is probably just that he finally heard the feet coming down the stairs -- which I'd caught almost a minute ago while they were still on the floor above -- and didn't figure that we needed to be found ready to tear each others' throats out.
He stepped forward to the bunk and sat, and just like that, he was suddenly favoring those ribs again. "Just stay out of my way," he said, voice dropping very low as the footsteps started echoing down the hall. "I wouldn't need much excuse." 'To end you' would've fit really well on the end of that sentence, I thought.
I crossed the cell and stayed dutifully out of his way, looking out between the bars of the small window on the door with forced casualness.
So he hates you. People hate you. Never bothered you before.
Yeah, but he hated me with a reason.
There's always a reason. There are just some you choose, and some you don't. This is the latter.
I couldn't stand not having a choice.
Get over it.
I'd rather fix it.
You can't. Focus on the job.
Fuck the job.
... No. Damnit.
Sometimes I just want to grab that little voice in my head, slip my fingers around its 'neck,' and shake it as hard as I can, screaming, "DieDieDieDie!" at the top of my lungs.
And then other times it's the most important thing in the world to me... the lingering echoes of my sensei. There are times when it doesn't sound like me at all, but rumbles in a deeper tone, richer, with a sound of wisdom I don't think I'll ever have. And that's when I listen to it the most. That's when my off-the-hip arguments stop instantly. Sensei taught me. Saved me. Made me human.
And then he died, and nearly took it all away.
The job, Kai.
The job. And there was the target, being marched down the narrow hall as I watched. She looked slim and dusky and exotic and terrified. No surprise. Being kidnapped from your home and dragged across a desert by men who might do who-knows-what to you isn't exactly a confidence builder. Having herself hauled down into what was basically a dungeon couldn't have helped much either.
They weren't super rough with her -- back to that thing about women, I guessed -- but they weren't gentle, and she was clearly a girl used to being handled with kid gloves. I thought I saw a spark of indignant anger in her eyes as she saw the cell door opened for her, and something in me hummed in approval. Atta girl. Never let 'em beat that fire out.
Job. The cell was like this one -- old style lock that I figured I could pick without too much trouble, thick concrete walls, only a single window to the outside. The kinda environment that wilts a person after a while. Like plants, we humans need our time in the sun. If we don't get it...
There'd been a time when I'd been locked away from the sun for a long, long time. And I didn't come outta that too well.
My cellmate stayed on his bunk -- faking those excessive injuries still -- and spoke in an undertone: "Is it her?"
There really was only one reason for both of us to be here... I didn't look at him, but nodded once. My little 'rescuee' was finally in place. I could get on with it... get her... get out of here...
"Is she injured?"
I shook my head. "Bruised, maybe, but not bad."
"How many guards are they putting on her?"
"Looks like they're just leaving the woman down here to patrol. Probably more at the top of the stairs. Fighting through them might be a bitch."
He said nothing. After another minute or two I moved away from the door and took the wall, sighing silently as the cold stone chilled me through my ragged, filthy BDUs. A few hours 'til I'd make a move... a little time to plan exactly what I'd do, and what safety measures I'd take, and more than a few escape methods for me and the girl...
And my companion? How was he gonna factor in?
Worry about that when you have no other choice.
Good advice. For once.
The early wee hours of the morning, when the night's chill still had a firm grip on the air. That time of the night that's just past the 'witching hour,' when every sound is couched in so much quiet that a whisper feels like a shout, and the world is just mysterious enough to believe that anything -- everything -- is possible...
Clouds shrouded the stars that normally peeked in through our little window, but my eyes are keen enough in the dark to get by. I heard him stand, then looked his way warily to see if I needed to be cautious. He hadn't slept -- had lying there awake brought his anger back around enough to make him try for me?
And then I looked again, and I saw the small lump of gray putty in his hands and the wire that would make it work.
How'd he get that in here? Boot sole, maybe? Something else? Damn near odorless... what is it...?
I spoke very, very softly: "You blow the door, every guard they have'll be down here by the time you get the girl."
He didn't seem overly surprised at my lack of reaction to finding out that he'd somehow smuggled his manner of escape into the cell. "You have a better idea?" he asked quietly, challengingly.
"As a matter of fact..." I reached into my hair, pulling apart the strands of the thick braid -- hair felt utterly filthy and grimy by now -- and found the two slim pieces of metal that'd been worked into the braid a week ago. His eyebrows raised slightly when I pulled the picks free.
"You've had those all along," he said flatly. Guess he couldn't stomach making it a question. Questions require something of the person being asked, and he wasn't about to admit that he needed something from me.
"I've had them all along," I confirmed. Then cocked my head. "Just like you've had that."
He almost -- almost smiled. "Can't say I'm too surprised..." Then any trace of humor vanished so quickly I had to wonder if I'd seen it. "If you're going to do something with those... do it."
"Sir yessir," I muttered. "Goddamn."
I took a wary glance at the hall; looking, listening, smelling. The main guard for this sector was the woman. Austrian originally, I thought, though she'd apparently thrown her lot in with these guys completely. She was alert enough, but lazy. Walked the block on the half-hour, then went back to whatever guard booth she had just beyond that securely bolted far door. My companion had stood just after she'd last passed by, and perhaps three... maybe five minutes had passed since then. Plenty of time.
Of course, the head that was spinning and the stomach that was clawing at my backbone wouldn't help much. This would've been easier if I'd had enough food to make up a child's meal in the past week...
"You know what you're doing with those?"
"Have a little faith." I couldn't resist adding-- "Remember, I'm one of the bad guys. We can do this stuff."
Not a flicker in expression. "Pick the lock."
"Kiss my--" Control. "... I'm picking." Asshole.
Goddamnit. If I wasn't gonna be able to get his respect for who I was-- and since when have you cared about that? --then I'd fucking get it for what I could do. Show him a thing or two... sonuvabitch... Just a little pressure here... put the tension lever just so... catch those tumblers with the diamond... Suck on this a-one time, you prick. "I've almost--"
... Oh, this looks really good...
He eyed the broken tension lever with another almost undetectable trace of amusement. "Bad guys can do this stuff, huh?"
Shut up shut up shut up... "Lock's too stiff," I said defensively. "This place has gotta be fifty years old, and I really doubt they oil things up much."
He stepped towards the door, low-yield explosive ready. "Get back." A considering pause. "Or don't."
I didn't, and raised a hand. "We've still got the problem of how many guards are gonna come a'calling when you make that much of a racket."
"You have another 'better idea'?"
No one should be allowed sarcasm but me. Oughtta be a rule. "Yes. I do. And you're just gonna love it."
An eyebrow raised. I noticed then that his hands were suddenly empty; somehow in the darkness he'd stashed the explosive without me even seeing where. "Go on."
"We need to get her to open the door on her own. The guard lady, that is."
"And how do you propose to do that?"
"You see what happened when that ogre across the way tried to put his buddy's head through the wall the other night?"
"Yeah, she went in and... hm. She went in. Alone, with the gun. Didn't call for backup until after she had them separated." He eyed me speculatively. "So you're saying..."
Deep breath-- "Hit me."
I rather expected him to jump at it. Instead he frowned. "Hit you."
"Yeah." I crossed to him with slow strides. "You hit me, I scream, she comes and separates us." Come on... it makes sense... don't go getting all warm and fuzzy on me now... "I know you've probably got some hefty moral objections to doing anything like that, but I think--"
"Okay," he said. And swung.
I dodged automatically, snapping out a block and starting to counter before freezing myself. He merely raised an eyebrow as if I'd just proven all the thoughts he had about me. I couldn't help the glare. "Sorry. Reflex."
My teeth ground. "Go."
He responded readily, lashing out just as strongly as I'd figured he would, apparently putting his anger and frustration for me into his fist. Either that, or he just had a really good punch, 'cause when it slammed into my cheekbone I didn't just see stars... I saw a few planets diving enthusiastically for me from the sky. I staggered back, barely keeping my feet, and tried for a scream.
Well, even if it wasn't a scream, it was loud enough to get the woman's attention. I heard her shout as her feet thudded on the stone floor. My cellmate wasn't about to risk that she'd think we'd settled things by the time she arrived -- he came after me again, this time landing a good one on, of course, the ribs. Breath took leave of my lungs. I let myself collapse to my knees, suddenly wondering what would happen if he 'forgot' that he was supposed to stop this when the guard arrived. You just love playing with fire, don't you, Kai?
"Back off!" the woman barked from outside the cell, accent thickened with anger. "Back off right now!"
He jerked me up-- don't fight don't fight don't fight --and slammed me into the wall. Her key rattled in the lock, then the door swung open and she stepped in, gun raised.
"'Bout... time..." I wheezed at her, working on breathing around the fingers gripping my throat... again.
"Drop her!" she shouted. He did. I collapsed to the ground and put hands to my neck, gasping. "Move back! Against the wall!"
He moved. She followed him. I watched, throat burning, teeth ground against the pain of a bruised rib or two and the receding swelling on my face.
His eyes flickered to mine as if he were glaring at a foe -- and I suppose that was the case -- but the message was that I'd better get off my ass and take this opportunity with the quickness. I gave the slightest of nods and quietly got to my feet while her attention was absorbed with him. He gave no sign -- whatever else I could say about him, he was a pro -- and kept her focused on him with a subtle tension throughout his body that probably had her thinking he might attack at any second.
I walked right up behind her, feet soft, and did nothing more fancy than slamming a balled-up fist into her temple. She started to turn at the last second, so it hit a bit more on her forehead than it should've, which hurt my hand like all hell. Still, she went down, and I snatched her gun on the way.
The guy didn't look too happy with that. Didn't stop me, though. He watched silently while I crouched beside her and checked her pulse and respiration.
"She's fine," I said, though he hadn't asked. Standard procedure in this kinda thing woulda been to kill her. He knew that, and I knew that.
But if it happened, he was gonna have to do it. I grabbed the keys from her belt ring and strode out the door. Paused just outside and looked back in. "You coming?"
He stared a moment. Glanced down at the woman. Looked back at me and walked forward, leaving her lying as she was on the floor. I closed the door and locked it behind us, then quick-footed it to the target's door, where he was already waiting impatiently.
And now some jurisdictional crap is gonna come in, I just know it...
The key fit. I winced at the screech of metal that sounded exceedingly loud to my sensitive ears, though tall, dark, and on-my-shit-list didn't seem to mind. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him eyeing the full-auto slung over my shoulder. As unobtrusively as possible, I shifted it to the other side.
The target's -- girl's -- eyes were wide and frightened when we opened the door. On reflection, being confronted with a woman carrying an automatic rifle and a man who'd clearly seen better days might tend to shake a person up. She jabbered out something with the tone of a question, back pressed tightly against the far wall.
I glanced at the guy. "You speak Farsi?"
He didn't bother answering. Just stepped through the open door, then stopped abruptly and turned, hand extended. "Keys."
"I wasn't gonna--"
My mind hissed out numerous insults, but I bit down hard on the words and gave him a tight, sarcastic smile as I extended the loaded ring. "Here. Knock yourself out." Please.
He took them, finding a pocket somehow in those torn and blood-marred fatigues, and then extended his hand towards the girl. She shrank back, jabbering more words that meant very little to me. I didn't speak a word of Farsi past swearing, and she didn't really look like the sort to appreciate that. Her heart was racing -- I could hear it even over her rapid breathing -- and she looked very much as if she'd like to pull a dramatic faint right at that moment.
His voice was calm and almost soothing. The bitter words seething in my mind eased a bit, hearing him. Again the words meant nothing... but his tone of voice meant worlds. I recognized the assurance, the confidence, the quiet promise of I'm here to help. She went silent, wide eyes showing a bit less terror and delicate brows bunching slightly in confusion. His voice went on, rising and falling on a soft, rumbling, medium baritone.
And not a single swearword in the whole litany, either.
She spoke back to him; quick words carried on a borderline-hysterical tone. Then he talked again, then she, then he, then...
"For fuck's sake," I muttered. "At this rate we'll be here 'til Christmas. Let me talk to her."
He didn't turn. His voice stayed quiet. First time the bastard had talked to me without an obvious bite in his voice -- though of course he was only doing it for the girl. "You're welcome to leave."
"Not without her I'm not."
And still that almost pleasant tone: "You're not laying a finger on her."
Jurisdictional crap. I knew it. "This kid's too important for you to be pulling this shit," I hissed. "And we don't have time for you to talk her down, either."
The girl said something. He answered with a few short words, back to ignoring me, still holding his hand towards her in that universal gesture of 'let me help you.' I felt my teeth clench in outraged frustration. Keep your mouth shut, Kai... you'll just slow the damned tortoise down more... don't tell him what a stupid stubborn moronic utterly male asshole he's being... This'd be so much simpler if he'd just trust me even a little bit...
And why should he do that?
Because it'd be damned convenient for me.
There's that tactician's logic.
Her voice came again, trembling, and he told her something that sounded reassuring even to me, who understood none of it. I crushed a foot down on my impatience and watched the hall. A few of the inmates rustled in their cells. Only a handful left down here, and most were in too poor of condition to get outta their bunks without help, let alone raise enough noise to call down reinforcements with their enthusiasm at witnessing an escape. And with the main guard out cold and snugged neatly in our old 'room,' the mumbled, too-numb-to-be-pleading words of the one man who found voice probably wouldn't be enough to attract attention.
A finger of guilt tried to nudge at my throat. A lot of suffering in here... a lot of people who'd been through everything my companion and I had been through and more. I wanted to get those keys back from the guy and make my way down the hall, throwing wide every door and seeing dead faces light up at the slightest chance of freedom.
But given their condition, none of these people really had a chance of making it out alive. They'd only hinder our escape... which was something I couldn't allow, no matter how much my conscience nagged at me. Four or five people suffered here. If this girl didn't get home, thousands would.
Didn't make it much easier to swallow. Just made it necessary to do so.
C'mon, c'mon... She was slowly relaxing, reaching a tentative hand for his. Faster, you idiot. He didn't rush her like I might've. Did he think I'd get bored and leave? Maybe he just hoped that. I'll wait you out, pal. I've put up with almost a week of shit to get here. Not gonna let it go so easily.
And then her hand was in his, and he turned and drew her along behind him, face once again hard and eyes flat when he looked at me. I raised a sardonic eyebrow to show that I was not impressed. Coulda done this in half the time, I bet. Girls like her are always quicker to trust women, seems like, language barrier or no. It's a handy thing when you find yourself in a 'damsel in distress' kinda situation.
He let go of her hand outside the cell, his eyes already taking in the stairway leading to the door that was our way out. I glanced at it after him, trying to listen past the hungry blood roaring in my ears and making my head pound. Damn, I could use some food... If there was anyone on the other side, he or she was being very quiet -- which was, of course, entirely possible. "I can get up closer and see what I can hear..." I started in a low murmur, stepping forward to do just that.
His hand moved, snapping out like a striking snake, and the rifle was torn from my shoulder just like that. I whirled, making a belated grab for it, and found the muzzle leveled in a don't-fuck-with-me manner directly at my suddenly racing heart.
"I think I'd rather hold onto this myself," he said mildly. "If it's all the same to you."
My teeth clenched. I managed a tight-lipped smile. "Just fine. No problem at all. If it makes you feel better to hold the gun, then hold the gun."
"I will, thanks."
And I hope you put your eye out with it. But I said nothing like that aloud. Just gestured towards the stairs with a polite wave of the hand. "Since you're armed... it's all yours."
He put a hand on the girl's shoulder, guiding her towards the wall beside the stairwell. She turned wide, frightened eyes on me as if looking for more support. I felt a distant stab of pity for her. Some of us can handle this sorta life, this sorta situation. It suits us better than others. But she was a fragile desert flower -- someone who'd been plucked from her safe and sane world and thrown onto a dung heap to see if she'd take root. And instead she faced wilting and fading.
He told her something -- probably to stay still -- pointing firmly at her feet to indicate that they weren't supposed to move. She nodded and put her back to the wall, just out of direct line of the stairwell in case any gunfire decided to move that way. Her breathing had quickened again as if she realized the danger level was about to hop up a few dozen notches. He started up the stairs -- walking more quietly than I'd've thought he could -- then paused and looked back, mistrust fairly oozing outta him.
"I'll watch her," I told him helpfully.
He was too close to the door to answer without risking being heard. His eyes narrowed slightly in what I assumed was a warning look; then he turned and crept up the rest of the stairs with the automatic at the ready. If we were really lucky, there wouldn't be any guards that way and we could move her out cleanly... at least until we hit some opposition from the men patrolling outside.
I moved to stand between the girl and the stairwell. If things got too hairy she'd have to be covered. Her eyes flickered to mine, wide and full of fear. She really had no experience to draw from... nothing to make this hellish situation any more bearable. It was up to me and Mr. Congeniality there to convince her that not everyone in this dark and grimy shadow world would treat her like shit. Looking at her, listening to her heart race... I started to feel maybe a bit... I dunno... noble or something.
Until she said one of the few Farsi words I knew in a haughty, distasteful voice.
Well, I thought after a moment, drawing a half-step away from her and fixing her with an icy look. Your hygiene wouldn't be so great either if you'd been in this fucking hellhole as long as I have. Bitch.
He was nearly to the door. My fingers itched. Why had the guard only had the one gun? Damnit, I hated being unarmed when bullets might be whizzing towards me any second. I felt so... exposed. Healing symbiont aside, I could still feel pain pretty damned easily. If the guard'd just had a pistol or something... just a little piece she kept in her desk, maybe...
I almost slapped my forehead at how obvious it was. Here we were, thinking only of getting out, stomachs growling after days of near-starvation, heads feeling too light... The specs had me thinking I'd have to fight my way out, so I hadn't considered anything else...
I started to step forward, hoping to get the guy's attention somehow.
He opened the door. Started to flinch back at a foreign shout, then abruptly changed his mind, dove through, and opened fire up above.
Moral dilemma, moral dilemma...
Get up there and support him? Stand here and protect the girl?
Grab the girl and run the other way, getting to the door leading to the hall with the guard's office, which she wouldn't have had time to lock...?
The shouts and bullets flew wildly. Adrenaline had already kick-started my blood. The girl pressed herself tightly against the wall, a sound not unlike a whimper coming from her throat.
Can't be sure there's a way out that way...
She gave a tiny shriek as someone above us cried out in pain. My jaw tightened. The orders had been-- "Above all, keep the girl alive."
The guy up the stairs grunted in pain. The rifle fire I heard coming at him had to be from four... maybe five guns. Alone, I'd take those odds. With just the moody sonuvabitch up there, I'd take 'em.
But not with an innocent -- and valuable -- tagalong.
"Come on." I grabbed her wrist and pulled her after me as I started into a run down the hall. With any luck-- and c'mon... I'm due for some luck here... --they'd be so focused on him up there that they wouldn't automatically assume there was another breakout down below. The other prisoners on the cell row were in too poor a condition to get together more than a ragged cheer at the gunfire, so they wouldn't be clueing the enemy in too obviously. Every minute counted. I might be able to get her out, get to the rendezvous, get this little princess-type home safely, which'd prevent a helluva big 'Incident'... all while my charming former-cellmate distracted the bad guys.
And hell, I'd even be nice enough to feel guilty about it.
Yeah, I changed, pal. A lot. And I learned that our lives still mean nothing next to the non-coms. My ears were tuned painfully to the shouts from behind. I tightened my jaw and ignored them. Here's another reason for you to hate me. At least this one I chose myself.
Some consolation that was.
Luck was with us -- we found a pistol and a window. The girl looked horrified at the idea of climbing out through it, as it'd mean more than a few cuts as well as considerable physical effort to lift herself up that high. I ended up having to let her stand on my shoulders -- she was trembling and leaning heavily against the wall, shifting her feet rather painfully over nerves -- so that she could get high enough to lever herself out. Every second she quibbled I got more tense, listening to the sounds of the battle from behind us. And it was a battle, not a massacre like I would've expected. My not-so-friendly-friend was giving as good as -- better than he got.
I still felt like shit, but a little less like murdering shit.
She fell through to the other side with a squeal and a thump. I muttered something that would probably be considered rude and sprang up after her. If any of the guards had held their posts when the firefight started, we might be in trouble...
But it looked as if everyone had run to add a gun to the already overloaded fracas, because no one shouted when the girl stood up straight and got herself illuminated by a handy arena light glowing cheerily overhead. I jerked her low and started us running, pleased to find that at least she wasn't slow. Ahead of schedule... pickup won't be there yet... have to get down and hide for a bit... The girl caught my urgency when we saw a jeep flooring it into the complex behind us. It was far enough away that we weren't about to be discovered, but served to remind me that there were more of these terrorists out there, and our pickup window was small.
We hit the dunes to the east of the complex -- she slowed markedly at that, starting to pick her way more carefully in an effort to keep from stumbling and thrashing in the heavy sand -- and I took her arm to keep her running, trying not to show my impatience at her hesitation. Her face was panicked, but to her credit, she didn't make a sound past a nervous intake of breath every now and then. I wished again that I could talk to her to reassure her. Or maybe just to get her to quit trembling like a fucking rabbit.
You and your maternal instincts, Kai...
The sounds of the guns and shouts and screams faded behind us, muffled by heavy sand and thick, silent air. He'd done a damned good job of holding them off of us. I wondered what he'd think when he went for the girl and found her gone.
Or if he'd be alive to do that much.
He knew the risks. A person doesn't take an op like this without being a pretty heavy player. If he lives, he'll cope.
And if I ever met him again, chances were he'd shoot first and ask questions never.
We hit the road. No cars, so we ran across it swiftly, heading towards the falling-down remains of what once was a town. She was gasping by now, not conditioned to this sort of exertion. I felt a bit sorry for her in an absent, distracted way. She'd done nothing to deserve all of this happening to her... had just happened to be born to the wrong man.
Not so different from a woman who just happened to be married to the wrong one.
Goddamnit, I couldn't even remember the woman's name... the wife of the politician from nine years ago. I could describe her face in detail or tell anyone who understood the language of scents just what peculiar mingling of jasmine and lavender she wore... but I couldn't say her name. If the op hadn't gone bad back then, I'd've killed her.
KI-5 woulda killed her.
Even if I wasn't KI-5 anymore, I was still responsible.
So make up for it.
I was. Or was trying to. One day at a time, one Samaritan operation after another. Started into these just after Sensei died, and hadn't taken any time off for breathers since. I didn't want time. Time ended up being about thinking, and about feeling. Both were things I wanted to avoid for the moment.
Past the road and beyond. The lot in the center of the dead buildings was dark, of course, and empty. I figured I was at least an hour ahead of schedule. Damn the man for pushing me into acting too soon... The girl collapsed into an exhausted heap when she finally realized that we'd stopped, her breath coming heavily. Her trust in me was surprising. I suppose I'm not usually the sort people trust like that.
I'm sorry, I told him again mentally. She's more important than whatever debt I have to you.
I almost thought he'd even agree.
And then I heard the whisper-quiet approach -- feet shuffling almost silently over sand -- and I whirled sharply just in time to catch the bullet in the front of my thigh.
The girl screamed, which nicely covered my startled blurt of pain as I half-stepped back, then went down as my leg failed. I whipped out the pistol I'd found in the guard's booth, firing three shots into the shadows beside a building rapidly. Stopped myself after those three; the pistol only carried six. I hadn't heard the thump of a falling body, though, so I hadn't hit the attacker, and the wind was at my back, carrying the scent away from me.
"Drop it," came a familiar voice, cold and resolute.
"You...?" I didn't drop the gun, but trained it more steadily on where his voice came from. Could just make out his form now. "How the fuck--"
Another shot rang out, bullet slamming through the palm of the hand holding the gun. Pistol went flying, of course. I swore violently to cover the pain and pressed the ruined hand tightly against my chest, feeling my teeth clench and the blood pound eagerly through me as it sought to spill out from the wound.
"I told you to drop it," he said conversationally as he stepped out, rifle still fixed unwaveringly on my face. "I see your true colors come out under fire."
Still swearing, I glanced at the girl. She was frozen stiff, watching. "I was getting her to safety," I ground out. "Doing my job."
"Right." He walked around and picked up the pistol, tucking it into the waistband of his ruined clothing. "So what was the deal... you were going to ransom her? Get yourself a nice tidy bundle?"
"Forgive me if I don't believe a word you say." The weapon was still trained on me, so I didn't try to get up when he stopped by the trembling girl and offered her his hand. "She's too valuable to let a two-bit terrorist like you keep her."
"I know she's valuable! I was supposed to get her back to her father!" My hand throbbed in protest to the raised voice. I cursed soothingly to it.
"Right," he said again. "And while you're at it, why don't you try to sell me some oceanfront property in Switzerland?"
"Wait--" I started to struggle to my feet. He whirled, threat in every line of his body. I held my uninjured hand out in a gesture of peace and slowed my motions enough that he hopefully wouldn't take this as a ready excuse to blow my head off. When I stood -- canted away from my left leg and trying not to wince at the lingering pain in rapidly healing muscles -- I felt a bit less like a target, even if I wouldn't be able to move fast enough right at the moment to evade a shot anyway. "If this girl doesn't get home to daddy, daddy's gonna use his influence to start a war against the people he thinks are responsible. And he's got contacts with the arsenal to make it a bloody one. You know how hot tempers run here. They only need half a reason to start killing each other."
"What's it to you?"
I almost snarled in frustration. "I've seen enough of war to last a lifetime."
"Sure you have."
"Do you think I woulda gone through all this--" and I gestured to my clothing, my grime-covered body, my too-thin, hungry form-- "just to snag her for a ransom?"
"Maybe you want to encourage this war. Maybe your people are supplying munitions."
I stepped forward without really being aware of it, furious enough that the only thing I was thinking of was making him understand if I had to beat it into his head. "Fuck you, you goddamn--"
"No," he said, almost pleasantly. "Fuck you."
And then another shot was fired.
When I realized my head was still in one piece, I figured out that it wasn't by him.
They hadn't made it a killing shot, either... just a warning. He spun rapidly and seemed ready to retaliate. There were no targets. The girl had buried her head in her arms by now and seemed almost resigned to waiting for it all to be over. Some distant corner of my mind wondered what it would be like to be nothing but a living piece of currency, and to know it. Had to strike deep.
"Herr Nord," a voice said from somewhere vaguely off to the left. "Drop your weapon."
'Nord,' eh? I watched as he shifted slightly 'til his body was protecting the girl as well as he could against his unseen enemy.
"Not fucking likely," he countered, though he didn't brandish that gun quite as readily as he had before. "Who are you?"
Another voice, this time from behind. I started to relax as I recognized this one. "You're surrounded, sir. We'd rather not have to kill you."
"And why's that?" he stalled, trying to buy himself time to figure this out. A glance full of daggers pinned the blame automatically on me... which, I suppose, is where it belonged.
A woman this time, faint Russian accent, from the left: "You have a good reputation, Mr. David North. And we're all working for the same thing, here -- Tekkinkof's daughter, reunited with her father before a war starts."
His eyes scanned the dilapidated buildings with growing frustration. "Who are you people?"
"The 'good guys.' The ones who gave you support getting out of that prison camp."
Oh, they'd done that? Damned generous, and not typical. The only reason Darius would send a team for that purpose would be that the behind-the-scenes political situation over this girl was growing way too heated, meaning that the need for a surgical extraction was less now than the need for a rapid return of the kid.
"Now please, Mr. North... drop your weapon."
The barrel of his rifle slowly lowered. He sent another unreadable glare my way, but dropped the rifle to the ground after a moment and kicked it away from his feet.
"And the pistol, if you would."
He cursed so softly I barely heard it. Tossed the pistol away with a blank face and hard, hard eyes.
"Thank you." They slipped from the trees smoothly -- five of them, which meant two still covered us from somewhere out of easy line of sight -- dressed in wonderfully familiar charcoal-gray fatigues. Two kept weapons trained on the guy -- on North -- while two moved behind him to the girl and one came my way. I nodded tiredly to the man who approached.
His eyes swept over me quickly, professionally. "You're in sad shape, Kai."
"Been a long week."
He gazed mildly at the still-throbbing hand I held against my chest. "Long night, it looks like."
"Our friend there do that?"
"He thought he had reason."
Pierre's gray eyes were flint-hard. "You want payback?"
I didn't answer aloud; only shook my head and walked past him, limping just a bit. The woman behind him, halfway towards the girl -- medic, I figured -- moved to stop me. I skirted her with a glare and kept walking. Pierre had field command of this bunch, but Trent was the one with the ear to the boss's office door. He was crouching beside the girl and speaking to her in low, accented Farsi. I motioned when Trent looked my way. He stood with a wiry grace and came over to me.
"North," I said quietly. "Whadda you know?"
"Got the information from a CIA contact, hooked up with Tekkinkof two weeks ago, got himself caught eleven days ago. We found out about his involvement too late to pull you. That's why the boss sent a team in for your extraction... didn't know how his presence would alter your plans."
"But he's genuine?"
"As genuine as they come in this line of work."
I nodded. The man in question was still, but there was an underlying tension that made him look as if he was strung tight enough to snap. "How rocky would it be for him to take her home himself?"
Trent hesitated for a moment. "I don't know if we can let him do that..."
"That's not what I asked."
He looked at me levelly. "All right. He shouldn't have any trouble that he can't handle. He's a pro."
"Good. Let them go."
"Kai, I can't--"
"I'll make it right with Darius. I owe this guy."
"And that means that Three Eyes owes him??"
I thought of KI-5, and whose orders she followed back then. "Yes."
Maybe he caught my train of thought. He went silent for a moment, then his face hardened. "Fine." Without another word he turned and walked over to Pierre.
I ignored them after that. The girl had finally uncurled from her protective huddle on the sand and allowed herself to be stood by the medic. North watched with impotent fury as they started to lead her off. Pierre, voice sharp, ordered them to stop. Questioning looks from everyone, including North.
I ignored that, too. "Take her home, North."
He looked at me out of narrowed eyes. "What?"
"Take her home."
Eyes slid sideways to the guns still on him. "This a joke?"
I shook my head. "Guns down, guys." One complied. The second -- a fellow I hadn't ever seen before -- held his stubbornly aimed at North's heart. I looked at him, knowing that I'd be an appropriately intimidating sight right about then. Blood, filth, and fury enhance the image of danger in anyone. "I said down."
Pierre backed me up. "You heard her, Jones."
"Yessir." The gun lowered reluctantly.
I stepped back and gestured towards the girl with my uninjured hand. "Go."
If I'd expected some sort of reconciliation from that, I sure as hell didn't get it. His eyes were as full of loathing as ever. "This doesn't make that okay."
No shit, you sanctimonious ass. "I know."
He nodded once, coldly. "Just don't forget it."
As if I could.
Every belligerent, moody, temperamental instinct I had -- and that's a long list -- demanded that I get the fabled 'last remark.' It was impossible for me to stay silent, to put up with this shit, to passively accept everything he said without rebelling against it somehow.
But-- "Good luck," was all I told him, suppressing my anger with what had to be the last of my willpower.
And that's the last time I'll be this well-behaved, asshole, so you'd better hope we don't see each other again.
I knew the lie even as I thought it. I'd probably act the same way if I saw him again; loaded up with guilt and trying to find some way to reach past it.
Still, I didn't trust myself to be around him any longer, so I bobbed my head at Pierre and Trent and started off through the ramshackle buildings towards the spot they'd've stashed the vehicles in.
En route to the secured house where I'd get cleaned up, fed, and doctored, Trent worked his communication magic and put me on the line with Darius.
Who wasn't very happy.
I winced. His deep, rumbling voice was normally a pleasure to extra-sensitive ears, but at the moment it wasn't being too kind on my sore eardrums. "Let him take the girl."
A long pause, only slightly broken with static. Three Eyes' equipment is top quality.
"So you're saying the situation is now unsecured," he said after a moment, levelly.
"He'll get her home."
"Forgive me if I lack your confidence. We can't afford carelessness."
"If she's not home by tomorrow you have my permission to smack me."
"Jokes aren't appropriate here, Kai."
I closed my eyes and sighed. "Just trust me." I'm so damned sick of not being trusted.
"I do. I give you more leeway than I should."
"You should have consulted with me first. You don't have the authority to make that decision, and you know it."
That was true. Technically I didn't even work for Three Eyes anymore. I had no legal standing in the organization, no rank. The only thing I could use to pull with was my reputation, which Darius himself was responsible for creating. And I admit... when I wasn't bitching about it, I abused the thing to the full extent of my imagination.
But I was too tired to get into a discussion about all of that, and too damned hungry, and too filthy, and too achy, and-- "Hows about you bitch at me after I'm human again, huh?"
Maybe he heard the tone in my voice. There was a momentary silence, then-- "Get on a plane by tomorrow. I expect you in my office no later than the following morning."
I was nodding off; too tired even to take offense at the tone of order in his voice. "Fine. I'll be there."
Another pause. "Kai."
What, did he think I'd gone somewhere? "What?"
"Let the medic take a look at you tonight. You sound like you need it."
"I'm fine. I just need some rest."
"Let the medic decide that."
Too damnably tired to argue. "Fine."
He signed off, and I sagged back against the seat of the inconspicuous van, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. My leg felt okay, but that bullet through the hand had done some bone damage, and bones always take a good bit longer to heal than soft tissue. Maybe I should see if the medic had anything that'd get past my symbiont enough to help me sleep...
Somewhere during that thought, a week of exhaustion caught up and whisked me off into welcoming darkness.
I ended up sleeping for what felt like a very, very long time. Somebody -- Trent, I think -- got me on a plane. Teams stick together, though, and his group had something that needed handling in Romania or some such, so after I was on the plane I was left totally alone. I dozed off before takeoff, and spent the long, long flight alternating between snoozing and staring out the thick-glassed window at the darkening sky.
Darius was at SFB for a month or two, so I was flown into Orlando, Florida, and from there driven by a car he sent for me to the offices that served as a front for operations here. Lucky for me, Darius kept his word about not bothering me before the following morning. I settled into the room they gave me without even looking around, collapsing on the bed fully dressed and falling asleep almost immediately. The medic had said my body would be demanding lots of food and lots of rest. I'd already known that. Been here before, a long, long time ago. Worse, actually. Though it was annoying, despite being forewarned.
I woke in the wee hours of the morning. The glowing numbers on the clock told me that it was a bit before four AM. I felt strung out; tired and full of energy at once. Ate a sandwich, did some stretching, then decided I might as well get a real workout, so I donned sweats and hit the gym. Someone was actually there at that hour, surprisingly -- heavily muscled woman who probably looked fat when clothed, but in just her leotard looked rather like a Greek statue. She glanced up from her pushups, nodded a greeting, and went back to focusing on her workout.
I worked out lightly, still not feeling up to par, then grabbed a shower, a large breakfast, and a half-hour catnap.
Then it was seven-thirty. Was meeting Darius at eight. I felt curiously numb on the matter -- he had no real authority over me, and he wasn't the sorta power-hungry bastard who'd explode at my 'lack of respect.' Besides... fair odds said that North had gotten the girl home safely. He'd have nothing to bitch at me about, other than my taking control temporarily out of Three Eyes' hands.
Eight-oh-five, I walked into his office. The secretary waved me back with a reproachful look at my tardiness. I ignored her. Pointedly. She flushed a bit and glared at my back, which I pretended not to notice.
Darius was standing when I walked in, looking out through the bullet-proof glass window from the pseudo-law-offices building. With the morning light coming in from outside, he looked like a dark silhouette of a statue; immovable, strong, unreadable.
"Well?" I said levelly.
His voice rumbled, quieter than usual. "Have you watched the news?"
"No. Been sleeping, mostly."
He didn't turn. "The newspaper on the desk. Take a look."
Stomach turning over lazily, I did. The paper was open to the International section, and right at the top was--
Shooting in Iraq:
Oil Baron's Daughter Killed
And the girl's picture was there, grainy and dull, her dusky skin painted the color of soot and her delicate features blunted by the poor photograph.
I scanned the article, heart sinking down low, low. He'd gotten her back okay. Article didn't even mention her abduction -- no surprise, since that hadn't been public knowledge at all. And she'd been home for a whole day before going out into the world again, this time to meet her father at his elegant house. They'd gunned her down when she was walking to her car. The driver was hit, but the girl was the only fatality.
"Bodyguards?" I asked quietly.
"Second rate. They didn't even get any shots off at the attackers."
"We didn't have anyone on her?"
Most people wouldn't have heard the regret underlying his tone. I did. "I thought the situation was under control."
Oh, Darius... He'd beat himself up over this one for ages. Every loss, every life, every battle that didn't have to happen tore at him. It was why he'd risked everything just a few short years ago to take over Three Eyes... why he'd dedicated his life to turning the organization around and making it right.
But he was only human. I cleared my throat. "And Tekkinkof's people?"
"It's just a matter of time. We'll try to defuse it..."
I said nothing, knowing what that meant. Red herring. Three Eyes would try to set a known terrorist group up to take the fall. If it could keep war from breaking out...
He turned. His eyes were full of shadows and secrets. "I'm sorry you went through all that for nothing, Kai."
I smiled faintly, with no humor. "So I'm not getting a lecture for violating the rules?"
His head shook, once. "I trust you. I know you had your reasons."
Something in my chest unclenched. "... Thanks," I said awkwardly. "And yeah, I did."
Tired eyes glanced over me. "How are you? You don't look fully recovered."
"I'm fine." The girl's picture looked at me, accusation in those delicate, smudged eyes. Goddamnit, I'd tried... "I'm sorry, Darius."
"You?" Slowly, he walked to lean against the desk, hands bracing on the mahogany wood. "You did your job. You got her out."
He couldn't understand. So many people dead behind me. So many men, women...
I had to make it right. I had to do what I could do. Not even for them... but for me. So I could live with myself and my past. And here was one I'd thought I'd saved, but--
The poor, scared kid...
His voice snapped me back. I focused on him, feeling my gut churn with that nauseating swirl of guilt I'd been wearing for the past week. "I want another Samaritan op."
"Take a couple of weeks off, Kai."
I blinked at the calm resolution in his voice. "'No'?"
"No," he agreed. "You've been working too hard the past few months. You're going to burn out. Take some time off."
"Darius, I need this."
"You think you do."
Darius stood straight suddenly, making me crane my neck back to meet his eyes. "Listen to me. You were not responsible for KI-5. You did everything you could to fight them. Everything."
I backed a step, gaze sliding from his. "I shoulda--"
"Stop that!" When a man with a voice like Darius' speaks up, you listen. He went on more quietly. "I was there when they 'made' KI-5. I saw some of it. I know."
You have no idea what you're talking about.
But telling him that wouldn't do any good. He's a man who sticks by his beliefs firmly. He decided long ago that I'd broken conditioning -- killed whatever was KI-5 -- with willpower and strength.
He just doesn't know...
But then, neither do I.
He wouldn't be bringing this up if he wasn't a bit rattled about the girl's death himself. Trying to bolster my confidence... to remind himself that one loss didn't invalidate all the victories. Darius had no one to draw strength from but himself. I had no idea how he managed to stay so upright under a weight that would've collapsed me long ago.
His eyes were still snapping, but his voice leveled. "Take a couple of weeks, then come back. I'll have something for you then."
"I need to--"
"No, Kai." Almost gentle, his tone. "I won't feed a neurosis. This obsession won't make everything right."
I swore at him. Violently. He didn't so much as blink.
"Come back and do it when you're doing it for someone other than yourself."
"Bastard." My throat was tight. I needed this, goddamnit!
And one more time-- "No."
I left his office a few minutes later. Carried the newspaper with me. When the secretary gave me another reproachful look, I damn near rolled the thing up and smacked her across the face.
A few hours later I was seated in the first open bar I could find, drinking a beer that couldn't make me drunk and staring at a picture of a girl I couldn't save.
Fine bit of good it did for me to get my ass beaten up every day while waiting for you to show, kid.
She stared back, looking as snotty in her picture as she'd been in real life.
Not to mention going hungry and drinking water not fit for human consumption.
A strand of hair was blowing across her face, having pulled free of the intricate braid she'd had it in. A small bit of imperfection to mar her attractive turnout. Something that made her human.
And we won't even touch on my cellmate.
I took another swallow, gazing idly across the bar. My cellmate. North. What did he think of all this? He had to've gotten the news by now. If he was being really stubborn, he might even think 'my people' were responsible. That I let him have the girl just to throw him off... mislead him.
Or maybe he realized that when people were as determined to fight as these were, not much would safeguard the 'bargaining chips' that were in the way.
A week of torture, starvation, and company that wanted me dead. Getting shot twice for no fucking reason. And all of it for nothing.
I kept seeing her fastidious distaste for my condition, for the exertion, for the sand that fouled her step and crept into her shoes. All I'd felt for her was disgust. I risked my life for this girl... and all she could do was whine about being uncomfortable during her rescue. Pissed me off... made me angry... made me not care about who she was or what happened to her.
"I tried," I told her quietly, ignoring the curious look I got from an early drunkard a few booths down. "I really tried, kid. I did everything I could."
What would that pregnant woman say? Tasha? Was that her name? What would she say about the killer failing when she tried to save a life?
She'd probably say it was no surprise. A person like me couldn't shrug off the years and then turn around, lily-pure, and suddenly do something so fucking heroic. I'd been fooling myself. Sensei'd fooled himself. Everyone who put a little fucking faith into me fooled themselves.
For a person who doesn't believe in self-pity, you're doing a damn fine job of it.
Shut the fuck up.
You tried. You failed. Get over it.
But I'd thought I'd saved her.
Boo fucking hoo hoo. She was dead no matter what happened. You gave it a shot. You got hurt for the kid. No one can say you should've done more.
Goddamnit, I tried.
Tasha and her baby. How many others over the years? Fathers, brothers, sons... mothers, sisters, daughters...
Bums on the street.
People who were bargaining chips.
People who got in the way.
People who weren't even born.
Can't take it... can't take all this weight...
Who knew that souls could be so heavy?
How the hell am I supposed to go on with all of this? How?
There was no way. No sane way. Nothing I could do.
Sensei, goddamn you, why the fuck did you die when I needed you most??
Why the fuck did I let myself need him??
"Bit early for a bar, isn't it?"
I didn't even look up. Had smelled him when he walked in. "Not in the mood, Zach."
"In the mood for what?" He slid into the booth across from me, ignoring my scowl. I glared at his chiseled features, his too-perfectly-tousled golden hair, his startlingly Californian blue eyes. He looked like he'd walked himself right out of an ad for sun tan lotion and put on an Armani suit. Not that he was wearing Armani this early -- nope, he'd just dressed out in some brand of designer jeans and a royal blue silk shirt that somehow made his eyes even more intense.
"Company," I answered succinctly.
"Tough, Spunky. You need it."
I glared harder. "If you're using that psivamp thing to peek inside my head..."
"I'm not. I was just peeking at your face. When you think no one's watching, it tells enough."
Arrogant little yuppie brat. "I left the base for a reason, y'know."
"To be alone?"
"Or to see if anyone'd come after you?"
"It's natural, Kai. We wonder how important we are. How much we matter in the grand scheme of things."
"Right." Sarcasm fairly dripping off his words, the little toad. "I heard all about it. You got the girl out, and she got killed after she was safely home. It's not your fault, Spunky."
I shook my head, scowling, unable to make him understand. "It was for nothing, Sparks."
"So?" My hand made a violent wave in the air before I got it under control. "Goddamnit, Sparks... it didn't matter. I didn't do a damn bit of good."
"You can't help that."
"But don't you get it? If when I try, I can't even change things..."
His tenor voice carried no inflection: "So why bother trying?" Stating my thoughts out loud to make me see their flaws. I hate it when he does that.
"I'm not achieving anything," I said stubbornly. "I might as well have just--"
"Stayed locked away from the world after your teacher died?"
My jaw clenched. "Leave it, Zach."
"That's my business."
Cold disapproval: "You can crack the shell any day now, Kai."
"It's my damn shell. I'll crack it when I want to." I paused. "Goddamnit, I sound like a two-year-old, don't I?"
His sensual mouth twitched. "Just a bit. A rather foul-mouthed two-year-old..."
Zach, I decided abruptly, was far too young to be having this conversation with. Hell, he might even get his ID checked if he tried to buy booze here. I tried to think of whether or not he was even legal now. Might be a few months short, if I remembered right. Sure, his head was screwed on pretty straight for such a young guy... but I wasn't looking for someone to give me real advice right now. I just wanted to be alone -- to have a chance to work this thing through and figure out what to feel about it.
I forced a smile wearily. "I just need a vacation, Sparks. Just like Darius suggested. That's all."
Sound a little more dubious, pal... "Honestly." I called on my lying skills, which felt somehow worn and tired after this week. "I think a nice break at a sauna or something would help." Heh... Zach was just the sort to understand the value of a sauna. Especially a sauna with another person in it. "Don't mind my bitching."
"I never do." He grinned, suddenly looking very boyish, blond hair falling into his eyes in a charmingly unconscious way. "It's part of what makes you you."
"Oh, that's a character trait I want associated with me forever," I grumbled with a carefully good-natured lack of heat.
"Too late to change it."
"Figures." Keep the smile... look worn-but-not-cracked... "Sparks... I'm just tired. I'm gonna finish this beer and head back to the room for a while."
He nodded. "I'll wait."
No you won't... "Don't bother. I could use some time to think, anyway." A slightly broader smile. "You're sweet, though."
His brow furrowed slightly. Oops, laid it on a bit thick there... He seemed to take my words at least partially at face value, though, 'cause he stood after a moment with a nod at me. "All right. Take it easy, though. Being hard on yourself over something you couldn't do anything about is pointless."
Don't pull the 'sage' act on me, Zach... I saw you when you were still figuring out which way was up and which gender you wanted in the sack with you. But I only nodded. "I hear you. I know you're right."
He didn't look as if he completely believed me... but that was okay. He only had to believe enough to leave me be, that was all.
And after a few minutes and a few more words of reassurance, he did. Finally.
I ordered another beer and stared at the quiet television hanging over the bar, not having to ask the bartender to turn the volume up to hear it. A sports update had just ended. The handful of patrons that'd filed in by this time ignored the screen completely as the news moved on into international affairs.
As I'd known it would, the funeral came on quickly. The reporter gave the details in a clinical, carefully detached voice, putting just enough emotion into her tone to keep the average audience member from thinking that she didn't give a shit. The image was of the sizable congregation by the gravesite as some final words were said.
I'm sorry, kid. I'm so sorry.
For dramatic effect, the cameraman panned the audience. Her father stood there, face full of grief and fury. Her mother -- tears and fear. Other people who'd known her... people who'd come only to offer respect because of her father... people who wanted to support the family... All the lives touched even tangentially by her death.
I could hear his words again. 'Murderer.' And my answer-- 'Yes.' 'Assassin.' 'That, too.'
"Fucker," I told him dully, eyes still fixed distantly on the television screen. "Betcher sitting somewhere nice right about now. Sitting on a soft, plush couch, drinking a martini, patting yourself on the goddamned back for the effort, saying, 'Oh damn, the kid died. I'll bet that bitch Kai had something to do with it. Trying to make things right... what a fucking idiot. What a moron. What a...'" I glared at the beer. Getting drunk would be so much easier if the symbiont didn't treat alcohol like a poison and eradicate it almost as soon as it entered my system.
Times like this are when I'd almost be willing to trade the symbiont and all it gives me just for a chance to get utterly shitfaced.
A decade of being soulless, heartless, lifeless. A decade of not caring a whit for the lives I took, the people they touched. I still heard the orders, sometimes. When I was on the edge of sleep, drifting away, trying to lose myself in nothingness. I heard Kincaid, and I heard those who came after, and I heard my own voice -- monotone, inflectionless -- passing out commands of murder without hesitation.
That time was different, though. I hadn't ordered them to kill. I'd ordered them to leave it. And they hadn't listened.
"Too much resistance... we can't get to her."
"Pull back," I told them, not elaborating, not explaining that Three Eyes would arrange another way to eliminate the woman. KI-5 didn't elaborate. KI-5 didn't communicate more than necessary. "We're withdrawing."
"Fuck that," Marks said heatedly. Damned punk. Always wanted more action... wanted the glory that goes with a perfect record. "We can do this!"
And then gunfire... screams... my voice again, like someone else's-- "Pull back! Fall back!" No response. Ignoring me -- ignoring KI-5, who might have command, but who was only a conditioned agent, after all. And conditioned agents knew nothing of prestige. They didn't care about reputation.
They didn't care about anything.
Briggs was down. I felt for a pulse... nothing. Clinically, I marked him off in my mind, evaluating how his loss would affect our chances of a clean withdrawal. The guards on Hoffen's wife had been better than we'd expected. Much better. The man was a crack shot, and the woman wasn't bad herself. Killing the wife took second place -- she could always be eradicated later. Just withdraw, just pull out, just--
And he still didn't listen. And I wrote him off just like that, marking him down as a loss and already knowing what would go down in the report. Insubordination. Disobeying a direct order from a commanding officer.
It never even occurred to me... to KI-5... to go back for him. To stop him.
Let him die. And if he killed the woman, let her die, too. Save the organization work later on.
The gunfire echoed in my ears as I left, but I didn't care. It meant nothing. I didn't care.
What kind of human does that?
And later, when the reports came in, I felt nothing when I heard of the losses. I was a goddamned machine; nothing but that. No one even bothered to punish me for losing my small team. I hadn't been punished in years... not since the day when I'd finally knelt on command; not since the time I'd spoken in a toneless voice and called Richard Kincaid 'master.'
That was his crowning glory, I think. Not having a willing puppet. Not the obedience he'd engendered. Not the emotionless sex that proved to him that I had no fight left inside of me. Just the word, and the way I said it, and the lack of any rage or fear or hate or desperation in my eyes. The lack.
All in all, that's what KI-5 was. Not the lethal assassin. Not the willing slave.
Just the lack.
And today you're so much better, I told myself tiredly. Such a success. Such a fucking 'good guy.' I swallowed more beer, barely noticing the bitter aftertaste anymore. Such a failure. Couldn't even do it right when you tried.
I deserved the guilt. A person like me can't make things right. The past marks us forever, and we're not allowed to find any peace in the effort. There's just no letting go of--
Another glance at the screen gave me just the quickest glimpse -- a face, swiftly turned, standing far back from the crowd. A familiar stance; strong and capable, even though the lost weight tried to sap that strength.
He had nothing to feel bad about. He'd done his damnedest. Suffered more than I had, and he'd come into it without the same baggage, heavy with wrongs. But that flashed view of his face...
He feels it, too.
The thought was surprised... almost wondering.
It's... not just me. It's not just what I've done.
This was something other people could feel? Here I was drowning myself in self-loathing for my failure, thinking that no one else could possibly understand, and yet...
But he didn't... he tried to...
It didn't make sense. I'd been the murderer. I'd been the soulless killer. I deserved to hate myself over this. Not him. Not people like him. Not...
What did this say... about him, about me?
The realization was slow, grudging, rusty. I almost thought I heard that deep voice inside again... heavy with wisdom, gruff with flawed, messy, miraculous humanity.
For all that North denied it -- for all that I didn't want to admit it -- we shared this guilt. It was a link between us that he didn't even know existed. Something saying that maybe, just maybe, we weren't as different as I thought, or as he wanted to believe. And if that was true, then perhaps I could even believe...
Believe that no matter what I once was... today I was only human, too.
Notes from Kaylee: This was only written because I pestered Jaya Mitai into writing a sequel for her alter-K&L, "Balloon," and we needed some back history between Kai and Maverick for that to work. We collaborated on the initial meeting -- Mitai came up with the gory details, which can be found in their entirety in her "Balloon" sequel, which should be coming out shortly after this -- and also on their important second meeting, which is what you just read. For a little while we were trading "Mave & Kai!" story bits back and forth and back and forth on a daily basis. (Then her story went and turned into a monstrous epic while mine stayed a "short" forty-fifty pages... ;)