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ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To Tamoline[at]gmail.com
SPOILERS: for the series.
The last of my innocence died the day I saw a man explode in front of me.
Not that he was a man. When shot point blank in the chest, humans don't fill the room with an unearthly scream closely followed by a blast of light and sound.
And, of course, before that day I would have said that I didn't have much innocence left. Working in the government as I did, as good at following patterns and shadows as I was, you saw the shape of many things that most people were not aware of.
That most people were far happier not knowing that their government did.
I remembered telling Mike that if he wasn't sure about what he was getting into, then he should get out now, before it was too late.
He didn't listen, of course.
He never did.
I had an awful feeling that it was already too late for me. I was too far down the rabbit hole now.
The executioner, a greying man in a black suit, dressed in such a way as to make you look for a missing dog collar, walked up to the shattered window. "Code Fives leave a certain residue when they are neutralised, a powder." He theatrically let some of the powdery reddish brown substance that had been left behind fall from one hand. "Was this the chemical that Mike had with him?"
I stared at him, hating. I could tell full well that already knew the answer to this question. "What if it was? What does it matter to you? What harm can a dead-"
"The problem is that they're not dead," the cool voice of the woman standing next to me interjected. Her, I knew. A pale, seemingly passionless woman, her name was Dr Angela March. "They can be revived. And we don't know how."
"That's why your mate snatched the remains of one of them," the last actor in this little performance, Vaughan Rice, a large, dark man, said. "Because the leeches convinced him to. And trust me, this isn't going to work out well for him."
"So you see what we're dealing with, Ms Pembroke" said the executioner in a calm, reasonable tone of voice, as though he hadn't just shot someone, something, in front of me. "And, really, the best way to help Mr Colefield is to tell us as much as you can about what he's doing."
I looked down at my hands. This was... I didn't know what this was. "What will you do to Mike if you catch him?" I asked hoarsely.
"I assure you that, no matter what you've heard, we are not in the business of executing *anyone*."
I choked a little and pointed in the direction of the man shaped smudge.
He smiled thinly. "To execute something implies that it's alive in the first place."
"So you'll just let Mike go?"
"Mr Colefield has violated the security of this government facility..." he said, his voice trailing off before continuing. "But, no, if you help us and there is no permanent harm, we won't press charges for his misconduct."
I knew when I was beaten. "This is what I know..."
I wasn't there for the showdown on the bridge. I just got the edited details later. Mike survived. He was even welcomed back into the fold - a prodigal son.
As for me...
"You'll be pleased to know that everything was resolved more or less satisfactorily, Ms Pembroke," the anonymous man told me. "No code fives of consequence escaped, and Mr Colefield is even back in our employ. Which leaves us the one loose end in this affair..." he let the words trail off meaningfully.
I smiled icily at him. "Me."
"Indeed. You're a talented investigator, and you have a gift for seeing patterns. I'm sure you can see how you could be useful."
"And if I just want to walk?"
He opened his hands innocently. "We'd let you go. You haven't done anything wrong, except maybe be a little unwise in your choice of associates."
Dr March, from beside him, spoke up for the first time, her soft voice filled with conviction. "But you have to see what we're up against here. You've started to put it together yourself, haven't you?"
I began to shake my head. The only ideas that made any kind of sense with what I knew were too big, too... game changing, even with what I had seen today. Even after having seen a code five, or whatever they were calling it, expire in front of me.
"Nuclear winter," the man said. "It would block out the sun, allow them to walk during the day, take open control of us."
"What you probably don't know," Dr March added softly, "Is that they're working on artificial blood, so they don't need as many hosts - humans - to survive. That they've been working on isolating blood diseases so they can cull them from the herd efficiently."
"And that's just the tip of the iceberg," the man says. "We managed to discover some of their plans, even stop some of them. But we need to do better. Because unless we do, our free range days are over."
They stopped and looked at me expectantly.
They had to be full of shit. Terrorists I could believe in. Even the cold war didn't seem that long ago. But this? Undead, or code fives or whatever, they were seeking a global apocalypse so they could take over?
It just seemed too unbelievable.
On the other hand, someone clearly believed in what they did, at least some of it. Whoever was backing this unit had pull within the government, to be able to do the things I'd seen them do. And if they were right...
What decided me was that they were offering me a position on the inside, so I could find out for myself what was happening. I've always been curious - it's what has made me so good at my job - and this opportunity was just too tempting to turn down.
"Okay. You've convinced me." If they were wrong, I'd find the evidence. And if they were right... "Consider me your latest recruit."
I tried to forget that Mike was a part of the team as well. His presence, as always, acted like a strange attractor, both pushing and pulling me.
I didn't want to know which force was stronger.
"Excellent," the man smiled thinly. "I'm Pearse. I believe you already know Dr March. You'll be mostly working with her."
She gave me a slight smile, which I returned warmly. No sense in getting off on the wrong foot with the natives.
"Call me Frances," I said.
"Angie. I'll show you around, shall I?"
Mike caught my arm as I attempted to pass him, pretending that he wasn't there.
His touch both burned me and made me want to relax into it, the familiar mix of old hopes and pain.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I thought that would be obvious," I said with a hint of asperity.
"Look, do me a favour. Get out now, whilst you still can."
"I think I can decide what's best for me by myself. And I told you, I'm not doing any more favours for you."
I couldn't do this anymore. I needed to break out of my old patterns. Somehow.
"Yeah, well, you don't know how things are done around here yet."
"Why don't you tell me?"
"We don't do due process. We carry guns. We're even supposed to shoot first, ask questions later."
"I can't help but notice you're still working here."
I wasn't some wilting flower. I could handle myself, just as well as he could.
He glanced away. "Now you know why I was having second thoughts. But I can't leave, not now. You still have that option."
If, somehow, Pearse was right about what the code fives were doing. If they really were planning on enslaving humanity, then I had to stay.
"No, I really don't."
He sighed, in that way that let me know he thought I was being unreasonable.
It was times like this that I wondered what I had ever seen in him. (Still did see in him.)
"If you really are going to stay here regardless, there is one thing I'd really appreciate you doing for me."
I narrowed my eyes. "What?"
"Kirsty." I winced, internally, her name cutting me like a knife. "I need someone to keep an eye on her, make sure nothing happens to her."
I glanced around briefly, just to make sure that there was no one else around, before hissing, "Are you *insane*? She's already been used, kidnapped even, to get to you once. *They know about her.* You need to cut all ties with her. You *know* you need to cut ties with her."
He raised his hands as if he was shielding himself from me. "I know, I know. That's why I'm asking *you* to keep an eye on her. It's going to drive me insane if I don't know that she's alright."
Because, of course, Kirsty, his ex-best friend's ex-fiancee, was the most important person in his life.
I should have told him to shove his request where the sun doesn't shine. I should have had enough self respect to just walk away from him then, and get back to the (important) duties I now had.
I shouldn't have cared.
But I did. And so I didn't walk away, didn't tell him to shove his request.
Though I did have enough self respect to make him earn it a little.
"This isn't just a simple request, Mike," I said, raising an eyebrow a little. "I very much doubt my new bosses would appreciate this allocation of my efforts."
He winced. "What do you want me to say, Frances? You know how important this is to me."
"A little begging might not go amiss." I might as well draw out the agony, experience how much he cares about her.
He got a sour look on his face. "This isn't fun, you know, but *fine.* Please, Frances, please would you keep an eye on an innocent woman for me?"
I had my doubts about how innocent she was, but I'd played this out enough.
"Fine. I'll keep an eye on your school teacher. But don't expect me to help you if something does happen." Even if it did cut me up inside.
His shoulders relaxed. "Thanks, Frances. I really appreciate this."
Of course you do, I thought bitterly. "Now, if you don't have any more unauthorised things you want me to do, I've got some actual things to look into," I said, and walked away, leaving him behind.
But never far away. Never far enough.
"What are you working on at the moment?" I asked Angie from my position in front of the computer in the corner of the lab.
"Countermeasures," she replied absently, staring down a microscope as she carefully added liquid to the slide she was looking at.
She pursed her lips in displeasure at whatever she was looking at. "We now know *how* the code fives can be resuscitated from their inanimate state - by adding some fresh code five blood to the remains. Now I have to discover a treatment process to make the specimens permanently non viable."
"How to make sure that they can never get back up again."
"Yes," she said a little distractedly.
"What are you trying?"
She stopped what she was doing to look up at me consideringly. "Is there a purpose to your questions, or are you just making conversation?"
"I'm trying to get a feel for what we do here. And what you're trying is part of a pattern." I shrugged, and gave her my best smile. "I want to have this kind of thing up here," I said, tapping my forehead, "Just in case it becomes important later."
She paused for a moment, studying me, before returning a small smile of her own. "I'm not used to anyone else being interested in these kind of details. Very well. I'm trying to find a chemical that will bind to the appropriate receptors in the remains."
"Hmm," I considered. "When you're getting close, could you give me an idea of the kind of chemicals you'd use?"
Her look became actively curious. "Why? Unless they're truly specialist, they shouldn't be hard to requisition using governmental authority."
"It occurs to me that, with all the scientific work that the code fives have apparently been doing, they might have also been working on this. So they might be trying to sequester supplies of the appropriate chemical, or at least keeping an eye on anyone else who is interested."
"You think you could track this kind of interest?"
"Shapes and pattern in the data. Shapes and patterns in the data."
"I'll keep you informed," she said, with a hint of approval.
"Is there anything we can help you with?" I asked Vaughan after he'd been standing in the doorway for about ten minutes, eyes quietly following Angie as she bustled around the lab.
His eyes slid towards me smoothly. "Yeah. Time for your training."
"Need to get you certified with pistols."
Guns? Me? Really?
"I thought my job was going to be backend. Out of the line of fire, like Angie."
"No such thing as out of the line of fire in this job. And Angie? The best shot with a pistol around here."
Angie spared the time to look up and give him a slight smile for the comment.
"He's right, you know," she said softly. "Don't think that they're going to leave you alone just because you don't go into the field that much."
*That* was a comforting thought.
"Besides, we're still a small enough outfit that you *will* be going out into the field," Vaughan said. "Come on."
Apparently I was going to have pistol lessons. Great.
"How did your first lesson go?" Angie asked when I returned to the lab.
I made a sour face. "Apparently, with a bit more practice, I might actually be able to hit the broad side of a barn from twenty feet."
She looked faintly amused. "It'll come, with practise."
"You mean that you weren't always the paragon of pistols?"
"No. It's a skill I developed after... after joining Pearse." She smiled a little bitterly. "Motivation helps. I have a young child that I'm never going to let them touch."
One child left, I mentally amended. She'd lost her husband and her other daughter in a car accident, according to her file.
"I guess that I'm doomed to mediocrity with a gun," I said lightly, trying to break the tension. "I don't have anyone special."
Angie seemed to take the offering and smiled. "Pearse will be glad to hear that."
"Which reminds me - I've got a fair few friends and contacts scattered in various places. What's policy concerning them?"
The levity left her face. "You have to assume that they may be compromised. Tell someone else when you're going to see them. Don't meet up with them after dark, if at all possible. And if you do... make sure that you have backup."
"That sounds like a surprisingly fun life."
She gave me a faint smile. "It's why what socialisation I have, I keep in team."
I raised an eyebrow. "I can just imagine Pearse being a real party guy."
Her lips spasmed upwards. "You've obviously got a firm grasp of his personality."
"But it isn't as though I'd be going out anyway. Being a single parent is a full time second job."
"Monster hunting scientist by day, mum by night?"
"If only the second job was as easy as the first. And it isn't as though there's a plethora of vetted babysitters."
"I don't know. I can totally see one of Vaughan's soldiers subbing in a nursery."
I finally managed to get something resembling a snort out of her. "Don't. That image will haunt me for the rest of the day."
I couldn't help noticing that she really could be very pretty when she had that expression of bemused amusement on her face.
"Well, that's my job done for the day. Back to finding the undead," I said, and started typing on the computer.
"Thanks," she said in her soft way, and I really wasn't sure if she was being sarcastic or not.
"You're doing better," Vaughan said as I managed to hit the target with eight out of ten shots.
It was the fifth of these intensive classes and I was at least starting to be able to hit the target on a reliable basis.
"You're not saying that in a way that's filling me with joy," I said.
He shrugs. "You haven't been blooded yet. I don't fancy your chances out there, in the real world."
I carefully put the gun down before my hands could start to shake at the reminder about what this was all *for*. "Thanks for the encouragement."
"It's nothing against you. It's hard to shoot something that looks human. And you haven't lost anyone yet."
"Is that a requirement around here?"
"It's the reason most of us are here. Mike lost Jack. I lost my unit in the Gulf. And Angie lost her husband."
"Who's Pearse lost?"
He laughed, short, loud. "I don't know. Maybe no one. He's got his god, after all."
"You're not religious?"
"Nah. Got enough problems here and now. Anyway, one last target for the day. Assume firing stance." He waited until I'd replaced my headgear, picked up my pistol and got into position before clicking the remote.
Mike's picture appeared in front of me.
I put the gun down again, and turned towards Vaughan. "The fuck?" I asked.
"That's the other thing about us mere mortals. We've all got the people we care about, the people who we'd hesitate before shooting. The people who the leeches would love to come at us through. Yours wasn't hard to figure out. And the way loverboy is going? You might want to get used to the idea of doing this," he said as he raised his own gun and shot Mike's picture several times in the chest coolly.
I stared at him furiously. "From the eyes you've been making at Angie, who you're after isn't exactly that hard to figure either."
"I'm a hell of lot less worried about Angie coming a cropper than loverboy."
I wished I could argue, wished I could defend Mike, but his request was still burning in the back of my mind. He'd already gone in half cocked when something happened to her. Who's to say it wouldn't happen again?
"Come on," Vaughan said, clapping me on a shoulder. "I figure I owe you a pint after that. Maybe we can commiserate over how both our interests are obsessed with someone else."
"Who's Angie's obsession?"
"Her husband. Who else?"
"Isn't he dead?"
"Nah. He's down below. He was turned and dusted along with one of Angie's daughters."
So that hadn't been a car accident that they'd died in. Or at least not just a car accident. And...
I winced. "Doesn't that mean that she's working..."
"Yeah. Maybe then she'll be able to let him rest in peace."
For the second time in my life, a man exploded in front of me.
We were in a quarry, surrounded by stone cutting equipment, in the middle of a raid.
There had been some odd movements in the mining sector. Not that the UK had much of that any more, which is why it was odd that recently several companies had started up, buying a lot of tunneling machinery.
Of course, the enemy could have their own reasons for wanting to build tunnel networks.
I had presented my findings to Pearse and he had approved the investigation, which had turned up abnormalities at this particular company.
With wide open spaces, Vaughan had wanted to raid during the night, for a shot at catching some leeches in the net.
So here we were.
And I'd been proven right.
By a man exploding in front of me.
"Does it ever get any easier?" I asked Vaughan when I could speak again.
He smiled, white teeth bright in the darkness. "Oh yeah. Soon we'll have you popping leeches left, right and centre."
"Great. Just what I've always wanted."
Vaughan turned to face the squad. "Okay, people. Spread out! Let's make sure that no one escapes."
I indicated the cleared foreman's hut with a thumb. "I'll be fine here."
My job might not be quite as backend as I'd like, but I could still try my best to keep out of combat.
Besides, there was a computer here. Who knew what I might be able to glean off it?
Vaughan nodded. "Roberts, keep an eye on her. Frances, give a yell over the comms if anything happens."
I booted up the computer. To my utter lack of surprise, it was password protected.
I didn't think that I was going to be that lucky.
I sighed, powered down the computer again and crouched behind the desk so I could start taking it apart. I could just take the hard drive back with me to access it back in the lab.
There was a thump and the sound of someone falling.
From my position, I could see the soldier Vaughan had left with me, Roberts, lying still on the floor.
There was also the feet of someone standing next to him.
There was someone else in here with me.
I very slowly reached for the pistol at my side and slid it out of the holster as sounds of someone rifling through the filing cabinet came from the other side of the desk.
I could do this.
I popped up and pointed my gun at... an ordinary looking woman dressed something like a secretary.
"Stop!" I yelled.
She froze for a moment, then turned slowly towards me, hands raised, still holding onto some sheets of paper.
"What's happening, Pembroke?" came Vaughan's voice over the comm.
"I've got an intruder here. Roberts is down."
"You're a new member of the team, aren't you?" the woman asked, at the same time Vaughan yelled, "Drop her!"
"You don't want to hurt me, do you?" the woman asked.
My grip was sweaty on the grip. "I'll shoot you, if you so much as move."
"You haven't quite drunk the kool aid, yet, have you? I don't want to hurt you. *We* don't want to hurt you," she said, taking a slow step backwards, towards the door.
"Stop!" I said again. "And just like you didn't hurt him?" I asked, nodding towards Roberts' body.
I could shoot her. I could.
"He would've shot me. They kill us here, no questions asked."
I could hear Vaughan panting through the comm. He'd be here any second.
"Take another step, and I *will* shoot you," I said, trying to force as much conviction as I could into my voice.
She smiled, suddenly. "You're a good person. Don't let them take that away from you," she said, then turned and ducked out of the doorway.
Finally my paralysis ended, and I managed to get a few shots off.
I collapsed bonelessly into the chair behind the desk, resting the gun limply on the surface in front of me.
"You alright, Pembrooke?" Vaughan asked, shining a torch through the window of the foreman's hut.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. She's gone."
"You're lucky. From this distance, you should've been dead. That pistol on safety?" he asked, shining the torch towards the gun on the desk.
"Crap, no," I said, sliding the safety on.
"Thanks. I'd hate to get shot by mistake," he said sardonically as he came in and squatted besides Roberts, checking his neck.
"She said that she didn't want to hurt me."
He shook his head. "Yeah, well, that didn't help Roberts. He's dead."
I held my head in my hands. "Shit! I should've... I mean, I meant to..."
He sighed and rose to his feet. "Look, I'll walk you back to the van. We've almost secured the site. If she's still around here, we'll get her."
"She was after something in the filing cabinet," I said numbly. "I think she got some of it, but there might still be more here."
"We'll keep it safe. You can come back tomorrow, during the day." He shone his torch around my neck. "Did she bite you?"
"No. No, she didn't get that close."
"There's no blood, but we'll get Angie to check you over anyway. Just in case."
"I'm sorry to have dragged you out of bed," I said, a little distantly.
"That's quite alright," she said, studying the side of my neck with an ultraviolet light. She looked up, offering me a faint smile. "I'm always on call, just in case."
I tried to smile back, but I couldn't quite manage it.
Things still didn't feel quite real yet.
It hadn't hit.
But it was coming. It was definitely coming.
"Congratulations," she said finally. "You've managed to avoid being bitten."
She looked at me with something approaching concern."Can I get you something sweet? Maybe some tea with plenty of sugar?"
I normally wasn't much of a tea drinker, but... "Just about now, that seems like a really good idea," I said, finally managing to offer her a smile, if a wan one.
She bustled off and came back a few minutes later, a cup of steaming tea in hand. I gratefully took it off her, and started sipping.
She rested a hand on my shoulder lightly. "I know you said that you don't have anyone special, but do you know anyone who could stay with you, just for tonight?"
My mind immediately jumped to Mike, but I couldn't, not tonight.
I shook my head.
She pursed her lip. "It's not the best accomodation, but I do have a guest room you could stay in for the rest of the night."
I felt warm for the first time since... since and smiled more naturally at her. "Thank you. That would be really... I'd really appreciate that."
She smiled back at me. "That's sorted then. You're the only person I have to treat tonight, so drink up and I'll take you home."
The woman slowly moved towards me, a welcoming smile on her face.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you," she said softly.
I couldn't move, couldn't do anything except point my gun at her.
"We just want to look after you. That's all we've ever wanted," she said, advancing further almost within reach.
I managed to twitch my finger, pull the trigger.
The gun just clicked nothing else.
"Shhh... Just relax," she said, as though to a baby.
The woman touched me...
And I woke up in a strange bed, drenched in sweat.
It took me a moment to realise where I was. Angie's house.
My throat was dry, so I clambered out of bed, pulling down Angie's slightly too-short nightdress to something approaching decency.
I left the guest room - immaculate barring where I had defiled it with my mess - into a pristine corridor and then down the stairs, turning lights on and off as I went.
Downstairs took me a minute or so to orient myself, moving from tidy room to tidy room in search of the kitchen.
How she had managed to keep the place in this state even with a child was totally beyond me.
I finally managed to find the kitchen, and poured myself a glass of water. By this point, I'd even managed to calm down enough that my hand was hardly shaking.
"Having problems sleeping?" came a soft inquiry from behind me.
I turned around too quickly, spilling water down my hand and across the floor.
It was Angie, of course. She was standing in the doorway, looking at me with soft concern.
"Sorry," I said, looking at her, then down at the small puddle I'd just created on the floor. "I'll just get a cloth," matching action to words. "And, um, sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
"That's fine. I've been a light sleeper ever since... Robert." The name of her husband. She smiled, slightly self deprecatingly. "If I were my own doctor, I'd probably have to prescribe myself a light sedative."
After mopping up the spillage, I stood up, picked up the glass again and rested against the counter, looking at her.
"So it's not just me that has problems sleeping?"
"I prefer to think of it as prudence. The house is alarmed and has ultraviolet lamps, but night is still their time."
For the first time, I noticed that she was concealing a pistol beneath her pajamas.
"Never too careful, huh?"
"No. They've already taken one child away from me. They're not going to get Rose too."
"In which case, I have to thank you again for taking me in tonight. I can't imagine that having someone new in your house is at all restful."
"It's... okay," she said, giving me a slightly bemused smile. "Oddly enough, it's... okay. I imagine it's the relief of having someone else who can protect Rose around."
"You have people from work back regularly?"
"No. But maybe I should start."
Vaughan would probably be up for that. Even if spending even more time around some who didn't recognise your feelings would probably be a fairly refined form of torture.
Not that I would know anything about that, of course.
"Is there anything else I can get you?" she asked.
"No, I'm good. Probably time to go for another round with the sleep monster," I said, rolling my eyes at myself a little.
"I'll accompany you back upstairs," she said, smiling faintly. "Oh, and, by the way, you might want to get into the habit of taking your pistol with you. Just in case."
Thanks for that comforting thought, I thought but did not say.
"Hey, I heard about last night," Mike said, stopping me in the corridor. "How are you?" he asked, soulful eyes looking worriedly at me.
It was at times like this that I really remembered why I had fallen so hard for him.
"A bit shaky, but I'm doing better this morning. Thanks," I said, smiling at him genuinely.
"Look, this is why you need to get out now, while you still can."
And... this was one of the reasons why we hadn't made it.
"Thanks," I said tightly. "But I'm not Kirsty. I don't need a white knight to look after me and make my decisions for me."
"I'm just trying to look out for you," he said, a whining note entering his voice.
I took a breath and let it out slowly. He *was* trying to look out for me, and I did have a habit of going straight to bitch. "I do appreciate it," and his concern did still have the power to make me feel a little warm, amidst the emotional destruction just being around him still caused, "But I have the potential to do some real good here. I can't just leave after one incident," I said, reciting the lines I had been telling myself all morning. "Besides, where else am I going to get to play with all the shiny toys you have lying around here?" I added, forcing a smile.
He looked at me for a long moment. He didn't look happy, but all he said was, "You're sure?"
Apparently he could learn. Pity it had taken him this long.
"I'm sure," I told him. Oddly enough, arguing with Mike about this had made me more certain about staying. At least for the moment. "Now go find Vaughan and play Cops and Robbers whilst us girls do the real work back here."
He made a face at me, but headed off before pausing and looking back at me. "If you want any more firearm lessons..." he started.
"Then I'll bug Angie. She *is* the best shot around here, so I've heard, after all," I finished for him.
He shook his head ruefully. "You've got all the answers, haven't you?"
My smile became something more natural. "I do try, Mike. I really do try."
A couple of days later, towards the end of a hard day of sorting through the information garnered from the raid, I heard a quiet clearing of the throat from in front of my desk. Looking up, I saw Angie looking calmly down at me.
"Still hard at work, I see."
I gestured at the pile of paper. "Still plenty to go through."
She hesitated a moment before continuing, "I'm not a psychiatrist, but I can't help but notice that you've been looking more and more tired the last few days. And as you're someone I've come to think of as a friend..."
I looked back down at my desk. "I've been having problems sleeping," I admitted. I'd also been working fairly late in an effort to try and avoid my empty apartment where I'd be alone with my thoughts.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," she said quietly. "If you want, as your doctor, I *can* forward you to a vetted psychiatrist."
I looked up and smiled. "Thanks, but I'd like to try and deal with it by myself for a while longer. See how it goes."
"I could also prescribe you a light sedative, which you could use if you felt the need."
I wasn't sure if I'd ever use it, but... "Sure. If things get really bad, I guess I can use it."
She nodded and headed over to her desk to write up a prescription before heading back towards me.
"I've also heard that company can help," she said as she handed the note to me.
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying that I need to get out more, or an invitation to spend the evening with you?"
She looked faintly amused. "The latter. You can even spend the night again, if you want."
I laughed. "You really are an altruist."
She went slightly pink. "It was nice, reassuring even, to have someone else around. And with anyone else, there might be... expectations."
Ouch. Scratch Vaughan then.
"Well, I can assure you that your virtue is safe with me." Though I guessed that a couple of ex-girlfriends some time in the past might disagree with that assessment. "Though if I want my own to remain intact, I'll need to pop back to my place first. Your nighties are a little small for me."
That didn't help the slight pinkness in her cheeks. "That's probably wise, just in case my daughter catches you wandering around at night. I try to serve dinner at seven - do you think that you could make it by then?"
I glanced at the time. "I should be able to. Is there anything I can get you on the way." Angie shook her head in response. "And, thanks. Really." I looked down at the desk, unable to look her in the eyes. "You've really been helping me the last few days."
I looked back up to see the corner of her mouth raised a few millimetres. "It's purely in self interest, I assure you. With you around, Pearse is far less likely to try and make me conduct data analyses."
I got to my feet. "Well, now that your true motivation has been revealed... I'll be seeing you in an hour."
"I'll look forward to it."
This time when I was ushered into the living room by Angie, I was met by the suspicious glare of a twelve year old girl.
After examining me briefly, she looked towards her mother and asked, "Is she someone else from your work?"
Angie's lips thinned. "This ill mannered child is my daughter, Rose. Rose, this is Frances. And, yes, she is a colleague."
"Thought so," she said triumphantly. "You only ever bring back people from work." She looked at me calculatingly. "She's a lot more female than most of them, though. Is she a new lab assistant or something?"
"Would you believe that I'm missing that she used to be shy?" Angie sighed.
I... stayed quiet. Only bad things could result from getting in the middle of family drama.
"Why don't you ask Frances what she does yourself, whilst I finish off the preparations for dinner," Angie said, throwing me to the wolves.
Thanks, Angie, I thought sourly as she disappeared into the kitchen.
Rose turned her attention back towards the television. "So, what do you do?" she asked in a bored tone.
"Do you actually want to know?"
"Sure. Surprise me," she said flatly.
I decided to with the safe version. "I'm investigate things. Sometimes I go through records. Sometimes I use the computer."
"So when our computer gets virused, I can call you."
I swallowed my first response. My second too. I was a guest here, after all.
My third response was the remarkably restrained, "Sure. Miss Tech Support. That's me."
She spared a glance for me. "Are you being sarcastic? It's hard to tell."
"If you can't tell, then... it probably means I am."
I managed to almost get a smile from her for that. "Have you shot anyone yet?"
"Um..." I cast a desperate glance kitchenwards, but apparently Angie didn't hear that.
"It's okay," Rose said matter of factly. "I'm not deaf, and she does bring people back from work. I *do* know what you do."
I didn't want to find out the hard way that she really didn't, so I temporised.
"I'm more of a stay at the office type."
"So that'd be a 'no'."
"No," I agreed, which was, after all, completely correct.
She studied me for a further few seconds. "You're much more normal than anyone else whose been here," she apparently finally decided.
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
"I'll let you know," she said, smiling in a not completely comforting way.
Angie finally returned. "Dinner's ready," she proclaimed.
Finally, I thought as I scrmabled to my feet. Not being alone with Rose couldn't come quickly enough.
Somewhat thankfully, during dinner, Rose turned all her passive-aggression towards her mother, leaving me out of the firing line. It was still uncomfortable to watch, in the way that family arguments often are, and more than once Angie's eyes met mine in silent apology.
Finally it was over as Rose slammed her knife and fork onto her plate, where she'd been picking at her food for the last ten minutes.
"Are you finally finished?" Angie asked coldly.
"Well, since you've been displaying *such* good behaviour in front of our guest, you can go straight to your room for the evening."
"Fine!" Rose said, and stormed off upstairs.
"I'm sorry," Angie apologised, sighing. "This life's hard on her - I make sure that she's inside by nightfall every day. And she's at that age..."
"Ouch," I said, trying to imagine what I would've done at that age if my parents had tried to enforce that rule on me.
"I don't have a choice," she said tightly. "They know who we are, and they're still after us. They've already taken Robert and a daughter from me. They're not going to get anything else."
"Why are they after you?" She hadn't been working on a way of neutralising them before, had she?
"I'm good, but Robert was a brilliant haemotologist. There's no one else with anything like his talent. They'd like nothing better than to use me or Rose to retrieve him." Her gaze was steady, but I could still see the fear lurking in the back of her eyes.
I reached over and touched her hand. "Well, whilst I am here, you... should have at least a few more seconds to escape whilst they deal with me."
She huffed a soft laugh. "That's not very comforting," she said, but some of the tension went out of her shoulders.
We moved the talk onto lighter things, but now that he had been invoked, Robert haunted the conversation like a ghost. She'd tell me about something she liked, or something she'd done (before she'd joined the agency, always before) and every few sentences she'd stop just before she could say 'and then Robert did this' or 'but Robert liked that.'
I had never been like that over Mike (at least I hoped not). I could only imagine that in her shoes, I would have been far more inclined to bitter dissections of his character.
(There was part of me inclined to do such, anyway. How *could* he have left her like this? I couldn't help thinking, somewhat uncharitably.)
Still it... wasn't bad. It was certainly the most normal evening I'd had since this all started.
Just the thought of going out at night was enough to make me paranoid these days.
It wasn't exactly doing wonders for my social life.
And hanging around Mike all the time really wasn't helping me move on. Not that I'd really managed that anyway, as my actions since he'd reappeared back in my life had proved.
But enough about him. I utterly refused to dwell any futher this evening. Angie was doing that enough for the both of us.
Finally the bottle of wine was empty and it had gotten late enough that the glances towards the clock had become more than occasional.
It was time to go to bed.
We clambered to our feet, only a little buzzed, when Angie stepped closer and placed her hand on my shoulder.
"Thank you," she said, catching my gaze, and I was suddenly very, very aware that I was close to an extremely attractive woman, who was touching me, and it had been entirely *far* too long since I'd had sex with *anyone*. "For this evening," she clarified. "It's been a long time since I've just had an evening free of..." she trailed off.
Cursing my hormones, I smiled back at her, hoping that my expression wasn't at all inappropriate. "No problem," I managed to say casually. "It's been nice for me as well."
There was a pause, a weighty moment, then she moved back, and everything returned to normal.
I might need to get laid, but the *last* thing I needed to do was have sex with a co-worker, especially such a conspicuously married one, never mind how deceased her spouse may be.
"Bed?" Angie suggested, and I followed her as she led the way.
I still had nightmares that night. But they weren't as severe and, when I awoke, I found it much easier to go back to sleep, lulled by the sounds of an inhabited household.
The next few weeks were hectic. The data recovered from the raid was inconclusive - presumably the most incriminating documents were the ones removed - but suggestive. The enemy was constructing underground structures, and included amongst the receipts were fairly substantial HVAC and air filtration systems. Consultation with a few experts of my acquaintance later, and I'd confirmed that they were far more than what was needed for a purely exacavation operation.
Code fives didn't need air.
Whatever they were making, they weren't just planning on having their own kind staying there.
And that... that suggested other things I could follow up on, other patterns I could look for.
At the same time, my visits to Angie's house continued, even became regular, biweekly. Thankfully, I never felt the tension that strongly again, but it was still there, bubbling beneath the surface.
I ignored it. There was no way I was opening *that* can of worms.
It was hard enough just interacting with Mike, but never really speaking.
He was still obsessed with Kirsty, and I had too much pride to offer an invitation which I was fairly sure wouldn't go anywhere.
Apart from making him look at me with pity in those large eyes of his.
And then I'd have to murder him, which probably wouldn't endear me to the rest of the team. (Apart from possibly Vaughan.)
So nothing really changed - everything seemed to be in an uneasy stasis - until I found a new lead.
Data analysis wasn't easy. I was good at it, damn good, but most of it was mind numbingly tedious even for me. Sorting through receipts, tax records, shipments, calling contacts for this and that, or just to touch bases. And then doing it all again, just to make sure.
Of course there were other movements that I was keeping track of. Like those of the other perrenial inhabitant of the lab.
(I had been offered my own office in the months since joining the agency, but I'd declined. Given the relative isolation in which we worked here, I was fairly sure that I'd quickly go mad if further deprived of human contact.
I *did* wonder if that had already happened to some of the other members of the team.)
And I couldn't help noticing that Angie seemed a lot less... focussed in the lab recently. Not that she wasn't working hard - I couldn't actually imagine her being in the office and not doing *something* - but she seemed to be chopping and changing between a lot of different projects these days.
Important ones, or so I gathered whenever I asked her what she was doing, but there was one thing that she was never doing if I happened to inquire.
The neutralisation project.
I could guess why, of course. Robert. Which is why I hadn't pried.
I was quite happy with our current relationship, a little odd though it might be, and I was fairly reluctant to change it. Especially by prying into anything so personal.
That never ended well.
It didn't stop me looking, though, and even worrying a little.
So there I was, half paying attention to an email I'd gotten from a friendly scientist at the MOD, for the second time, just in case something clicked, and half watching Angie, wondering if she was ever going to pull out of the loop she seemed to be stuck in.
Then a word caught my attention.
And, though I'd seen it before, *this* time it triggered a flash of inspiration, a *niggling*.
And I was off.
Some hours later and more coffee than I really cared to think about, that niggling had turned into a fully fledged concept. Not proof, not nearly anything the others could follow up just yet, but it was definitely leading somewhere.
If the enemy were planning on keeping humans in their underground hideouts, they'd need food. Storage and preservation would work for a while, but everything I had seen about them suggested they planned for the long term. Liked backups, examined plans for points of failure.
Hydroponics was an excellent backup source of food. And it wasn't as though cattle needed meat.
I just hoped that they hadn't covered their tracks as well as they had with the other things I'd looked for, like power sources and workshops.
But the fact that I'd found any traces at all was encouraging.
"Frances?" inquired Angie's voice gently.
I looked up from my screen, blinking a bit.
At some point during the evening - I wasn't quite sure when - Angie left for the evening. The fact that she was back now suggested that I might have been working on this a little too long.
But I was getting somewhere!
"Hi," I returned, croaking a little. Time to take a drink of my, ugh, very cold coffee, I thought.
She came over, looking faintly concerned. "Have you been here all night?"
"I think I've found something," I said, voice returned to something approximately normal with the injection of fluid into my system.
She looked disapprovingly at me. "That's all well and good, but you've got to take care of yourself too. You won't be any good to anyone if you work yourself to the point of exhaustion."
"No, really. I think I've found something," I said, staggering a little as I rose to my feet.
"What is it?" she asked, and I took her through what I'd spent all night discovering.
Afterwards, she pursed her lips. "That does look promising. I'll take Mike and Vaughan through what you've found, whilst *you* get some sleep."
"I-," I said, trying to argue, but it turned into a yawn instead, which really didn't help my case.
Darn traitorous body. I still remembered a time when I could have done this without any problems.
She looked thoughtfully at me. "You're in no shape to drive. I'll take you back to mine. It's closer."
Despite my protestations, I very quickly found myself bundled into her car, and heading towards her house. My arguments that I really didn't need any rest might have held more weight if I hadn't quickly lapsed into unconsciousness on the trip there.
By the time I had revived later that afternoon, Mike (probably assisted by Angie) had managed to locate a site where hydroponic equipment had been delivered which really didn't need it.
Vaughan had taken charge of planning the assault.
"We'll be going in tomorrow, at eleven hundred hours. Most of the site is underground, so we'll be going in packing, expecting leech resistance. Mike, you'll be with me, on point with most of the squad. Angie and Frances, you'll be in the back, with two soldiers apiece. If you have to split up, do try not to lose your escort. We'll be meeting here at oh-nine-hundred for prep, so see you then," he said, then winked at me. "Oh, and Frances, try and get some more sleep. You still look like shit."
"Thanks, Vaughan, you sweet talker you," I returned acerbically.
He laughed. "It's why I've got all the ladies."
I rolled my eyes at him, and then went back to the lab.
There were a few more things I wanted to check on before tomorrow, and more than a few I wanted to double check. Mike was a fine front line investigator, but when lives were on the line, I didn't trust anyone else's analysis.
A little while later, my phone went.
"I take it you're still in the lab." Angie's voice managed to convey traces of both disapproval and amusement.
I looked around at the darkened room around me. It really had got dark quickly.
"It's seven o'clock," she informed me coolly.
Was it really? A quick look at the clock confirmed the fact.
"I was just finishing up."
"I see I'm going to have to keep an eye on you if I want you to have any sleep tonight, either."
I sighed. "See you in half an hour?"
"Not a minute later."
"Okay. And, thanks."
The next day dawned *entirely* too bright and early for my tastes. But what sleep I'd managed to snatch from the night before had definitely helped.
Luckily the meeting came with coffee, and then we were off to a former quarry in the agency-mobile.
Sitting in the back of a van with a squad of balaclavaed men was really becoming almost distressingly normal.
Though apparently not as normal as it was for them, judging from the loud snoring emanating from the man opposite.
Finally, we were there. The doors opened, and men started piling out.
No gunfire yet, which I could only count as a good thing.
Angie looked at me. "Shall we see what the others have left us?"
She made it sound so appetising. "Sure."
We climbed out the back of the van, and then moved into the quarry, accompanied by our escorts.
Angie moved like a predator, with her gun out, seemingly ready for anything.
Me? I was still feeling uncomfortable just with the weight of the gun hanging in its holster.
I was still uncertain about whether I'd be able to use it, if it came down to it.
The radio crackled. "Angie," came Vaughan's voice. "Found the plants. Want to come look see?"
She replied in the affirmative, and we moved further into the interior, following the instructions Vaughan gave us.
A few minutes later, the radio crackled again. "There's some computers here," Mike said. "Shall I take a closer look?"
"I'll handle it," I told him hurriedly.
"I guess I'll see you later," I said to Angie after Mike had given the room's location.
"You too," I said, and headed off into the dark.
Mike was wrong, as it turned out. There weren't just some computers present - there were several server racks in a climate controlled room. Lord knew what was being stored on them. But once I'd moved them back to base, I'd have a chance to find out.
Having non-techies around all this fragile equipment made me nervous, so, after a quick scan around to make sure that there weren't any code fives lurking in a corner somewhere, I waved the soldiers out with strict instructions to stand just outside, guarding the door.
And then I started examining the servers in detail, trying to make sure that there weren't any nasty surprises stopping me from just having the servers moved out.
Which is probably why I almost hit the roof when a soft voice said, "Fascinating, isn't it? How much can be done with just the machines in this room."
I got up and span around.
It was the woman from before.
Only this time the door was past her, and closed.
She held up her hands, and kept where she was.
"I'm just here to talk, Frances."
I could feel my eyes widen. "How do you know my name?"
She smiled, open, honest, friendly, in a way that no human could ever be. "We like to keep track of who our friends are. And we are friends, even if you don't know it yet."
"Where did you come from?" I could have sworn, no, I *knew* no one had been in here before. And I couldn't believe that two of Vaughan's soldiers could have been taken out without so much as a whimper.
She laughed. "Are you asking if I turned into mist, and came in through the ventilation shaft?"
My eyes flickered in the direction indicated, and when I looked back, she was closer.
Only a step, and there was yet metres between us, but still. I felt a lurch in my stomach, and remembered my gun for the first time, and fumbled it out, pointing it towards her.
"You really won't need that. As I said, I'm not here to hurt you. Just give you a few facts that you may have been missing."
"Starting with how *you* of all people happened to be waiting for me here might be nice."
"You're a talented analyst, Frances," she said. "But we have people who've been doing this for decades, centuries. We just lay down the path, and waited for you to come sniffing along."
And with the repetition of my name, I remembered. Jack, Mike's ex-best friend, was one of them now. And Kirsty, Jack's ex fiancee, and Mike's unrequited crush, had looked me up when trying to track down Mike.
Apparently that information had spread.
"I don't believe you," I said, as firmly as I could, as though I really believed that there was no chance I had been outplayed so badly.
"What other explanation is there?" she held open her hands, and took another step forwards.
"Stay there!" I shouted. Why hadn't the guards come to investigate the noise? "Stay there if you really want to just talk."
She stayed where she was. "As you wish. But haven't you wondered why this facility is here, what we're doing here?"
"Storing humans after you engineer an apocalypse?" I didn't quite mean to make it a question, but that was how it came out.
Smiling, always smiling, she pounced upon the doubt in my voice. "Is that what the priest told you? Because, of course, he isn't biased at all in his view of things. If we're the parasites you've been taught, why would we wipe out most of our food supply? It doesn't make sense."
"Then what are you doing here?"
She looked sorrowful, as if she was a mother disappointed by wayward children. "Humanity. Can you honestly say that it isn't growing ever closer to self destruction? Whether by nuclear fire, pollution, disease, or yet another way you haven't even come up with yet? We're planners. If you haven't realised that yet, Frances, then I'm deeply disappointed in you. This is an *ark*. If humanity does manage to destroy itself, we can keep at least some of you safe, here."
"As benevolent shepherds, no doubt."
For the first time, her smile dimmed a little. "There would have to be rules, of course. Look what humanity has done to this planet, Frances. In a place such as this, there would be much less room for error."
And I was back on firmer ground, my skepticsm and cynicism rocks I could cling to. "But luckily we'd have immortal, perfect rulers to tell us what to do, forever."
"If humanity has fallen so far as to need these shelters, wouldn't that have proven that they need guidance?"
Of course it was 'they' and not 'you'. It was bad practice to make the mark feel like *they* were included amongst the idiot masses.
But I was stuck in a room with one of the enemy, and she was hardly smiling at all any more. Not exactly an encouraging sign.
"What do you want from me?"
She started smiling again, which was probably a good sign. Probably. "Why are you fighting us, Frances? I can't believe it's faith and Mike has too many questions of his own to drag someone else in."
"I'm doing what I've always done. Tracking people who break the law, and helping bring them to justice."
"Are death squads justice now, Frances? Do you like living in a third world country, where people are killed just for who they are?"
I winced, internally. Not that I was gay, of course, but being bi was close enough if you asked the wrong people (And not close enough if you asked other flavours of wrong people.) And *that* was definitely info garnered from Jack. If he hadn't already given up his humanity, he'd be so off the Christmas card list.
"Didn't you choose this life?" I fired back. "Choosing to prey upon humans, to assault them and take their blood."
Her voice suddenly dropped a register, becoming husky. "Oh, Frances. You *have* been misinformed. It doesn't have to be assault. It can even be quite... pleasurable," she said, and took another step forwards.
I swallowed. Jack was *definitely* off the Christmas card list. And it was official - it had been entirely too long since I'd gotten laid.
I firmed up the grip on the gun, holding it like Vaughan had taught me. "Stay right there." It would probably have been a little more impressive if my voice hadn't cracked a little.
She halted. At least for the present. "And what we want, what we really want, is quite simple," she continued. "We want to be freed from our limitations. Believe it or not, we'd like to not have to feed from humans. Doesn't that sound ideal?" she asked, with a somewhat flirtatious and wholly unsettling smile.
"Maybe?" The devil, like always, was in the details.
"Believe it or not, you have the person we need to create artificial blood in your custody. If you give him to us, then there wouldn't be any need to fight anymore, and you could back to hunting the proper criminals."
Angie's husband, Robert. Of course.
"I need time to think about this."
"And I'd love to give it to you. There's just one thing, one small gift, I need to give to you first," she said, and took another step forward.
A bite. Of course. Angie had told me about them. Healed almost instantly, made you extremely susceptible to suggestion.
"Don't take another step." I could feel the sweat pouring off my brow.
"Really." My hands felt damp as I clasped my gun.
I could shoot.
"I'll shoot," I said, but my voice sounded hoarse and unconvincing, even to myself.
"Don't worry, Frances," she murmured, now almost within arm's reach. "This won't hurt a bit."
She opened her mouth.
I didn't know who was more surprised by the report of my gun finally going off, her or me.
She was the one who screamed the loudest, though, mouth stretching impossibly wide, giving an inhuman shriek from a suddenly glowing throat.
I needed to find cover.
I'd just about managed to dive behind the server racks when the concussion wave hit.
I'd killed someone.
I'd killed her.
I'd killed her.
I sat staring at the cup of tea in my hands.
It wasn't a particularly interesting cup of tea, but looking at it meant that I didn't have to focus on anything else.
Like the violet light I could see out of the corner of my eyes.
The ultraviolet light.
And why Angie was sweeping it over my skin.
I could ignore it. I could.
And looking at the tea was certainly better than drinking it would have been.
"You're lucky," I heard, and it was so soft that I almost didn't realise that it wasn't just in my head.
But it wasn't.
It was Angie, and she was waiting for me to look at her, to acknowledge her.
It was Angie, and so I looked up, meeting her cool gaze.
"That's the second time you've met one of them, and you've come out unmarked." A slight smile touched her lips. "None of the rest of us have been that lucky."
Lucky. That was me.
"Are you going to drink that?" she asked, indicating the cup in my hands.
I shook my head.
She took it off me, carefully, and I suddenly I had nothing to contemplate, and it all started to rush back towards me.
The gun shot.
The look in her eyes.
"You're coming back with me tonight," Angie said, returning after having emptied the tea down the sink, and it wasn't a question in the slightest.
She seemed to expect an answer anyway, so after a moment I nodded.
"Good," she said and helped me to my feet. "Get your coat and we can leave now."
I, still numbly, still half on autopilot, started to open the door to the guest room, when Angie lightly touched my arm.
"I think it would be best if we shared a bed tonight, don't you?" she said.
By this point, I just wanted oblivion, to just not *think* for a while.
But it didn't seem like a wholly unpleasant idea, so I nodded and didn't resist as she led me towards the master bedroom.
Seeing her strip in front of me, quite unashamedly, should have meant *something*, either embarrassment or... something else, but all it did was remind me after a moment that I really should be doing the same thing.
So I did.
I then looked down at my naked body with the niggling feeling that something was wrong.
My nightdress was tucked into a drawer in the guest bedroom.
I had gotten almost to the door when Angie cleared her throat, and I turned around to look at her.
She was looking at me determinedly in the eyes, one eyebrow raised slightly.
"I need my nightie," I said by way of explanation.
Her eyes flicked downwards, encompassing my body, and the faintest of flushes tinted her cheeks before she looked me in the eyes again.
"Let me get that for you. I'd prefer you not encounter my daughter whilst naked."
Oh. "Of course. Sorry," I said, and moved out of view whilst she opened the door and went in search of my nightclothes.
A few seconds later she returned, and handed me the slip of cloth. She then waited for me to don it, and get into bed, before turning the light off and joining me.
I had been gazing sightlessly up into the darkness for a few minutes when she sighed besides me and one hand slowly, tentatively, started making its way across my belly until she had me in a loose, awkward, hug.
"Is this alright?" she asked, and it was those words whispered into my ear and that grip, however uncertain, that finally broke me.
I started shaking, my breath becoming ragged, as tears started to flood down my face.
The arm slung across retracted sharply, as if stung, but I reached out for it, found it, clung to it.
"Please," I managed to whisper, choked, and it returned, wrapping around me.
Another hand burrowed beneath, and I raised my body up a little, just a little, so her other arm could enfold me.
And then the storm took me, almost carrying me away.
She was my rock, giving me something to cling to.
But I needed more.
More contact, as I nestled into her.
More reminders that I was alive, as my arms crept around her in turn.
More evidence that I wasn't *alone*, as I had been in too long, as my lips found hers.
She froze, then flinched away, dropping me like a hot potato.
I had just enough self awareness to think 'Crap' before I turned away, huddling into myself, as fresh sobs took me.
I was dimly aware that the room had become lit again, had been for a second, a minute, a while, before slowly, cautiously, arms crept around me again, holding me as if I was a bomb that might go off.
But holding me just the same.
And this time I kept curled up, turned in on myself, just accepting the contact, nothing more, until everything subsided, and I numbly fell into sleep.
When I woke up, the first thing that I knew was that something was wrong.
And then it all came rushing back, and I had to bury my face in the pillow, biting it, to keep from making a noise.
Her expression just before everything exploded.
The only thing I could hang onto, the only thing, is that in those last moments she really hadn't looked quite human. The incandescent glow from her injuries lighting her face from below, casting it into sharp relief.
She hadn't been human.
She hadn't been human at all.
After a few minutes of reciting that to myself I felt like I might actually be able to lift my face from the pillow and face the world.
Whereupon I realised that I wasn't in Angie's guestroom, and remembered what had happened last night.
I really hoped that I hadn't fucked things up beyond repair with her.
At least she'd already gotten up by this point.
And, from the sounds of the shower running, at least I wasn't alone in the house either.
I wasn't sure that I could have handled that right now.
After carefully peeking out the door to make sure that Rose wasn't around, I quickly scuttled to the guestroom, to wait until the bathroom was free.
When I came downstairs after having used the shower myself, Rose was finishing her breakfast at the dining table whilst Angie, over by the work surface, greeted my entrance with a face that looked superficially calm.
"Frances," she said. "How are you doing this morning?"
I gave her a smile which didn't even feel particularly convincing. "Great," I said.
Rose gave me a baleful glare which suggested that I wasn't even fooling her. Or that it was a normal school morning. It was a little hard to tell.
I wasn't feeling particularly hungry, but my throat was starting to remind me how thirsty I'd been when I first awoke. "Could I have a glass?" I asked Angie.
"Sure," she said only a little stiltedly, opening the cupboard to retrieve one, then handing it to me, making very sure not to touch me in the process.
I could work with this.
I could live with this.
It was my own stupid fault anyway.
Rose looked suspiciously between the two of us. "What's wrong?" she asked around a mouthful of cereal.
I glanced in Angie's direction, who was standing there, frozen for a second, before giving Rose a chill little smile. "Frances had a late night. She's a little tired this morning."
"Oh. Work. Did you get any bad guys?"
The woman's face, smiling, serene.
Distorted by light.
The thunder of the gun going off in my hands.
The concussion of her exploding.
Again and again.
Again and again.
The next thing I really knew was Angie rubbing her hand in circles on my back, whispering quiet, comforting nonsense in my ear.
"It's alright," she said. "It's alright."
Rose had disappeared out of the room in the interim, and I could hear her thumping around in the rest of the house.
I was here, in Angie's house. And it was morning.
I took a breath, and gave her a wavering smile.
It wasn't alright.
But it would be.
We didn't speak that much until Angie and I were in the car, after having dropped Rose off at her school.
After a few minutes of being alone with her, I managed to screw up my courage.
"Look, about last night..."
Angie twitched, and I got the feeling that if she hadn't been driving, she would have looked at me sharply. "There's nothing to explain," she said, with an edge in her voice that dared me to disagree. "You were in shock. Heightened, irrational emotional responses are not uncommon."
"Yes, that," I muttered, feeling curiously deflated. "I'm sorry anyway."
"There's nothing to apologise for," Angie said crisply. "And it's not like it's going to happen again."
There didn't seem to be anything I could say to that, so I didn't try.
"I have the number of a good therapist," Angie continued after a minute, in a softer voice. "You're not the first to have problems with trauma. She's helped a number of us."
I looked down at my hands. They'd stopped trembling now, but...
"Thank you," I said quietly. "I might take you up on that."
There was a lot of work waiting for me when I got back to the office. I started by taking apart the servers damaged in the explosion to see how much could be salvaged. My hands shook a little seeing the scorched cases, but once I'd removed those I tried to lose myself in the minutiae of computer repair.
I was only partially successful, wavering between just soldiering on and phoning the number Angie had given me. I'd never needed help before, and I wasn't exactly enamoured of the idea of starting now.
On the other hand...
Tired of the internal back and forth, at lunchtime I flipped a coin. Heads I'd phone her, tails I wouldn't.
I cursed quietly, and phoned the therapist anyway. I left my (fake) details with her, and made an appointment to see her on Thursday afternoon.
I put the phone down quietly, and just looked at the wall blankly for a few minutes as a tightness I hadn't even been aware of began to relax.
I had started the process of dealing with it.
I guessed that I could go back to work now.
I looked up from my worktable to see Mike's concerned eyes looking down at me.
My traitorous heart gave a leap at seeing him there. At the same time, though, I really didn't need another well meaning attempt at white-knighting.
"What can I do for you this afternoon, Mr Oldfield?" I asked in a tone of voice which I hoped let him know what I wasn't in the mood for.
He raised his hands as if in defense. "I heard about last night. I just wanted to..."
I raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
He looked like he was spending a moment to choose his next words carefully. "Check in." He gave me that little boy smile of his, and I couldn't help melting a little. "It's something of a rite of passage around here, you know."
"Thanks." A flash from last night. But no more, no more. "Well, I'm fine, as you can see," I said a little shortly.
He looked at me for a second, worry written over his face. Obviously I hadn't managed to hide my brief lapse as well as I would have liked. "Want to go out for a pint after work tonight?" he asked finally.
I couldn't help relaxing a little.
Apparently, he was capable of learning.
And... and, though I looked for one, I couldn't see any hint of an ulterior motive.
"Sure," I told him, smiling a little. "I'd like that."
The pub wasn't exactly like the ones we'd used to go to. For one thing, Apparently, we'd both lost the taste for dim lighting and shadowy corners, for some reason. Still, it was after dark, and I couldn't help being hyper aware of the surroundings, twitching a little at every movement near our table.
Mike was a little calmer about the whole thing, but even he wasn't relaxing completely. He kept on doing visual sweeps of the bar, and I could see him glancing in the mirrored wall behind the bar, checking people out whenever someone entered the front door.
I clinked my glass of wine against his pint glass. "Not exactly like old times, huh?"
He smiled briefly. "Yeah, well, maybe I'm a little old to be going out and getting plastered."
"You, Mike? Old? Never." I waved the thought away with my unoccupied hand.
"For one thing, if you're getting old, that means I'm older. And that's *never* something you want to insinuate about a lady, Mr Oldfield."
"Yeah? What about you?" he asked, laughing I mimed throwing my glass over him. "You're right. I'd forgotten how much of a cradle-snatcher you were when we first met."
"I'm only two years older than you," I said, with an outrage than wasn't entirely unfeigned.
"It seemed a lot more when I was in sixth form and you were a sophisticated university student."
I snorted. "As I recall, it was *you* who came onto me. If that's what you can call getting pissed enough to fall into my lap."
"I got the lady, didn't I?" he said, smirking a little.
There was an unexpected twinge in my chest which I wanted to blame on the wine, and the trauma and anything apart from Mike sitting across from me, looking at me just like he used to.
Christ, this was dangerous.
Still, I couldn't help swirling my drink in my hand and smirking at him. "Not then you didn't."
He winced. "Yeah, I remember you cutting me down to size in front of my mates." He started to laugh, and then abruptly stopped.
I couldn't help remembering Vaughan saying that everyone in the group had lost someone.
Had killed someone.
At least I hadn't killed anyone I knew.
I smiled at him, reached across the table and laid my hand over his. "I can't fault your persistence, though," I said, trying to distract him. "You kept on trying, managed to get me in the end."
He gave me a thankful look in response. "Yeah, did that, I guess."
It was far too easy, too natural to leave my hand over his, so I forced myself to lean back, away from him.
I couldn't do this again.
I wouldn't let myself.
No matter what my heart wanted, what it ached for, I had too much self respect for this.
"Enough dwelling on the past," I said with forced lightness. "What are your hot plans for the weekend?" I asked, taking sip of wine.
His look of disbelief gave my question the respect it deserved. After the haul we'd managed to retrieve,. the idea that we'd be doing anything this weekend apart from work was kind of laughable.
"If everything goes well," I added.
If we had normal hours.
If we had a normal job.
If we didn't hunt down and shoot people.
"Well, I was planning on sleeping until noon," he said, laughing and shaking his head a little, playing along. "Then I thought I'd pop down Camden Market in the afternoon."
I raised an eyebrow. "Oh yes?"
"Yeah, I've got a hot date Saturday evening," he said, aiming a grin in my direction.
I felt myself falling back into the old patterns, the old banter, and I couldn't muster the energy to resist. Not tonight. "How *could* I forget?"
"I'd be gutted if you did. Again."
For a moment, I felt the old bitterness rise within me, about how he'd taken me for granted later on, neglected me to go out with his mates. About how in recent years, the only time I'd heard from him was when he wanted something from me.
From the look on his face, and his fading smile, Mike had realised his mistake.
Probably wished he could take it back.
And, with an effort, though, I shoved the knotted feelings down, tried to let them go.
They didn't matter now, not really. And they really weren't what I needed this night of all nights.
I managed a look of mock outrage "A girl misses one date, *one*, and you never let me live it down."
With almost a sigh of relief, the smile returned to Mike's face. "Yeah, well, sitting around in an expensive restaurant like a plonker for two hours leaves an impression."
And, just like that, the air was easy between us again.
There was a part of me that couldn't quite believe I was here, as my back impacted Mike's front door, as we kissed furiously, passionately.
Neither had drunk anywhere near enough to blame it on alcohol, I thought, as Mike fumbled with the lock with one hand, never letting up.
We stumbled, almost fell, as he finally managed to open the door.
It didn't matter.
Nothing did, except this moment.
Nothing did, except each other.
The trek to the bedroom was slow, but inexoriable.
And once we were there, neither of us needed to say anything, just stripping off clothes and collapsing onto the bed.
And then, as he climaxed underneath me, I saw him mouth a name.
And it wasn't mine.
Of course it wasn't.
What had I expected, what really?
It started as a dull, almost numb ache, but by the time we had finished, it was so cold, so all-consuming, I couldn't even move.
Couldn't do anything, couldn't give him the slightest sign that he'd hurt me.
All I could do was lay there, and wait for sleep to claim me.
I was where I had dreamed of being in some of my weaker moments, ever since we'd split up.
And it hurt worse than I'd ever imagined.
Angie glanced up as I entered the lab, still in the clothing I'd been in the day before. And then she focussed behind me, obviously following the path of Mike, who'd entered the building at the same time.
I got the distinct feeling that if she had been anyone else, her eyebrows would have been raised.
"Good morning," she said neutrally.
It didn't feel like one. But, in the silent, awkward car journey over here, I'd decided to focus on the silver lining.
I might have felt like crap, like used goods, like a substitute, but morning after regrets were at least something I was familiar with.
I could work with them, work past them.
And it was so much easier to focus on them, rather than...
So the walk of shame was feeling oddly almost comforting at the moment.
"Good morning," I said back, and settled down in front of the computer.
But I could still feel her eyes on me, from time to time, judging, analysing.
The appointment on Thursday came and went. The therapist was a softly spoken woman with brown curly hair named Susan, who did an excellent job of making me feel safe within her office.
There may have been a few tears.
It wasn't over, but I finally felt like I could breathe again.
And I had come to a new realisation.
I wasn't going to let this happen again.
Weak and helpless was never one of my favoured styles.
"I want some more training."
Vaughan looked up from the paper he was reading. "Yeah?" he asked. Not exactly challenging, but not exactly saying 'sure' either. "I thought your job was backend. That you weren't going to need to know this kind of thing?."
I gave him a thin smile. "Apparently the enemy didn't get the memo."
"Funny that. You forget to add them to the mailing list?"
"Look, I'm going to tell you what I told Angie. I can get you to a certain level, but beyond that, it's not just a lesson plan. It's a process, and if you want it to work, you've got to keep on practicing."
"How long for?"
He flashed me something that approached a smile, all teeth. "If you're planning on using it? As long as you keep on breathing."
"What did Angie say?"
Another smile that was all teeth. "Where do you think she spends most of her lunchtimes?" he asked dryly.
Of course. She had Rose to protect.
"You got time for a first lesson now?"
He folded the paper, put it down on the table and stood up. "You serious about this?" he asked, looking down at me.
Making me feel small, helpless.
I didn't want to just be prey again.
I nodded firmly. "Positive."
"Good. I think I can fit you in. And I'll get you an access key to the range, so you can practise in your own time."
The unspoken statement being that I'd have to.
I was surprisingly good with this.
Concentrating on something other the still cool relationship with Angie and the... awkwardness (that I refused to categorise as anything as weak as longing) with Mike was a welcome relief.
And, if I was lucky, maybe the time I spent concentrating on shooting would give my subconscious room to work on the pieces of the puzzle we'd uncovered with the raid.
The information recovered from the raid was... inconclusive.
It was certainly suggestive, and Mike and Vaughan had been kept busy following leads, but...
I had the niggling sense that those leads had been *left* for us, to distract us, tie us up on peripheral matters that didn't really matter to the enemy's cause.
Of course, the time and effort needed to make the underground facility made it unlikely that it was intended as a distraction when it was created. So there probably was some good intel buried there, if I could tease it apart from the lies.
I was busy glaring at the screen after a long day, as if I could accomplish this through willpower alone, when Angie's voice, cool and calm, asked, "Will you be coming over tonight?"
As if it had been any other day.
As if everything had been as it was, before...
As if we hadn't just spent a week with a quiet, cold distance between us.
But the situation was of my own making, and I wasn't about to ignore an olive branch, no matter how obliquely offered.
"Sure," I replied with equal nonchalance.
I could do this.
"So," Angie said, once we'd settled into her place. "You and Mike."
I knew the tension between us ever since that night hadn't been exactly subtle, but everyone had so far done the polite thing and ignored it.
Apparently Angie had just been waiting for the right time.
"There is no me and Mike," I said a little sourly.
"But you'd like there to be?" Angie half asked, half stated.
And *that* I really wished I had been able to keep under wraps. Not that I had ever been amazingly successful in that regard, but...
Though Angie had never really struck me as the sort to gossip like this. And I could feel her eyes on me as she waited for my response, like she was just a little too interested in my answer.
This was what the peace offering was conditional on. If I was hung up on Mike, then, obviously...
I resisted the urge to tell Angie that it didn't quite work like that. That you could have space in your heart for more than one person.
Because, honestly, at the moment, it *was* like that. Inappropriate feelings aside, Mike really was the only person I was interested in being with.
"Yes," I said quietly, because anything else, any elaboration of how I felt would just *complicate* things.
Angie relaxed, just a little, just around the shoulders, and I knew that I had made the right decision.
The rest of the evening went smoothly. When I tried to apologise for kissing her, again, she waved it off, again citing emotional disturbance. This time she even seemed sincere when she told me nothing had changed between us.
Though I wasn't going to ask, she even asked me to stay the night.
And life finally felt like it was returning to normal.
Or at least what passed for normal with the group.
I slowly got better with guns, through training by Vaughan and practice on my own.
The nightmares became less frequent.
And I resumed spending a night or two a week around Angie's.
There was always something to follow, another crumb in the trail that had started with the electronic data we had seized, and I became ever more convinced that it was a line of bullshit we were being sold by the enemy.
Mike was tentatively on my side, his experience as an investigator telling him that things were never quite *this* easy.
Pearse's response to our misgivings was always the same - get something else to go on, then. And until then, we'd follow the enemy's trail, and hope they slipped up somewhere along the line.
In the mean time, when I wasn't helping with the latest investigation, I went back over old data, trying to find something, *something*, that I had missed the first time.
And, so far, my efforts had been to no avail.
The morning hadn't started off well.
Angie had smoothly glided in, and very pointedly started on her own work. Without saying a word to me or, as far as I could discover, anyone.
I thought about trying to broach the icy chill which she almost seemed to exude, but in the end I decide to concentrate on my own investigation, which actually looked like it was going somewhere for once.
I'd given up on the computer data for the moment, and concentrated on the physical structure of the underground facility. I'd put discreet inquiries out there, and managed to get a number of professional opinions on whether there was anything odd about the plans.
The temperature control system was overspecced for what the structure should need, even filled with humans and the normal kinds of machinery.
That this meant there were plans for a faciity where things would get very hot, like an industrial forge, or where things would be very cold, like a serious refrigeration store, at liquid nitrogen temperatures or below.
The consensus seemed to incline towards refrigeration, which then led to the question of what they'd need to store in those kind of conditions.
There were a number of scientific uses, but the one that the enemy had shown an interest in was storage of biological materials. Were they planning on using the facility for further research, maybe another plague?
It was hard to tell. The freezers, and anything they contained, had been long gone by the time we had got there.
And my contemplation of the very cold took me back towards Angie, still sitting across from me in the lab, still saying nothing to anyone.
I asked Vaughan about it at lunchtime, during our regular training session, as one of the people who'd known her longest.
A slightly bitter look passed over his face briefly and he gave a bark of laughter. "Yeah. Seen the date?"
I raised by eyebrows in expectation.
"It's the anniversary of when her husband came to her, turned, and said he wanted her and the girls to be with him, forever."
"Crap," I said wincing.
"Angie tends to take the day as her holiday to be pissy to all and sundry. Not that I blame her." He offered me a grin, all teeth. "It's not like I don't have one of those myself, you know," he said and raised his gun towards the target, aimed, fired, hitting the heart with a succession of bullets and a sound like thunder.
The light was starting to fade from the sky when Angie spoke for the first time that day. "Will you be coming over tonight?" Her voice had a rough edge, far from its usual clear, calm self.
I bit my lip and looked at her. She avoided my gaze, glancing down at her own desk.
I really hadn't been expecting an invitation, not tonight, but...
I couldn't believe that she'd be asking if she didn't want, need, my company.
"Sure," I replied.
Just like it was any other night.
The atmosphere in the house wasn't any easier. Rose had had a hard, tense edge to her usual adolescent attitude, and had retreated to her room to play music. And Angie hadn't shown any more inclination to talk out of the office than in, not even to tell Rose to turn the music down.
I just hoped that I was helping by being there, because I couldn't think of anything else to do.
Angie, still in silence, suddenly got up and headed towards the kitchen purposefully.
"We could order in," I said quietly.
She stopped and turned back towards me. She still hadn't said anything, but her skeptical attitude spoke for her.
"Yes, I know takeaway is unhealthy. But just this once?"
If concentrating on something would have helped her, I'd have gone for it. But she'd been doing that rather determinedly all day to no effect.
Time for a change of tactics.
Maybe relaxing might help her a little. I'd offer to cook myself, but my culinary skills were up to keeping me fed and not much beyond that.
She unbent enough to ask me, "What would you suggest?"
"I was thinking of asking Rose what she wanted."
She thought for a moment, then nodded. "Just this once."
I knocked on Rose's door. The music didn't decrease in volume, but a muffled and resentful "What?" emanated from within.
"Can I open the door?" I asked, mindful of the fact that, despite the fact that I seemed to spending a lot of time around here, I was still an intruder.
There was a scuffle from inside, and the door cracked open a bit, and Rose's head peeked out. "What?" she asked again.
"We were thinking of ordering takeaway tonight. Do you have any preferences?"
"We're having *takeaway*?" Rose asked in obvious disbelief. "And she asked what *I* wanted?"
I shrugged and waited.
"Huh," she said, eyeing me. "Pizza. I want pizza. With as much meat as possible," she said with a clear note of challenge in her voice.
"Sure," I said.
"Huh," she said again, then closed the door.
I went downstairs to give Angie the (presumably) bad news. She tensed a little, but then just nodded and simply said, "And I'd like a vegetarian pizza."
Dinner was a tense affair.
Rose scuttled down after the door had been answered, focussed on the pizza boxes as if she couldn't quite believe they existed. I passed her the box containing the meaty pizza and she immediately started devouring slices. Angie, on the other hand, lifted pieces of her pizza onto a plate, and ate them neatly with knife and fork.
I thought about following Rose's example, but, after imagining Angie's quiet disapproval, also used a plate and cutlery, lifting slices from both boxes.
No one spoke during the meal. Angie was focussed inwards, and Rose had eyes for little apart from junk food, only occasionally casting resentful glances towards her mother. After she obviously couldn't eat anymore, ROse wiped her mouth and fingers and said "Thanks," to me and me alone, before retreating upstairs again.
Angie sighed and put down her knife and fork. "I think that's enough for me as well."
I wasn't quite full, but, equally, there was no way I was going to continue eating now.
Angie grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses from the kitchen before sitting down in the living room. She put the TV on, but I was fairly sure it was more to provide an excuse to not talk than because she was a devoted BBC 1 watcher.
I sat with her, and together we began to drink our way through the bottle of wine. At first slowly, but after Rose's bedtime of nine pm, Angie started to drink faster, with a grim determination.
She was a little way into the second bottle when she started to talk, words bursting from behind her lips as though they had been dammed under high pressure.
About her and Robert.
About how they'd met, through work, Robert's brilliance attracting her own, lesser, but still bright, flame.
About how they'd fallen in love.
About how they'd been happy.
About how it hadn't been enough.
About what he'd said after he'd been changed, after he'd changed one of their daughters in turn.
About how, even now, even after everything, she still couldn't stop loving him.
"It isn't fair," she said, still completely dry eyed. "It just isn't fair."
I hadn't been matching her drink for drink but I'd had enough that I didn't spot exactly when her expression changed. It seemed like one moment she was gazing off into the distance, half angry, half bitter, and the next she was focussed on me.
"It isn't fair for you, either, is it? You want Mike, and he wants someoone else," she said.
"No," I whispered, the pain and the anger coming back to me. "No, it isn't."
She leaned towards me, reached towards me with one hand. "Can I?" she whispered, almost fragile for a second.
The alcohol making me slow, I wasn't quite sure what she wanted, but I couldn't deny her when she was like this. After all, she'd been there for me.
So I nodded, and she gently caressed my cheek with her hand.
"I can't even move on," she whispered against me, as she moved closer still. "Vaughan wants me, but... but I can't help thinking that I might imagine he's Robert when we... It wouldn't be fair to him if I did this," she said, and closed the last of the distance between our lips.
It wasn't a kiss for the ages, but at least, I thought as I leaned into it, this one was mutual.
This one didn't hurt.
"I want Robert," she said, a little breathless after we parted. "And you want Mike. And neither of us are going to mistake the other for someone they're not."
It wasn't the best sweet talk I'd ever had, but she was right.
Right now I *wanted* and I didn't want to mistake this for anything it wasn't.
And she definitely wasn't Mike.
And afterwards, in the lazy blur of the darkness in her room, we lay a while, recovering.
We weren't snuggling, weren't kissing, weren't wrapped in afterglow *together*.
But we'd helped each other drive back the darkness inside, and, for now, that was enough.
I felt her turn towards me, look at me for a minute. "Thank you," she whispered. "And good night," she continued, clearly in dismissal.
I rolled out of bed and gathered my clothes.
She was right.
I couldn't stay the night there.
It might raise questions.
And doing so might lead to the... wrong idea. In someone.
And, as I staggered off to the guest room, I just hoped that everything would be alright in the morning.
The morning dawned bright and *far* too early.
Not that I'd had quite *that* much to drink.
But apparently I'd had enough to make my life interesting in probably quite unpleasant ways, and I didn't really want to get up and face the consequences of last night.
I did, anyway.
Maybe Rose would be up, and shield me from the inevitable conversation for a little while, at least.
When I rounded the corner to the kitchen, Rose was indeed up. But, for the first time since I'd started having these little sleepovers, Angie wasn't.
Rose's head lifted as I entered the room, with a glower even more intense than usual, which subsided when she saw who it was. Or, more probably, who it wasn't.
"Morning," she said in a grunt that was almost polite for her.
"Good morning," I said, with a feigned cheeriness. (Learned from entirely too many times when I'd turned up to work the worse for wear in my younger, more carefree, days.) "Since Angie isn't up yet, is there anything I can do for you?"
Rose studied me with an intensity that probably bode me no good.
"That your mother won't kill me for," I added quickly.
She looked at me for a moment more. "If she doesn't get up soon, I'm going to need someone to run me to school," she said finally.
Spending more time with Rose sounded absolutely *delightful*. On the other hand, going up and disturbing Angie sounded like a much worse idea.
"Sure," I said. "Just let me grab something to eat. You're going to have to give me directions, though."
"I guess I can do that," she said, swallowing the last of her cereal. She then pushed herself up from the table and put her bowl in the sink. As she was leaving, she tossed over her shoulder, "You've got about fifteen minutes if you don't want to make us late."
I looked down at what I was wearing, swore internally, then grabbed a couple of slices of bread to chew on the way back to my room.
Today was not starting auspiciously.
After having managed to get ready in record time, and leaving a note for Angie on the table, we were off. Rose was monosyllabic, only offering up a 'left', 'right' or 'straight on' as needed. It wasn't until we were halfway there when my brain started working well enough to remind me that *Angie* never left that early with Rose on a school morning.
I cast a quick glance over towards Rose. "Is there some reason you had us leave this early?"
Rose shrugged and kept her gaze focussed out through the window.
"Is it something that's going to get me into trouble?"
She was silent for a while, and I had just about despaired of getting an answer out of her. "Probably not. Just... it's the morning after *that* day. She gets all..." she said, then shrugged again. "Didn't want to see her, that's all."
I managed to find a space at the side of the road, pulled over and gave Rose a quick hug.
From the squirming and the disgusted expression on her face, it was *not* appreciated. "What was *that* for?" she asked after struggling free.
I gave her a shrug of my own. "Just, sometimes, that kind of thing makes me feel better."
"Yeah, well, I've already got one mother. I don't need another."
I tried not to show any reaction to her words, because... I wasn't going there. There was no way she could know, and...
Not thinking about that right now.
"Is there a newsagents near your school?" I asked instead.
Rose narrowed her eyes. "Why?" she asked suspiciously.
"I was wondering if you would like an ice cream before school. Or something else unhealthy. Up to you."
"I say again, why?"
"It's the morning after that day." And it wasn't as though her mother didn't have her own unhealthy treats last night.
Rose looked at me with a hostile glint in her eyes. "This isn't some kind of pity thing, is it? Because I don't need that from *you*."
"No," I said, looking back at her, meeting her eyes levelly, hoping that she believed me.
A moment longer. "Sure. Okay," she said relaxing somewhat, then giggled a little "You realise that this *is* something mother is going to kill you for."
I gave her a quick grin, then eased the car back into the road. "Only if you tell her."
"Good point," she said, sounding thoughtful. "Good point."
By the time I'd dropped Rose off after her treat - which turned out to be a slab of Fruit and Nut chocolate - there really wasn't any point heading back to Angie's house, so I went straight to work.
Angie was waiting for me in the lab, obstensibly working on some paperwork, but her eyes flicked up as soon as I entered the room.
"Good morning," she said serenely.
"Good morning," I said a little nervously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Did Rose give you any trouble?"
"Apart from telling me that she needed to leave for school much earlier than she actually did, no. I saw her safely to the door of the school building."
"Good," she said, then dropped her eyes back to the paperwork in front of her.
I stood there in front of her for a moment longer, waiting for, well, anything, but she calmly kept on writing.
Apparently we were pretending that nothing had happened last night.
Which worked for me, to be honest.
I just hoped that meant I wasn't going to be unofficially exiled from her house again.
In fact, I was invited over that very night almost as if to show that absolutely *nothing* was wrong.
Even though two nights in a row was mildly unusual for us.
Rose, thankfully, didn't say anything about our talk earlier, or the bar of chocolate.
She even spared me a curt 'Evening' when she saw me, completely unprompted, which caused Angie to give me a glance and a smile.
"It looks like she's getting used to you."
"Is it a sign that I'm coming around here too much?" I asked, probing a little.
Angie's smile softened a little. "Nonsense. When Robert was alive, we'd have people around all the time." She stopped, looking a touch haunted around the eyes. "It's good for her to have someone else here," she finally continued.
And that was the tune for the night, and the nights that followed. Mentions of Robert, and how happy they'd been, were way up. And any talk about what we'd done, nonexistent.
Which was, well, fine.
That night had just been a mistake, brought on by too much wine and too many emotions.
And I could handle that.
It was just going to be one of those things that was never going to happen again.
Until a few weeks later, with the aid of a couple of glasses of wine, when it did.
And again a few weeks after that, without the excuse of alcohol at all.
One thing never changed though.
We never talked about it.
I rubbed my eyes, and looked at the plans again.
No, really, I couldn't see another explanation.
"Well, they may be keeping humans in captivity. but at least they're not going to be neglecting their bacon sandwich needs," I said out loud.
"Oh?" Angie asked.
"They've very carefully allocated a space for, what as far as I can tell, facilities to hold and breed livestock. Specifically pigs," I said, frowning at paper in front of me.
It didn't make sense.
The underground facilities were compact, efficient and the human quarters certainly weren't designed for comfort - with just enough room to eat, sleep and shit.
I may not have been the assiduous student of science at school, but even I remembered the food pyramid. Pigs would take far more resources to raise than they'd ever provide to the humans.
But I'd caught an offhand reference to swine in one of the documents we'd recovered from the raid. I'd initially dimissed it - swine hardly seemed important in the grand scheme of things.
But the inconsistency had niggled at me.
When I first started checking into the matter, I'd assumed I'd be disproving it. That the reference had been disinformation inserted to make us chase out own tails.
But every check, even consultation with some experts at the Ministry of Agriculture, had come back positive. It really did look like the enemy had intended to get in touch with their rural side and raise pigs. And some of it wouldn't have been easy to fake - there were feed chutes drilled through rock.
But the idea of them as farmers was ridiculous.
Angie stood there, frowning.
"Take me through what you've learned," she said softly.
"The livestock area is near the anomalous refrigerated facility, isn't it."
I traced the relevant places on the plans. "They're on the same level," I confirmed.
Angie pressed her lips together, leaving only a thin line. "I need to make some calls of my own," she said, walking quickly back to her side of the lab.
"What do you think?"
She threw me a glance over one shoulder. "When in vitro fertilisation was first being looked into, the possibility of using non-human wombs to bear human children was raised. Pigs in particular were suggested, both for the size and because, thanks to organ transplantations, we already know a lot about porcine-human tisse interactions. There's even been some work done on genetically modifying pigs for increased compatibility."
I blinked at her as I worked through what she'd said. I knew what it sounded like, but... "You think that they weren't planning on keeping humans here in the case of some apocalypse?"
Angie smiled thinly. "No. I think they were planning on making their own. Which would make the rest of us expendable."
According to Angie, the main limiting factor would probably be the availability of embryos. So we started touring the embryology banks as representatives from the HFEA, doing an audit of records and stocks.
Initially, everything seemed to be in order. All the stocks were accounted for and all records seemed to be in order. But then whilst going through a system I came across some complaints that had been logged. Apparently some viable embryos had been destroyed because the couple who had donated them had withdrawn consent.
Only the couples in question hadn't actually withdrawn consent and, purely by chance, had enough nonviable embryos stored that the destroyed ones had been noticed and a complaint lodged.
Looking closer at the records of the clinic in question, it seemed that consent had been withdrawn for about five percent of the embryos stored - a low enough figure that it probably wouldn't be noticed except by an audit looking for such things, and pretty much untraceable.
Moreover it was still happening. With proper surveillance mounted on the building, we should be able to catch whomever was doing the thefts. Better, we should be able to tail them back to where they were being transported, and roll up more of the enemy's operation.
This, however, was a job for the boys.
And now that I knew what to look for, I could make remote requests and have the relevant records shipped to me. (With enough extraneous information included to make it less obvious what I was actually after.)
Let's see how many other places have embryos marked for destruction.
"Want to try something a little different today?" Vaughan asked me.
The lessons were still continuing.
They'd started off as part of my therapy, taking control of the whole experience.
Now they made me feel safer.
He brandished a metal tube with a button on it, then wrapped my hand around it.
"Grip it like this. Now press the button."
A black spike extended from one end, with springblade speed.
"That's a graphite stiletto. Get that in a leech's heart, and it's all over." He laughed, with a hard note in his voice. "Of course, you'll have to get that close, which is a bad idea at the best of times. And you'll have to get away again, before it goes up."
"Sounds wonderful," I said dryly.
"Yeah, well, it's saved my arse a couple of times." He shrugged. "You're probably never going to use this. It's a last resort. But that's why you're taking these lessons, yeah?"
"Now," he said, leading me over towards a dummy. "Forget that shit you've seen about staking vampires on TV. You stab one of them in the chest, it's going to bounce straight off its ribs. Nah, the way to a leech's heart is through its stomach," he said grinning. He took my hands in his, and made a stabbing motion upwards, hooking underneath the ribs of the dummy. "Just. Like. This," he said, driving the stilleto in.
"Boom," I said.
"Yeah, you're still standing this close to a former leech by this point, you're going to be toast."
"So let's see you practice this until you've got it down. And don't forget the exit strategy," he added after I stabbed the dummy.
Great. This was definitely going to be one of the more energetic training sessions.
I would say I was getting too old for this, but I wasn't sure that I was ever fit enough for this job.
After about half an hour of stabbing and diving away from imaginary explosions, I was done with that portion of the training for the day. I spent possibly a little too long in the shower, just relaxing under the hot spray.
When I emerged from the changing room, Vaughan was leaning against the opposite wall, waiting for me.
"You ready for today's firearm lessons?"
I looked at him in disbelief. "Really?"
"You think the leeches are going to politely wait around until you've had time to sit down, catch your breath a bit?"
I rolled my eyes. "Point made."
I made my way over to the range, gave the pistol a quick check, assumed the stance and started firing downrange. My groupings weren't quite as tight as usual, but I was still doing a lot better than I thought I'd ever be able to when I'd joined the group. Better than I'd ever wanted to be back then, for that matter.
Vaughan just slouched against a wall, watching me with dark eyes. It was hard to tell whether or not my efforts met with his approval, but at least I was managing to avoid his active disapproval.
Finally, when I'd finished for the day, he pushed himself up.
"Not bad. Maybe we'll make a real field agent out of you yet."
I made a face at him. "Not if I have anything to do with it." Despite my words, I felt a small glow of pleasure at his words.
He laughed. "Then maybe you'll make it to retirement age instead."
That was a bit too morbid for me, so I busied myself taking the clip out of the pistol.
Vaughan cleared his throat and I looked up.
"You're Angie's best friend, right?"
"Yes?" I said slowly.
He ducked his head a little, looking uncharacteristically nervous. "Do you have any idea about whether she's ready to move on from Robert yet?"
I remembered the way that she liked to speak about him at night, especially after... I remembered the way that her face tended to light up when she was thinking about him. I remembered...
I remembered the way that she kept on telling me in bed, "I'm not Mike, and you're not Robert."
My chest felt completely unreasonably tight as I replied, "No. I don't think she's over him at all."
His face twitched a bit. "Yeah. I guess I expected that."
He turned to walk away, but I caught hold of him. "Wait," I told him. "I think... I think she knows that you're interested in her. And that she'd let you know if she returned that interest." He flinched, but I carried on. "You've got to let it go. She doesn't want you."
He laughed, a hard note in his voice. "Yeah. How's giving up on a hopeless case working for you, Frances?"
It was my turn to flinch, but I guessed I deserved that.
"That's what I thought," he said, walking past me towards the door. He paused by it for a moment, then turned to look at me. "I guess I should say thanks for the honesty, Frances. But not today. Maybe tomorrow."
He exited the room, leaving me to consider his words.
Oh yes. Hopeless cases.
I really was doubly fucked, wasn't I?
Rose climbed into the car, then determinedly stared out of the window, absolutely silent as was her wont.
I resisted the urge to say anything, just like I'd learned to do the first few times I'd taken her back from school.
How had I managed to get myself here this time?
Oh yes, Angie had been running late doing some tests. She hadn't exactly asked me, but I'd gotten to know her well enough that the implication had been clear.
So now I was stuck ferrying a taciturn teenager.
There had been a slow but subtle thawing in our relationship ever since, well, the morning after that night, but it was definitely only a matter of degree. As an adult, I still definitely wasn't someone to be talked to.
"So," came a voice from beside me.
Or maybe I was.
"Yes?" I answered.
"Are you, like, going to be another *mummy* or something now?"
I couldn't help twisting around to look at her in shock.
Luckily, I remembered that I was still supposed to be driving before I crashed the car.
"Fuck!" I swore. I wasn't too sure whether that was at the fact that I'd only just missed sideswiping a parked car, or at her words.
*That* one was definitely about what she'd said.
"What do you mean?" I asked, desperately hoping that I'd misheard or misunderstood her.
Out of the corner of one eye, I saw Rose turn to look at me. "I've seen you sneaking out of mother's room at night."
"It's not what you think," I said, a little weakly.
"Really?" she asked witheringly.
I thought about trying to lie, but Rose could do a scarily good imitation of her mother when she wanted to.
So I settled for, "You haven't talked about this with her yet, have you?"
Because I was fairly certain that I would have spotted the freak out this little conversation would have caused.
Rose gave me a look as if to ask how stupid I thought she was.
"Are you going to?" Because, really, I could use the headstart to get out of the blast radius.
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe." And there is far too much of a calculating tone in her voice for my comfort.
"Depending on what?" I asked.
"It's my birthday soon."
"I know," I said slowly and I couldn't help wondering what it meant about my place in the March household that I was already aware of this.
"I can't remember the last time I had a party with other kids," she said, her voice suddenly intense. "Not one of my own. Not those of any of my friends. Help persuade mum that I deserve a birthday party, and I don't have to say anything."
As a rule, I didn't really react well to blackmail. On the other hand...
I couldn't help feeling for how Rose's life had just been collateral damage in the war against the enemy. No one deserved this, not even a surly almost thirteen year old.
"I'll see what I can do," I said, trying not to let my empathy leak into my voice.
"Good," she said, then returned to looking out of the window.
"It's Rose's birthday soon," I said that night after she'd gone to bed.
"Yes," Angie said, looking up from some paperwork she'd brought home.
"I was just wondering what you were going to be doing for it."
"Not much," Angie said. "I was going to take her out for a lunchtime meal and then to the Science Museum."
I raised an eyebrow. "The Science Museum her idea?"
Angie laughed quietly. "Astonishingly, yes. Why do you want to know? You'd be welcome to join us," she said, smiling gently.
Screwing up my courage, knowing I was greatly overstepping my bounds, I asked, "What are the chances that we could arrange a sleepover for her?"
Angie froze and her smile vanished. "This is her idea," she said, and it wasn't a question.
"She feels isolated," I said by way of answer. "And I thought it should be safe enough, around here."
"Do you think this is easy?" she asked, with a false kind of calm. "Do you think it's *simple*, bringing up a child under constant threat, never knowing when every sun sets if *this* is the time, *this* is the night they come for us, like they came for Robert? Don't you think that I *agonise* about having to make sure Rose is home by nightfall everyday, especially in winter?"
I reached over, cautiously, and placed my hand over hers, where it was clenched around some papers. "Of course I know you're doing your best, and of course I don't think any of this is simple. I was just wondering if we could do this for her. Between us."
Angie looked down at where my hand was covering hers, and I slowly, slowly started to feel the tensions leach from it. "I suppose we could," she said slowly. "This house is as secure as we could make it." She looked up at me with a sharp gaze. "Don't think that you're escaping staying here the night of the sleepover, to help out."
I smiled, mostly in relief at having escaped the majority of Angie's wrath. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"Would you like to host a sleepover for your birthday?" Angie asked Rose next morning over breakfast.
Rose's spoon paused halfway between the bowl and her mouth. "Really?" she asked, disbelievingly.
"Only if you want," Angie said.
Rose gave out a very uncharacteristic whoop, and leapt up from the table. "Thank you," she said to her mother and hugged her, hard, another anomaly. Then she turned towards me and gave me a hug as well.
Over Rose's head, I could see Angie giving me a raised eyebrow. I mouthed 'mistress of subterfuge', nodding down towards Rose.
Rose released me, and immediately started talking in an animated fashion about everyone she'd invite, and I couldn't help sharing a smile with Angie.
I was probably letting myself in for a night of pure hell, trying to shepherd several girls, but it was going to be worth it.
I collapsed on the sofa when the last of the gaggle of girls finally went upstairs.
"I would like to remind you that this was all your idea," Angie said quietly, but with amusement lacing her voice.
I rubbed my eyes. "Don't remind me," I groaned, opening one eye to glare in Angie's direction. "And stop looking so smug. No one likes a smart arse."
The slight smile crossing Angie's face subsided not one jot. "I see."
I lay there for a moment, before pushing myself up. "Well, I guess that I'd better do one final perimeter check to make sure all the windows and doors are locked and the alarms primed."
"You poor martyr," Angie said, from her position snug on a plush chair.
When I made it back to the living room, Angie handed me a half glass of wine. "I think you've earned this."
I sank back into the sofa with a sigh. "Thank you."
"No, thank you. This has been a really good night for Rose."
We sat for a few minutes in companionable silence as I drank the half glass of wine.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm about ready to go to sleep myself," I said stretching, then got up to make my way to the airing cupboard for some blankets.
I'd almost had a heart attack earlier when Rose suggested, with a barely concealed smirk, that I could sleep in Angie's room when the girls had commandeered the guest room.
Angie had flashed me a glance, but I thought that I managed to convey a mix of suppressed surprise and shock fairly convincingly.
Of course, I'd immediately volunteered to take the sofa downstairs, and Angie hadn't argued.
And, naturally, we'd not spoken about it since.
Rose, I concluded a little grumpily, was nowhere near as subtle as she obviously thought she was.
I'd just opened the cupboard door when Angie placed her hand on my arm gently. "You don't need to sleep down here. There's enough space in my room."
I looked at her searchingly. "Are you sure?"
I'd really expected more... something after Rose's insinuation. Angie wasn't the type to show much on the surface, but beneath..?
Beneath was a different matter.
She just maintained that faint smile of hers. "I think you've earned a better rest than the sofa."
I closed the cupboard door again. "Thanks," I said, for the bed, for not pulling away, for trusting me to be this close.
Months of research and spywork had paid off. We'd identified twenty clinics the enemy were siphoning embryoes from and four underground facilities they were being transported to.
Today we were going to roll up all their bases in one day, before they could react.
Today we were hopefully going to put a serious crimp in whatever plans they had.
Of course, the group had nowhere near the resources to do this by ourselves. So we'd had to commandeer some additional forces.
Mike had suggested using officers from SO19, but had been overruled on the basis that the police were trained to bring people in, and that would be the most dangerous thing to do in this kind of raid.
Luckily, Pearse had managed to somehow get permission to second troops from the 22 SAS Regiment. We'd actually spent much of the last few weeks vetting prospective candidates to make sure that we didn't get any nasty surprises. The last thing we needed were elite soldiers at our backs that had been compromised by the enemy.
Of course, with four operations, we still needed to split up our experienced personnel. Which meant, somehow, that I had managed to make it to joint command of one unit.
I stood in front of the men, feeling like a complete fraud. I was an analyst, a techie. I had no business even seeming to tell these men what to do.
On the other hand, the enemy weren't like any foes they'd faced before. And somehow, over the months I'd spent with the group, I'd come to terms with that difference. I was a far different person to the woman who had entered that first facility. I'd shot more code fives, men and women both. And I knew that hesitation, even over seemingly innocuous targets, could kill.
"I just want to go over the rules of engagement once more," I said to the assembled troops. "They are there for a reason. Anyone we encounter in the facility, whether they're a man, woman or a child, is to be considered a combatant. Do not approach them unless they've been cleared by either myself, Kline or Bradley," the members of Vaughan's squad that had been assigned to me. "If anyone tries to approach you, shoot them. If anyone tries to talk to you, shoot them. Remember that targets will explode if you manage to penetrate their heart. If they do *not* explode, do not approach their bodies unless they've been cleared by myself, Kline or Bradley. If none of us are around, treat them as though they are still an active threat. If they so much as twitch, shoot them again. Any questions?"
The men looked straight ahead, but I could see that several of them looked uncomfortable.
I sighed. "Look, I understand that these orders are distinctly odd. What you have to understand are that the entities in the facility are, despite their appearances, not human. They are incredibly dangerous in close combat, and incredibly skilled at psyching you out. They *will* try and use any hesitation against you. I don't expect you to like what I'm asking you to do. I'm just giving you the best data I can in the hope of getting you all out of there alive."
I wasn't sure if I'd managed to ease their concerns or not, but we were out of time. "Lieutenant Collins?" I said to the officer in charge of the squad.
He nodded. "Move out," he said, and everyone started getting into the vans.
A dull crump from the entranceway marked the start of the operation. The hole where the door had been revealed a corridor almost identical to ones in the first facility, the corridors that had haunted my dreams.
Bradley and a small squad of men stayed back to secure the exit, both to stop anyone who tried to get away and to make sure that we had somewhere to retreat to if something went wrong.
The rest of us entered the lion's den.
The next few hours I could only remember later as like something out of a dream, a nightmare.
A blur of corridors and rooms, all with walls of the same grey colour, punctuated by frenetic action.
The first code five we came across, an ordinary looking man in jeans and t-shirt, starting as we rounded a corner.
He didn't appear on the camera attached to my gun.
Later, a moment of sheer panic as the lights went off, leaving the darkness only pierced by our flashlights.
A flicker of movement.
And then the world was a series of photos, strobed to the sound of gunfire as we tried to cut down the enemy.
Larger flashes, when we succeeded.
We managed to stop them before they got to us.
A woman, crashing in to me, knocking me to the ground, my gun skittering off.
One of her arms whipped out, hitting a soldier with a crunch of bone.
The stilleto strapped to my side.
The way to their heart was through their stomach.
Afterwards, the endless ringing in my ears, the way everything seemed so distant.
The bodies of the fallen scattered around.
But we had to move on.
We had to move on.
Afterwards, outside, the fresh air and the late afternoon sunlight let me finally feel like I could breathe again.
The enemy had never been so aggressive before - only fighting when they really had no other option.
Apparently, surprising them and cornering them in their lair is enough to make them attack.
I checked in with Pearse. Angie and Vaughan had already managed to clear their targets.
Mike had yet to check in.
The pressure started up again in my chest, building until Pearse phoned me again to tell me that Mike had made it as well.
It was over.
At least for today.
The meeting back at the group headquarters that evening was a mix between jubiliant and somber. We'd completed our objectives, but every group apart from Vaughan's had taken casualties.
Pearse looked around at our faces, before raising his glass. "Today we managed to give the enemy a signficant set back. Congratulations on all your hard work."
"I'll have to wait for the data to be sure," Angie said, "But I think we managed to stop them before they started production."
"You mean befere they start mass producing babies," Mike said, shaking his head. "Christ."
"They're going to strike back, aren't they?" I said, looking each of the others in the face in turn. "We've shown that we're getting more proactive, more of a threat. They're going to react."
Pearse smiled thinly. "Then we're just going to have to be better."
One consequence became noticeable a few weeks later.
And, naturally, it didn't come from a direction I was expecting.
The first sign was an email alerting me that a flag I'd put on Kirsty's account a while back had been triggered. She hadn't used any of her cards for a week. I frowned a little absently, and checked her passport against Home Office records, just in case, but apparently she was still in the country.
In the aftermath of the business where she'd been used by the enemy, we'd arranged a new identity for her with a job at a school near Birmingham, so my next step was to ring them. It didn't take long to discover that Ms Lowe had apparently given her notice the week before, apparently out of nowhere.
This could be a coincidence.
I just didn't believe it.
It was time to find Mike.
He looked up at me with that slightly quirky grin that always melted me a little. It faded as he took in my expression. "What's wrong?"
"Kirsty's gone off the grid. Handed in her notice and she hasn't used her cards in a week. It could be nothing..."
"But I asked you to tell me if anything happened to her," he said.
"Thanks." He thought for a moment. "Cover for me whilst I check it out?"
Well, it wasn't as though we had an utter lack of leads after the raids, but we didn't have anything urgent at the moment.
And it was Mike.
So, with a twist in my stomach, I nodded. "Keep safe, okay?" I said, touching him gently on the arm.
He gave me a smile. "I'll be fine. You know me, right?"
Yes, I thought, I did.
And I knew he'd find his answers.
I just hoped that he survived the search.
I was busy correlating the data we'd found with movement that had happened since the raids when he phoned me.
"Have there been any problems?" was the first thing he asked me.
"A couple. I said you were busy looking into something that I'd dug up." Which was true as far as it went, even if it was hardly the biggest or most vital lead.
"Thanks," he said. He started to say something else, then paused for a moment.
"What?" I asked after my patience with him had expired.
"I've been checking around. At the end of last week, she phoned her family and friends," All those people we'd told her not to contact when we'd set her up with her new life, "And made her goodbyes. Again." He gave a laugh which sounded the opposite of amused. "She even paid off and cancelled her utilities."
"Very conscientious," I observed, then added, a little more gently, "She didn't contact you."
"Yeah," he said. "Guess why that was?"
"You have your answers, Mike. Wherever she is now, she went willingly."
"And you can't say that she didn't know what she was getting into. Not this time," I said, overriding his incipient protest. "It's time to come back and focus on more productive things."
"I just want to stay out a bit longer, make sure everything is kosher."
I sighed to myself. I had known this was coming. Mike was never the type to let anything go, not when it came to...
Not when it came to people he loved.
And that was just it, wasn't it?
He wasn't like that with me.
Hadn't been for a long time.
This wasn't exactly a new line of thought, but it didn't hurt any less for that.
"We have a job, Mike. Or have you forgotten that little fact?" I said with a little more bite than I really intended. "Or are you so caught up in chasing after a woman who doesn't even want you that you've missed the fact that we're supposed to be dealing with some people that threaten every single person in this country? The world even."
"Yeah, well, I guess you'd be the expert in chasing after people who don't want you."
"Go to hell, Mike," I said coldly. "And I'm done covering for you. Get back here now, or I'm going to Pearse."
"Do what you've got to do," he said. "There's a few more things I've got to check out first," he continued, then hung up the phone before I had a chance to do so.
I sunk my face into my hands.
What was I going to do now?
In the end, I didn't go to Pearse.
Not that day, anyway.
I thought that I'd give him the rest of the day to get over himself, see that this was a waste of time.
I owed him that much.
My conscience pricked me until I did at least some minimal steps to cover any harm I might cause by my inaction.
So I quietly reduced his accesses, so he couldn't do anything too damaging, just in case.
So he couldn't disable the defences on headquarters.
So his ability to access personnel files was removed and his ability to delete data strictly limited.
So he couldn't access the bank of code five remains.
Nothing he should notice, in the normal course of things.
But the things that he might want to do if compromised.
Just in case.
I didn't see him the next day, either, and I managed to talk myself into believing that this was nothing *that* unusual.
That I often didn't see him when he was following up leads.
That we certainly had enough, enough valid ones, that he could be doing something legitimate.
That as long as I managed to avoid Vaughan, his partner out in the field, that I could continue to believe this.
It wasn't until the day after that, when Angie mentioned that Vaughan hadn't seen Mike the day before, that I couldn't lie to myself any longer.
Pearse looked up from his desk as I entered.
"Ms Pembroke. What can I do for you?"
"Mike hasn't been seen since the day before yesterday."
"Mr Rice has already informed me of this fact," he said, looking at me with cold, knowing eyes.
What more can you tell me? I could see him not asking.
"His best friend's ex-fiancee, Kirsty, tidied her life up and disappeared a little over a week ago."
He narrowed his eyes slightly, then offered me a lizardlike smile. "It sounds like she thought she had a better offer, doesn't it?"
"The timing can't be coincidental." One way or another, it had to be related to the raids.
Maybe Jack was just getting her out of the line of fire.
"She went willingly. But Mike wouldn't let it go."
And maybe they were counting on that fact.
It has worked before, after all.
Pearse leaned forward. "When he did find out about this?"
"Two days ago."
"Why are you only bringing this to my attention now?"
"I thought he got it out of his system then. I only heard today that he hadn't been seen yesterday."
Pearse just looked at me for a moment. It was impossible to tell if he believed me or not. "I see. Has he compromised us in any way since he began his little quest?"
"Apart from what's in his head..." I hesitated. I thought I'd managed to cover everything. But... "I'll check."
I nodded and headed out of the door.
"And Ms Pembroke?" his voice called out after me. "I'd appreciate it if you were a little more punctual next time."
Mike hadn't, in fact, been back since he'd started looking for Kirsty.
At least that was something.
But the news that he was gone, presumed compromised, cast a pall over headquarters.
Vaughan stormed around the place, claiming that he'd known Mike should never have been allowed to rejoin the team.
He saved his nastiest glares for me, and I couldn't say that I didn't deserve them.
There was an angry cloud over Angie's side of the lab, and she seemed to be avoiding looking or speaking to anyone.
So I was rather surprised when, at the end of the day, she said, very curtly, "Do you want to come over tonight?"
I searched her face for clues, but she just seemed to be eyeing me in a challenging, but not forbidding, way.
Today had been a supremely shitty day.
And I couldn't... I didn't want to be away from the other person who I... I cared about.
Even if she did (rightfully) blame me for the mess with Mike.
"Sure," I said, half whispering.
Dinner was a silent affair.
Rose kept one uncharacteristically wary eye on her mother at all times, and silently disappeared upstairs as soon as she had finished.
I almost wished I could join her.
Angie tidied up the dishes with angry precision, then advanced to the living room. She retrieved a bottle of wine and then poured two glasses, one of which she passed to me.
The other, she drained in one smooth movement, and then refilled.
The second glass took a bit longer, but not much so.
With the third, the silence was broken.
"Vaughan was right. We should never have taken Mike back," she said, studying the glass in her hand.
I flinched, a little.
Was that a comment aimed at me?
"He'd broken protocol once. He showed them weakness. They don't forget things like that."
I cleared my throat. "Do you-"
"And he played straight into their hands, " she almost hissed, rolling straight over my words, then paused, looking like she was trying to regain her usually flawless outward control.
"Do you want me to leave?" I tried again, cautiously.
She turned to look straight at me. Her face may have returned to its usual calm, but her eyes were burning. "No. Stay." She drained her current glass, and poured herself another.
"At least this time he didn't manage to take anything."
"Apart from himself," I couldn't help adding.
His knowledge. Of us, of our tactics, of our investigations.
Angie's eyes seemed to freeze as she considered my words. "Yes. We'll have to take steps to deny them that asset."
I couldn't help shivering under that look.
Because I'd almost certainly be part of any such effort.
With Mike gone, I was probably out best investigator, even if fieldwork wasn't my speciality.
Could I hunt him down?
Could I draw on him if he had gone over to the other side?
I felt a gentle pressure on my wrist, and realised with a start that Angie had moved over and was looking at me with much less fierce eyes. "Don't worry," she said. "You wouldn't have to... I wouldn't let that happen to you."
Then her face tensed up again and she let go of me.
"How could he do this to you?"
Probably because he wasn't thinking of me, hadn't really thought of me for over two years.
Only ever approached me when he needed something until we were actualy working together.
And I, like a fool, I took whatever I could get as long as I didn't have to be the first one to unbend.
As long as I didn't have to make myself vulnerable by looking like I wanted him.
And look where that had gotten me.
But I couldn't say any of that, even now couldn't let myself look even more vulnerable than I already did, so instead I just took a sip of wine myself.
It didn't look like Angie needed my input anyway.
"He didn't think," she said, and threw her hand up in a sharp, jagged motion. "He was just so obsessed by..."
She bit her lip, hard, before continuing, "He just did *whatever he wanted*," and threw her glass against the wall with all her strength, where it shattered.
I couldn't help jumping at the report, my hand going to my pistol.
Angie just stood there, tense, rigid, for a moment, but by the time I'd mustered up enough courage to say or do anything, she was heading towards the staircase with smooth, precise movements.
Rose was my first thought.
After having grown up with an ever present, invisible threat, Lord knew what she must be thinking.
But Angie marched straight past Rose's room, and into her own.
I hesitated about where to go for a second, before knocking on Rose's door.
No answer, apart from the sound of something sliding against carpet coming from Angie's room.
"Hey, it's Frances," I said and opened Rose's door slowly.
Nothing came sailing at my head, which I counted as at least a partial win.
Of course, I couldn't see Rose, either.
I held my breath, and listened for a moment.
I could hear ragged, scared breathing coming from somewhere near the bed.
"I just wanted to let you know that... some bad things happened at work today. Nothing's attacking the house."
The sudden sound of glass shattering coming from Angie's room didn't exactly help my case.
Some scared eyes appeared from the shadows underneath Rose's bed. "Did anyone die?"
"No," I said. Possibly not entirely truthfully. "Just... someone we trusted betrayed us. It upset your mother."
What sounded like paper ripping seemed to underline my point.
"Mum never gets upset," Rose said in a tone that sounded more like a plea than a proclamation.
I crept forward, and knelt in front of the bed, my knees reminding me that I wasn't anywhere near as young as I used to be.
"It's been a bad day at work," I said, and rested my hand, loose, against the ground.
My unspoken offer was accepted as a smaller hand reached out and grabbed mine.
"I'm thinking about going and keeping an eye on your mother," I said softly. "Will you be alright by yourself for a bit?"
Rose's somewhat wobbly look hardened as she evidently remembered who she was speaking to, and the hand disappeared from around mine as though it had never been.
"I'm fine," she said, a flinch belying her words as the sound of ripping paper stopped only to have a loud thump follow it. "Go," she said, as I hesitated.
Well, I might not have handled that as well as I could, but I pushed myself to my feet and hurried to Angie's room anyway.
It already looked like a hurricane had hit it, far from its usual almost immaculate self.
Pages, looking like they'd been ripped from a textbook, lay scattered around.
What looked the the cover and spine, along with a stil substantial amount of the book lay against one wall.
Next to that was a broken picture frame, haloed by shards of glass.
Angie was reaching into a large box that looked like pushed out from under the bed, retrieving a snow globe which swiftly followed the picture frame and the book to collide with the opposite wall.
Tears were streaking down her face, which was otherwise eerily calm.
I didn't even need to look at the photo of the book's author to know what this was about.
I cautiously approached her, but she didn't react. Instead, she just reached back inside to grab what looked like a series of hand written letters, which she started tearing up, adding to the confetti of the room.
I hesitated for a moment before reaching out to touch her gently on the shoulder.
She reacted instantly, rotating her arm to trap mine, and spun around, the heel of her palm flashing towards my throat.
I tried to bring my other arm up in time to block, but by the time I'd managed to do so, she'd already frozen, hand far too close to my neck.
"He didn't care," she said. "He didn't care about me, about what I wanted. But I can't let him go." Her eyes, the only parts of her aside from her lips that didn't look like they were carved from marble, pleaded with me. "How do you let him go?"
I carefully freed myself from her, then with equal care placed my arms around her, enfolding her into a hug.
"I don't know," I told her. "I don't know."
She collapsed against me as though she couldn't stand up any longer, and I guided us onto the bed as hot tears coursed down the side of my neck.
I didn't know how to let him go.
But this, being here with her, this helped.
Eventually the shuddering against me slowed, then stopped and she relaxed completely as she started breathing slowly, evenly. I manoeuvred her so that her head fell back against the pillow, then levered her legs up on top of the duvet.
She lay there, sleeping peacefully, the only sign that anything had been wrong the salty remains of tear tracks down her cheeks.
I wished that I looked that good after crying.
First order of business, after turning a bedside lamp on, switching the main room light off and closing the bedroom door, was to see how Rose was doing.
Knocking gently produced a grunt.
I opened the door.
Rose was sitting on the bed, a notebook open in front of her, looking up at me.
"Are you alright?" I asked, which was met with a withering look, followed by a more uncertain one.
"Your mother's fine," I assured her, answering the unspoken question. "But it might be best if you didn't make any noise up here for a bit."
"What about downstairs?"
"Sure," I said, gamely offering permission.
Rose grabbed the notebook, and was about to dodge past me when I asked, "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
She looked at me speculatively, then shrugged. "I'm sure I'll think of something," she offered up with an expression that almost passed for a grin as she headed towards the stairs.
Any other night, that would have sounded like a threat. Tonight, it was just a fragment of normality I wanted to cling to.
I went downstairs to the kitchen, grabbed a plastic bag and then crept upstairs, leaving behind the sounds of whatever Rose had put on in the living room. As I opened the door to Angie's room as quietly as I could, the rhythm of her breathing never changed; nor did it as I picked up the remnants of the things she'd thrown around the room and placed them in the plastic bag. Looking inside the box that had presumably been under the bed, I saw more pictures, more books, more notes, more ornaments. It wasn't hard to guess that these were the keepsakes of her life with Robert, the things that had hurt too much to have around, the things that she couldn't let go of.
The ashes of the life that she'd used to live.
I didn't know if it was a blessing or a curse that my relationship with Mike had produced nothing like this.
Maybe I'd just never loved him this much.
Maybe I'd just... wanted.
It didn't matter now.
It really didn't.
And I didn't know whether or not Angie really wanted to get rid of the things she'd impulsively destroyed, so I placed the plastic bag carefully in the box, then slid it back under the bed.
She'd have to decide what to do with them herself.
I got to my feet, then quietly left the room.
No matter what had happened between us, I was fairly certain Angie wouldn't welcome waking up to me hovering.
Best to be out of the immediate blast radius when that happened.
The next morning, Angie was quiet.
Not her usual calm implacability.
But the kind of quiet which suggested that her facade might crumble if poked too firmly.
Neither Rose nor I did.
The only acknowledgement I received that anything at all had happened last night was a quiet 'Thank you,' from her just before we left the car.
And when we got to the lab, she immediately lost herself in experimentation, working with those quiet, precise movements she used when she was utterly determined to accomplish something.
It was just I couldn't help noticing that, for the first time in months, she was working on the vampire remain neutralisation project again.
We never talked about her almost breakdown.
But, after that, the sex between us took on a different tenor.
She looked at me.
She *looked* at me.
And I, I looked back at her.
She wasn't just not Mike to me any more.
And I wasn't just not Robert to her either.
We never saw nor heard from Mike.
Vaughan headed up the search for him.
And, despite the suspicion aimed at me from Vaughan at least, I did my best to help.
It was like he had disappeared off the face of the planet.
Despite everything, despite everyone he'd left behind, I tried to hope that he'd found what he was looking for.
I tried to hope that Kirsty had found the same.
It took Angie just over a month to crack the neutralisation project.
One afternoon, she looked up from a series of dishes into which she'd been titrating what looked like blood, and said, simply, "It's done."
I looked up from my terminal. "It's done?"
"I know how we can kill them permanently now. I have the chemical formula."
It took three days to order enough of chemical constituents in to neutralise the remains of all the enemy we had in storage.
When the chemical, Which Vaughan had christened X-5 in a fit of bleak humour, had been prepared in quantity, we all gathered in the lab.
For a moment, I thought Pearse was going to give a speech, maybe even a sermon, but the end he just smiled humourlessly and said, "Do it."
One by one, the remains were treated.
I gripped Angie's hand as they reached the cylinders containing the remains of Robert and Celeste, Angie's other daughter.
She gripped back, hard, but otherwise didn't react as the liquid was squirted in.
And then it was over.
And then we were onto the next cylinder.
And the next one.
At the end of the day, I finally felt like I could breathe again, like I could look beyond the disposal of the remains in the vault.
On the way back, I looked over at Angie.
"If they know which chemicals can kill them, they might have been tracking them."
"I know," she said levelly.
"And they might have some kind of," supernatural, I didn't say, "quantum link, or whatever, that tells them when one of them dies permanently."
She frowned a bit, and, if she hadn't been driving, I knew that she would have been looking at me in censure. But all she said is, "I know."
"And if they do find out we can kill them dead, they're not going to feel safe anymore. That if they get caught, it's not just a matter of waiting for their side to win."
The enemy knew.
Somehow, they managed to find out.
The method didn't really matter.
Because, three days later, the war began in earnest.
Kirsty disappears. Frances finds out, changes Mike's access codes, tells Mike.
Mike disappears. Frances emphatically doesn't check to see if he tried to access anything sensitive.
Angie takes her home, tells her that it's not her fault. That it was his choice, and she shoudln't blame herself. Rapidly becomes about Robert, and Angie has a minor meltdown, then starts destroying Roberts things that she kept in abox under her bed.
Frances tries to keep Rose calm
Next day, Angie starts neutralisation project in earnest.
Gives Frances chemicals to look into, and requisition
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