DATE: 05/24/2023 LOCATION: En route to L-14 "The Field" from [REDACTED] ASSETS:
Team Lead: Agent Hope "Handler" Phillips, A-Class-C.
> Bridget "Aloe" Adwin, R-Class-C [Medical Personnel]
> Ivonne "Artemis" Beauregard, A-Class-C [Cover Fire]
> Evan "The Tank" Griffith, A-Class-C [Front Line Security Personnel, deceased remains]
> Alvin "Ghost Whisperer" Sigel, R-Class-C [Field Researcher; specialization: spiritual abnormalities and anomalous artifacts]
Additional Asset: ACF-505-B "The Maw's Avatar" [asset under emergency containment measures until return to L-14]
> Acquired Asset: U-3219 [UNNAMED], damaged but intact. EQUIPMENT: 2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter; standard field team weapons and armor; tactical occult kits per L-5 regulation [see L-5-F-43-A-231 "Field Procedures: Magic Assets"]; specialized containment jacket for ACF-505-B [In Use]; ACF-517 "Never Northward"; ACF-1074 "Master Sword" PURPOSE: Acquisition U-3219 [complete]; Recontainment ACF-505 [complete]; Debrief.
The van was silent as Phillips drove home.
There was no "thank whatever powers that be that we're alive" from the surviving non-anomalous team members in the back seat. No relieved chatter, no conversation about new wounds that would turn into new scars or at least buy a few days off. What was left of Griffith was covered up on the floor between the three of them. Normal field procedure was immediate cremation, but there was too much of... 505-A mixed with the remains. It would have to be disposed of at L-5. Not that Griffith had ever had a family outside the Foundation to send the urn to anyway. There was no memorial chatter for him, either. No stories about all the times he'd saved each of their [EXPLETIVE]es. Powers knew it was enough times to remember him by. This was just his last.
The item Sigel had nicknamed "The Spirit Box" was more dangerous than initially accounted for, sure. A purported Low-Grade Risky or even Household Class that caused weird paranormal bull[EXPLETIVE] to happen around it, the box was now known to contain a malevoloent entity that had managed to separate all but Carmichael and Phillips, and that only because Never Northward kept him in her sights. But that hadn't been the problem. Each of them was prepared for the worst, that was procedure, and they'd managed to reach the point of survival while each hoping the others were making a plan.
Carmichael had broken protocol. With a smile to his handler - that [EXPLETIVE]ing smile she always knew meant trouble - Carmichael had eaten a bullet.
The entity retreated into U-3219 under an assault of teeth and black limbs. Without a target, ACF-505-A had turned on the rest of the team. In many ways they were lucky that Griffith was good enough at his job. That was why he was on FCRT Wisdom Teeth. He'd held the line, kept 505 in one place until Sigel's conjuration and Phillips' own hemomancy formed the containment wards that trial and error had proven most effective, even if it had to be changed to some degree or another every time to circumvent the anomaly's adaptability. It had meant trapping Griffith with it - nothing in, nothing out, until the black and the teeth were worn out and disappeared.
But that was why Griffith was with Wisdom Teeth.
One of the three members in the back seat rummaged in a pocket. Beauregard handed a wad of currency over to Adwin. Adwin took it without a word, thumbed through it, put it into a pocket, pulled out a little notebook to keep score. It was a solemn ritual. No "I told you so"s, no jabs. They'd always known it would be either Griffith or Sigel first.
Sigel pulled a tablet out of his bag. There was the soft noise of a screen vibrating under touch. The only sound that broke the silence. He was starting report. Retreating into paperwork. Probably beginning to file for low-level amnestics as well. A preventative measure, one that was effective at suppressing traumas like this until they could be properly evaluated by psychology personnel.
A straightjacket was a funny idea for this, in theory. It had been Phillips' idea. Which was even funnier to some given that she was a collections agent, not security. But she was also a hemomancer herself. She'd just asked herself what would keep her from hurting herself and practicing her magic if she'd been in Carmichael's shoes, and the idea was born. Having someone embroider in some runes and adding her own blood magic had created an effective seal. It fit their Councilman.
She didn't look at Carmichael, in the passenger seat. Visible there in her periphery. She barely glanced in the rear-view when she heard Sigel's tapping. Her eyes were on the road ahead. Her mouth was pressed into a firm line. Some of her hair had fallen loose from her ponytail and had been tucked behind her ear in its place. Her right arm was bandaged from where she'd cut it for the ritual.
"What the [EXPLETIVE] were you thinking?"
Hope sounded tired, when she finally broke the silence. Her voice was low with ragged edges. She felt tired. More than tired, however, she was furious. Zeke was her asset as much as the compass around her neck - but the compass hadn't killed one of her men.
It turned, now, she could feel it through the armor she hadn't completely stripped out of. She took a deep breath, as if to launch into a tirade, and then just exhaled it. Her eyes stayed on the dark road ahead, where the needle pointed home.
Ezekiel's memory was still quite fuzzy, stuck in a suspended state between life and death while his other self took care of business. Last clear image on his mind was Agent Phillips's distressed visage as he did what nobody else could - took them out of their own mess. Everything else was a blur, mere flashes of darkness interrupted every now and then by streaks of carmine.
Then the headache kicked in. Truth be told, Carmichael had no idea what the worst part of letting the Maw out were the killer headaches or Hope's disparaging lectures he had to sit through after putting a bullet through his skull. It was probably his grunts that first warned his handler of his return to the land of the living, one glance at the battle-ready beauty by his side and he could already tell.
The headaches were certainly the worst part.
Still, Hope's frowned countenance indicated he had no shot at a smoke or, at the very least, one of those tiny pills that calmed the storm inside his head. "Good morning to you as well, sunshine." He answered amid grunts, opening his eyes and straightening himself into the passenger seat the best he could given his quite limited mobility. "Seems as if this lunatic's jacket is becoming routine between us, eh? Might even start thinking you like it."
Hope did not have the guts to tell him to put one through his brain, she never thought it was necessary, her reservations mirroring the overwhelmingly cautious nature of the modernized Foundation. It was their faulty intel which put them all in danger, Mandrake simply did what ensured their survival. Most of them, at least. Better than none of them returning, and yet it seemed as if he was the only one in the vehicle who thought so. They may as well trap every single one in the car inside a straitjacket too.
"Oh, I was just thinking to meself how lovely it would be if I were to see your angry face again." Zeke offered a sly answer. "What the bloody hell do you think, lass?! The anomaly had us split and losing ground, if my acting commander will not call the cavalry herself, I will do the honors." He shrugged. "Household level, was it not? Why, perhaps I did overstep my boundaries, we should have walked off into the sunset holding hands since it was so safe."
In the rear view, Sigel shrank in his seat. Hope caught the slight movement, as well as a shift from Beauregard, though to do what she wasn't sure.
"That was not your call to make."
Hope's voice had only gotten colder and harder as Zeke tried to lighten the mood. While there were times she found his accent enthralling, right now it just grated on her nerves. She still didn't look at him, but her eyes flicked up to the rear-view.
"Alvin, pull yourself together. Unreliable sources are no one's fault. You didn't kill Griffith."
Maybe there was a chance he might have, if the Spirit Box had killed them, but that possibility was long past. Possibility only mattered when there was a reality-warper involved. Now the past was set, and Evan Griffith had died in it. Evan and Zeke had never gotten along, sure, but Evan had taken just as many hits to keep their anomalous asset safe. In part, sure, to make sure 505-A didn't appear and eat everybody. But Zeke was part of the team. And as such, he needed to answer to his team lead.
"There were still other options. You did not consult me. Instead you put this entire team at risk. You breached containment and killed Griffith when you did. And for what? A hero moment?"
That wasn't it, of course. But this wasn't the first time Zeke had put everyone on her team in danger trying to save... them. She had to pretend he was as neutral as she was about it. This was, however, the first time he had killed a team member doing so. She knew where the bets were - Alvin or Evan. Ivonne and Bridget were always too far away from the main body of the fight for it to be almost anyone else. Nobody placed money on Phillips, even though she was always standing closest, because nobody considered it a possibility, for one reason or another. Or maybe they just thought it would be bad luck.
There was a clicking behind her as Ivonne Beauregard suddenly decided it was the right time to clean her weapon. Behind Zeke, Bridget Adwin patted her pockets until she found the small wildflower guide she always carried with her to pretend to read in situations like this. Alvin Sigel still had his tablet open, and began to tap at it again. Hope considered asking him to check something, then decided to ask her asset directly.
"When is it ever my call to make, sunshine? Am I not your little plaything? An experiment to take the fall when things go wrong?" He chuckled, shaking his head. So it had been Griffith this time, his face contorted a bit at the remark he had killed the man. Was it true? Absolutely. In fact, he attempted to distance himself from Wisdom Teeth precisely because of the nature of their work, losing a fellow soldier you have been fighting side-by-side with was a harsh enough reality, being the one to have put them down stung way worse. "I feel for Griffith. I do, he was a good man. A better soldier. Each one of you has every right to absolutely despise me, Griffith especially wherever he may be. I think he knew, at some level, though. We were not making it out in one piece. If you wish to go through protocol while we are dying, Ms. Phillips, do not expect me to comply."
Zeke leaned against the window, watching the lights go by. If she would not face him, then he exerted the right to treat his handler the very same manner. He was still his own person, not some beast on a leash for the Foundation to pin all their issues on. Hope's last statement, however, was a punch to his gut. "WHAT?! Are you mental? Do you truly believe if I wanted so badly to off myself I would choose the very moment to save our lives?! I may be behind a few weeks, but I assure you were I to pick a moment to end my blemish of an existence it would be right now rather than containing the Spirit Box. Do you truly believe I care so little for yo- our safety that the more likely explanation is depression of all things?!"
Zeke was being petulant. Hope at least had the excuse that she was driving; this was a conscious choice on his part. He mentioned what might have been again, but she had to dismiss that, because that wasn't what had happened. As the team leader and 505-B's handler, she had to look at the now and the soon-to-be until it was time to sit down and file paperwork. At least he'd acknowledged Griffith's death. That made being mad at him a little bit harder.
Until his outburst when she asked him when he'd last seen a shrink. There was a certain degree of bitter vindication in his objections. He also confirmed a suspicion in his little slip-up. There was another rustle behind her as more currency changed hands. She barely had a chance to glance, but it looked like Adwin had lost to Sigel. Still nothing was said, though now it felt more like they were trying not to draw attention to themselves.
"If I was the mental one here I'd be the one required to visit a shrink every week. Your timing isn't an excuse, Agent Carmichael. You know your security protocols. You get erratic when you start to spiral, which you wouldn't if you were keeping up with Dr. Eisenberg."
Was that the agent talking, or the woman behind her? She didn't make a slip the way he did. No stumble. Was it a concerned team lead or handler, or was it a ray of the sunshine he knew and- well, knew. That was enough in situations like this, and there was no reason to encourage rumors. The backseat casino was more than enough for her for tonight.
"Our safety is my concern. Have you considered that I gauged 505 A more dangerous than the Spirit Box in the moment?"
And that I may have been right, she didn't say, because may have beens weren't her department.
It was like yelling at a wall. Protocols, code of conduct, danger assessment inhumanly possible to define in mere seconds. Hope was the hopeless general so far removed from the life of a soldier she would put chain of command before the lives before her very eyes. Sometimes her intelligence astonished him, she gave him light during his darkest hours, always with some witty retort or different perspective. This, however, was the bad side of butting heads with her. It was always the paperwork, always the higher ups, always those so far up their asses before the little man dying by her side.
"Sitting on the comfortable room of the present, it certainly can be easy to admonish the past. What would you rather have me do, then? Count to 10 and be considerably less effective while Wisdom Teeth covers for us to escape? I should have flanked the Germans from the left back then too, would have cost our unit less lives, perhaps there would be a bust of me somewhere and I would not have to sit here and get admonished for giving a damn."
He sighed. "Yes, certainly, our safety is your concern, you have done quite a good job at it too. I just love putting lead between my eyes everytime, it is just my little revenge ploy to see you drown in paperwork and go back to my tiny little box that I love so much." Ezekiel smirked, they may not be looking at each other at the moment, but he could tell she knew and it got his message across. "Is that our cover story this time? You get a slap on the wrist and I get probed and experimented on. We can call it a little vacation to the Bahamas, hm?"
"I very specifically ask that you don't do that, [EXPLETIVE]hole. It's not my fault you can't take an order. And it's not like I'm not there right beside my team, almost getting killed, same as them." Her voice was beginning to wind down, lose the crisp edges and just become tired again. It had been a long day for everyone, and she knew it was wearing on her, trying to keep up with him, trying to go around in the same circles for the umpteenth time. He was wrong, mostly, and the mostly was what mattered because if she thought too hard about the rest she'd probably just crash the van into a light pole and be done with it. They'd had this conversation before. Except... "And again. It's never successfully killed one of our own before."
The degree, the slight degree, of separation, that was important. Intentional. She knew that Ezekiel hadn't made the conscious choice to turn on the team. but it had happened because he hadn't waited for orders. Besides, he would've survived, so it wasn't even like he was at risk. He was almost more the general from his metaphor than she was. He didn't use the metaphor now, but it had come up in the past. She took another deep breath.
"The moment I decide you are too much of a security risk for my team you go back in a box for good." She still didn't take her eyes off the road, but rather than creases of anger in her face, there was a shadow over her features. She felt the slight spin of the compass on her chest, the change of momentary direction. She needed to be here, because there was something that had to be done.
She spoke flatly when she opened her mouth again.
"For now, I think I'll settle for a demotion."
Rustles of uncomfortable movement from the back. She didn't glance in their direction, either.
"Dr. Sigel, please make sure this is recorded. ACF-505-B, Ezekiel Bartholomew Mandrake Carmichael the Third, is demoted to A-Class-B, with all the responsibilities and retraining that might entail. The grounds for the demotion are repeated insubordination, failure to observe containment measures, cause of intentional containment breach of a high gradient Risky-class anomaly outside of Foundational guidelines and boundaries, and causing the termination of a Foundational asset through reckless behavior."
Finally, she turned her head two degrees, never quite losing the road ahead, but just enough that he'd be able to tell. She didn't want to see the look on his face, but that was her responsibility right now. She needed to gauge her asset. She could trust him not to breach, even without the containment measures. She trusted him with her life, but if she couldn't trust him with the lives of the rest of Wisdom Teeth, then she wasn't doing her job. The Foundation came first.
It came in equal parts of professional and personal slight, he had been immediately demoted simply for caring for the completion of the mission with as little sacrifice as possible. It had never happened before, and yet it had always been accounted for, Ezekiel had always been treated as the liability, in fairness losing control required certain parameters to be set in motion to minimize loss, he agreed to those and even went as far as aiding the Foundation in stopping him had they needed it.
Now after acting solely on the interest of not being the last one standing, of 'minimizing losses' - as they always put it - himself, attempting to cover for their own incompetence, and it all came crashing down on him.
He chortled angrily, bumping his head against the glass hard enough to draw blood. Two tendrils of pitch-like darkness, reaching into his pockets and pulling a cigar and a lighter. "Maybe next time don't be twiddling your thumbs and give some [EXPLETIVE]ing orders. Because your rubbish superiors didn't give a rat's ass about the debriefing. Maybe you care so little for the men getting [EXPLETIVE] by your side that you are ready for a promotion, eh?!"
Mandrake puffed a ring of smoke, letting the silence set in. Those were some personal jabs he had been delivering, and much likely sooner than Agent Phillips, the words started making him restless. "My sincere apologies for doubting your character and capabilities, Ms. Phillips. But this is utter horse[EXPLETIVE], we both know it."
He shrugged half-heartedly.
"You are putting us in a collision course here, sunshine. This ends with me inside a box. And you, well..." Another sigh between drags. "I don't know anymore, honestly."
There was a sharp click behind the driver's seat as a magazine slid back into place and a safety was switched off. The air was electric for a few moments. Even Dr. Sigel's tapping stopped. Behind Carmichael, Dr. Adwin had gone almost unnaturally still. The anger rolled away, but still, none of the other members of Wisdom Teeth changed position.
"Put it away, Ivonne." Phillips' voice was soft, but seemed far to loud in the otherwise silent van. "It won't do any good."
"That doesn't mean I am not willing to-"
"Agent Beauregard, please. Enough people have ignored orders today."Enough people have died today. There wasn't going to be another incident on her watch.
Reluctantly, Ivonne slipped the safety back, and reached into another pocket of her tactical gear to pull out a pair of headphones. She'd clearly had enough of the conversation. There was another, much softer click as Alvin turned the tablet off. Hope saw him close his eyes in the rear-view. She'd have to have words with him, too, but not here and now. She couldn't be everywhere at once. If she could, there wouldn't have been a problem big enough for 505 to be considered in the first place.
Hope cracked a window to let the smoke out.
"That's not what I want," she said to Zeke, her voice still soft. "You make it harder for me to prevent every time. I need you to bear with me. I need you to trust me. The way they do. But I need to be able to trust you not to pull stunts, too. That's why I'm doing this."
She had to choose different words. Words mattered - in files, in spells, in dealing with people. She'd been careful not to let Zeke hear anything besides the professional up to now, because that was what mattered. His words were chosen, too - chosen to sting. They did, and he'd see it in her eyes as they shifted out of anger. She wouldn't cry in front of him, never had, especially not in arguments like this. It wouldn't be fair to him to let him see that.
But she put as much blame on her own shoulders as she did his. She felt in her gut there'd been another way, some other answer, just out of reach if she'd had just another moment to find it. But she'd hesitated. It would've killed the team. They deserved something from her. Better from her. She was a better agent than this. But there wasn't time for self-pity, not even time to grieve. Evan was gone. Someone would have to transport the remains, and she did have superiors who'd need to speak with her on matters. On this matter. She'd failed as a team lead. She had to suck it up and move on, so she didn't fail again. She had to take care of the survivors. All of the survivors.
She cleared her throat, but her orders weren't sharp or clear as she started to give them to the back seat.
"You'll all have the rest of the week off. I'll see if I can't get us next week too, or at least until Eisenberg can see all of us. Dr. Sigel" - Alvin's eyes opened - "you'll be responsible for the L-14 reports and for 505's containment and study in my absence. Appropriate tests will need to be run following the breach of containment. You and Bridget know the drill."
Alvin Sigel looked like he'd swallowed a bug, but he nodded. Bridget shuffled uncomfortably in her chair, but she didn't argue either.
"If there are objections, now's the time for them."
"You better be positive that bullet is taking me out for good, Ivonne. I have done enough today, do not put you four through this over a [EXPLETIVE]ing smoke." Ezekiel pleaded with his distraught companions. He had to listen to how what he did caused the death of one of Hope's subordinates, he had a killer headache from scrambling his own brains and all that discussion did not help anything. Smashing his head against a solid glassy surface was evidently not the fanciest solution to this issue, yet he doubted any of the other passengers - and much less the driver - would grab him a smoke to, at the very least, have some way to dull it out.
He had lost men before, many of them, in fact, enough for tear ducts to dry up and words of condolensces to sound and appear dishonest. It never made it easier, though. The faceless masses in his dreams, bleeding out in a trench while he could barely remember any defining feature. Griffith would soon join them, in his dreams.
Then Ms. Phillips. No. Then Hope spoke up again, and he could see it in her mannerisms, her ever so slightly redder eyes, the well-nigh imperceptible trembling of her lips. "You have truly outdone yourself, Carmichael. Making a lady cry too." He mumbled under his breath. She was definitely unloading all her pent-up emotional charge as soon as the whole Foundation facade dropped and she was alone in a room, any room. Unlike him, who would wear his feelings on his sleeves, that was just the sort of woman Hope was. Yes, he had his own opinions and thoughts on the matter. Yes, he believed wholeheartedly he had chosen an optimal course of action. Yes, he most likely would do it again if it meant saving more by sacrifing less - preferably only himself. Still, it was not her fault that the information came in wrong. For all intents and purposes Hope was still green when compared to his decades of experience, perhaps he could have been wrong were she to come up with some unorthodox and creative resolution, but one cannot expect someone to not crack under pressure, acting on his own might have been the wisest choice in his mind, and yet she could not bear the weight of that singular feeling, that her team put their faith in her hands, their hopes. And she had failed them.
The first death under your command is always the hardest to swallow. Many grow hardened and emotionless with time, ACF-505-B was not one of those, and neither was Hope, no matter how many masks she put on.
Now, he would be put inside a box again, probed and experimented on 'for his own safety', and he would not even get a single chance to just... Talk to her. Subordinate to commander. Asset to handler. Friend to friend. It would eat her up inside, his explosive temperament and his words he callously chose, and it would hurt him to know he would hurt someone he, despite his best efforts, cared for. Perhaps it was for the best to drive her away, to let her wallow in self-pity and grow to hate him, but... Was there no other way? A less painful path for her happiness away from him?
Couldn't he just drive them away without having to hurt them? So they would not become painful faceless smudges on his memory, bringing him sorrow while he could not even remember their faces.
"There are plenty of objections, sunshine. Lying would be quite unsavory now. You shall not hear them, however. I will comply... To the best of my abilities." He exhaled, the smoke trail lost to the night. "May I at least get my journals? I would like to record Evan's features and my memories of him. I owe him that, in the least."
She set her jaw when she heard his mumbling. That was exactly why she didn't break down in front of him - or any of them. She didn't need them feeling worse.
She checked the rear-view again to see if the others had noticed, or if there were any other objections. Ivonne seemed to not be paying attention, which meant she was listening and didn't want Hope to know about it because she was always paying attention. Alvin was pretending to sleep again, or maybe had fallen asleep. His magic cost a lot, after all, and she already knew he was going to beat himself up about this almost as much as she was. And Bridget was looking at her hands. Her face was wet. The scare had been the last straw for her, but to her credit she hadn't fully broken down, just needed the release. Hope knew the feeling. She wished she could put her arm around her and tell her it was going to be okay, even if it didn't feel like it now.
She wished she could ask someone to do that for her. But that wasn't the reason he was on the team.
"You know you can always get your things first. Ivonne can take you. And...Thank you, Zeke." Her eyes were back on the road, and the compass spun again to point back where they all needed to be right now. "I promise we'll all talk. We'll have toJust not tonight. It's been a hard day, and it's not over yet. You should get some rest. We've still got a long drive."
And then explanations, paperwork, files, interviews, inspections, debrief, de-gear, containment procedures. The checklist was all there in her brain. This time there would be something missing, of course. They'd need to get an extra set of hands. They'd need to get several extra sets of hands, actually. A set for right now. And then a replacement for the team, someone to take Evan's place. And then some extra bodies if she could swing it. More hands for lighter work, more shoulders to share the load. She'd need to find the right people, though. She couldn't risk trial because she couldn't risk error. Not again. Not this time.
It was good to see some of that tension unload from her shoulders, even if her demeanor remained mostly unchanged, she had been his handler for more than a couple missions by now, pairing the rookie with one of the oldest, most compliant anomalies at their disposition. In a way, he had seen her grow into her current role, although it worried him to no end how his team would keep things locked up inside when around him, especially her.
How could they trust someone leading them if she wouldn't trust them enough to show her true self around them?
Sure, she had to put on an act, pretend it was mostly under control, a nice painting hiding a hole in the wall. And yet he doubted there was anyone who would hear her out, let her cry, let her vet angry, and happy, and sad. There was a breaking point to people who did this, and it didn't take much more than a few deaths not even in their control.
"ACF-505-B has been extremely erratic today. After waking up, it attempted to activate 505-A again by hitting it's head against a window." Zeke let out little rings this time, a trick he had learnt from another agent decades ago, he could not tell which, his journals did, and his body remembered their teachings, their time together as partners. "I fancy the entire team can corroborate, hm?" Bartholomew sent a glance their way through the mirror. "It would be better for the first batch of tests to be executed with the commanding officer overlooking them, no?"
He gave her that sly grin, even if he did not personally feel like smiling, he could play Hope's pretend game as well, put on a brave face for the sake of someone in need. "I am exerting my seniority as both a Foundation asset and military veteran, Agent Phillips. You and I have plenty to discuss, and the paperwork will wait. If I have to pull my own little favors for this, then so be it, but you are not hiding away by your lonesome, Hope. We are partners, in the frontlines together every bloody day, lean on us when you must." Zeke shook his head. "At least trust me on this. I cannot stand by and watch you crack."
Hope took a deep breath, maybe to start arguing against lying about motivations and paperwork and cite some rule, but Carmichael wasn't the only one who had objections.
"No, no, he's right." It was Beauregard's voice. She sounded amused. "After all, it's been a few weeks since Dr. Eisenberg's seen him, who knows what he's going to do next? The docs are going to have to prep the lab anyway. They'll also need supervision and Wisdom Teeth is already down an agency staff member. It'd be irresponsible for the Handler to let him too far out of her sight."
And for Wisdom Teeth's team lead to carry the full burden of the team, she didn't say, because that would mean agreeing with 505-B and she was being too stubborn to do that with anything but procedure right now. Hope frowned into the rear-view mirror to make sure Ivonne saw it, and her responding smirk was answer enough for that. Bridget hiccup-sniffle-laughed. Alvin had to be really asleep, because he didn't collect any bets.
"Fine," Hope said, with overexaggerated resignation, "fine. Team lead outvoted. I will take ACF-505-B to collect his things while the rest of you get a lab secured, and I'll stay with you all at L-14 until preliminary tests are taken care of. I will have to go back to L-5 by tomorrow. But maybe I can afford a little time tonight. If it's for the team."
Ivonne and Bridget exchanged a knowing look in the back seat as Bridget wiped her face on her sleeve, and then both glanced at the sleeping Alvin like he was missing out. Hope let them. They had to get their fun where they could, in the Foundation.
Seemed like the team was on board, all of them except for Alvis, poor lad was lost in his dreams, Ezekiel hoped they were good, there were enough nightmares for a day. The lack of their fidgety money transference was sorely missed, even if Hope and Zeke knew about the little bets, they both played the role of ignorant parents. It was a harsh life, let them have their little amusement at their expense, Mandrake couldn't wish for anything more. "Listen to your detachment's words, Ms. Phillips. They wish for success as much as you do." The man gave an appreciative nod of recognition through the rear-view mirror.
Their focused target consented reluctantly to her team's efforts, it was endearing and relieving to peek under that stoic carapass she erected from time to time. Those were the cracks he did wish to witness on her, when the sunshine shone through the shell. "I may have forgotten where my storage is, I must ask you be patient with this old bloke, I may be a tad late to the lab." He looked at Hope, an amicable smile pursed on his lips. "How long will you stay at L-5. Abandoning us in the dark, don't go around joining any other security details, lass, it would break poor Alvin's heart, it would." Zeke chuckled to himself, his head still hurt like hell, but at last he had a small modicum of inner peace, even if only for a jiffy.
"Bloody hell, I need some well-meaning Handler to get me out of this damned coat too. This thing gets itchier by the second, no wonder nutcases only got worse back then."
They cared as much as Hope did. She knew that, she always knew that. But her people were pillars on which success rested, each with a set amount of weight to bear; she was the foundation they rested on. If she cracked, they'd fall. She just had to make sure the pressure didn't get to her, that was all.
"I think I can afford a little bit of patience for a senior citizen. But your containment measures stay in place until we're back in a lab environment." In the rear-view, Ivonne nodded her approval. Bridget, sensing that the tension was gone, sighed and put her head back. "L-5 won't be a picnic. I'll have to take care of Evan's body according to procedure, and I'm sure I'll get an earful from my superiors. They may want me to file an independent incident report and appropriate procedural forms for your demotion. Then the retrieval record for the Spirit Box. That's three days to a week depending on how many people want to ask me questions. Hopefully Alvin's heart will hold up for that long."
Hopefully, you'll behave for that long.
There was other conversation, but it was less important. Alvin whimpered a few times in his sleep. Bridget seemed restful enough. Rather than sleep, Ivonne opened a compartment in the van and pulled out a Red Bull and a handheld video game console. When everything went quiet again, Hope would have time to clear her head of emotions, to think clearly about the circumstances. New personnel were one thing, but something had to be changed about the current arrangement as well. She had a few ideas that she'd need to propose to her superiors at both L-14 and L-5. Not ideas she was ready to share with the team yet - any of them, given they'd just finished a fight and she was too tired to start another. Not that she needed to ask Carmichael's permission for his security measures.
If the jolt of the van didn't wake everyone, the announcement would. She'd been in contact with the location personnel on secure channels for the last few miles, giving a summarized update so they'd know what they were dealing with. Security was full of hard[EXPLETIVE]es, but they understood reasons for certain measures. 505-B responded best to the Handler, after all, and so long as they remained under surveillance there wouldn't be any problems.
As they unloaded, medical personnel checked Bridget's work with Hope's bandages and Alvin's smaller injuries, then began prep to contain the biological samples until transport would be feasible. Most of L-5 and L-9's people moved by teleportation between sites, but magic like that cost energy, and neither Sigel nor Phillips had much of that, so travel would have to be put off until one of them got a good night's sleep. That was fine by everyone. Hope still caught Alvin's attention while Ivonne helped Carmichael out of the car.
"Dr. Sigel, just a moment." Alvin still looked groggy, but he joined Hope out of earshot away from the van. She seemed to be consulting him about something. There was a short period where she talked and he listened with the occasional nod of understanding. Then they parted ways, Sigel joined by Adwin on the way to prep a lab suitable for Risky-class post-breach procedures. Beauregard followed once Phillips returned to 505-B's side. She'd clearly explained to the other medical personnel what had happened in the car, because they were giving the pair a wide berth.
"Need any more security, Agent Phillips?" one of the armored location agents asked.
Hope shook her head. "No. I think we're all too worn out for any more excitement. But it would be nice if you could get in touch with Dr. Eisenberg. I know it's witching hour but we'll all need an evaluation or at least access to temporary amnestics for the night."
"That bad, huh?"
"Never gets any better, that's for sure."
The agent nodded sympathetically, then turned to start handing out orders. The escort to CU-505 wasn't going to be interrupted, but Hope also wasn't going to initiate. Her legs were still sore from sitting for too long, and the excitement of the day was taking a toll on her she was clearly trying to not allow to be visible. There was plenty of ground to cover. Plenty of time for them to have a more private debrief.
The drive wasn't as harsh as the first minutes had been, even if he had his reservations about the whole debacle, he knew Hope would have gotten rid of him the moment they got back in the van if she did not care. She truly desired for this little taskforce they had been a part of to thrive, and she felt as if Mandrake was a necessary component, not something to be left rotting in a box. He could appreciate her willingness to listen to the others when push came to shove, even if she would rather still keep her true self from her teammates. It was not in Ezekiel's nature to put her in a straitjacket of her own and have her listen to how her lack of confidence in her soldiers's abilities would wear her out every time a failure occurred. She had her magics, yes, but unlike Zeke who had been virtually immortal and wielded powers beyond human imagination, Hope could not bear the whole weight by herself.
By the time they had arrived, his forehead had stopped bleeding, his headache mostly gone, his cigars nowhere in sight. If he was seen by anyone but Wisdom Teeth breaching containment procedures after going berserk? Well, he could kiss the one rank demotion goodbye, and box experimentation hello. Although he truly did not comprehend why after almost an entire century under Foundation employment they required the use of a straitjacket until he was sealed within a safe space, had he intended to go on a murderous rampage it would have been done decades ago. Honestly, he missed the days when protocol was a fancy word for whitecoats behind desks and not those out on the field. It felt particularly distinct, now he felt like an asset, then he felt like an agent.
Now he was five-o-five-b, then he was Zeke.
"Thank you, lass. You have a good night's sleep now, you hear? If you have a hard time with it, tell that old bastard Joshua in R&D Ezekiel sent you, he cannot make an entire stock vanish, but a couple pills should get you three snoring through the roof. No need to tell big boss lady, let it be our only little secret." Carmichael whispered at Ivonne as the rest of the team moved on to their respective responsibilities. He knew out of the three, she would be the most likely to heed his words and do a little underhanded misconduct for the sake of her squad. "You take care now." He nodded, walking off to the other worn out lady which would be assisting him tonight.
"I think I finally understand what old men in retirement homes feel like, love, surrounded by all these gorgeous helpers to do what their senile bodies cannot." Zeke chortled as he gestured toward the lengthy hallways they would have to walk through. Thankfully the night shifts were quieter, less ears around, and shortly they were encompassed by nothing but absolute silence. "Alright, sunshine, I believe we are far enough. You can stop putting on a brave face. Let Agent Hope L. Phillips take a break, I am an old hound, there is no fooling these eyes. You can let Hope out now." He demanded, a gentle, caring tone on his voice, perfectly mirrored by his expression. "There is nobody else here. Cry, yell, hit me, hug me. You can fall for a bit now, sunshine." Zeke closed the gap between them, slightly in front of his Handler, then turned around to stop her dead in her tracks. "I will pick you up."
Hope wasn't sure how she was feeling now. Anger and sadness would come, but not now. She didn't have the energy for them now. That was half the reason why she'd waited. The other half was because she didn't want the team seeing, but they knew. Adwin was a sensitive type. If the others didn't know, she'd tell them.
The team would be unbalanced for a while. Even with additional assets, until everyone found their place. That meant Hope would be taking on more. She needed to share it - she knew that - but she couldn't ask her fully human assets to do more than they already did. Especially with Evan gone, the three of them would be redistributing their own energies and duties.
She listened to him, because he liked talking. She usually bantered back, but tonight she didn't have it in her. Her eyes were too tired to manage tears. Dark circles had formed under them, and she was probably a little pale from blood loss that would only be healed with proper rest. Her left hand rubbed against Bridget's bandage job. It was still good and tight, but they'd need to be changed and cleaned. Another item on the to-do list.
Zeke stopped talking, and then stopped walking. Hope let her hand fall from her wounds as if that would keep him from noticing them as he wheeled around to face her. He worried about her almost as much as she worried about him. Maybe for almost the same reasons.
"I...." She almost wanted to work up the energy for it. She was still mad at him. She was actively pushing Griffith from her mind. And the very idea of the stacks of paperwork she'd have to fill out for this incident - and her solution to it - was exhausting just to think of. If she'd had any more energy, maybe she would've followed his long list of suggestions.
Instead she took a step forward to finish closing the distance, and rested her forehead on his folded arms. She leaned against him without pushing. Even the tears came bravely, silent and gentle. Or maybe they too were just tired.
"I don't know why I put up with you." That was a lie, but a gentle one, in a quiet voice. "You're a fucking idiot. You're too damn stubborn for your own good. You try to take everything into your own hands and think you know better than everyone around you. By all rights I should hate you."
She was glad his arms were bound up by the straightjacket, because if she'd let him touch her at that moment she might've had her meltdown. She could at least pretend to keep it together as things stood. As they stood, together, in the middle of a hallway. It was a damn good thing security personnel had to keep out of the general betting pool, because someone probably would've gotten rich just watching them.
Was it love? Whatever this was? That'd be irrelevant, to most. There was another word starting to cycle around, for this kind of a bond, or something like it. Hope couldn't remember it right now. She just wanted to stay here in this hallway, letting someone else take her weight for a moment. Let everything on her shoulders fall away with all the questions and protocols as her mind filled with whatever this was, warm and familiar.
There was a brief silence while Hope mustered up the will to let the emotions come flooding in, a moment Ezekiel met with a soft gaze resting on her face. Those jaded lines under her eyes, the dust, the sweat, the injuries. Everything accrued by a mission they were not even remotely ready for, a mission he was not even remotely prepared for. Those bandages covered more than her wounds, they covered his failure. His failure to protect her, his failure to protect Evan, to protect Alvis, Ivonne and Bridget.
It was not a good sentiment to carry, it was why he verbally lashed out previously, yet it was not why he was here. Yes, part of him wanted to apologize, to revisit those heated moments and straighten things out with the team leader, but there was no team leader here.
No, before him was Hope. Vulnerable, tired, wounded, teary-eyed. She sought for his support and suddenly the roles reversed, the often stoic woman which all could lean on let herself break apart in his arms, and he kept his composure for her, always listening. It was the keast he could do, seeing someone who he cared for even against his best attempts not to, someone who always came back to him regardless of how hard he shoved her away. Time after time she demonstrated her loyalty, in the very face of their adversity she had settled for a mere demotion, a sentence he knew to be far lighter than what protocol usually demanded.
Carmichael could do more for her. He could hold her, he could embrace her , but there was always some obstacle. Sometimes it was a cursed straitjacket, sometimes it was a poorly timed evaluation, sometimes it was his own demons haunting his mind, but deep down he always craved for moments such as this. Having her lean on him for a change, shoulder some of that weight she carried alone. Confide in her so she may do the same.
Ezekiel raised his arms a bit, tenderly reposing her head against his chest, sympathetically lowering his chin until it softly pressed against her hair. "Then hate me. Even if for a single day. Allow yourself to mourn, don't bottle it inside your chest. It hurts me to see you suffer in silence."
There was a small pause as Zeke gingerly adjusted his head, leaving a single peck at the top of her head. "I cannot take it either. You are too hard-headed, too stone-faced, always puffing your chest as if those rules are an universal truth. I should hate you as well. I should hate you because you remind me of myself." There was no sniffling, no tone shift, no mumbled words, but Ezekiel knew Hope would see right through him as a few beads left his cheeks for her threads. "I just. I cannot afford to be the only one coming back. I cannot stand idle as my squadmates die and become faceless drones in my nightmares. I put myself through the torture of death not because I know I will live, but because I don't wish to forget them, Hope. I don't wish to forget you."
He remained quiet for a little, letting her warmth comfort him, just as his arms comforted her. They had been through so much together, and still this was the most terrified he had ever been. Terrified to let her go again, to let this moment fade into darkness as they both resumed their roles like nothing ever happened. "If I am fated to forget, then let them be good times only, and not the haunting faces of those I let down. I can't bear the thought of failing you, and then being left alone in the dark again. You are my sunshine, I can't let anything take you away."
"You know I can't." And that was the most unfair part of all of this, wasn't it? There wasn't room for hate. Not for him. There was too much - else. Else was a good word. She'd learned it from a man who'd eventually be called Strings, among other vague words. She couldn't bear to hate him any more than he could bear to lose her.
Maybe for almost the same reasons.
It was never strange, although it should've been, this gentleness he had with her. Hours ago he'd reduced himself to a hungry mass of teeth and black ooze. Now she could feel his warmth, his breath, the gentle tears that rolled across her dark hair. Both voices soft and calm, like breezes at the eye of a hurricane. There would be danger when they had to pass back out through that wall, through wind and rain. But moments of peace kept Hope sane, however short they were, however brief the respite. An oasis on the roadside.
Against her chest, she felt the needle of ACF-517 spinning lazily. She was where she needed to be, without urgency. Somehow, that small comfort was enough to ease the rest of the weight from her shoulders. He kissed her so softly it could've been a butterfly's footstep. And as fragile, too. As temporary and uncertain. The sort of thing that might never have been, or forever would be. Reality was odd that way.
"I can't hate you any more than you can let me go." Her tears came larger. She was going to be so tired after this. There was so much to do. So much more to do. For just a moment she could rest, but the winds still howled. The winds of the present, and the winds of the past. Her breath finally hitched once - just once, just an instant of weakness. "You were right, you know. Evan being gone is my fault. I failed him. I failed all of them."
For they were separate. Bridget with her delicate soul. Ivonne with her fierce confidence. Alvin with his sharp memory. And Evan with his infinite courage. He would be missed, that would be missed, they would be - no. No, not they, because she was better, she would be better. She would hold them together because that was what she was there to do. They needed her.
"I failed you."
And Zeke didn't. Not really. He could do what he was doing on his own if he could. Her father - another Handler, another Agent Phillips, another missing face in both their memories. But she'd reviewed those files, all those missions ago. Just the pair of them until it wasn't. She knew why it couldn't be just the pair of them, or just the one of him.
"I'm sorry, Zeke."
The word, she remembered now, was synergy.
"I'll be better. For them I'll be better. For you I'll do better."
It was a painful truth indeed, the predicament of the both of them. One unwilling to let others too close lest he doom himself to forget them eventually, the other cursed with the misguided stoicism of leadership, never showing the cracks in her armor for the sake of her unit. A clash of opposites by all means but one - their hearts were too wide for the solitary road they walked.
Here he was again, making it all about why he cannot let go, and yet still reluctantly hoping she would leave, forget about him, lead a happier life. Before him, she stood still, her heroic, remarkably larger-than-life figure so fragile against the dim lights. She knew she should share her woes, she knew she could lean on his shoulders whenever she had to - privately or not - and she would always be met with a caring smile, still she chose to put it all on her shoulders, carry the burden by herself.
They opened their hearts, but their words spoke the opposite.
Two reflections, longing to be unite yet never coalescing.
"It was not you who had the faulty information, sunshine. Nor was it you who pulled the trigger. Do you truly wish to know why Evan did that?" He paused, letting her feelings escape through the tears. "He looked up to you. They all do. We all do. Your ideals are our ideals, your path is our path. There was not a single word you could have uttered that would change Evan's choice. It was not for me, Hope, it was for you. Such is the cruelty of war."
Ezekiel pressed his lips against her head once more, attempting to console her, to reassure her there were no doubts about her leadership whatsoever. "People are willing to protect what is important to them, they stake their lives on it, and you simply keep on living. That is why memories are so important. You honor them by celebrating their lives, by acknowledging their absolute trust in you, by getting better not for the dead dragging you down, but by the rememberances that uplift you."
"You have grown into a fine woman, Hope Lucinda Phillips. You inspire me." While he may not have remembered Hope's father... His past Handler. He had taken notes, he had written extensive paragraphs of how they chatted throught the night during assignements, how he would happily mention his wife and child, how much he wishes to teach her, how much he loved her. "He would be very proud. I know I am."