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The Dual Proficiency Protocol

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i.

Costco
7:38 PM Snack time

Wendy's done such a good job of hiding her Middle-job from Lacey and Noser and her mother, especially after that whole doomsday debacle where the Middleman had reset reality (and she'd actually learned his real name), that she's caught by surprise the day aliens invade a nearly-empty Costco while she and Noser are buying snacks for Thursday night drunk.

She tries to shield him from the worst of it, and the aliens--from a hidden planet circling Procyon A--are wearing image inducers, so they look human at first, until she shorts the inducers out with a bottle of margarita mix and some club soda, and their flat furry faces are visible.

"Huh," says Noser, ducking as one of them tries to shoot him. "Am I seeing things or have six-foot tall raccoons taken over Costco?"

"Procyonidae," she answers automatically. Too much time spent reading the Middle-manual's chapters on extraterrestrial encounters, she thinks. "I guess the lids on the dumpsters out back aren't latched tight enough."

Noser's face is a symphony of skepticism. "I think I know what an invasion of armed, alien raccoons looks like, Wendy Watson."

"Incursion," she says as her Middle-watch begins burbling, meaning the moment for a witty quip about bulk orders of raccoons has passed. "We prefer the term 'incursion.'" She holds up her index finger. "Hang on a sec." She turns away from Noser while still keeping an eye on the aliens, and says, "Yeah, boss?"

His voice is a little tinny through the speaker. "There's a Procyonidae incursion in the area, Dubbie."

"Yeah, I'm already on it."

"Good work. How'd you get there so soon? It just showed up on the HEYDAR."

"They're at Costco. Noser and I are shopping for Thursday night drunk."

He harrumphs but doesn't lecture. "Remember, Dubbie, Procyonidae have a weakness for table scraps and unpickable locks."

She says the last bit with him, and then, "Got it."

"Excellent. Give Mr. Noser my regards. And if you're able, can you pick me up some cashews? They're so expensive at the grocery store."

"No problem, boss." She turns back to Noser. "Noser, when you see an opening, can you grab me a giant jar of cashews?"

"Sure thing." As Noser dives for the nuts, he looks more excited than she's ever seen him, even during difficult rounds of stump the band.

While he's doing that, Wendy distracts the Procyonidae with an open container of cheese balls (she leaves a five dollar bill in the empty spot on the shelf, even though she knows Ida won't reimburse her for it), and once they converge on it, it's easy enough to dispatch them back to their home planet with one of the Middle-gadgets she always has tucked into her pockets despite Ida's complaints about how the standards for being a Middleman have been lowered since Wendy joined the team. Whatever. She can't help it if her pockets are linty and full of gum wrappers.

They leave behind a mess of half-eaten food and shredded plastic, which Wendy is glad she doesn't have to clean up.

They're in the parking lot when Noser, still holding onto the jar of cashews for the Middleman (at least Wendy's sure he'll pay her back), says, "So, aliens, huh?"

Wendy tucks her hair behind her ear and sighs. "Yeah."

"I can see clearly now, the rain has gone." He sounds so matter-of-fact that Wendy gives him a one-armed hug, but he doesn't let her off the hook that easily. "If by rain you mean 'veil of deception,' and I do. What gives, Wendy Watson? Time to spill."

She tells him a cliff notes version of the story on the way home and makes him promise not to tell Lacey. "For reasons," she says when he asks why. "Too complicated to explain."

Noser accepts that for the moment, takes an oath of secrecy on his favorite guitar (once owned by J Mascis), and Wendy hopes that's the end of it.

*

ii.

Stuck in Traffic
4:44 PM Eastern Daylight Time

Noser's pretty good at not bringing up all of Wendy's secrets when Lacey is around, but he catches her coming home late sometimes, with bruises on her jaw or her arm in a sling, and he steers her into his apartment with a gentle hand and provides ice or coffee or just a quiet, restful presence so she doesn't feel quite so alone in her knowledge of threats intra-, juxta-, and extraterrestrial.

And he agrees to come with her to pick her mother up at the airport, which is a mark of true friendship, as far as Wendy is concerned. They're stuck in traffic, playing stump the band, and she's thinking about pretending there's a Middle-emergency so she can slap on the lights and sirens and go, when zombies attack. Real, brain-eating zombies this time, not just trout-craving zombies. Finally, the big leagues.

"Grab the wheel," she says, unbuckling her seatbelt and leaning out the window so she can start shooting zombies in the head.

"So, this happens to you a lot?" Noser says after she's blown the heads off two zombies, and ducked back into the car to coordinate with the Middleman.

"Oh, you know, just on days that end in y."

"I guess all those zombie movie marathons you and Tyler have are like homework for you, huh?"

"Only if you can actually enjoy homework." She gestures at the glove compartment. "There should be a spare gun in there." He looks hesitant, which is something she doesn't think she's ever seen before, so she says, "If you don't think you can make a headshot, aim for the chest--it'll slow 'em down and I can finish 'em off. But you've played enough Gutwrencher 3 that I bet you can do it."

"Gutwrencher 3? Was that your training program?"

"One of them." She shoots out the windshield so they don't have to hang out the windows to fire. "It was actually really good prep for becoming a Middle-person." She mows down one zombie with the car and shoots at another. "I know you can do it, Noser."

He squeezes off a couple of shots, center mass, just like she told him, and then blows the head off a second zombie like he's been doing it for years. She gives him a quick thumbs-up and together they hold the line, allowing the civilians to escape, until the Middleman shows up with a solution.

Afterwards, they're covered in broken glass and zombie bits, and the Middlecar has a crumpled fender in addition to its shattered windshield. The Middleman is dealing with local law enforcement while Wendy and Noser are seen to by EMTs.

"You okay?" she asks, bumping Noser's shoulder with hers.

"I guess," he says. "You?"

"I'm good." She flashes a brief grin and then gets serious. "Listen, if you need someone to talk to, let me know. I know all this can get overwhelming, especially if you don't have anyone you can tell."

"Who do you talk to?"

"My boss, mostly." She huffs a soft laugh. "It's not like O2STK has an EAP or anything."

"But you've got someone else, right? Tyler?"

She shakes her head, annoying the paramedic who's dabbing ointment on the cuts on her face. "Tyler can't know." She takes Noser's hand and squeezes. "I've got you, now. And you're going to help me explain to my mother why we're late."

Noser groans more about that than the zombies (which is only fair; Wendy's mother is a lot scarier), but he doesn't let go of her hand.

*

iii.

The City Aquarium
11:07 AM Pacific Time

"Okay, this could be worse," Wendy says, trying to sound upbeat and encouraging as she and Noser dangle from a rope tied to a hook above a shark-infested pool.

"I'm not even going to ask how," Noser says. Wendy opens her mouth. "Please don't tell me." She shuts her mouth. "And I thought busking was an unsteady job."

"I don't have the safest job, it's true," Wendy answers, "but it's not boring. And we have great benefits. I mean, aside from the obvious ones, like getting to dangle over a pool of ravenous sharks while a marine biologist monologues at us."

"You said there was no EAP."

"No, but I have a great boss and time for my art. Plus, I don't have to be on my mother's insurance. It's worth it just for that. The coverage is decent, too."

Noser doesn't look convinced. "But don't your premiums go up a lot because you have to file so many claims?"

Wendy sighs and continues to try to get a hand free. "Yeah. And then they don't even pay out on, like, ninety percent of them. I don't know who the claims adjustor is, but I bet she's never fought aliens from dimension X or had to replace a brand new pair of boots every couple of months because they're covered in radioactive slug slime or ruined by wading through rivers of blood."

"Rivers of blood?"

"Don't ask."

"Not a problem."

Wendy spends a few moments thinking about how many pairs of boots she's lost to the job, and whether that's worth the perks of cool gear and getting to fight evil. And then she remembers she has a pocket-sized Middle-laser in her back pocket. "Can you get it?" she asks, once she's explained.

They both stoically pretend not to notice while he gropes her ass for the laser and puts it in her hands. (They still have never spoken of that time three years ago when they both woke up in bed with Lacey. There's a reason the three of them are best friends. She'd be worried that all the danger would scare him off, but really, the half-accidental three-way should have been the tipping point.) She turns it on very carefully to the lowest setting and cuts Noser's hands free. "Now, grab onto me. We're going to make like Luke and Leia here. Without the unintentional twincest."

Noser laughs and wraps his arms around her and presses a friendly kiss to her cheek. "For luck."

She uses their combined weight to swing them over the shark pit, first in short arcs, but then in longer ones as they gain momentum. As they finally reach the platform, she cuts the last of the ropes tying them to the hook and jumps. They tumble to the platform in a heap and scramble up the rickety metal steps to the main level of the villain's lair, where the Middleman has already engaged him in combat.

"Glad to see you could join us, Dubbie." He nods at Noser before throwing another punch. "Mr. Noser."

"Got a little held up," Wendy answers, heading towards the computer to shut down the earthquake machine.

"But you arrived in the nick of time, as always." He punches the mad scientist one last time and then dusts his hands off. "Dubbie has impeccable timing, Mr. Noser."

"I've noticed that."

Wendy beams.

*

iv.

The Mall
6:23 PM Christmastime

"Have you ever played 'the floor is lava,' Noser?" Wendy asks with a tight smile, pressing closer to the wall and hoping the ledge they're trapped on is sturdy enough to hold them for a while.

"Of course."

"Then you should have no problem when the floor beneath us is flooded with molten lava in, oh, about fifty seconds."

"Come with me to the mall, she said. We'll do our Christmas shopping, have a few laughs."

Wendy's smile widens, turns genuine. "On the whole, you'd rather be in Philadelphia?"

Noser sighs. "Pretty much."

"I honestly didn't expect an army of animatronic wooden soldiers to take over the mall. And by the way, that seems like dirty pool to me." She raises her voice in the direction their captor went. The guy is long gone, cackling all the way. His ladder still dangles from a hole in the ceiling, tantalizing them with the idea of safety, but too far away to be of any use. "I'd just like to state for the record that wooden soldiers should be made of wood, not animatronics!"

The toymaker's shriek floats back to them: "I told you, they're nutcrackers."

"That wouldn't be any less creepy," Noser says.

"No, but then they'd burn up in the lava flow."

"Good point."

"Yeah." Wendy considers their situation again--being stuck on a tiny ledge while an angry toymaker threatens to flood the mall with lava--and says, "You know, I never did like that movie."

"Me, neither."

"Another fine mess I've gotten you into, Noser. I'm sorry."

"Nah," he says, "I know you're gonna get us out of it."

"I am?" Wendy takes a deep breath. "You're right. I am. But I'm open to suggestions."

"Well," Noser says, unslinging his guitar case, "this was going to be part of your Christmas present, but under the circumstances, I guess I can give it to you early."

Precariously balanced on the ledge, he pulls out a metal hook and spool of what looks like guitar string. "Watch." After tying one to the other, he tosses the hook towards the ladder, and pulls it taut when it clinks against a rung. He hooks the other end to a pipe protruding from the wall next to them. Then he unhooks the strap from his guitar, and throws it over the makeshift zipline. "Hold on," he says, and she does. He sails them across to the ladder, though they have a tense moment when they bang into it hard enough to rattle both of them, but Wendy gets a hand around one rung and Noser curls a hand around another, and they just have to wait a moment for it to stop shaking so they can climb. "But that's not all," Noser continues. He gives the wire a little jerk and it unhooks from the other side and snaps back onto the spool. "It's retractable."

"Cool."

They climb quickly, and discover Ida has quarantined the mall and the Middleman has trussed up the vengeful toymaker.

"Dubbie! I was just on my way to lend you a hand."

"Not necessary, boss. Noser has this cool retractable zipline made of guitar strings." She nudges Noser with her elbow. "Show him."

"I'm sure it's excellently made," the Middleman says.

"I was hoping maybe you'd hire me to make your gadgets," Noser says with a sly smile. "Every Bond needs a Q. And Wendy says the benefits are great."

"We can discuss it," the Middleman says. His expression is neutral but he sounds pleased.

Wendy and Noser hug and high-five, and then get back to their Christmas shopping.

end