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The Great Sealand Takeover

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Michael did not sign up for this shit.

It was all Geoff's fault. Geoff “it'll be so fucking easy” Ramsey, who had led him to believe that they would waltz into the hideout of this mysterious 'Edgar', put the fear of God into him with some well-timed explosions and the murder of a few of his henchmen, kill him if he still refused to back off Geoff's territory, and be out of there without a scratch.

“He's not nearly big as he thinks he is,” Geoff had informed them. “He'll have like half a dozen guys there, you and Ray can take them out easy. We'll have the element of surprise, too.”

The element of fucking surprise, yeah right – because the plan looked great on paper but somehow, somewhere along the line, something had gone wrong because Edgar was most definitely expecting them.

Half a dozen men? More like an entire God damn army, loaded up with SMGs and just waiting for them to arrive.

And now, here Michael was – crouched behind a wall near the abandoned warehouse, bullets peppering overhead and Ray bleeding all over his new shoes – waiting for Jack to come and get them the hell out of there.

He was not fucking impressed.

 


 

It began, Geoff had told Michael shortly after hiring him, on a Tuesday morning.

Geoff had planned a gentle little heist, the target a grocery store run by a man who owed him some money. Nothing big or fancy, just something to make sure the residents of Achievement City still knew who was their large and in charge criminal overlord.

Except when he got there – with Jack, of course, to back him up – the police were already there. The store had already been robbed.

Someone had fucking gone and hit his target before him.

“So I thought it was a coincidence,” Geoff had informed Michael, “But then it went and fucking happened again.”

This time it was a rather more serious business; a heist in a neighbouring city that Geoff had been planning for a while. Himself, Jack, and half a dozen hired guns hitting a bank in the inner city.

Yet again, they arrived just in time to see the police milling around, leading traumatised hostages out of the building. On the news that night it was reported that a man wearing a rubber cow head mask had robbed the bank at gunpoint along with a number of others. He had gotten away with millions and the police could find no trace.

Geoff was pissed, to say the least.

And then it happened a third time, this time back in Achievement City, his home turf.

The target: a rare painting being transported through the city as it was moved between museums. It was worth a pretty penny and Geoff had kept his plans a meticulous secret.

This time the target wasn't robbed before he could get there.

Instead, someone had tipped off the police, and the painting was under such a heavy guard that even Geoff wouldn't risk going after it.

“Sounds like someone's fucking with you,” Ray said, when Ramsey reached that point in his story.

Geoff nodded, taking a swig of whiskey, his pale eyes burning with irritation.

“That's what I thought,” he replied. “But the asshole wasn't done there.”

Indeed not, because the next thing 'the asshole' targeted was Jack.

It began with a mugger – nothing Jack couldn't deal with on his own, of course, and not even that rare of an occurrence in Achievement City. But when people started attempting to rob him literally every day of the week – and then, after a while, multiple times each day – well, that was fishy.

It didn't end with mugging, though. The next few people who tried to jump Jack weren't just after his money, they were after his life – and they were no common hooligans either. It wasn't long before Geoff caught wind of the fact that someone had put a hefty price on his boyfriend's head – and it was only with a lot of threatening, shows of power and a few bribes that he managed to clear the water enough for him to feel safe again.

“The last guy we caught,” he said, tugging agitatedly at the end of his moustache, “The one who tried to stab Jack – after I shot him in the dick but before I shot him in the head, he told me who'd put out the hit.”

“Who?” Michael demanded, quite caught up in the story by now. There weren't many people who'd dare to go up against Geoff Ramsey.

“Edgar,” Geoff intoned darkly.

Ray and Michael exchanged glances.

“Edgar,” Michael replied. “Who the fuck is Edgar?”

“I have no idea, but he's a dick and – oh, I forgot to mention, he also keyed my audi.” This last had Geoff's facial hair practically bristling in wrath. “Didn't just key it, either, he scratched a fucking picture of a cow into the paintwork. I'm going to kill this wanker and I will pay you to help me.”

“First name isn't much to go on,” Ray pointed out. Always the strategic one, that one, whereas Michael's main area of expertise was blowing shit up.

“I've asked around,” Geoff replied. “Word is he's holing out in an empty warehouse in the outskirts of the city. Hardly anyone's heard of this guy; he can't be all that big. With all four of us in, it'll be easy as dicks.”

Michael glanced at Ray again, who shrugged. It certainly sounded like an ideal job; they had worked with and for Geoff in the past and things had always gone without a hitch – with quite the reward in the end for them as well.

“Sounds good to me,” Michael said. “We'll wreak havoc on this prick for you, don't worry.”

Except he should have worried – they all should have – because despite their meticulous planning, despite their carefully selecting a random night and walking the last few miles to the warehouse so as not to attract attention – despite everyone playing their assigned roles to perfection (Michael blowing the warehouse door with charges, Ray and Geoff coming in guns blazing, Jack sniping from a distance) –

Edgar was waiting for them with his little army of machine-gun-wielding, assorted masked farm animals, and Michael was fucking certain he was smirking behind his stupid cow mask.

“Hello Geoffrey,” he had intoned, voice slightly muffled under layers of rubber, “How nice to finally see you in person.”

And then they opened fire, and somewhere along the line Ray ended up shot, and they bid a hasty retreat – which led to them here, crouching behind the stupid brick wall, Michael hardly daring to peek up over it to try and get a shot off because the machine guns were still going strong.

Geoff was somewhere to their left, Michael could hear him swearing, and his heart was pounding too fast because Ray just wouldn't stop bleeding and Jack really, really had to get a move on because he wasn't sure how much longer they'd last here-

With a screech of brakes, the black, armoured car pulled into the warehouse drive, bulletproof panelling causing their attackers' shots to bounce harmlessly away.

“Get in!” Jack hollered, sticking his head out the driver's side window.

Michael scrambled to his feet, ducking as another shot rang out by his head. Grabbing Ray under the arms, he hauled him up and half dragged, half carried him into the back of the van.

“Geoff,” Jack called, peering out – Geoff was still trying to get a shot off on Edgar. “Geoff, get inside!”

“We don't have the asshole yet,” Geoff spat back.

“We'll all be fucking dead if we don't leave now!” Michael shouted, and reluctantly climbed back out again. He grabbed Geoff's arm and the man jerked around so violently that for a moment Michael thought he was going to get punched.

But the barrage of machine gun fire still wasn't letting up, and even the bullet resistant glass of the van wouldn't hold up forever. Geoff hesitated a second longer before climbing up into the back of the van, and Michael quickly followed. They were barely inside before Jack took off down the road, back towards the city.

For a few hair raising moments he thought Edgar would pursue them, but he didn't – the roads behind them remained clear, and as they pulled around the hill, the warehouse vanishing behind them, all was silent except for their laboured breathing.

Fucking hell,” Michael gasped, finally, and then, “Ray!”

Ray waved him off. “'m fine. Hit my head when I fell, that's all – it just grazed me.”

Michael crouched by him anyway, batting his hands away as he inspected the wound. Ray was right; the shot had grazed the side of his brow, but head wounds always bled a lot anyway – he was more worried that Ray was concussed after slamming his skull against the ground when he fell.

Angrily, he rounded on Geoff.

“What the fuck, you told us he wouldn't be expecting us!”

“I didn't think he'd be!” Geoff shot back, fists clenching. He looked more pissed off than Michael had ever seen him. Any lesser man would be intimidated, but Michael had plenty of rage of his own and holy God was he annoyed right now. It had been a long, long time since he actually feared for his life, and if there was one thing he hated it was being taken by surprise on a job.

“Well, he was, so how do you explain that then?!”

“Michael,” Ray spoke up, putting a hand on his arm. “He was smarter than we thought. Happens.”

“It shouldn't happen,” Michael growled, but sat down slowly.

Geoff was still scowling, and Jack was casting him worried glances in the rear-view mirror.

“I'm going to kill him,” Geoff declared. “Fucking smug son of a bitch. Did you see him standing there fucking smirking at us like he thought he was so much better-”

“He was wearing a mask,” Ray pointed out, helpfully. “Couldn't really see his facial expression.”

“I could sense it,” Geoff insisted. He slammed a fist against the window. “How the fuck did he know?”

A tense, angry silence fell, during which it took the rest of the drive back to Geoff's apartment for the man to figure out why, exactly, Edgar might have known.

You,” he bellowed, coming to this moment of realisation as he sat in his living room downing a beer, turning towards the kitchen counter where Michael was dabbing at the wound on Ray's head and snapping at him not to complain when it stung.

“What about us?” Michael asked, turning to him.

“We were the only four people who knew about the plan,” Geoff growled, his gaze darting between them. “It wasn't me and it wasn't Jack so it must have been you two.” His hand was going to his gun and Michael reacted with alarm, grabbing for his own weapon.

Ray swung himself off the counter and raised his hands.

“Calm down, Geoff,” he said, “Michael and I didn't say shit. We don't even know who this Edgar is, why would we be working with him?”

“You say you don't know who he is,” Geoff snarled. His gun was still trained squarely at Michael's forehead. “How am I meant to trust you?”

“Geoff.” Jack's voice was quiet but stern. He had a hand on Geoff's shoulder, but Michael wasn't very reassured since Jack was starting to look suspicious as well. “No need to start shooting at people just yet.”

“He shot Ray, as if we're fucking working with him-”

“So who was it then, huh?” Geoff demanded. “Who else could it have been-”

Things were going to get ugly, Michael could tell – he was angry, and Geoff was angry, and two bad tempers with weapons drawn didn't exactly have a favourable outcome.

But before anything could happen, there was a sudden, loud knock at the apartment door.

They all froze.

Geoff glanced over his shoulder at the hallway leading to the door. Then he looked at Jack, who shook his head slowly, obviously having no idea who it was.

“Don't fucking move,” Geoff said quietly to Michael, before lowering his gun and heading off down the hall.

Michael put his weapon down as well, letting out a huff of breath. With Geoff out of the room, the adrenaline and tension of recent events drained away, leaving him nothing but exhausted.

“We didn't do shit,” he said to Jack, who nodded, though his face was still guarded.

“Geoff's on edge,” Jack said. “Edgar's been getting a rise out of him and targeting me really didn't help. Be that as it may... someone ratted on us, and only the four of us knew about the plan.”

“Nearly got us killed as well,” Michael grumbled. He turned back to Ray, who gave a small smile, obviously seeing his worry.

“I'm fine,” Ray insisted, reaching up to stick a plaster over the graze on his head. The sticky parts caught in his hair and Michael reached forward to help him out, taking the chance to study his expression. Ray was a chill bastard most of the time but this had him rattled; Michael could see how tense his shoulders were.

“Been a while since someone got the jump on us though,” Ray continued, and huffed out a laugh. “Not the best feeling.”

“You can damn well say that again,” Michael began, but trailed off as Geoff re-entered the room.

And that's when he froze, hand instantly going to his gun again. Ray straightened up, letting out a low curse as he drew his own weapon, and even Jack stepped forward with pistol raised.

Because walking in behind Geoff, face hidden behind a mask that was spoken of with infamy on the streets of Achievement City –

Right there in the room with them was the man who had killed more people than all of them combined.

Ryan fucking Haywood.

 


 

To say Geoff was stressed was the understatement of the century.

Fucking Edgar. Who was he? Why had he suddenly made it his life's mission to completely ruin Geoff's existence?

It was easy to act angry, to go on and on about teaching the bastard a lesson and getting him back for all the misery he'd caused – but when it came down to it, Geoff was worried. And things didn't worry him often.

Edgar was just so totally unafraid of him, and Geoff had spent a good decade building up his reputation.

“This better not be a fucking salesperson,” he called out as he approached the door, absolutely not in the mood for being interrupted.

He looked out the peep hole, but whoever was there was standing to the side, and he could only see a shoulder and some light brown hair.

When he swung it open, however, his breath stopped.

Ryan Haywood.

He'd recognise that mask anywhere – anyone would. It had been on the news a hundred times. Ryan Haywood the killer, the murderer, the mad mercenary who took jobs and bounties seemingly at random and never came close to being caught. One hundred percent success rate. When Edgar first put that hit out on Jack, it had been Ryan who Geoff had nightmares about – your average bounty hunter he could take on, but this guy – this guy was the assassin from hell. Last Geoff heard, though, he'd been on the other side of the country. Not here in Achievement City.

“Fuck,” he breathed – had Edgar sent Ryan after him? Would he seriously just show up at his front door if he had? – he reached for his gun but to his surprise, Ryan raised his (thankfully, empty) hands.

“I come in peace.”

It took a moment for the cogs in Geoff's head to process this.

What?” he ground out, finally.

Ryan pulled his gun and Geoff flinched back – but next thing he knew, Ryan was handing it over to him. He snatched it quickly, though he didn't doubt there were a hundred other weapons hidden on the man.

“Heard you had a run in with Edgar today,” Ryan said, surprisingly conversational. “I'm here to help out.”

Help out?”

“Yes,” Ryan said slowly. “That's what I said. I've got beef with Edgar, and I'm guessing you do too – I'm also guessing that today you learned the unpleasant lesson that he's smarter than we give him credit for.”

Geoff frowned, unsure what the hell to think – but before he knew it, Ryan was stepping into the apartment.

“So I'm here to help take him down,” he said, and gestured vaguely towards the living room. “I take it your crew's in there?”

“Yes, but- why the hell should I trust you?” Geoff demanded.

Ryan turned towards him and he got the feeling that there was a raised eyebrow behind that mask.

“Because,” Ryan said slowly, “I could have killed you before you even opened the door. I could have killed your boyfriend a few weeks ago, when every hitman in the city was out for him. The price on his head wasn't cheap. But I didn't, because I fucking hateEdgar and I intend to put him in a hole in the ground. And you're going to help me do it. We both know each other, Geoff, we've heard the stories – this could be the alliance of the century.”

Geoff bit his lip. On the one hand, it was Ryan. On the other...

Edgar had him very concerned, and if the best mercenary in the city wanted to help him out – who was he to refuse? And it wasn't as though Ryan had ever targeted him before. People in his city, yes, but the two of them had never come up at odds.

“Fine,” he said. “Let's see what we can do to help each other.”

Naturally, as soon as they re-entered the living room, the other three reacted with the expected alarm. Geoff quickly stepped in front of Ryan, who he could swear was amused by the fact that everyone was pointing guns at him.

“Chill out, guys, he's here to help us.”

“Help?” Michael spat. “Geoff, do you even fucking know who that is?”

“Of course I know,” Geoff said. “We all do.”

“Hi,” Ryan said, and waved.

Michael's mouth dropped open. He didn't lower his gun.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Jack asked quietly.

“As I told Geoff,” Ryan said pleasantly, “Edgar and I have some... unfinished business. I've been meaning to go after him for a while but the guy is cunning, to say the least. I never had the manpower. But with your help...”

“I think you mean with Geoff's help,” Michael cut in, and Geoff glanced at him in confusion. Michael was putting his gun down now, reaching out to grab his bag from the counter, and then Ray's arm. “We've done what you asked us to do,” he continued, turning to Geoff, “So pay us and let us get out of here before someone else gets shot.”

“I'm afraid you can't do that,” Ryan said.

Michael stared at him challengingly. The kid had balls, Geoff had to give him that; standing up to Geoff was one thing, Ryan Haywood quite another.

“Why the fuck not?”

“Did Edgar see your faces?” Ryan asked. “It doesn't matter, he's probably had eyes on you for a while now. He knows you were working with Geoff which means now you're targets of his as well.”

“Targets?” Ray asked. “What does that mean?”

“It means by now he knows who you are, where you live, and the locations of all your contacts,” Ryan said. “He'll be out to get you – all of you.” The mask swivelled to stare at each of them, and Geoff began to feel even more uneasy.

“I've seen him do this before,” Ryan said. “The guy's a fucking psychopath. He sets his eyes on something he wants – in this case, Achievement City – and he'll take down anyone in the way. It's only going to get worse, and not just for Geoff. We need to stop the bastard.”

“Ray and I have nothing to do with this,” Michael insisted. “We'll get out. We'll run.”

“Or we could kill him,” Ray suggested, and Michael turned to him.

“He just shot you in the fucking head, let's get out while we can.”

“Already too late,” Ryan spoke up. “But with my help, it's doable. We can take him down.”

“What's your plan?” Geoff asked.

Ryan gestured for them to sit down, but none of them did. There was a slightly awkward silence. Then he shrugged.

“Like I said,” he continued. “He's clever. So we've got to be smarter than him. First things first, he's got surveillance on you – so we need to move.”

“Move where?” Jack asked.

“Your oldest hideout, the one you haven't used in the longest time,” Ryan said. “Something far back enough that it's something he hasn't seen since he started watching you.”

“Can do,” Geoff ground out, “but what's the actual plan to get rid of him?”

The cold, blank stare of the mask fixed on him again.

“Geoff,” Ryan said patiently, “How do you normally take someone down? Someone powerful, someone who you don't quite know the reach and capability of? What's the first thing you do?”

Geoff stared at him, but it was Ray who answered.

“You take down their network,” he said, and Ryan gave an approving nod.

“Clever boy. We need a hacker, a specialist – someone who can help us track him down, tap in and get a good look at who his inner circle are. Then we take down his people first. No one is a threat on their own. Except me, of course,” he added. “But really. What's a king – or in this case, a cow – without his army?”

Things were starting to fit together. Geoff had to admit it was a better plan than rushing in blindly with nothing but bombs and bullets. He had always preferred the heads first, hands-on approach – but for Edgar he was willing to take things slowly.

“I know where to get such a person,” he said.

Ryan nodded approvingly. “Then we're all in agreement? We work together to bring down this son of a bitch?”

“No,” Michael spoke up, and Geoff fought not to roll his eyes.

“Michael,” Ray started, and pulled his friend over to the corner where they began a hushed conversation. To be honest, Geoff couldn't blame them – they were the hired muscle, after all, he'd pulled them into this when normally Edgar wouldn't have the faintest interest in them.

“You're sure about this?” Jack asked softly, and Geoff turned to him.

“What else can we do?” he said. “The guy has it out for us and from what Ryan's said, he's not gonna stop.”

“Since when did you decide you could trust Ryan?” Jack asked.

Geoff glanced over at the man, who was now wandering over to Geoff's minibar and inspecting its contents. It was still a little disconcerting seeing him right there in his apartment, his home.

“In all honesty, it was the moment he made a beef pun,” he mumbled, and Jack's lips twitched.

“We just can't be too careful,” he said, and Geoff reached out and pressed his arm.

“Don't worry, I've got my eye on him."

Ryan wandered back over to them and they both glanced up. Ryan's eyes, the only visible part of his face behind the mask, flickered to where Geoff's hand was still on Jack's wrist before he turned his head back towards Michael and Ray, still in hushed argument.

“Didi and Gogo over there better make their minds up quickly,” he commented. “Edgar will move fast and we should get moving as soon as we can.”

“They'll help us,” Geoff said dismissively. “Michael's one to fight, not flee. He's just rattled.”

As if on cue, Michael and Ray stopped talking. Ray reached out and squeezed Michael's shoulder before the two of them wandered back over, seemingly having come to a decision.

“We'll need to get some stuff first,” Ray began, and Ryan nodded.

“Me too. Geoff, send us the location of your safehouse and we'll all meet back there tonight. You and Jack can go and find us that specialist.”

 


 

 

Geoff had known Burnie Burns for a very long time. While the man appeared to be running an IT company, in actual fact he was renowned for his ability to put people in touch with other people. He had more contacts in a diverse range of places than anyone else Geoff had ever met, all with skill sets that came in handy in less than legal operations.

It was through him that Geoff had heard about Michael and Ray a few years ago, and since then he'd worked with the little duo of hired guns a number of times.

“You're not gonna tell me what this is about?” Burnie asked, as he sat Jack and Geoff down in his office and handed them both a beer.

Geoff shook his head. “Trust me, you don't want to get involved in this shit or people will start coming after you.”

Burnie pulled a face. “Well, from what you did tell me it sounds like you need a data analyst. Someone who can hack into footage for you, keep an eye on the streets – but also track down this guy's electronic footprints. I think I have just the person for you.”

“Good,” Geoff said. “So call him in.”

Burnie hesitated. “The thing is...”

“Oh great, there's a fucking thing.”

“It's not a big thing,” Burnie said. “I mean, I'm telling you, this guy's good. He's got an eye for detail like I've never seen before. He finds shit on security cameras that I wouldn't even notice. Slows it down or some crap, I don't know. But he's on holiday at the moment.”

“So take him off holiday,” Geoff replied.

“He, uh... he hasn't been taking jobs for the last few months,” Burnie continued. “The last one he went on went kind of wrong and... I don't know. He's just a kid, it shook him up and I don't know if he'll want to get involved in something so dangerous so soon.”

“Burnie,” Geoff said patiently, “I will pay this guy enough money for him to holiday his little ass off in Tahiti or Fiji or wherever the fuck else he wants. Besides, he won't be in the firing line. He just has to find the guy, we'll do all the heavy lifting.”

“I can get you in touch with him, but I can't promise he'll take the job. He doesn't live too far from here, I'll ask him to come over.” Burnie pulled his phone out and walked out of the office, leaving Geoff and Jack sitting in silence.

Geoff took a sip of his beer and stifled a sigh. He could feel Jack's eyes on him and knew the other man was concerned. He had been wound up for the last few weeks, Edgar getting to him – but it felt good to have a solid plan now.

“You alright?” Jack asked after a moment.

Geoff nodded, having expected the question, but after a second Jack reached out and squeezed his hand anyway. Geoff turned towards him, but at that moment Burnie noisily re-entered the office and his eyes darted straight to their intertwined hands.

“Ew, guys, no making out in my office.”

“We were literally just holding hands,” Jack scoffed, and Burnie shook a finger at them.

“I know you guys. One thing leads to another. I called him over, he'll be here in ten.”

Indeed, almost exactly ten minutes later, a scrawny, floppy-haired young man tripped into Burnie's office. He looked like he'd just rolled out of bed; hoodie half hanging off his shoulders and with a bed head reminiscent of a piece of roadkill, speaking before he even got through the door.

“I told you, Burns, I'm not bloody taking jobs anymore-”

As soon as he caught sight of Geoff his blue-green eyes widened and he straightened up. “Is that...?”

Burnie came up next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Did I neglect to mention it on the phone? Gavin, this is Geoff Ramsey and Jack Pattillo. Geoff, Jack, this is Gavin Free.”

“'sup,” Geoff said, with a half-wave.

Gavin made some rather high pitched spluttering sounds. “You don't have to introduce me to... you two practically run Achievement City! And you want my help?”

“Burnie assures me you're the best,” Geoff replied. “Why? That not the case?”

“I don't... I'm not...” Gavin looked a little lost, and Geoff suddenly found it almost endearing. “I wasn't taking jobs but...”

“But we're talking the most notorious – and richest – man in the city,” Burnie said happily. “Besides, he says you won't have to do any fieldwork. You'll be perfectly fine.”

“And well rewarded,” Geoff added. “Like Burnie said. We'll do all the dangerous stuff. You've just got to sit in front of a computer and get us some info.”

Gavin's eyes widened. He looked a little shellshocked for a moment, then considering. Geoff waited patiently.

“How long will it take?” Gavin asked after a moment.

“That I don't know. Could be two weeks, could be two months. It'll depend on what you find. We're hunting down some guy who has it out for me.”

“And I won't have to do fieldwork,” Gavin said.

Geoff nodded. “Yep. I promise. I'll fucking pinky swear if you want.”

A small smile twitched at Gavin's lips. “That won't be necessary. I'm in.”

 


 

 

Geoff could tell Jack was itching to talk to him, but they didn't have a chance to be alone. With Gavin in the back of the car, they were now making their way out towards one of Geoff's oldest hideouts – a large house in the outskirts of Achievement City, where suburbs began to stretch out into highways and farmland. It was a property investment from many years ago, on the border where urban turned into rural, and he hadn't been there in so long that he almost couldn't remember where it was. He hadn't had to hide out there for a while – but as with all his safehouses, it was well stocked with food and weapons, and he was pretty sure there was a computer setup in the basement for Gavin to work from.

Speaking of Gavin; he had babbled very nervously for a while about the weather before falling into an awkward silence. After a while Geoff switched on the radio, but the only channel he could find that wasn't staticky was some very fast, exciting banjo music that really wasn't helping the atmosphere.

“Loosen up a bit,” Geoff said finally. Gavin jumped at the sudden sound of his voice, and their eyes met in the rear view mirror. Geoff gave a reassuring smile.

“Seriously, you're tense as dicks and I can see it from here. You're making my neck hurt just looking at you.”

“I- sorry, it's just been a while and you guys are famous, so. And not good famous,” he added, and then winced as he realised how that sounded. “I didn't mean-”

Jack rolled his eyes, looking annoyed, but Geoff couldn't help but give a snort of amusement.

“Don't worry about it. Besides, you're on our side now. You will see us in our natural habitat.” To punctuate this, he let out a loud and tremendously long fart that he had been holding in for some time, thinking this a marvellous way to show the kid that they were all as human as each other.

“Fucking hell, Geoff,” Jack muttered, turning away and covering his nose. Geoff burst into loud guffaws and was pleased to see that even Gavin cracked a smile and laughed a bit. And then fell about gagging.

“Christ,” Gavin gasped, “That's – that's bloody rank, I'm gonna vom.”

Geoff just continued to laugh at him, his particular high laugh that Jack had always described as contagious. Gavin frantically wound down the window, and then complained that the wind was messing up his hair, but he seemed more at ease than he had been the last few hours, which Geoff took as a minor victory at least.

 


 

“Stop sulking,” Ray said, as they drove.

Michael was not sulking.

True, he had been sitting in a sullen silence since they left Geoff's flat to go back to their apartment and pick up their stuff, but it wasn't a sulk. It was a... a... a mature, calculating, contemplative thought bubble.

And he certainly had a lot to think about, because truth be told, he was worried, and worry wasn't really something Michael did. He got angry a lot, sure, but long ago he had mastered the art of Not Giving A Fuck, and getting stressed out over stuff – getting scared of things – that was a bit of a novelty.

But that moment, back at the warehouse – the moment that Ray gave a shout and dropped to the ground next to him and the moment that Michael, briefly, thought he had been shot in the head – thought he was dead

His heart had actually stopped beating for a moment, a wave of pure panic had overtaken him, he had felt cold – frozen – and for the first time in his life, sort of... lost.

He wasn't sure what he'd do if Ray died.

And that was why he'd freaked out – mostly internally, of course – when Geoff suddenly wanted them to help him hunt down his cow-headed tormentor. Why even now, an uncharacteristic unease was spreading through the pit of his stomach at the thought that Edgar might be after the two of them as well.

It wasn't fear for himself.

It was fear for Ray, and the stupidest part was, he had no idea why – it wasn't like they hadn't been involved in dangerous shit before. He knew Ray could take care of himself. He knew that.

So why was he suddenly so concerned for him?

“'m not fucking sulking,” Michael said, grumpily. He was driving, as they made their way out of the city towards the location Geoff had given them.

Ray glanced at him sidelong with something like amusement, and suddenly Michael felt almost embarrassed, a hot flush spreading its way up his cheeks. The thought of Ray finding out that he'd suddenly developed some sort of, what, fucking motherly instinct or something.... it was beyond humiliating.

“I'm just pissed Geoff dragged us into this crap,” Michael ground out.

Ray seemed satisfied with that.

“Could be fun,” he replied instead, only half joking, and Michael rolled his eyes.

“Could be fatal,” he pointed out.

Ray just shrugged. “Aren't they always?” he replied. “Besides, we're not doing it for free, so. Let's get it over with and get paid and then you and me can take a long holiday somewhere.”

“A holiday for you is just sitting indoors playing video games,” Michael grouched, but the thought did bring a smile to his face.

That smile vanished about two seconds after meeting Gavin.

They arrived at the safehouse with little further trouble. Michael couldn't argue with the fact that it would be a hard place to track down; an unobtrusive large country house on the outskirts of town surrounded by expansive empty land. There were dozens more of them along this highway and from the house it would be easy to see anything approaching. He could see Geoff's car already parked out front, and they were greeted by Jack, who was on door duty.

It was as they were beginning to unload their things that Michael, carrying an armful of weapons, turned into a corridor inside the large house and walked smack-bang into someone.

“Oof,” said the someone, falling back on their ass in a highly undignified manner.

Michael stumbled and everything he was holding dropped to the ground with a noisy clatter. He couldn't help but flinch – none of the weapons were loaded and they all had the safety on, but still. It was the principle of the matter.

“Watch where you're fucking going, geez,” he spat, glowering down at the guy – he reminded him of a flamingo, all giant nose and skinny, gangly limbs that he didn't seem to quite know what to do with. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”

“Sorry,” and to top things off, he was British too, “I wasn't – sorry. I'm Gavin. Data analyst, I'm helping Geoff – Burnie got me.”

Michael would have written him off as clumsy and left things at that – if Gavin hadn't chosen that moment to try and help out, picking up one of the guns and attempting to hand it to Michael by pointing it right at him.

In that moment Michael underwent the revelation that this guy wasn't just a klutz.

He was a fucking idiot.

“Jesus fucking Christ, you fucking moron-” He grabbed Gavin's wrist, hard, and quickly snatched the weapon back. “Didn't anyone ever teach you not to point a fucking gun at someone else?!”

“I- is it loaded?”

“No, it's not loaded, but it's the number one rule of gun safety. Don't point it at anything you don't want to shoot!”

“Oh. Sorry. That does sound familiar.” And then he laughed, nervously, and rage began boiling up inside Michael again as he gathered the rest of the weapons up.

“Of course it sounds familiar, it's fucking common sense. Stop laughing, you idiot. You won't be laughing when you shoot someone. Or when my foot takes a trip so far up your asshole it's navigating through your small intestine.”

The raw anger in his tone made Gavin snap his mouth shut, eyes wide and suddenly uncertain. By that point the shouting had brought Ray and Geoff over.

“Everything okay here?” Geoff asked, glancing between the two of them with raised eyebrows.

“Everything's peachy,” Michael snapped. “I've just met the guy who knows fuck all about weapons and will get us killed through his own stupidity after ten seconds.”

“He doesn't need to know about weapons,” Geoff pointed out, “He just needs to know how to track down Edgar. And he won't get us killed because he'll be staying here, in the house. Gav, that's Ray,” he added, pointing at Ray who waved, looking far more amused than was pleasing to Michael. “And the shouty asshole is Michael.”

“Hello,” said Gavin, a bit sheepishly.

Geoff clapped him on the shoulder. “I got the power up in the basement so you can set up your computers or whatever there. You two,” he added, turning to Ray and Michael, “Get settled in. There's plenty of room for everyone. We'll meet back in the living room tonight, start planning.”

Michael nodded and strode off. He expected Ray to follow, but when he was halfway down the corridor he turned back to find the other in conversation with Gavin. A deep annoyance settled in him for reasons he couldn't quite explain, and he stalked off to claim a bedroom.

 


 

The house was nice. Large and expansive, with two upper storeys and one basement down below. There were enough bedrooms for everyone to have one each, and Michael claimed a room at the end of the second storey hallway. He didn't unpack, leaving his belongings in bags stashed under the bed, in the hope that they wouldn't have to be here all that long.

After storing all his ordnance both in his room and in the common area for easy access, he went in search of Ray, who had not returned to the room. Not finding him anywhere around the house, it was with gritted teeth that he headed down to Gavin's lair: the basement.

Despite how long it had been since Geoff stayed here, the house was in good order. The basement was sturdy, warm and dry with dull yellow lighting that gave it an almost cosy feel. It was a large room with a low roof, and at least half a dozen computers were set up. Gavin was down under the table fiddling with one of them as Ray hung over his shoulder.

“'sup Michael,” Ray said, noticing his approach.

Gavin bumped his skull on the underside of the desk as he sat up too fast. Ray, to Michael's great annoyance, reached out and touched the other's head softly.

“Shit, you okay?”

“Fine,” Gavin said, scrambling out from the tangle of wires and such. He rubbed the sore spot vigorously, making his hair stand up every which way. A smile tugged at the side of Ray's mouth.

“What're all these screens for?” Michael asked, looking around – they were all blank, but there were a crapload of them.

“Surveillance,” Gavin replied. “I'm gonna be tracking Edgar's movements once I have a hold of him. You'd be surprised how much you can pick up from just public security cameras. We pass by them all the time and don't even realise that people can piece together our movements. Once we have a handle on him I can find out who he hangs out with.”

“Where are you gonna even start?” Michael scoffed. “We only have his name and I doubt it's even his real one.”

To his surprise, Gavin answered with confidence. “The warehouse. Geoff said he wasn't there in an off-road vehicle, which means he drove there on a normal route. It's far enough out that there's a tollgate you have to pass through, not to mention speed cameras at the entrance to every major highway. I've done this before, Michael.”

Michael didn't like the way his name sounded in the other's voice. He grit his teeth together.

“Yeah, well, get onto it. I don't want to hang around here any longer than we have to.”

“Pretty fucking clever, though,” Ray commented. “We could have done with someone like you a couple times.”

“No, we really couldn't,” Michael snapped, and Ray shot him a raised eyebrow.

“Really Michael? 'cause I'm having war flashbacks to hours spent trying to track down targets.”

“We did fine just the two of us,” Michael replied.

“Maybe, but when it comes down to it we're really just brawn,” Ray said. “You can't explode your way to Edgar.”

“Watch me,” Michael muttered petulantly.

Unfortunately Gavin had caught the word 'explode'.

“That's pretty cool, Michael,” he said brightly. “I've always found explosions intriguing. I reckon it would be top to film one in slow motion.”

“What would be the point of that?” Michael demanded.

Gavin blinked. “To see how it looks all slowed down of course. They happen so fast you don't see the process.”

“I don't need to see the process, I just need the end result.”

“What's the biggest thing you've ever blown up?”

“You'll be the next thing I blow up if you don't get back to work,” Michael said, and made his way back to the stairs. Ray followed.

“God he's annoying,” Michael said, and glanced at Ray to find him smiling. “What. What's so fucking funny?”

“Nothing. I just like how Geoff has managed to root out the one person in the world who is going to push all your buttons.”

“Don't you find him irritating?” Michael said, and Ray shook his head.

“Nah, man, he's fucking adorable. He asked me what the rest of the 'gun rules' were as soon as you went storming off.”

Adorable,” Michael muttered darkly, and tried not to think about why that should suddenly make a cold feeling spread through his stomach. Ray wasn't hostile – not the way Michael could be – but it was rare for him to get close to people. In fact, Michael could say with confidence that he was the only person Ray called a friend – and even then there were things they didn't tell each other, things they didn't do together – secrets and touches that they still weren't close enough to share.

“Whatever,” he said. “As long as he gets us Edgar.”

 


 

The sun was just starting to set when Ryan returned. Michael had headed down to the kitchen to see what their food stocks were like when he happened upon the strange sight of Ryan methodically making coffee while Jack sat at the kitchen table eating a muesli bar and staring at him in silence.

Michael still wasn't sure about the whole Haywood-helping-them thing; he didn't trust the other man as far as he could throw him, but when it came down to it they were both mercenaries on the job and as long as he didn't turn on them, they were all on the same side here.

He wasn't scared of Ryan, per say, so much as he wasn't confident he could kill him without being killed or mortally wounded himself first, but that wasn't a fight he intended to start.

“No one follow you here?” Ryan asked, without turning to look at him, and Michael blinked and exchanged a glance with Jack before working out that he was the one being spoken to.

“No. We were careful.”

“Good.” Ryan poured water into his coffee and turned around, leaning against the kitchen counter. “Wouldn't put it past Edgar to already be trying to get eyes on us.”

At that moment Gavin walked past the kitchen door. He paused, walked back, and did a double take, eyes fixed on Ryan. Michael knew that Geoff had already warned him the infamous mercenary would be there, but it was something else entirely to see him in person for the first time.

Ryan noticed him and turned towards him, straightening up. “You must be the specialist,” he said. “I'm Ryan.”

“I know who you are,” Gavin replied. “I've seen you.”

Michael got the feeling Ryan's eyebrows were rising behind his mask. “Seen me?” he questioned, and Gavin nodded.

“Yes – on security tapes.”

“Oh?”

“Never enough to catch you though,” Gavin added quickly. “You're a lot more careful than most people. But I've caught glimpses of you. Pretty impressive.”

“He has a one hundred percent success rate,” Jack cut in. “That's a little more than pretty impressive.”

“Do I get to know your name, then?” Ryan asked, and Gavin blinked.

“Gavin,” he replied.

Ryan nodded. There was a long, awkward silence in which Gavin lingered in the doorway and stared at the mercenary.

“You need something?” Michael demanded after a second.

Gavin bit his lip. “I'm waiting for Ryan to drink his coffee.”

They all looked at Ryan's coffee mug, sitting on the counter next to him.

“Um... why?” Michael asked.

“Because!” Gavin flapped his hands about. “I thought he'd take his mask off and... I was curious? Unless you're planning to drink it through a straw.”

Michael and Jack both tensed. Perhaps Gavin hadn't heard them, not being one for fieldwork, but there were rumours that anyone who had ever laid eyes on Ryan's naked face had died horrible deaths only moments later.

Ryan stared at Gavin for a long moment until the man began to squirm. Then he let out a deep chuckle.

“I was going to take it up to my room and drink it there,” he said. “But I think Geoff's gonna head down here soon, so I might as well dump it. Unless you want it,” he said, holding it out to Gavin, who shook his head, venturing further into the room and sitting himself down at the table beside Jack.

“No, ta, I don't drink coffee.”

“You don't drink coffee?” Jack asked, surprised. “You seem like the sort of guy who'd need to pull all-nighters often though.”

“That's what Red Bull's for,” Gavin said brightly. “But nah, I don't like coffee since it makes me poo-”

“Thanks for sharing,” Michael muttered.

“-and also I don't like anything that alters my body.”

“What the fuck does that mean,” Jack asked, sounding very confused. “Alters your body?”

“Like, it makes me feel all wired and awake."

Michael was actually in disbelief at the levels of idiocy coming out of this guy's mouth.

“What the fuck do you think Red Bull does?” he asked, and Gavin shook his head.

“I don't... no... energy drinks are different-”

“They fucking keep you awake like coffee does, what's the fucking difference?” Michael asked. “What about alcohol, do you drink alcohol?”

“Yes, but that's different, that's bevs!”

There's no fucking difference!” Michael practically screeched.

“There is, there is,” Gavin insisted. Michael wanted to reach over and shake him. He had a low tolerance for stupidity and this was some of the stupidest, most inane shit he'd ever heard in his life.

“I have to agree with Michael,” Jack said.

Ryan laughed, and Michael glanced over at him. He had to admit, Ryan was a lot... friendlier than he'd expected. From what he'd heard of the guy, he'd thought he'd be dead-silent with a lingering aura of menace. And... well, he felt dangerous, there was no doubt about that, but he wasn't hostile.

That didn't still mean Michael wasn't going to be wary as shit around him.

Gavin, it seemed, had no such qualms.

“Ryan,” he said, leaning forward on the table. “Ryan, how many people have you killed?”

“Too many to keep track of,” Ryan replied easily, as Michael and Jack exchanged alarmed glances and mutual thoughts of what the fuck is this guy doing and why is he questioning the dangerous assassin on all his past murders.

“Have you ever killed a guy while he's on the bog like in Unforgiven?

“Jesus Christ,” Michael muttered.

“No,” Ryan said patiently, “I have never 'killed a guy on the bog like in Unforgiven'.”

“Do you always work alone?” Gavin asked – and for some reason, that was the question that made Ryan tense. Michael and Jack stiffened, both ready to step in if Ryan got mad – but the mercenary just shook his head.

“No,” he said, voice now cold. Gavin's face fell a little at his shift in tone. “I have worked with others before. As I am now.”

“What about you, Gavin?” Jack said, in a valiant attempt to change the subject. “How many jobs like this have you worked on?”

To Michael's surprise, Gavin's face shuttered down. He suddenly looked almost nervous.

“Quite a few,” he said, vaguely.

“Details?” Ryan pressed, but Gavin shook his head.

At this point Michael realised he was not just a klutz, or an idiot with a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of caffeinated beverages. He was also a dick.

“You can't ask people nosy-ass questions and then refuse to answer them yourself,” he said, annoyed.

Gavin just shook his head again, and Jack rolled his eyes.

“I mean it,” Michael said, incensed, “That's hypocritical.”

“That's not what hypocritical means,” Gavin began, but Ryan pushed off the counter and they all turned towards him.

“He doesn't want to talk about it, he doesn't have to,” Ryan said, and walked out of the room. Gavin blinked a few times, seeming a little surprised at the mercenary defending him, before he quickly scuttled out of the room, seemingly retreating back to his basement.

Michael sighed. The stress and anger was pent up in him and he'd almost wanted to start a screaming match, if only to let it out. Usually boxing or video games did that for him – or blowing things up – but sitting around in this house with nothing to do but wait... it was starting to get to him.

“I hate him,” he informed Jack. “He's an annoying prick.”

“I'm inclined to agree,” Jack murmured. “He doesn't seem as professional as the ones Burnie usually gives us. I'm a little worried. But who knows, maybe he's great at what he does. We'll see.”

 


 

As darkness fell, Geoff began to feel edgy. He knew the chances that Edgar had found them here already were slim, but still. It was too quiet out here, in the country – he was used to the noise and vigour of the inner city. There was something ominous about the lack of traffic noises, about the scuttle of wildlife and the rustling of leaves replacing the sound of people bustling by on the streets outside.

They were gathered around the dining room table, the room lit by dim lamplight.

“So Gavin's all set up,” Geoff said. “How soon do you think you'll have something for us?”

“Can't say,” Gavin replied. In the shadowy lighting and the quiet of the evening he seemed older, more serious. “It'll depend what I find. Could be tomorrow, could be a few days, could be a week. He sounds like a careful guy, though, I reckon he'll have buried his tracks pretty well.”

“In the meantime, then,” Geoff said, “We keep a rotating watch. Nothing sneaks up on us without warning.”

They all nodded. The meeting devolved into them giving Gavin any information that could remotely help him track down Edgar – all the incidents they'd met him, all the things they knew he'd done – anything that could help him dig something out.

Ryan volunteered to stay up first that night and keep an eye out on the road, Ray opting to take the second half of the shift. The group separated and headed off to their rooms.

Geoff couldn't help but feel strange; it was one thing moving into a foreign house (even if he did own it), another entirely to be surrounded by people he barely knew. Jack was oddly quiet as they headed into the room they'd claimed, locking the door behind them. By the time they finally collapsed into bed Geoff expected to drop off instantly – he was exhausted – but sleep evaded him.

“What's biting at you?” Jack asked, his hand moving across the bed to wrap around Geoff's shoulders.

Geoff sighed. “People have messed with us before,” he admitted. “But something Ryan said when he showed up. 'I've seen him do this before'.”

He rolled over. In the glimmer of moonlight snaking through the shutters over the window, he saw Jack frown.

“Doesn't mean he'll succeed this time,” Jack said, and Geoff nodded.

“I know. It's just getting to me. What's biting at you?” he shot back, and Jack lifted his gaze to the ceiling.

“I don't trust them.”

“Who?”

“All of them,” Jack said. “We've worked with people before but- not like this, not on something this important.”

“Jack,” Geoff said, chiding. “We know Michael and Ray. They're professional, they'll get the job done. Ryan... even if I don't trust him, something about the way he talks about Edgar – I trust him to stay on our side as long as we have a common enemy.”

“And Gavin?” Jack pressed. “You can't tell me he's like any other specialist we've worked with.”

“We were young too once,” Geoff pointed out. “He hasn't given me any cause for concern yet.”

Jack snorted. “Shoulda seen him in the kitchen. Pestering Ryan with questions and refusing to answer any himself.”

“I'd rather he's comfortable enough to ask us questions than hiding away in the basement intimidated,” Geoff said.

There was a moment of silence.

“Nah,” Geoff said finally. “I'm fine with the other guys. If anyone can take this guy down it's us in combination, right?”

“Right,” said Jack. Geoff fancied he didn't sound fully convinced, but he was tired, and with Jack's arm warm around him he felt his body begin to relax and unwind. Slowly, he drifted off and let sleep claim him.