By the time Brendan slipped out of the car his arm was aching with a steady pulse and his ribs felt like they were about to declare a revolt and head for the hills. He was tired, wiped really, but if he didn't eat now he would wake up in the dead hours of night and something told him Elkins, West Virginia, population: 7,046 wasn't a 24-hour town. Actually, he was feeling lucky this Beanders place was still open.
Walking into the building he saw it was busier than the parking gave credit, but an incredibly young looking woman got him a seat immediately, closer to the bar than he would have liked, but not intrusively so. It looked like there was an open-mike area that wasn't open tonight. Taking his pills he leaned back and closed his eyes, listening to the piped in music and surrounding chatter until someone came by to take his order.
He was most of the way through his sandwich when the front door flew open, hitting the wall with the force. A man – strong build, athletic, longer hair, slightly unkempt dress and grooming – stalked over to the bar and tossed himself halfway across the counter, arm outstretched and head pillowed in the crook of his elbow. Brendan felt himself relaxing as the bartender laughed, pushing a beer into the fingers opening and closing in search for a bottle.
"It couldn't have been that bad," the bartender said.
By the cant of the guy's neck he must have been eyeballing the bartender something fierce. "That woman," he started, before stopping short and heaving a lungful of air, letting it out slowly. "Never mind." He took a drink, putting forehead back to wood, and it might have been the end of a foray into histrionics if his comment hadn't drawn more than a few chuckles from other customers. Whoever the guy was, he was local and known and he waved his beer around the room.
"I hate you all." Brendan couldn't stop the smile when suddenly, without him looking, the guy pointed his bottle Brendan's way and he heard the muffled, "That includes you, too."
Which was so much like Freya in one of her moods it creeped him out and pained him enough that he tossed a twenty on the table and walked out the door. By the maps his destination was only a few minutes away. He drove the rest of the way by memory, pulling up to the Lodge's office door as dusk was settling into night. After calling sometime outside of Hagerstown, the manager had told him they'd leave a map and key for him tucked into the mailbox if he got in too late. He gratefully slipped from car to cabin with barely a breath. No questions, no small talk or repartee.
He found the master bedroom, bypassing the bathroom. With a flick he closed the curtains, then set his gun on the side table, deliberately blocking the glowing LED numbers of the alarm clock before unplugging the whole thing, lights and all.
A muted glow shined through the curtains, not enough to see by. Brendan unbuttoned his shirt and pants, shucking both as he crawled beneath every one of the covers. The pills he taken at dinner had his body and mind sufficiently mellow that falling into a dreamless sleep was one of the easiest tricks he'd ever managed.
Aside from waking in the middle of the night to piss, he slept hard and the next time his eyes opened the muted glow behind the curtains had become a candescent fire. Brendan slipped into his pants and haphazardly buttoned two buttons on his shirt – just enough to look decent – and made the trek to the car for his bags and laptop.
He thought about fishing the cellphone out, too, but it wasn't his. Munslow had been adamant that he break off from work for several weeks; the cheap pre-paid was a concession to the fact that he couldn't just leave without some way to be contacted. Harper and Munslow had the number (and Welles, which hopefully meant Freya did, too).
Inside he opened the carry on and pulled out some light sweats and an undershirt. As he changed into them he noticed the package Welles had passed to him on his way out of the building – language discs he'd practically begged for, something to keep his mind from whithering away with weeks of enforced nothingness looming over him.
At that point Munslow had gotten to everyone who'd come to see him and the rules had apparently been strict: no work, nothing related to work, nothing that could be related to work. Safe subjects quickly devolved into the weather and goddamned baseball. Welles had suddenly dropped in, which surprised Brendan to no end because Harper had at least had the decency to tell him Freya had been whisked back to the Allegheny ranch to detox and recover.
Brendan had been looking at the floor dumbly, waiting for his discharge papers one moment and the next seen Welles standing there, thanking him for keeping Freya sane. He'd felt an irrational urge to hit him, because he shouldn't have to be thanked for trying to keep his partner safe. He'd been a jackass, saying that if Michael really wanted to thank him, he'd get him something to do on his enforced leave. Something to keep him busy.
He could see Welles' face looking back at him – that blank face that implied amusement and complete knowledge of his person. Then he'd quirked a cynical smile, turned around and left him sitting there without another word.
Brendan unzipped the case and stared, because Freya's Dr. Welles was obviously a bastard with a twisted sense of humor. Rosetta discs for Welsh and Swedish. Like either were going to ever be of use to him. He popped the 1st CD into his laptop and listened to Welsh for the rest of the day.
Brendan spent much of the next day working on his physio exercises. Slow stretching followed by isometrics followed by more slow stretching and he'd been warned on the slow stretching and to be careful with his shoulder. Afterwards he took a longer and hotter shower than normal, feeling better than he had in weeks. He stopped for lunch at the Lodge's restaurant again and decided to be adventurous for the afternoon, snagging one of the walking maps from the office and making a circuit of one of the lighter trails.
The trees were just beginning to color, but aside from a few overlook points the view was tree trunks and underbrush. He sometimes heard water rushing in the distance, but couldn't find a trail head leading to the water. By the time he got back to his cabin, he felt like really seeing the forest, so he loading himself into the Camry and followed the signs he'd seen in Elkins pointing towards a scenic byway. He might not be able to do any decent hiking, but at least he'd see something.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to chase you off the other night."
Brendan's eyes flashed open. He'd gone back to the Beander's place after his drive for some real food, displayed artfully in a way that inspired the diner to wolf it down rather than take pictures of it. Obviously mistake number one in what was sure to be his normal, lengthy line of mistakes. "Pardon me?"
The guy from the other night slid into the booth across from him, and Brendan felt his muscles protest as they involuntarily tensed with reaction. The man looked slightly better than before; he'd shaved earlier in the day, looked more relaxed and vaguely more professional.
"You left... quickly and I've been told my outburst may have had something to do with it. And some other stuff about theatrics and not scaring away new customers."
"Yes, I was so scared, in fact, that I came back here."
"Maybe you thought it was the only place you could eat?"
"There was a Blue Ridge Restaurant, a couple of bar and grill places and a Bob Evans I could have chosen from," he responded wryly.
"Yeah, well, I'm done making excuses for them treating me badly. So anyway," the guy held his hand across the table, "Emmett. Steve. Emmett."
Brendan shook the given hand. "Brendan Dea-" The waitress flew past the table, dropping a Sam Adams in front of Steve and leaving before Brendan could say a thing. He rewound his memory; Steve hadn't been in the restaurant that long. "How did you get served so quickly? It was about 10 minutes the last time I was here, and it's been nearly 20 this time. All I ordered was a Coke."
Steve's face morphed from amused-and-generally-pleased-with-the-universe to something between exasperated and embarrassed before looking towards the bar. Brendan followed his glare to the bartender, who caught it and thwapped the waitress on her arm. When she looked in their direction he saw Steve jerk his head towards him. Brendan was beginning to wonder if this was a setup.
"Sorry about that. They're normally a little more subtle."
Brendan sat back in his seat. "So, Steve. Subtle in what way?"
Steve grimaced. "Seriously, feel completely free to call me Emmett."
Brendan raised an eyebrow. Emmett, then. Emmett looked around the place before answering, taking a swallow from his bottle. "This is a place for the locals, so the locals sometimes get a bit quicker service."
"How very noblesse oblige of you to help me out. And they were worried about you driving customers away."
"Most people on vacation eat at different places every night, and the people who come here every year have forgotten everything except that the B-24's are really good and the shrimp is fried in oil changed every day. But crazy people ranting in the bar is apparently internet fodder." Emmett smirked a little, taking another pull from his beer. "Served in 10, huh? Missy must've been crushing."
Before he could question who Missy was, the waitress reappeared with his Coke, a draft and a whopping basket of nachos with salsa and cheese sides, setting them in front of him. She was off again before he could say anything. He grabbed his Coke and held it close, looking at the rest warily.
"I didn't order this."
Emmett was flicking through the chips carefully, looking for the perfect nacho to begin with, apparently. "Just go with it. She did wrong, she's sorry and please don't leave a horrible tip." He victoriously held up a chip, looking Brendan in the eye. "They're really good at non-verbal communication here."
Brendan crunched into a nacho. "Is this being taken away from some hapless tourist's table?" he asked, not really caring because he was hungry.
"Quite probably," Emmett replied, reaching for a handful of his own and grinning brightly. "Welcome to the family."
Brendan woke the next morning with pain in his muscles that reached down into his bones. He dragged himself from the bed and into the bathroom, took a muscle relaxant and drew a bath a couple of degrees below boiling. When he got out it was just late enough that he could duck into the Lodge's restaurant for lunch.
He ordered crabcake and it was good, right up to the point the muscle relaxant really began kicking in and Brendan realized he'd be good for shit today. He settled the bill quickly and headed back to his cabin, half yelling at himself for drinking the beer last night which meant not taking the pill and legitimately sleeping the drug off. He ended up stretching out on the sofa in front of the fireplace with his laptop, cycling through his remote TiVO channels and dozing.
Come mid afternoon a phone rang, a real phone, not his new cell, and what was it saying about his current state that he hadn't even known or noticed there was a phone here? Brendan found it before it stopped ringing.
"Hello?" There was definitely someone on the other end, but they didn't say anything.
"Sorry. I wasn't expecting you to actually answer. I was just going to leave a message." It was Emmett.
"I probably wouldn't have gotten it. I didn't exactly know there was a phone here."
"Was there something you needed?"
"It's three pm and you answered your phone. Aren't you on vacation?"
"My sleeping schedule's out of whack. Why do you ask?"
"I'm taking a couple of students into the Dolly Sods reserve tomorrow. It didn't sound like you had any set plans for exploring Elkins and I was thinking that if you were interested in that sort of thing you might like to tag along."
It did sound somewhat interesting, Brendan had to admit. It was better than sitting around sleeping all day and mangling Welsh, at least. "How intensive are we talking here? I'm still recovering from... a work related injury."
"Pretty mild. They're lugging equipment in with them, so we're driving as far in as we can and following some of the old logging trails. Maybe 7 miles roundtrip. Too far?"
Brendan thought about it for an instant. "No, I should be good. What time?"
"We're leaving at eight-thirty. Lemme give you directions to D&E."
Rather than writing down the directions which sounded fairly straightforward, when he hung up Brendan started looking into Emmett's background. And sure enough, there he was, listed as an adjunct professor of Biology with a PhD in Herpetology from Ohio University. He was also listed as a Director of the Longreen Reserve and the recipient of several grants and/or awards, Brendan couldn't tell. The guy looked to be relatively straightforward.
Brendan kept looking.
He finally stopped himself from logging onto the Bureau net, when the guilt started to froth around his brain with whispers of paranoia teasing his thoughts.
He'd actually relaxed last night, enjoyed the conversation and the company. They'd discussed anything that had come to mind, from the Rangers versus the Panthers and the Rockets' freakish streak to the 2009 German auto models with a bizarre segue into pets. He'd finished the draft set in front of him, ended up having two more before the place closed, knowing he shouldn't have.
Brendan let it go as best he could. He slid the Swedish CD into his laptop and started working on it as a distraction. Turned out Swedish was a lot easier than Welsh. He was interrupted sometime in the 2nd lesson when the cell phone rang with a 212 area code and a familiar exchange. God, it was already Thursday.
"Brendan. You're sounding well. How's you're week been?" Munslow's voice was a deep and calming baritone that evoked glasses and beards which is why it didn't surprise Brendan in the least that the man did his best to be the antithesis of what he sounded like. He'd gone to Oxford but didn't sound like it. He was two-twenty, six-four and solid. He was a pretty damned good shot on the range, too.
"Is it bad that I checked into the background of someone I met here?"
"Was this person doing anything suspicious?" Munslow took things seriously, which is the reason why so many of the agents reacted well to him when they were required to see him. That and the fact that he had a reputation for confidentiality so great that even he insisted his patients not mention they were seeing him. The right people knew, he said, and that was all that mattered beyond making sure you were toeing the sane side of the rope. Brendan had been assigned to Munslow without a referral, which made him wonder what the hell his psych profile said or read that they hadn't bothered with anyone else. Actually, he could probably ask Munslow and Munslow would tell him. Brendan never asked.
"Not really. Just being friendly. And I didn't go much deeper than a Google search."
"Given what you've been through and the recentness of events, I think it's an understandable reaction for you. I'll be concerned if you're still doing it a few months from now."
"So I do have a time line on my 'recovery'." It amused Brendan just a bit, because he'd always known but had never managed to make anybody admit it. Munslow chuckled quietly.
"Only parameters set by previous experience. I tend to think those clocks won't apply in your case."
Munslow ignored the question. "How's your physical condition?"
The questions and answers continued for a while, all fairly innocuous but giving them both a good idea of his head space. At the end of it Munslow said he'd call on Tuesday and Brendan still felt like his job was secure.
He looked around the room he was in. There was a fireplace and even a small kitchen. Aside from the couch, the bedroom and the bathroom he hadn't bothered to look for anything else, but he knew the cabin was big. He explored a bit, read through the local guide hiding in plain sight on the desk, found the promised sauna and hot tub. He ended up in the kitchen again, staring at cupboards and fridge. He'd seen a supermarket down one of the roads he traveled. Maybe he should put some food in the fridge, rather than eating out all the time. He thought about it for another moment and then grabbed his keys.
Brendan parked at the Eshleman building on the Davis & Elkins campus at 8:20 by his clock. Emmett and two others, one male, one female, were stationed by a Explorer, sitting around a fold-up table. Brendan was waved over.
"Pull up a chair. Donuts and coffee if you're interested." Brendan murmured thanks as he reached for a donut and Emmett poured a cup of coffee from one of the thermoses on the table. The girl pulled another chair from the open hatch of the car and unfolded it for him. "Amber. Roger. Brendan," Emmett said, pointing them out in turn. "We're waiting on Scott to show, so feel free to take your time."
Brendan looked up. "Late joiner?"
"Late period. I told him a quarter after. We'll be lucky if he shows by 8:35."
"You told me 8:30."
"Because we'll be lucky if-"
"-he shows by 8:35," Brendan finished with him.
"I told him 8," Roger piped in.
"You live in the same apartment complex," Emmett said. "Couldn't you set his door on fire or something?"
"We could leave him," Amber replied. "Here, have another donut," she said, forcing another one on Brendan. "Scott doesn't get any." Brendan looked at Emmett.
"It's true," he agreed. "He doesn't even know we have breakfast every time we go into the field. And we are not leaving him. Imagine the pleasure you'd lose, seeing his face as he watches your fat little bobcats sated on his scrawny hares." To Brendan he said, "Amber and Scott have a bit of a competition. She's researching bobcats in the wild, he's studying snowshoe hares."
Brendan raised an eyebrow. "How their numbers are effecting each other?" he asked Amber.
"The Effects of Logging and Urbanization on the Population of Lynx Rufus in the Monongahela region of West Virginia. Scott is watching breeding patterns. But hey, at least Scott's research is showing they're breeding pretty well, which means my bobcats are eatin' good."
Brendan swallowed a smile. "Got it."
"My snakes could beat up your bobcats anytime," Emmett said, taking a sip of his coffee, looking amused and coquettish and just a bit challenging.
"Your snake scares the fuck out of me, Professor."
Emmett looked entirely too pleased with that proclamation, then checked his watch and sat up. He offered the last donut in the box to everybody, and when there were no takers he stuffed it into the front of the Explorer. Brendan followed suit when Amber and Roger started breaking down the alfresco set up and pushing everything into the back and sides of the vehicle.
"So what are you studying?" he asked Roger as they leaned against the rear of the SUV; Amber had slipped into the middle seats and Emmett was sitting sideways in the driver's seat.
"And it's a good choice for college, I'm sure," Brendan replied. Somebody up front snorted.
"Nah, I'm a bio-chem major. I'm doing a study on a particular chemical make-up, and today's to go out and get samples."
"If you can find them!" Emmett said.
"I can find them!" Roger shouted back. Brendan noticed a car approaching just as Amber alerted them with a sardonic 'hey'. Roger nudged him. "Look bored out of your skull."
A blue Chevy 1500 came to a sudden and slightly screechy stop two stalls away from them, spilling out a floppy looking kid who ran for the bed of the truck and hefted a box out. It was 8:37. Brendan and Roger moved out of his way as he put it in the back.
Scott's first words to Brendan were, "Oh, shit," as he apparently noticed it wasn't just students along for the ride.
Emmett came around the side. "You know, one might assume that if a professor were to do you the favor of overseeing a trip into a reserve for research purposes you might consider being on time. It's just a thought. What about 8:15 did you miss, again?"
Scott was still apologizing with profuse sincerity when they climbed into the car, promising it would never happen again, ever, really, he swore it this time. Emmett ignored him, concentrating on backing out and getting them on the road, but Brendan caught a wicked smile being suppressed when Scott hissed a question to Amber.
"What's the guy's name?"
Brendan couldn't see her, but her response was lackadaisical. "I don't know. Maybe Bryce something. I think he's with the Reserve or something."
The trip to Dolly Sods was rough once they turned off the main road, gravel strewn roads, sometimes hellishly narrow. They were on the road for roughly 45 minutes before they even saw a sign for the trailhead, with Emmett taking the road a bit too fast for Brendan's heart, despite the surety of his driving.
"Comfortable with these roads, aren't you," he murmured after a third high-speed passing.
"I've been down them a time or two. They're pretty safe as long as it's not foggy or the rainy season," Emmett said. But he slowed the pace some. They turned down a tiny access road after about 15 minutes and 5 minutes after that turned onto what Brendan swore was a completely nonexistent road. Brush banged at the sides of the car and they were all jostled by bump after bump. After a random amount of time Emmett stopped the car and turned off the engine. Amber and Scott hopped out of the car and began to unload; Brendan looked at Emmett curiously.
"Do we help unload?"
Emmett shook his head. "Nah, this is their stop. They jointly decided to share resources on their projects to help defray the cost to the department. We'll be swinging by to pick them up in a few hours. Roger's being dropped in a different location, and then we're continuing on. And plus, safety in numbers."
"Amber's really safer with Scott? Out here?" Scott didn't exactly seem the nature type beyond studying rabbits in their native environment.
"More like Scott's safer. Amber's parents pretty much raised her in the Boundary Waters and Quetico from what I understand, with side trips into the Rockies. Woman probably knows more about survival than the entire department put together."
Amber suddenly appeared in Brendan's window. She'd transformed herself in 5 minutes from slightly preppy to probably able to survive a terrorist attack. Rather than just the upscale khakis she'd been wearing, she now also sported a windjammer, a hiking pack and what he was pretty sure was a small tent.
"You get lost and die and I will mock you at your eulogy," Emmett said.
Amber opened the front zipper of her jacket and pulled out her phone. "I've got GPS. I get lost and die then I deserve it. I marked the turnoff coordinates, do you want us to meet you there instead?"
"Sure. How long do you guys need?"
"This is not a hiking trip. This is a serious excursion in the pursuit of scholastic research and achievement. Not to mention there are four other people here. Three and a half."
"You're only going to give Roger three hours to try and find his fungus? Come on."
Emmett turned to Roger in the back seat, "How long do you think you'll want to collect your samples?"
Brendan caught Amber's pleading look at Roger. He was pretty sure Emmett caught it, too. "At least four and a half, if that's okay with you, sir."
Emmett spared a small glance at Brendan and he gave a minute shrug. It wasn't like he had anything to do today. "Five. Absolute maximum. Back at the turnoff."
"Sounds good," Amber said happily. "See you in five, Brendan!"
The car roared to life again, muffling Scott's enraged squawk over Brendan's name.
"Ready?" Emmett asked and then gunned the engine, sending them flying backwards back the way they came.
They dropped Roger off 20 minutes later, maybe 7 miles away Brendan estimated. Roger was given an actual GPS tracker and Brendan watched Emmett and Roger mark down the coordinates so they could rendezvous at the proscribed time.
"Finally," Emmett breathed. "I've got some errands to run, but then I figured we could take one of the trails and show you the place."
"You've got errands in a national forest?"
"Eh, more like dropping off some packages. I've got two snakes in the back that I'm releasing back into the wild. They have to be dropped separately, but not more than a mile apart."
Brendan looked in the back. He could make out two covered boxes. They drove vaguely northwest for a while until Emmett stopped the car. They both got out and Brendan followed Emmett to the back, watching as he pulled out the left cage.
Before Brendan's curiosity could get the better of him, Emmett flipped back the sheet covering the cage. Inside was a long, iridescent black snake.
"Oh, gorgeous," Brendan said before he could help himself. It really was. Big black eyes looked at the two of them and it's skin gleamed with a blue-black iridescence that made him want to reach out and touch it, just to see if it was real or not. Emmett gave him a small smile. "What is it?"
"She's a Black Racer. 41", constrictor, and stunningly curious. It's probably what got her into trouble to begin with. She was brought to me after a fight with something bladed. She's always watching me around the lab, though. I couldn't bring myself to feed her to Betty when there was no real gain to be had."
Emmett tossed the sheet back down and pointed the way up a hill. He took point and Brendan followed by his side through the trees. They walked for a good 15 minutes with quiet hissing sounds from the cage accompanying their way. When Emmett stopped he motioned for Brendan to stay behind the cage, pulling out a stick with... pinchers? at the end. He sprung the latch for the cage and slid open the door. The snake's hissing became noticeably louder.
"Yes, yes. Life is horrible for you," Emmett said to her. "Imagine how much worse it's going to be now that you're no longer on a government sponsored diet."
Brendan couldn't really say he saw Emmett catch the snake, more that there was a flash of movement, Emmett walked towards the trees with a black coil and came back with the empty rod.
"That was fast," he said and Emmett shrugged, stuffing the cloth in the cage and collapsing it.
"Not like she was going to hang around and thank me," he said with a smile. "One down, one to go. Shall we?"
Releasing the second snake went just as fast, and as promised Emmett directed them towards a trailhead marked with a pile of rocks. "There's a waterfall about four and a half miles in, if you're interested. The trail doesn't start to get bad until after that, so I figured it would be a good spot to have lunch and wait out the kids. What do you think?
Brendan looked into the forest, following the trail as far as he could see. He heard the unasked question. "I say let's do it," he replied. He didn't feel sore, aside from the constant low-grade ache in his shoulder which would probably be just fine as long as he didn't use it to support weight.
Emmett pulled out a daysack and slung it over his shoulders. "Any conditions I need to know about?"
Brendan shook his head. "Nothing serious. Bad shoulder, sore muscles."
They reached the waterfall in just under two hours, taking a leisurely pace, stopping at the overlook and again at a creek they had to cross, with Emmett narrating the entire way. Brendan found them a decent perch and Emmett started unloading supplies: water, a ziploc of some sort of pink drink mix, 2 cups, napkins, crackers, summer sausage, and hard cheese. He brandished a knife over the meat, pausing suddenly.
"By the way, if anyone asks, I was supervising all three of them very carefully."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Brendan assured him. He opened the crackers and split a handful in half, then used a spoon to mix up drinks for them both.
"Perfect," he was told and was rewarded with slices of meat and cheese. They ate together quietly, though after a time Emmett broke the silence.
"So, Brendan Dean. What do you do for a living?"
"I work for the federal government," Brendan said without a pause. He might not have been paying full attention, but it was pretty difficult to miss Emmett's sudden stillness. Every one of Brendan's senses sharpened in response and his heart started to pound. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Emmett cock his head, felt his gaze looking him over.
Brendan was startled. "How on earth did you come up with that?"
Because it had been true, years ago, before Washington had started rearranging things and decided to let the NSA take a more proactive route to gathering intelligence. The CIA operated against foreign nationals in foreign lands but they couldn't operate domestically. When the NSA had received authority to operate directly against foreign nationals working within US borders, the people in charge had begun passing as many investigations as they could directly to the NSA, while still keeping the new mandate silent. Brendan had been tapped by the NSA because he'd worked on several FBI task-forces, tracking foreign terrorist threats in the United States and had proven good at it.
"You look like you're comfortable wearing a shoulder holster. You have the posture even without it."
"Do you shoot?"
Emmett snorted. "We're in rural West Virginia. Who here doesn't? Except Scott, of course. Energy?"
"What?" Brendan was pretty sure he knew what the question was, though.
"No, you said it was work related," Emmett muttered to himself. "Treasury?"
"What happened to the FBI option?"
Emmett looked at him squarely. "If you worked for the FBI you would have said you worked for the FBI. You wouldn't have said 'the federal government'. Though probably the same for..." There was a pregnant pause and Brendan wondered what was coming next. "Never mind."
"Whatever you're thinking, you're probably wrong, you know that?" Emmett's attitude hadn't noticeably changed, but Brendan couldn't bring himself to believe dropping a question like that was something normal.
"No, seriously. Never mind. So why on earth Elkins, West Virginia?"
And of all the things the guy could have asked... Brendan felt his skin flushing because he knew he's tell the truth and in retrospect it was embarrassing. "2-6-2-4."
"I... rolled a die."
"For... zip codes? And you came up with 26241?"
"Actually I only rolled for the first three. The 4th was because 262 covered a pretty large area. Elkins was pretty big compared to the others, and the Lodge fit my mood."
Now Emmett was looking at him strangely. Great. "You really aren't entirely sane, are you?"
Brendan really doubted he had been when he'd done it. Freya had been stolen away without a word as to her condition, Harper had forbidden him from working, and Munslow had all but told him to leave the city for a few weeks. He'd been in pain and angry and scared that his life was going to hell again like it had in the Bureau.
"Probably not," he replied, making Emmett laugh. He checked his watch. "What time do we have to get back to the car?"
"It'll only take an hour, hour fifteen if we stop at the overlook again, to make it back, so... half an hour?" he said, checking his own watch. "So what sort of stuff interests you when you're on vacation? There's museums. Battlefields. Fishing?"
Brendan shook his head.
"Cars?" Brendan perked at that and Emmett saw it. "Oh, you'll have to hit the speedway, then. And if you stick around until next Saturday it's the Festival's car day. I swear there's something before that, too. There's skiing around here in the winter, not that that does you any good, now. Do you like caves?"
"I... Man, I haven't been to a cave since... Junior high."
"The Seneca Caverns. You should check them out. They aren't too far from here."
"You offering to show me?" Brendan asked.
"If you want. I haven't been there in a while." Emmett tossed a pebble into the waterfall. "I'm busy tomorrow and Sunday, but I'm free most of Monday."
"I think..." Brendan stopped. There was a reckless feeling circling inside him and he couldn't really pinpoint why. "Yeah, if you're willing. It's kind of nice having a personal tour guide."
Emmett huffed a laugh, smiling a bit. "Maybe I should charge you."
Monday afternoon saw Brendan almost wishing he'd kept the old Canon SLR he'd had in high school. Emmett had taken him to two caves, after which they'd headed to the nearby rock climbing highlight.
"You're one of those, aren't you? The ones that will climb upside down to get to the top," Emmett asked, sounding almost resigned.
"Totally," Brendan responded, grinning, watching the tiny climbers scale the side of the formation. If his shoulder weren't for shit these days, he would have signed up right then to go up. He suddenly was looking very forward to having a good arm again, and even the hell of getting its strength back.
They ate the lunch Brendan had packed at the summit of Spruce Mountain, so Brendan could have the pleasure of saying he'd been at the top of West Virginia, Emmett said. The weather, however, changed pretty quickly once they'd settled in; they had started their day blocking sunlight from their vision and soon after arriving clouds started racing across the sky. As the wind picked up, Emmett insisted they leave and by the time they'd descended a steady rain was falling.
"I suppose it was for the best," Emmett said. "I have to be at the high school by 5:30 for the pet show."
"Pet show? Seriously? Tell me you're not entering." Brendan kicked at the five pound bag of mining rough he'd picked up at one of the gift shops. He'd thought about picking up a panning sieve too, but decided some nice coffee table books would carry the joke better with Freya instead.
Emmett laughed. "No, judging the reptiles. Actually, threatening to enter is what got me banished to the realm of judging. I still say that what's said in Beander's should stay there, but apparently no one else goes for that rule. The husband of the head judge was there on the wrong night and next thing I know I'm grading pets."
"And you still haven't learned, have you." Friday night had seen them back at Beander's, filling up with the students after leaving the forest, and Emmett nearly being pressed into 'the strong man thing' the next morning because of his pets (behemoth monsters, as stated by one woman rather emphatically), or so the argument had eventually run.
"God doesn't like cowards," Emmett muttered and Brendan just laughed.
He was still buzzing come Saturday morning from the precision motorcycle exhibition he'd seen the night before, because they'd performed again that morning. The second time he'd made sure Emmett came along. He'd missed the previous night's, and even though he said they were there every year, he picked Brendan up two hours early so they could have a walking breakfast and stake out a good location for the show.
By the time afternoon rolled around Brendan had succumbed to the mob mentality of buying chintzy stuff from the vendors, mentally slating each hand-crafted purchase for one of his backstabbing coworkers.
A '57 Porsche Speedster had just rolled by, cherry red and gleaming, when Brendan was surprised by a buzzing from his pocket. He pulled out the cellphone and stared at the screen, reading the blocky UNKNOWN without immediate comprehension.
He pressed receive, feeling his gut coil in nervous anticipation. "Hello?"
There was a small pause, followed by a quiet, "Hi, Brendan."
"Freya," he breathed, putting a finger to his opposite ear in a valiant attempt to drown out the crowd. He started edging towards the buildings, away from the barricade, but the noise just got louder the further away from the street he got. "How are you, are you-?"
"I'm good. Better."
Brendan could barely hear her and he wasn't able to contain his growing frustration; he might have been only a few seconds from screaming at the people milling around him if he hadn't been distracted by a hand on his shoulder – Emmett, pressing keys into his hand and pointing up the street. God, yes.
"Just a second, I'm going someplace quiet." The crowd dispersed to normal downtown noises within two blocks, but it wasn't enough.
"Where are you?" Freya asked, and it was such a relief to hear the laughter in her voice. Some part of him hadn't really believed he'd hear it after what had happened. The last thing he remembered was her crying and her voice screamed hoarse.
"I'm apparently in the middle of a Forest Festival," he said wryly.
"On purpose, or by accident?"
"Well, mostly... both." Freya laughed quietly again. She sounded tired, like talking was actually taking up her energy and he mentally drew a picture of dark bruising under her eyes, waxy skin and emaciation. He reached the car and slipped into the driver's seat, locking the doors. He breathed and listened for a moment, to comfortable quiet and Freya's breath hundreds of miles away. "How are you?" he murmured into the air.
Freya sighed, but it wasn't impatient or irritated. "I've graduated to walking around my room. Sometimes I make it out to the porch and watch the horses, but it's getting colder here. Mostly I just stay in and read. I'm tired and cold all the time, but even I've noticed I'm feeling better."
"And your-" Brendan couldn't finish, because he'd never found a smooth way of referring to Freya's telepathy. Your brain? Your mind? It struck too close to sounding like she had a sanity problem. Asking about her powers was just too cartoonish. Freya had always gotten a kick out of his dilemma, but was usually too nice to poke him about it.
"I've got almost all my blocks back. At least I can be in the same room with someone who isn't holding back now. It took about a week and a half before I could handle that much."
"Nobody would tell me anything. Until Welles showed up I didn't even know if you were alive or..." or sane, but he didn't want to say that.
"I don't think they knew, Brendan. Michael told me they kept me in a coma for the first three days to let the drugs get out of my system, and for the next five after that I was completely non-lucid. I don't think any of us knew. Michael gave me your number a couple of days ago. I'm sorry I didn't call, but-"
"No, it's okay." It really, really was, because at least now he knew she was getting better, and if he'd been listening to her speak with a washed out voice, exhausted and recovering, it would have been worse than the wait.
"So how are you?"
"Me? I was evidently well enough to banish."
"Brendan, seriously. Michael's been pretty worried. He never said anything to me other than you'd been released from the hospital and were on leave, but. Every time I've asked about you it's been there in his eyes."
Brendan didn't say anything. Freya eventually continued.
"One of the doctors here was there when they got us. Michael's tried to keep him away from me, but I saw... I think you scared the hell out of everyone. It, it looked like you were just covered in blood and that's all I keep seeing-"
"It wasn't that bad, Freya," Brendan interrupted. "They stabbed me in my shoulder, remember?"
"Not really. I don't remember much past them shooting me up with whatever it was."
Brendan was pretty sure it had been heroin; Freya had looked pretty blissed out there for the five minutes before the screaming had started. "Anything they saw was from that. I had a hard time getting us out of the building and it bled a lot over both of us."
It hadn't been his shoulder that had kept him hospitalized for 9 days, it had been the electric shocks they'd given him.
"You kept me sane, you know that right?" Freya's voice sounded small, almost helpless. It made Brendan so angry he could barely see. When Freya had started screaming, he'd started yelling, first at the guys holding them and then at her. He'd thought he would have to watch her lose her mind right in front of him. "Brendan..."
"Don't, Freya. Don't... say it." He thought he heard a muffled sniff.
"So, you're okay, right?"
Brendan gave a wet laugh. "Yeah, I'm here in West Virginia."
They'd been partners for too long, because he could tell she'd picked up on his unspoken don't tell anyone. He knew it couldn't have been much of a secret, certainly not now. But when he'd first left New York he'd been so angry that he'd actually contemplated just disappearing. He'd rented the most common car in America, closed out a bank account and really thought about vanishing. He hadn't put the battery into the prepaid phone he'd purchased until his 3rd morning in Elkins, once he'd had time to lick his wounds and sulk.
"I've been doing some hiking, hanging around with the locals, visited some caves. Hey, I got you a gift."
Freya made a noise he'd graciously count as a laugh. "It had better not be a wood carving or some plastic tourist trap piece of junk, Brendan Dean. I have standards, you know."
"I know. I got you a bag of dirt, instead." He knew she thought he was joking, which is why he was looking forward to plunking the thing down on her desk when they both got back.
"It's good hearing your voice," she said, returning fatigue drowning out any leftover outrage.
"Same here. Listen, tell Welles..." It was an odd paradigm shift, thinking that Welles had actually been worried about him. "Tell Welles I said thank you."
Freya was quiet for a moment. "Okay. I'll do that. I'll talk to you soon, okay?"
"Hope so. Go get some rest," he said and closed the phone.
Brendan leaned forward and rested his head against the top of the steering wheel. Knots of nervous tension where suddenly letting go with the relief of talking to Freya, hearing her coherent and intelligent. When she'd been drugged, he'd been tied down already. He'd yelled and railed at her to pay attention to him, to listen to him not to them and started cycling through television shows and movies and books in his head until he'd caught her attention. He'd lost her every time the bastards had given him another shock.
The last time he'd seen her she'd been losing focus again and Welles was sticking a needle in her arm to knock her out.
A light tapping on the window across from him made him look over. Emmett stood there, head cocked, watching him patiently. Brendan unlocked the doors.
Emmett assessed him quietly. "You wanna get out of here?"
"I-," Brendan couldn't concentrate on sorting out the answer, which pretty much was the answer. "Yeah."
Emmett nodded and slipped into the passenger side. "Fire it up. We can head to the Reserve. It's good there."
The Reserve turned out to be the elusive Longreen Reserve that Emmett was director of. The turnoff wasn't marked by more than a white and black sign stating no trespassers and visitors must be logged in at all times. About a mile in there was another sign pointing the way towards the main building and the road opened to a pleasant looking campus and a large modern glass and concrete building with a granite facade carved into the surrounding forest. Not exactly what he'd been expecting.
They pulled around to a side entrance and Emmett used a key and touchpad to unlock the door and let them in. They settled in a carpeted room dressed in dusty reds and browns. There was a nice table and a couch, a television and a laptop, and when Emmett suddenly reappeared in front of him with two bottles of cold beer Brendan realized there was also a refrigerator in the general vicinity.
The cap was already popped and he took a few deep swallows, feeling the icy chill swirl around his stomach. Emmett didn't ask any questions, didn't even show he might be wondering at Brendan's sudden downhill plummet in mood. It gave Brendan the opportunity to try and sort himself out. He picked and rubbed at the shiny branding beneath his fingertips until the bottle was nearly empty. Emmett still hadn't said anything, leaving them both in a sort of uncomplicated quiet.
"NSA," Brendan said, pulling at a corner of the beer label.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Emmett look up, but Brendan didn't look over. It wasn't forbidden to tell people where you worked like it had been back in the day, but outside of work Brendan tended to follow the old – and still encouraged – rules for various reasons. Mostly because it sounded pretentious and there was absolutely no cause for assuming coolness in working for the NSA; the reality was depressingly boring and bogged down with regulations and poor allocation of assets. But there was also that working for the NSA still had the thrill of the illicit, and some people liked illicit targets, good or bad.
He and Freya gave their real names on the job, but both their apartments were rented under aliases.
"I work for the NSA," he repeated. "My partner and I were... out knocking doors. We ended up at the wrong place and..."
"How long?" Emmett asked, after Brendan stopped.
"Six hours and forty minutes. I was conscious for every second of it. No fucking time at all." His nail caught at a small tear where condensation had weakened the label. The paper separated with a messy silence.
After a while there were soft clinks and Emmett pulled a chair in front of him, setting a couple of glasses, two bottles of liquor and two more bottles of beer in front of him. Brendan finished his beer and reached for another, eschewing the bourbon while Emmett poured himself a gin.
"Time enough," Emmett said, taking a drink.
Brendan couldn't argue with that. "I was told to take some time off on them. Get out of the city, away from the job while we both recovered. Jesus Christ."
His stomach started to sour towards the beer and he set his bottle on the table in front of him. He had a headache that was growing out of proportion and he cradled his head in his hands, more to block out the light than anything else.
"She's okay," he told himself, aloud, Emmett as a witness. "Freya's okay, and that's all that matters."
"How long have you two been partners?" Emmett asked, affecting a soft cadence.
"About, um... Oh, about five years now. Working on six."
It sounded odd, off to Brendan. "What?"
If he'd been in a better mood it might have been fun to watch the conflict in Emmett's face. As is was, Brendan was pretty numb.
"Okay," Emmett said, obviously coming to a decision. "I will only ask this one question and to be clear, I do not in any way expect you to answer it. I always thought the NSA was information and analysis only and others handled actual investigations. Since when the hell do they have field agents?"
"Okay, how the hell do you know this stuff?"
Emmett's laugh was short and almost bitter. "You'd be surprised how useful it became to know who was coming knocking when my research became semi-public. The FBI was by a few years ago. A few years before that the CIA. After them I thought it would behoove me to know about anybody who might turn up. I know a lot about Russia and China, too, so don't feel bad. I had to waste a lot of money on security, but it's been worth it, I think."
Brendan was willing to attest to that. They had passed through two levels of security to get to this break room, though he supposed technically this might be an office or meeting room of some sort for Emmett.
"What exactly are you doing here?" No, seriously, what could he possibly be doing here that would draw attention like that? He should have logged into the Bureau's intranet.
Emmett filled his glass again. "Ostensibly I'm working on a universal antivenin. People aren't interested in that, though. They're just interested in weaponizing what I've got here."
"Weaponizing an antivenin?
"What? No, the snakes I use for the research. Nobody's actually interested in the research, outside of the victims and maybe Doctors Without Borders. So I started checking."
"That..." It sucked and it wasn't fair and there wasn't much he could say.
Emmett shrugged. "Mm. So Freya's doing better?"
Brendan could feel himself relaxing, because she was. She was. "Yeah. Yeah, Freya's doing better."
Emmett dragged Brendan to a lunch for the college on Sunday by calling in a favor for the extra seat. Brendan used the sauna to steam the one set of work clothes he'd brought, put on his tie and afterwards they went to a coffee shop to unwind for hours. On Monday they were back at Longreen, and Brendan got the opportunity to hang out with two cool constrictors for a while, each about 10 feet long and determined to use him as a climbing tree. Emmett was off in deeper parts doing whatever he did, though periodically he or somebody else would poke their heads in to see how he was doing. (Or to see if he'd been eaten yet, as one person had told him.)
Soon enough the hours rolled into Brendan's third Tuesday in Elkins. He celebrated by going for a long early morning hike down a trail that paced a river. The air was starting to crisp and the trees were turning more quickly than they had a few weeks ago and Brendan found himself meandering off trail when something looked interesting enough. He started circling back when he felt himself getting hungry, which was the only reason he made it back to his cabin in time for the cell to ring.
The first shrill notes startled him; one, he'd forgotten to bring the phone with him on his hike, which was just stupid and two, he'd completely forgotten his twice weekly phone call with Munslow. Completely. He almost let it go to voicemail, but no, he took the call instead.
They talked Freya and work and his recovery and the time he'd been held both in the warehouse and the hospital. Munslow commented that he sounded more relaxed, less resentful and after the phone call was long over Brendan considered for the first time that maybe Munslow had been serious when he'd told Brendan the decision to exile him hadn't been made lightly. He wanted it to hurt that Munslow had been right about taking a break, but for the most part he was just relieved that he was starting to feel what passed for normal again.
Emmett had swung by the Lodge after his final class on Thursday, so Brendan took him to a late lunch at the restaurant and afterwards they'd settled down in the cabin to a game on ESPN, lobbing insults back and forth over team choice.
"You know, we never did get you out to the Speedway. We should try for Saturday before the weather starts to go," Emmett said during a commercial. "At least then you won't have such pathetic taste."
"You know, last year they made it to division," and really, at this point the argument was more to rile Emmett than any real support of the team.
"Yes, that was last year before they fucked up this year's line up."
Brendan was cut short from responding when the cell started to ring. He stared at the phone glowing and blinking on the end table.
"You going to answer that?" Emmett asked after another ring.
Brendan didn't move. Munslow had already called several hours earlier, Freya had called again yesterday. He somehow didn't think it was her. Frowning, Emmett got up and retrieved the phone, looking at the display.
"No number," he said, tossing it over.
There wasn't. No number, no area code, not even an unknown. On the fourth ring Brendan finally flipped it open and put it to his ear.
"This is Dean."
It was Harper.
"Hell of a long drive to get back by tonight."
"Yeah, well, if they needed me that badly they would have told me to fly out," Brendan said, grabbing the bag Emmett was holding towards him.
"Are you kidding me? It's probably quicker to drive, unless you're talking about a direct charter. In which case, sending a chopper."
"I don't know where you're getting this impression that I'm somebody important in their grand scheme, because seriously: I'm not."
"They gave you and your partner open ended medical leave with no penalties. That makes both of you pretty damned important and if you try to claim you aren't I'm not going to believe you. They would have given you unpaid leave instead."
Brendan didn't answer, just finished packing the trunk and slamming it closed. When he was finished he turned around, squinting a bit as the angle of the sun caught his eyes badly. The light felt good on his skin. Emmett was standing two paces from him, relaxed with his hands tucked into his jean pockets.
"So there's skiing around here, huh?" he asked. Emmett smiled a bit, looking around the hills surrounding them and nodded.
"Yeah. It's not Vail or the Tetons or anything, but it's still pretty good."
"I should see if I can make it out here for winter." Official leave or not, that didn't mean he'd actually get his vacation time.
"You should. I think you'd like it."
Brendan kind of thought he would, too. "I suppose I should get out of here. Listen, thanks for showing me around. This ended up being a lot better than I thought it would be."
Hating that a handshake seemed so insufficient but not really knowing how else to express his thanks and appreciation, Brendan held out his hand. And held it out.
Emmett didn't take it, didn't even look at it. He stared at Brendan with a minuscule smile and then breathed deeply, letting it out in a noisy gust.
"Oh, hell," Emmett said, looking away. "This'll probably effect your decision ever to come back to Elkins, but whatever."
And before Brendan could do anything Emmett was kissing him. Slowly, persistent, until Brendan opened his mouth and responded, kissing him back properly. Then it was Emmett reeling him in closer, hand on his neck, or maybe it was Brendan doing that because he seemed to be as involved in the kiss as Emmett was. He knew it was him that backed them up until they were resting against the car bumper, Emmett warm and solid against him.
Brendan broke the kiss because propriety could only let him go so far. They stayed close though, breathing each other's air. "I guess maybe just became definitely," he said, so not smooth.
"Hey, I'd be happy to host you," Emmett replied immediately, and then started backpedaling, "No strings attached, of course. Not host you like that. I just... fuck."
It made Brendan want to laugh, and there was a strange giddy ball growing in his chest that he couldn't suppress, even as Emmett moved away from him.
"You should get going."
"Yeah, I suppose so. Can I e-mail you?"
Brendan watched Emmett's fingers disappear back into his pockets. "E-mail, call, visit at random intervals. Feel free." They stood watching each other for a few more moments. "Get going. Drive carefully."
"Yeah." Brendan smiled and pushed off the car, heading towards the driver's seat. "Take care of yourself."
He slid in and shut the door, starting the car. Emmett walked over and leaned in the window. "You too. Stay safe." Emmett stepped back and thumped the roof a couple of times.
Brendan watched him in the mirrors until the road curved and Emmett disappeared from view, before finally concentrating on the road in front of him. Thumbing on the radio, he settled in for the drive. He was feeling pretty good.