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Emmett glanced around the busy hotel lobby and sighed. The line for the reception desk was at least fifteen people deep, which was unusual for this particular conference. The conference took place from Friday to Saturday rather than fully during the working week in the hopes of gaining more attendees, yet even so, it had barely managed to attract a small subset of the scientific community in previous years. After pulling an all-nighter before getting on the plane from Elkins at 6 a.m. this morning, he was tired and just hoped they had his reservation on file and had not over-booked the rooms. At least his own presentation would not be until tomorrow morning, and the few other presentations that appealed to him were not scheduled until after lunch today.

The actual conference started in just over an hour and was what Emmett liked to call a meet and greet. Emmett could already imagine the scene in the main conference room, with scientists from various biological backgrounds all vying with each other to prove they were the best and brightest in their respective fields. Of course, the big event this year that had brought in the crowds was InGen and its Jurassic Park dinosaurs.

As a herpetologist, Emmett had to admit to a certain level of morbid fascination with the idea of bringing sixty-five million year old dinosaurs back to life. It would be a tremendous opportunity to study the creatures that would eventually evolve into modern-day life on this planet, as well as those that became extinct due to what most scientists now agree was a meteor strike. The meteor would have sent a shockwave of fire around the planet and raised thick dust high into the atmosphere that would have blotted out the sun for months, perhaps years, destroying all but the hardiest vegetation. With nothing to eat, the large herbivores who had survived the blast would have died out fast from starvation along with the predators that fed off them. Only the smaller creatures--burrowing mammals and those protected in the ocean--would have survived the catastrophe.

As a geneticist, he was fascinated by the methods used to bring these creatures back and how it could be applied to saving animals that mankind had forced into extinction by its greed and the destruction of habitats, such as the Condor and Dodo. Though, as an ecologist, he feared the damage InGen's work could make to an already fragile planetary ecosystem. Re-introducing creatures that evolution had seen fit to make extinct seemed careless at best, and dangerous should these creatures find a way off of those islands. The majority of modern herbivores did not have the body armor, size and defense mechanisms to go up against a T.rex or Velociraptor. A cow would be torn to shreds in seconds, and he shuddered to think what would happen if a pack of Velociraptors made it to a human population center. The stories that came out of the San Diego incident were bad enough and that was a single T.rex.

Of course, many of the scientists who were against InGen's genetic manipulation were equally wary of Emmett's work. They would consider him just as much of a Frankenstein as Hammond's people, manipulating genes to produce a giant boa constrictor that could eat a man whole. After the Philadelphia incident, he knew that his good intentions could so very easily be subverted by a corrupt government or by a private entrepreneur like Broddick. Yet the very thought of destroying Betty and all of his research notes was abhorrent to him. His research into the production of a universal antivenin would save countless lives each year, and he was so close to starting human trials on an antivenin that would counteract the effects of a particular subset of poisonous reptiles in South America.

Emmett joined the back of the long line and slowly shuffled forward as each guest was seen to by the extra staff who had come on duty to handle the morning's check-ins. Eventually it was his turn and he was relieved when the receptionist smiled warmly and gave him a form to complete before handing over a room key card. Relieved, he wheeled his suitcase to the elevator and took the first one that had enough space.

He was on the tenth floor and the view from his window was spectacular. The White House was only a few blocks away and he was tempted to take a walk later but, for now, he needed to unpack his few belongings, take a quick shower and shave to freshen up, and then go back over his presentation notes, having already decided to avoid the meet and greet. Of course, he should have known it wouldn't be that easy, and less than an hour after settling down on the bed with a coffee, his room phone rang.

"Can I help you?"

"Doctor Emmett?"

"Yes?"

"This is Susie Kang, conference secretary. I wanted to make sure you had arrived and were ready to attend the Welcome Reception down in the main conference hall. I know there are several parties eager to meet with you."

"Thank you... Susie. I'll be down shortly."

He sighed heavily as he placed the phone back on its cradle, and gathered up his notes into a single stack. He should have known that nothing came for free and he was expected to do more than an hour-long presentation and a panel on Ethics to earn his fee, business class flight and this comfortable room. If he hadn't needed the generous fee and promise of additional grant money for his participation, then Emmett would have preferred to stay out of the limelight. However, the fourteen known deaths attributed to his boa and the rogue python in Philadelphia had highlighted his work and put the Longreen Snake Reserve on everyone's radar, and only the T.rex rampage in San Diego had managed to eclipse it.

At least he had already showered so it took only a few minutes to change into suit pants and t-shirt, and to pull on a matching suit jacket. Monica had called it his Miami Vice look but he refused to wear a dress shirt and tie except under duress. He'd leave that uniform for business men and three-letter agency operatives.

The lobby was just as crowded as before but the line at the reception desk was down to just a few stragglers. Most people were moving slowly in one particular direction, like a grazing herd, and he debated against joining them until he realized they were all heading into the conference hall. The reason for the slow movement became apparent as he shuffled closer to the main door. The conference organizers had set up desks on either side and were handing out registration packets and name tags.

"Your name, sir?"

The lady looked up and smiled, eyes widening a fraction in what Emmett recognized as a biological interest in a potential mate: dilating pupils and a flush on her cheeks. It was a shame it was wasted on him as his own genetics had given him a preference towards his own gender, and apart from one life-saving kiss from Monica, he hadn't been kissed by a woman since high school, discounting his own mother.

"Dr. K. Emmett."

Her eyes widened further. "Oh, Doctor Emmett! I have a message for you from Susie Kang. She'll be waiting for you at the front of the conference hall."

She handed Emmett a registration packet and a name badge and he murmured his thanks before entering the hall. Unlike previous years, it was packed inside here too and Emmett knew that had more to do with InGen and the theme of this year's conference--The Ethics of Genetics. He knew at least one of the geneticists from InGen would also be making a presentation this afternoon as well as sitting on the panel for the debate tomorrow morning before Emmett's presentation. Emmett was also a part of that same panel but his research fell into the gray area of medical research that would ultimately benefit humanity rather than commercialism. He just hoped he didn't get crucified tomorrow alongside InGen.

****

Brendan rubbed a hand over his face and squeezed his eyes closed in an attempt to ease the headache that was slowly building. After receiving intelligence last week from a reliable informant, he knew something big was being planned in the Washington D.C. area. Unfortunately there were more than a dozen separate conferences and political meetings going on this weekend, and any one of those could be a potential target. Brendan knew if they could figure out which group was planning the attack then they might at least be able to narrow it down, and last night's work had paid off... slightly.

Freya had listened in on an interrogation of a known activist and had managed to glean a lot of what the home-grown terrorist had been thinking but not saying. At least they now knew it was not an Al Qaeda plot, which ruled out some of the political conferences being attended by some high ranking senators. But that still left the extreme right wing groups and the eco-terrorists. She did manage to get another name out of the man brought in for questioning: Kevin Francomb.

"Do we have anything on Francomb?" Brendan asked even though he knew his research team would have told him if they had uncovered anything of note.

"We're still searching. It's probably an alias."

Harper leaned out of his office and yelled. "Agent Dean, I thought I told you to go home and get some rest."

"Sir, we have a potential terrorist threat in the D.C. area and--"

"And you've been up thirty-six hours straight. You're no good to me if you're not in top shape, Agent."

"Yes, sir."

The others had the decency to look away as Brendan pulled on his jacket but offered assurances as he turned to walk away.

"We'll let you know immediately if anything turns up."

"See that you do," he threatened mildly.

Freya had left an hour earlier, tired from the mental energy exerted in the interview, and he knew he should have left at the same time. The mid-morning traffic across town to his small apartment was no worse than usual but he was relieved when he finally closed the door behind him and shut out the rest of the world. He stripped off his suit jacket and tie immediately, hanging both over the back of a chair. Kicking off his shoes, he gave them a nudge underneath the same chair before stripping off his pants to add to the pile of clothing laid out in readiness. He padded across the apartment into his bedroom in just his socks, boxers and opened dress shirt, pausing for a second to glance at his comfortable bed. He considered simply floppy down on top and going to sleep but he knew from past experience that he might not get the time to grab a shower later if... when the call came in.

The water was exactly what he needed though, having set it to just the right temperature and flow to massage tired and aching muscle without increasing the discomfort. He washed slowly, momentarily considering using the liquid soap for more than just a skin wash but he discarded that notion after a few strokes gained only the slightest twitch in response. Despite his photographic memory, he had no inclination to run a porn video through his head, deciding he needed sleep more than he needed sex with his own hand. Perhaps if there had been a willing partner waiting for him when he got home then it might have been different, but his last few attempts at a relationship had barely made it past a long weekend.

Most were attracted by his physical looks but quickly put off by both his occupation and his ability to recall everything he saw in minute detail. Those that didn't break it off right away often found excuses not to take his calls soon after meeting Freya, even though he insisted they were just work colleagues. If he didn't already know she had a major crush on Doctor Welles then Brendan might have accused her of deliberately sabotaging his relationships so she could have him all to herself. Still, he had thought as much once and she had doubled over in laughter, fully aware that although he didn't mind dating women occasionally, his preference ran to harder muscle and a dick.

He moaned and turned off the water, scrubbing his hair dry and wrapping himself in a towel before leaving the bathroom.

He missed having another man's dick in his mouth or ass; missed the scent, taste and feel of it lying heavy on his tongue, stretching him wide. His own dick twitched in sympathy but nothing more, his body too exhausted for even that fantasy. Climbing into his bed, he closed his eyes and fell asleep in seconds.

The ring-tone of his cell brought him awake, and he fumbled for it. "Agent Dean."

It was Freya. "Brendan? They found Francomb. They're bringing him in for questioning."

He glanced at the bedside clock, realizing it was 5 p.m. so he had slept almost seven hours. "I'm on my way."

****

InGen's presentation that afternoon had been met with a mixture of scientific curiosity and accusations of unethical practices but the organizers had asked the attendees to keep their views on hold until the full debate tomorrow. From his reserved seat in the first row, Emmett wished he had applied his own set of ethics and had refused the invitation to this year's conference. His research would be placed under a microscope tomorrow at his presentation, and no matter how humanitarian the endeavor, the way some of the attendees were baying for blood did not bode well for its reception. Unfortunately, he really did need the grants as even the most basic maintenance of Betty's enclosure was a constant drain on the Longreen's resources.

Dalton, the head of the Finance and Administration Department at Longreen Snake Reserve, had been trying to get the director to close down his research for the past two years due to the running costs. At least the Philadelphia incident had brought an increase in visitors into Longreen to look at the snakes, though if they expected to see Betty then they were sadly out of luck. Of course Dalton wanted even that to change now that Betty had found notoriety due to the incident. He believed that Betty should be put on public display in the hope she would draw in even more visitors to offset the cost of housing her and Emmett's research. If Director Higgs agreed then Emmett would have no choice in the matter as the only other option available at this time was convincing the US Government to reinstate their giant snake program, but then his research into a universal antivenin would have to take a backseat to military applications.

He didn't want that.

As the final presentation of the day came to an end, Emmett stood up and stretched out the kinks in his back from sitting so long. According to the conference's timetable, there would be only a short interval before the main restaurant began serving dinner and Emmett could already see people heading that way. After dinner was another one of those interminable meet and greet sessions but Emmett had checked his contract, and he only had to stay a minimum of one hour before he could escape. He smiled wryly as he recalled his first meeting with Monica, overhearing her talking to herself. She had been right about one thing, he did have social interaction issues, mostly because he spent so many of his waking hours on his research. He frowned. So maybe he had a little of the craziness going for him too if being dedicated to his research was a common factor in being a crazy, bug-eyed, mad scientist. Of course, the pasty skin was wrong as he spent a lot of time outdoors collecting snake specimens when not in the lab, and not just for research or for feeding Betty. People were scared of snakes and he was often called in when someone found a snake in their backyard. But the social interaction issues were dead on, and it meant he was seriously considering ordering up room service rather than brave the restaurant alone.

"Doctor Emmett?" Emmett turned and frowned at the eager-faced man of similar age to himself, who was holding out his hand. "I'm Dr. Peter Francomb of the Adrienne Center. I'm looking forward to hearing your presentation tomorrow..."

"Oh! Good. That's... good." Emmett reached back and shook Francomb's hand. It was hard to ignore the signs of interest that went beyond making a professional acquaintance. Francomb's eyes had dropped to appraise him, and the dilated pupils told Emmett that he liked what he saw.

"Perhaps you'd care to join me for dinner?" Francomb asked.

Emmett hesitated for a moment but he really didn't have any other plans and, for once, he liked the idea of a little company that might lead to even more pleasurable pursuits later. "Sure. Perhaps you can tell me about your work at the Adrienne Center."

Francomb smiled and led the way out of the hall towards the restaurant where others were already gathering to find tables. Francomb found a table in the far corner with ease, and it took a moment to realize that he had obviously made a reservation rather than leave such things to chance. Emmett gave a soft laugh. Reserving a table had never even occurred to him--or to the rest of those still waiting--so perhaps he did need to get out more.

"Something amuses you?"

Emmett smiled wider and flicked a hand. "I'd never have thought of booking a table in advance."

Francomb laughed. "I like to plan meticulously. I guess you don't get out of the lab to these conferences often enough."

"I'm not usually on the invitation list, and finances are tight."

"And your research far too important."

"There is that."

"I heard about the Philadelphia incident."

Emmett drew in a deep breath even though he had half expected to be asked about the incident. "Talking of plans... Let's just say things didn't go completely to plan in Philadelphia. Not that we had a lot of time to make any in the first place. People were dying, and if that giant python had gotten into the main sewer system under the city, then a lot more people would have died."

"How did you feel about the government stepping in and commandeering your life's work?"

"I... didn't have a lot of choice in the matter." Emmett looked across and smiled softly. "The whole point of my research is to save lives. Not just people but snakes too. Take away some of the fear that drives people to kill snakes indiscriminately." He looked away sadly before looking back at Francomb. "I did convince them to let me trank the python rather than kill it outright... but that didn't work out, unfortunately."

"So they destroyed it?"

Emmett blinked at the vehemence in Francomb's tone. "Actually... No. Betty did. My Scarlet Queen Boa," he added in case Francomb didn't have a clue that Betty was the name he'd given to his giant snake. "It fell in front of a commuter train while the two were fighting."

"Oh. I heard differently. Soldiers bragging that the military slaughtered it."

The memory of the decapitated head of the python tumbling across the platform after the fight played out in his mind. "No." Emmett shook himself inwardly and smiled. "Tell me about the Adrienne Center."

"Ah. Well, the center is used..."

Emmett partially tuned Francomb out as he glanced over the menu but some of his words caught at him. "So you're a wildlife preserve?"

"Not exactly. We rescue animals and arrange for them to be released back into the wild once they've recovered."

"That's a noble cause. Unfortunately, that could never happen with Betty. She was genetically modified far beyond the size of even the largest snake found in the natural world. It was necessary as she needed to be large enough to take the minute doses of venom and produce antibodies without harming her. Like InGen's dinosaurs, she would destroy the fragile ecosystem of her natural environment... if let loose."

"So you plan to destroy her once you have finished with your research."

Emmett noticed the hard edge to Francomb's voice and the tightness around his eyes.

"On the contrary, I want to keep her. The patents for a universal antivenin should cover her needs and ensure a long and healthy life."

"In captivity."

"Unfortunately... Yes. But as I said before, there really is no other choice. Due to her size, all her natural predators would become her prey, and the delicate balance would be lost. Other species would suffer... perhaps driving them to extinction. And when she and her offspring ran out of food, they would move towards the human settlements."

Francomb sat back with a hard smile and Emmett could see he was not convinced. There was a glint in his eyes that spoke of fanaticism at its worst and Emmett wished he'd gone back upstairs and ordered room service after all. He drew in a deep breath, ready to excuse himself, but Francomb reached out and placed his hand over Emmett's, squeezing it gently.

"My apologies, Doctor Emmett. I'm making you feel uncomfortable. Let's steer this conversation to safer topics." He frowned. "Doctor Emmett sounds so formal. Perhaps we can move to first name ter--"

"I prefer just Emmett," he interrupted smoothly. His parents had the whole Hippie thing going on when he and his sister were born, and combined with their fascination with South American myths and legends, it meant they gave him an unusual first name that had caused him a lot of grief at school.

"Okay... Emmett."

The rest of the meal went smoothly, but that creepy undercurrent never seemed to dissipate so Emmett neatly sidestepped the offer of going back to Francomb's room for... coffee. He regretted it the moment he got back to his own room, aware that it could be a while before he had another invitation for sex that didn't involve a solitary performance by his own hand.

****

Brendan slammed his hand down hard upon the tabletop, causing Kevin Francomb to jump. This wasn't how he had hoped to spend his Friday evening, and he used that annoyance to his advantage. From the corner of his eye he saw the slight lift of Freya's lips as Francomb gave up his secrets unintentionally to the telepath. She leaned forward.

"Tell me about your brother... Peter."

Kevin Francomb's eyes widened just a fraction but it was enough for Brendan to know they were on the right track. Brendan knew someone in the observation room would be pulling up the information on Peter Francomb and moments later they relayed the information to him through his concealed earpiece. He repeated enough of the information to convince Kevin that they knew more than he thought.

"Peter John Francomb. Doctor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, currently working for the Adrienne Center in Minnesota."

"Except that's not all he does, is it?" Freya continued, her eyes widening as Kevin revealed even more in his thoughts. "He's an eco-terrorist."

"How did you..?" Kevin shut his mouth but the panicked expression proved that Freya had found what they wanted.

Animal Rights activists came in varying colors, from the peaceful green protesters to the extremists--who had been known to set car-bombs to kill scientists heading up research involving animal test subjects. Brendan had a strong suspicion that Peter Francomb was closer to the violent end of the spectrum. He straightened when he recalled the list of conferences taking place over this weekend. There was one conference called The Ethics of Genetics, which was exploring the ethics of using gene therapy on animals. It had to be the target. He sent a thought Freya's way, and she nodded back.

They left the interrogation room together, pausing just outside. Freya quickly outlined the thoughts she had read.

"Peter Francomb may be the eco-terrorist behind the office bombing at the Miami Aquatic Research Institute, and releasing over a dozen dolphins back into the sea."

Brendan recalled the incident that took place just two weeks earlier. The Miami Aquatic Research Institute (M.A.R.I.) had been training dolphins for military applications--locating bombs, attacking enemy divers, underwater espionage using implanted camera/video feeds.

"There were two deaths at the M.A.R.I. bombing, so if it is him, then he's not afraid to take human lives as collateral damage."

They headed back towards the bullpen and Brendan pulled up the details of the conference for the rest of the team to see.

"We think this is the target. Raybon, I need a list of attendees and the agenda for this weekend." He glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was already 8pm. If this conference--or someone at it--was the intended target then they were running out of time as the conference ended tomorrow. Raybon went to work immediately and the information came up on the screen. Dr. Peter Francomb was listed as an attendee, but it was two of the presentations that caught Brendan's attention.

The first was a name that seemed to be uppermost in everyone's thoughts since the San Diego incident--InGen. The second--Emmett--was a name he had read in reports on the Philadelphia incident that had cost the lives of a number of innocent people, including Alan Sharpe, an FBI Agent whom Brendan had met a few years back. Both had used gene modifications to create monsters--dinosaurs and giant snakes. However, he also saw a connection between Emmett and the Miami Aquatic Research Institute. Agent Sharpe had requested the use of Dr. Monica Bonds' dolphin research to provide Emmett's boa with a tracking system for locating the giant python. If Francomb had taken a dislike to her training of Bottlenose dolphins to be used by the military then he might have taken a dislike to Emmett as well. So either InGen or Dr. Emmett could be the target--or maybe Francomb wanted to take out both of them.

"Agent Dean?"

Brendan looked back at Raybon. "You found something?"

"InGen gave a presentation this afternoon that caused quite a stir, but the real debate will be held tomorrow morning in the main conference hall."

"And the schedule tonight?"

"There's a reception at the hotel that started a few minutes ago. Drs. Wu and Yannick from InGen, and Dr. Emmett from Longreen Snake Reserve will be in attendance."

"We need to know what Francomb's planning--and if us having his brother has set a contingency plan in motion," Brendan stated softly.

It meant interrogating Kevin Francomb further to see what risks his brother would be prepared to take in order to make a very public and violent statement in favor of animal rights. If Brendan was right and Francomb was the mastermind behind the M.A.R.I. bombing, then he was not the kind to seek recognizable fame and martyrdom by smuggling a gun into the conference. Finding a place to set up a sniper position would be difficult at best, and every other option increased the chance of Francomb being identified as the shooter, and taken down. It was far more likely that he would stick to his M.O. and obtain an explosive device that could be placed under the tables used by the panel of geneticists' in tomorrow's debate. A small bomb would take out Wu, Yannick and Emmett with minimal collateral damage to the other scientists attending the conference. Francomb could detonate it from further back in the audience within the packed hall using a cellphone, and no one would be any the wiser.

Public and violent, and with minimal risk to himself.

Raybon called out. "You need to see this."

Brendan scanned the details and saw instantly what had caught Raybon's attention. Kevin Francomb had worked in construction, laying demolition charges, and Peter Francomb had studied Biochemistry. It meant the Francombs had the necessary skills to build, set and detonate bombs.

Back in the interrogation room, Brendan honed his questions to a finer point, hoping Kevin Francomb would inadvertently give away all his secrets to Freya.

"We know you and your brother were responsible for the bombing at the Miami Aquatic Research Institute. Who set off the bomb? You or your brother?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Freya leaned forward, reading Francomb's mind. "We know Peter created the bomb and you delivered it to the office. Who detonated it?"

"I want my lawyer."

Brendan smiled nastily. "You gave up your rights when you committed acts of domestic terrorism. Only thing you're going to get is a cell in Gitmo." Brendan leaned back a fraction. "Do yourself a favor, Kevin. Tell us who the target is and about your brother's back up plan."

"I'm not saying anything."

Freya shook her head in frustration but Brendan doubted that Francomb had figured out she was a telepath. It was more likely that he was deliberately focusing intently on a particular image to avoid giving any more answers to questions. He and Freya had hit this kind of mental roadblock a few times in the past and knew they would have to walk away and come back later. Except, Brendan didn't really know how much time they had. If the plan had been to set a bomb at tomorrow's debate then Peter Francomb had two choices; he could postpone the attack or bring it forward. If he chose to bring it forward to the reception then the bomb might already be set to detonate at any minute.

With that in mind, Brendan assembled his team. They had to get to Peter Francomb before he attacked.

****

Emmett wandered down to the reception with reluctance and found the conference room just as crowded as before, except this time most of the attendees had chosen to dress up a little. Some of the women had gone completely over the top with low-cut cocktail dresses while some of the men wore expensive suits. The conference organizers had spared no expense this time around and Emmett could see waiters darting through the crowd with trays loaded with hors d'oeuvre and drinks. He snagged a glass, gulping down the contents for Dutch courage before heading towards the lone table on a low dais at the front portion of the room. He put the empty glass on another waiter-held tray in passing and eased through the crowd with care.

Someone grabbed his arm and he turned, quickly hiding his dismay when he realized who had caught him.

"Peter!"

"Emmett, I was hoping to catch up with you here."

Emmett glanced over his shoulder, seeing relative safety less than ten feet away in the form of Susie Kang and some of the others who had been booked to make presentations.

"I'm sorry but I have to go. I have to fulfill my contractual obligations," he tried to act conscience-stricken but feared it came over too unrealistic judging by Peter's tight-lipped expression and cold eyes.

"Perhaps later then."

"Yeah... Later."

Emmett tried not to sigh in relief as he turned back towards the others, especially as he wasn't exactly pleased to go there either. He managed to get right to the dais before Peter caught up with him again.

"I just wanted to say I'm sorry it had to be this way."

Before Emmett could answer, Peter dropped a cigarette packet into the waste bin beside the table and disappeared back into the crowd, leaving Emmett feeling uncomfortable. A commotion on the other side of the room by the door pulled his thoughts away from Peter Francomb and his strange body language and words. He watched as a group of people made their way through the crowd, fanning out in all directions. The one heading his way was scanning the crowd as he moved through the knots of people, and Emmett had worked with enough three-letter organizations to recognize the way he wore his suit like a uniform. FBI? He couldn't quite see the agent's face, just glimpses, but he focused on the dark hair with its stylized 'just got out of bed' look that seemed all the fashion these days.

When the agent finally looked straight in Emmett's direction, he saw instant recognition and a renewed move towards him. Emmett decided to meet him partway, curiosity getting the better of him. The agent reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and Emmett felt that chill of danger spreading over him, remembering the claustrophobic tunnels beneath the Philadelphia water treatment plant and the sound of gunfire and screams. It was a badge, and Emmett barely had time to read the credentials, noting the name and agency, before Agent Dean was asking him about Peter.

"He was just here." Glancing around, it was if his eyes were instantly drawn straight to Peter's. "There!" He pointed at Francomb, and the hatred in the man's eyes was visible even from fifteen feet away.

Dean shoved a hand on Emmett's chest as Emmett made to follow him through the crowd but, instead, he felt a massive blow to his back that threw him forward into Dean... and then nothing as his head slammed into the floor.

He came round to the sound of people screaming, and smoke, momentarily taken back to the disco and the panic as two giant snakes engaged in battle. The sound was muffled though, and he couldn't seem to focus, seeing double of everything. Someone was struggling to get out from under him, and he tried to roll but something else was pinning him down in turn. He retched instead, barely missing the other guy. The man managed to wriggle free and Emmett tried to focus on him. Dean. Agent Dean with the bed-mussed hair--and with blood trickling down the side of his face from a gash just below the hairline.

"Don't try to move," Dean ordered.

He choked out a laugh that almost sounded like an hysterical giggle because he still couldn't move his legs even though he wanted to crawl away from the stench of his own vomit. Emmett tried to focus on his surroundings instead, and half-smiled at a man lying nearby until he realized the eyes were open and unblinking in death. His vision was doubled, and he watched two copies of an attractive but grime and dust-covered woman making her way towards them through the litter of bodies and debris. Some of the screaming had stopped, replaced by pain and fear-filled cries and low moans.

"Don't try to move," Dean repeated, and he felt a hand gently caress his face, pushing back some the hair that had flopped over his forehead when he let his head sink back down to the cool floor.

More people arrived and he half listened to the conversations going on around him. "This one's dead." "He got away in the panic." "Move the minor injuries to the lobby." "Bomb Forensics team is looking for the blast seat."

"Cigarette packet," Emmett murmured as his mind reeled back to Francomb dropping the packet into the trash, realizing why it had played on his mind. "Wasn't empty. Too heavy."

A woman's voice. "He dropped a cigarette packet into the waste bin by the table."

Weird. It was exactly what he was thinking. So strange. Someone else was kneeling beside him and Dean's reassuring hand was gone from his face. He felt the panic building as he lost that tiny thread to a world that was already muted and losing focus, calming when strong fingers slipped around his and held his hand tight.

"I'm still here. Let the paramedics take care of you."

Emmett could barely concentrate on what one of the paramedics was saying to him, he just let them move and touch him as the weight lifted from his legs. He murmured annoyance at the collar fitted round his neck even though he knew they were bracing him in case of spinal injuries.

It was a bomb, he thought. Like the one at Monica's offices. But she was fine.

The woman's voice returned. "Dr. Yannick was killed outright. Wu is in critical condition."

"We should have gotten here earlier."

"Not your fault, Brendan."

My fault, Emmett thought. Knew there was something wrong with him. Should have known.

"No," the woman stroked the side of his face. "You couldn't have known he'd do this."

Different voices came from above him. "We need to turn him."

Another voice answered but he couldn't see either of them clearly. "Can't give him anything. Not with the head injury."

When the world came back he was in a quiet room with an antiseptic smell that reminded him of his lab. Agent Dean was beside him, a pristine white bandage taped over the gash. He looked washed-out beneath the artificial light and his hair was even more mussed than before.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Doc."

****

While Brendan waited for Emmett to wake up, he had kept himself updated on the manhunt for Peter Francomb. In the panic surrounding the explosion, Francomb had managed to get away. Playing back the hotel security footage, he had managed to follow Francomb's movements through the stampeding crowd to the west exit where a car had been waiting. Francomb was gone long before the first city responder arrived on the scene.

Twenty-two dead and a further sixty-three injured, a few of them like Drs. Wu and Emmett were in critical condition. Those closest to the bomb were hit by fragmentation from the wooden table and metal waste bin as well as the percussive effects of the explosion. Those further away were hit by bodies thrown like rag dolls, or by glass and plaster from where the ceiling above the bomb had collapsed, bringing one of the heavy, ornate chandeliers crashing down. For such a small packet, the bomb had done a massive amount of damage.

Most of the walking wounded had gone to one hospital while the more critically injured had been flown to another to ease the workload on the already over-stretched E.R.s and surgical units. Brendan had sent Raybon with Dr. Wu while he stayed with Emmett. At least the gash on his head had dissuaded anyone from questioning his presence on the helicopter. It was easy enough to send a quick message to Freya asking her to pave the way at the hospital so he could remain with Emmett and have additional guards placed at the door. Brendan hadn't needed to hear Freya's words to know that Emmett was a far more personal target to Francomb. He had seen it in the man's eyes as he detonated that bomb, with all that rage and resentment aimed straight at Emmett. He just wondered what Emmett could have done to deserve that amount of enmity but then fanatics were rarely sane and reasonable people. Perhaps Emmett had looked at him wrongly, or slighted him in conversation. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he had pointed out Francomb in the crowd, betraying his position to Brendan's people.

Whatever the cause, Freya had snatched a little of the animosity from Francomb's thoughts and knew he had taken Emmett's rejection or actions extremely personally. Once Francomb knew Emmett had survived the explosion, then there was a strong chance that he would try to take him out again. The need to remain anonymous was now long passed, with Francomb's face plastered across the media networks, so Brendan had to be prepared for any means of attack.

He noticed Emmett stirring so he moved over to his bedside, waiting as the sandy lashes flickered several times before he saw the glint of blue in the eye that wasn't almost swollen shut and surrounded by a massive bruise.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Doc."

Emmett blinked slowly, surveying the room and Brendan preempted his first question.

"You're in the hospital. What do you recall?"

"Something hit me from behind. Noise, smoke, people screaming." He slurred, speaking with difficulty, before taking a better look at Brendan; his good eye narrowed a fraction. "You. I remember you... Agent Dean." His blue-eyed gaze moved up Brendan's face and, self-consciously, Brendan touched the bandage.

"Just a minor injury."

Emmett tried to move but gasped in pain.

"I wouldn't try that again," he advised.

He decided not to mention that the force hitting Emmett's back was the mass and kinetic energy of a man's body as it was hurled away by the explosion. If Emmett had been standing any closer when the bomb went off then it would have been him lying on a metal table down in the city morgue with massive internal damage and fragmentation wounds. If anything, that man had probably saved Emmett's life as he had shielded both of them from the smaller but just as lethal projectiles formed by the fragmenting table and metal waste bin. The experts were still trying to find all of the pieces of Susie Kang, who had taken the brunt of the explosion alongside Yannick and several others who had been standing around that table.

"Tell me about Peter Francomb," Brendan asked, handing over a cool glass of water with a straw. He watched as Emmett took a careful sip on the undamaged side of his face.

Emmett glanced at him and sighed before handing back the glass. "There's not a lot to say. He approached me after the presentations and invited me to join him for dinner. Of course, now I'm not sure if he was propositioning me... or just trying to get me alone so he could kill me."

"Propositioned?"

"He was hitting on me... successfully until he went all creepy over the Philadelphia incident." Emmett clarified even though Brendan knew what he meant by propositioned.

It was just Brendan hadn't seen any indication in either man's file that they were gay or bi, and Emmett hadn't exactly pinged his gaydar, but then, neither of them were looking at their best right now. He'd discarded his suit jacket as it was dirty and covered in blood smears, and Emmett looked pale and a little haggard with a bruise covering most of one side of his swollen face from where he'd hit the floor. Emmett had fractured a cheekbone, and had a cut lip that had needed a couple of stitches and made talking difficult. They had stripped him out of his torn clothing in the E.R. and put him in a pale blue hospital gown that brought out the color of his one good eye.

Brendan looked away but the sight was already committed to memory along with every other image since the day he was born. Perfect recall... both a gift and a curse depending on what he saw--and he had seen so much death, suffering and destruction today. He looked back and focused on the relatively unharmed side of Emmett's face while he recalled the photo image from the file. Emmett wasn't a classic beauty but he had a vulnerable tilt of his mouth and liquid blue eyes that made Brendan feel protective towards him. The bruising, swelling, and the split lip simply added to that vulnerability, making him see beyond the two-dimensional photograph in his mind's eye to the real man lying in the bed before him, and he felt intrigued. If they had met under social rather than professional circumstances then Brendan might have been interested in seeing just where that intrigue took them. However, this was professional--business not pleasure. There was a eco-terrorist running around who had just added another twenty-two people to his death toll, and Freya was convinced that he wanted to add Emmett to that total.

The rejection certainly explained Francomb's previously inexplicable hatred towards Emmett.

A knock on the door was followed by Freya's soft voice calling out. He let her in, frowning when she held up a bag.

"I thought you could use a change of clothes."

Brendan accepted the bag and peered inside before pulling out a black t-shirt and sweat pants. "Hardly the professional image I'd like to portray on the job," he murmured but he knew Freya would pick up his grateful thoughts. Leaving her watching over Emmett, he quickly changed in the adjoining bathroom, glad to remove the dust and blood covered suit pants and shirt. He spent a little longer having a quick wash before pulling the purchase tags off the clothing and dressing. He owed Freya lunch for this.

Voices caught at his hearing just as he reached for the door handle, and Brendan cursed when he realized he had left his gun in its shoulder holster, hanging over the side of a chair. He opened the door slowly and carefully, peering through the slit and cursed anew at the sight of Peter Francomb holding a gun pointed at Freya. The crude disguise of a dark wig and mustache was not enough to fool Brendan or Freya but the officers outside had probably not seen beyond the white doctor's coat, stethoscope, and stolen name tag.

"You don't want to do this," Freya was saying, hands raised defensively. "Look at him, Peter. You already taught him a lesson. You already punished him for what he did to you."

"He's just like the others. Playing fast and loose with the lives of innocent creatures. Using them to further military objectives with no compassion for the animal. Taking them from their homes, stripping them of their dignity and freedom and turning them into a circus act to perform for the ignorant masses of humanity. His kind doesn't deserve to walk upon this planet. He should be made as extinct as the animals his kind have destroyed in their quest for power and money."

"You know he's not like that, Peter. That's why you went to him. That's why you invited him to talk with you. To share a meal... and I'm sorry he didn't want more than that."

Brendan knew she was reading Francomb's thoughts and turning them back on him, and he could see Francomb hesitating just a fraction but Freya was only playing for time. She was perhaps even more aware than Brendan of the fragile state of this man's mind, and he saw the exact moment when Francomb dismissed all of Freya's pleading for Emmett's life. The gun turned towards Emmett and Francomb's finger tightened on the trigger. At that same moment, Brendan leaped out, smashing into Francomb and grabbing the gun hand. The shot went wide, and the two officers stationed outside the room burst in with gun's ready. One ducked as a second shot fired, hitting the wall just above the officer's head. Unhampered by injuries, Francomb slammed Brendan into the wall, making himself an easy target as both officers fired two shots apiece, but not before Francomb managed to get off one more shot.

Dazed, Brendan turned in time to watch Francomb crumple, dead before he hit the floor.

It was over.

Brendan slid down to the floor, leaving a smear of blood on the wall behind him.

****

Emmett watched in shock as the drama played out before him. He noticed that all the attention was on Francomb and that no one had noticed Agent Dean taking a hit during the final moments.

"Agent Dean!" He called out hoarsely, feeling the tug of the stitches, but it was loud enough to gain the woman's attention, and she looked to her fellow agent.

"Brendan!" She crouched down beside him, reaching out tentatively before throwing desperate orders over her shoulder. "Get a doctor in here! Now!"

Medical staff swarmed into the room, and when they left only several police officers and the body of Peter Francomb remained in the room with Emmett, and even they disappeared half an hour later. In all that time, no one seemed to notice him lying so still in the bed, too wracked with pain and too traumatized to make a move or sound. Another hour passed before a nurse peeked around the door, almost surprised when she saw him lying there. She bustled around him, checking his temperature and refilling his glass with cool water before placing it within easy reach.

"In all this commotion, I suspect no one brought you anything to eat. I'll see what I can rustle up from the kitchen for you."

She patted his leg and left, leaving him all alone once more. Eventually he dozed off but awoke to the squeak of wheels as a gurney was rolled in. Almost absently, he noticed a covered tray on the bedside table and figured the nurse had made good on her promise to find him something to eat but had decided to let him sleep. As he still wasn't that hungry, he watched to see what was happening across the room instead. The curtain was pulled around the second bed but Emmett could make out indistinct shapes as nurses, orderlies and doctors moved around. One by one they all left, with the last nurse pulling aside the curtain before leaving the room, allowing him to see the bed's occupant for the first time.

It was Agent Dean.

The door opened softly and the attractive woman tiptoed in. Her eyes went straight to Emmett, and she smiled and blushed as if he had just openly paid her a compliment, but then her attention went to the other man. Brendan. She had called him Brendan earlier. The name suited him. He wondered if he was going to be okay. The woman turned and smiled.

"He's going to be out of action for a while, but the doctors believe he should make a full recovery."

"How did you know--?"

Her lips twitched. "You looked a little concerned."

"Oh."

She smiled again.

And that was how the rest of his life began.

With nothing else to do, he, Freya and Brendan struck up a friendship and it was the most natural thing in the world to invite Brendan to stay with him in Elkins while they both recovered, especially after Brendan's boss said he didn't want to see him again for a full month. It seemed Brendan was just as driven as him in his work, almost living and breathing for the job.

"Well, I have to admit I'd love to see Betty."

Emmett smiled happily even though it pulled on his stitches and bruised face. He looked to Freya to see if she was interested in joining them but she held up both hands defensively.

"Oh no. No snakes or spiders. And anyway, I promised Michael I'd spend some time working with him. Now seems a good time."

With his head injury, flying was out of the question so they took the train, and when he looked back on this time several years later, Emmett realized that it was this train journey that had first opened up his mind to possibilities beyond simple friendship, though he wasn't aware of it at the time. They had talked for hours on the journey, sharing ideas and memories, finding common interests and making plans for the month ahead.

Of course, Higgs refused to let Emmett continue with his research until he was fully recovered, which would have left Emmett feeling frustrated and bored in the past, but this time he had Brendan. They stuck close to Elkins at first, with Emmett showing him favorite places for a single man to get a decent home-cooked meal, and even catching a movie, which they both ripped to pieces for the science and law enforcement mistakes.

"If any of my team pulled that stunt I'd send them back to basic training!" Brendan declared over pizza before trading stories on the mistakes of rookie agents and barely qualified scientists. The only difficult part was trying not to laugh too hard even though the stitches had come out the day before. His face, literally, hurt too much.

Emmett waited a full week before introducing Brendan to Betty, not wanting to risk her smelling the blood on both of them from their respective injuries and thinking Brendan was food. He was so proud and pleased to find Brendan just as fascinated with snakes--and with Betty in particular. He recalled that Agent Sharpe had held the same awed fascination when meeting Betty for the first time, whereas Monica had panicked and run from the enclosure. Emmett showed Brendan how to handle the non-venomous food-snakes, and by the end of that week, Brendan was hand-feeding Betty with Emmett by his side.

At the end of the third week, both of them were healing up nicely. Emmett's face was less tender to touch and still sported greenish/yellow bruising over half his face, but even that was fading. His lip had healed, though it still tingled when touched in a way that was almost pleasant. Even his fractured cheek was mending well, and the backaches had subsided over this last week. Brendan's bruising was at the same stage at Emmett's, and the gunshot wound to his shoulder, a through-and-through that had missed anything vital, had healed quickly. Emmett noticed that he still favored that arm despite religiously following the exercise routine set out by the hospital doctor.

With just over a week left before Brendan returned to duty, neither of them had anticipated a change in their friendship.

A casual brush in the hallway as they passed in opposite directions; a smile as they talked over coffee in the kitchen, and a press of bodies as Brendan reached over him for the beer he had set down on the table next to the Emmett's side of the couch as they watched a movie. It was the last unintentional move that brought them face to face, with Brendan over-stretching and losing his balance, and them ending up looking straight into each other's eyes to see realization reflecting back.

Perhaps they had both been too wounded and fragile to notice they'd been flirting with each other for weeks.

Before Brendan could pull back, Emmett leaned forward and kissed him, and once he had started kissing him, neither of them wanted to stop. The movie played on forgotten as they slowly and carefully began to explore this new side of their friendship. Emmett felt the brush of fingers across the still healing side of his face, but the gentle caress gave only pleasure rather than pain. He moved them so Brendan wouldn't put any stress on his healing shoulder, and he wouldn't strain his back, ending with Brendan straddling him.

Warm hands slipped under his t-shirt to stroke across his chest, thumbs brushing over sensitive nipples, and Emmett arched up into the touch even as his own hands slid underneath Brendan's t-shirt to caress up and down from hip to rib cage. He moaned his appreciation into the kiss but it ended in a gasp as his back twinged in discomfort.

Brendan pulled back, lips swollen from kissing and eyes darkened with both pleasure and concern. For a moment he thought Brendan wanted them to stop for his sake, but until that first kiss, Emmett hadn't realized how much he wanted this. He didn't want it to stop; not now or ever.

Brendan smiled. "Let's take this upstairs." To a far more comfortable bed remained unspoken between them.

After Brendan stood up, Emmett accepted the hand offered down to him for balance only, not wanting to put an end to this promising new stage in their friendship by causing Brendan pain. Moving to the bedroom only added to the anticipation, and they moved together as soon as they crossed the threshold, touching and caressing, kissing deeply yet with tenderness and care. Emmett stripped off his t-shirt before reaching for Brendan's, discarding both in a pile as he stepped back to admire the man standing bare-chested before him. He reached out and traced his finger over the small pucker of scar tissue knowing there was an even larger scar on the back from where the bullet tore through flesh. His face was caressed in turn, with Brendan's finger tracing along the healing cheekbone before brushing over his lips. He stepped forward and kissed Emmett again tenderly as his hands moved down to gather up the edges of Emmett's sweat pants, pushing them down slowly to free Emmett's erection. His fingers wrapped around the hard cock, jacking him slowly. The kiss ended and Emmett dropped his forehead onto Brendan's shoulder, savoring the pleasure building, but he stepped back when he knew he was too close to coming. He didn't want his first time with Brendan to end here. He wanted to come with Brendan, wanted to see him fall apart before he fell too.

Somehow they both ended up naked and in Emmett's bed, and when Emmett finally let his climax rip through him, he felt the answering stutter of Brendan's hips and the warmth of his release coating his fingers in turn. They were panting as if they'd run a marathon, hearts beating crazily and skin slicked with sweat. Emmett could feel the semen rapidly cooling between them, sticky and damp on their stomachs, and he laughed softly, almost giddy with pleasure that had more to do with simply being here with Brendan than with the glorious physical act of sex. Brendan leaned up and looked down at him, eyes warm and lips curled into a smile.

"Guess we both needed that," he murmured before dipping in to kiss Emmett quickly before pulling back.

Emmett watched as Brendan climbed out of the bed and brought a clean washcloth back from the bathroom, silently promising that he'd do clean-up duties next time... if there was a next time.

"Will there be a next time?"

Brendan cocked his head to the side. "If I have any say in it."

"You do."

"Then, yeah. If I had my way, I wouldn't let you out of this bed for the rest of the week."

Emmett grinned and pulled Brendan down for another kiss before settling in beside him. He wasn't aware of sleeping but at some point he must have turned over to ease the ache in his back. He awoke to the weird sensation of being watched, and looked up sleepily at Brendan. Fingers trailed down his back carefully, barely brushing the skin.

"Your back's covered in bruises... almost healed."

Eventually, all the bruising would fade away to nothing, leaving only the slight scarring on his lip as a physical reminder of Peter Francomb and the bombing. Even his memories would slowly dim, but he knew Brendan did not have that luxury. For Brendan, the memory would always be sharp, like a movie playing inside his head. He knew Brendan would not be able to un-see the carnage, or even every stage of the healing process as the mass of bruises slowly faded, and now he would have that little video of these healing bruises on Emmett's back to add to the bitter collection of memories.

Emmett knew he couldn't take away those memories but he resolved then and there to make better memories for Brendan, ones he could replay on bad days, to remind him that there was good in this world too. Turning carefully onto his back, he pushed back the covers as far as he could and let Brendan watch as he reached for his slowly filling cock. He kept his eyes on Brendan, open and trusting, and filled with a love that he had been unaware of holding for this man until this moment. He let Brendan drink in the sight of him as he pleasured himself, strangely unabashed where in the past he would have squirmed in embarrassment at being seen so open and vulnerable.

He came hard, eyes locked onto Brendan's face and seeing the flush of pleasure, knowing he had given Brendan something more precious than any material gift. He had given him a memory in full and glorious Technicolor, and as Brendan gave into his own desire and wrapped Emmett's fingers around his cock, Emmett knew he would have plenty more memories to share with Brendan.

END