“I’m sure it looks more impressive under better circumstances.” She hoped so, at least. (Then again, most places looked better when it wasn’t pouring rain and windy enough to knock out electricity to the entire area.)
Her traveling companion didn’t even look up. “I’ve stayed in worse.”
Well, sure, so had Nikki, but the whole point was that they didn’t want worse. The goal was better — “liveable plus,” on the comfort scale. If she’d wanted to keep scrambling, she would have stayed in Spain. “Sure,” she said. There really wasn’t much else to say.
Actually, no, she did have more to say. “Is everything okay? Because in Valencia you seemed on board with this whole thing. And now you seem — not on board? Not happy? You’re not stuck with me forever.”
In the passenger seat, Calle flinched. Okay, wrong thing to say there. Nikki flicked the windshield wipers off, and the rain obscuring the view made the car seem even more enclosed. Private, at least, though safe was probably too much to hope for.
“I’m on board,” Calle said. It sounded less like rote repeating than Nikki expected.
“Okay,” she said. And waited. Calle had been getting progressively less talkative since they arrived in the States, but three words? That was ridiculous.
“I thought I was alone,” Calle said. “Maybe the only one left.” She was staring out the window while she spoke, so Nikki took the opportunity to watch her. “But James is — he’s fine. He’s happy. Which is good. But he didn’t —” She broke off, and turned to meet Nikki’s eyes briefly. “I feel guilty. But I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
She could live with that. “Want to move in instead?” The rain wasn’t exactly letting up, but she didn’t want to sit in the car all night, either. It wasn’t a big car.
The inside of the house was more welcoming than the outside, in that it was dry. Of course, no electricity meant no lights. No running water, either. They’d been expecting that. But — “I was actually expecting more furniture,” Nikki said.
“More than zero?” Calle asked.
“Yeah. More than zero.” She turned in a full circle, flashlight beam illuminating walls, floor, walls — appliances, which would be great as soon as any of them actually worked — but no furniture. “Are the sleeping bags in the trunk? We could sort everything else out in the morning?”
Not that they had much else to unpack. Living like you were a half-step ahead of people (aliens, in Calle’s case? she was still a little unclear on that part) trying to kill you didn't lend itself to collecting a lot of possessions. It was more the spirit of the thing, really. A ceremonial marking of their move-in.
"You should sleep," Calle said. "I'll keep watch." And where there had been a person, there was suddenly a cat, eyes glinting in the low light.
"You're going to need sleep eventually," Nikki told the cat. Not even an ear twitch. She sighed. "And don't think I didn't notice that you also just un-volunteered yourself for going back out in the rain."
It was too bad they hadn't been able to figure out the manual release for the garage door. (It couldn't possibly be as difficult as it looked by flashlight.) That was the whole point of a garage, after all -- so you didn't have to go out in the rain to get to your car. And to deter car thieves, she supposed, but the whole 'quaint New England town' thing was probably supposed to cover that part.
Still, (and despite the extra car trip) it was surprisingly comforting to hear the soft paw-steps marking time around the house as she drifted off. Calle had spent nearly all the time since their first meeting in a human form. The cat was nice. And it was a relief to know that the shapeshifting thing wasn't going to be an immediate 'requires discussion' issue. Nikki hadn't expected a problem, but she hadn't expected 90% of the drive from New York to take place in silence, either.
(She definitely hadn’t expected to wake up in the night and feel a cat hunkered down by her head, but she was pretty sure it wasn't a dream.)
Morning came, but it couldn’t really be called the dawning of a new day. More like a slight lightening of grayness, mixed with rain. Less wind, though, so Nikki held back an immediate “no way” when instead of a cat, a dog came bounding into the room. It trotted back and forth between her sleeping bag and the door a few times, and she rolled her eyes. “Are you sure? It’s not exactly nice outside.”
Calle, apparently, was sure, so off they went. The rain had one benefit — no one else was out in it, so they had the neighborhood streets to themselves. It looked like a nice enough area; houses, a couple of swimming pools, a surprising amount of trees. And mailboxes, which was something of a novelty to both of them, as far as she knew. She felt ridiculous checking the one at the end of their driveway — who would be sending them mail? — but there was a flyer listing the town’s storm preparedness services in there, which was nice. If they’d had any idea where the town center was located, they could’ve gone there to charge their phones, take showers, and fill up containers of drinking water.
“This should come with a map,” she said to Calle, waving the page in the dog’s direction. There was a website address instead, which really didn’t do them much good at the moment.
They stopped at the garage door, which did turn out to be significantly less mysterious in daylight. It stuck a little, but opened more than enough to move the car inside. As soon as it was closed again, Calle was shifting again; this time into a mouse. (Who knew mice were such good climbers? Right up Nikki’s pants and into the front pocket of her sweatshirt.) “No need for a towel; nice,” she said. They didn’t actually have any towels, as far as she knew, so that worked out well.
There was no response from her pocket. Not that she’d really expected one. A quick peek seemed to show Calle deeply asleep. “Once again getting out of the lifting and carrying,” Nikki said quietly. “I see how it is.”
Back inside, she did a more thorough exploration of the house. She’d spent the night on the ground floor, tucked into a corner of what seemed to be the master bedroom. It had its own bathroom, anyway. She wasn’t crazy about sleeping right next to the front door on a regular basis, though. And there were two perfectly good bedrooms upstairs.
What did people do with a whole house full of space, usually? She supposed the master bedroom might make a good workout room. Or guest bedroom, but they hadn’t really gotten to the point of inviting guests. Other than the soon to not be a master bedroom, the ground floor featured a big empty room that opened onto a patio in the back. Probably it was supposed to be a living room? It was hard to tell without furniture. And a kitchen, that one was nice and obvious. You could loop around from front door through the living room, the kitchen (and whatever you called a tiny room with a washing machine and a dryer in it — a mini laundromat?), and straight into the garage.
Nikki dumped all the food in the kitchen, and everything else in the upstairs loft. (Lofts, she decided, definitely got a seal of approval. It was like an inside balcony that overlooked your own house. Plus, she was pretty sure Calle would find some form that was suitable for leaping from one floor to the other, and that would be a sight to see.)
Calle slept through it all. There were a few tense moments where Nikki was worried she jostled her pocket too much, but it wasn’t like Calle couldn’t sleep somewhere else if it was a problem. The hardest part was actually when Nikki stopped moving, and could feel the mouse breathing — tiny ribs expanding and contracting against her stomach. It was soothing enough to make her want to take a nap, but it was her turn to keep watch, so she kept moving. It was important to know the house well enough to move around in the dark, and it wouldn’t hurt to plan out some evacuation routes. She ate lunch (they’d picked up a bunch of trail mix on their way out of New York) and counted the stairs, wondering if they could take out the wall between the two closets in the upstairs bedrooms.
Technically, she was supposed to be expecting a phone call. But the storm had been worse in New York, and the Foundation warned them things might be delayed for a few days. “Take a week to settle in,” May had said. “It will be relaxing.” It might be more relaxing with running water, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. They’d figure something out.
It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Calle emerged, shifted to human, and said, “Someone’s coming.” Then she yawned and looked embarrassed.
“Mice do not have super hearing,” Nikki said. “No way.”
“I might have put a few sensors out last night. Is there more trail mix?”
“Seriously? I mean, yeah, of course, trail mix — there’s plenty. Are these like, technology sensors, or psychic sensors?” After their time in New York, she wasn’t going to assume anything.
But Calle just gave her a look. “I think you spent too much time with the kids when we were staying with James. They’re vibration-based. Isn’t that a spy thing?”
It was more words than Calle had strung together since Northville, so Nikki couldn’t even work up a proper retort for the spy dig. “I was more like admin support,” she said. “We didn’t get any of the toys.” (Just spreadsheets and data points, mostly. She’d wanted more until she started getting it, and then it was too late to do anything about the realization that knowing more just made you more of a liability.)
The knock on the door distracted them both. Nikki was torn between pulling her gun — if it was an enemy, she’d want it ready — and changing her shirt — if it was their neighbors, she was going to make a horrible first impression. Some part of her thought process must have showed up on her face, because Calle smiled. “You look fine. I’ll get the door, you’re on backup?”
The moved quickly towards the front door, and Calle pulled it open to reveal — two kids. (Not that kids couldn’t be a) dangerous, or b) neighbors.)
“Hi!” one of the kids said. “I’m Sabri Zabela, this is PJ. You don’t look like you were expecting us.”
“Hello,” Calle said, in a not entirely welcoming way. Nikki moved so she could cover the patio entrance, in case the kids were just a distraction. “We weren’t expecting any visitors, no.”
“We’re here to set up your point to point system with the Foundation. It was supposed to be my dad, actually, but they’re pretty busy with storm cleanup.” Sabri seemed to think it was perfectly normal to be questioned on their front porch, which was probably a good sign. And May did say the Foundation would be providing some kind of transportation between the house and office.
“You seem a little young to be a technician,” Calle said. “Is Zabela a family name?”
PJ frowned at the implied insult, but Sabri laughed. “It’s a big family,” she said. “Bigger now; which is how we wound up connected with the Foundation.” Her voice turned serious. “On behalf of the Zabelas, I offer you our deepest sympathies on the loss of your planet.”
Calle froze, and there was a moment of silence that seemed to stretch between the four of them. Nikki was one hundred percent aware that she had no idea what the conversation was about. So far it seemed to be going as well as could be expected, as far as she could tell. Sympathies were good, right?
“Just the Zabela family?” Calle asked, finally.
“I’m not authorized to speak for any of the other families,” Sabri said. (Nikki wondered whether she should be capitalizing ‘families’ in her head.)
“I am,” PJ said, speaking for the first time. “PJ’s short for my last name, not my first. The Pjerin family offers our deepest sympathies on the loss of your planet. As well as sanctuary, should you ask for it.”
That was a big deal, apparently. Even Sabri looked surprised, and Calle looked about two seconds from transforming into a cheetah and setting a new land speed record. Since that was (hopefully) not what the kids were aiming for, Nikki cleared her throat carefully. (She wanted to reach out, but wasn’t at all sure if it would be welcome.) Since PJ didn’t seem to expect an immediate answer, Nikki said, “So, the Foundation?” Might as well give Calle a minute to get her footing back if she could.
“Sure,” Sabri answered. “The Maria Stark Foundation — we met up with them a couple years back, when baby Harry showed up. He’s got a sort of temporal slipperiness problem, so we have a standing ‘if you see this kid, please return to us’ agreement with the groups most likely to run into him. In return, we help out with things like point to point devices.”
Nikki was still lost, but Calle nodded. “Great,” Nikki said. “Come on in.”
Both kids refrained from commenting on the utter lack of furniture, which was nice. “Where do you want this thing?” Sabri asked, hoisting her backpack a little higher on her shoulders. “I’ve got to warn you, they’re about equal parts incredibly handy and a pain in the ass. Building them into an existing framework, like a doorway, is best, but there’s not really a way to turn them off, so I wouldn’t pick a bathroom. Been there, done that.”
“We didn’t even get t-shirts,” PJ said, and just like that the mood seemed to shift lighter.
“How much space does it need?” Calle asked.
Sabri shrugged. “Closets are the classic choice. I did a window, once.”
It was funny — the night before, Nikki had wondered how they could ever use all the space in the house. Now that some of it was going to be taken away, it was suddenly hard to let it go. But the window thing gave her an idea.
“Can we get two?” she asked, eyeing the second floor.
Sabri and PJ exchanged a look. “It’s — not impossible, to set up two in close proximity,” Sabri said. “What are you thinking?”
She led the way up the stairs. “What about this door —“ she gestured at the empty closet in the upstairs hall. “— And the space under the loft railing, here over the stairs? That way we’d have options.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to have your second option on the ground floor?” PJ said.
“Not if you were being pursued through from the other side,” Calle said.
Nikki nodded. “Exactly — you could make a dive for the second opening. And if it’s not door-shaped, it might get you an extra few seconds of confusion. Plus, if we’re sleeping up here, that’s when we’ll be the most vulnerable.”
“There are plenty of exits on the ground floor,” Calle added. “We already have plans for those.”
(Which was news to her, but hey, plans were good. That probably meant Calle wasn’t planning on taking PJ up on that offer of sanctuary right away. Nikki wasn’t sure when sticking close to Calle had taken on such an importance, but she knew she didn’t want to be alone.)
“I can do that,” Sabri said. “I think.” There was a pause, and everyone looked at her. Sabri looked at the railing, then back at the closet. “Yeah, it’ll work. It may cut down on your decorating options, though.”
“We’ll live.” Nikki made a show of looking around the empty rooms. “We should probably try to get some furniture, before we worry too much about decorating.”
She thought both girls looked relieved to hear that the current furniture-less state of the house was only temporary, rather than some kind of a lifestyle choice. “Great,” Sabri said. “It’ll take a couple hours. You’re welcome to watch, or not, whatever floats your boat.“
They both watched, though Nikki didn’t follow any of it, and she was pretty sure Calle was faking understanding at least half of the time. She got enough to figure out the basics — yes, it was alien technology; no, it wouldn’t blow up unexpectedly. Yes, it worked fine without electricity (self-sustaining independent power source, apparently); no, it couldn’t be used to toast bread, play music, or purify water. (“There’s a range of security options, but I’ll let you set those yourselves,” Sabri explained.)
As far as she was concerned, the afternoon was a success. They had a plan B in the form of sanctuary on an alien planet, and they had transportation. (Or they would, once the New York office was back online — Sabri said they’d temporarily swapped all power to running ‘other things.’ It seemed both unnecessarily vague and a huge security risk, but it turned out most people considered the point to points a luxury convenience instead of a ‘run for your life’ evacuation route.)
As an added bonus, PJ was even willing to offer directions to the town center. “How did you get here, anyway?” Nikki asked, when it came up that the girls were temporarily living several towns away. There was no evidence of a vehicle in the driveway.
Sabri held up a hand. “Watch teleporter,” she said.
Nikki shook her head, totally exasperated. “You have a watch teleporter,” she said. “And the ability to build a matter transporter in —“ she checked her own, totally ordinary, watch, “— two hours. How is it that you haven’t completely taken over the planet?” She was only half joking.
Both girls gave her dubious looks. “Better things to do with our time?” PJ said.
“I was going to say a basic respect for freedom and morality, but that works too,” Sabri added. “We’ve got plenty to do already. Why add stress? How would we even fit it in around all the babysitting we wind up doing?”
“Which is what we should be getting back to,” PJ said. Sabri started tossing everything back into her backpack.
No one offered to shake hands, but they all stood awkwardly in the front hall and said things like, “It was nice to meet you,” and, “Good luck with everything.” Sabri pulled a slightly wrinkled business card out of her pocket and handed it to Calle. “Call anytime if you need anything; that’s the house number. We actually answer it now, so it’ll reach someone who can help, or you can ask for one of us directly and we’ll get the message.”
Calle took the card and held it gingerly, without saying anything. Nikki offered a slightly awkward, “Thanks,” and that seemed to be enough.
As soon as the girls were gone, Calle was back to dog form — bigger than the morning, Nikki thought. “Trip to the center of town?” she offered, and Calle wagged. “You know, you might want to think about working a collar into that shift. You’re not exactly teacup sized, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to have no reason to look twice at you.”
There was no response, but when Calle jumped up in the car, there was a thick yellow band visible through the fur at her neck. “Nice,” Nikki said.
The directions were easy enough to follow, and there was only one other person at the water station. Unfortunately, that person was feeling chatty. “Hi there,” she said. “Here for water?”
“Yes, thank you,” Nikki told her. Might as well try politeness first.
“Are you new in town?” the woman asked, and then kept talking without waiting for an answer. “That’s a good looking dog you have there. Any other animals?”
Nikki wasn’t touching the animals question. “Just moved in,” she said instead. “Over on Birchtree.”
The woman nodded. “I’m on Grove. No power there either, but I saw crews headed in on the highway this morning. Have you got a generator, at least?”
Nikki might not have been a spy, but she could handle stuff like this. “No, not yet. We’ve been thinking of getting one, though. What kind do you think is best?” The (extensive, detailed, including three brand names and two websites scribbled on a scrap of paper and pressed into her hand) explanation covered the filling of all their containers.
Calle shifted back to human on the drive home. “That was impressive,” she said.
Nikki wasn’t sure to be pleased or insulted. “Thank you?” she tried.
“No, I mean I had no idea there were so many different kinds of generators. You were good too, though. Sorry I didn’t help with the water.” She was looking out the window as she spoke. Nikki got the impression that the shifting wasn’t something she was supposed to ask about. On the other hand, maybe it was one of those tests you only passed if you worked outside the rules, like a way of proving that she cared, or something. (Of course, maybe it was stupid to poke at things that weren’t actually a problem. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?)
“It was fine,” Nikki said. And Calle nodded, and that was that, apparently. They got the water inside, did what they could for food prep (when all you had was a couple of flashlights and a distinct lack of pans, that wasn’t much), and then headed for bed. Well, Nikki headed for bed; Calle was a cat again, and headed outside. Nikki suspected she might be going hunting; taste preferences between shifted forms was yet another topic of conversation they hadn’t explored.
She slept through till morning, only to find that the power had come back on overnight. She was relieved to find out that the house did, in fact, look better when you could turn the lights on. The sun was even shining, breaking through the cloud cover to illuminate the living room in truly impressive fashion. East-facing windows had some serious benefits. Even better, she could smell food.
“I’m making eggs,” Calle called from the kitchen. “A neighbor dropped them off.”
“Which one?” she called back.
“I don’t know; we didn’t talk. She just left them on the porch with a note.”
Nikki didn’t bother asking if Calle was sure the eggs were safe. She had a thing about food. If she was planning to eat them, she was sure they were safe. Instead, she focused on the question of how, exactly, Calle was making eggs without a pan. That seemed interesting enough to compete with the allure of taking a shower, and she headed for the kitchen instead of the bathroom.
Except there was a pan. She stopped at the edge of the kitchen. “Where did the pan come from?” All she could think of was that their new neighbors had odd ideas of appropriate housewarming gifts.
“PJ dropped it off this morning,” Calle explained. “She was just here for a minute, or I would have woken you. She left a couple pans. Oh, and a cot. They collect camping gear, or something. She didn’t really explain.”
“Okay.” Weird, but okay. (And really, it wasn’t like she had any right to throw stones about weirdness.) “Thanks. For breakfast. And accepting deliveries, or whatever. Just one cot, really?”
Calle shrugged, in a sort of ‘we’re letting strangers offer us camping supplies; what did you expect?’ sort of way. She said, “Well, the bad news is that we don’t have any plates. I was just going to dump the eggs in the other pan once they’re done. But you’re welcome.” A smile accompanied the words, so Nikki figured they were doing well.
They shared the pan of eggs (scrambled, and they were delicious, though it was a toss-up as to whether that was a testament to Calle’s cooking skills or just that the bar set by trail mix for three meals in a row was really, really low), sitting perched on the kitchen counter. It was probably called a breakfast bar, or something classy like that. “Tastes good,” Nikki said. “I guess we should probably do some shopping today.”
Calle made a face. “I know,” Nikki replied. “But there’s lying low, and there’s camping out in a house. And then there’s what we’re doing.” She held up a hand to indicate each level. What they were doing was a good foot below camping out. “Seriously, we have a shower. I want soap. I’m not talking about a spree, here. We list the essentials, head for the highway, find a store — we’re in and out. Twenty minutes, tops.”
She ate more eggs while she waited for Calle to think it through. She wasn’t trying to downplay the potential danger they could find themselves in, she was just convinced that facing danger would be easier if they had soap. And maybe some plates. If the goal was livable plus (which it was), they were still working on the plus part.
“We go together,” Calle said, making it sound more like a question than it had any right to be.
The ‘together’ part of the plan worked perfectly. The ‘twenty minutes, tops’ part wasn’t quite as successful. It was more like an hour by the time the car was loaded up and they were headed back home. But they’d gotten everything on the list — both their lists, which had less overlap than she would have expected. ‘Essentials’ encompassed a surprisingly wide range of items, including both paper plates and an economy-priced set of steak knives. (“Don’t even tell me, you throw knives,” Nikki had said, and Calle just looked at her and said, “Of course. Don’t you?”)
What they hadn’t gotten was furniture. For one, the car wasn’t actually big enough for anything larger than a breadbox. (Which they also hadn’t gotten.) And for two, they didn’t have that much money. The Maria Stark Foundation was supposed to be working on that — Nikki, at least, might be able to get her own life insurance payout, though her savings were probably gone for good. And technically they were both on the payroll now, but their pay didn’t start until the work did, and that was going to be at least another few days.
So, no furniture, but they’d managed a decent amount of other things, which at least brought them up to ‘indoor camping’ level. The electricity was still working at the house, and they even managed to figure out why the refrigerator wasn’t getting any cooler. (Who designed an appliance that heavy and then put the plug in the back?) Nikki finally took a shower; Calle spent the afternoon sleeping. It felt like things were settling into place.
Naturally, that didn’t last long. Nikki’s phone buzzed an alert just as she was trying to convince herself that she totally remembered enough about doing laundry not to break anything. It was like riding a bike, right? Regular people figured out household chores every day, all over the world. Then she read the message, and couldn’t stop a swear from slipping out. “Calle!”
There was a thump, and Nikki almost swore again, because that had definitely been the sound of Calle leaping over the railing, and she’d missed it. “Who is it?” Calle said.
“Not sure,” Nikki told her, turning the phone around so she could see the message. “My file just got reactivated at whatever layer of agency they’ve tunneled down to by now. They’ve sent an agent. Ten minutes out, maybe fifteen. Someone must have already been in the area.”
Calle grinned, and it was possibly the most aggressive expression Nikki had ever seen on her. “Bring it on. Time to see if this plan’s going to work.”
Nikki took a deep breath, and reminded herself to stay calm. Because this, of all the things they’d run into — this part they’d actually planned for. The Maria Stark Foundation funded superheroes, sure, but their mission statement was a bit more broad. Hero retirement (a fun term for ‘asset reintegration,’ which Nikki’s old job had mostly just called ‘getting killed’) was a growing field. Turned out there was a real need for a safe way back out of the crazy, whether you were a field agent or a masked vigilante. And plenty of people willing to stand up to protect that way out. The house might not have furniture, but security — yeah, that came pre-installed.
“Right,” she said. And maybe there was a smile on her face too. “Let’s do this.”
They headed out to the driveway, because there was no need to invite property destruction if they didn’t need to. There were at least three bulletproof superheroes inbound, along with anyone else who’d gotten the alert and felt like showing up. Two of the X-folks were first — both teleporters, which had to be seriously useful. She thought they must have some kind of a competition going on with the SHIELD types, who came through the point to point just seconds later (it must be working again on the New York end, which was good to know).
The way the house was situated, they could see the road from where they stood, but were thankfully just out of view of any of their neighbors. A car eased into view. “That’s him,” Calle said, before shifting into a seriously pissed off looking — something. Not an Earth animal, as far as she knew. Nikki waved at the car. For once, she really hoped that it contained someone trying to kill her, and not some sort of innocent civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time. That would be awkward.
The car pulled off the road, hazards blinking steadily. A man stepped out and walked a careful six steps down the driveway. He’d done his homework, then. That was interesting. There was a low growl emanating from Calle, loud in the silence everyone else was aggressively projecting. The man stared at them. She didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t pull a weapon. Finally, he said, “They can’t protect you forever.”
Then he turned and left. He even used his turn signal.
"That was fun," one of the X-team said. "They're not much for banter, huh?"
“Can you say ‘anticlimactic’?”
“Come on, you know we were just invited to show a united front, right? At least he stayed long enough to get a picture uploaded. I'd love to see his face the next time he tries to use a photo ID somewhere."
Nikki was only half listening. The rest of her attention was on Calle -- still huge, still growling. The two with SHIELD logos were starting to look a little nervous, and one of them was talking into a headset too quietly for her to hear.
"Ma'am," the other one started, and she rolled her eyes.
"We're fine," she said, just to put it out there. She wasn't sure they actually were fine, with the growling and all. But sometimes presenting confidence was enough to get through things.
So she stepped between Calle and the most nervous-looking guy, all casual and reassuring. "Totally fine. Thank you, for your help." She was pretty sure the X-reps were still occupied, or at least didn't care what she was doing. (From what she was catching of their conversation, they were ranking villains by their wisecracking ability.)
Then she looked up, made she Calle's attention was on her. And stepped directly backwards, into body contact with a creature that was looking less monstrous by the second. The growl broke off. Nikki could feel Calle's head swiveling above her, looking at the street then their 'rescuers.' There was one last grumble, and then a shift, and a squirrel leapt into her arms and up to her shoulder.
Nikki cleared her throat to keep from laughing. "So, thanks again? I know you all have other things you could be doing right now." Seriously, what were they waiting for? They had obviously not made enough guidelines for the 'go away again' part of the 'show up at a moment's notice, offer assistance, and go away again' plan.
"This was way better than forest cleanup," said the taller X-rep.
"We'll be back whenever you need us!" offered the other, nodding agreement. Both of them disappeared without a sound.
"We could stay if you wanted," said the guy who'd called her ma'am.
On Nikki's shoulder, the squirrel chittered angrily. "I think we've got it," she said. "Thanks."
Calle remained a squirrel until the two SHIELD reps were back through the point to point transporter. “Should we talk about that?” Nikki asked. Calle turned around on Nikki’s shoulder and tucked her head under her tail. “I’ll take that as a no,” Nikki said. “Not talking is good too. I was going to try some laundry, before all that.”
Laundry was more interesting as a squirrel, it turned out. Or at least that was how it seemed, since Calle leapt off her shoulder and darted around her feet all the way back to the machine. (Nikki tried not to show her relief — her shoulders weren’t really built for perching, and the next logical place to try would have been her head. She didn’t think she was quite ready for a squirrel hat.)
“What do you think?” she asked Calle. “Is there anyone who could make a squirrel hat work as a look?” She could think of a few agents who might be able to pull it off, or at least look crazy enough so no one would dare question them. Calle ignored the question, but did manage to push the buttons for the washing machine. The settings were a little hard to interpret — what was the difference, really, between spinning and agitating — Nikki figured a squirrel reading upside down probably had as good a shot at picking the right combination as anyone.
No warning buzzers sounded, and the room didn’t immediately start filling with water or soap. (Both excellent signs.) Success with the washer made her feel more confident in general, and she moved on to sorting through their morning purchases. It took a knife and a pair of pliers to get through some of the packaging, but they were nothing if not resourceful. Calle used teeth on a couple of the more difficult molded plastics (surprisingly effective). Dishes and utensils in the kitchen, clothes in the closets, cleaners in the bathroom. It wasn’t until the washing machine cycled to a stop that she realized they had no way to hang things up to dry.
“Toss everything in the dryer and take our chances?” she said to Calle. “Any ideas on this one?”
Calle left as a squirrel and returned as a dog, trailing climbing rope behind her. “When did we get climbing rope?” Nikki asked. “Is this from when you said you were going to the bathroom, and came back with two shopping bags full of stuff?” Calle dropped the rope at Nikki’s feet and wagged her tail. “Thank you,” Nikki said. “Is it weird if I say ‘good dog’?” The dog’s ears went back. “Right, let’s stick with thank you,” Nikki said. “I guess this is where we reap the benefits of a big empty room, right?”
(Naturally, it wasn’t quite that simple.) They looped the rope from countertop to patio door to window and back again, and it was plenty long enough, but they had to get creative (knots under the window pane, and it was a good thing it was a warm day) to get it to actually be useful as a clothesline. “I like it,” Nikki said, scritching Calle behind the ears (patting — yes; ‘good dog’ — no; she might need to make a chart or something). Mostly she was just glad it worked. Hangers hadn’t seemed like an essential when they’d been making lists that morning, but she could see they were rapidly rising up the priority scale.
Next was electronics, which were a breeze compared to the washing machine. Calle shifted back to human, and they worked in companionable silence for a while, testing connections and sorting through files. “James thinks being in human form is best for most things,” Calle said, staring at a power cord. “Sometimes he’s a dog. Not usually anything else.”
When they’d been in Northville, Calle spent hours talking with James. Nikki had gotten a pretty vague explanation from a clearly suspicious woman — James was also a shapeshifter, they were both not of Earth, and neither of them wanted to talk about it. Maybe one of those things was about to change. “Okay,” Nikki said, because she wasn’t sure whether this was one of those ‘shut up and listen’ conversations or more of the ‘pep talk and support’ variety.
“I like variety,” Calle said.
“It works for you,” Nikki told her, because it totally did. When it looked like maybe Calle was going to leave it at that, she added, “Can I ask something about the shifting?”
Calle looked at her, which was probably as close to a yes as she was going to get. “How do you pick?” As soon as she said it, more questions crowded to the front of her brain, but she forced herself to stop talking.
“It’s imitation, mostly.” Calle fiddled with the screen. “See a dog, be a dog. See a cat, be a cat. Mostly people will fill in the details themselves.”
Nikki nodded. It made sense — she’d never looked at a dog and thought ‘what a funny shaped head that dog has; I wonder if it’s actually an alien shapeshifter.’ “Do abilities carry over, then? Can you fly?”
“Flying is — hard. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Birds have hollow bones,” Nikki said.
“Really?” Calle looked genuinely surprised. “That makes sense, I guess. All of them?”
Nikki wasn’t sure whether she meant all birds, or all the bones in a bird. Either way, she guessed, the answer was the same. “I don’t know. We can find out, though.”
Calle shook her head. “It’s fine. On — well, before.” She gave Nikki a significant look, and it took a minute to realize she was supposed to be hearing ‘back on my home planet.’ “The focus was more on size. We were always supposed to be bigger, stronger. That’s how I got picked.”
“You were a kid,” Nikki said. This part of the story, she’d actually heard from Calle while they were still in Spain. From a planet in the final throes of a lost war, nine royal kids were sent off, each with a guardian and a guard dog. She was no tactician, but it sounded like a bad plan from pretty much every angle. (It got even worse when you added in the whole ‘die by numbers’ creepiness element, and that’s where Calle had stopped talking about it altogether.)
“Old enough,” Calle replied. “We were supposed to grow up with our charge so we would form a bond. We were supposed to die to protect them.”
If they’d gotten this far… “What happened?” Nikki asked. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Calle took a breath, blew it out slowly. “I do. The ship crashed. The guardian died. I didn’t — I wasn’t supposed to be in charge. ”I let everything burn in the wreckage, all his artifacts, anything I thought they might be able to track. And I left the baby with a monastery. Warrior-monks; I thought they would be able to protect him. They wouldn’t let me stay.”
“Turning into a snow leopard outside of myths and parables was frowned upon, it turned out.” Calle tried for a smile, but it fell short. “I told them his name was Killian, but they thought I was a demon, so I have no idea if they used it or not.”
Nikki had always been bad at sympathy. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel it, she just had trouble expressing it without sounding like a jerk. So she didn’t say anything, just reached out a hand to cover Calle’s white-knuckled fist.
“He was number one,” Calle said, after a long silence. “James said they were hunting Four now, so —.”
So he was dead, at least according to the rules. “I’m sorry,” Nikki said. She paused, and then added, “Is there anything I can do? A hug? Running partner? For me to go away for a while? I could just sit quietly and not say anything else? Because I could do that.”
“I could run,” Calle said eventually. “That would be good.” Nikki could hear her take a breath. “We could go together?”
“Of course,” Nikki said. It probably wasn’t the smartest idea, since the agent targeting her might show up again at any time. But there was smart and there was necessary, and necessary took priority. Besides, she liked to think there were more important threats to national security than one low-level barely a field agent trying to retire quietly back in her home country.
So they ran, and no one tried to shoot them, or run them over with a car, or attack them in any way. It was nice. (Tiring, because Nikki kept expecting an ambush around every corner, and the fact that it kept not happening didn’t actually make her any less worried about it. But nice, too.)
“Thank you,” Calle said, when they got back.
Once she stopped panting, Nikki said, “You’re welcome,” but by that point Calle was already in the kitchen, banging pots around.
“Running makes me hungry,” Calle announced. “Also, I don’t eat meat. If I make pasta, do you want any?”
It turned cold overnight. Nikki woke up to what looked like a giant-sized version of a house cat sprawled over top of her. She said, “Hey.” (Then, thinking perhaps more words would be better, she added, “Good morning.”)
Calle’s eyes blinked open.
“Five more minutes?” Nikki said. It seemed like a perfect morning to sneak in a little extra downtime. Calle performed some sort of cat stealth maneuvers and wound up inside the sleeping bag. Five more minutes was definitely a go.
(Possibly it was more like ten minutes. Or fifteen.) But thirty minutes later they were definitely both up and yawning, and Nikki, at least, was wondering how two people could go through a dozen eggs in less than twenty-four hours. “Okay, so the good news is that we have breakfast options. The bad news is that the options are the opened bag of trail mix or the unopened bag.”
Calle eyed both without much enthusiasm. “Groceries again today?”
“We also have bananas,” Nikki offered.
“I’ll eat later,” Calle said. “Breakfast and I have an understanding.”
“Calle Tovar, was that a joke?” Nikki said. Calle laughed, which was as good as a yes, and Nikki let their shoulders bump together.
(A month ago, she’d been running out of options in Spain, only escaping living on the streets by not staying anywhere long enough to call it living. A year ago, she’d been torpedoing her life to help a man who deserved better than what he kept getting handed. And a year before that, she’d had no idea about any of it — would have called anyone showing her a glimpse of this day, this future, a liar and a headcase. She was withholding judgement about what that said about her own current mental state.)
One of the screens cluttering up the counter space pinged an alert, echoed by Nikki’s phone — in her pocket — and Calle’s — from somewhere relatively distant. “Is your phone in the garage?” Nikki asked.
She wasn’t sure how to interpret Calle’s expression. “Maybe?” Calle said.
“I don’t need to know,” Nikki decided out loud. “Do you recognize them?” The screen showed two people walking up the driveway. They weren’t visibly armed with anything except papers.
Calle shook her head. “No. They’re not the neighbors who brought the eggs, though. They did make it past the defenses easily enough.”
They didn’t look nervous, either, but Nikki wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. The defenses were a funny thing — part mathematical algorithms, part facial recognition, part ‘a telepath started this and we’re not sure how, but we’re pretty sure we’ve encouraged it to keep out things will ill intent.’ With some lasers thrown in for good measure. The explanation had been about that vague all three times she’d asked for it, but so far it seemed to be working. As long as it didn’t actively turn against them, Nikki was fine with it. (Though maybe they should look into that. Maybe they could find another telepath that could check in, make sure it wasn’t feeling unfulfilled, or anything.)
The two people — one man, one woman, both wearing ties — got close enough to knock on the door. Nikki frowned at the sound. Answering the door seemed like a suckers bet. “Want to go around and meet them out front?” That way they wouldn’t have to let them in the house, was her unspoken thought.
Nikki had her hand on a weapon when they cleared the corner of the house, and Calle was practically rippling. It was the woman who saw them first. “Oh, hello!” she said, waving.
They walked close enough so they could see the moment when the visitors suddenly felt awkward standing on the porch, while the house’s residents were standing on the lawn staring up at them. “Sorry, hello,” the woman said, and they both hurried back down the stairs. “We’re with the Step Out And Vote program, which is not affiliated with any political campaign or candidate. We’re going door to door to make sure people know where to vote and what hours the polls will be open.”
“Right,” Nikki said. Voting. That was one of those key civic responsibilities that was considered much more important when you weren’t living abroad under a false name. It would be embarrassing to ask what they were voting for, right?
Calle didn’t say anything. Their visitors didn’t seem perturbed by their lukewarm reactions. “We have a handout,” the woman said, holding up one of the papers.
“But it’s totally optional,” the man said, speaking up for the first time. “You don’t have to take one.”
Nikki took the paper, but didn’t actually look at it. “Okay,” she said.
The woman continued on, undaunted. “Also, New Hampshire does allow same day voter registration, so if you’re currently unregistered but want to vote, just show up tomorrow with a few extra minutes.”
“Tomorrow,” Calle repeated.
Their guests seemed to finally be catching on to their lack of — understanding, participation, what you wanted to call it. They got a matched set of confused expressions, and then the woman said, “All the information is on that sheet. There’s even a number you can call. If you have questions.” And then they left, although they did turn around and wave halfway down the driveway, and the woman called back, “Thanks for your time!”
The paper had a map, which was nice. There was even a list of frequently asked questions with tiny American flags as bullet points. But Nikki was pretty sure the phone number provided wouldn’t get them in touch with anyone who could answer the kind of questions they had. So she pulled up the other number, programmed into her phone as ‘services.’
“This is Christine; New York City, planet Earth. Time is nine fifty-three am, November 5, year 2012. What can I do for you today?”
“Hi,” Nikki said. “We’re looking for some help with voting information?”
There was an audible sigh from the other end of the line. “If you are currently without electricity, I can transfer you to another line to find the closest working internet.”
Nikki and Calle exchanged a look. “I don’t think this information is something we can google,” Nikki said. “We’re new to this, but not that new. I sort of faked my own death, so I’m legally dead, as far as I know. Can I still vote?”
“Ah. Well, that is much more our area of expertise. Let me get some basic information, and I can figure out your status. You said ‘we’?”
“I want to vote too,” Calle said. “But I’m not from Earth.”
“We have a form for that. Planet, nebula, alternate dimension, or other?”
“Planet. You really have forms for all those things?”
“There’s some overlap. Which planet? Do you have, or can your produce, proof of citizenship?”
Called huffed out a breath. “A planet where claiming previous residency could get me killed. But I wasn’t a citizen; I was a soldier. Would have been, anyway.”
Nikki had to give Christine credit for not missing a beat. “We have a form for that too. This isn’t our first time around this particular mulberry bush. Give me a couple minutes, and I’ll get some answers for you.”
‘Mulberry bush’? Nikki raised her eyebrows in Calle’s direction, but she just shrugged.
They weren’t on hold, so they could hear all the background noise of what sounded like a pretty typical office. (Or stereotypical, maybe, since Nikki had never worked in an actual normal office environment.) “How is everything in New Hampshire?” Christine asked, once she had their basic info. “I’ve been out for a few days; I didn’t know you’d moved in already. That’s a great house.”
“Have you lived here?” Nikki asked.
“Not lived in, no, but there’s a rotating schedule of maintenance and check-ins for all the houses and properties. Did you know the Professor bought most of them?”
“Really?” Nikki aimed for an encouraging tone. Getting more information was always a good thing. Even when people were lying, or flat out making things up, it told you something.
“Yeah, it turns out being a rich telepath in a school full of lonely kids means you wind up buying a lot of childhood homes. He mostly just sat on them, though, and now all the property management has been passed to the Foundation.”
Calle leaned forward. “What do you do for the Foundation?” (In an actual conversational tone, and Nikki gave her a thumbs up. Calle rolled her eyes.)
“Phone support, mostly. Sourcing supplies, finding information. A lot of financial advising, actually, I’m always surprised by how high those calls rank in the quarterly reports. I heard you two are going to be the new ‘get me my life back’ team — high time we had one of those, if you ask me.”
"Right now we mostly have experience in the pre-getting your life back part," Nikki said.
“Nothing to worry about, it's mostly on the job training anyway. There's not much in the way of classes on this kind of thing, you know? You'll be fine; we're all here to help out."
And really, what could she say in the face of that much enthusiasm? "Thanks. We're -- looking forward to getting started."
"Great. May's in charge of all that stuff, so she'll be the one getting you set up in the office. Oh, here we go! Can you come in tomorrow? For the voting thing? It looks like both of you are eligible for a contested status ballot."
Nikki looked at Calle, who shook her head. "Yeah, we don't know what that means," she said. "What's a contested status ballot?"
The reply sounded like Christine was reading the description out of a dictionary. (Or a frequently asked questions page, and Nikki took a moment to imagine the kind of 'tourist brochures' that might be on hand at a place like the Foundation.)
"A contested status ballot may be requested and submitted by any person or being wishing to claim personhood. Proof of residence in a specific city or state must be provided to receive a ballot with state and local candidates included. Transient persons who can provide one of the listed forms of identification along with proof of primary stake in the United States will receive a ballot with only federal-level candidates. Then there's a list of options for proof of residence and ID. Do you want me to read those too?"
Nikki did, actually, but she thought they had probably taken up enough of Christine's time. "No, that's fine, thank you. So, we can come in tomorrow and fill these out? Do they actually get counted?"
"Yes, of course." There was a pause, and they could hear someone talking in the background. Christine said, "They get taken into consideration. It's actually more important on an interplanetary level than anything else. But it still feels good to vote?"
"Is this one of those 'practicing being normal people again' things?" Nikki asked.
"Yes," Christine said, and left it at that. Which was honest, at least.
"We'll be there," Nikki said. Calle didn't say anything, since she was back to being a mouse and was exploring the space behind the toaster.
"You know," Nikki said, once she'd ended the call. "There are pictures of all kinds of animals online. If you ever felt like playing around with it. Might be fun."
Which was how they wound up spending the rest of the morning -- and a not insignificant part of the afternoon -- with Calle shifting through dozens of animals. They had reason to be glad there was no furniture when Calle tried an elephant on for size. Trunk control was harder than it looked, apparently, and vaulted ceilings didn't look nearly as spacious when there was, literally, an elephant in the room.
"That was awesome," Nikki said, towards the end of the afternoon.
Calle was a panther, lounging in a block of sun that was slowly making its way across the floor. Nikki was lying next to her, with her head propped up on one giant front paw. "You are awesome," she amended.
There was a rumbling grumble from the panther, and then Calle was human again. "There's another thing I can do," Calle said. "It might be useful."
They both sat up, Calle looking a little too deliberately casual for it to be some small thing she had simply forgotten to mention before. Nikki poked gently at her knee. "Can you shoot fire from you fingernails?" she asked. It was the first thing she could think of that seemed like it definitely wouldn't be true. "Because that could be pretty handy."
It was a terrible pun, but Calle smiled anyway, and seemed to relax a little. "No," she said. "No flames. It's -- when I'm in this shape, I can talk to you, right? But I could make it so we could communicate no matter what form I was in. If you wanted."
Nikki hesitated. “I’m definitely not saying no,” she said. “Just — can I get some more information, here?”
Calle took a deep breath. "It's a little hard to explain. Maybe a lot hard to explain."
Nikki waited. Then she realized Calle might as well not have to carry the entire expository burden. There were reasons why she got nervous about things that sounded like telepathy, and none of them were about exposing her secrets. “Background?” she offered, and Calle nodded, looking relieved.
NIkki said, “There are mutants, right; people with a different genetic structure -- some of them can communicate telepathically. The agency I worked for, before." (She left it at "before." Everyone had a before.) "They thought something like that would be an asset in the field. They were experimenting with it; trying to create the ability in non-mutants. It was right when I started -- all of a sudden the entire complex was evacuated, and they said they'd call us when we could come back in. It took two weeks before they called."
"They told us it was a rogue agent who released a biochemical weapon," Nikki said. "But we all knew the schedule; groups came in and got tested pretty regularly. That time it was supposed to be the telepathic mods being tested for the first time. Something went wrong. The entire group. They — well, they all died, or they were all killed, I don’t know which.”
Calle looked shocked. "Why?"
"I don't know. It didn't work? Or maybe it worked too well, and it made them crazy? Gossip was nuts for a couple days, but it wasn't exactly a place that rewarded curiosity.” Calle looked upset, and Nikki suddenly felt bad. “Sorry for such a crappy story. I just thought it might help if you knew why I was asking for more information."
"Can we get another one out of the way, in that case? A story?” Calle asked. She nodded, but Calle was looking at the floor. “The connection is hard to explain because we're not ever supposed to have to explain it. Everybody involved already knows. Knew.”
Nikki didn’t say anything, and Calle glanced up at her briefly before continuing. “Chimera are — or were, I guess — considered dangerous; we were all connected to someone as soon as we were old enough. To an officer, usually, to guarantee we’d follow orders. Or a citizen, to guarantee our loyalty. The nine of us who were sent here were supposed to feel grateful we’d been chosen to be bodyguards instead of being sent to the war.”
Nikki sensed there was a ‘but’ coming. Calle looked too irritated for the story to end there. “But?” she prompted, when Calle just stared at the wall.
Calle shook off whatever memory she’d been thinking of. “But it didn’t work,” she said. “Not on us, at least. James is only a little older than me, but he thinks it was like that for all the chimera. Connecting to someone doesn’t force us to do anything we don’t want to do. We like to be useful, and to protect the people and things we care about, but doesn’t everyone?”
Nikki nodded. It made sense, to some extent. Once you’d accepted shapeshifting telepathic aliens as a baseline, the possibilities really opened up. “And you were told about it by the guardian?”
"Yes," Calle said. "So either he was lying, or he didn't know." She paused, and then added, "I know this doesn't sound very nice, but it doesn't make much difference to me. It would matter if he were alive, if the war was still going on, if there were more than a handful of chimera left at all. But that's what I have to work with, and it's my life to worry about now."
Nikki wasn't sure that actually answered any of her questions about how the whole 'telepathic connection' thing was going to work. It answered plenty of her questions about Calle's history, which was unexpected, but she still wasn't quite ready to say 'great, sign me up and let's get telepathically bonded!' She poked Calle's knee again. "It sounds like you're a survivor," she said. "It sounds like you're doing your best and trying to keep moving forward. Which are all good things." She waited for Calle to poke back before adding, "It also sounds like you've done this before?"
"Well. Not exactly. Sort of yes, but maybe not in the way you're thinking?” Calle sighed. “I’m not trying to be difficult, it's just not something I've ever tried to talk about."
Nikki bit her lip. "But you think it's safe," she said. "And you're okay with it."
"Promise," Calle said.
"Then -- maybe you could show me, instead?"
Calle finally caught her eyes and held them. "Are you sure? I think this would be good, but we don't have to do anything."
There was an attempt at a smile, though possibly not a very effective one. "I'm sure," Nikki said. "Just -- hang on, does this mean we're married forever, or something?"
"I once shared a connection with a shopkeeper in Wales," Calle said. "And one with a camel. Not in Wales, though. So no, it doesn't mean we're married forever. It means we'd be able to communicate from a distance without needing phones or for me to look like a human. Sort of like a two-way radio, but in your head."
(And really, why couldn't she have just said that at the beginning?) "Right. Okay, I'm ready," Nikki said. "What do I need to do?"
*You don't need to do anything.*
Calle was a panther again, and suddenly Nikki understood why it had been so hard to explain. (It was nothing like a two-way radio.) She couldn’t hear the words, but she could feel them. She knew them, like she knew her own thoughts, and with the words came emotions, and background, and connections, all linked together. It felt overwhelmingly present in her head, until it didn’t anymore. “Did you do that?” she said.
*Mmm-hmm. It won’t take long, though. You can do it too. It’s like volume controls. You can turn them up or down.* Along with ‘up’ came an increase in all the background stuff, while ‘down’ muted it back closer to just words.
"How much of what I'm thinking can you hear?" Nikki asked. She was getting tidy, clearly demarcated thoughts and feelings from Calle, but Calle had previous experience. Nikki was pretty sure her own brain was a mess of tangents with no filters. How did you even go about starting to organize your brain to send text message thoughts?
*Not everything,* Calle said, which wasn't really an answer. *It's fine. It gets easier with practice. It may help to come up with some kind of a visualization for it. Like a phone, or a house with lots of rooms. Whatever makes sense to you. It's a lot more about what you're actively projecting than your mental background noise.*
"I'll work on that," Nikki said. Then she closed her eyes and imagined a whiteboard in the front of her mind. *Is it working yet?* she mentally wrote on the board.
*Yes.* There was a panther in her lap, and she opened her eyes to see Calle nose to nose with her. *Hi.*
“That is way more than just a radio," Nikki said out loud. She wasn't sure what made her so sure, but Calle didn't move away.
*Yes,* she said again. Then she shifted back to human. "It's like shifting," Calle said. "It's part of me. It's part of me I like, that feels good."
Even when she was talking, Nikki was catching a faint echo of feelings in her head that helped her catch the meaning. She said, "Like being right-handed, but always writing with your left hand. And now it's like you got to switch back to your right hand."
"I'm left-handed," Calle said. "Mostly. But yes. Like that."
"And you're sure there's nothing we're supposed to do now? We just leave it alone?"
Calle shrugged. "I'm kind of hungry? We could eat, maybe."
They'd skipped lunch, but they also hadn't gotten to a store -- a combination of extra hungry and sad lack of supplies. "I'm not eating trail mix again," Nikki said.
Calle made a face. "Me either. There must be something. Sandwiches?"
They went to the kitchen, taking stock of a mostly empty refrigerator and a few sparsely laden shelves in the pantry. "We're going to need to go out," Nikki said. And she could feel hunger bouncing back and forth between her and Calle. *Expected, or unexpected?* she wrote out.
*Expected,* Calle said. *Temporary. Strong emotions are hard to muffle, especially if we’re in close proximity.*
(Nikki couldn’t help noticing that ‘temporary’ came tinted with uncertainty, but she let it go.) “Okay, I’m thinking energy bars and finding out if this town has any take-out restaurants?”
It did — hot sandwiches and overpriced coffee, but it tasted amazing, in that way that food does when you’re very hungry and someone else is cooking. They took the food to go, and it was half-gone by the time they made it back to the house. Easy cleanup, though, and once again, zero assassination attempts. She thought she could get used to that.
(After the revelations of the day, an early night seemed like a smart choice. Nikki emerged from the bathroom to find her sleeping bag already occupied; back to the overgrown house cat, and taking up way more than half the pillow. )
“Shove over,” she said. “We’re going to need a bigger bed, you know.”
Ear twitch. *Sleeping now.*
Nikki rolled her eyes. Cats.
*I’m rolling my eyes at you.*
She fell asleep in the middle of a comeback.
The trip to New York turned out to be more boring than expected. There was a certain level of amusement to be found in stepping through the door of your upstairs linen closet and finding yourself in a bustling office break room, but the rest of it was pretty routine. They arrived, they were directed to a waiting area. They waited.
(She asked Calle if practicing her mental projecting would be a good use of the time, but if there were any other telepathically-inclined beings in the area, any deliberate communication might be noticed. They settled for playing the world traveler's version of BS -- tell a story, make your audience guess if it's true. It turned out to be several degrees more difficult when one of the participants could say things like "I was a yak at the time," and still have it be one hundred percent true.)
After fifteen minutes, a kid who couldn't be out of high school wandered by and asked who they were waiting for. "May Parker," Nikki said.
"Mrs. Parker?" the kid repeated. "Yeah, you're going to need to be in the other building. I can show you, if you want."
They did want. What they actually got was another waiting area. The chairs, which had at first been a welcome novelty after their furniture-less house, were starting to get irritating. Nikki hadn't noticed until it wasn't happening anymore, but Calle usually spent a lot of time not-human. She hadn’t spent so long in one form (while awake) since their road trip away from New York. For whatever reason, she was deliberately not shifting. And not encroaching on Nikki’s personal space.
Which, fine, that was totally Calle's choice, but the road trip hadn't exactly been an enjoyable time. In fact, it was probably the least enjoyable time of their entire short acquaintance, and that was including the time they'd accidentally gotten involved in a convenience store robbery in Valencia.
"Hey," Nikki said. "You okay?"
Calle fidgeted in her chair. "Waiting makes me nervous," she answered.
Nikki looked around. The area was empty, along with the hallway outside in both directions. The last person they'd seen had been the teenager, and he'd been chasing after someone who'd let a group of volunteer kids loose on on the phone system. (His words; she'd just nodded and smiled.) "It seems quiet," she said. "Want to bust out of here?"
Calle practically jumped up. "Yes. Someone must be here somewhere."
Sure enough, three corridors and a set of stairs later, they found an occupied hallway. “Sorry I’m blocking the way; there’s not enough light in my office,” the woman said. “They’re prioritizing the generator power for the bigger stuff.” She’d maneuvered her entire desk into the hall, though she appeared to be using it to knit a scarf.
“I like your scarf,” Calle said, somehow managing to make it sound like a totally ordinary thing to say.
“It’s my day off,” the woman explained. “There’s no heat at my apartment. Can I help you with anything?”
Nikki was about to ask for May Parker again, but Calle said, “We’re here for orientation.” Which they were, technically. She guessed.
“In that case, welcome,” the woman said, waving a knitting needle in greeting. “I would say it’s not usually this crazy, but it kind of is. There should be an orientation group starting in a few minutes, though; down a level and on the left, can’t miss it.”
They waved their thanks and found the group easily enough. Slipping into the back didn’t raise any alarms or earn them any questions, which was convenient, although Nikki was seriously starting to question the building’s security protocols. There were fourteen people in the group, including her and Calle, all listening intently (or appearing to listen intently) to a very tall, very purple person listing departmental codes.
It was nothing like her orientation at the agency, and she could feel her nerves ratcheting back a notch or two. Calle seemed to relax as well, edging closer until their elbows bumped against each other. So they got a tour, and a folder, and a second photo ID (“because a lot of people lose one of them; it’s easier this way”). They even got lunch.
“Does anyone still need to vote, either conventionally or contested?” asked their guide, after lunch was cleared away.
About half the group raised their hands, and they were ushered off to more folders and clipboards and baskets of snacks. “Do you think they always have this much food around?” Calle asked quietly. She pocketed a bag of crackers. “That would be nice.”
“A well-fed workforce is a happy workforce?” Nikki guessed. “Maybe it’s just because of the storm recovery.” (She took a bag of crackers too. You never knew when you might need emergency food.)
An alarm sounded, and it was only extreme force of will (and what felt like a steady calm emanating from Calle) that kept her from flinching. “It started in the basement. It’s not us,” Calle said.
Their guide snapped to attention at the noise, and immediately checked his phone. He frowned. “Cell networks are still intermittent,” he said to the group. “They’ll send someone around in a minute.”
They heard footsteps racing in the hall and the kid from earlier burst into the room. “They need you downstairs,” he told their guide. “It’s the Birchtree house; it’s been attacked.” (They both flinched that time; no stopping it. But surely they couldn’t be the only people with ‘Birchtree’ in their address. Not that she wanted anyone else’s house to get attacked.)
Their guide frowned. “Again?”
“And they can’t account for Parsons or Tovar.”
Well, that was surreal. Or awkward. Both, probably. Nikki looked at Calle. Calle looked back. “Should we tell them?” Nikki asked, as quietly as she could. Whispered conversations were breaking out all over the room.
“Yes? I mean, it’s not like they’re not going to find out eventually,” Calle said.
They intercepted their (former) tour guide on his way out the door. “Flash is going to take over, don’t worry,” he told them. (It turned out someone waving their hands at you in a placating manner was considerably less placating when it was happening at your head height. Who knew?) She ignored both the attempt at placating and the fact that —apparently — the teenager was called Flash.
“Here’s the thing,” Nikki said. “I’m Nikki Parsons.”
The hand-waving stopped.
“And I’m Calle Tovar,” Calle added.
The whispered conversations stopped too.
“Oh,” their guide said.
Flash stepped up next to him. “It’s possible this is all my fault,” he said.
The kid looked braced to be yelled at, and Nikki sighed internally. She very carefully didn't make any sudden moves towards anyone, and said, "It wasn't anyone's fault. We wandered off and got caught up with things." She checked with Flash. "Everyone in the response group okay?" He nodded. "And the house is still standing?" She was pretty sure the house could take care of itself, and Flash nodded again in confirmation. "And we're fine," she finished.
The guide looked back and forth between her and Calle. "How --" he started.
"Waiting makes me nervous," Calle said.
And didn't that get an interesting reaction. It looked like their guide had heard something about what Calle could do if threatened. (Though obviously not a very accurate description of Calle unthreatened, if he hadn't recognized either of them after being around them for hours.)
But he didn't freak out, or pull a weapon, which was encouraging. Instead, he asked (very practically, Nikki thought), "How do you feel now?"
Calle didn't look impressed. "I feel fine,” echoing Nikki’s earlier statement. “You?”
"Better now that I know we haven't misplaced two of our newest allies," the guide said. "Could I interest the two of you in a trip downstairs, to reassure everyone else?"
'Downstairs' turned out to be as tightly organized as the upper levels were chaotic. It was filled with rows of screens and people wearing headsets -- and these people, at least, had gotten the full Nikki Parsons and Calle Tovar briefing, judging by the reaction they got when they walked in the door.
(There was no shouting, but she thought that was mostly in deference to the (finally located and identified) May Parker. She had an air of age and civility about her, along with a no-nonsense presence, like a grandmotherly neighbor who was equally likely to offer you cookies or to tell you to get off her lawn. She was clearly In Charge, and didn’t look like she’d stand for any unnecessary shouting and hoopla on her watch.)
"There you are," she said, like it was no big thing.
"Ma'am," Calle said.
Nikki went with, "Mrs. Parker," because she didn't think she could manage 'ma'am.' Not without sounding weird.
"Oh, just May is fine. We don't stand on ceremony around here," Mrs. Parker -- May -- told them. "It's good to see you're both here. We had a bit of a situation at the house, and some people were worried when they realized you weren't there."
Nikki shook her head. "But we were supposed to be here today. We spoke to someone about it yesterday -- Christine? On the phone?"
"That would explain it. Christine's out today. She left notes for all her calls from yesterday, but it's usually only Len who can read them, and he's out too. But no matter. Let's sit and talk. I've been on my feet far too much today." May led them to one of the small rooms along the outer wall. It looked like a conference room; the table and chairs, even the water pitcher and cups were standard office-issue.
"How do you like the house?" May asked, gesturing for them to sit down.
"It's lovely, thank you," Nikki told her. "Spacious."
May laughed. "We never did get around to furniture in that one, did we? Remind me to get you in touch with the house maintenance team leader; some of the properties are fully furnished, and you could take your pick. At least you could get the basics, until you have time to choose your own. Unless you already have."
Nikki and Calle exchanged a look. "No, not yet," Nikki said.
"Thank you," Calle said.
"Oh, you're more than welcome. It's no trouble at all. It makes me sad to think of all those houses sitting empty; it's good for someone to be living there. We've done this all backwards, I'm afraid. Normally I'd lead with this -- Welcome to the Maria Stark Foundation, Special Services Branch. You must have questions." She paused for a second, and then added, "Now it's your turn."
"What is it, exactly, that you're looking for us to do?" Nikki asked. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, because I'm not. I'm incredibly grateful. You helped us get back to New York, you're providing us housing, a paycheck, an entire security network... I'm just a little confused, because it seems like you've given us a lot, and I'm wondering --"
"What's the catch?" Calle finished for her.
May didn't immediately say, 'There's no catch.' She said, “How much do you know about the Foundation?"
And of course, the actual answer was 'not as much as we should, given how much paperwork we signed for you and how much control you potentially have over our future.' But what Nikki said was, "Well, we'd like to know more."
"It's a philanthropic organization; the goal is to help people. It didn't take long for the original members to figure out that different people needed different kinds of help." May smiled, and it looked genuinely delighted. “The Special Services Branch handles the more unusual kinds. Like coming back from the dead." She nodded at Nikki. "It's a fascinating universe out there -- people switching planets, switching timelines, switching bodies. Sometimes people need IT support for the computer running their secret lair, or a tailor that can work with wings. Sometimes people try to stop crimes and wind up on a police wanted poster. Or they just want someone to talk to. That's where we come in."
Nikki frowned. "How do you decide who gets help, though?" There were plenty of less than awesome superheroes and spy types that would be happy to take advantage of that assistance.
"It's a referral-based system," May said. "It works better than you might think."
Calle didn't say anything, but she did make a noise that sounded suspiciously un-cough-like. May didn't sigh, but she did offer one of those placating hand gestures. "I know that with your backgrounds, coming into a place like this and seeing that we can put on a good front doesn't necessarily mean anything."
(Actually, Nikki thought it was interesting that May thought the Foundation was putting on a good front. Maybe she meant in the 'look at these happy employees who are not oppressed or threatened' kind of way, rather than the 'we are terribly efficient and know everything there is to know about everything' way.)
"But the best way to learn about what we do is to stick around. Come by whenever you like, wander around the buildings, read the files. I won't say we're an open book, because everyone has their secrets, but I can promise there's no hidden agenda here. Not everybody's cut out to be a front line hero; some of us are just more suited to support roles. Still plenty of work to be done, and it has its own rewards, you know." May looked distant, just for a second, and Nikki wondered if she had someone in her own life with "secrets."
"I'd like to put you on the schedule for three days a week to start," May continued. "Learning the ropes and focusing on some of the areas we're short in. It might sound hard to believe, but heading into the holiday season is one of our busiest times of year for the 'normal life' type requests. Lots of people want to make a good impression on the folks back home, I suppose."
She stood up, obviously ready to show them out. "When should we come back?" Nikki asked.
May pulled a small notebook out of her pocket. "Thursday? Does Thursday work for you?" They both nodded. "Wonderful. Well, we'll see you on Thursday, in that case. Or before, if you want to poke around; remember what I said. Don't be strangers!"
And that was that. May disappeared off somewhere else (Nikki appreciated the woman's dedication to comfortable running shoes in the workplace, but sneakers were a lot harder to hear coming and going than heels), and Nikki and Calle made there way back to the upper levels of the building. They did have a moment of doubt once they got back to the break room.
"You know, we still don't have much food back at the house," Nikki said. There was a stack of bagels right there on the counter. And a bowl of oranges.
Calle made a show of looking around the room. "And there's no one here to say we can't take anything. Although --" She flipped the package of bagels label-side up. "Pumpkin," she said. "Maybe not."
"You don't like pumpkin-flavored bagels?" Nikki said. Then she frowned. "Actually, that does sound a little strange. Pumpkin bagels?"
"Maybe just a couple of oranges?" Calle said. "They're very portable."
"Sure," Nikki said. They'd probably end up eating from the sandwich place again, and they might as well take the oranges. Vitamin C was important. Scurvy wasn't fun.
(Going back through the point to point transporter was fun, though. She still had no idea how it worked, but she couldn't deny that it was enjoyable to use.) The house seemed quiet, just as they'd left it that morning. Calle immediately shifted, and a bouncing dog followed her from room to room as she checked them.
"Sandwiches?" Nikki asked, once she was as sure as she could be that the house was secure.
*Hungry,* Calle agreed in her head.
Calle shifted back for the trip, though; they hadn't thought to ask the day before if the shop allowed animals. "I could do a service dog bib, I bet," Calle said.
And that pinged something that had been a question in Nikki's mind for days, so she asked, "Are you shifting all your clothes?"
Luckily, Calle didn't seem to mind. "Not all the time," she said. "Sometimes it's easier to just put something on. But I'd always end up losing things when I shifted away from human, which is a problem. And it would be inconvenient to be naked in this form.”
It seemed impossibly complicated to her. Clothes, shoes, accessories — “How do you remember everything?”
Calle shrugged. “How do you drive a stick shift? It just takes practice.”
The sandwiches were just as good the second time around, although Nikki thought she was going to get tired of explaining to the cashier that no, she really didn’t want a rewards card. Calle got more and more restless as they ate. “I’m going out,” she said finally.
It was dark, and getting colder again. Nikki looked at the window, then back at Calle. “Okay,” she said. “You want company?”
Calle paced another circuit around the downstairs of the house; kitchen to back door to front door, and back. Nikki wasn’t even sure she knew she was doing it. Calle shook her head. “I’d rather you stayed here. If you don’t mind. Something was weird in the sandwich shop, and I can’t figure out what it was. It’s making me kind of nuts, obviously. I’m just going to go —“ She pointed at the door. “— run the boundary line, until I feel better.”
“I’m still going to worry about you,” Nikki warned. Calle shifted into an animal she didn’t recognize and flashed a serious set of teeth. She rolled her eyes. *Be careful anyway.*
Calle head-butted her knee. *Lock the door behind me.*
Calle wasn’t there when Nikki woke up. Her heart was pounding, and she tried to figure out why she was suddenly, startlingly, awake. Nightmare? Explosion? Phone?
*Nikki. Awake now?*
Well, that would explain it. She compressed ‘yes,’ ‘are you okay’ and ‘where are you’ into as much of a coherent message as she could manage and pushed it in Calle’s direction.
*Good. Garage. Could use an assist.* Calle didn’t sound worried, exactly. But there was a definite sense of urgency. Nikki took a few seconds to grab shoes and a gun, and to wish she had the same ability as Calle to leap over the loft railing. Stairs always took longer than you wanted them to.
*Coming in through the kitchen,* she announced. *Still good?*
*Hang on.* Nikki froze. Suddenly, she could see the outside of the garage; a man and a woman standing very still next to the back door, both pointing weapons at her — no, at Calle, Nikki realized. She was seeing through Calle’s eyes. Her ears rang as the image disappeared, and Calle said, *Sorry. Maybe come around from the back porch?*
*Switching now. I didn’t know you could do that.*
*Me neither. Talk later?*
*You know it.*
Nikki didn’t bother trying to be quiet. Calle was a much larger version of whatever she’d been the night before. The woman didn’t take her eyes off Calle, but the man was already looking in her direction when she came around the corner. Nikki raised her own gun, because why not? (It was stupid, she knew — if anyone was going to shoot, they would have done it already. But it made her feel better.)
“Hi,” she said. “You’re trespassing.”
The woman finally looked at her. And then back at Calle. And then back at Nikki, with an expression that said ‘are you seriously kidding right now, do you not see this giant creature that wants to eat us?’ “New to this?” Nikki asked her.
“What?” the woman said.
The man said, “How about we all stand down before we start on small talk?” He even put his gun away (tucking it into the back of his pants, and she resisted the urge to tell him it was a bad choice). He had the look of an operative; if he wanted to stick a gun in his waistband, she wasn’t going to be the one to convince him not to.
Nikki stepped up right next to Calle, close enough to touch. *What do you think?*
*They were in the sandwich shop, last night. They’re nervous. I don’t think they want to hurt anyone.*
It was an interesting distinction, between not wanting to hurt Nikki and Calle, and not wanting to hurt anyone. *Good vibes?*
*Not-dangerous vibes?* Calle offered. *They didn’t attack me. And the house let them through the defenses.*
It was a lot faster to flip thoughts back and forth than to say things out loud. “Great,” Nikki said out loud, and both of them twitched a little. Her breath hung in the air, and she realized how cold it was. “We could take this inside,” she said. She lowered her gun, but it wasn’t like she had her holsters on. And she was wearing sweatpants, for crying out loud. The other woman seemed to have the same dilemma (though her pants were considerably classier).
They walked single file back into the house — Nikki in the lead, Calle in back. For the first time, Nikki felt it when Calle shifted, and she was back to human when they reached the door.
“Wow.” The man sounded impressed. “You didn’t tell me you were working on anything like that. Not your division, doc?”
The woman looked less shocked than Nikki would have expected. “That — No, that’s not one of ours. It’s amazing. Have you always been able to do that?”
A doctor. A scientist affiliated with the program? Or some other program? There was an irritated muttering running through her head like background noise, and Nikki set her gun down on the counter with a decisive click. “Okay,” she said. “Guns down, small talk begins now. So talk.” Half of her regretted not having any furniture (definitely not winning any hostess awards), but the other half was glad not to have to worry about potential weapons. Watching Bourne fight had been — (terrifying) enlightening.
“Word is you can get the spooks off our tail,” the man said. “We could use that kind of help.”
“And we should help you because?” (There was never any question, really. It was their actual job to be that kind of helpful, but she wasn’t feeling particularly charitable at the moment.)
“We took care of your operative problem.” Whatever he saw in Nikki’s expression led him to add, “He’s not dead. Just on a plane to Oregon. We were very convincing.”
“It was being handled,” Calle said.
“And we do have an office, technically,” Nikki added. “Which is not our house.”
The man shrugged. “He was tracking us, which made him our problem to deal with. Didn’t realize we’d led him to your doorstep; sorry about that. And New York didn’t seem like the best idea right now.”
“Keep talking,” Nikki said. Not a request.
“My name is Aaron Cross — I was part of Outcome. We had our disagreements. I was in Alaska when Bourne turned over the hornet’s nest, and suddenly I’m on the hit list. Teamed up with the doc here —“
“Marta Shearing,” the woman introduced herself, giving a small wave. “Nice to meet you.”
“— Had some excitement, tried to drop off the radar. It hasn’t exactly worked as well as we’d like.”
Nikki raised both eyebrows in disbelief. That was a story with some seriously large holes in it. (‘Had some excitement?’ Please.) On the other hand, it wasn’t necessarily untrue. She searched her memory for anything relating to Outcome. “Genetics — Outcome was genetic manipulation, right?”
“You were with the program,” Aaron said, like he was confirming something he’d already known. “I assumed both of you —“
Calle interrupted him. “Not me.”
Nikki said, “I was an assistant.”
“Not to Byer,” Aaron said, almost a question, and she shook her head. (Eric Byer — she’d avoided him whenever possible. He was dangerous; enough so that all the interns got a warning about him on their first day. She wondered who was warning them now; if they’d found a new champion without Pam there to stonewall for them.)
“I worked for Pamela Landy,” Nikki told him, but it was Aaron’s turn to shake his head.
“Never heard of her, not until the news stations picked up the story. Were you caught up in all that?”
She leaned on the counter, suddenly exhausted. “It was a mess from the beginning,” she said, in lieu of a straight out ‘yes.’
There were a few seconds of silence, like everyone was taking a moment to acknowledge how twisted up their lives had become. And then Marta said, “This is a bad time for this question, I know. But I have to ask — what made Bourne — Webb — take on the program like that?”
Calle was standing right next to her, so Nikki let her head drop on the counter. “You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “He was shot, and he got amnesia.”
Aaron laughed. “Well, that wasn’t on my shortlist. Amnesia. Damn. And now?”
“Last I knew, still amnesiac. Bits and pieces coming back; enough to make him severely pissed off. Obviously. The news was reporting him dead again, but I doubt it.”
It was Marta who nodded. “Thank you,” she said, and Nikki had almost forgotten she’d asked the question in the first place.
Calle was apparently done being left out of the conversation. “I’m from another planet,” she said. Her tone practically dared someone to challenge the statement. Wisely, no one did. “Does anyone want breakfast?”
“Oh, yes please. We haven’t actually eaten a meal since Sydney,” Marta said. She handed her gun off to Aaron and headed for the kitchen.
“Sydney?” Nikki repeated.
“Nova Scotia, not Australia; don’t worry,” Marta said. “I’m still hungry.”
When Aaron joined them in the kitchen, the gun was nowhere to be seen. (Probably in the waistband of his pants, Nikki thought, because the only thing less smart than having one gun there was having more than one.) He opened the refrigerator. Neither Nikki or Calle had bothered, since they already knew it was empty. “There’s no food here,” he said finally.
“No. Sorry,” Nikki said. “There’s trail mix.” She wasn’t really even sure why Calle had offered breakfast, except that it had been a good way to change the subject at the time.
Marta dug into the trail mix (the old bag, even, the one that didn’t have anything left in it but raisins and crumbs of granola) like it was a gourmet meal. Nikki gave Aaron a reproachful look, and saw Calle doing the same thing. His story had left out a lot of details, but it was pretty obvious he was masterminding the ‘on the run’ part of things. That was supposed to include meals.
“It’s not his fault,” Marta said, clearly paying more attention than Nikki thought. “We spent a lot of time on boats; I get seasick.”
Probably fine, then. Sea travel was a good idea, actually; it tended to be less monitored than planes. Easier for someone to kill you and dump the body if anyone caught up with you on one, though. “We need to get more food anyway,” Nikki said.
It was almost funny, how the four of them edged around each other. She certainly wasn’t leaving them alone in the house, and they looked equally unwilling to let her and Calle go anywhere without them. Four adults in their car wouldn’t leave a lot of room for groceries, but they could shift some things around in the trunk. “We can all go together,” Nikki said. “But I’m changing out of my pajamas first.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as she’d been hoping, especially since they could be relatively confident no one was going to try to kill them. For one thing, Aaron apparently had zero ability to act like a normal shopper.
“He’s like this all the time,” Marta told her quietly, as Aaron stalked up and down the aisle. He looked like a soldier in the middle of an urban warfare exercise. Most unsettlingly, he looked like a predator. There was no way they were going to make it through the store without someone calling 911; Nikki wasn’t sure they’d even make it through produce.
*Hey,* she nudged at Calle. *He’s freaking out; what do you think? Can you get him outside, patrol the perimeter, or something?*
Calle narrowed her eyes and walked over to Aaron — approaching from the front, which Nikki thought was probably a good idea. She said something too quietly for Nikki to overhear. (*Just explaining what will happen if he loses it in a suburban grocery store and reminding him how much he doesn’t want to end up on youtube,* Calle said in her head. *We’re going outside. Meet you at the door when you’re done?*)
Nikki tugged on Marta’s sleeve when it looked like she might try to follow. “They’ll be right outside. We’re just going to finish up, okay? You can text him every aisle; whatever makes you feel safe.”
Marta sighed, and watched them go. “Sure, okay.”
“Are you okay?” Nikki asked, emphasizing the ‘you.’
“I wouldn’t mind having my life back,” Marta said, offering up a tired smile. “But that’s not going to happen. I’m surprisingly okay with that, or starting to be, at least. I just wish it didn’t feel like it was going to be like this forever.” Then she frowned. She looked at Nikki — who was wearing her modified cargo pants so she could have both guns on her; who had a phone in her pocket and a backup phone in her sock; who had no furniture and no decent food in her house. “It’s not going to be like this forever, is it?”
They made it out of produce and into canned goods before Nikki could come up with an answer. Finally, she said, “When I helped Jason, it didn’t feel like a hard choice. When he left, and I was alone, that was hard. He told me it gets easier. Turns out it’s true, despite being utterly unhelpful as advice. It helps to have people to care about.”
Marta didn’t look particularly convinced, which was so often true of being on the receiving end of advice. Nikki tried again. “It’s not going to be like this forever, no,” she said. It seemed like a safe enough assertion — no matter what happened, it wouldn’t be exactly the same. But Marta nodded, and they managed to get through the rest of the store with relative ease.
(Nikki had a moment of worry when someone seemed to identify her when they were waiting in the checkout line — a woman two lines over smiled and waved. But then the woman pulled her coat open to show a “Step Out And Vote” t-shirt, and Nikki realized it was the woman who’d told them about voting the other day. She waved back, tentatively, and the woman gave a double thumbs-up. Her candidate must have won, then. Nikki reminded herself to check the news when they got back to the house.)
“What was that all about?” Marta asked.
“Voting. Yesterday was an election day,” Nikki told her. It was probably a good thing if people were starting to recognize them around town, right? They might need to figure out some kind of story about the variety of animals in and around the house. Fostering, maybe. Rescue animals? That could work.
Marta was scanning magazine titles, but they’d ended up in an aisle with only entertainment news. “Who won?” she asked.
Damn. She’d known that was coming, too. “I don’t know.” Marta’s expression was all disbelief. “Look, we’ve been busy. I would have seen the results this morning, but something came up. Oh right, it was our unexpected house guests.”
“It’s all rigged anyway,” piped up someone in line behind them. “It’s a conspiracy of big government. None of them will make any real changes, if you ask me.”
Nikki refrained from pointing out that no one had asked him, he was just volunteering. Luckily, they were able to start unloading their groceries instead of answering, and the man got caught up in a conversation with someone else. They seemed awfully focused on taxes, which made her realize — if she was going to be receiving a paycheck, she was going to need to pay taxes. And not be legally dead. And probably she would need some kind of insurance, for the car, if nothing else. There were a lot of things she’d sort of lost track of as a fugitive.
Somehow, they made it back to the car (after assuring the clerk that yes, she was sure she didn’t want a rewards card) and got all four of them, plus groceries, back to the house. The rest of the day followed a similar pattern — conversation would start up, someone would stumble into someone else’s issues, and they’d stutter back into silence. Calle stopped talking altogether. Marta kept pulling out her phone and putting it away without doing anything, and Nikki wondered if she’d been told not to contact someone, or if the person she kept thinking of wasn’t there to contact anymore. They went running in shifts, as an excuse to get out of each others company — Calle and Nikki, then Marta and Aaron, then Aaron again on his own. He was gone for hours.
This, Nikki realized, was what May Parker and the rest had been talking about. The Foundation could handle paperwork, records, financial aid, all of that. (Hopefully some heavy duty counseling options, too.) And they had the clout to make even Nikki’s former bosses take a step back. But if any of them wanted to get back to being day-to-day regular citizens, it was going to take more than that. A lot more, it looked like. Probably food was a good place to start.
And that was how the four of them ended up eating pancakes for dinner at four in the afternoon. (She’d checked the internet, but it turned out there weren’t that many ways to screw up pancakes.) Calle dished out jam and syrup with plastic silverware, and everyone crowded around the breakfast bar.
“I feel like we should try this again,” Nikki said into the awkward silence. “Hi. I’m Nikki Parsons. I can cook pancakes, but not much else.”
“They’re very good,” Marta offered.
Calle smiled. Nikki had run this idea by her while the pancakes cooked. “I’m Calle Tovar, which is not my real name, but is the name I’m going by right now. I’ve always wanted to try shifting into a dinosaur.”
*I didn’t know that,* Nikki told her.
*I didn’t know you could make pancakes,* Calle said.
Marta stepped up next, conversationally speaking. “I’m Marta Shearing. I never used to like jogging, but it’s growing on me.” She paused, like she was trying to think of something else to say. Finally, she added, “And I like these pancakes?”
Nikki gave her a thumbs-up. Everyone looked at Aaron. “Oh,” he said, fiddling with his plastic fork. “I’m Aaron Cross. That’s not the name I grew up with, but it fits me now. And — I wish I was a shapeshifter, because that’s awesome. Could someone hand me the salsa?”
“I don’t know how you can eat salsa on pancakes,” Marta said.
“It’s good,” Aaron told her.
“I like ketchup on scrambled eggs,” Calle said, and Marta made a face.
“I couldn’t even eat peanut butter and jelly together when I was a kid,” she told them. “My sister —“ She faltered, briefly, but put her chin up and kept going. “My sister always joked that I was the pickiest when it came to what I’d put in my mouth, and she was the pickiest about what she’d put in her brain. She couldn’t stop laughing when I told her I was going for my second doctorate.”
It was a start, and they managed to keep the conversational ball rolling until all the pancakes were gone. It was probably a good thing it wasn’t a multi-course meal, but she was willing to accept progress wherever they could scrounge it. Not enough cooking talent for multiple courses; not enough conversation for multiple courses — it went together perfectly, right?
They did hit a rough patch when Nikki realized that it wasn’t that Aaron and Marta had left their things somewhere else that morning; they just didn’t have any things. “Where are you planning to sleep?” she asked.
“Well, to be honest, we thought you might have furniture,” Aaron said.
Nikki laughed, and Calle actually giggled, hiding her face in Nikki’s shoulder. Nikki said, “Yeah, sorry about that. These aren’t even our pans. We weren’t using paper plates because we didn’t want you stealing the good china.”
“Paper plates are actually a step up for us,” Calle said. And then, “I have a sleeping bag you can use. And there are some blankets in the car, I think.”
Marta’s eyebrows went up, but she didn’t say anything, and Aaron didn’t ask why Calle had a sleeping bag going spare. Maybe they thought she shifted to something with a fur coat at night (true). Or just assumed she and Nikki were sharing (sometimes true). “We’d appreciate it,” Aaron said.
“Our empty space is your empty space,” Nikki told him, and he correctly interpreted that to mean ‘you can stay downstairs; the upstairs is ours.’
She wasn’t sure how much sleep any of them were going to get. Put four justifiably paranoid people in an unfamiliar space all together, one of whom was essentially a trained killer (though thank god he didn’t have amnesia), and it didn’t exactly encourage peaceful slumber. Or midnight snack runs to the kitchen. But she did fall asleep, to Calle’s furred ear flicking at her chin and a background echo of some sort of breathing meditation.
Of course, then she woke up in the darkness of post-midnight, pre-dawn, and absolutely knew she wasn’t going back to sleep. Nightmares. It felt like Calle was still asleep, so she rolled onto her back as carefully as possible and put her hands behind her head, staring at the ceiling. There was some moonlight coming in the windows, and she tried to distract herself from the dreams by arranging imaginary decorating schemes, each more unrealistic than the last.
*Hey,* said Calle, some time later, not sounding nearly as sleepy as Nikki would have expected. Maybe it was a mental voice thing. *I wasn’t sleeping either,* Calle said. *Might as well be awake together?*
Nikki practically sighed with relief. *Yes please. Can you tell if anyone’s awake downstairs?* She still wasn’t clear on the extent of Calle’s senses, and really, it wasn’t any of her business. Asking worked better than assuming, anyway.
*Both of them, I think,* was Calle’s response. *Or else they’re talking in their sleep. To each other.*
It was sort of ridiculous, when she thought about it. *So all four of us are just lying around, totally awake, waiting for it to be daytime again?*
*I’m only about eighty percent awake.*
*Very funny. I’m in stitches, here.*
*Well, what do you think we should do? It’s too early to eat, too dark to go outside. Everything around here is closed, and I don’t want to go to New York. We’ve probably shared everything they’re willing to share, until they trust us more.* Nikki thought Calle might be more sleepy than she’d seemed at first; her thoughts were all — swirly, somehow. Jumbled, or maybe just less linear than they usually came through.
*What do people usually do at night?*
She got back a blur of words and images. *Sleep. Hunt. Drink. Dance. Work.* And then a wave of safety-feeling warmth. *I want to stay here.*
Nikki couldn’t help smiling. *Yeah. That sounds good. So, dinosaurs?*
Calle rumbled out what was probably a laugh, and Nikki put a hand between her ears. *They told me I could be anything I wanted,* she quoted.
*So I became a dinosaur,* Nikki finished for her. *They’re a childhood classic; are you sure you’re not from Earth? I always liked the Stegosaurus.*
*Brachiosaurus,* Calle said, complete with picture.
*That’s not a real name.*
The smug satisfaction radiating from Calle told her she was probably wrong about that. *Check in the morning.*
There was a minute of quiet, and somehow she was drifting closer to sleep again. And then Calle said, *Nikki.* It didn’t sound like a ‘just checking to see if you were still awake’ call. Calle rarely said her name at all, and never just on its own like that.
*I’ve never had a normal life, not like you were talking about.* (Yeah, Nikki had kind of gotten that, from the brief history she’d heard. Then again, maybe applying human standards of normalcy to someone who was just as comfortable spending time as a cat, or a llama, was ridiculous.) *What if — what if it doesn’t work on me? What if I don’t like it, or I can’t do it?*
Big thoughts for the middle of the night. Or whenever it was by that point. Nikki knew her thoughts were going to be all a mess, but it seemed almost like cheating to switch over to talking out loud at that point. *First, you’re awesome,* she sent firmly in Calle’s direction. *Whether you stay here, or travel the world, or join the space program, or whatever; you’ll always be awesome. Second, when I say ‘normal,’ I’m using it as a stand-in for ‘not having to be scared all the time,’ because that’s what I want for myself. I want to have a place to live, and neighbors, and friends. It’s okay if what you want isn’t the same.*
There was a long hesitation. And then, *What if I don’t know what I want?*
*Then we’ll take it a day at a time. We’ll figure it out.*
Nikki waited out another long moment of silence. It looked like the sky was getting a little lighter, so maybe it was closer to dawn than she’d thought. Just as she was starting to think Calle was done with the conversation, she heard, *It’s harder than I thought it would be. So far, I mean.*
She wished she had something better to say, but the truth was all she could think of. *Yeah,* Nikki agreed. *Me too.*
They watched the rest of the night tick by in silence.
Marta and Aaron were impressed with the point to point transporter. (Well, Aaron was impressed. Marta mostly looked like she wanted to take it apart, which Nikki quickly vetoed.) “You said a kid did this?” Marta asked, poking at the New York office exit point. Blueberry muffins had shown up in the break room since their last visit. Nikki grabbed two before answering, and handed one off to Calle.
“I don’t know who did this end, but a kid did the ones at the house. She was probably, what, between twelve and sixteen?” She looked at Calle for confirmation, and Calle shrugged.
“Probably,” she said. “But that would be Earth years. It might not translate to the same cultural responsibilities and expectations where she’s from.”
Nikki saw Marta repeat “Earth years” to herself, and look carefully around the room, like (more) aliens might have leaped out of the woodwork while she was distracted. (She tried to think back to whether or not Calle had explicitly stated her non-Earth origins, and was pretty sure she had. Was it really that big a leap from genetic manipulation to interplanetary travel? It probably was, she admitted in the privacy of her own head, if you were an expert in one of those fields. Both seemed equally mysterious — and therefore equally plausible — to her, but she could see how someone like Marta might have a different perspective.)
They’d arrived to an empty room, and hadn’t exactly thought to call ahead to announce their new house guests. Flash walked in — texting — just as Nikki was weighing the merits of wandering the halls looking for someone.
“Morning,” he said absently, and then did a fairly impressive double-take. Twice, actually. First at Aaron, then Marta. Then he looked back at Nikki. “I thought you had the day off yesterday.”
“So did we,” Calle told him.
Nikki said, “Do you usually spend so much time walking around the buildings, or are you checking up on us?”
“I’m an intern,” Flash said, which didn’t really answer her question. (Though thinking back to her own days as an intern, maybe it did.) “Plenty of time to watch the news, though.” He was looking at Marta as he said it, and she stared back at him, poker faced. “I’m sorry about your team,” he said, after an awkward silence.
“So am I,” Marta replied, and Nikki wondered what she’d missed. Marta had been on the news?
“You were on the news?” Calle asked.
“You don’t know?” Flash said, looking confused. “I thought they were here with you.”
“They are,” Nikki said. “It’s kind of a long story.”
“I wasn’t on the news,” Aaron said. He looked — stoic, actually, but as far as Nikki could tell, that was just his default.
Flash shook his head, clearly sensing the ‘I am a seriously dangerous and unknown operative’ vibe Aaron was putting off. “No, you just — remind me of someone. I thought you were him, at first. You look similar. A little.”
Nikki looked at Calle, who shook her head. *I have no idea,* Calle said. It sounded quiet, somehow, like Calle was whispering instead of using her normal voice. *I thought we might try it, and see if we stay under the radar,* in response to her unspoken *?*
*Your call,* Nikki sent back, trying to tone down her own mental ‘volume.’ *Maybe we should pay more attention to the news.* It felt strange to be so out of the loop.
*Or we could just get him to tell us.*
Well, that made sense. And it would probably be faster. Nikki said, “They should probably see Mrs. Parker, right? To do paperwork.” She had confidence in May’s ability to handle them. “I think you’re supposed to be our guide today?” They could quiz him on current events if they could get him alone. Calle nodded in agreement.
His expression said he wasn’t falling for it. “I could take you all to her office,” Flash offered.
They got lucky, though, and May was actually in the office when they arrived. (And someone had clearly given her a heads up about the two new arrivals, because she looked as serene and unsurprised as ever.) She even sent Nikki and Calle off with Flash, who actually looked much less nervous once he wasn’t in the same space as Aaron. They got two sets of double doors away and Calle stopped walking.
Nikki said, “So, we want to know what you know about those two.” Honesty was the best policy, right?
Flash (to his credit) didn’t look surprised. “You could just google it,” he said. “I could find you a computer.”
“Or we could just ask you,” Calle said. “Which we did.”
“Fine.” Flash started walking again.
“Where are you going?”
“You issued the challenge; I get to choose the location,” Flash said.
It took a minute for Nikki to realize why that was ringing a bell. “It’s not a duel,” she told him.
“Yeah, I know,” Flash said. “But there are rules, and I’m not an idiot. They’re there for a reason. You want to ask questions, that’s fine. I can answer them. But I get to do it with someone I trust as part of the conversation.”
He led them back to the same hallway they’d found themselves in two days ago, where there was still a desk pulled out in the middle of the hall, and the same woman was sitting at it, knitting. Today it looked like a cape, or maybe a poncho, and Nikki wondered if she’d finished the scarf. “Flash!” the woman said cheerily. “New people! How are you?”
“Hey Jan,” Flash said. “Have you got a minute?”
“For you, of course. I can work on this later. What’s up?”
Flash made the introductions. “Jan, this is Calle Tovar and Nikki Parsons.” He gestured back at Jan. “Both of you, this is Janet Van Dyne.”
There was a hesitation after he said it, like he was waiting for them to recognize the name. They didn’t. “Nice to officially meet you,” Nikki said politely.
“They’re looking to get caught up on current events,” Flash said to Jan.
“Okay, yeah, I can see why,” Jan said. She looked at Calle, and then Nikki. “How far back do you need to go?”
If they knew that, they wouldn’t really need to be asking, would they? Jan seemed to realize it too, because she said, “No, never mind. Just start with the basics, maybe.”
Flash looked a little dubious at that suggestion, but he said, “Basics, sure. Aliens, you’re set on, right?” Calle nodded, Nikki shrugged, and Flash took that as a yes. “Superheroes?” he asked. “The Avengers? SHIELD?”
“Conceptually, we’re following,” Nikki said. “Superheroes — masks, bright colors, the occasional cape. They fight crime, generally. The Avengers are a group of them; they fought the Battle of New York. That one made global news.”
“Jan’s an Avenger,” Flash said.
Jan was suddenly tiny, and flying, and okay, she hadn’t expected that. “Nice,” Calle said. “Can I talk to you about flying sometime?”
Nikki was still stuck on ‘Jan’s an Avenger.’ “Hang on, yesterday you said your apartment didn’t have any power.” She was pretty sure the Avengers were supposed to all live together in a fancy mansion, or a skyscraper, or something.
Jan switched back to her original size. “Yeah, I was totally lying. It was supposed to be a joke, you know, because we all live in the Tower. I thought you just didn’t think it was funny.”
“Oh. No, sorry, just didn’t get it,” Nikki told her.
Flash continued his explanation. “Anyway, the Avengers come through here every once in a while, so I’m sure you’ll see them some time. One of them — Hawkeye — he looks just like that guy you showed up with.”
Jan narrowed her eyes. “How just like?” she asked.
“Really a lot. Like, identical. And he had Marta Shearing with him.”
Flash rolled his eyes. “Am I the only one who watches the news?”
“Oh please,” Jan said. “Like I don’t know you have JARVIS filtering alerts and keeping track of everything for you on your phone.”
“I asked. He offered.”
“JARVIS?” Calle asked.
Flash held up his phone. “JARVIS is an AI. One of Tony Stark’s. Mostly he helps out the Avengers, but he can access lots of different kinds of tech. He helped me set up my phone to stay up to date.”
Calle actually took a step back. Nikki said, “Isn’t that a little ‘Big Brother is watching you’?”
She wasn’t sure if it would even parse — did kids still have to read ‘1984’ in school? But Flash smiled. “Sure. That’s the thing, though — I always wanted a brother who gave a damn about me. And JARVIS is good people.”
“So what’s JARVIS telling you about this Marta Shearing?” Jan said. She’d put down the knitting, and was typing something on a tablet she’d pulled out of her desk.
Flash waved the phone again. “She was part of that lab shooting a few months back. The official word was, one of the scientists had a breakdown and went nuts — Shearing was the only survivor. First they were all calling her a hero, then suddenly she was a suspect, and then everything was hushed up and shut down. She was actually reported as dead at one point, but — I mean, obviously, she’s not.”
“Obviously is never as obvious as we’d like,” Jan muttered, frowning at her screen.
Nikki tried to organize everything into some kind of coherent whole — preferably a logical one, but she was willing to be flexible. (She was also willing to admit that most signs pointed to the conclusion that at some point, she’d completely lost any expectation of logic playing a leading role in her life.) “Hang on. I think I’m having a mini-crisis, and I need to talk it through.” She got three pairs of eyes on her, but no one objected.
She took as deep a breath as her ‘not quite hyperventilating’ status would allow. “Okay, right. So, let me see if I have this right — I got a job with Treadstone back when the program was still being called Treadstone, and I met Jason Bourne, and then he got amnesia and decided to take down the people who’d burned him, and when I ran into him again I wound up on the run, ultimately in Spain. Which is where I met Calle, also on the run, from a totally different government’s totally separate shady military program. And we just happened to run into one of the X-teams, who just happened to have met — and befriended — one of the fewer than ten people on the entire planet like Calle.”
“Actually, the X-Men do own property in Valencia,” Jan murmured.
Flash just said, “Amnesia, huh? That actually makes sense.”
Nikki glared at him. “Anyway. They flew us back to the United States — to some kind of forest community of misfits — who directed us here, to the Maria Stark Foundation, and amidst all of these aliens and mutants and superheroes, who winds up on our doorstep? A fugitive operative and a doctor, from whatever they’re calling Treadstone now. How is this even my life?”
Calle, who was probably the most in tune with Nikki’s mental state, said nothing. Jan just shrugged. “It’s synchronicity,” she said. “Like when you play pinball, and you hit the wormhole one time, and suddenly every shot is right back there for a while.”
Nikki was prepared to completely reject the pinball analogy (synchronicity? seriously?) and offer some choice commentary that she would probably regret later, but the sound of three phones ringing at once cut her off. “It’s May,” Jan said. “We’re being summoned, it looks like.”
“Not me. I’ll just — go find something else to do,” Flash said.
“Don’t get in too much trouble!” Jan called after him.
He waved back. “He’s not May’s favorite,” Jan explained. “He goes to school with her nephew. Come on, it’s not an emergency call, so we can detour through the cafeteria and grab lunch for everyone. I’m thinking we’re going to want food for this meeting.”
“We have an interesting problem.” It was the first thing May said after everyone was seated. Nikki, Calle, and Jan were joined by Aaron and Marta, plus May herself. “I’ve invited Mr. Barton as well, but he’ll be several minutes late.”
Nikki braced herself for bad news. Interesting problems were almost always bad news. Next to her, Calle poked a piece of salad back onto her plate. *I really wish I could shift right now,* she said. She sounded — smaller than usual, somehow.
*Go for it?* Nikki offered. She wasn’t sure why Calle hadn’t ever shifted while they were at the Foundation. Image, maybe, she’d thought. But maybe there was some kind of security system that kept her from changing. *Jan did it earlier, right?*
There was the mental equivalent of a sigh, and Calle said, *Really? I was trying to stick to one.*
Unspoken was the thought that she’d been trying to appear ‘normal,’ and Nikki could kick herself for making such a big deal of the whole normalcy thing. *Go for it,* she said again. *Really. You’re you no matter what.*
That got her a smile, and then there was a cat leaping onto her lap, purring. May raised an eyebrow, but Jan grinned. “Nice. Very original Star Trek,” she said.
The door swung open, and another person — presumably May’s “Mr. Barton” — walked in. Nikki blinked. Flash hadn’t been exaggerating; he and Aaron could be twins. Interestingly, neither of them looked as surprised as the rest of the room’s occupants. Barton also didn’t look surprised by the cat, so maybe he just wasn’t big on expressions in general.
“Huh,” he said, grabbing a chair and a plate of food. “That’s pretty much what I was expecting.”
Nikki thought Marta might actually be holding onto her chair to keep from poking at them. She managed it, though, and May said, “Yes, exactly.” (Nikki had no idea what that was supposed to mean.)
“You said something about a problem?” Aaron said.
May nodded briskly. “Yes. An interesting problem. As I’m sure you’re aware, the people in charge of Treadstone and Outcome would like to see the three of you dead. Our goal is to stop that from happening, which is something we’re very good at. The initial tactic seems to have been direct intervention — the operative who approached the house.”
She paused, and Nikki nodded to show she was still listening. Aaron had a ‘nothing to see here, nothing to do with me’ expression on his face that looked awfully familiar. He’d said the operative was taken care of, but not dead. She guessed she was about to find out what had actually happened to him.
“Two days ago, Mr. Cross had a conversation with that operative. I don’t know what was said in that conversation, nor do I want to know, but the operative left the area immediately after. He proceeded to board a flight to Oregon and drop of the grid. No one — not us, not Outcome or any other agency we can track — seems to have any idea where he is now.” May looked at Aaron. “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
“He’ll be fine,” Aaron said.
That was it. Barton looked like he was hiding a smirk in his sandwich, and May looked inscrutable. Aaron didn’t volunteer anything else, though, and finally May said, “So, that happened. It has the agencies in a snit, and they seem to be preparing to switch tactics.”
(Nikki hadn’t known they had any tactics other than ‘find a threat, eliminate the threat.’) “Legally speaking, we can handle them,” May said.
“Wait, what?” Nikki asked.
“You’re being sued,” May told her. “All three of you, multiple lawsuits.”
Treadstone was suing her? “For what? They tried to kill me.”
“Can you prove it? That incident is actually the basis for several of these, I think.” May pulled a sheet of paper out of a folder on the table. “Let’s see — breach of contract, destruction of property, assault, breaking and entering, illegal immigration, identity theft, falsifying evidence, conflict of interest, tax fraud… Do you want me to keep going?”
Nikki was convinced May was a parent. She had that combination of chiding and reassuring all wrapped up in a blanket of ‘maybe you should think about your life choices’ down perfectly. There was a steady bright amusement seeping through from Calle. *I think she likes you,* Calle said. *She’s not angry; I can tell.*
“No,” Nikki said, sighing. “That’s plenty.”
May even gave her the parental frown of disapproval. “Well, as I said, there’s no need for any of you to be concerned about that aspect. The agencies aren’t exactly on solid legal footing themselves these days, and a lot of these claims are simply lawyers talking with lawyers — a lot of footnotes and precedents, not a lot of substance. You have the full support of the Maria Stark Foundation legal team.”
Barton cleared his throat. Addressing May, he said, “If they want extra hands, you can tell them to give SHIELD a call. Our legal wranglers would be happy to pitch in. SHIELD’s been looking for a reason to take on Outcome and the rest of them for years, but they couldn’t find anyone willing to talk.”
“I’ll pass that along,” May said. “That brings us to the latest development. The laws — or the lawyers, at least — are on your side. Public opinion is a different matter entirely.”
“Public opinion,” Aaron repeated. “In what way?”
May pulled a tablet out of her folder and tapped a few times on the screen. “You’ve been outed,” she said. She turned the screen around, and sure enough, there was a network news logo spinning in the corner, with photos of all three of them on display underneath. The sound was muted, but the captions were enough to make her wince. Hers said ‘Nikki Parsons — Suspected Arsonist.’
May put the tablet down, and folded her hands on the table. “That’s airing live,” she said. “It was an unexpected development, and I’m sorry we couldn’t give you more notice. They’re trying to present the three of you as potentially dangerous criminals who stole government technology, falsified your records, and snuck back into the country illegally.” She paused, and Nikki was pretty sure it wasn’t going to get better. “They also leaked your home address.”
Calle growled, and Nikki thought, *Yeah, me too.*
It was Marta who spoke first. “So what do we do?”
May said, “There are two main options. Option one is — more recommended. You create a blanket statement, along the lines of ‘no comment; here’s the number for my lawyer.’ Then you just keep saying it, until they go away.”
“What’s option two?” Marta said.
“We can give you a new identity. New name, new paperwork, new everything. Then you brazen it out with the ‘I have no idea what or who you’re talking about’ strategy. Until they go away.”
Nikki could feel the question from Calle. “When do they go away?” she asked.
Barton and Jan both laughed, then looked apologetic. “Sorry,” Jan said. Of course, they were part of the Avengers; they probably had reporters staking them out all the time. “Usually they go away when something more interesting happens. Best advice? Be boring.”
“I’ll take option one,” Nikki said, and Marta nodded.
Aaron looked doubtful, but he shrugged. “I’ve already become someone different a couple times. This one’s pretty good, though.” He looked at Marta. “Unless you want me to go. Your before was a lot better than my before.”
“I want you to stay,” Marta said. “If you want to.”
“Option one it is, then. You know I’m not great at ‘no comment,’ though. Can we get some variety in there?” Marta smiled when he said it, and Nikki thought there must be a story there. (She’d never met a chatty operative before, but she’d never met someone from Outcome — maybe the ‘emotional inconsistency’ rumors had some basis in fact after all.)
“You can meet with our PR advisors,” May told them. “But you’re mostly going to be on your own for this part. It may not seem like a bunch of reporters are much of a threat, but you should be prepared. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but reacting would be bad.”
She felt like she was missing something. “Reacting to what?” Nikki asked.
It was Barton who answered. “Bright lights, loud noises, sudden movements? They can’t physically touch you, but that still leaves a lot of leeway.”
Calle growled again. So, basically everything that made people jump, except that these days when the three of them jumped, they usually reached for a weapon. And the ‘I’m innocent of all charges’ argument wasn’t going to hold up well against a video clip of any of them pulling a gun on a reporter. That might be a problem.
Everyone was silent for a minute, and then Marta said, “I’m guessing you have some suggestions?”
“PR is expecting you after lunch. I recommend you call your families, if you haven’t already explained things to them.” (Nikki was relieved to see that Marta looked as guilty as she felt — at least Nikki wasn’t the only one who’d been putting off an awkward conversation.) May paused, then added, “And I’d invest in some good curtains.”
Jan raised her hand. “Sorry, but are we going to talk about the fact that Clint and the new guy look like they could be brothers?”
Nikki had assumed that was why Barton had been included in the meeting. But he looked surprised when everyone’s attention focused on him, so maybe not. He and Aaron exchanged a look, and then Barton shrugged. “I don’t have anything to say about it,” he said easily.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Aaron said.
And that seemed to be it. May said something about respecting people’s right to privacy, and Jan said they should have learned that secret histories never stayed secret forever, and Nikki was distracted from all of it by Calle making plans in her head. *I could stick to just a few forms during the day, in public.*
There was a definite dog vibe coming from Calle, so Nikki said, *You thinking tough and mean to make them think twice, or cute and fluffy to win them over?*
*Maybe a little of both?* Calle jumped off her lap as a cat and landed on the floor as a dog. Medium height, medium build, rumpled fur of indiscriminate color — the sort of dog affectionately referred to as a ‘mixed breed.’
*I really want to ruffle your ears right now,* Nikki told her. Calle wagged her tail.
“That’s super adorable,” Jan said, peering over the table at them. “You should know I am very strongly resisting the urge to ask you to transform into something else.”
Nikki strongly resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Calle nudged her fingers with a reassuring sniff, then shifted back to her human shape like it was nothing. “Maybe if you can teach me to fly,” she told Jan.
The Foundation’s public relations advisors were realistic (though not very optimistic) about their chances of success. The takeaway message seemed to be that some people would love them no matter what, some people would hate them no matter what, and their best bet was to be as honest as possible because the truth was bound to come out eventually. (Also, to not shoot anyone in the face, but that one seemed pretty self-explanatory). Really, the whole thing felt a little more like a group therapy session than a spin lesson, but it was at least interesting to hear the ‘for examples.’ She was pretty sure they were being taken from actual events, and there were a few she made a mental note to ask Flash or Jan about at some point.
“Ready to go home?” she said, once the four of them were gathered back in the break room. The refrigerator had been stocked with bottles of iced tea at some point during the morning, and she thought they must make an interesting picture — four people with matching beverages, walking through a pantry door.
Of course, that door led them right back to the upstairs closet back at the house, and they stepped out into the hallway. *Feels safe,* Calle reported. *No one’s inside the sensors except us.* She was still in human form, possibly so she had an easy way to hold on to her tea.
Aaron scouted the house and garage before coming to exactly the same conclusion. “We’re clear,” he said. “Definitely a mess at the end of the driveway, though. Three news vans, one reporter doing a live broadcast. The other two have cameras on the house.”
“The curtains help,” Nikki said. “Thank you.” (They’d split up for the afternoon, and Aaron had made a trip back with a couple Foundation helpers to get all the windows covered while Nikki and Calle were practicing interview dodging tactics. She assumed he’d also taken the opportunity to go through the house, but they weren’t actually trying to hide anything. And it wasn’t like they had much to rifle through. It should have been pretty easy; it certainly wouldn’t have taken very long.)
“Did anyone go out for more bread when you were here?” Marta asked.
Someone had. They had bread and rolls, and more condiments than any four people could eat in a week. They also had more eggs. Clearly getting sued and accused of various (mostly untrue) crimes in the national media got them some sympathy. Since it had also gotten them groceries, she was willing to take the good with the bad. “I’ll do eggs and toast,” Calle offered. Then she added, “Aaron, did you find my sunglasses when you were here earlier? I lost them when we were unpacking.”
Aaron looked a little embarrassed, which was probably the most she’d seen him emote since his arrival. “Yeah, they’re in the kitchen — third shelf down, on the left, where you were keeping the cereal.”
They ate, and it was late enough in the fall that it was dark out by the time they were finished. Calle was restless. “I’m going for a run,” she said. She shifted back to what Nikki was (trying really hard not to think it too loudly) privately calling her ‘creature of the night’ form, though it was definitely smaller than the last time she’d seen it looming over Aaron and Marta. She took off out the back door, and Nikki could feel her excitement tickling in her own mind.
*Don’t get into too much trouble, okay?* she sent.
*No trouble, back soon,* Calle replied. *It’s cold out here.* She sent back a very definite image of curling up in Nikki’s sleeping bag, and Nikki smiled.
*See you later. I’ll keep you posted if anything happens inside.*
“Does anyone have a pen?” Marta asked. “Or a pencil?”
Aaron shook his head, but Nikki dug through the drawer next to the sink and came up with a ballpoint pen. (Less than a week in the house, and they already had a junk drawer.) “I think we got this one at a gas station, but you can have it if you want,” she said. The pen looked like it had spent several days getting kicked around the floor of a car, which it probably had.
Marta took it anyway. “Thanks.” She held up a spiral-bound notebook. “Homework.”
“You got homework?”
“You didn’t?” Marta looked at Aaron, but he shook his head. “It’s just journaling,” she said. “You know, write about your feelings, figure out what you want to do next with your life.”
“I skipped that meeting,” Aaron said.
Marta smiled, and tossed a notebook at him. “Yeah, I noticed. I got you one anyway. That’s why I needed the second pen; they only gave me one.” She tossed the gas station pen at him next, and he caught that too. He made a noise somewhere in between indignation and laughter, but he joined Marta on the living room floor and spread out his notebook next to hers.
Nikki washed the dishes and didn’t try to hide the fact that she was watching them. *They’re journaling together,* she told Calle. *It’s adorable.*
From the sensations that came through the link, she thought Calle might be up in a tree. *Journaling?*
*I think it’s a therapy thing, working through a traumatic experience. When I was working in the program, we had to see a counselor every month.*
*Did it help?* Calle was definitely in a tree, or moving through trees; Nikki kept getting flashes of branches.
*Not really; we always lied anyway. The secretaries, and the assistants, and support staff kind of people — there was a lot of turnover. There was a packet, that went around, of all the right answers to tell the counselors so you would pass.* Nikki stacked the final dishes in the drainer and waited out Calle’s silence.
*That seems — counterproductive,* Calle said finally.
*Well, we were less worried about our long term mental and emotional health than we probably should have been. Mostly we didn’t want to get fired.* She shrugged, and got an odd look from Aaron, which she waved off. *It was all-encompassing,* she said. *But they didn’t exactly encourage anyone to place a high priority on personal well-being.* Before Calle could respond, she tacked on, *Subject change?*
*I found an owl,* Calle said. *Want to see?*
She was pretty sure she thought yes, and all at once her vision switched to darkness. She blinked, and sure enough, she was looking through Calle’s eyes, and there was an owl in front of her. *Whoa.*
Then she blinked, and she was back in the kitchen, with her ears ringing. *Would this be the time to talk about that?* Since she still wasn’t sure how much of her ‘messaging’ was getting through to Calle, she added, *The vision swapping thing, I mean. Does it actually go both ways?*
*You mean, do I see out of your eyes when you see out of mine? Yes. We can talk about now it if you want. Or later.*
Nikki got the sense that if it was up to Calle, the ‘later’ when they talked wouldn’t be happening until a much later ‘later.’ *What do you know about it?*
*I’ve never done it before. It doesn’t feel dangerous, though, not like —* It was like a wall came down as Calle cut off the thought. It was startling, but it wasn’t like Nikki didn’t know Calle had done dangerous things. Really, hadn’t they all? (Mostly she wanted to know if Calle could teach her to do that wall thing.)
*You okay?* she ventured, after a few seconds of mental silence.
*I’m good now,* Calle replied. *Sorry. But I could ask James about the vision switching. He might have heard of it, or be able to do it with Rebecca. It’s useful, right?*
*Yeah, of course. There’s kind of an — echo, or something, when you do it. Not like seeing double, but maybe just feeling like I’m in two places at once? And it makes my ears ring when you stop.* They felt back to normal already, and she almost didn’t say anything. But she figured full disclosure was better than her trying to guess what was important and what wasn’t. *What about on your end?*
*It seems fine? It’s easier for me, I think.* (Which made sense, probably, since Calle was used to her perspective shifting from all the shape changing.) *I’m headed back now.*
*We should practice more, maybe,* Nikki sent back, and got a sort of wordless assent in return.
Sure enough, a few minutes later Calle said, *Heads up,* and Nikki was looking through Calle’s eyes at their own back door.
“Hey,” Nikki said out loud, when she opened the door. “Cool owl.”
“Thanks. Journaling time over?” Calle leaned to the side to see Marta and Aaron.
“I’m done,” Aaron said.
“Sure,” Marta agreed. She looked at her watch and shrugged. “Seems like enough time to me.”
As they all dutifully trekked off to bed, Nikki thought, *There have got to be more exciting news stories than us,* and Calle laughed. (She was surprised to find that she actually got a good night’s sleep. Maybe her brain had reached capacity for things to worry about, and just shut everything down for a night.)
She woke up to Calle meditating. Or something that required sitting still with your eyes closed, anyway. It looked like meditating. But as soon as she rolled out of bed, Calle opened her eyes. “Good morning.”
“How do you even do that?” Nikki asked. “At least seventy percent of me is still asleep.”
Calle said, “I’ve been awake for a while.” Before Nikki could ask what ‘a while’ meant, Calle added, “Aaron didn’t sleep at all, I don’t think.”
Nikki thought about that for a minute. “I’m thinking we let Marta worry about Aaron?” she said. The sun was out, glinting off the frost. She could feel a restlessness simmering just at the edge of her brain — and then she looked at Calle, who shrugged.
“Sorry,” Calle said. She looked apologetic instead of sympathetic, so Nikki figured the restlessness was probably from her.
Nikki threw a sock at her. “I’m not. Want to go for a run? We’re going to have to meet the press sometime.”
Calle shifted into dog form fast enough to blur, and her tail was wagging when she finished. *There’s a good trail in the woods, if you want to avoid the driveway on the way out.*
Nikki tightened her shoelaces. *No reason to make it too easy for them, huh? Should I ask Marta and Aaron if they want to come?* She still wasn’t sure whether Calle just had really good hearing, or if she was keeping tabs on their house guests some other way. When it came right down to it, she wasn’t sure if she should ask, like maybe assuming a five senses based system was speciesist.
*It sounds like Marta's going to keep watch while Aaron gets some rest," Calle said, which answered the question anyway. "We should probably tell them we're going, though. Politeness invitation?"
Nikki shrugged and shook out a sweatshirt. It didn't look too much like it had been dropped in a river and then dried on a nearby rock (which it had -- James' version of hospitality had been a little tetchy at the start). “Okay. I'm set," she said.
Calle circled around her excitedly, then bounded down the stairs at a pace (and volume) that had Marta sticking her head out of the bedroom. "We're good," Nikki called. "Calle and I are going for a run, we'll be back in --" She looked at Calle, who wagged. "An hour or so," Nikki said. "I have my phone if you need to contact us."
Marta waved an acknowledgement. "Good luck with the circus out there," she said.
They went out through the back of the garage, because it was closest to the trail. It was a cold morning, despite the sun, and their breath puffed out in white clouds. Nikki had never been a big fan of jogging, but she'd picked it up while she'd been more metaphorically on the run. There were plenty of cities in the world where all it took were some earbuds and a jogging stride and you were practically invisible.
The trail dropped them back on the street just around the corner from the news vans. In the woods, Calle ran circles around her, literally. She would dart off the path and circle around, crashing the the underbrush. But once they hit pavement, Calle paced her perfectly.
*Your loop is going to take us right back to the driveway,* Nikki said. *You good with that?*
*All I have to do is look non-threatening. You're the one who has to talk.*
*I am definitely not prepared enough. Let's do it anyway.*
*Bring it on,* Calle replied.
Nikki was expecting the flash-click of cameras, tape recorders shoved in her face, all the sort of things you saw on tv. News sharks. Instead, she got a very sleepy group of what looked like recent college grads, handing around cups of coffee.
*They look twelve,* she thought, torn between feeling amused and feeling ancient. *Watch, I bet at least one calls me ma'am.*
They all seemed taken by surprise to see their quarry approaching from the wrong direction, but they rallied quickly.
"Ms. Parsons, do you have any comment on the accusations that have been levelled against you?"
"What are your thoughts on Pamela Landy's recent testimony?"
"Have you been in contact with Jason Bourne?"
"Is it true you're harboring Dr. Shearing and another Treadstone agent?"
"Ma'am, are you aware this town has a leash law?"
The last question was the only one she reacted to. It came from a woman holding her phone at arm's length -- of course, who used tape recorders any more? She didn't say anything, but she smiled generally in the woman's direction. *You're up,* she said.
Calle sat directly on Nikki's feet. She lolled her tongue at the cameras, then rolled over on her back. Nikki reached down to give a quick belly rub. When she stood up, Calle switched to lying right side up, nose on her paws, tail wagging.
"That's so cute!" one of the reporters gushed. "What a charmer!"
It looked like all the cameras had moved to focus on Calle, but Nikki smiled again just in case. *You're like reporter kryptonite,* she said.
*It's fun,* Calle sent back. *Friendly and silent; nice technique."
None of the reporters went as far as asking if they could pat the dog, but she was pretty sure a couple of them wanted to. It got them through the bottleneck at the end of the driveway and halfway to the house with (relative) ease -- which meant her flinch when one of them asked about deportation hopefully went unnoticed.
*Okay?* Calle asked.
*I'm good.* And she was. First encounter with reporter swarms: successfully completed, no tears, profanity, or broken noses included. There was even breakfast waiting when they got inside.
"I thought you were sleeping," Nikki said. Aaron was standing at the stove, poking at something in one of their two pans. (She could see the other one in the sink -- ingredient prep, or unfortunate kitchen incident?)
Marta said, "He did sleep. Twenty minutes, maybe twenty-five. Not enough."
"I'm fine," Aaron said emphatically, and it sounded like a familiar argument.
Marta pointed a fork at him. “You’re not ‘fine’ on an hour of sleep a day. Your body can handle that for something like six days before it starts to cut out vital systems like cognitive sharpness and risk assessment. Don’t forget I’ve seen your test results.”
Aaron took the fork out of her hand and stuck it back on her plate. “So I have two days left. I’ll sleep tonight.”
Nikki stayed out of it. She looked at Calle, who shook herself all over before shifting back to human form and heading for the sink. Nikki idly wondered if they should invest in a dog bowl — would that be thoughtful, or insulting?
*It would be convenient,* Calle thought at her, sliding the idea back at her with a mix of humor and appreciation. *And more convincing if there were ever any people around who thought a dog lived here.*
Like reporters, Nikki thought. Or their neighbors. “Hey, what do you think our neighbors think about all this?” she asked out loud. They hadn’t seen any of them while they were out running, but it hadn’t seem unusual for that time of day.
“The ones to the left were on the local station last night,” Marta said. “Apparently, you’re quiet, and wave when they see you on the street.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” Nikki said.
“What?” Calle asked.
(It was Calle’s first time in the States, and it wasn’t like they’d spent a lot of the last few days watching network news coverage.) Nikki said, “That’s the stock neighbor response. That people seem quiet and wave on the street. The only thing worse would be if they said we always say ‘hi’ and seem friendly.”
Aaron coughed into his cereal. “That’s what the people on the right said, actually,” Marta admitted.
Calle frowned. “I still don’t get why it’s bad,” she said. “Aren’t those good things? And true?”
“Because that’s what people always say, usually when their neighbors have just been arrested. Or murdered.” Calle still looked unsure, so Nikki added, “It associates us with stock footage of police cars and caution tape, which is bad. Also, it means our neighbors don’t actually know anything about us, which normally I would think of as a good thing, but in this case —“
“Not so much,” Calle finished for her. “Okay.”
“We could try to make a better impression; host a party or something,” Marta offered. Then she looked around. “Well, maybe not a party.”
Nikki was sure there were plenty of things that could be done; the list of things the four of them could actually manage to pull off was a lot shorter. “Maybe not,” she said.
“Some furniture might help,” Aaron said, giving them empty living room a skeptical look. “Not that the big empty spaces look isn’t giving the house a certain artistic vibe. But someone’s bound to get a photo sometime. And this doesn’t exactly shout ‘well adjusted middle class suburbanite.’”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” Marta said, which saved Nikki from having to say it. “You put salsa on pancakes.”
“May said something about scrounging furniture from other properties the Foundation takes care of,” Nikki said. “We’re not scheduled to go in for work today, but we could stop by the New York office and see if they could point us in the right direction. It might be a good way to get out of the house without actually leaving. You know, from the reporters’ perspective.”
“And I want a notebook,” Calle announced. *I want to journal too,* she said privately.
Somehow, she wasn’t surprised. *I want you to have what you want,* Nikki said. Out loud, she added, “Maybe we should all be therapy journaling. I wouldn’t mind sleeping better at night.”
There wasn’t much to do after breakfast but clear the dishes and head through the point to point transporter. This time, though, Nikki texted Flash ahead of time, and he was waiting in the break room — alone — when they arrived. With five people and a free day, they put off furniture for a while to do some extensive testing of their double point to point system. (Flash mostly handled the stopwatch.)
“Watch this, I think I’ve got it,” Calle said. Aaron was playing target, and he stepped through from the New York end — the ‘out’ point was always the one in the never-got-a-chance to be a linen closet door. Calle took a breath and dove after him in human shape.
Both of them tumbled back out seconds later, Aaron laughing, with Calle as a lion, holding him on the floor with two massive front paws. “Three point nine,” Flash said. “Seconds,” he added. “I’d give it a ten in terms of style points, though.”
“It works,” Calle said, shifting back. “Took a few tries to get the angle right, but it works.”
“You got me good,” Aaron said, rubbing the back of his head. “It’s still a trip going through that one under the railing.”
The first thing they’d practiced was just a basic slide and evade — going directly from door to railing. (Fun, but not elegant; Nikki had a bruise on her shin from hitting the break room table.) Then Calle wanted to try tackling someone through it, which was actually harder from a timing standpoint than Nikki thought Aaron had expected when he volunteered.
Marta was sketching something on a napkin. “Okay, what about this?” she said. “If two of us go through, and someone followed, could you get here and back again in time for a surprise save?” The stick figures and arrows she’d drawn didn’t make any sense to Nikki, but she followed the basic explanation.
They were interrupted by none other than May Parker walking into the room. “Good morning,” she said, walking to the cupboards and taking down an honest-to-god teacup. “You do realize, I’m sure, that it’s not a toy.”
“This is tactics,” Nikki said, though the grins on Aaron’s and Calle’s faces contradicted that statement somewhat.
“You’re here for access to the other properties so you can furnish the house,” May said, no question in her tone at all. “Flash can show you around.”
“I’ve been wondering about the point to point transporter selects an endpoint,” Marta said.
“There are other break rooms,” May said, and swept back out of the room, teacup in hand. She gave Flash what could only be called a quelling look on her way out.
Wait, what? Nikki stared after her. Did she just imply that this break room was, what, a dedicated arrival and departure spot just for their house? If it wasn’t communal, who kept stocking it with food? And why would there be a teacup in the cupboard?
“Are you going to get in trouble because of us?” Calle said.
Flash shook his head. “No, that had nothing to do with you. Well, mostly. I go to school with her nephew? And she sort of — doesn’t like me.” He stuck his head out in the hallway, like he was checking to make sure no one was listening in. “Look, I was really sorry to about the reporters. That sucks, having someone watching you all the time. And, uh — I sort of know Spiderman; he offered to create a ruckus here if you want to give the news cycle something else to focus on. Please don’t tell Mrs. Parker I said that, though.”
Nikki wasn’t even sure where to start with that one, but she was pretty sure she shouldn’t be focusing on the fact that Flash had used the word ‘ruckus.’ Who said things like that? (Much more interesting that he ‘sort of’ knew Spiderman, and May Parker ‘sort of’ didn’t like him — high school speech patterns, or was there a connection?)
“You know Spiderman?” Calle asked. “Does he want to meet us?” (Calle was always interested in meeting people with interesting powers; sometimes she could figure out a way to translate them to her own shifting.)
“He should stay out of it,” was Aaron’s advice. Then he added, “But you could thank him for the thought.”
“Isn’t Spiderman a wanted criminal?” Marta asked. Flash just looked at her. “Ah,” she said. “Right; so are we.”
“He has an image problem,” Flash said. “Believe me, he’s working on it.”
“And Mrs. Parker?” Aaron asked.
Flash looked away. “Yeah. I know you’re trained in interrogation techniques, or whatever, but can you not ask? It’s not really something I want to talk about. We could get furniture instead, maybe. Do you really not have any?”
“We’re working on it,” Nikki told him.
And they did. Work on it, that is. Thank goodness for service elevators, because it turned out superheroes generally had better things to do than lend useful skills like super strength or teleportation to projects like moving furniture. Flash did manage to round up a few more interns to help, along with a tool kit and a steady stream of snacks.
Between them, they put together three bedroom sets, a couple of desks, and a slightly mismatched sectional sofa and chairs. (There was also a surprisingly vehement argument about whether bar stools were more or less pretentious than tall chairs when it came to the kitchen breakfast bar, and somehow they wound up with both anyway. “You can always use the stools for end tables,” one of the interns said, and it seemed silly to take them back at that point anyway.)
But for a day she’d hoped would be relatively simple, emotionally speaking (need furniture; get furniture; how hard could it be?), it was more like a minefield. Was the room they were currently sleeping in hers, or Calle’s? Did whichever one of them whose room it wasn’t want a separate bedroom? What about Marta and Aaron — was it presumptuous to assume they were sharing a bed? Were any of them planning on staying in one place long enough to really deserve a vote on wall decor and lighting?
So they were basically all at the point of not looking each other in the eye by the time they’d finished ferrying furniture through the point to point transporter and getting it arranged in some semblance of reasonable positioning. Flash had gone off a while ago to monitor something, or find someone, she hadn’t really been listening when he’d explained it. But the break room still had food, so they gathered back there and sat in awkward silence while they ate.
“Did you know condiments taste different in every form?” Calle said, breaking the quiet. “This is the only way I can eat mustard. Also, sandwiches in general, but I think that’s a thumbs thing.”
The way she said it was so serious, Nikki thought she was going somewhere with it. Like a metaphor for their situation, or something. “What?” she said.
“I just thought it was interesting.” Calle shrugged. “Subject change?”
Nikki laughed. “Sure. I could use one,” she agreed.
Marta smiled, and even Aaron leaned in closer and put his elbows on the table. Marta said, “I think my question is, who’s stocking this fridge, and can we get them to do the one at the house as well?”
“I want to know why that kid is never in school,” Aaron said. “He always seems to be around. Kids still go to school, right?”
Nikki pulled out her phone again and waved it. “I have his number; want me to ask?”
“Sure, let’s pester someone else for a while,” Marta said. “I’m tired of worrying about us.”
Texting probably made more sense, but it was so much less interactive. She set the phone in the middle of the table and waited for it to connect. “This is Flash,” they heard, after — she was pretty sure they were all counting — nine rings. It sounded like he was out of breath.
“Flash, this is Nikki. Are you okay?”
“Oh sure. What’s up? Do you guys need more help?”
“No, we just had a question.”
“Hi Flash,” Calle said.
There was a pause. “Am I on speakerphone? Who else is there?”
“Hi Flash,” Marta said.
“It’s just the four of us,” Nikki said. “Are you sure you’re okay?” They could hear him talking to someone in the background, but she couldn’t tell what he was saying. *Can you hear what he’s saying?* she asked Calle.
*He’s just relaying our conversation. I can’t tell who he’s talking to, though; they haven’t said anything. He’s not worried, though.*
“I’m totally fine. I’m helping out a friend, and I’m at the park. You should meet, actually, I bet you’d get along.” He must have forgotten to put his hand over the speaker after that, because they could all hear him say, “Well, I didn’t see where it went. This is definitely not the one I threw, though. That one was green.”
“Is there a dog there?” Calle said. “Are you at a dog park?”
“Was that the question you called to ask?” And then, like he was talking to someone else, “Come on, how was I supposed to know you’re color blind? Sharing is caring.”
“No, we wanted to know why you’re never in school,” Marta said. “Early graduation?”
He laughed. “I wish. No, I’m doing a sort of internship, slash independent study, slash community service thing with the Foundation. Real world experience instead of classroom hours, that kind of thing.”
“Sounds like a pretty good deal,” Nikki said.
“Yeah, it’s one of those long stories that don’t make much sense when you try to explain it all later. I got lucky and I know it, but I pay it forward when I can.”
“Yes, thank you for all your help with the furniture today,” Marta said.
Calle added, “And for answering our questions.”
“No problem. You can call any time, you know. I sort of have to go right now, though.”
She nodded, even though Flash couldn’t see it. “Of course. Sorry to bother you. Thanks again for the help.”
Calle was back at the counter, picking through the bowl of fruit, but she called, “Thanks, Flash!” and Marta and Aaron chimed in as well.
Once the call was ended, Marta leaned back in her chair. “That was fun.”
She didn’t think they’d actually dealt with the minefield — more like they’d mutually agreed to ignore it until they could all edge carefully around it to the other side. But it was something, and the awkwardness level had decreased significantly. “I’m ready to go back home,” Nikki offered. “If everyone else is.”
They were, and it felt good to step out of the doorway and see their new furniture. The house felt more settled. They’d lingered in New York long enough for the sun to start going down, but they’d left lights on in the living room and the kitchen that cast a glow up to the loft.
And then Calle froze. “Wait,” she said. Everyone else froze too. “Someone’s here. Just one, I think. Inside the sensors. Back door.”
Instantly, they were all on alert. Nikki looked at Calle, then Aaron. Working together made sense. Aaron said, “No one’s expecting company, right? Just in case.”
Negatives all around. And no one wanted to count on the house’s defenses to judge good motives from bad ones. Just the fact that the intruder was at the back door and not the front was worrying enough. “Right,” Aaron said. “The lights are on, and they’re going to be able to see us as soon as we’re off the stairs. Calle — how bulletproof are you?”
Calle grinned. “Plenty.”
“Can you get down there and be a distraction? I’ll be right behind you.” He looked at Nikki. “Stay in the stairwell?” She nodded.
“Marta, if you stay up here, you can provide cover fire if we need it. If things look bad, shoot out the windows and get back to New York. Got it?”
Marta nodded, then frowned. “Hang on, why am I shooting the windows?”
Aaron shrugged. “It’ll draw the attention of the news crews, plus be a distraction, plus give us an easy exit if we need it. And you like shooting things.”
Marta took a deep breath and nodded again. She had her gun out and carefully pointed at the floor. (Though Nikki wasn’t sure where it had come from, and she had a sneaking suspicion that Aaron might be carrying two, and just handing one off to Marta as needed.) “I’m good,” she said. “Go.”
Nikki blinked and Calle was a squirrel, dropping from the loft balcony and out of sight. Seconds later, a ferocious barking started in the kitchen. *That’s you, right?* Nikki asked. *That doesn’t sound like a squirrel.*
*Definitely me,* Calle sent back. *Squirrels aren’t much of a distraction. I’m bigger now.*
Calle rounded the corner of the breakfast bar and came back into view as a much larger, much angrier version of the dog she’d been that morning, barking and snarling and leaping at the back door. Aaron sprinted across the living room after her, and Nikki positioned herself on the bottom step of the stairs, leaning around the wall to cover low.
The lights worked against her; she couldn’t see anything but reflections in the door. But Aaron said, “Hands up,” so he must be able to see something — someone — out there. They must have refused, because he repeated, “Hands up, or I will shoot you through this glass.” She thought that whoever it was must not actually look like a threat, or else there would be less threatening and more shooting happening.
Whoever it was must have heeded the warning, because Aaron reached for the latch and unlocked the door, sliding it open. “Come in slowly,” he said, and Nikki appreciated that he didn’t get in the way of her shot. “Give me your bag.”
Of course, the fact that Aaron wasn’t blocking her shot meant she got a clear view of the intruder as they stepped inside. *Crap,* she thought.
Nikki resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall. *That’s my mother.*
*Is she a trained assassin?*
*Not that I know of, no.*
Calle sat down abruptly, suddenly looking less dangerous. Aaron, who was currently checking the bag (her mom’s purse, how was this even happening) for weapons, explosives, recording devices, and whatever other dangerous spy tools he thought might be in there, looked up. “What?” he said.
Nikki sighed, and stepped fully into the living room. “Hi Mom,” she said. (She almost waved, but realized at the last second she was still holding her gun. It was probably way too late to hide it, but she tucked it behind her back just in case.)
If anything, Aaron looked even more wary, but he didn’t say anything, just looked back and forth between them.
Her mother put her hands on her hips. She looked around. “I am waiting for an explanation,” she said. Nikki opened her mouth, and her mother held up a hand. “An explanation,” she continued, “for why your own mother had to find out you were alive from television cable news, and then — after I flew thousands of miles to see you, I was attacked at your door by a complete stranger and a vicious dog.”
“Well. It’s a — long story,” Nikki hedged.
“Nicole,” her mother said flatly. “You’re allergic to dogs, and you’re carrying a gun. I just want to know what’s going on.”
“It — really is a long story?” she said, and sighed again. She hadn’t spoken with her mother in years, hadn’t seen her face to face in longer than that, and this was definitely not the way to remake a good impression. Still. It wasn’t entirely unsuspicious, her mom showing up out of the blue. And much as Nikki would like to, she couldn’t actually vouch for her. She looked at Aaron.
“Bag’s clean,” he said.
Calle sidled over to her legs and leaned against her. No teeth showing, but it was pretty clearly a defensive position. *You okay?*
Nikki reached a hand down to lay it on Calle’s head. She holstered the gun at the same time. *Yeah. I think so. You? Picking up anything hinky?*
*I’m okay. She’s worried about you.*
There didn’t really seem to be a good response to that, so Nikki said, “Maybe we should sit down. Marta?”
Nikki took the sofa, since she was right next to it, and Calle sat on her feet, placing herself squarely between Nikki and her mother. (Who sat in the least comfortable chair in the room, of course. They’d really only grabbed it to balance the others, and now they were going to be parentally judged on its lack of comfort, she just knew it.) Aaron stayed standing, lurking by the door. Probably so he could keep an eye on all of them. Marta probably managed the best — she came down the stairs gracefully, no weapon in sight, and even shook hands before taking a seat in the remaining chair.
Through it all, Nikki’s mother stayed silent. Nikki said, “Mom, I’d like you to meet Calle, Marta, and Aaron. Everyone, this is my mother.”
“Please, call me Sandra,” came the automatic response.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Marta said. Aaron nodded, but otherwise stayed silent. Calle was so still she could have been a statue.
“Are you all right, Nikki?” her mother said. “Are you in some kind of trouble? Because this —” She waved a hand that encompassed the room, or possibly the entire situation. “This isn’t like you.”
“I’m not in trouble, Mom. I’m fine. How did you even get here?”
“Sweetie, you just introduced me to your dog. And I told you — I took a plane, and then rented a car. It’s in the driveway, which you should have seen when you arrived. Please tell me you weren’t in the house the entire time, ignoring my knocking.”
Nikki shook her head. “Calle’s not my dog. And no, we weren’t here. Why were you at the back door?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to wait at the front door, not with all those cameras out there. I’m not stupid, regardless of what you might think of me.” She picked what had to be an imaginary piece of lint off her pants and brushed it onto the floor.
“Mom. I don’t think you’re stupid. Okay?” Calle’s thoughts were a reassuring murmur at the back of her head, keeping her steady. Marta seemed to be having her own silent conversation with Aaron, possibly using only their eyebrows. (It was probably some kind of variation of ‘don’t just stand there like a creepy lurker; get some crackers or something.’ It wouldn’t help; her mother only ate organic, and she didn’t think they even had any crackers.)
She tried to organize her thoughts. There had to be some way to summarize the past few years in a way that didn’t make her sound crazy, right? “You remember when I told you I’d gotten a job in New York? A government job? And I said I might not be able to call you regularly?”
Her mother nodded sharply. “Of course I do.”
“Well, that job took me out of the country, and then there was a — falling out, and I quit.” (Which was a stretch, but not necessarily a lie.) “But there were a few misunderstandings, and it looks like I was reported as deceased. Accidentally. But I’m actually fine, and now there’s just some legal matters to sort out, and I have lawyers helping me and everything.”
(She could hear the defensiveness in her voice, and stopped talking before she stamped her foot, or something. What was it about parents, that reduced you back to your child self’s feelings?)
Judging by her facial expression, her mother didn’t believe a word she’d just said. “And that’s it. You were just accidentally declared deceased when you quit your job, and you never thought that you should tell me about it? I got a phone call,” she said. “And a man told me you were dead, and he wouldn’t tell me what had happened, and that was a year ago, Nikki. That isn’t something a mother can just get over.”
Nothing bred guilt like family. “Mom, when I told you I was going to work for the government, you told me not to call you again until I’d come to my senses. You were the one who said I had to choose.” Her mother was shaking her head, but Nikki kept going. “Yeah, you did. And I haven’t come to my senses. I didn’t realize anyone had contacted you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t even know I’d been declared dead until all this happened. But the things I’ve been doing — there are things bigger than us that I want to be a part of, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.”
Her mother looked like she was about to stand up, but Calle put her head on Nikki’s knee and stared, and she sat back down. She said, “You always do this; you throw yourself into things without thinking them through and you wind up in over your head. I’ve only ever wanted for you to be careful. To be safe, and happy.”
“I do think about things,” Nikki protested. (She couldn’t exactly deny getting in over her head.)
Her mother twisted her fingers together. “They said you had died! That you were killed on the job, and now you’re on trial for giving up national security secrets, and you’re living with these — people.”
Nikki felt awful, but she didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t make things even more painful for both of them. “Mom,” she said softly. “I didn’t do any of those things. It’s all going to work out.”
“I want you to come home,” her mother said, and Nikki just shook her head.
“I’m a geneticist, actually,” Marta said. Then she blushed. “Sorry, I don’t know why I said that. I blurt things out when I’m nervous.”
Nikki appreciated the distraction, even though she very much doubted Marta’s claim of blurting things out. “I am home,” she told her mother (true). “It’s really good to see you again.” (Mostly true; or maybe fifty-fifty.) “And I’ll be in touch more often. If you want me to be.” (Could possibly be true.)
Somehow, Marta’s eyebrow conversation with Aaron paid dividends, and he stepped in with a plate of fruit slices and a bottle of water. (It was a paper plate and a plastic bottle, and her mom didn’t even complain.) “Of course I want you to,” her mother said. She put an orange wedge in her mouth and only made the tiniest grimace of distaste. Really, it was almost imperceptible if you hadn’t lived with her for years. “I only want what’s best for you.”
“Then you have to trust me to know what that is,” Nikki said. “I want you to stay safe too.”
“You’re in danger?”
She managed not to roll her eyes, but it was a close thing. “No,” she said automatically, because that was what you said to authority figures when they asked if you were in danger. Then she amended, “Maybe a little. But not much, really.” (She couldn’t figure out if it would be more reassuring or less if she said ‘not compared to how much danger I was in before.’ On the one hand, it emphasized her current safety. On the other, if her mom didn’t know how close she’d come to actually being killed, it might be better if she didn’t find out.)
“Should I be worried?” her mother said, suddenly serious. “About myself, I mean, I always worry about you. Is it bad that I came here?”
Was her mother in more danger if anyone who might be watching thought they weren’t as estranged as they might have been? *Probably not,* was Calle’s opinion.
Nikki said, “No, of course not,” and “Maybe call first next time,” and found that she actually meant it. It was less than ten minutes of awkward conversation later that her mother revealed she’d already made a reservation at a hotel by the airport, and maybe she should get back there if she was going to find somewhere to eat dinner. (It was possible she was angling for an invitation to stay for a meal.) Nikki just said, “That’s great, Mom. Drive safe, okay?”
There was a surprising lack of questions about the guns (which her mother hated), hostility (the level of which should have been enough to make anyone suspicious), or where she’d been for the last year. But since it was hard to tell whether that should make her nervous or just grateful, Nikki let it go. As soon as the taillights disappeared out the end of the driveway, she collapsed on the sofa.
Calle shifted into something that felt like a gerbil, or maybe a hamster, and dove into the space between Nikki and the back cushions. Marta just sighed, and Aaron said, “Is that what it’s going to be like with your sister?”
"I hope not," Marta said, and then shot an apologetic glance in Nikki's direction. She waved it off. Calle was -- there was really no other word for it -- snuggling next to her ear.
"I didn't know you had a sister," she said. "I'm an only; I always wondered what it would be like to have siblings. Also it's your turn to make dinner."
“I just have the one," Marta said. "She lives in Canada -- we've spoken a couple times since all this happened. She said she'd try to meet us in New York soon."
She walked into the kitchen, and Nikki could hear her opening drawers. "Calle, do you want a plate?" Marta said.
Nikki was pretty sure the answer was yes just based on the background noise coming through the link, which seemed stronger when their heads were right next to each other. But she didn't want to presume. *You want me to answer for you?* she thought carefully.
Calle hesitated, and Nikki wasn't sure what she was feeling, but it wasn't anything good. Then everything evened out again. *Sorry,* Calle said. *Bad memories. I've got it.* And somehow she shifted right there, which was seriously disconcerting, and her head was suddenly resting in a very human-shaped Calle's lap, and Calle said, "Yes, thank you. A plate would be nice." Privately, she added, *I'd prefer it if you didn't. Answer for me.*
That darker something was shadowing the thoughts, and Nikki said carefully, *I don't think I can promise to never do it, because I might by accident. But I'll try not to, and I'll practice. I'll get better.*
From the kitchen, Marta said, "Great. Dinner's up," and the dual conversations must have made her look confused, because Aaron gave her a strange look when she stood up. Which she ignored.
Dinner was peanut butter sandwiches. ("Two kinds of jam!" Marta said. "That's practically gourmet! Besides, I lived on this stuff when I was working -- ten hour days don't leave a lot of time for food prep. It's comfort food.")
They segued with only minimal difficulty into a conversation about food -- best, worst, weirdest, that sort of thing -- that carried them through the meal. Nikki didn't mention any home-cooked meals, and Marta didn't mention scrounging from any lab vending machines. And everyone relaxed. A little, at least, and sometimes you took your victories where you could find them, right?
The weekend after that was largely uneventful, except for two conversations. The first was during Saturday night journaling.
*Hey, do you remember that reporter’s name, this morning?* Nikki asked.
*I think it started with a D? I was getting my belly rubbed.* Calle was winning over the reporters in ones and twos; Nikki was pretty sure they were getting more footage of the dog than anyone of the rest of them. The tickling sensation of the belly rub zinged her through the link, and she (didn’t giggle, but she must have made some kind of move).
Aaron cleared his throat. “I have half a page about how it’s rude to have a telepathic conversation during silent contemplation time,” he said.
Marta said, “Shh.” Then, “Wait, what?”
She could feel her face turning red. Calle didn’t sound embarrassed at all when she said, “Can you hear us?”
“We were talking,” Nikki explained quietly to Marta, who was sitting at the opposite end of the sofa.
Nikki shrugged. “Not me. But Calle is.”
Aaron said, “I can’t hear what you’re saying. Usually I can’t hear anything. But when it’s quiet, like this, or when you’re far apart and I’m between you? I can tell you’re saying something, but I can’t tell what it is. Like a radio station turned down low.”
Marta frowned. “That’s — not impossible, obviously.” She waved a hand between Aaron and Calle — exhibits A and B of ‘not impossible,’ Nikki guessed. “But it doesn’t make any sense. You shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“I hate to break it to you, Doc, but they didn’t exactly give me a manual when I signed up.” He looked at Calle. “It doesn’t bother me, or anything. I just thought — if it was me, I’d want to know. So I said something.”
“Thank you,” Calle said, and Nikki snuck a glance at Marta. (Who looked as confused as Nikki felt by whatever wasn’t they were missing in that exchange, which turned out to be sort of reassuring.)
“Is there anything else you feel like sharing?” Marta said, and it sounded like she was half-joking, half-curious. “Any other not impossible things we should know about?”
Aaron looked down at his notebook, like maybe the answer was written in there, and who was she to say it wasn’t. She was mostly filling her own with whatever rambling thoughts entered her mind, just so it didn’t look like she was staring off into space for the entire journaling time. Finally, Aaron said, “It’s not something I can do, but I’ve been wondering. Did anyone ever leave? The program, I mean?”
“You mean agents?” Nikki asked. “Not — voluntarily.” There really wasn’t any good way to say it, so she didn’t try. “Not that I know of.”
Aaron said, “I was going to. I had a plan. When they came after me in Alaska, I was being punished for being off grid for four days. I thought they’d found my stash and knew I was going to rabbit.”
Far from looking upset, Marta looked intrigued, with a side of mildly concerned. “So — when you showed up at my house?”
“I wasn’t planning to rescue you, no. I was going to shake you down for pills and hit the road. Sorry about that.”
Marta shook her head. “You’ve already apologized. It’s over and done with. Although — who was the second ID for, in that case? Unless you don’t want to say.”
“It was for me,” Aaron said. “Traveling as a woman was always an option, depending on where I was going. Easiest way to stay off the radar of anyone looking for me.”
And that was that.
The second conversation happened in the bathroom, because Aaron was napping on the sofa, and with Calle acting as his literal guard dog, that left Marta and Nikki to figure out how to adjust the light fixture over the shower.
“There’s a joke somewhere in this,” Marta said.
Nikki stared, because there wasn’t just one joke — it was more like a whole flotilla of jokes. You could build a stand-up routine around their efforts at home improvement and take it on the road. “I guess,” she said, not quite willing to commit to the absurdity of the situation.
Marta handed up a flat-head screwdriver, and NIkki attempted once more to pry off the plastic covering over the bulb. When Marta asked, “How do you do it?” she nearly dropped the screwdriver.
“Do what?” (That was safe, right? No reason to delve into things she’d rather not share if they weren’t even what Marta was asking about.)
“All of this.” Marta waved the hand not steadying Nikki’s chair-standing-in-for-a-stepladder. “You were on your own for what? Almost a year? And now you can go to the store, and be alone, and I’m completely making both of us sound insane right now, sorry. You don’t seem scared, is what I’m trying to say. I wondered if it was something you could teach me.”
The plastic cover came off with a snap. “Marta, I’m scared all the time,” Nikki said. “All the time, constantly.”
She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to say the next part, because she really wasn’t convinced Aaron was as asleep as he seemed, and if he wasn’t, he was probably listening. “You could probably be safer than you are right now, though,” she said finally.
Aaron didn’t spring into the room to show off his skills, and Marta didn’t look offended. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“You’ve been counting on Aaron to be the muscle — which made sense when you were on the move, but what about now? What if he wasn’t there? Are you even armed right now?”
Marta shook her head. “I don’t have a license to carry.”
“There’s plenty of street-legal weapons you could have on you. Taser, knife, that sort of thing?”
Marta shook her head again, and she looked at Nikki warily. “Are you armed?”
“I usually just have a knife in the house.” (It was actually handy to have, especially since Calle kept taking all the steak knives, and it wasn’t like either of them had thought to buy scissors yet.) “But yeah, I am. I got used to it, when I was on my own. Mostly, though, I was talking about stuff we can do now that we have actual resources.”
“Like a panic button? They told me about that when we were at the Foundation.” Marta didn’t look convinced.
“I have one,” Nikki said. “So does Calle, although I think she’s still working on how to manage it with her shifting.” She sat down on the chair, giving up on the lightbulb for the moment. “Believe me, I get that it’s a paradigm change — one organization wants to kill you, and here’s another one saying they want to protect you. But you’re guessing either way, you know?”
Marta smiled a little at that. “I suppose they can’t want to kill us any deader than the program,” she said.
She smiled back, and tapped her foot on the side of the chair. She was still debating the next part herself, but it would probably be good to share it anyway, like a show of trust, or something. So she said, “In the interests of full disclosure, I’m considering signing off on letting them ping my phone pretty much constantly to track it. If it does anything unusual — stops working, goes somewhere out of my regular pattern, stays in one place for too long — someone will track it down. Calle declined that one, but she doesn’t always have her phone near her anyway.”
“That sounds — intrusive,” Marta said.
“Sure,” Nikki replied. “But you’ve got to figure that compared to someone like Tony Stark, nothing I do is interesting enough to even raise any eyebrows for whoever monitors it, and it’s nice to think someone would notice if you suddenly went missing. Notice and do something about it.”
Marta said, “And here we were just sleeping with a gun under the pillow.”
It wasn’t, she realized, too soon for jokes. They both laughed, and Marta said she’d think about it, and it turned out that a former secretary and a geneticist could manage basic home repairs armed with nothing more than a knife, a screwdriver, and an online how-to guide that definitely didn’t include those two tools in the instructions.
“Has anyone seen my shoes?”
Nikki reflexively checked around the shelves and floor, but (unsurprisingly) Marta’s shoes weren’t actually in the kitchen pantry. “No!” she called back.
“Upstairs hallway!” Aaron said — it sounded like he was in the laundry room (laundry hallway? ‘room’ was maybe glorifying it a little).
“No, I checked there already! Wait, never mind, I’ve got them.” Nikki rolled her eyes, since no one would be able to see it. It wasn’t a big house, and Marta’s habit of leaving stuff all over must have driven Aaron nuts when they were running.
Speaking of running. *Calle?* she thought.
*I’m headed back. Everything’s quiet on the street.*
Calle was making the rounds as a squirrel, since they’d overslept their usual morning jog.
It was a Monday, and its general Monday-ness apparently applied to aliens and genetically enhanced fighters alike. They'd already broken a supposedly unbreakable water bottle and spilled a pot of coffee all over the breakfast cereal. Nikki's mom was headed back to the airport, which meant she'd called three times with questions. The four of them were supposed to be at a meeting in New York ten minutes ago, but -- well, obviously not.
*Reporters?* Nikki asked.
*Channel 12 is gone, everyone else is still here. The big excitement seems to be that they got a group rate on sandwiches this morning.*
"It's not like we can say we were stuck in traffic," Nikki said out loud, since she knew Aaron could hear her.
"Look at it this way," Aaron said. He was shaking out a shirt from the dryer. "Either the meeting is about us, and they'll wait, or it's about something else and we can catch up later. If it was an emergency, they'd let us know."
They both paused, and Nikki couldn't help checking her phone. Was the universe really going to pass up that opportunity? But the phone didn't ring, and she could feel Calle laughing in her head.
The universe gave them a pass, and they were (only) half an hour late getting to New York. But Marta was wearing shoes, and Aaron was actually smiling, and they got recruited into an entirely different meeting as soon as they arrived anyway, so it all worked out.
“I thought we were supposed to be meeting with the PR reps again today,” Calle said. She didn’t sound excited about it, but Nikki didn’t think any of them were thrilled at the prospect of spending another three hours with people whose best advice so far had been “do nothing.” Not exactly the daily thrill of living they were used to, and not really an improvement.
Jan hustled them down a hallway she didn’t recognize. “Yeah, you’re doing fine with all that; they can reschedule. This is much more important.”
“Where are we going?”
‘Outside’ was actually still sort of inside — it was a courtyard, but surrounded on all four sides with buildings. It probably looked nicer when it wasn’t November, but she could see the general appeal. Jan led them in (out?) and introduced the two people already present.
“This is Darcy Lewis,” Jan said. “Darcy, everyone. And this is Bucky Barnes.” Nikki’s eyes widened at the sudden flare of surprise from Calle. It was like she could feel the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. Calle even stepped back, which Nikki wasn’t sure she’d ever seen her do.
“Yeah,” Jan said. “We were worried that might happen.”
“Hey,” Bucky said, deliberately casual and not moving at all. “We’re all fine here.”
Nikki didn’t want to distract Calle, or maybe she did. What was the procedure for something like this? For that matter, what did ‘something like this’ actually consist of?
*He’s a shifter,* Calle said. The suspicion was clear. *But there’s something strange about it. Like static electricity. It feels — weird.*
*Bad weird?* Nikki asked.
“So, I’m a werewolf,” Bucky said. “Which may be less of a surprise to some of you than others.” But instead of looking at Calle, he looked at Marta. Who just looked confused.
“What?” she said.
“Or not,” Darcy said.
Jan said, “Calle? Bucky? Is this going to be a problem?”
Bucky said, “I’m fine with it. I can’t actually tell anything’s different.”
Calle was still feeling bristly in Nikki’s head, but out loud she said, “I’m fine too.”
*Sure?* Nikki asked, as quietly as she could. She was pretty sure Jan had brought them all outside just in case any fighting broke out. She wasn’t sure if it was Jan or herself who was confused about how the whole shapeshifting instincts thing worked.
*I’m sure,* Calle replied. *And — Jan, I think. But maybe his works differently.* (Nikki thought she caught an echo of her own thoughts — a werewolf? What was that even all about?)
The rest of the group seemed to be going with a ‘stand back and see what happens’ approach. “It’d be interesting to see if it’s different when I’m a wolf,” Bucky said, still casual. “If you want.”
Calle shrugged. “I’m not going to have a problem with it. But okay — could be interesting.” She wasn’t quite as indifferent as she sounded, from what Nikki was picking up.
Bucky shifted, and hey, that was a wolf standing really close to her. She heard Aaron take a breath, and really hoped they hadn’t been worried about the wrong person’s reaction all along.
"Aaron?" Jan said.
"I'm okay. Just wasn't expecting that."
And Calle was suddenly a wolf too, and the mental background noise increased exponentially. *Whoa,* was Calle's reaction, and Nikki couldn't help but agree.
*What is that?*
Calle and Bucky regarded each other warily from their respective sides of the courtyard. And then they slunk towards each other, sidling up until they were nose to nose, and it felt like everyone else was holding their breath. (Nikki still wasn't a hundred percent sure what they were worried might happen; Calle still just felt like Calle in her head, maybe with some extra 'hey, another shapeshifter!' happiness mixed in.)
"I can hear that too, in case anyone was wondering," Aaron said.
Marta sighed. "More telepathic conversations?" she asked.
Wolf nose touched wolf nose, and they were eye to eye. It was Darcy who said, "Yup. I guess, anyway. It's not supposed to be a radio, as someone keeps telling me -- you can hear what we're saying?"
Aaron shook his head. "Just that you're saying something. Like a buzzing, or a really quiet foreign language."
"I can tell too, I think," Nikki said. "Can you --?" (Was it rude to ask someone to participate in an experiment like that? It had been a while since Nikki'd had to worry about those sort of social niceties, but she didn't want to lose sight of them completely.)
But Darcy just said, "Yeah, hang on. Just a second." She held out her hand, palm flat. Then she looked at Bucky and wiggled her eyebrows, turning her hand to a thumbs up.
There was a definite -- something, that she could feel. Calle wagged, and she resisted the urge to check in mentally. Nikki and Aaron nodded, and Darcy turned her hand flat again. The feeling stopped.
*Our turn?* Calle asked.
*Having fun?* Nikki sent back, giving her own thumbs up to the group.
*Mm. Yes. He's funny.*
Aaron nodded again, but Darcy shook her head. "I'm not getting anything," she said. "Or, no, I am, but it's like an echo. I don't think I'd pick up on it if I wasn't specifically trying."
*Can you talk with him?* Nikki asked Calle.
She got back what felt like the mental equivalent of a shrug, and Calle said, *I don't need to. It's mostly body language in this form anyway.* Bucky dropped his head down on his front paws and waved his tail, a clear invitation to play, and they took off in a sprint around the courtyard, leaping and tumbling over each other.
"Aw," Darcy said. "They grow up so fast."
Jan laughed, and Nikki thought the two wolves did look a little like kids, playing a sort of rated-V-for-violence game of tag. She said, “So, not that we’re not glad you rescued us from getting yelled at for being late. But was there another point to this?” She distinctly remembered Jan using the words “much more important.” (And sure, making new friends was important, but it didn’t seem like there was a dire need for this introduction to be happening now, as opposed to, say, in the afternoon.)
“It’s not so much Bucky we were worried about,” Jan said cryptically. “He was just the only werewolf we happened to have on hand right now.”
“I’m still confused,” Marta said.
Jan said, “How much contact have you had with your sister since you arrived in the United States?” And okay, now Nikki was confused too.
Marta put it together before Nikki’s brain could slot all the connections into place. “Enough to know she can’t transform herself into a wolf,” Marta said. “So if that’s where this was going —“
“Not exactly,” Jan said.
Darcy waved her hand and said, “Your sister is awesome, by the way. We met a while back; Steve and Bucky and I were on vacation in Canada and ran into her. There was a whole accidental kidnapping thing — by her, not of her, don’t worry — but it all got worked out.”
Nikki thought it was funny that apparently being a kidnapper ranked higher on the ‘don’t worry about it’ scale than being a kidnap-ee. Marta said, “I think I got an edited version of that story, but all right. I’m with you.”
“Well, there were some werewolves involved too,” Darcy said. “In case that wasn’t in your version. And seriously — they’re cute as a button when they’re kids.” She looked around for Bucky, and called out, “Not that you’re not still cute and fluffy now!” He bared his teeth in her direction, and she laughed. “Anyway, your sister’s kind of wrapped up in the group, and she called this morning to ask if it was okay that she was bringing a couple of them along.”
Calle proved she was perfectly capable of romping and listening at the same time. *They wanted to know if I was going to have a problem with non-Lorien shifters,* she said in Nikki’s head, and Nikki heard undertones of ‘which is ridiculous.’
*It did get us out of a meeting,* Nikki offered.
*Much more fun,* Calle agreed. *Bucky thinks it’s ridiculous too. Maybe he also had a meeting?*
But Nikki frowned. *I’m not sure. It seems like either the Foundation is unusually suspicious of your abilities — which seems strange, given how easily they’re accepting Mr. ‘I look just like a celebrity superhero and could kill you six ways without breaking a sweat,’ or —* Nikki looked carefully between Jan and Darcy. Darcy, who had looked unworried from the start.
Calle said, *He definitely has more wolf instincts than I get from shifting. I think he likes company.*
*So Darcy let everyone think there might be a problem so he could get play time?* That was sort of nice, she guessed. Maybe a little more complicated than she thought it really needed to be.
It turned out Nikki might have missed part of the conversation while she was talking with Calle, because she started paying attention again just as Jan said, “So they’ll be arriving any minute,” and everyone else was nodding.
It seemed easier to pretend that she’d been listening than try to get it all explained again, so she just fell into step with the rest of the group as they exited the courtyard. She wound up next to Darcy, with Bucky and Calle (still in wolf shape) directly in front of them.
“How does this stuff even keep happening?” Nikki asked, half rhetorical and half actually wondering.
Darcy seemed to take the question seriously, at least. She said, “I find it helps to just assume everyone falls into one of three categories: crazy, crazy and related to you, or crazy and about to be related to you in some coincidentally synchronous and previously unexpected way.”
Nikki considered it as Jan and Marta had some sort of debate over taking the stairs versus the elevator. “That’s — surprisingly specific,” she said finally.
Darcy held her hands out to her sides. “And yet, it’s worked so far.”
Well, she couldn’t argue with that. Instead, she focused on the brewing argument in front of her. Jan wanted everyone to meet at the Avengers’ mansion (and seriously? they had a mansion and a skyscraper? there were obviously some benefits to being on a superhero team). Marta wanted to meet at the house, but Nikki thought she had probably just suggested it as a ruse so that they could “compromise” by holding the meeting at the Foundation.
Calle and Bucky both shifted back to their human forms. “This isn’t how I pictured this day going,” Calle said.
“The Foundation is known for knowing everything,” Darcy told them, watching Bucky carefully. “The wolf thing took them by surprise, I think, and they’re still scrambling to try to figure out how they missed it and whether or not they should be doing anything to help. Their Canadian counterparts are showing them up a little.”
“And the werewolf escort?” Nikki asked.
Darcy just shrugged. “If you found out your sister might or might not be in the sights of a dangerous quasi-military organization and you had the option of bringing along a couple of awesome wolf bodyguards when you crossed an international border to go see her — wouldn’t you? Plus, traveling’s always more fun when you have company.”
The did compromise, eventually, and set up the meeting just inside the Foundation’s foyer (surprise, surprise). Nikki had never actually seen the foyer, so it had the added bonus of being interesting to look at while they waited. Marta gave them the 60-second family member rundown. “Her name is Amalia, but everyone calls her Amy. She’s six years younger than me, and we both lived in New York until she moved to Ottowa for school. Between her job and mine, we usually see each other once or twice a year, or we did before. I bought a plane ticket to go stay with her after the lab shooting, but I didn’t end up using it. I called her once we were back here and it seemed safe.”
“And she’s here," Aaron said.
Three -- no, four -- people swept in through the front doors of the building. "Marta!" one of them called. (Nikki was guessing that one was Amalia.) The others were two women and a child. She wondered, idly, if they were all shapeshifters, and if everyone would think it was rude if she asked.
"Amy!" Marta said. And then they were hugging, and Nikki looked away.
Calle stepped up next to her, close enough so their shoulders touched. *The one on the left is all human,* came the quiet thought. *The one in red is like Bucky. I think the kid is too.*
*It's hard to tell with kids. Apparently. This is new to me too.* Nikki got a blur of feelings, like extra senses.
*Yeah,* she sent back. *Thanks, by the way. And I think you're doing great.*
*I was a tiny bit tempted to go all --* (Nikki got an image of Calle as very large and with a mouthful of sharp teeth) *on them, just to --* (no words again, but Nikki was pretty sure the feeling coming through equated to "show off"). *I think they just don't understand, but they're trying.*
They both watched the hugging -- now expanded to include the entire Canadian group -- for a few seconds. *Hey,* Nikki nudged her, when it felt like she was ready to talk again. *It's new to all of us, which means maybe everyone gets a few free passes.* She thought for a minute. *You know, Canadian werewolves must have some good wildernesses to run around in. Good practice ground if you ever wanted a vacation.* She sent along a picture of a yeti to go with it, just for fun.
Someone pulled Aaron into the hug, and his expression was priceless. Nikki wished she had a camera, though she doubted he'd appreciate having a record of the moment if she did.
"Okay, okay," Marta said finally. "Let me introduce everyone." The hugging broke up slowly, and Marta pointed at each of the newcomers in turn. "This is Amalia -- Amy -- my sister. This is Sara, and Sarah-with-an-h. They work with Amy. And this is Ben." She held her hand down for a high five, which Ben enthusiastically returned. Nikki blinked. Marta was good with kids? She had not seen that coming.
Marta turned to the rest of them. "This is Aaron, of course." (Sarah without-an-h snuck in another hug, which Aaron returned with only minor hesitation.) "Nikki and Calle; I told you about them." Calle waved, and Amy nodded. Nikki wondered what exactly Marta had said about them. "And this is Jan, and Darcy, and Bucky. I'm sorry, I don't know any of your last names. They've been helping us."
Ben, with classic kid timing, pointed at Jan and said, "You're on the Avengers!"
Jan beamed. "Yup!" She turned tiny and flew around Ben's head a couple times before switching back to her usual size.
Ben looked expectantly at Darcy and Bucky. "Hero support, all the way," Darcy said, holding up both hands. "We've met Amy and Sara and Sarah before, though. Do you remember that?"
Ben frowned, and Sarah (the one wearing red) knelt down to whisper something in his ear. His expression lit up and he said, "Uncle B!" He ran over to Bucky and held up his arms to be picked up. Bucky swung him up onto his hip like it was a well-practiced gesture, and Nikki told herself to stop being surprised by anything these people did.
Still, she wasn't entirely sure why the reunion had been turned into such a big deal. Not that it wasn't great to see siblings reunited, but when her family came to visit, they had just showed up at the door. (On the other hand, it wasn't like that had been a shining success.)
And then — “We have the information you were looking for," Sara told Darcy quietly. Nikki narrowed her eyes and tried not to look like she was eavesdropping.
"Yes!" Darcy gave a victory fist pump, and then seemed to notice the suspicious looks being sent in her direction. She announced to the group at large, “Okay, so for those doubters among you, this is critical but completely harmless information that we're exchanging. Ontario has an anniversary pop tart with a Canadian flag in the icing that Thor swears is more delicious than the regular iced maple we can get here in New York."
Nikki blinked. A Norse god ate prepackaged toaster pastries?
Darcy kept going, like the whole thing was perfectly reasonable. "Sara's been checking around to see of she can find someone who will ship them in bulk. Thor can go through a lot of pop tarts."
"Why can't he just order them himself?" Aaron asked. "Seems like most suppliers would be happy to accommodate an Avenger."
"I'm sure they would," Darcy agreed. "And inevitably someone would spill the beans, and then we'd have SHIELD blaming us for another international incident. Thor sees delicious pop tarts; Latveria sees a god choosing Canada over them."
(Politicized pastries -- she figured it was no sillier than freedom fries.)
"I found two," Sara said. "But one of them will throw in a complimentary pancake beanie."
Darcy frowned. "Like a hat beanie, or a stuffed animal beanie?” she asked.
Sara said, "It's a hat that looks like a pancake, with a pat of butter on top. It's part of a giveaway they’re doing for retail stores.”
It sounded ridiculous but Darcy said, “I guess if anyone could pull off a pancake hat unironically, it would be Thor. Let’s go with that one."
Nikki reminded herself firmly that she'd just eaten a perfectly good breakfast not that long ago, and there was no reason to be feeling hungry. (And Calle proved that she paid more attention to Nikki's idle thoughts than she'd originally claimed by saying, *I could eat.*) An ear-splitting police siren sounded before she could respond.
Ben immediately clapped his hands over his ears. Everyone else looked like they were wishing they could do the same. "That's the evacuation alarm," Jan said, loud enough to be heard over the siren. "Let's go."
Rather than heading for the front doors, Jan turned to lead them back into the building.
"Where are we going?" Marta asked. (Which surpassed Nikki's first instinct — which was to ask ‘so why aren't we evacuating?' — in both tact and relevance.)
"The roof," Jan said, heading straight for an elevator. She hustled them all inside -- all eleven of them, which meant Nikki was suddenly a lot closer to relative strangers than she really wanted to be. Calle shifted to a squirrel and climbed up to perch on her shoulder, which gave them a little breathing room.
*Thank you,* she thought, reaching up to touch Calle's tail.
Calle patted her ear with a paw. *You’re welcome. I can see better from here too.*
Jan swiped a card through a reader mounted under the safety instructions, and the elevator lurched into a high speed climb. "You know what most people do when they hear a fire alarm?" Jan asked. "They assume it's a drill. There may even be studies to back that up, I don't know. But you know what most people think when they hear a police siren?"
"Oh crap, I'm about to get pulled over?" Marta guessed. Once again, Nikki had reason to be grateful for her quick response, since Nikki's own guess had been more along the lines of 'if it's me they're after, should I run or fight?'
"Exactly," Jan said. "People tend to assume it's about them. At the very least, that it's something that may directly impact them that they should pay attention to. It's the most effective alarm the Foundation has tried."
"You mean it might still be a drill?"
Nikki wasn't sure who asked the question, but she could see Jan shake her head. "No. The Foundation is one of the more stable organizations -- compared to a group like the Fantastic Four, say, the Foundation is a bastion of logic and security. But it's big enough that -- well, they don't really need to have drills. Everyone gets enough practice with just the actual emergencies."
The elevator came to a surprisingly gentle stop, and the doors slid open with an abbreviated 'ding!' Calle shifted to human form as soon as there was space. The roof was crowded with people who all seemed to know exactly where they were going. "Flash!" Jan called, and sure enough, he came jogging towards them.
“I have to check in with the team,” Jan said. “You know how it is, people to see, stuff to avenge. Bucky?”
“Yeah, I’m with you,” he said, handing Ben to Amalia. “You stay safe, okay?” (Amalia and Ben both nodded, and Ben gave Bucky a thumbs up.)
“Darcy, Flash, I want you to make sure all of them get to the right evac points,” Jan said. To the rest of the group, she explained, “There are two main routes — one through the tunnels, and one using the jets. Flash has been here before for this; he’ll take you to departure zone. Is everyone okay with that?”
Everyone was. Jan and Bucky ran off (well, Bucky shifted into a wolf and ran off, Jan shrank down and flew after him), and Flash waved the rest of them in the opposite direction. The whole area had a feel of only partially controlled chaos. There was a lot of running, which added to the sense of urgency. Flash seemed to realize he was leading a group of people who 1) didn’t know what was going on, and 2) really, really wanted to know what was going on.
“Okay, this is what I know,” he said. “Any time the alarm sounds, everyone evacuates the buildings except for the stay teams. We all go together to prevent anyone from taking advantage of the — this.” He gestured around the roof. “If there are Avengers here they always evacuate from the roof, since some of them fly. It’s pretty simple once you’re up here. Find a jet, handprint at the door, hang out inside until someone tells you what’s going on or gives the all clear.”
“What are all those people doing, then?” Calle said. There was an obvious row of planes in the direction they were headed, and it was just as obvious that at least half the people around them weren’t following Flash’s ‘simple directions.’
Flash actually looked around, and then he shrugged. “I’m an intern,” he said. (Nikki was pretty sure that was a polite way of saying ‘how would I know?’) “My job is to get out of the way so that no one has to worry about me.”
And really, as much as it felt like they were missing out on something, that was probably their job at the moment too. “Does everyone have a designated jet?” she asked.
Flash shook his head. “No, that’s why we check in with the handprint. There’s too much in and out to assign people; there’s no way to predict who’s going to be in the buildings at any given time. They do have designated pilots, though.”
They were almost at the first row of planes, which Flash kept calling jets and Nikki privately thought looked like a cross between a Star Trek shuttlecraft and a lego toy. Aaron said, “Someone must be in charge, though. Who keeps a record of the handprints?”
Calle reached out and wrapped a hand in Nikki’s sleeve. *I’m going to see if I can find out what’s going on,* she said. *Will you keep track of me if I get distracted?*
*Of course,* Nikki said. She moved a few inches closer and switched Calle’s grip so they were holding hands. *I’ll be right here.*
She didn’t hear Flash’s response, as they got swept up in a group of people moving in the same direction as they were, and the pace slowed down a little. Enough for Calle to easily keep up, even though Nikki was pretty sure she was dedicating less than half her attention to moving in a straight line. She kept a tight grip on her hand and one eye on Aaron, figuring he was the one most likely to do something unexpected.
The rush of fear and anger that came from Calle a minute later took her by surprise. *It’s me they’re after,* Calle said, images of long black coats and snarling faces flooding the link. *They’re coming to kill me. They must have seen me on the news.*
*I thought —* Nikki wasn’t sure how to say ‘I thought you weren’t a threat to them without the kid,’ but Calle got the gist of it.
*I’m not a threat; there’s no reason for it.* Her mental voice was all frustration and fear.
Nikki squeezed her hand tighter and reached out to grab Marta, knowing that would get Aaron’s attention as well. “We have a problem,” Nikki said. They’d arrived at one of the planes — Sara and Sarah were already belting Ben in to one of the seats. “It’s an attack; they’re here for Calle.”
No one questioned how she could know that. Well, Darcy looked like she wanted to ask, but Marta talked over her. “Are you going to fight?” she asked.
Calle brought her focus back from whatever she was listening in on to nod sharply. “Once they have a target they won’t stop. Either way, I’m done running.”
Aaron stepped back from the door of the jet. “Is this going to be a —“ He put his hands up like claws. “— kind of fight?”
Calle nodded again. “Then we need to get away from the city, right?” Aaron said. “We can’t do this here.” ‘Not near the kids’ was unspoken but obvious nonetheless.
“I’m coming with you,” Nikki said, just in case Calle had been thinking of going off on her own. She didn’t like the sound of ‘either way.’
Marta said, “Amy, you need to stay here. Please.” And Nikki realized both Marta and Aaron were planning to stick with Calle as well. Darcy grabbed Amy’s arm and waved them off.
The roof was starting to clear out, and Aaron said, “Flash. You too. Stay with them.”
“Believe me, I’d love to. But who’s going to show you which jet is most likely to be empty? Are you going to check each one? I’ll show you, I’ll duck into the one next to it, we’ll be good.”
Based on what she was getting from Calle, Nikki didn’t think they had time to argue. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”
They sprinted. “Why is this one empty?” Aaron asked, because of course he would able to carry on a conversation while flat out running.
“Pilot’s on paternity leave,” Flash panted. “You can fly it, right?”
“I may look like Hawkeye; that doesn’t mean our skill sets are interchangeable.”
“Probably yes, I can fly it. How hard can it be?”
Marta hit him in the arm. “Why?” she said. “Why would you say that?”
*They’re here,* Calle announced, as they skidded to a halt in front of the jet. She repeated it out loud. “They’re here. They’re coming up the building.”
“Right, I’m out,” Flash said. “Good luck.”
The roof shook under them, and a massive scaled leg appeared over the ledge. Something roared, and Calle turned white. “No time,” Aaron said, grabbing Flash’s jacket, practically tossing him into the jet. Nikki stood in the door firing shot after shot, with Calle at her shoulder, doing what felt like the mental equivalent of taunting. Finally, Aaron yelled, “Everyone hang on!” The last thing she saw was the first leg being joined by two more.
“Well, they’ll definitely follow us now,” Calle said.
The jet dipped and wobbled in a somewhat worrying way, then leveled out. She took a deep breath. Aaron was in the pilot’s seat, looking focused but generally unpanicked. Marta was strapped in next to him. Flash was glaring half-heartedly at both of them, and she saw him close his eyes and take a deep breath. When he opened them again, he said, “So that happened. What next?”
“We need somewhere relatively close that’s also relatively unpopulated,” Calle said.
“You do realize we’re in New York City, right?” Marta called from the front. “How relative is relative?”
“How big an unpopulated area are we looking for?” Aaron added. “Is a park going to be big enough? A big park?”
Nikki could feel Calle’s worry escalating. “I don’t know!” she said. “I’ve never done this before!”
A phone rang, and Flash sighed. “And that will be someone calling to yell at me. You guys will back me up when I say this wasn’t my fault, right?”
“You want me to answer?” Nikki offered. She did feel sort of bad that he’d gotten dragged along with them.
“No, I’ve got it. Thanks, though.” He swiped a finger across the phone and held it up to his ear. “Hello?” Even over the engine noise, Nikki could hear someone yelling at the other end of the line. Flash winced. “I’m fine,” he said. “No, it was definitely not my fault. Did you see the giant creature attacking the building?” There was a pause, and then Flash said, “Yeah, they’re all here. Well they weren’t going to fight at the Foundation building; what if someone got hurt?”
Aaron called back, “Tell them what we’re looking for!”
She was pretty sure he rolled his eyes at that, but Flash dutifully repeated, “They’re looking for somewhere to duke it out, yeah. Any suggestions? Relatively close, relatively unpopulated?”
Another pause, and Marta said, “They’re airborne! In a seriously ugly sky vehicle, which I can’t bring myself to call a plane. They’re not closing fast. Or — at all. But they are following.”
Flash’s expression suddenly looked a lot more worried. “What do you mean there’s a portal you can’t identify? Freaking — can they close it?” To the plane at large, he said, “There’s a portal — unidentified — right in our path. It’s big, and it’s growing.”
Marta said, “Can we avoid it?” at the same time Aaron asked, “Where does it go?”
“It’s unidentified,” Flash told him. “No one knows where it goes.”
“I’m not picking up anything,” Aaron said. “How are they tracking it? Maybe we can go over it, or under.”
There was a flash of light and Nikki put her hands up automatically to shield her eyes. She could hear alarms beeping all over the plane, and guessed they’d just gotten the answer to whether or not they could avoid the portal. Something exploded, and someone cursed, and then she was unconscious.
She woke up to the sound of someone singing. Her head hurt, and she tried to remember what happened. They’d been at the Foundation, and the siren alarm had gone off, and — oh. It was possible she’d just found out first hand what it felt like to be in a plane crash. No engine noise, but also no snapping crackle of things on fire, and — she counted just to be sure — she could still feel all her fingers and toes.
Her movement must have caught the attention of whoever was singing. Aaron, maybe? She hadn’t known he could sing. “Hey, you’re awake.” Definitely Aaron. “You feel okay? Dizzy, nauseous, any of that?”
She opened her eyes a slit, and the headache intensified. “Headache. The rest — not before you mentioned it.”
“Power of suggestion, huh? Well, congratulations, you win the first to regain consciousness prize. Everyone else is still out, but not seriously injured as far as I can tell.”
She tried to decide if it would be worth sitting up. Possibly not. She closed her eyes again instead. “What about you?”
“Fine, you win the prize for first to regain consciousness who hasn’t been genetically enhanced.”
Since the prize didn’t seem to be someone leaping out and shouting ‘surprise! you’re back at home and everything is fine,’ she let it go. “Were you singing?” she asked instead.
Aaron’s voice got closer, and she opened her eyes again. “That was me, yeah. It passes the time, reminds me I’m not on a mission. And I thought it might help my chances of not getting shot by accident by one of you when you woke up.”
“Where are we?” She probably should have started with that question. “Are there still bad guys after us?” Or that one.
Aaron’s pause after she asked did nothing to reassure her. “Well, that’s an interesting question,” he said finally. “I don’t know.”
Nikki felt Calle wake up even before she rolled onto her side and said, “That was horrible. What happened?”
She reached out a hand blindly and managed to connect with Calle’s shoulder, which she patted awkwardly. “You won the silver medal,” she said. “In regaining consciousness. And Aaron doesn’t know where we are.”
Calle ‘hmm’d’ and helped Nikki sit up. “The others?” she said.
“Are going to be okay, as far as I can tell,” Aaron answered. “We must have gone through the portal, whatever that was, and crash landed here. No radio, no phone service, and it doesn’t look familiar.”
He stood up and stepped around them to check on Marta and Flash. (Nikki couldn’t help noticing that Marta rated a folded-up blanket under her head for a pillow.) “Are you sensing anything?” she asked Calle, pointing to her temple. Calle had been able to tell when they were close before.
She shook her head. From the other side of the plane, Marta made a noise that sounded like a cross between ‘five more minutes’ and ‘what the heck was I doing last night,’ and Aaron started the explanation again. Flash sat up just seconds later, looking only mildly rattled (oh, the benefits of youth). The first thing he did was check his phone.
“Now that everyone’s awake,” Aaron said. “Maybe we can figure out where we are.” He hesitated, then added, “I looked around outside when I was making sure the ship wasn’t going to explode.”
“And?” Marta asked.
“Oh, I think you’re going to want to see this for yourself, Doc.”
Aaron opened the door (was it a called a hatch when you were on a plane, Nikki wondered, or was that only on ships?), and they all shuffled over to look out, nursing various bumps and bruises. It looked like a jungle. Nikki blinked, then blinked again. Still a jungle.
“I see a jungle,” she said, just in case she was the only one.
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “Just wait; it gets better.”
There were no jungles within range of New York City. She stared at the trees until there was a rustling in the underbrush. She could feel Calle on alert next to her, but not overly worried. And then out crept a —
“What is that?” Marta said. It was an animal — small, or smallish, at least. Legs like a rabbit, beak like a bird, and it was snuffling up insects from a tree they must have downed when the plane crashed.
It was Flash who answered. “It’s a dinosaur,” he said.
“At least I’m not the only one seeing it,” Aaron said.
The — dinosaur, for lack of a better word — froze at the sound of their voices. Its head swiveled around to look at them, and then it ran back into the jungle. Nikki looked at the spot it had disappeared, and then back at the rest of their group. “I hesitate to say this — given present company — but dinosaurs? Shouldn’t that be impossible?” (She really hoped they hadn’t ended up time traveling or in an alternate dimension. Group hallucination or coma seemed like potentially legitimate options that had a higher likelihood of turning out in their favor.)
“I think we’re probably in the Savage Land,” Flash said. Everyone turned to look at him with — she assumed — similar disbelieving expressions. “Come on,” he said. “Jet crash landed, phones don’t work, dinosaurs outside the door — that’s pretty classic Savage Land. They warned me about this in orientation. ‘Don’t ever get on a jet with the Avengers in a crisis; they keep accidentally ending up in the Savage Land, and you might get eaten by dinosaurs.’”
“You had a very different orientation than we did,” Calle told him.
“Yours was maybe a little pieced together,” Flash said. “I went through a whole week of it. Really boring; you didn’t miss much.”
“Except for information about the Savage Land,” Nikki pointed out.
Flash rolled his eyes. “More like the Seriously Inconvenient Land, I think. Let me see if I have any notes on it.”
There were storage compartments under all the seats along the walls, and Flash went straight to one in the back, pulling out a square cube and connecting it to his phone. “External battery pack,” he explained. “It should let me at least power up the phone and see information stored on it.”
Aaron closed the outer door, and they all gathered in the cockpit, since without lights, the rest of the plane was too dark to see much. (And it turned out to have the most comfortable chairs.) “Okay, here’s what I have,” Flash said. He squinted at his phone. “‘The Savage Land is in Antarctica.’” He frowned. “Doesn’t make much sense, but all right. Jungle environment, prehistoric creatures, yeah, we’ve got that covered. There’s a city, it looks like. ‘On and off allies,’ this says. There’s no map or anything, though.”
“So we’re in Antarctica, the jet has no power, and our best hope of rescue is a city we don’t know the location of, inhabited by people who may or may not want to help us? That seems — not good,” Nikki said.
“Can we signal for help somehow?” Marta asked.
Flash said, “There are flares in the emergency kit,” but Aaron shook his head.
“We should wait,” he said. “That other ship should have been close behind us when we hit the portal. If they’re here too, we could be giving away our position.”
“Any chance they’ll be eaten by dinosaurs? Or should we be worried that they may look like dinosaurs when they find us?” Flash looked at Calle as he spoke, like he wasn’t sure if he was crossing a line or not.
“They can’t shift anymore,” she said. “If it’s a standard team, there will be three handlers and three chimera, but they can’t shift. They’re locked into that form. And — no, I don’t think crashing or even dinosaurs would stop them.”
Marta handed around bottles of water, and said, “Maybe this is a stupid question, but should we be trying to reason with them? Is there a chance we could convince them to just let it go? You said yourself you’re not a threat to them.”
Nikki had been wondering the same thing but that it would look bad to ask, since she figured even if they stopped chasing Calle, they’d still be hunting down however many kids were left. But surprisingly, Calle looked like she was considering it. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I don’t think so? Not the handlers; they live for the hunt. Prey that isn’t a threat is just easy prey. But if we could isolate the chimera, and I could talk with them — they might listen.”
“That sounds pretty risky,” Nikki said.
“It’s going to be risky to try to kill them,” Aaron pointed out. “Especially without any backup.” He looked at Calle. “You said it’s likely they survived the crash landing. Any idea how long it might take them to track us down?”
Calle rolled her water bottle between her hands in what looked like a nervous gesture, her earlier bravado diminished. She said, “They track by scent; a crashed plane is going to stand out in a place like this. Not long? A few days, maybe? It really depends how far away from us they ended up.”
Flash shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me, that was everything I know. I don’t know why they didn’t come down right on top of us, but that’s magical portals for you — they usually only make sense from the outside. And even then, not much sense.”
“I figure three main options,” Nikki said, because she wasn’t really prepared for magical portals, logical or otherwise. “We go looking for them, we go looking for the city, or we stay here. Am I missing anything?”
“I vote we stay here,” Marta said, and that seemed to be the general consensus.
“We could split up,” Aaron said. He looked around the group. “Or not.”
“The jet has emergency supplies for at least a week,” Flash said.
Nikki realized she had been missing something after all. “We are expecting that someone — the Foundation, or one of their allies, someone — is going to come after us and stage a rescue, right? What’s the usual response when something like this happens?”
Everyone suddenly looked nervous. They were used to being on their own, but it had been so nice to think someone had their backs. It had been easy to believe when they were literally a few steps away from backup. Now — in the middle of a jungle with honest to god dinosaurs in it — it was harder to stay convinced. If the portal had closed behind them…
It was Flash who spoke first. “Of course they’ll rescue us. That’s pretty much their whole thing. It might be faster if we had someone more important with us.” He looked at Aaron. “You’re sure you and Hawkeye aren’t secretly twins, or anything?” Aaron didn’t say anything, and Flash just waved a hand. “Never mind. The point is, yes, someone will come after us. Forget I said the rest of it.”
Marta said, “It does seem unlikely that they’d go to all that trouble to help us and then just abandon us or assume we were dead without at least checking. And Flash is a minor. Practically speaking, they do have a legal commitment to search for him.”
It was surprisingly reassuring. It took close to an hour after that to inventory everything in the jet (which turned out to be well-stocked, for anything from land of the lost to 20,000 leagues under the sea), and by that time they were all starting to go a little stir-crazy.
“We need to get out of here,” Nikki said. Calle was practically vibrating next to her.
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Marta, breathing out a sigh of relief. “I thought it was just me.”
Even Aaron, master of the stoic expression, looked a little looser around the edges when they all picked their way out of the jet. Calle said, "Would anyone mind if I --" She circled a finger, which Nikki took to mean 'change into a jungle critter and run around the canopy for a while,' and looked hopeful. "I'll stay close."
"Be careful," Nikki said, since she knew everyone was thinking it and that she might be the only one who could get away with saying it. In her head, she added, *Stay in touch?*
"Maybe pick something loud?" Aaron suggested. "You could give us a heads up that way if you saw anything coming."
Calle looked as confused as Nikki felt -- Aaron knew they could communicate over distances. Marta translated for them. "And that way we would have to freak out when we heard things moving around in the trees all around us," she said, and Calle nodded.
"Got it," she said, and turned into yet another animal Nikki didn't recognize. She had fur and claws, and a bright white bushy tail. She leapt onto the nearest tree and gave a shriek that had Flash wincing and Aaron grinning.
"Thank you," he said.
It worked pretty well, considering the circumstances. Calle gave Nikki a mental nudge every few minutes, and Nikki signaled everyone else to brace themselves for the shriek that was coming. Calle sent along flashes of the things she was seeing -- mostly branches and leaves, with the occasional insect or small animal here and there. *Probably the crash scared off a lot of the bigger things,* Calle told her. *There are footprints, but no Stegosaurs yet.*
*I though the plural was Stegosauri,* Nikki sent back. *Tyrannasauri, Bracchiasauri, Stegosauri.* She was mostly kidding; it had been a long time since the most important thing to remember was categories of dinosaurs.
*I like mine better. Stegosaurs, Icthyosaurs, Tyrannosaurs.*
*Maybe it's like tomato,* Nikki thought at her. *Either is correct because no one really knows.*
It was a great distraction from the work of clearing branches. Of course, they couldn't have crash landed in a handy clearing; they must have hit the canopy and dropped like a rock. Aaron wanted the option of building a fire, and everyone agreed it would make sense to clear some space around the jet to both make it more visible (for their rescuers) and more usable as cover if (when) they were attacked. Luckily, the huge amount of noise they were making seemed to be keeping away most of the things she really didn't want to come face to face with on the other side of a tree branch or a rock.
*Oh wow,* Calle said suddenly. *I just realized; I could totally practice a dinosaur form here.*
*Just give us a warning before you come back as a dino; Marta's taking a nap and Aaron's getting jumpy again.*
It was impossible to tell what time it was, since their watches were set to New York time, and no one wanted to admit that they didn't actually know if Antarctica had the same super-short and super-long days that happened in Alaska. Even if they knew, she figured the rules might be different in the Savage Land. (After all, if anyone had asked her before today if the continent of Antarctica included a tropical jungle, she could confidently have said no. And yet.)
Whatever time it might have been (her watch said 3:30, but she’d seen the second hand stuttering a couple times, so she was really only still wearing it for the familiarity factor), it was getting darker outside. “We should eat, maybe,” she said, repeating the idea for Calle. “Before it gets dark.”
*Right on top of you,* Calle announced. *Check this out.*
“Calle’s headed in,” Nikki said quickly. So far she hadn’t had any trouble identifying Calle no matter what form she was in, but she wasn’t so sure about the rest of the group. She hadn’t been kidding about Aaron being jumpy.
And apparently Calle hadn’t been kidding about being right on top of them. She launched herself out of the branches and Nikki reached out automatically to catch her. She looked a little like a prehistoric version of a flying squirrel, and her fur was surprisingly soft. “Hey,” Nikki said. *Good to see you. That was awesome.*
Calle bumped her head against Nikki’s hand. *I got the idea from Amalia. Gliding is easier than flying. Like a stepping stone.*
“Did someone say we were eating?” Marta yawned as she stepped up to the door of the jet and leaned on it. “Sorry I fell asleep. Flash has the food out. Protein bars and dried fruit, it looks like.”
“It’s the dinner of champions,” Flash called from inside.
They ate in the jet, as soon as it became clear that the name “Savage Land” could easily have been referring solely to the place’s biting insect population. The food was typically cardboard-like in flavor and overly sweet, but they didn’t have a huge number of options. (It seemed like a bad idea to start hunting the local wildlife for food without any idea of whether or not that would get them on the bad side of any natives they might encounter.)
Marta, as usual, kept the conversational ball rolling. “I’ve been meaning to ask — and feel free not to answer, or tell me to mind my own business. The name Tovar — is that Italian?”
Calle said, “Does it sound Italian? I could tell people that.” Then she looked away. “But no, it’s not. Or not in the way you’re thinking. I was in Valencia when I picked it, so it’s Spanish, I guess. Calle too.”
“So, you just made it up?” Flash asked.
“No, I picked it,” Calle said, emphasizing ‘picked’ like she thought Flash might not have heard her the first time. “They’re both real words. I didn’t make them up.” She sounded so indignant that Nikki wondered if they were all missing some key distinction between the two.
“I did wonder about James,” Nikki said, trying to defuse any potential tension.
“Exactly,” Calle said, like that explained everything. Nikki blinked. That wasn’t actually the reaction she’d expected. In the section of her brain where she tried to keep everything sorted, she added ‘names’ to the category of ‘sensitive topics that probably aren’t dangerous but should maybe be revisited at some point to avoid being accidentally offensive.’ Category names were still a work in progress.
Once the last crumbs of crystallized sugar had been licked clean and all the protein bar wrappers had been set aside as trash, it was fully dark outside. Aaron said, “Are we going to try to sleep? If we are, we should set a watch schedule.”
Marta rolled her eyes. “I already know you’re not even going to try to sleep. And I already took a nap.”
“I’m not sleeping,” Calle said.
Lying on the hard floor of the jet and staring at the ceiling, willing herself to get some rest, didn’t sound appealing. On the other hand, her brain was going to be seriously foggy the next day if she didn’t get at least a little sleep.
Flash said, “Well, I am. Wake me up if you want me to keep watch. Or if we get attacked. Or rescued.” He put earbuds in, though she couldn’t see if they were actually attached to anything. Then he pulled his hood up and resolutely curled up under one of the blankets, closing his eyes.
Nikki was impressed. *Is he actually asleep?* she asked Calle. It seemed rude to say anything out loud, just in case.
But Calle shook her head. *No, he’s still awake. But he’s really good at faking it.* Nikki got the feeling she was impressed too.
They turned off the emergency lights they’d been using, and the darkness closed in around them. Everyone shuffled a little closer together, she thought, and Calle shifted to something big and furry. Really big. Nikki hesitated. Calle was the one who kept climbing into bed with her when they were at home, but she wasn’t sure how she’d feel about it in company. *Do you mind if I —?*
Calle just moved closer, bumping up next to her and settling down on the floor, and Nikki relaxed. She even closed her eyes, just for a minute. No real reason to keep them open, since she couldn’t see in the dark. She leaned on Calle and could feel her breathing, a low rumble at the tail end of each exhale. *Are you purring?* she asked, and suddenly she thought she might be able to sleep after all.
*Maybe,* Calle answered. *Are you going to try to sleep?*
*Maybe.* It was worth a shot, anyway.
It wasn’t an easy sleep, and she lost count of the number of times she woke up, thought about trying to find a more comfortable position, and then settled on holding still in case her movement disturbed whatever sleep anyone else was getting. She did know that each time, Calle was next to her, rumbling in her ear and generally exuding a sense of calm. She thought she heard Aaron and Marta playing cards at one point, but that might have been a dream. Surely super spies and geneticists had more options than Go Fish.
So she slept, but it was still a relief when she woke up to see light filtering in from the front window. It was quiet, but not in a creepy way — she could still hear Calle’s rumbly maybe-a-purr, at least. Nikki moved carefully, wincing at the stiffness in her back and shoulders, and she put one arm behind her head and willed her neck to relax.
“Morning,” Aaron said quietly.
Nikki wiggled the fingers of her other hand, so he’d know she heard him. Then she tilted her head back to see where he was — not in the front of the jet anymore, apparently, which was where he’d been the night before.
Instead he was wedged in the back corner. Marta's head was in his lap and it looked like she was asleep. Aaron nodded his head to the side and gave a thumbs up. Nikki propped herself up on her elbows as quietly as she could (which wasn't very) to see what he was indicating.
It was Flash, who had migrated over the course of the night until he was stretched out along Calle's other side. One hand was touching her paw.
*I don't mind,* Calle said softly, answering her unspoken question. *It's nice. Better sleeping over here than pretending over there.*
*Thank you, for watching over us,* Nikki said. Than she added, *Did Marta and Aaron play cards at any point?*
Calle sounded like she was laughing, or would have been if she was talking out loud. *Yes. Marta kept winning. She accused Aaron of reverse cheating. They scheduled a rematch.*
A yawn snuck up on her, and she stretched. Calle's tail twitched against her ankle. *Breakfast?* Calle asked.
*Hungry?* Nikki said, and Calle definitely was.
Nikki sat up all the way, taking stock. Her shoulders would loosen up once they got moving again, and the place where she'd scraped her arm moving a branch looked fine -- still a little red, but nothing out of the ordinary. She caught Aaron's attention with another wave, and said, "Breakfast?"
He nodded, and they started folding blankets and setting out food options. (Trail mix was not among them, and she was grateful for that. On the other hand, how was it that nine times out of ten she'd pick a cold breakfast if left to her own devices, but now that it wasn't an option she was craving waffles and french toast.)
Marta woke up while they were working and joined in with a quiet, "Good morning. Anything interesting happen overnight?"
"Quiet as a jungle ever gets," Aaron said.
Calle huffed out a breath at that. She was still next to Flash, and he startled awake at the sound. "Oh," he said, looking around.
Calle stole the show by standing up and doing the stretch and yawn they'd all indulged in at some point in the morning -- it looked exponentially more dangerous when a giant predator cat was doing it. The teeth, for.one thing.
"Hey," Nikki said, setting a water bottle down in easy reach of Flash. "Good morning. Breakfast is up, if you want anything."
Calle and Aaron went out 'to take a look around,' which Nikki was relatively sure was code for 'run around and burn off some energy,' at least for Calle. Which left her and Marta and Flash to 'guard the jet' (stay behind). They left the door open, since the day was already getting warmer. Too bad they were more prepared for November in New England than in a jungle climate.
It had only been a few minutes when Nikki felt Calle’s surprise. Calle said, *We just ran into two people. Or they ran into us. Not a threat.*
Nikki had just enough time to relay the news to Marta and Flash, and then Calle added, *And they have a dinosaur.* Nikki got a quick image of a large something — it looked like a triceratops — with saddlebags and a harness and everything. *And they said they were looking for us.*
She sounded less wary about that than Nikki would have expected. *Everything seem okay?* she sent back, trying to juggle talking with Calle with answering questions from Flash and Marta. ‘Not a threat’ seemed to leave a lot of negative possibilities still open.
*Yes? We’re coming back. They’re coming with us; Aaron said he was okay with it.*
*Do you want us to look prepared and weaponized, or harmless and in need of rescue?*
There was a pause. *A little of both?* Calle said. *They’re both armed. But they also said JARVIS contacted them. About Flash. You’ll see.*
Nikki wasn’t sure how to interpret ‘a little of both.’ Only one weapon apiece? No guns but not smiling? Calle didn’t offer any other advice, and Nikki was hesitant to interrupt her when she didn’t know what was going on. “Holstered but visible,” was Flash’s suggestion, and it seemed as good as anything. They did move outside the jet and shut the door, since it would offer some protection to everything inside (all their gear, for one thing, and food). Hope for the best, prepare for the worst was generally a decent strategy for awkward first encounters.
Then they waited. And waited. And she knew anticipation could make time seem like it was dragging, but really? *Really?* she finally sent to Calle, along with as clear a picture as she could manage of the three of them standing around the clearing, not sure which direction to face.
*Sorry,* Calle said. *The dinosaur’s not a fast mover. I think he’s carrying a lot of weight? We’re almost there now — coming in from your right, towards the tail end of the jet.*
Nikki got everyone facing in the right direction, just in time for them to be able to hear the group moving through the trees. The dinosaur was also not a quiet mover, it turned out.
“Friendlies coming in!” Aaron yelled, completely unnecessarily.
The clearing got crowded quickly. Two women accompanied the sort-of-like-a-triceratops, and they waved excitedly at everyone. “Hello!” the shorter one said. “We’re so glad to find you!”
The taller one waved again, and said, “Do you need any immediate assistance? First aid, water, food? We came prepared, as quickly as we could.” She sounded very earnest about the whole thing. (The dinosaur didn’t say anything, and made no move to eat anyone — Nikki tried to remember if triceratops-type dinosaurs tended to be herbivores, or maybe it was just well-trained. It was also very, very large; large enough to make standing so close a disconcerting experience.)
“Which one of you is ‘Flash Thompson’?” asked the shorter woman.
Many questioning glances were exchanged amongst the group, and finally Flash raised his hand. “That’s me,” he said. He didn’t step forward.
“And all four companions!” the woman said, sounding delighted. “Ian is going to be so jealous. His group is the other one in this grid sector; he was so sure he would find you first.”
The taller woman focused on Flash. “Are you sure you don’t need any assistance right now? JARVIS was extremely insistent.”
“JARVIS contacted you?” Flash asked.
“JARVIS contacted us first,” the shorter woman corrected. “Your brother was very worried about your safety. You must be proud to be part of such a dedicated family.” Then she seemed to realize how that might sound to the rest of the group, because she quickly added, “Of course, we were also contacted shortly thereafter through official channels, by our Avengers team liaison.”
Flash looked confused, and Nikki was closest, so she said quietly, “JARVIS told them he’s your brother.”
“Of course,” Flash said, recovering quickly. “My brother, JARVIS.”
“You did claim him first,” Nikki said. “When we were talking with Jan?”
Flash said, “Yeah, but I didn’t realize he’d —“ He waved a hand around the clearing. “All this.”
Aaron cleared his throat. “I’m not sure what sort of assistance you’re prepared to offer, but we do have — we came through a portal? And something came through after us.”
“We think,” Nikki said. “But we’re pretty sure? Three humanoid, three bigger.” She held her hands up like claws to demonstrate. (She thought they might be making a terrible first impression, but she was trying not to dwell on it.)
The women looked doubtful. “A second ship?” the taller one said. Nikki couldn’t help noticing neither of them had introduced themselves.
The shorter one held up a grey device that looked just like an old-fashioned walkie-talkie. It even had the button on the side. “Ian,” the woman said. “We found them; all five accounted for. Which means dinner’s on you; you’re welcome. Have you found anything? There may be a second group.”
She heard static, and then, “A second group? We’re tracking something — multiple somethings — headed in your direction. Fast and large; that sound like them?”
There was general nodding around the clearing, and the woman said, “Can you shortcut around them? Be warned; they are hostile. We could probably use backup.” She sounded much more serious talking to ‘Ian’ than when she was talking with them.
“On our way. We’ll beat them there, for sure.”
It was close, and it all got a little chaotic when a pterodactyl (pteranodon?) dropped into the clearing practically on top of them and proceeded to engage in several loud (and incomprehensible, at least to her) exchanges with the not-quite-a-triceratops. Calle snuck close enough to nudge her hand, and Nikki patted her head while pretending not to notice. She didn’t think any of them were expecting the roar that blasted through the clearing — it definitely got everyone’s attention, though.
*Is that them?* Nikki asked. *I didn’t know they could do that.*
Calle’s reply practically overlapped her thought. *It’s them. And they can’t, or they couldn’t, before.*
Nikki saw Marta talking with the two women and Ian, and hoped she was explaining the whole ‘handlers are bad news, we’re not a hundred percent sure about the others’ plan. There was a lot of nodding going on, and some seriously nasty looking energy weapons being produced.
And then the trees started coming down, and there was no mistaking that the bad guys had arrived. She was no sharpshooter, though (aim for the eyes was generally solid advice, as a distraction even if standard bullets weren’t enough to cause any real damage), and the likelihood of hitting someone who wasn’t invulnerable and was on her side was way too high. The energy rifles were making a dent, but so far no one had offered to share.
So she grabbed Marta, who grabbed Flash, and they took cover next to the maybe-or-maybe-not-a-triceratops. The dinosaur’s battle strategy seemed to be ‘stay in one place and be a fortress,’ so she hoped it would be relatively safe. She saw something light up with a flash of blue, and felt Calle’s shock when it happened, but she didn’t feel hurt. It was more — background, somehow, like it wasn’t a bad thing, but she hadn’t been expecting it.
She also felt Calle shifting bigger, much bigger, and opened up the link between them in case there was anything she could do to help. But instead of intensifying, the noise of the fighting seemed to quiet down. *?* she sent, easily ignorable if Calle was distracted.
*We’re winning,* Calle said, rushed, but tinged with happiness and not worry. *Should be over soon, I think. They want to stay here, that’s making it easier.*
Nikki said, “Calle thinks they’ve almost won it,” to Marta and Flash, because there was no reason not to keep everyone in the loop if they could manage it. And then their triceratops-like shelter bellowed out a greeting that was echoed by an (only slightly) smaller version of itself, bounding into a clearing that was absolutely not big enough for all of them.
“Ian’s partner?” Marta guessed. Nikki shrugged — it didn’t seem like the least likely thing they’d seen that day. The women they’d met first travelled as a pair; it made sense that Ian might have taken the faster ‘flying dinosaur’ route and left his companion as the cavalry bringing up the rear.
*That’s done it,* Calle said, and Nikki sent back a burst of relief and impressed congratulations.
But however easily they’d fought together, it quickly became clear that the post-battle shuffling to get everyone situated was going to be considerably more time-consuming, if not outright contentious.
First came the immediate physical situating of all parties. With the three handlers “gone” (apparently handheld weapons that could vaporize aliens were a thing now), that left three non-verbal chimera who all had strong opinions about what they wanted, and only Calle to play interpreter for them. Her shift to a human form raised some eyebrows, as did Aaron (though it was hard to tell why, especially coming from people with vaporization guns — maybe it was the whole ‘looks like Hawkeye’ thing again). And of course, there was trying to figure out where to put all the dinosaurs, in a clearing that was already holding a jet and nine people.
Then there were the negotiations. The chimera were perfectly happy to stay in the Savage Land and bow out of any future number hunting expeditions. The resident representatives of the Savage Land were less than perfectly happy about that plan, mostly thanks to a heated debate about whether or not the presence of “rogue” chimera would bring about repercussions from any other handlers that might be out there.
“They prefer the term independent,” Calle said. “And there shouldn’t be any repercussions, because no one will know they’re here. Even if someone did know they were here, or found out that they were here, they’re not considered that important. No one would track them down.”
“They tracked you down,” one of the women said. “Isn’t that what all this was about?”
Aaron leapt into the conversation at that point with some sort of commentary about cultural relativism, staunchly backed up by Marta even though — as far as Nikki could tell — they were just stalling for time. *What am I missing?* she asked Calle. And then she realized the more important question for the moment was, “What can I do to help?*
Calle proved her ability to multitask by actively taking part in the relativism debate while still answering, *It’s a little awkward. And I’m not completely sure. But I think — it’s possible that’s —*
She didn’t seem able to finish the thought with words, but Nikki caught enough of the background to pull out a name. *That’s him?* she sent back. *That’s the kid? Killian?* She managed not to say ‘are you sure,’ but got a undertone of ‘of course I’m sure’ coming back at her anyway.
*I don’t know how to explain it, but he feels the same,* Calle said.
Rolling with it was the theme of the day, so Nikki said, *Okay. Do you think he recognizes you? Why hasn’t he said anything?*
*I don’t know. I haven’t said anything either? And maybe he doesn’t recognize me. I mean, he was only a baby.*
She sounded hesitant, and Nikki couldn’t hold back the question from sneaking through. *I thought he was —* She stopped, and tried to rephrase. *He doesn’t look dead?*
Luckily, Calle didn’t seem offended, or upset. *I know. That’s the awkward part. One of them. Because I want to just say ‘you’re a much bigger target than these three, so if no one’s come for you yet, you’ll all probably be fine.’ But what if it’s a secret, or he doesn’t even know? And how do you even tell someone they’re supposed to be dead?*
Nikki found herself nodding. *Awkward,* she agreed. *And come on, it’s a land full of dinosaurs hidden in Antarctica. Who are they kidding about outside threats? I think they just showed they can handle themselves if anything unexpected comes up.* She was babbling, but Calle didn’t seem to mind. *Do you want me to say anything?* Nikki asked. *I’ve already made a bad first impression.*
*No, I should do it.*
Calle cleared her throat, and no one even paused to look. Nikki thought they’d already had plenty of loud interruptions for the day, so she leaned in and touched Marta’s elbow, catching her eye and nodding towards Calle. Marta reached out for Aaron, hovering her hand near his shoulder, and he cut off mid-sentence to look at her. He took a step back, towards Nikki, and tugged Flash’s sleeve so that he moved too. Calle stepped up, cleared her throat again.
“This probably won’t sound that strange to you, given — all this.” She waved her hand around the clearing, gesturing at the jungle. “But you were sent to this planet as a baby to protect you, and I was there too, and I’m sorry I left you with the warrior-monks.”
Ian just stared, and the shorter woman said, “Ian, what’s she talking about? Is this about that glowy light thing you do?”
Calle shifted into a snow leopard, and Ian said, “Oh,” very quietly. Calle shifted back, looking unhappy.
“I thougtht you were imaginary,” Ian said.
“I thought you were dead,” Calle replied. “Everyone did.”
“Who else knows?” Ian said.
Calle gave him the short version. It was still pretty long. (Any explanation that started with 'you're from a different planet' was bound to take a while.) Once Calle got up to the part about the ship crashing, it was clear that Ian had no idea of his origins. "How does this end up with you thinking I was dead?" Ian asked.
"Well, I didn't want you to be dead! That's why I took you to the warrior-monks in the first place." Calle took a breath. "But the nine of you were -- are -- being hunted. In order."
"What? That doesn't even make any sense."
Calle sighed, and said, "I don't know why, that's just how they do it. And each time someone dies, everyone else knows. They can sense it. The other kids, anyway; not the rest of us."
Ian looked more intrigued than upset, which Nikki thought was an interesting reaction to someone telling you that a bunch of kids sensed it when you died. "So what number was I?"
Another sigh. "One. You were the first."
"What?" (Although he was repeating himself, which was probably a sign of stress.) Maybe he wasn't as calm about the whole thing as he looked. The rest of the Savage Land contingent -- the two women and Ian's still un-introduced search party partner -- looked more than calm. They looked like this was the best entertainment they'd had in a while. It was an entirely different feeling when it was your own life that was turned into an movie-esque drama; she could relate.
"Why didn't you stay with me?" Ian asked. "I mean, I can totally see why you'd want to get away from all of that, but it looks like you were a target too, based on today."
"I wouldn't have abandoned you," Calle said. "I didn't want to. But the monks wouldn't let me stay. I couldn't -- do this, then." She gestured at herself, and Nikki assumed she meant 'I hadn't figured out a human shape yet, especially since it was against the rules I'd been brought up with, and you probably don't know about that so maybe I shouldn't mention it.' "I thought I was making the choice that would keep you safe." (Unspoken was the 'and then you died anyway but somehow here you are in dinosaur land.')
"I was," Ian assured her. "I am. Thank you." He and Calle looked at each other for a few seconds. "I did die, but it wasn't permanent. The warrior-monks do a lot of this ‘walking the path between life and death’ training; it took me a while to get the hang of it. Most of us were technically dead maybe once or twice; it wasn’t something anyone made a big deal about, and maybe it might have been enough to trigger whatever sensing thing was going on.”
Calle looked like she wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. “Well,” she said. “I’m glad you’re okay. Can I ask — how did you end up here?”
One of the women — the taller one, Nikki thought, but it was harder to tell with everyone sitting down — laughed, and then tried to disguise it as a cough. Ian glared in her direction. “Sorry,” she said, not sounding apologetic at all.
“It’s a long story,” Ian hedged.
The other woman held up her walkie-talkie and said, “The Avengers’ jet has reached the city. You can tell it on the way. We’re going to get back to the rescuing part of the plan.”
They gathered up food and water from the jet, making sure they hadn’t left anything important behind. The plan for rescuing them apparently included getting to ride on dinosaurs, which Nikki was pretty sure made up for a lot of the last day and a half. The only downside was that she ended up at the opposite end of the dinosaur train from Calle and Ian, so she didn’t get to hear how he’d wound up in the Antarctic.
*I’ll tell you later,* Calle said. She was far enough ahead so that Nikki couldn’t see her. They’d never tested the distance limits of their communication, and she thought they probably should at some point.
Nikki sent back, *Thanks. You doing okay? Kind of a crazy everything going on today.*
*I’m good. I don’t know what to think, I guess. It’s unexpected,* Calle said.
Calle’s mental landscape seemed generally positive about it, so Nikki said, *Nice, though?*
*Nice,* Calle confirmed. *He seems like he’s okay; I’m glad.*
*You should be proud,* Nikki sent back. *Even if you’re not, I’m proud for you. Of you.*
*Thank you,* Calle said. *I’m — working on it.*
“So, dinosaurs,” Flash said suddenly, distracting her from the conversation. “What’s that all about?”
He was talking to their guide, she realized, the taller woman from the pair that had found them first. “They live here,” the woman said.
"But dinosaurs are extinct," Flash said.
The woman just looked confused. "No they're not." She pointed at the dinosaur Flash was sitting on top of. "Dinosaur. If they were extinct, there wouldn't be any."
"Exactly!" Flash said. "But there aren't any, anywhere else. How did they get here?"
"Well," the woman answered. "They live here."
Flash gave her an exasperated look. "Yeah, I see that. Which does kind of make me wonder how there wound up being a jungle full of dinosaurs in Antarctica -- it's supposed to be snow and ice."
The woman just mirrored his look. "Obviously not," she said. "Who told you that?"
"No one told me. Everyone just knows it."
"Like everyone knows dinosaurs are extinct? Or that -- for instance -- a man wearing a metal suit can't fly? Or that you can't travel from your city to ours in the space of a few heartbeats?"
Flash narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I get where you're going with this. You're not going to tell me we didn't really land on the moon, are you you?"
"Land on it? I should certainly hope so. Last I knew, we'd done much more than that," the woman said.
Nikki wondered if Marta and Aaron were having similarly frustrating and circular conversations with their own guides. Based on their expressions when they all reached the city, she thought the probably had. They gathered in what looked like an airplane hanger just at the edge of the jungle. Marta took one look at the skyline visible beyond it and threw her hands up in the air. "I give up," she said, standing close enough to Nikki that she could at least be quiet about it. "There is no logic left in my universe."
She nodded. "I'm ready to go back home," Nikki said, equally quiet. "At least there the unexpected is more --"
"Predictable?" Marta asked. "I know what you mean." In a louder voice, she said, "I mean, we really appreciate the rescue."
"We were honored to assist," said Ian, popping up from behind them with Calle right next to him. "A chance meeting that brought great rewards."
Fighting next to each other was a decent way to make friends, and there were several promises exchanged to stay in touch. Ian and Calle shook hands, which progressed to hugging, and Nikki resisted the urge to clap. (Probably she was just hungry.) As soon as Ian was gone, Calle gave a sigh of relief, shifted into a cat, and said, *Pick me up?*
Nikki did, and Calle purred. *Home now?*
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Their Avengers crew of "rescuers" (she still couldn't quite believe she was at a point in her life where multiple groups of people were attempting to rescue her -- though she supposed the magical portal aspect was also new, so there was that) consisted of Jan, Hawkeye, and a new tall guy Jan introduced as Hank. They came spilling into the hanger talking a mile a minute just as Calle got herself situated halfway into Nikki's jacket. (Well, Jan and Hank were talking a mile a minute. Hawkeye was quiet, but he did wave at Aaron.)
"I can't believe we missed all the excitement!" Jan said. She hugged Flash, then Nikki, then Marta, and appeared to be on a mission to hug everyone in the hangar.
"You would have liked it," Flash told her. "Is everything okay back at the Foundation?"
"You may find some disappointed would-be helpers when you get back," Hank said. "We wouldn't have had room on the jet for you if we'd brought along everyone who wanted to come. JARVIS has been agitating for your return ever since you went through the portal."
"Is it still there?" Nikki asked.
Hank shook his head. "No, it was a short-term phenomenon. We're studying it, but the Richards' have disappeared into another dimension again, so it was probably their fault."
“That’s what you always say,” Jan told him, finishing off her rounds by hugging him. He hugged back, and shrugged.
Hank said, “It usually is. That’s just good scientific probability.”
“Are you all coming back with us?” Marta asked. It did seem like a lot of people to enact a rescue that had already been taken care of by the locals. They must have known they were in the Savage Land, and it sounded like they’d been in communication with the city pretty much the whole time.
“Just me,” Jan said. “Hank’s staying to check on a few research projects he has going on down here, and Clint’s going to fix up the jet you crashed; they’ll fly it back when they’re done.”
“Hey!” Aaron said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jan said. “If it didn’t catch on fire, explode, or eject all of you into the jungle canopy, you’re still three up on some of our previous Savage Land experiences. We’re going to ask you to copilot on the way back; that’s a vote of confidence right there.”
Then there was the gifting. Apparently JARVIS was a big hit in the Savage Land, because several people offered Flash gifts to take back to him. (Nikki wasn’t entirely sure they knew JARVIS was incorporeal, but Flash accepted everything — even the dinosaur aviator hat — with a gracious politeness and a straight face.)
Once they actually boarded the jet, JARVIS' voice came from the speakers. "It's good to see you safe and well," he said.
"Hey JARVIS," Flash said. "Thanks for calling out the troops."
Nikki sent Jan a questioning look. "We though it might get weird if we said JARVIS was on the jet," Jan explained. "They might want to meet him in person, and we've had a few unfortunate incidents -- first it's all 'oh, we want to meet you,' and then suddenly it's 'and we want you to stay forever,' and before you know it you're busting out of another prison cell. Sometimes we don't want to take the time for that."
Flash looked concerned. "Do you still want the presents?" he asked.
"Of course," JARVIS said. "I'll add them to my collection."
Aaron got them in the air more smoothly on his second try -- it probably helped to have Jan next to him, pointing out controls. "This is one of the team's dedicated jets," she said. "It's set up so any of us can fly it in an emergency, but it still takes some getting used to."
It was also more luxuriously appointed on the inside than their evacuation jet. There was actual food, for one thing. *Do you want anything?" Nikki asked Calle, who had helpfully shifted to something small enough to hang out on her shoulder while she ate. Nikki couldn't actually see her, thanks to the angle, but she felt furry and Nikki hadn't felt any claws yet.
*I'm set,* Calle said. *Or maybe just some carrots? Those would taste good like this.* Nikki broke off a piece of carrot and held it up; she felt the claws then, plucking the carrot out of her fingers. *Thanks.*
*Any time,* Nikki replied. "I can't believe you have fresh produce on board," she said out loud.
"Only the best for rescue-ees," Jan said. "Well, that and I think Cap's a little appalled at our eating habits, and he's working on the theory that if he just leaves enough healthy stuff lying around, we're bound to eat some of it by accident."
*Makes sense,* Calle said, and Nikki handed up another piece of carrot.
Nikki was pretty sure the land mass she could see out the front window was Africa, which would mean they were traveling — fast. “How long does this flight normally take?” she asked.
“You mean how long would it take a normal plane to fly from Antarctica to New York?” Jan said. “They don’t. Not direct, anyway. It’d be about 20 hours from New York to New Zealand, and then another six or so on to Antarctica. The Savage Land’s not exactly typical Antarctica, though, so it gets a little — handwavey. We’re on the Avengers’ jet, though, so we’re looking at a much faster transit time. I doubt the team would last 20 hours cooped up in a space like this.”
JARVIS added, “Unlikely. Following our current flight plan, we will arrive in New York City in approximately six hours.”
Six was a lot better than 26, Nikki thought. Marta said, “I’m still new to this superhero jet business — is it all right if I use my phone?”
It was — which meant they had no excuse for not getting in touch with anyone who might be worried about them. Marta called her sister. Flash called Darcy, even though she probably already knew what was going on. And Nikki — with some hesitation — checked her phone only to find ten voicemail messages from her mother, and one text message in all caps that said, “CALL ME IF YOU ARE OR ARE NOT OK.”
She debated texting back, but figured that would only get her more voicemails, so she dialed her mom’s number, picking through the remains of her sandwich and pushing another carrot towards Calle, who had climbed down her sleeve to perch at the edge of the plate.
“Nikki?” her mom said. “Where are you? What’s going on?”
“Hi Mom. I’m okay. How was your flight?”
She settled in to hear the long version of everything that had happened to her mother since they’d last spoken, starting with getting on the airplane and ending with hearing the phone ring and seeing Nikki’s number pop up. Calle directed a sort of sleepy amusement towards her, and Nikki thought back at her, *Don’t forget you still have to call James.*
With a reluctant-feeling shift, Calle was human, and Nikki handed her phone back to her with a thumbs-up and a fist bump in quick succession. Calle smiled back, and Nikki said, “Of course I’m listening, Mom. I can hear you fine; I just haven’t been able to check my messages for the last day or so. I wound up going on a trip unexpectedly, and I’m just headed home now.”
Marta’s call got through the explanation part a lot faster. Nikki heard her say, “I was in the Savage Land. Yes, that one, the one with dinosaurs.” And that was it; she moved on to describing the boat trip from Nova Scotia, complete with sound effects and what looked like a seagull impression.
Calle's conversation with James turned out not to be a conversation with James at all. *I called James,* Calle explained. She'd already shifted to a sort of lizard-dinosaur cross, and her eyes were closed. Nikki was using her as a backrest, since her mother was still talking. *But his phone just had an 'I'm away' message, and said to call either Nate or Rachel.* Nikki nodded; they'd met both of them when they'd stayed briefly in Northville on their way through to New York City and then New Hampshire. *So I called Rachel. She's easy to talk to. She said it sounded like I had everything under control, and did I want James to call when he got back.* She gave the mental equivalent of a shrug. *I said yes? Ian didn't come right out and say he wasn't leaving the Savage Land, but he came close to it. He didn't seem to want anything to do with the whole thing.*
"That sounds really hard, Mom," Nikki said. "You got through the traffic okay?" To Calle, she said, *Are you okay with that?* She'd always gotten the feeling that Calle considered herself well and truly split from the rest of her planet's refugees, with James as a recent exception.
*It would be hard not to be, since I made the same choice,* Calle said, confirming Nikki's thought. *But I did miss him, in a weird sort of way. And it might be good for the three of us to stay in contact, just in case.*
The conversation with her mom was wrapping up, and Nikki wanted to give it her full attention so she didn't wind up accidentally agreeing to come visit for Christmas, or anything like that. She scritched Calle's scales as an apology, and Calle stretched out fully, wrapping around her. Nikki said, "I'm sorry for worrying you. I really am okay. Yes, all of us are fine. No, Mom, I didn't shoot anybody." Calle was laughing at her again. "I'll text you soon. Before the end of the week, all right? And you can send me a picture of your car. Yeah. I love you too, Mom."
When she finally ended the call, she stared at the phone for another few seconds, then stuffed it in her pocket. *She really cares about you,* Calle said.
"I know," Nikki said out loud. "I do." It was just -- *It's a lot of caring, you know? All of a sudden like this.*
*A lot to take in,* Calle agreed.
*We didn't even get to journal last night,* Nikki said, to lighten the mood. The last thing she wanted was for them to get into a woe spiral.
*Home tonight,* Calle said, and warm satisfaction seeped across their link.
Nikki hmm'd her agreement, and leaned back. Marta was an excellent storyteller, and she'd moved on to describing a story about her and Aaron and a motorcycle chase. Even with all the editing Nikki was willing to guess Marta was doing, it was pretty riveting.
She dozed off somewhere over the Atlantic, and woke up just as they were coming in for a landing back on the roof of the Foundation building. "How do they work airspace for all of this?" she wondered out loud.
Jan said, "Now that is a question for someone else, because it involves way more politics than I can figure out. The way Tony tells it, he threatened to make all the jets stealth so the city couldn't detect them flying around, and the way Cap tells it, there were a lot of meetings involved. All I know is, we're okay to fly as long as we don't hit anything."
Everyone else looked wide awake, so Nikki carefully shook the pins and needles feeling out of her arm and tried to look alert. Then she realized one of them wasn't awake -- Calle was quiet behind her, just the tip of her tail twitching. She looked around. "We weren't going to wake her," Aaron said, and his expression said 'are you nuts?'
Marta said, "I think it's sweet. She didn't sleep last night; she must be tired."
Nikki didn't have a lot of experience being the one to wake up first. She hadn't bothered with the white board visualization since she'd gotten the hang of sending message packages more easily. But waking someone up when you weren't sure how they'd react? She leaned back against Calle and pictured a door between them. Then she knocked on it.
Calle's tail stopped twitching. Then she opened her eyes. (And then opened her mouth to yawn, displaying absolutely wicked looking teeth.) *Are we there yet?* she asked. *I'm hungry.*
*We're back,* Nikki confirmed. *You might want to shift to something that can fit through the door?*
Calle gave a mental grumble, but shifted down to a dog, then shifted again so she looked human -- wearing a sweatshirt that seemed awfully familiar. "Is that my hoodie?" Nikki asked.
Calle looked down at herself like maybe her clothes had changed in the five seconds since she'd shifted into them. "Technically no?" she said. "I like it."
Nikki had expected a welcoming committee, or at least someone coming to find out what all the commotion was, but they all made it out of the jet and Jan took off again ("Got to return this; see you later!") and the roof remained empty. “Should we be worried?” she asked Flash. Either rooftop landings were noteworthy, and no one was coming to meet them because they were busy handling something even more noteworthy, or rooftop landings were run of the mill and it just wasn’t a big deal.
“Not worried, I think,” he said. He checked his phone. “It’s after three, so Mrs. Parker has probably gone home. Someone’s on the roof cameras, so they know we’re here.” He waved towards the closest door, and the screen next to it blinked a couple times. “They probably just assume we know what we’re doing.”
“Do we?” Marta asked.
Nikki would have answered no, but Flash said, “Sure. Jan’s gone, so it’s B-team rules. Usually we get takeout. Or did you want to head straight back?”
She looked at Calle. “I wouldn’t mind actually going home. It’s still sort of a novel concept — it’s been a while since I had a home to go to? But —“
Calle and Marta both nodded. “But there’s nothing to eat there,” Marta said. “Aaron?”
“I’m fine with whatever,” he said. (Nikki tried hard not to roll her eyes, but she didn’t quite succeed.)
Flash still looked uncertain, and Marta said, “We’re staying. Takeout, you said?”
He smiled. “Let me check who’s around.”
The four of them trailed after Flash as he led them on a winding path through the hallways and staircases of the building. “It sounds crazy, but this actually is the short way,” he said. “Well, the short back way, at least.”
Nikki assumed he was leading them to someone’s office, but they actually ended up in some sort of open plan work area, with desks and cubicles interspersed with larger tables. It reminded her of the study rooms from her university’s library (really, it was only missing the books). There was music playing from one of the back tables. “Anyone here?” Flash called.
“Flash!” Darcy popped up from behind one of the cubicle walls and waved. “Welcome back! I totally should have stayed with you guys — I can’t believe you got to see the Savage Land and I was here compiling data sets.” Flash shrugged, but looked pleased, and Darcy added, “Seriously, you’re going to tell me all about it, right?”
He nodded. “Of course. Everyone’s staying for food, so —“
“B-team dinner!” Darcy crowed. “I love it. I’m the only one here right now — your magic portal had some kind of a biological component that has the science teams all aflutter, and they’ve snapped up just about everyone who can interpret gel electrophoresis.”
“You can do that,” Flash said.
Darcy waved a hand. “I had data sets. And I told them I’d forgotten how. Besides, someone had to be here to do the welcome back dinner. I placed the usual order as soon as you got back; everything should be here in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.”
“How did you know we’d be staying?” Calle asked.
“I just guessed,” Darcy said. “We always order a lot anyway, since there’s so many people in the building at odd hours. There’s always someone’s kitchen to stock or meeting to supply. Better too much food than too little, right?”
They started back down the corridor in the direction they’d come from. Nikki figured Marta had asked the last tricky question, so she should probably step up for this one. “So, B-team?” she said.
“The Avengers are the A-team, right?” Darcy said. “For obvious reasons, and there is a prize waiting for the first person who can get Steve to say ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’” She pushed open a door and waved everyone inside. “Come on in, make yourselves at home.”
It was another room about the same size as the one they’d just left, but decked out like a lounge. Couches, comfy chairs, the occasional bean bag — now she really felt like she was back in school. There was an entertainment center set up along one wall, and a kitchen area complete with coffeemaker and table. The door had a notebook-paper sign taped to it that read “official B-team LOUNGE.”
“Nice,” Marta said, settling into a chair and putting her feet up.
Once everyone was in (with Aaron prowling around the edges of the room and Calle investigating the refrigerator), Darcy leaned against the table and continued her explanation. “If the Avengers are involved in whatever the incident-of-the-week is, they usually handle this part — dinner, or movie night, something to help everyone wind down from action mode. But sometimes there’s stuff like this, or they need ‘team time.’” She did the air quotes and everything. “That’s where we come in.”
“I still say the B stands for bait,” Flash said.
“B-team is the unofficial official name for us — people who have some kind of connection to the big names, but aren’t under the umbrella of SHIELD agents or scientists. Sometimes the bait thing is an issue. But it’s not like we’re defenseless,” Darcy said. “Just in sort of a gray area for labeling purposes, so we make sure to stick together and look out for each other.”
Flash held up his phone like he was at a concert, and waved it back and forth. “Here here,” he said.
Darcy threw a pillow at him. “Hey, they asked. Basically, everyone else couldn’t do what they do without us doing what we do, and we’re awesome, and that’s why we’re here. If we were all superheroes, there wouldn’t be any chances to be heroic, right?”
Nikki wasn’t sure that argument was logically sound, but she could appreciate the sentiment. It didn’t take long for the food to arrive, delivered by a woman with graying hair that looked vaguely familiar — maybe from their orientation group? She left with a plate full of food for herself and a container of cinnamon buns (“to distract anyone you run into on the way back to your computer”). Everyone dug in with enthusiasm, and for a few minutes there was silence.
Then Marta said, “What else do you do — to, how did you say it? ‘Wind down from action mode.’” She gave a rueful smile. “It’s something we probably all could use some help with. I’m still not used to the action part, let alone the winding down.”
Darcy took her time thinking about the question, but she seemed to be able to empathize. "Well, exercise, of course -- always a popular choice. Good stress reliever, endorphin rush, the works. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing. Rooftop star-gazing. Counseling."
Flash jumped in with, "Group dinners. It's good to be able to talk it over."
Darcy nodded. "Some people need solitude to process, and let everything go back to level. For some people it's the opposite, and they need to decompress in a crowd. We all find ways to signal ourselves that it's time to stand down. Flash said you saw Jan knitting?"
"Yeah, a few days ago," Marta said.
"That's her latest thing," Darcy said. "She rotates through coping strategies quickly. SHIELD is a great place to pick up new hobbies if you want to; they have tons of classes."
Nikki's disbelief must have been clear on her face, because Darcy said, "I'm serious. They're a secret organization; it's in their best interest to keep turnover low and their employees not insane."
"I sing, sometimes," Aaron volunteered, and Nikki remembered him singing on the jet. "To remind me." He pulled a slice of pizza onto his plate. "And sometimes I pray. Only on downtime, so it's like you were saying -- a signaling thing.”
Nikki could feel Calle's surprise echoing back and forth with her own. But it was Marta who said, "To who?" Then she shook her head. "Sorry, unless it's personal. You can tell me to mind my own business."
Aaron said, "Doc, you asked me more personal things than that before you even knew my name." Marta blushed, and Aaron shrugged, like he was suddenly uncomfortable at being the center of attention. "It's not a big deal anyway. When I was a kid, we learned one of those nursery rhyme songs, the one with Little Bunny Foo Foo. This sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud. But I figured if the Good Fairy had time to worry about field mice, maybe she'd have time for me too."
"I don't know that song," Calle said, and then of course there was only one thong to do, which was to sing it for her. Loudly. (There was a brief debate over whether Little Bunny Foo Foo was hopping through 'the clover' or 'a forest,' and again when Flash turned out to know a version where the rabbit was reformed in the end.)
"Huh," Calle said when they were done. To Aaron, she added, "She seems like a good choice."
"Thanks," he said simply.
“We’ve been journaling,” Calle said. “I like it. Is there any more of this sauce?”
Flash passed a container of the (bright orange, and that could not possibly be a color that naturally occurred in food) sauce in her direction, and Darcy launched into a recent SHIELD rumor about whether or not Director Fury kept a journal. “Speculating about Director Fury is a foundational SHIELD activity,” she said. “You should have been here during the ‘is he right-handed or left-handed’ debate; I thought we were going to have a brawl on our hands.”
Slowly but steadily, they worked their way through food and conversation. No one’s phone rang, and no alarms went off, and it looked like they were going to be able to just clean up and head home; get a good night’s sleep and figure everything else out in the morning. (She was, she could admit to herself, looking forward to a dinosaur-free day.) Naturally, that’s when someone knocked on the door, stuck their head in, and said, “Nikki Parsons?”
Darcy looked intrigued and not worried, so Nikki figured there was no need to panic. Not yet, anyway. “Yes?” she said.
“Do you know where —“ He took in the rest of the people in the room, and said, “Well, that saves time. Can I come in?”
He actually waited for them to say yes, and then stepped inside, closing the door behind him. “I’m Agent Sitwell; I work for SHIELD. I have news about your house.”
Which at least explained why he’d come looking for her; hers was the only name on the paperwork while they waited for Calle’s “legal” identification to be fully processed. Since it looked like he was waiting for a response (and was it really necessary for SHIELD to encourage such a flair for the dramatic?), she said, “Good news, or bad news?”
“Both,” he said. “The good news is, the news crews and reporters have all left the area. The bad news is, they were encouraged to do so by this man.“ He held up a tablet with a picture on it, and Aaron muttered a quiet curse. It was Byer. And he was sitting in a camp chair. In their driveway.
“Eric Byer,” Agent Sitwell said. “Who has been at the residence for two hours and —“ He checked his watch. “— fifty-three minutes, as of now.”
“Just sitting there?” Nikki asked.
“He’s dangerous,” Aaron said.
And, unexpectedly — “Wait, that’s Eric Byer?” Marta asked. “I recognize him.”
Aaron frowned. “I thought you’d never met Byer.”
Marta shook her head. “I didn’t.” She pointed at the tablet. “But I met him. He got checkups like the rest of you; blood work too. He was an anomaly in the group — the physical enhancements didn’t take, but the mental ones did.”
“He’s currently under investigation for his role in Treadstone, among other things,” Agent Sitwell said.
“He must want to know how you did it with me,” Aaron guessed. “Getting me off the pills.”
Marta said, “It would kill him. Without the extra physical endurance and recovery abilities, there’s no way he’d survive trying to viral off.”
“That sounds fair to me,” Aaron said.
Agent Sitwell winced. “Actually, we were wondering if you would be willing to let us take him. SHIELD has reason to believe that Byer may flip if given a strong enough incentive. He could be our key to shutting down not just Outcome, but all the satellite programs as well.”
It was a nice story, but Nikki could tell Aaron wasn’t buying it. (Even Darcy looked skeptical, and she was pretty sure Darcy was supposed to be on SHIELD’s side.) “You sure you don’t just want him so you can tuck all those programs under the auspices of SHIELD?” Aaron said. “Aren’t super soldiers one of your areas of interest?”
“We’ve recruited out of the satellite programs in the past,” Agent Sitwell admitted. “But Eric Byer isn’t exactly on anyone’s wish list. When it looked like the Outcome program was threatened, he sent out a kill order. As you’re aware,” Sitwell added, somewhat awkwardly. “Five agents received a pill, and according to their Outcome files, they’re all dead.” Marta went pale, until Sitwell hurried to add. “But they’re not.”
“They’re not dead?” Marta asked
Sitwell shook his head. “Hospitalized, yes, memory loss, yes — or they’re faking it, which is also a possibility. But not dead. So you see why we want Byer. Best case scenario, someone in the organization is worth finding and helping. Worst case scenario, there’s mental programming we can’t detect and we now have five sleeper agents on our hands. Either way —“ He trailed off.
Everyone looked at Aaron, who looked torn. Then his expression hardened. “Take him,” he said. “I never want to see him again.”
Sitwell nodded, then gave a polite (and somewhat apologetic sounding) cough. "Would any of the rest of you -- like to be there?" he asked. "It is your house." Marta and Calle both shook their heads. Nikki said, "No way. This is that point in a movie where the villain pulls out some last horrible one-liner that makes you question everything you believe. Can we just watch from here?" "On mute?" Darcy added. "Seriously, Sitwell, I've seen you in the tv lounge. This doesn't seem a little formulaic to you? The man is sitting in a camp chair. It's black. There's even a cup holder." (Nikki honestly wasn't sure what the cup holder had to do with anything, but Sitwell nodded.) "I can give the order from here," he said. "The tablet has a live feed." He pulled out a phone to talk to whoever was handling whatever it was they were going to do. "You have a go," he said, and they watched on the tablet's screen as a dozen SHIELD agents literally appeared in the driveway, completely surrounding Byer (who looked gratifyingly surprised). All of them were in full combat gear, faces completely covered.
Without audio, the whole thing had a very surreal quality. Byer pulled a gun, which he pointed first at the agent closest to him, then at himself. After close to a minute, he put the gun on the ground and stood up. Nikki reminded herself to breathe. They watched the SHIELD agents scan him (and the chair) with some kind of device, then disappear again, and then the tablet was only showing the empty driveway. At no point did Byer turn to look at the camera or even smile knowingly (which was probably good for his continued health and well-being, since even as it was, Marta had to pry a mangled spoon out of Aaron's fingers).
"I didn't know you could do that, with the incredible appearing and disappearing agents," Darcy said. Nikki had been wondering about that as well.
"We had some help on this one," Sitwell told them. "He hurt a lot of people. It was always going to catch up to him at some point.
"Thank you," Marta said, and Aaron nodded.
"You're welcome. Believe me, it was our pleasure. The car he used to get there was a rental; two of our agents are handling it now. You should be able to go back any time you like. If you see anything unusual --" He stopped. "More unusual --" He stopped again. "If you see anything you'd like us to deal with, give us a call.
"We will," Nikki assured him. "Thanks again. We really do appreciate it."
"Anytime," he said, smiling. "But hopefully not too often. You're supposed to be setting a good example of retirement, right?"
She was, and it still felt like the right choice, so she smiled back, and nodded, and Agent Sitwell went back to wherever he’d come from and Darcy handed out cookies. Nikki suddenly remembered what had been happening the last time they’d been at the Foundation, and she turned to Marta. “Where’s your sister staying? She’s still here, right?”
“They’re all here in the city,” Marta said. “Seeing the sights. I should give her another call, actually.”
“You could invite her to visit at the house?” Nikki offered, making it an open question in case anyone else had objections.
Everyone seemed agreeable, though, and Marta said, “Thanks. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. They’re visiting for a week, so we’ll have plenty of time to see each other.”
The cookies disappeared quickly, and once they were gone, it just made sense to start boxing up leftovers and sorting out the trash. “I can take what’s left over to the science teams,” Darcy volunteered. “I have to go back that way anyway to check in.”
Flash checked his phone. “I’m ‘staying with a friend’ tonight, apparently.” Darcy opened her mouth to say something, but he beat her to it. “Yes, I’ll get someone to go with me. I’ll text you when I’m there, okay?”
“You know me so well,” Darcy said, and Nikki was a little worried both of them were going to take off and leave them to find their way back to ‘their’ break room on their own (doable, but time consuming). But they all walked together, and she could feel herself relaxing by the time they arrived.
*Finally,* Calle said.
Nikki sent back a wordless agreement. The lights were on, the heat was on, there was a mug of tea perched on the arm of the sofa next to her — it must be home, because it felt too good to be anything else.
“I think you should host a housewarming party,” Marta said, looking up from her notebook.
“Is that really what you’re journaling about?” Aaron asked, peering over her shoulder.
Nikki looked guiltily at her own doodled sketch of stick-figure Aaron singing to a crowd of stick-figure dinosaurs. There were some buildings in the background, but only because they’d seemed easier to draw than trees. “Why?” she said.
And maybe Marta had been journaling about it, because she ticked the reasons off on her fingers without even having to think it through. “A housewarming party would be easy to host during the day, for only a set period of time. It would be a good way to give your neighbors a good impression of you, whether or not they come. If you invite people from the Foundation, it would serve as a combination ‘sorry we crashed your jet and thanks for helping us anyway’ gesture. And it would give us a good excuse to give you a housewarming gift before we move out.”
Nikki had wondered when that would come up. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you want,” she said, knowing they wouldn’t take her up on it. She could feel Calle’s support for both the party and the invitation, so she said, “A housewarming party is a good idea.”
“The Foundation’s agreed to help us out with housing for now,” Marta said. “While we figure out what we want to do next.”
“We’ll keep in touch, though,” Aaron said, and even he looked a little surprised at the words.
Nikki said, “And you’ll help us plan the housewarming thing, right? Seeing as it was your idea.”
Marta crumpled up a page from her notebook and threw it at her. Nikki laughed, and then had to rescue her tea before it tipped over the side. “Of course,” Marta said. “You need my gourmet cooking skills, I know.”
*Presents?* Calle asked, interest and excitement leaking through. Nikki didn’t think Calle had gotten too many gifts in her life, but she tried not to think about it too loudly.
*Definitely presents,* she sent back. *And maybe more eggs from the neighbors?* Out loud, she asked, “So, what are you getting us?”
Marta and Aaron exchanged a glance. “How do you feel about kittens?” Marta said.
And really, what kind of question was that? “Are you serious?” Aaron nodded, and Calle held out her hand for a fist bump, which Marta returned with a grin.
“And a roomba,” Marta added. “Naturally.”
Nikki threw the paper back at her, and Calle shifted into dog form and ran circles around the sofa, before leaping back up and putting her head in Nikki’s lap. She reached down and ruffled Calle’s ears, rescued their notebooks from underneath her back paws, and thought — yes. Finally home.