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Tarnished Gold Standard

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Patrick Stump can kill a person with an intact CD, one cufflink, and a bottle of water if need be. He can and has taken out sleeper cells with very limited resources and exceptionally incompetent back-up. He’s the best field agent the Department has seen in at least a decade, and everyone knows it.

Yet, somehow, he’s stuck in Italy cleaning up Gabe’s mess.

Again.

“I am a nice person. I donate to abandoned animals,” Patrick mutters to himself as he secures his room in an actual hotel in the center of a legitimate city and heads for the more popular section of Milan.

A few housekeepers give him strange looks. Offering them a placid smile, he shifts his messenger bag higher on his shoulder, and waits for the elevator, musing over his to-do list. He should be able to clear this whole thing up in two more days. His check-in is actually his pick-up, and it’s five days away.

A long weekend in tiny clubs with actual bands near people with average lives sounds heavenly. Patrick’s going to keep wishing for that, but he’s had extensive experience with his dreams burning out and knows it won’t work that way. Especially since this whole thing is Saporta’s fault.

That’s unfair, but Patrick gave up caring three days ago when instead of going home after yet another human trafficking bust, he got the message to extract and relocate a couple sources. Two of the many informants Gabe had abandoned when he went a little psycho and a lot reckless and nearly got his dumbass killed.

And he still somehow managed to land a slot supervising Pete’s new S&R team. Gabe running a search and rescue unit; who would have thought?

Patrick laughs and recalls the look on Travis’ face when he found out his old partner was technically promoted. That shit is priceless. Nevermind that Pete thinks nothing beats Patrick’s expression when he realized how incestuous that little team is with Gabe actively fucking - no,dating - Frank and Brendon.

“Technicalities,” Patrick scoffs and reaches for his phone. He needs to double-check a few sources and maybe send an email to Pete yelling in capslock and italics - possibly some bolding for emphasis - about wasting the amazing resource that is Patrick Stump on something the Marshalls could be handling.

Fucking politics between the private and public sector being what they are, though, Patrick’s pretty sure Director Wentz will just roll his eyes and send Patrick more lyrics to random indie rock songs. Whatever, Patrick’s going to send the email anyway.

He clears through the hotel’s service entrance behind the elevator bay and takes the alley to the street. It’s crowded at this time of day, but that’s perfection. They’re all less likely to get jumped or shot if there are witnesses and bystanders crawling everywhere.

Perks of not being in an actual war-zone this time. Small miracles.

Dodging other pedestrians slows Patrick down, but his suit makes him look important enough that people tend to stay out of his way. He still manages to make it to the homey gelato shop within the time frame he gave his charges. It’s kitschy enough to attract tourists looking for faux-authenticity but far enough away to avoid wall-to-wall Spring Breakers.

He spots Gabe’s boys as soon as he pushes the door open. How those two managed not to get themselves killed is nothing short of miraculous. Patrick orders coffee from the girl at the counter and pays with Euros. There are eyes burning holes into the back of his neck; it takes every bit of his self-restraint not to start yelling before he’s seated across from them.

Even then, he’s not entirely sure how he manages to keep his voice to a hushed whisper.

“Unless something goes south, this is the last time either of you actually sees me, got it?”

The short one with all the hair nods a few too many times.

“How does this work?” The one with darker hair and no curls asks.

Patrick sips his coffee before setting it aside. “You leave any identification you have with me. I go about spending the next few days making sure you’re dead, should anyone care enough to look. And since you’re both apparently idiots, they’ll be looking but shouldn’t think you faked it.”

Curls narrows his eyes and leans forward, nearly knocking his own drink over. Eyebrows moves it quickly to the side. At least they make a good team.

“You’re really good enough to pull that off? Without us even being around?”

Adjusting his gray fedora, Patrick gives them the most unimpressed look in his arsenal. “Remember when Gabe broke you two out around a heavily armed guard station without alerting anyone to his presence until it blew?” When they nod, Patrick grins. “I taught him that. Because that’s what I do. This? Is me doing a favor for him and our director because when I started, I was re-assigning people who didn’t know how to maintain a proper cover.

Eyebrows grips his companion’s shoulder to pull him back. “What do we need to do?”

Shifting his bag to his lap, Patrick digs through it and slides a wallet to each of them: black for Eyebrows and blue for Curls. “Learn these names and use them. There’s petty cash and an itinerary in each that tells you where to be and when.” Patrick doesn’t give them a chance to investigate before sliding matching smartphones across the table. “Location services are shut off on these; keep it that way.There are emails set up with flight boarding passes in the inbox. You have a layover in Paris.”

Both men look at each other and open their mouths - probably to chatter excitedly about the stop. Patrick cuts that off, immediately.

“You are not to leave the airport. Am I clear? You go through customs then straight to your terminal.” They look disappointed, but Patrick glares until their shoulders slump. “I’m putting you in a car, and my guy will put you on a plane. He’ll give you bags of new clothes, toiletries, your new passports, and some other information. As soon as you land, you call Gabe, then me. If there is even a two-minute flight delay, you call both of us.”

Closing his bag, Patrick adverts his eyes long enough to let the information settle. Taking a breath, he presses his hands to the table. “No contact with anyone you used to know. The guys you were? They’ll be ghosts by this time Wednesday. Gabe will fill you in on everything else and make sure you’re set up. Then you’re no longer our problem. Understand?”

The guys simultaneously open their wallets and check the IDs. They’re leaning close enough that their shoulders brush, and Patrick has to forcibly shut down the hope that they’ll get relocated somewhere together. It’s always better when someone can start over with at least one person they know, but that’s not Patrick’s job; he erases their pasts, but doesn’t set up their futures.

The trio lapses into silence while Patrick watches the front windows. When he sees a familiar car pull up and the driver move to stand by the back, driver’s side door, he finishes his coffee and stands. The other two follow suit. Once they’re all on their feet, Patrick extends a hand first to Eyebrows, then Curls.

“Dallon. Ian.” He uses their new names as they shake his hand in turn. “The green Mini is for you. Stay out of trouble.”

“Will do,” Dallon promises and pockets his new wallet, old one left on the table beside Ian’s original.

“Thanks.” Ian sounds petulant, which Patrick ignores.

“Tell Gabe he owes me and to tell his guys hi.”

They exit the main entrance and slip into the car. Leaving the wallets behind for the staff to deal with, Patrick follows and claps a hand on the driver’s shoulder as he passes.

“Get them there is one piece, yeah, Joe?”

Joe rolls his eyes, laughs, and slams the back door behind Dallon. “What life are you on now?”

“Three, four, six.” Patrick tips his hat at Joe. “Ask Travie. He’s got the running tally.”

“Still got more left than Saporta?” Joe asks as he slips into the driver’s seat.

“Everyone does.” Patrick taps his hand on the roof of the car and leans down to snort in Joe’s general direction. “Do your thing. Hit me up when you’re stateside.”

“Like you’ll be there.”

Patrick shrugs and doesn’t deny it while Joe starts the engine. He stalwartly refuses to make eye contact with Dallon or Ian as the counter girl runs out, wallets in hand. Patrick crosses the street after one last parting tap to the car. The girl is left standing in front of the shop, trying desperately to get attention from Patrick, Joe, Dallon, or Ian.

Turning his back to her, Patrick slips into an alley between an empty storefront and a quiet restaurant. He scans the space before pulling his phone from his pocket. He’s just scrolling his contacts when something crunches behind him. It could be a car on the street

Patrick knows better.

His left hand goes to the small of his back as he turns. The three men blocking the alley are broad and imposing the way all thugs and goons seem to be. Their faces are cast in shadows from the fire escapes above them, but Patrick doesn’t need to see their faces to know what their presence means.

Pulling his gun free, he drops his phone and ignores the sound of the screen cracking. Barrel leveled at the heart of the center goon, Patrick shakes his head.

“You really don’t want to do this, boys.” He doesn’t expect it to work but only needs it to stall them long enough for him to edge the last few feet through the alley.

He slides his feet backwards in tiny, controlled motions that inch him along. The thug on the left mutters something to the others in what may be Russian. Patrick knows, instantly, that he’s well and truly fucked.

His only chance to avoid a second run-in with this particular group is to find a crowd and call for any agents even remotely local or dig up whichever underworld contacts he can reach. There isn’t much chance that he can get out of this on his own; not this time.

Sunlight hits Patrick’s back as he reaches the end of the alley and sees his opportunity

Pulling the trigger, Patrick waits for the bullet to soar before spinning. He’s reaching for the knife strapped to his ankle - the one he’d named Lola one drunken night with Frank - when he’s knocked off balance.

A heavy, wooden door hits Patrick from the left, and he topples. Before he can regain his feet, there are hands restraining his arms and a prickle in his shoulder. A thug bleeding from his shoulder shoves a thick hand against Patrick’s neck and squeezes. His throat closes around a shocked cry - always the last ditch effort to escape any situation.

Pete's going to be so pissed when Patrick's late. He's still trying to kick out when the scene fades to black.

Some days are coordinated nightmares. Pete’s schedule started out packed solid, and it’s only getting fuller. Meetings with the head supervisors of Intel, HR, Medical, Training, IT, Research and Development, Agent Handling, and Security - even the lead janitorial and kitchen staff members - begin the day.

He likes to have face-to-face conversations with the sub-departments at least once a week. Never at the same time, and never on the same day of the week as the week before. Nor does he congregate everyone into the same room. Instead, he goes to each and requests fifteen minutes with the people who work directly under his orders.

It never stops being intense - read: nerve-wrecking as shit - being reminded of that. Pete doesn’t think it’ll ever not be surreal. He didn’t hire into the Department with his friends to be promoted to Director. That wasn’t on the Life Goal list that Patrick made him outline during college.

Somehow, it happened anyway. Pete would like to think he’s doing a better job than the last director. Their mortality rate has significantly dropped, which isn’t saying much due to the nature of their department, but Pete’s still worked damn hard to reduce fatalities.

Tate wasn’t a bad man, but he wasn’t capable of the level of forethought needed for the position. That and the guy didn’t see his employees as anything more than bodies to fulfill an objective. If someone came back in a bodybag, then well, they weren’t cut out for the business.

Pete doesn’t operate that way. His people are important. He even has an afternoon appointment in his digital planner for tomorrow so he can have an hour clear to go to the hospital and check on Agent Anison.

Ken pencilled her in yesterday when Gabe and company got in with her. Her left arm was fractured in three places; surgery was intensive from what he hears. He’s already scanned his roster sheets to see if he has or will have any slots open for her if she can’t pass the rigorous field requirements after her physical therapy ends.

He’s thinking she might be good in Intel when there’s a steady knock on his door. It’s already open; Pete never closed it when he got in twenty minutes ago. There was no point. He still has two more meeting for the day.

Ken strolls in with two plastic containers of what looks like salad. Pete knows he’s not going to be allowed dressing or croutons. Patrick always slips Ken notes when he’s heading out on missions so there’s someone in the vicinity who can make sure Pete eats healthier or at all, at least once a day.

Pete knew there was a reason Ken sent him an email requesting a meeting slot near lunch. Ken’s the only staff member who gets to pick his time; well, nearly, but there’s no telling where his S&R team leader will be on any given day. So Pete’s just letting Gabe decide when to drop by.

It’s not like he has extra time in his day to play the inevitable game of staff hide-and-seek with Urie, Iero, and Saporta that is bound to happen because Urie is forever hitting up IT, Security, and Janitorial for shit to update. It’s like Brendon doesn’t even care about blowing in and out of the lab distracting the other technicians and scientists.

No wonder Pete’s had a headache the past few months; it’s another issue he’s dealing with. One he still doesn’t have a fix for, but he will, eventually.

It’s on his list, along with finding a fourth member for the S&R team.

Ken sets Pete’s salad down in front of him, a fork wrapped in a napkin set on top. Pete doesn’t ask where the fork and napkin came from. He’s learned not to ask how Ken’s capable of being a ninja of effortless efficiency.

He never gets an answer anyway.

“How are the extraordinary men and women of our administrative department doing? Any mutinies or revolts over stationary to report?” Pete unwraps his fork and opens his salad to poke at it disapprovingly.

Would it hurt Ken to bring a hamburger and fries instead of something healthy?

Ken unfolds his own napkin and sets it in his lap before opening his own salad. “They’re fine, sir. No mutinies to account for.”

Pete nods. “Good to hear. Keep up the good work. Let everyone know their jobs continue to be appreciated.”

They lapse into silence while they eat. Pete has emails he’s been Cc'd on to skim that might need official replies, and he’s in the mood to compose a prose message to send Patrick. He hasn’t unofficially checked in with Trick yet since he’s been buried under a mountain of tasks, but he has a few minutes now. There’s no better time than the present.

It’s not like Ken needs direction. He might not hold the official title of Administrative Lead because there’s no position yet, but he’s still the one the rest of the staff looks to for tasks and guidance. Pete’s working on the paperwork to make the position effective in the system instead of it only being an unmentioned, implied role. It’s another thing on his list of shit to do.

Like everything else he does, it takes forever to be approved by Head Coordinator Owens.

Ken finishes his salad, collects his trash, and slowly stands to make sure he’s not wrinkled his clothing into anything not ironed within an inch of its fabric-y life. He’s the picture of presentability.

No one in their right mind would think Ken’s eval scores are damn near top of the non-agent board.

Not that the department keeps a public posting of staff evals. Pete doesn’t mind if his people talk about their scores and compare with others, he just doesn’t want them thinking those scores matter. In the long run, it’s about surviving a worst-case scenario, not impressing your peers.

That’s not saying Pete doesn’t take the evals into consideration when he’s shuffling through the rosters and checking up on people and how they’re doing within their respective departments. It’s how he pegged Iero and Urie for S&R detail.

“Sir, I must inform you that Agent Stump fully expects a detailed report on your eating habits while he’s been gone. If you do not finish your lunch I will be forced to take note.” Ken taps his fingers against the door frame like a prim librarian who’s irritated at people talking loudly.

Pete makes it a point to stab at a slowly wilting piece of lettuce. “Duly noted. You can leave the door open, Ken. Agent Saporta is bound to drop by before his appointment time. Just wave him back. He’ll knock before interrupting anything.” Well, Pete will narrow his eyes if Gabe doesn’t use the manners he’s supposed to have honed out in the field.

Ken nods. “Yes, sir. I’ll be leaving at six.” The time is pointed. Pete’s supposed to leave when the office closes; however, he’s been staying until eight or later, recently. Since Patrick left on his latest series of missions.

With that Ken’s gone, and Pete’s left with his half-finished salad. He trashes it. There’s a bag of chips hiding somewhere in his desk. They shouldn’t be expired.

Except the bag’s missing. Pete sighs and slams the last desk drawer harder than warranted. He’s going to bet money that Patrick smuggled it out weeks ago when he dropped by Pete’s office and sat on the edge of his desk while Pete was out talking to Head Trainer Mackenzie about integrating a few agent training objectives to include technical or lab support.

Pete’s in the process of typing a ranty poem to Patrick about kidnapped bags of potato goodness when there’s a sharp rap against his door. Gabe’s standing there in one of his better suits and a clip-on tie. Frank insisted Gabe go from wearing something that could choke him to death to the clip-on, which offers a quicker escape from strangulation.

Clip-ons have been optional for two years. Most agents loath them and think it makes them lesser to wear something stupid when a real tie looks sharper. Pete’s trying to make them mandatory, but he doesn’t think safety is going to outweigh style in this case.

Head Coordinator Owens himself says actual tradition ties complete the picture of a well-put-together agent. It doesn’t matter that female agents aren’t allowed to let their hair grow out for the same purpose of not having something that can be used as an easy handhold for your opposition. Pete’s not going to stop fighting for safety issues. He just hopes he doesn’t have to lose good people before he can make his point.

Pete hits send before checking his computer clock. Gabe’s way earlier than expected. “You’re early.”

Gabe shrugs but the action looks nervous. Cagey. Like Gabe’s got something he has to say, but he doesn’t want to.

Great. Pete always loves when shit goes pear-up and he has to scramble to fix everything.

“How are your objectives?”

Gabe strides into the office. There are shadows hanging back near the door. Two, to be exact: Iero and Urie. Pete can barely see them, but he knows they’re there, even without a single arm or tip of a shoe showing.

Urie’s getting better at stealth. But Pete once matched Patrick as best of the best at agent objectives. It’s drilled into his head to count shadows and listen for white noise in the background. Some habits just never fade away.

Gabe drops his hand to the visitor’s chair in front of Pete’s desk instead of sprawling in the damn thing. Yeah, something’s officially up.

“The baby birds are both accounted for. Not a feather out of place. I have people working on their migration pattern, as we speak.”

Pete nods and straightens his gold-edged name plate. They both know Gabe’s stalling; it’s not Pete’s place to prompt Gabe. That doesn’t stop him from running through a mental list of what could be amiss.

If this was relationship-based, Gabe wouldn’t have shadows. That goes the same for S&R team problems.

Travis met his last checkpoint time.

Gabe pulls out the chair and drops into it, but his posture stays rigid. “There was a delay in Paris with our little birdies. A certain master agent told our feathered friends to inform him and me if that occurred. Only he never replied. He still hasn’t.”

Pete’s instantly sitting ramrod straight in his leather office chair. Patrick’s in Italy, will be through Friday night and into the wee hours of Saturday morning. His check-in isn’t until then.

“Do we know anything? Has intel been advised of the possible situation?” Pete’s already turning back to his computer and hitting refresh. His email logs him out because, of course, it’s been fifteen minutes, and it kicked him out as a safety precaution.

When he gets successfully logged back in, there’s an email from Hollows informing him of a potential problem with Agent Stump’s mission. That they’ll keep him posted on if Patrick gets in touch with their emergency message or checks in Friday night. Italy time, obviously.

“Fuck.” Pete whispers before deleting the email. He hits refresh again, on the off chance everyone is wrong and Patrick’s just holed up somewhere with his phone so he can play Candy Crush or something else highly implausible.

There’s still no reply to Pete’s last email.

“There’s nothing concrete. Not until someone investigates the situation.” Gabe’s voice is steady but underneath is a thin thread of coiled panic. He wants to do something.

Hell, Pete gets it; he’s in the same boat. It takes every ounce of his control to say, “We’re going to wait for Intel to update us. When that update occurs, we’ll re-evaluate the situation and go from there.”

Pete makes sure to imply that Gabe and his guys are not to engage. Pete will make that decision when he has to. For now, he’s going to check the mission manifests to see who’s out and where they are, in case he needs to pull them since they’re closer to Italy than Gabe’s team.

“Pete -” Gabe’s already standing. He doesn’t know what to say. He’s never been as good at handling shit like this; it’s another reason Pete put him on S&R duty. Give him an objective and he’s aces; make Gabe deal with complex, negative emotions and he flounders.

“It’s fine. I will inform you and your team if you are needed. Until then, I advise your team to continue completing your daily tasks per usual.”

Gabe slowly nods. He’s searching Pete’s face and reading his body language to decide if there’s anything he can do, either as an employee or as a friend.

There’s nothing. Not at this point.

Gabe leaves, shutting the door behind him.

Pete slams a hand onto his desk. His name plate jumps and clatters against the wood. “Fuck, Patrick.You know not to do shit like this.”

There’s no answer. Of course there isn’t.

His email is still unreplied to when he logs back into his account.

Time stopped making sense a few days ago. At least, Patrick’s pretty sure it was days; he’s tried counting sunrises, but that’s pretty damn inaccurate. Especially since his little room only gets light from one smudged, grimy window, and the Russians like keeping a cloth sack over his head.

Fucking Russians.

Bright side, he’s covered in bruises and knicks. A couple fingernails have been removed and a few fingers are broken. His nose is cracked, at best. But Patrick’s apparently more valuable to these goons alive than dead.

Yay for small miracles.

Worse things have been done to him in less time, typically during his lull them into a false sense of security shtick. It’s a well practiced technique - one that has made timers and Frank's low-level, localized explosives some of Patrick's very favorite distract and escape tools. Too bad, there wasn’t time for set-up.

There hadn't been time for anything.

Patrick knows better than this. He deserves to be taken to task for letting anyone get a jump on him. Pete won't do that, though, and no one would expect it. If Patrick manages to work his way out of this mess and actually see Pete ever again, anyway.

Damnit, Patrick needs to break out and make sure he hasn't missed his check-in before the Department gets word and Pete becomes a caffeine-zombie. He's going to run himself ragged if Patrick can't be in town every few months to mother-hen the living shit out of him. They all remember the destructo-spiral after Ashlee left while Patrick was on an assignment in Uzbekistan; no one wants to relive that.

A plan needs to materialize before Patrick misses an opportunity and leaves Pete without his best agent and, more importantly, best friend.

As always, that starts with taking stock of any advantages and resources Patrick possesses. Mainly, he can still walk. They like parading him around corridors with his eyes covered. He’s not sure if that’s to disorient him further, show their authority, or use him as an example. Hell, it might just be because they need a change of scenery.

It’s during one of these little outings - Patrick is fairly certain it’s a Sunday, but it could also be Wednesday - that things shift. In addition to the usual cacophony of thudding boots, muffled conversations, and jeering yells, there’s the tick of high heels against tile.

“Well, well. Isn’t this interesting?” It’s a female voice so familiar Patrick almost collapses. Granted, the accent is British and the intonation reminds him of Heidi - the Defense Department’s chair - but he can still identify it.

A hand catches Patrick's chin, and he jerks as hard as he can. One of his personal guards slams a closed fist against his spine and his body lurches. The hand on his face holds firm.

"Ah, ah. You and I are going to have a little chat. How lucky for my operation that we work well with our cohorts. You have so many enemies in so many places, pet." The woman lets go, nails scratching hot and sharp across his skin. Her heels click ominously as she paces away. Her voice is sharper, if distinctly more distant, when she speaks again. "Drop him in here, gentlemen. I'd like to discuss my business matters with our friend in private, you understand."

The hands on Patrick's right arm tighten until he has to grit his teeth and strain his jaw against yelling out.

"You remember our arrangement?"

"I've never gone back on my word. Your bosses must have taught you that before they met such an ... untimely demise." The eye roll is practically audible.

"As long as we understand each other," says the voice to Patrick's left.

Before he can gauge anything else about the situation, Patrick is tripping over his feet as he's dragged forward then sharply shoved to the right. He loses traction as the hands slip, and he goes down. His hip takes the brunt of the impact, connecting solidly with the floor and skidding several feet. Patrick twists his shoulder down to stop the slide and hisses through his teeth.

The door slams - metal against metal - and sends out a ringing echo. Before the static has cleared from Patrick's ears, fingernails are digging into his shoulder and pulling him into a sitting position. When he's settled, the blindfold comes off.

Long, dark hair is the first thing Patrick sees. After a few head shakes, his vision clears, and his every suspicion is confirmed.

"Victoria."

"Hey, Patsy. How's things?" Victoria smiles, benevolently, and shifts to crouch closer to the floor, fake accent immediately fading out. "You boys always know how to piss off the wrong people."

Patrick snorts but starts coughing almost immediately. The hand Victoria rubs against his back helps him settle faster than expected. When his breath is back, he sighs. "Made the mistake of leaving some pirates to tell the tale."

Victoria makes a soft tsk sound and pats at Patrick's head. "You're slipping if you let that happen. I was never an agent, and even I know that much."

"They were a happenstance drop. Working with traffickers."

"You always hated those the most," she nods. Shifting to sit cross-legged in front of him, Victoria gives Patrick an expectant look. "So, how's my old department? The Queen of Hell still trying to convert you?"

"After I landed a star three inches from her head, Heidi gave up the dream; Iero thinks it's hysterical. Pete probably went admin-crazy on her." Patrick raises a very pointed eyebrow. "Though I'm sure she'd love to know her one-woman-militia is still kicking it with ... What is it now? Weapons runners?"

She doesn’t have to respond for Patrick to already know she’s still peddling all manner of firepower. The last time he came across Victoria, she'd been in the middle of stealing a variety of high-end firearms from Patrick's marks. They'd helped each other out and gone their separate ways.

That tends to happen with a record number of Heidi's people. She nabs the brightest and burns them out at an alarming rate. There are reasons Frank called in a Hail Mary with Pete for a transfer to the labs. If Heidi's super soldiers can't trade up, they get dead or disappear. Granted, most of the AWOL operatives still end up dead, but a select few dig into the underground and stay there. It's a poorly kept secret amongst Pete's agents which ex-demons are usually willing to lend a helping hand.

That's the kind of lasting, positive impressions Pete's competency leaves on people.

"The gig is cake, baby doll." Pushing her hair back, Victoria turns to check that the door is secure and the window still covered. "All right, enough flirting; I'm all charmed and shit. Let's get this show on the road. You're in a dire situation. Think we can reenact Montenegro?"

Patrick grins, wide and more than a touch relieved. "Depends what you want, Asher."

"Need to keep up appearances if I'm getting us both out alive, you understand." Victoria is already shoving to her feet as Patrick nods.

"Try to avoid scars, if you can help it."

Shaking her shoulders out, she winks. "You include a report note that I burned crispy, and you can keep the kidneys. I hate that market, anyway; people want to barter too much when you don't have the biggest guns in the room."

Patrick chuckles as Victoria hops from her right leg to left, heels violent against the chipped flooring until she kicks forward, pointed toe connecting viciously with Patricks chest. He tips backwards and rolls onto his side, laughing louder than he should; sounding masochistic and crazy usually wins bonus points, though.

"You always have the biggest guns."

Victoria snorts much more quietly and presses her shoe to Patrick's shoulder, rolling him onto his back and making him shift to keep pressure off his bound wrists.

"Keep up the flattery. I'll have you out in a week, max."

The next kick is less amusing; Patrick still laughs.

We request your advisement on this situation sits in Pete’s inbox for all of three seconds before he opens the email. He already knows what Hollows and her people want.

Patrick still hasn’t gotten in touch with them.

His check-in was at 11p.m. and Pete’s computer is helpfully supplying the time for him. It’s edging toward 6 here, so accounting for time zones, Patrick missed his check-in almost an hour ago.

Officially.

Pete was expecting this. Fuck, he didn’t want to. However, his compulsive email refreshing has yet to produce a reply from Patrick. Usually, he thoroughly enjoys tearing into Pete’s prose - it’s half the reason Pete sends him shit like that. What can Pete say, he likes his Patricks on a low simmer. It makes the inevitable Holy Hell, I’m Alive and I’m Having to Deal With You sex even more interesting.

And hot. Pete can’t forget that.

The reply to Hollows’ email is polite and to the point. Pete wants them to call Agent McCoy and patch him through. Travie’s in Cairo running down a snitch who double-crossed a few undercover agents several months back.

He’s the best they have at following trails that might be cold. Also, he’s the closest agent the department has. Okay, he isn’t; Kirklance is in Bucharest, but Clarence isn’t experienced with this type of situation. He’s more of a specialist with bugging places within an inch of their lives, anyway.

It might also be cold-hearted, but Travie can be counted as part of Patrick’s inner circle. He’s going to be full-throttle, while someone like Kirklance will follow the book and only think of being compensated for locating the department’s best agent. Pete doesn’t need power plays right now. He needs Patrick back home, in one piece, and still his normal, put-together, snarky self.

The only other person or persons Pete has thought of in passing have been Agent Saporta and techs Iero and Urie. Only, he doesn’t need the heat that would come from that. Nor does he want Patrick’s record to have that mark.

Pete is not a stupid man. He listens to the chatter between agents and support staff whenever he can; Ken also informs him when the admin staff hears anything relevant. He knows that Pruitt and Evans have dropped in standings with their fellow agents because lab staff recovered them.

It doesn’t matter how dire their situation was. Or that the final call was Pete’s. All that does is that they got brought back home by labrats.

This … this is one of the main reasons Pete is talking with Kendra Mackenzie about expanding the training sessions to include situations involving his technicians and his agents. You can’t have a family that seamlessly works together if they’re actively against each other.

It fucking sucks but Pete can’t do that to Patrick’s career. He needs Trick at the top. Not only for appearances. Patrick’s worked damn fucking hard to be the best, and he’d fight even harder if he got penalized for a decision not his own.

It would eat at him worse than the job already does.

Pete’s a selfish fuck. He can’t imagine being Director with Patrick transferred out. Few agents retire; they know too much. You either die or you’re shuffled into a dusty corner when your prime has come and gone. Unless you’re deemed medically unfit due to work sustained injuries - then and only then do you get to retire with a pension. And even that comes with stipulations that you don’t talk about the Department, at all.

The game plan is to keep Patrick in the field until he’s knocking on his mid-to-late-fifties, then offer him the position of Deputy Director. He’ll bitch about being under Pete, but he’ll take the the job seriously.

Pete’s thought about filling the position, off and on, but no one fits the part, except Patrick. Maybe Travis. But Pete’s hoping to make Travis an ambassador when he gets past his own prime.

First, he has to deal with this issue. He’s not sure what might happen to the department if Patrick doesn’t come home breathing. It’s not something Pete wants to think about.

When his desk phone rings he answers it, “Director Wentz.”

“Sir, we have Agent McCoy on the line. Transferring now.”

Pete has just enough time to scrub at the side of his face before Travie’s voice filters through the secure line.

“Whatever it is, it better be fucking good, Wentz. I was this fucking close to nabbing Wellowton. I thought your explicitly vague orders were to truss him up and drag him home for questioning.”

Of course Travis isn’t happy about being pulled away from his objective, even for a phone call. He’s tenacious when he’s on a trail. If Patrick’s the Department’s top agent, Travis is their top tracker.

Pete sighs and drops his left hand to tap fingers against his desk. He’s wound up and so damn tired, but he’s not sleeping. The insomnia’s kicked in.

Travis, however, doesn’t need to know that. Hell, it’s best if no one does.

“Wellowton will have to wait until we can redirect Agent Sullor to take over for you. He is the agent you’ve been the most impressed with, isn’t he?” Pete doesn’t give Travis time to do more than huff in acknowledgement that Pete remembered their conversation about rookies and potential before barrelling onward. “We have a situation, and I’m in need of your assistance. One of our own went missing in Italy. I’d like you to find him and bring him home.”

Travis doesn’t know yet who Pete’s talking about. He has no clue where Patrick is, only that he’s on his own job.

“Pete, what the fuck? Seriously, what the fuck? Send Gabe. I’m busy.” Yeah, Travie isn’t happy.

Pete turns in his chair and opens a new email to Hollows. He’s brief when he advises her to delete this conversation from the digital logs as soon as it’s finished. He trusts her to have her most trusted staffers handling this. However, Pete would rather not have mutiny issues on his hands because of Intel staff blabbing about senior agents getting away with insubordination.

“Travie.” Pete pauses. He doesn’t know how to say this. “It’s Patrick. He missed check-in an hour ago. We’ve been on alert since Wednesday but were waiting for verification. Intel will be sending you the particulars, including tickets for the next flight out.”

Travis curses. A lot. Pete rubs at his left eye. “Can you do this or should I inform Kirklance of a development that might favor his advancement?”

It’s a low blow. Travis has had words with Clarence before; they don’t like each other.

“You’re a fucking asshole. You know that right, Wentz? Of course I’m fucking going. Heading back to base now. You do know Gabe’s going to be pissed you’re not letting him and his guys in on this?”

Pete nods to his empty office. “Can’t do that. This operation needs finesse they can’t manage. You’re our best at this type of thing, Agent McCoy. Keep us advised of your progress.”

Travis sighs. He sounds worn. “Will do, boss.” There’s empty air for a beat then Travis’ voice comes through the line again. “I’ll bring him home, Pete. Get some sleep; you sound like shit. McCoy out.”

There’s a solid knock against his door as he’s hanging up. Ken pokes his head in. “It’s after six, sir. You might start thinking about heading home.”

Pete waves him off. “I’ll leave in a few, Ken. There are a couple things I need to tie up before heading out. I’ll see you Monday.”

Ken stands in the doorway for a second or two before nodding. “Have a good weekend, sir.”

He leaves without shutting the door. It’s an invitation for Pete to finish quicker. He ignores it. There are things he needs to do.

Hell if Pete knows what those things are. But there has to be something he can do. If not, the weekend’s going to be unbearable.

Maybe he should go down to the animal shelter tomorrow morning. It might distract him for a few hours. Nothing more than that though.

Because Patrick’s missing.

If he’s dead - if - Pete doesn’t know what he’ll do. He’s not going to think about it. Instead, he’s going to do paperwork and browse through digital files until the janitorial staff knocks on his door at eight to remind him he should go home.

Patrick would literally kill for a calendar or clock. He’d prefer his phone, but that is probably trampled or drowned by now. It rained sometime in the past few days, which just goes to show how shitty Patrick’s luck has become.

Any trail these, - admittedly effective - thugs left has to be gone. Anyone Pete may have sent looking - probably Gabe, Brendon, and Frank, which is going to cause all sorts of havoc Patrick will have to sort out with the elitist agents later - is going to come up cold. If Victoria doesn’t work her magic soon, Patrick’s going to be looking at a death certificate when he makes it home.

If he survives that long.

Victoria is essentially former black-ops and can manipulate situations in ways that would make many lower level agents weep with envy. She still isn’t perfect. A million things can go wrong, and Patrick detests those kinds of odds stacked against anyone other than himself. He’s learned the hard way not to put too much faith in other people when out in the field. There are reasons the gold standard agents - a moniker bandied about by agents jealous of the leeway Patrick, Travis, and Gabe have garnered - are cleared to work alone.

They’re more effective that way.

Except, looking at things objectively, Patrick would be dead by now if Victoria didn’t live in a perpetual state of eavesdropping and the goons hadn’t so willingly bragged about the lucky catch they’d made. Patrick hasn’t been able to inflict more than minimal damage on his captors and damn well hasn’t gotten his hands on a weapon for longer than a few minutes.

This all comes down to Victoria.

She’d been in yesterday, and Patrick’s banking on her actually keeping her word, except the day is running out. Patrick’s measly, daily meal was dropped off some time ago. The light straining against the dust-encrusted window is starting to brighten. Patrick’s readying himself for Plan Z when he hears the first boom.

It’s quiet, muffled through concrete walls and metal doors.

The second goes off almost immediately from a different direction, this one large enough to rattle the floorboards. Guns fire from a third direction.

Patrick slides the lockpick kit Victoria slipped him from the bottom of his shoe and gets to work on the heavy shackle around his ankle. The kit isn’t Patrick’s; it’s new and not broken in, slowing the whole process down. He’s pressed for time, can already hear voices shouting to one another in their native language and more gunshots seemingly at random.

A third explosion rains a light coat of drywall and dirt around the room. That’s the last one, Patrick’s sure. The small bombs were the distractions, the opening act. According to their plans, Patrick has two more minutes to get loose, three to find Victoria, and five to get clear. Seconds are already ticking down.

They’re not going to make it.

The door to Patrick’s room flies open, handle connecting with the wall and bouncing back toward the intruder. Cursing, Patrick violently twists his pick, then cheers under his breath as the cuff loosens and clatters to the floor, sound lost amongst the clamor happening throughout the rest of the warehouse.

“More trouble than you’re worth.” Even amongst the chaos, Patrick recognizes the voice as one of his original captors.

This is going to be more fun than Patrick thought.

Patrick’s voice catches in his throat when the door crashes again, this time caught by the thug’s thick hand. Before the Russian can get a word out, Patrick rushes him.

He might be weak, but he’s clever; he’s had to be since he’s one of the shortest male recruits to make it to agent status. The asshole shifts into a block, but Patrick diverts. He twists at the last moment and slips around behind the guy. The goon’s turning to face him when Patrick lands a weighted kick to the guy’s side.

It’s not as hard as Patrick would like, but it’s enough to earn a foot of space and a spare second. Patrick’s sore, but the pain from pulled cuts and agitated bruises is fading into the adrenaline fog.

Maybe Pete’s right: Patrick is an adrenaline junkie. Whatever, everyone needs a vice.

Patrick takes a fist to the jaw and retaliates with a well-placed knee to a kidney. This meathead is a veritable wall, though, and refuses to go down. Patrick’s been inching his way toward the door, but he’s not fast enough. The hits come too quickly for his already abused body to keep up with. He gets a few in, but he’s taking more.

“I’ll give you a choice,” he pants, aiming to create a distraction. “You can burn or choke on your own blood.”

The guard scoffs. “Big words for such a … tiny, little man.”

This is the worst Patrick’s done in a fight - both physically and snarkily - in months, possibly years. He would be embarrassed if he wasn’t fairly certain every bit of food he’d been given has been laced with small doses of sedatives.

All things considered, he’s not doing too poorly.

Patrick rocks with the next hit, falls back, and manipulates the momentum to slide into a roundhouse kick. Too bad his balance is off and his foot connects with a shoulder. His ankle is caught in a strong hand and viciously twisted against Patrick’s trajectory. Something snaps, and Patrick cries out, hot tendrils of pain racing up his leg.

He goes down in a heap and has to muster up every ounce of restraint to keep from curling into a ball around his surely fractured tibia.

“Stump! Stay down!” Victoria’s voice is nearly drowned out by several shots fired in rapid succession.

There’s a thump behind him, but when he manages to force himself up on one leg, Patrick sees the goon collapsed by the one chair in the room. He’s still moving, though, rushing quick and low toward Patrick, aiming for his legs.

“Heads up!”

Patrick twists and nearly collapses when he inadvertently shifts onto his right leg. Somehow, he manages to get his hand up in time to catch the familiar weight of Lola’s hilt.

“Sorry I took so long. Thought you might want your best girl.”

Laughing from the pain and ridiculousness of the situation, Patrick uses his left leg to pull himself over fast enough to avoid having his legs swept out from under him.

“You know me so well, Vicky-T”

She fires again - over Patrick’s head - and the light shatters with a shower of fluorescent glass. There’s just enough dawn light streaming in for Patrick to see the fist that catches his nose. It snaps as his head connects with the wall.

He’s seeing stars but acting on instinct. The next thing he knows, Lola is buried in the Russian’s throat and blood is gurgling out through his mouth and the wound. Patrick’s never going to get used to the terror and helplessness in someone’s eyes right before their life fades out.

Fuck that guy. Patrick isn’t going to feel bad for this one, especially not now. It’s just more fodder for the nightmares.

“We’ve got to go,” Victoria’s voice is urgent like he’s never heard it before. “Can you walk?”

A yell forcibly rips itself from his throat when he tries. Victoria slides in and under his right arm, taking most of his weight. Patrick sighs in relief as he grips the pistol she slips into his hand.

“We’re going to blow. This place is a fucking powderkeg. Their armory is well stocked. They’re all going to burn.” She’s already dragging Patrick through the door and down the hall.

She’s moving too fast for Patrick to even think about retrieving Lola from her bloody grave.

Bullets rain over them from behind, but Victoria doesn’t pause. Patrick turns as much as he can and shoots several times. The fire stops and a body goes down. He’d celebrate how damn good a shot he is if Victoria wasn’t counting down through alarmingly low numbers.

They have maybe two minutes to get out before they really do burn and this was all for nothing. Patrick isn’t going to let that happen. He didn’t make it this far to let them both die now. It hurts like a bitch, but Patrick uses his right leg as much as he can to propel them on and speed up their progress.

The lights are mostly out in the building, this corridor more affected by Victoria’s earlier blasts. It makes falling through the double doors Victoria hits with her shoulder hurt that much more. The sun is coming up, and the sky is mostly blue, striped through with vivid pinks and oranges that Patrick can’t bother stopping to appreciate.

Victoria curses and tries to move faster, but there’s no going down the steps, few as there are, without slowing down. Patrick bites his lip bloody - though it’s hard to tell if the blood is from his nose or lip at this point - as his right foot connects sharply with each step on the way down.

They’re barely clear when the building rumbles. It’s more controlled than Patrick expected, but there is dust, debris, and smoke billowing out everywhere. The ground shakes, and the force of the back half of the lower floor blowing sends them both sprawling into the middle of the street.

Fortunately, it’s still early enough that the area is deserted. They still don’t dally; only indulging in the sprawl for seconds before Victoria is on her feet and urging Patrick to his.

“Not much farther,” she promises, breathless against his ear.

Patrick groans in response and doesn’t stop the low sounds being pulled from his throat until Victoria’s popping the passenger door on her tiny car and unceremoniously dropping him inside. While she races around to the driver’s side, Patrick uses both hands and leverage from his left leg to pull his right inside the car. He’s going to have to get it looked at but settles for whimpering and staring out the windshield.

The building is crumbling, tumbling down in an implosion the likes of which Patrick knows Frank would approve. Flames are starting to lick out the broken windows and across the bowed roof.

The previously clear sky has gone gray with smoke, and there are sirens in the distance. The noise is deafening as Victoria reaches a hand out to pat Patrick’s chest. She drops it and shifts gears, pulling easily into traffic just as rescue teams start to arrive.

Maybe Patrick will look it up later, check out whatever spin the local media gives the random explosion. It would be a terrorist attack if they were back home, but they aren’t, so Patrick’s interested.

Cool glass starts to calm Patrick’s headache when he leans his temple against the window. He’s interested in a lot of things: the signs zipping by as Victoria puts more and more distance behind them, if there’s any way to retrieve Lola after everything in the area calms down, what day it is. Patrick taps his head against the window a few times and squeezes his eyes shut.

He should ask Victoria for the date and a phone; there’s no way she isn’t carrying three or more burners. But, on some level, Patrick doesn’t want to know. Not yet.

The adrenaline high is waning, and his body is feeling the negative effects of it. He’s been on alert for so long - at least a week, according to his best guestimate - that the shift is exhausting.

He’ll crash for just a few hours. A few hours of blissful sleep, a shower, and a vat of coffee will do wonders for his condition. Then he’ll limp back to the hotel, evaluate the situation, and deal with everything else. The hospital is going to have to be a stop on his comeback tour; his leg is alternating between numb and burning while his head pounds out the symphony of a concussion. He’ll tackle to Department, official paperwork, emergency contact calls, and Pete afterwards.

Thinking about Pete is a bad idea. He’ll make Victoria drive him straight to the hotel if he does that; there probably weren’t any survivors but best not to risk a tail.

Later.

Just a little longer, then he’ll check in. Wanting to touch base and be sure Pete’s surviving and hasn’t had some sort of breakdown feels like a physical need, but they’ve been here before.

They’ve done this dozens of times. Patrick knows he worries too much about Pete when it’s likely he’s just sleeping in his office or working in his office at outrageously impractical hours - Patrick’s too drained to work out the time difference.

Point is, it’s old hat, a pattern of fretting and overworking they always fall into toward the end of a mission or when Patrick’s pushed a job too hard. They’ll level out when he’s back on his feet.

Pete’s magically efficient with pushy friends and a solid team. He can hold it together for a few more hours. Patrick closes his eyes and hopes he’s not downplaying Pete’s neurosis.

It’s a quarter to nine when Pete gets a chance to glance at his desktop clock. He’s been filling out hard copy transfer forms for the past forty-five minutes, and his eyes feel dry from all the strain. He signs the bottom of the last form before shuffling the stack together and setting them in his outbox.

Ken will find them Monday morning, and HR should have the proper paperwork to accompany the digital format a few hours later.

In the background, Pete can hear the janitorial staff at the end of the hall when a trashcan bangs against the floor. There’s no one around to wince, except for Pete who doesn’t wince so much as flinch as the noise breaks into the silence hanging heavy in his office.

It’s been twelve days - way too many - of Patrick officially missing. Travis found his phone but not much else. Apparently, Patrick's secured hotel room - the Department has it reserved through the end of the month as a safe house of sorts - was untouched when Travis arrived.

It looks like he just left to go to work and … never came back.

Pete sets his elbows on his desk so he can press his palms against his eyes before moving to rest his chin in his hands. He doesn’t know what to do. All signs point to something nasty happening to Patrick.

It’s that or Patrick deserted.

Which, he’d never do. He’d storm into Pete’s office to resign before he’d jump ship. And he’d never fucking ever pull a Stevens. So, that leaves Pete with only one logical conclusion.

Someone got the best of Patrick and now it’s a waiting game to see if he’s alive.

It’s a sad fact, but Pete’s done this song and dance before. Some nights, his insomnia is the only thing that keeps him from reliving the casefiles of those who didn’t make it and the people he’s inadvertently sent to their deaths.

Just because he’s significantly lowered the mortality rate doesn’t mean he’s obliterated it.

There’s no possible way to do that. Not until the bad people decide to weave daisy chains and wield water guns, instead of explosives, tape charges, and armour-piercing bullets. Even then, someone would probably find a way to kill one of his agents or staff with the daisy chain.

He listens to the janitorial staff clean the far end of the hall for a minute longer, collecting himself. Then he turns to his computer to check his emails again. He has no new messages, so he logs out and clicks into the personnel database.

It gives him something to focus on that isn’t morbid or fatalistic. Pete can’t change the past. He can’t rewind time and prevent the deaths of those who were snuffed out under his watch. However, he can be proactive. He can learn from his mistakes and implement new safety measures whenever the need arises.

He just doesn’t know what Patrick’s situation will change. All agents know K.I.A. is possible. Hell, even the lab staff - and fuck, everyone else who works for the department - knows it’s a possibility. There’s a clause in every employment contract - even Pete’s - that explicitly states that dying while employed is a valid risk of which the signee is fully aware before accepting their offered position, promotion, or relocation.

Nine-o’clock officially rolls around and slides into nine-thirty before Pete notices. The only reason he does then is because there’s a brisk knock on his door before it’s quickly pushed open.

Gabe’s hand is tight against the door handle. He hasn’t been taking Patrick’s absence well, either.

Though that could be Pete’s fault for not allowing him the honors of bringing Patrick home. Fuck, Pete can imagine how many nights Iero’s bitched at an agreeing Gabe about how fucked up Pete is for not letting them do their jobs. While it’s always good being reminded of how close Frank and Patrick are - despite Patrick’s very vocal complaining on how much of a little shit Iero is whenever they hang out - it doesn’t help Pete now.

He made his decision, and he’s not changing it. No matter how many emails Frank barrages him with. Pete’s counting his lucky stars that Iero has yet to talk Urie into championing the cause or there’d be computer warfare waged against Pete’s office until he folded.

Pete would rather not have to deal with the fallout to that. He brought Brendon in. He’d hate to have to reprimand him, especially with all the fucking upgrades Brendon’s been whizzing through on his one-person quest to bring their systems into the twenty-first century.

“Agent Saporta, how may I help you and your team?” Because Pete doesn’t need to see shadows this time to know Gabe has two tails. “And before you ask, there are no new cases that are in need of your advisement or attention.”

Gabe twists the knob in his hand. Right. Left. Right. Left. He’s only predictable when you know what to look for.

"Shut the computer down, Wentz. Office closed at six. Time to go home." Gabe sounds weary and uncomfortable. He’s never been a fan of Pete Watch, neither is Travis for that matter. Apparently, only Patrick’s good at dealing with Pete’s insomnia and self-destructive tendencies.

However, it’s not like Pete’s ever asked for someone to look out for him. He does his job. What does it matter if he overworks himself into an early grave? Every single person under him deserves that level of dedication.

That doesn’t mean he’s against Patrick’s attention. He might actually enjoy it. But he’s not going to tell Patrick that because doing so will only open Pete up to scrutiny he doesn’t have the time to investigate.

It’s not like it matters now. Looks like Pete might have to get used to Gabe being bad at checking in on him.

“Thank you for letting me know your team is heading out for the night, but I don’t need to be apprised of your departure times while you’re off-mission.” Pete can’t help it: the less sleep he gets and the higher tension the situation is, the harder it is to pull away from being Director Wentz.

Gabe sighs before striding into Pete’s office and stepping between the chairs in front of Pete’s desk to rest his hands on the wood finish, Pete’s name plate firmly bookended by Gabe’s cuffs.

“That’s not what I meant, Pete. Home. For you. Now.” He leans against Pete’s desk. Gabe’s not trying to be intimidating, he’s just hoping he might be; Pete can always tell the difference. “You need to sleep. Right the fuck now.”

Pete snorts. He does cut his computer off, though, only to start sorting through the papers on his desk. “There’s a travel pillow lurking in a locked drawer. I’m fine staying the night. Even have an extra suit hanging in the corner.”

Gabe rolls his eyes. "Again, no. See, you're not thinking straight. I'm driving your car with you in it; the guys are following us. Now say thank you and get off your ass."

Pete huffs in irritation when Gabe tugs his papers out of his hand and sets them to the side. "I'm thinking pretty straight, all things considered. Thanks for the offer, but I'm fine here. You guys aren’t on the payroll to try your hand at babysitting. Go home."

He’s fine crashing at the office. It’s not like he hasn’t done that before. There have been plenty of nights where he’s passed out, face smushed against the desktop for hours, only to wake up when people start trickling in for the daily grind.

If he’s more likely to do so when Patrick’s not around, that’s no one’s business but Pete’s.

Gabe drops his voice to right above a whisper. "We can have this conversation here or at your place, but I'm about to bring up Patrick, and you don't really want me to because you know what he'd tell you to do right now."

Pete knows exactly what Patrick would say. He’d stride into Pete’s office like he owned it and threaten to torch Pete’s collection of depressing poetry - the one that sits on the top shelf of his bedroom bookcase - before deleting all the obscure Indie songs Pete has on his computer.

And none of that would be idle threats.

Patrick once took Pete’s Peter Pan DVD and smashed it into pieces because Pete was refusing to stop going into the office at five a.m. instead of his now customary seven-thirty.

Of course, a new DVD found it’s way into Pete’s collection three months later, but still, the point stands that Patrick knows how to get Pete out of the office in such a way that just mentioning him already has Pete pushing back from his desk and bending for his leather briefcase.

When he stands, Pete rakes his free hand through his hair. "Well ... at least you didn't threaten to knock me out and carry me to my car while I was out."

That’s another thing Patrick’s done before. On more than one occasion. He might be slightly shorter than Pete, but he’s brazen enough to lunge forward, wrap hands in Pete’s suit jacket, and bodily drag him out of his office if Pete won’t listen to threats of property damage or food theft.

"It’s too much work, and I hate dragging dead weight around." Gabe pushes off of Pete’s desk and turns smartly so he can regroup with Ireo and Urie - who’ve congregated at the door, watching like knowing garden gnomes.

Scrubbing at his eyes one-handed, Pete comes around his desk. Maybe he does need to go home if he’s starting to think of Frank and Brendon as creative renditions of lawn ornamentation.

Gabe grins at him, the python winning the frozen chicken by being cunning. "Good. Let's go. Put on a coat or whatever else I'm supposed to say here."

Pete blinks. “It’s not winter, Gabe. You’re surprisingly bad at playing keeper, considering.”

"They don't need much keeping,” Gabe tilts his head toward Brendon and Frank. “I'm out of practice."

Pete can imagine it being the other way around with Iero and Urie watching out for Gabe. Which is good; Gabe deserves to have people who care and want to be there for him. It’s not exactly what Pete planned when he created their team, but it works.

Now, if only they’ll continue functioning properly when he eventually adds their still-yet-to-be-finalized fourth member.

The drive to Pete’s condo is uneventful. Gabe doesn’t try to make conversation while Pete channel surfs for something to listen to that could possibly be new or terribly eclectic. Nor does he say anything when they pull into the driveway and Pete startles out of the slumber he was not indulging in.

It’s nudging close to eleven-fifteen by the time Pete’s made his way up to his room to change out of his suit. Gabe and his guys are waiting downstairs for the delivery person to arrive with their take-out. Pete’s not hungry, but no one was listening when he voiced that thought right after everyone piled inside his house.

Urie just pulled out his phone and googled the closest Oriental restaurant offering delivery until midnight. After dialing, he passed the phone to an impatient Iero, who rattled off a quick order before asking Gabe what he wanted. Which meant Gabe stole the phone and added a double-order consisting of his favorite dish and one Pete would eat regardless of the occasion.

Pete knows they only want to help. However, he’s an adult, and if he wants to pass out on his bed without eating then he should be able to do that without interference. He could still fall against his mattress and conk out, but Gabe’s going to come up and check on him in a few minutes.

Make sure Pete hasn’t crept out his bedroom window and gone back to the office.

Like Pete would even think about doing that. His internet connection is as secure as his office lines are. All he has to do is pop into his home office to access work files and he’s set. That is, if Urie doesn’t get ahold of his set-up and fuck with it.

It doesn’t take long to climb out of his suit, place it back on the hanger where it lives, and slip into a pair of worn, navy sweats and a threadbare tee that might or might not have been Patricks once upon a time, in an apartment many miles away. Patrick hasn’t bitched yet about Pete having his old university orientation shirt so he must not mind the appropriation of his clothing.

At least, not in this instance.

They’re still engaged in trench warfare over a faded Elvis Costello shirt that Patrick swears Pete ripped a hole through the sleeve of, on purpose, to claim it ratty enough that Patrick wasn’t allowed to wear it anymore. But it was still acceptable for Pete to borrow on the weekend when volunteering at the animal shelter.

Which isn’t the truth, not at all. Pete didn’t rip the sleeve. One of the adorable, little puppies did and well, okay, Pete did take advantage of that, but who would blame him?

Sadly, that shirt isn’t in his closet right now. It’s sitting in one of Patrick’s dresser drawers. Pete knows because he hunted for the damn thing last weekend. Hell, he fucking spent the better part of the morning searching for it because he had it last and wanted to wear it.

Apparently, Patrick stole it back - along with Pete’s stash of junk food - before he left.

Pete scrubs at his jaw before rearranging his wallet and cell phone on the nightstand. After that, he straightens the blankets for something to do. He resolutely does not stare at the side of the bed Patrick takes.

They graduated from Patrick using the guest room for his visits a year after Pete’s divorce went through. That still doesn’t mean they’re anything more than friends, no matter what Pete sometimes wishes. That’s fine though, he’s okay with just being besties who occasionally fuck or share the same bed when they sleep because that’s all Patrick wants.

Well, there’s that and the Department rules. Pete wouldn’t want to jeopardize his position if Head Coordinator Owens suspected more than what already occurs naturally. There’s no fucking telling what would happen to his people if he got canned.

He can’t risk it.

Gabe and Travis, even Joe and Andy, think it’s a stupid reason, but whatever. It doesn’t matter, especially not now when Patrick’s been gone far too long without a single email, text, call , or fucking smoke signal. Pete should get used to being alone.

He doesn’t want to.

Suddenly, there’s the sharp sound of beeping, still loud despite being muffled by his leather case. Pete crosses the room so he can bend to fish his emergency cell from his briefcase. He carries it for special situations where work needs him and the line has to be secure and a land line isn’t advisable.

“Wentz speaking.” Pete’s tired as fuck, however, his voice comes out solid. Commanding.

He leans against his dresser, staring at the back of his closed bedroom door when the caller I.D. shows that the call isn’t from Intel itself. That means he’s getting a call from out in the field.

For one beautiful second, Pete lets himself hope it’s Patrick. But the second passes when Travis’ voice comes over the line. He was mid-curse when Pete answered. So it takes of moment for him to redirect what he was going to say.

Pete doesn’t give him a chance. “Agent McCoy, is your location secure? Do you need extraction?”

Travie sighs, hard. The sound hurts to hear. Fuck, Pete doesn’t want to know this. Whatever it is, it’s bad.

“Not yet. We have ... there's ... fuck, Pete, are you sitting down?"

Not Director Wentz, Pete. Fuck, yeah, this is not good.

“Give me a moment.”

Pete pushes away from the side of the dresser and goes to perch on the foot of his bed. He’s not thinking about how he’s technically sitting on Patrick’s side until he is. It’s all he can think about when he says “Okay. What news do you have?”

"Patrick's cover got blown or something. I'm not clear on the details. But he was grabbed by some weapons runners. Mostly low level from the intel I found, but they had a few higher ups with them. Or, at least, it looks like they took him to them. I tracked down the holding location."

Travie’s stalling. Pete’s used to his tells as well as he is Gabe’s and everyone else he’s known for years. Where Gabe has problems with negative emotions, Travis doesn’t like when missions turn into crime scenes or bloodbaths. He’ll get invested in the details of the scene, but he won’t connect with the humanity of the situation.

It’s protection against breaking down at the sight of how cruel people can be to each other. That’s why Pete started splitting Travie and Gabe up more and more until they weren’t running together. Gabe has a habit of attracting that bad type of attention and Travis can ride it out until the end, but he cracks after.

Pete takes a breath and examines his left hand. There’s a patch of ink streaking across his ring finger like an ashen shadow marker of what isn’t.

“I repeat: Agent McCoy, is your location secure and do you need extraction?”

Pete doesn’t ask what aren’t you telling me because Travie will, he just needs a moment.

"No, I'm fine. I'm just covering my bases. I'm in Patrick's room. I swept it. I'm clean, but I'm not risking it."

There’s a long pause where Pete licks his ring finger and proceeds to wipe the ink stain off. It only smudges more.

“I tracked them to the shitty as fuck building they were holding him in. It's charred beyond recognition. It went up like kindling, it looks." Travie slips into cursing, and Pete curls fingers into the material of his sweat pants.

"Any traces of movement from the rubble? What is our contact in local law enforcement saying?"

Sometimes, Pete wonders if he’s only capable of being the Director instead of human. He’s already mentally ticking off the things he would need to do before joining Hollows in Intel. Something like this needs follow-up and paperwork.

"Pete ... I'm fucking sorry. The building’s still smouldering. The local PD took out bodies and other evidence. They’re confident no one survived, saying the place was set to blow to cover tracks but that whoever did it didn’t make it out. I was able to nick Lola and her evidence bag. You’re going to have to account for that.”

Pete nods automatically. He’ll answer any questions or concerns when they come across his desk, including that one.

“Pete … It ... I was hoping he lit it up on his way out. I would have. But … it doesn't. Fuck. I'm 97% sure he didn't make it. Local PD’s running dental records. That’ll take time."

They won’t find Patrick unless they access the Department’s records to cross reference. Pete won’t authorize that. He wouldn’t even if it was to identify his own corpse.

“Get copies of whatever the police will allow. Let them know I’ll vouch for the missing knife.” Pete has to pause to take a calming breath that doesn’t help. “Make sure you’re 100% sure, then pack up, call Intel for extraction details, and come back home.”

Travis sort of sighs. "I ... yeah. That's the plan. I'm following one more lead." Which means Travie’s eliminating anyone connected to the scene that he can find without actively coming out and saying what he’s doing. "You want me to call the higher ups or we keeping it level until it's completely definite?"

That’s the question. Isn’t it?

“Level until further notice. Keep me notified and watch your six. If you need help or early extraction, call." Pete doesn’t know when he stood but suddenly his view of the door isn’t at the same angle as it was a few minutes before.

“Will do." Travis starts to hang up only to pause. "Pete … man, I'm sorry. I hope I'm wrong but. Doesn't look good. I'll call if anything changes."

Pete actually wishes Travis hadn’t paused. He doesn’t need this. He wants to be left alone. However, he can’t do that. Yet. He’s got to keep his game face on until Travis hangs up.

He gathers every emotional resource he has to be reassuring. "It's okay. Play everything by the book, and I'll see you in a few days."

If only that was the truth. It’s not. And it never will be anymore. Somewhere dark and shadowy, Pete knew this day would come. The day he’d pay for sending Patrick out to do the things no one else could.

No one’s invincible. Not even Patrick.

“Sure thing, boss. McCoy out.” Travie’s voice is wrung out as the line goes dead.

Pete’s not aware of throwing his emergency phone at the closed door until it cracks into several pieces and thumps to the carpet. A second after, he drops back to the mattress and cradles his head in his hands.

Patrick’s dead.

Dead.

The word parades behind Pete’s closed eyelids as his bedroom door creaks open. He doesn’t have to look up to know Gabe had his service weapon drawn until he noticed the phone bits at his feet. When Pete does open his eyes, the world is blurry in a dry way. He’s not crying, but somehow his vision seems to think he should be.

Gabe kicks the cell phone pieces out into the hall. Pete catches a glimpse of Brendon bending to pick up the display screen when Gabe closes the door and leans against it.

“I’m not hungry. Thanks.” Pete beats Gabe to the punch.

“Food is here, but that’s not what I was going to say.” Gabe eyes Pete critically. “Your phone get offensive there for a minute?"

Pete chuckles darkly to himself. “Something like that.” Then he stands again. He can’t do this. “I can’t do this.”

Gabe arches a confused eyebrow. “Can’t do what?”

Another good question. What is it Pete can’t do? He can’t resign because the Department needs him. He can’t sleep because Patrick’s not here. He can’t … he can’t handle a world without Patrick in it.

Or maybe he just doesn’t want to. Does that make him selfish?

“Travis called.” It’s a bald statement. No emotions attached to the letters.

Gabe folds his arms across his chest before dropping them. “And?”

Pete goes to his dresser. He has jeans in the third drawer. He needs out. It doesn’t matter that he’s exhausted and the world tilts if he moves too fast; he can’t stay in this room.

His back’s turned to Gabe when he finally says anything. “Best case scenario is a 3% chance that what happened ended with Patrick slipping out." He closes the dresser drawer after snagging a pair of jeans with more holes than actual fabric. Then he moves around to go to the closet.

While he’s thinking about it he should pick out what suit he should wear soon. “Do you think his mother would prefer a house call or the standard condolence letter?"

Not that Pete would be that cruel to only send a stupid fucking letter. No, he’s going to book plane tickets and personally show up at Patrick’s mother’s house. That’s the least he can do.

Gabe freezes. “It's Patrick's mom. She'd want to see you. That's not even a question."

Pete stiffens when he sees a pair of Patrick’s beat-up trainers wedged into the corner of his closet. He grabs them and drags them out before dropping them on the floor so he can go back for the other things of Patrick’s he sees.

“What are you doing?” From Gabe, the question sounds mild. Not accusing at all. If Patrick was saying that same thing his words would be dripping in surly contempt. But then, he’d know what Pete was thinking.

Patrick’s always been good at knowing what Pete thinks before he does.

Pete doesn’t know. He looks down at the collection of shirts, shoes, pants, even a few belts, and realizes half the shit he’s pulled out isn’t even stuff Patrick left here. They’re Pete’s own clothing. However, there are just too many things of Pete’s with Patrick woven into them for a distinction to exist.

“I’m thinking. Maybe a bonfire out back. The neighbors won’t call the fire department.”

It’s a crazy idea. Pete doesn’t care.

Gabe pushes off the door. “Yes, they will. Come on. We’re going to my place. You can probably wear Frank's shit; he has some things laying around. You're basically built the same."

Pete shakes his head and wades through the pile to get to the bed. He slides out of the sweat pants and pulls on his jeans. When he goes to stretch across the mattress for his wallet - because a bar sounds like a good idea - Patrick’s pillow blocks his forward advance. He barely grazes the green pillowcase before recoiling and falling off the bed.

Everything is too much. The world’s still moving on fast forward while he’s stuck on pause.

The eyeholes of Patrick’s black belt eye Pete accusingly. This is his fault. Even Patrick’s accessories know the nasty truth.

Pete reaches into the pile at his feet for one of his own shirts. It’s charcoal, one of Pete’s favorite suit shirts, one Patrick used to straighten the collar of because he liked it. It takes a few tries, but eventually, he’s able to tear a long rip in the fabric.

Gabe strides forward and drops to his knees on the other side of the pile when Pete does the same to another shirt, this one a cream business shirt Patrick used to complain about.

“Hey. Hey. Stop.”

Pete shakes his head but relinquishes his hold on the shirt. “There's nothing to stop. A barbeque would be more fitting. If I could let go, but we know that isn't going to happen."

Gabe drops the shirt and moves around until he can sit next to Pete, leaning against the side of the bed for support. “Pete, I'm sorry, but ... I'm not gonna placate you. It's Patrick. You're never going to be able to let go.”

Isn’t that the truth.

Pete laughs, but it's this jagged thing. “I could burn this whole place down, and he'd still be the shadow that never leaves."

Not that Pete wants Patrick, even his shadow, to leave him alone. He’d never want that.

"You can't burn that kind of thing out." Gabe’s speaking only truths tonight. Pete doesn’t know how he feels about this.

He should be apologizing to Gabe for taking his friend away. Patrick and Gabe go way back. Just like they all do with Pete. However, he can’t.

Pete feels hollow and empty. All the color drained from his world. He wonders if this is how black and white movie characters felt. “How long do you think it takes for a person to be haunted before they lose it completely?”

Not that Pete cares to hear the answer. He fancies it doesn’t matter. But Gabe’s been full of the cruel truths tonight. Maybe he has one more left in him.

"I imagine it depends if the person embraces it or fights against it." Gabe sounds just as hollow.

There’s nothing Pete can do about it.

He turns so he can see Gabe’s profile instead of the pile of clothing in front of them. “What would you choose?”

It’s another valid question. Gabe’s got people to fight for. People to die for. In fact, Pete would wager they’re sitting right outside the bedroom door listening in on everything while Urie tries to fix Pete’s shattered phone.

Gabe sighs and looks at one of Patrick’s trainers sticking up in the pile. “I'd take anything I could get. Hearing voices in my head might fight the empty a little. It would make the descent into madness faster. But maybe it’d be a happier fall."

And … maybe Pete wasn’t ready to hear that. Logically, he knows Gabe’s telling him something important. Something to remember, especially with what he and his guys do. But Pete can’t be that person right now.

He’s weak - shattered - and he can’t hold Gabe up when it feels as if his own chest is going to cave in with every exhale.

Gabe squeezes his shoulder and changes gears altogether. “What do you need from me right now?"

Short of Patrick standing in his door apologizing for being off-grid for so long. There’s nothing anyone can do.

Pete shakes his head, curling his hands into the stretched hemline of Patrick’s old shirt. “I’ll let you know if that voice thing kicks in.”

Gabe’s hand drops from Pete’s shoulder and he pats at Pete’s knee before withdrawing. “I don’t expect it ever takes long.”

After a breath, he continues on. “There’s still a 3% chance.”

Pete wants to be cruel. He wants to yell and scream and throw things because three percent is nothing. It’s like saying a few crumbs in an empty cracker pack constitutes all the crackers still being there.

It’s a false kindness that he doesn’t want. “We both know that’s wishful thinking.”

Gabe knocks his knee against Pete’s. “A little wishful thinking’s never hurt anyone.”

That’s his first lie of the night. Maybe it’s good Gabe’s getting back to himself. Pete finds that doesn’t factor into anything.

“Not true.”

Because when in doubt point out the obvious.

“A little wishful thinking until a confirmation isn’t too dangerous.” Gabe’s trying to help Pete see a silvering-lining that doesn’t exist.

“Until months pass and I keep his file open because that measly three percent is haunting me into not giving his family closure.” Pete sounds bitter; he knows he does.

Gabe takes a long breath and lets it out in a sigh. “I’m not saying hold onto hope forever. I'm saying wait for Travis to come home before you fall apart."

Easier said than done.

“Would you do that?” Because Gabe wouldn’t have said shit like that if he didn’t want Pete to follow-up.

Gabe shrugs. "Honestly? Until I saw a body myself, I'd hang on to one percent or less. I'd hang on to any chance I had to have either of them back because the alternative is shit and self-destruction."

Once again, Pete has that eerie feeling that he’s being handed something fragile. Something important. Instead of examining it like he should, he files it away for some other time.

“I’m going to remember that for later.” Pete leans forward and snags Patrick’s trainers. They don’t fit the same as his own sneakers, but Pete can and does cram his feet in regardless. He’ll deal with the blisters and pain after. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve it anyway.

A little discomfort is nothing compared to being dead. So, it’s only a small price to pay.

"I can't fool myself. False hope is just that. False." He’s tying the laces while Gabe periodically glances over. “I’m going for a walk. Alone.” Pete needs air, and maybe after he completely exhausts himself, he can eat a little on automatic before passing out without caring that Patrick’s side of the bed will forever be empty.

Gabe stands when Pete does.

“Okay. You can't fool yourself. So you should probably stop fooling yourself into thinking I'm leaving you alone any time in the near future. Where you go, I now go. And I usually come with two shadows about your height. You … really can't be alone right now.”

Pete wants to tug his hair out. Or crawl into his closet and lock the handle from the inside. He gets what Gabe’s doing. On some level he might even appreciate it, but Pete just wants to be alone.

“I'd rather just not be right now. I'm going for a walk because I know you won't let me on the roof. Having a trio of watch dogs defeats the purpose.” Not that Pete’s suicidal. He has too many projects left unfinished at the office to take a swan dive. He’s tethered to being when he wants to not exist for a while.

Gabe nods. His voice is a whisper when he tries to barter. “You want me to send Frank with you? He's good at the quiet.”

It’s the closest to alone Pete’s going to get.

“We’ll be back in an hour.”

There’s something about the wary looks people always send anyone on the street with some manner of injury. Patrick’s not complaining. Normally, he can easily blend into a crowd, but the limping makes that difficult. His crutch is cumbersome, and his leg slows his already delayed progress. The cautious passersby, however, pair the cagey glances with a wide berth that doesn't add additional impediment.

Small miracle when considering how unreasonably difficult every shuffled step feels.

Victoria’s friends were probably right; Patrick should have stayed horizontal for another day or two. Unfortunately, Patrick has no intention of doing anything horizontal unless it involves being pressed close to Pete in the dark.

He shakes himself and focuses on where he is - only a few streets away from the hotel. He could have taken a taxi, given Joe a call, anything that would have made this process a little less awful. But he's already taken too much from Victoria - time, weapons, money, a tiny bit of her reputation - to add getting her phones tracked, especially since he isn't sure writing her officially out of existence actually squares their debt.

It's going to have to, though, because Patrick plans on asking Pete to keep him in Central and South America for a while. The cartels have always been easier targets for him anyway, and Reuss tends to have the same visceral reaction toward those that Patrick has for the human traffickers.

Patrick rounds the last corner and catches his crutch - a wooden monstrosity he is pretty sure was stolen from the damaged bin behind a medical supply shop - in a crack he'd missed while staring up and searching the store fronts for the emblazoned hotel sign. His balance is thrown off - it keeps happening entirely too often for Patrick's tastes - and his shoulder slams into to building he's been periodically using to maintain his footing. The bricks scratch across his skin, scraping a rough pattern that is stark against slowly fading bruises.

Keeping his breaths slow and measured, Patrick works through the pain the way he always does: by focusing on anything that provides even the most remote distraction. It's easier than it should be since Travis, of all people, slips out of the alley by the hotel at that exact moment.

It makes literally no sense until Patrick manages the pain enough to connect the dots.

Pete's called in the cavalry. And he went big this time. When Patrick realized he'd been gone longer than expected, he knew a team would be sent in, but there was no reason to expect anyone other than the S&R boyfriends. Why in the hell? What did Pete actually think happened?

This whole situation keeps getting worse. Who knows what Pete has going through his head, and that's never a good thing. For all the control he has as a director, Pete still has overreaction triggers.

Namely: Patrick.

He is cursing under his breath when Travis disappears before Patrick can get his attention. That's probably for the best. Maybe Patrick can get a nap in before all hell breaks loose.

By the time he's hobbled through the hotel, garnering more than his fair share of confused and dirty looks, he's ready to drop. The elevator takes approximately a decade to reach the floor where his room - presumably the one Travis is using - is situated. The hallway is akin to a marathon track. Popping the small, pin device into the hidden emergency release under the card reader takes more energy than Patrick thinks he has left.

Not collapsing the second he clears the doorway is, honestly, a shock.

The door locks automatically, but Patrick doesn't throw the chain latch. Instead, he takes stock of where Travis' bags have taken up residence - under the low-hanging duvet at the foot of the bed - and where his own have been moved to - the space between the closet door and the dresser.

If Travis messed with Patrick's very particular packing system, there will be hell to pay.

He'll worry about that later. Right now, falling into the chair in the dark corner between the curtains and bedside table is far more appealing. Patrick sighs as he sinks into the seat and props his crutch against the table. He doesn't bother with the lamp or overhead lights. He won't sleep long anyway, he never can when he's in pain. Save when Victoria and her friends had him taking some type of smuggled narcotics that made everything cotton-fuzzy and numb.

Patrick snorts, amused that Victoria managed something at which doctors have been largely failing since he accepted an agent position. It's mindless and entertaining to picture her as a nurse with a terrible bedside manner. It's calming enough that he doesn't realize he's asleep until he's being jarred awake by the quiet scrape of a card being swiped and the doorhandle turning.

He only has seconds to shake the indistinct dreams from his head and take stock of his injuries before a tall shadow freezes only steps into the room and the door clicks back into place.

Travis’ rigid, fight-ready stance slips moments later. It took surprisingly little time for him to work through that he wasn’t followed, no traps were set, and someone hadn’t been lying in wait to get an actual jump on him. Patrick is grudgingly impressed.

“You stayed hidden for a good long while,” Travis tells him with forced flippancy.

“More like I passed out for a day and a half. It’s not actually the same thing.” The timeframe sounds about right, but Patrick still isn’t clear on dates, hours, and days. Annoyance bleeds into his tone from his growing understanding that he’s missed something, a big something.

“You missed check-in.” Travis points out like Patrick didn’t already know.

"I'll be honest right now, I'm not actually sure what day it is. I lost some time a while ago." Patrick leans over - ignoring the way his muscles protest the sudden position shift - to flip on the lamp. “How long has it been?”

“Damn. You look rough.” Travis whistles low. He continues when Patrick only graces him with a half-hearted glare. “Officially, ten days. Unofficially, we’ve known for twelve. From what I dug up, it’s been an even two weeks.”

“That explains a lot,” Patrick whispers while he tries to piece things together. It had been longer than he’d have liked, but he had no idea it had been weeks. His throat starts to close up with second-hand fear.

Pete must be a wreck. An utter disaster. A total Gabe-level, hot mess. This is the longest Patrick’s ever been gone, not without a warning about being off-grid for a predetermined amount of time. There are always emails and text messages, the occasional phone call even though they try to avoid those so they don’t sit quietly and breathe with each other for three hours.

Patrick really dropped the ball on this one, and Pete paid the price. Pete always pays the price. Everything he sends Patrick to do and the things Patrick takes on even when he’s in over his head takes a toll on Pete. He’s the one person who has to keep his head in every disastrous situation without thinking about himself. But it’s okay. It’s always okay because Patrick is supposed to be there to remind Pete that he’s an individual outside of his responsibilities.

Except. This time Patrick wasn’t there.

Blinking several times in rapid succession, Patrick looks up to find Travis’ face. He wants to ask a million questions about Pete, starting with what intel he has and ending with who has been taking care of him in Patrick’s stead because they owe that person a fruit basket bigger than Pete’s last bonus check.

Travis is already moving though, pulling his own bag away from the bed and digging through a side pocket. He comes up with an evidence bag that he passes to Patrick before sitting on the side of the rigid mattress. “Thought you might want her back.”

“Lola.” Patrick tries to hide the slow curve of his lips but gives up as soon as he catalogues the way the light glints off the blade. He holds the hilt through the plastic and yanks the bag back until Lola’s free and he can turn her irreverently in his hands.

“She’s a special girl. Couldn’t leave her behind in the ashes or with the Italians, could we?” Travis grins, but it doesn’t reach the worry lines dulling his eyes. He keeps reaching out as if Patrick’s going to drop any second.

Suddenly, Patrick realizes he’s getting ahead of himself. The unspoken rule of his relationship - or the relative facsimile of one - with Pete is that the job has to come first or they’ll make the world crumble and bury everyone in their immediate vicinity under rubble.

Carefully setting Lola on the table, Patrick uses the surface to force himself to his feet. The evidence bag falls to the floor and nearly trips him up when he takes an agonizing step.

“Fuck.” He tries to distract himself by focusing on official matters, the reportable details. “How long have you been here? Fill me in.”

While he doesn’t stand, Travis leans forward with his arms extended in something like an aborted lurch. "We should find you a doctor first."

“I’m fine,” Patrick dismisses him. “I’ve made it this far, and I’m not bleeding out.” Explaining that he saw an off-the-books medic can wait for when they’re stuck in a hospital for an age filled with miscellaneous tests and treatments.

“If you must know, it’s been … a few days.”

“A few days,” Patrick repeats over the sound of Travis sighing and settling in for what he knows comes next. Now that Patrick’s not trying to move more than necessary, he can get more fully into the agent zone - copyright Pete Wentz circa Operation: Recruit Patrick. “How much did you find? What’s your report look like? How much did I leave behind me?”

Predictably, Travis picks a question seemingly - but never actually - at random. "I didn't find much of anything to think you were alive. You're working on 5 of 9 now, apparently."

The wording hits like brass-knuckles. If they’re talking about how many lives Patrick has left, Travis must think he’s one down. Which would be in his report. Dammit, Travis is always so damn precise and knows exactly how important words are in their line of work.

Patrick’s blood runs cold, something chilling rushing through him so quickly he nearly sways. Any propriety he had left evaporates into nothing more than a misty memory. “Travie. Travie, does Pete think I’m dead?”

Travis stares at Patrick’s battered dress boots but doesn’t otherwise react to the dangerous tone. “Nothing’s official yet. Looks like it’s not going to be.”

Entire body going rigid, Patrick tries to breathe through the pain and anxiety racing through his nervous system. He knows what that kind of double-talk means, especially from Travis. If Patrick's wrong - he knows he isn't - this is about to be thirty times worse than anything he allowed himself to imagine.

"Clearly. Not axed, not official. Did you tell Pete I'm dead?"

Travis is quiet, guilt implied through his silence. Patrick growls under his breath and forces his right leg to move in ways the rudimentary splint doesn’t allow. The crutch fell at some point and getting it seems like it would add minutes Patrick can't waste after all the time he’s already lost.

There's an urgency in his veins, a fear that would be paralyzing if Patrick wasn't so used to fighting back immobilizing emotions. He hobbles through it, fights his way to his own bag. There should be an emergency phone somewhere in the pockets; they're all too well-trained to risk a call from a too easily traceable hotel line.

"He knows there was a three-percent chance everything would work out." It's too relieved to be defensive. There's a forced composure to Travis' voice that Patrick has only heard once - when Gabe nearly got himself eighty-sixed and somehow managed to survive the night and parlay admin leave into a new S&R unit. It does nothing to alleviate the dread that's worked it's way into Patrick's throat.

"For future reference," Patrick forces out through gritted teeth, "unless you have a body, dental records, and a DNA match, you do not tell Pete that I am dead. Are we clear?"

It's irrational, but he still wants to punch Travis in his face. Several times. Protocols exist for a reason, and Travis is still here. Meaning, Pete broke every new regulation that he personally established to send an agent instead of his S&R team and prolonged everything for the sake of a pipedream that Patrick made it.

Good thing Patrick is the leading expert on making Pete's more unrealistic dreams come true.

Patrick stumbles as he fights with his dufflebag; Travis slides over to wrap an arm around his shoulders.

"Understood. Now, will you sit the fuck down before I have to call Pete with news that I found you, but you somehow broke your own neck?" Travis is almost back to his usual easy-going levity; Patrick would smile if he wasn't so frantic.

He lets Travis more or less drag him to the bed, unceremoniously dumping him onto it. Other than a wheezing breath, Patrick doesn't complain. Travis and Gabe have always known Pete was the only one who can get away with coddling Patrick, even if he puts up the token protests and swears vengeance when Pete gets extra clingy after calls only half this close.

"Give me your cell." The words are choppy, but Travis must still hear the intent.

Within seconds, there's a black smartphone resting heavily in Patrick's palm. Reaching around, Travis lights the screen and punches in his passcode. Patrick doesn't bother with weeding through contacts listed under aliases Gabe and Travis created about half an hour after becoming partners. Instead, Patrick brings up the phone keypad and taps out the first number that comes to mind.

It doesn't occur to him that he's called Pete's home landline until the ringing stops.

The call finally connects after three rings that seem to echo like church bells, but there’s nothing on the other end. There’s silence like that of a recorded telemarketing call trying to sell mundane things no one actually needs. It’s unnerving and makes Patrick tense, which makes him wince and bite back a tiny sound of discomfort.

His heart is pounding in his ears loud enough to nearly drown out his own voice saying, “Hello?” He’s rewarded with more silence, only it’s less empty than expected. A tiny disturbance drifts through the line, and Patrick barely catches it.

There’s a hitch, though, a very familiar one.

“Pete?”

The faint breathing disappears, replaced by a crash and clatter. Interference. Something - one more thing in an ever expanding list - standing between Patrick and Pete. Voice frantic, Patrick says Pete’s name again, then a third time. Random scraping keeps happening, and Patrick’s so worried he can’t hardly stand himself.

He may or may not be shaking when everything stops.

There’s suddenly a heaviness on the line. He can never make sense out of it, but this always happens when he hasn’t spoken to Pete in too long, when Patrick hasn’t been able to connect with him. It’s always the type of tension Pete would say could be cut, the kind that suffocates if you don’t break it. Patrick wracks his brain for anything to say, anything that might alleviate some of the fear and discomfort.

He needs something that is so routinely normal that the atmosphere snaps clean across the globe.

“Pete? Are you there? Stupid international bullshit. Pete?” When Patrick hears a shuddery breath, he releases one of his own.

“Don’t make me drop your full name.” It’s an idle but common threat that almost always makes Pete spill his guts.

It has the intended effect. “Patrick?” Pete’s voice is soft and thready, breaking Patrick’s name into too many syllables.

But it’s such a comfort, sliding over Patrick in a way that makes everything a little fuzzy. It’s better than the best black market meds money, weapons, and intel can buy.

“Yeah. Hey. Hi. It’s … It’s good to hear your voice.” He’ll deny his own shuddery intonation. Keep it secret from everyone not involved. Take it to the grave.

But he’s so relieved.

Pete’s okay. He might be worse for the wear, and everything might hurt. Patrick may have finally broken what few pieces Pete had left, but at least Patrick made it back to reassemble everything with tape and cheap glue. Which he’ll do. Always. Until the very end.

They’re destructive. But they haven’t known how to be anything else in so long that Patrick wouldn’t know where to start if he wanted to. Which he doesn’t.

He’s never going to stop putting Pete back together, even when Patrick’s the one that tears him apart.

There’s sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window. It makes Pete clench his eyes shut once more before blinking a few times. This can’t be real. He’s either dreaming or Patrick’s voice has already actively decided to show up for the imaginary wake that’s, apparently, happening under the kitchen table.

Pete just knows his knuckles are bone-white from how tightly he’s clutching the cordless. He doesn’t want a repeat of his fumble-fingers. Hallucination or not, he’s going to ride this out until the bitter end.

Patrick’s voice is better than no Patrick at all.

The hard plastic of the phone is already warm to the touch; it’s slightly distracting. Which makes sense, dimly. What with how close Pete has the damn phone to his ear and cheek.

Fuck, it’s his fucking cordless! The house phone is never used for work or mission ops. The line is as secure as cooked angel hair pasta slipping through the holes of a colander.

Patrick doesn’t do dumb-ass shit like this unless he’s forced into a corner or at the end of his rope.

That thought should ground Pete in reality. It doesn’t. How can it? He’s spent the weekend in a haze of awake, barely-awake, not-awake, shouldn’t-be-awake-but-is-anyway, and awake-but-not-interacting-with-anything other than clinging to Patrick’s pillow.

"I fucking hope I'm not dreaming this." Pete knows his voice comes out brittle and low. He can’t help it. He feels exposed, skin stretched thin over his skeleton, even though he’s basically shielded by his table and the three chairs still ringing the legs - the ones he didn’t scramble against when he went diving for his phone after dropping it like a fucking rookie on their first day.

"You're not. I'd hope if you're dreaming about me, it's better than a phone call." Patrick’s laughter isn’t anything more than a huffy breath. He only sounds like that when he’s in pain.

Maybe this isn’t a hallucination.

Pete pulls a leg closer to his chest and rests his left cheek against his knee. He wants this to be real for a little longer because he’s never lucky enough to have the one thing he wants the most.

He’s quiet. Listening to the other end of the line. Imagining Patrick hurt but alive - very much alive - when Patrick’s voice breaks through his zoning.

“Hey, just breathe with me for a minute, okay?”

Pete didn’t know his breathing had unconsciously sped up until Patrick pointed it out. He nods against his knee without caring that Patrick can’t see his answer. If this is in his head then it won’t matter in the long run.

It takes a few minutes of listening to the barely there sound of Patrick trying his best to keep his breath from catching if he silently shifts before Pete finds himself mellowing some.

“Are you okay?” Patrick sounds genuinely worried.

Pete really doesn’t want this to be another dream. “I’d be better if this isn’t false hope. Last dream was of breakfast pancakes but when I woke -” Pete shakes his head and does his best to block out the fact that he’s no longer alone in the kitchen.

“You can’t be a hallucination. Please, don’t be a hallucination.” Because what if Pete’s mind is playing cruel, nasty tricks on him?

Someone sits down in the floor at the other end of the table. Pete doesn’t know who it is. He doesn’t care that he’s being asked if he’s okay by one voice as another inquires on who he’s talking to.

Pete doesn’t look behind him, just thrusts the phone away from his ear and toward whomever’s sitting closest. He doesn’t want to, and it’s one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

But he has to know. He needs outside confirmation.

“Just tell me if I’m crazy or not. That is Patrick, right?” His voice is wet. Pete doesn’t wipe at his cheeks to see if he’s actually crying or just choking up from too many emotions bouncing around in his head.

The seconds tick by, slowly. Pete longs for his phone back. He shouldn’t have handed it away. What does it matter if he’s crazy?

He can still be Director. He’ll find a way to work around his Patrick obsession. He has before.

A hand nudges the side of his shoulder as his phone’s slipped back into his hand. “You’re not fucking bonkers, yet. The Stumpster’s pissed you handed him off. Say you’re sorry. Kiss and make up.”

Pete laughs, a bit brokenly. He scrubs at his face. He’s not sure what he’s more not surprised about: that Frank’s the one sitting watch closest or that he’s not treating Pete any differently than he always does.

“Sorry. I just …” Pete drops his voice. He sounds childish and lost.

Patrick cuts him off before he can say anything else. “Hey.” His voice is sharp. “None of that. Listen to my voice. I'm not dead. Travis was wrong. I got an assist, and I got out. I'm banged up but ... it's not false hope. I promise, okay? I promise.” The sharpness tailspins into something almost desperate.

“Iero wouldn’t lie to you. If he says I’m alive ...”

Then Patrick’s alive.

Pete deeply sighs, and it feels like he’s going to collapse. Not from the weight of the world bearing down on him but from the enormity of the relief that’s crashing like a wave. He should feel bad about not trusting Patrick enough to take his word on this. It’s just that Pete doesn’t always trust himself when it comes to Patrick, not the other way around.

“I’m sor-”

Patrick interrupts him again. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry I scared you and Travis got it wrong.”

Pete shakes his head. He doesn’t blame Patrick. Maybe that’s why his voice is solid when he admits the truth. “Not your fault.”

If it is, that’s no one else’s business, and Pete’s fine with never blaming Patrick. Not that the solidness keeps the self-loathing out. This is Pete, after all. It’s his fault Patrick was even put in this situation.

And Heaven help him, but he’ll do it again. Hopefully, safer next time. Pete can’t ground their best agent. Patrick belongs out in the field; it’s his natural habitat. He’s not meant to be caged in by walls, not until he’s older and calculated risks are no longer just that.

Patrick sighs. “It’s a little bit my fault. I lost too much time. I would have called when we broke out if I knew I’d been gone so long.”

Pete straightens the best he can under the table, which means not much. He’s shaking his head before he realizes he’s even doing it. He still doesn’t blame Patrick for this.

“Do you need assistance?”

Because Pete’s good at being Director. He can do this. No one’s going to call him on the weakness of his boss voice. Which is good.

Patrick’s quiet for a few beats, assessing the situation. Always the best at what he does. “No. Travis is getting a look, though. He's minutes away from dragging me to a licensed doctor. But I'm fine. I’ve already seen a medical professional.” He’s quick to add, “Everything’s under control.”

Pete nods and slumps into himself again. His cheek’s back to resting against his knee. “Good. Good. Do you know how long you need before extraction?”

“Can't say. If it was up to me, about an hour ago. It'd be nice to walk right, though, so it might be a few days.” There’s a mutter of doctors under Patrick’s breath loud enough that Pete can catch it.

He’s never been a fan of Medical, even though he knows physicals, regular check-ups, and emergency medicine are necessary. Pete can relate; he’s the same way.

Pete sighs. “I’ll start on the paperwork later today and let Intel know to be expecting a check-in from both of you. Hollows will be happy to hear your voice.”

“Of course she will. Who else tells her the firm truth when she asks?”

Heather’s a personal fan of Patrick’s because he doesn’t sugar-coat situations or inflate an incident like most of the agents are wont to do for whatever reason. He’s always told her straight-up what’s happening and what’s needed, if he’s patching-in for assistance or just dropping in for a normal check-in call.

Before Pete can say anything, Patrick continues talking, not even missing a beat. God, Pete’s missed him so damn much.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, yeah? I'll get fixed up and be home in two days.”

Pete nods against his knee before stretching his legs out. "I'll hold you to that. Everything will be set for you when you two are ready."

It’s the least Pete can do.

“I know.”

The surety of the statement is weighty. Pete finds himself buoyed by those two little words.

He just wants to stay on the phone for hours, like this - screw international rates. If Patrick’s using one of his safety phones, he could talk from anywhere patched into the U.S.A. without the bill being anything extra.

But like all things - good and bad - nothing can last forever.

“So, Travie is older-brother-brow-raising me the best he can. He might break something if he doesn’t get the chance to drag me to x-rays in the next five minutes.” Patrick sounds long-suffering with a touch of irritated but drops both when he asks, “Are you going to be okay?”

That’s a stupid question.

Of course Pete’s going to be okay. Patrick’s alive, and Pete’s not hallucinating this shit. There’s no way he can’t be okay. If he stays under the table until he has to piss, however, that doesn’t have to matter. Patrick can get on him for pretending to be a child after Frank mentions it.

Not before.

“Okay’s relative.” Because Pete’s never known a way to lie to Patrick. “But I’m getting there.”

“I can work with that. I’ll call you later. Promise.”

Patrick can work with anything. There’s a reason he’s the best, after all.

Pete closes his eyes. Not because he’s sad or anything like that. He’s just tired, everything’s starting to really hit that Patrick’s officially not dead, and there’s still all these heavy emotions bouncing against the inside of Pete’s skull.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Be safe, Trick. Watch out for any stray bullets when crossing the road.”

There’s a little huffy breath. “I’m still the fastest dodge on this continent. We’re good. Take care of yourself.”

Pete smiles without meaning to. If anyone could have that superhuman ability, it would be Patrick.

“When don’t I?”

It’s a bad time for a joke. Pete doesn’t care. He says it anyway.

Patrick snorts. “Right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Pete knows he doesn’t miss the fondness in Patrick’s voice. It makes him feel warm when he’s been so fucking cold all weekend.

“See you soon, Pete. Tell the guys I say hi and thanks.

Pete looks down at the tiles in shadow slotted right next to the ones still bathed in sunlight. “Will do.”

Usually, this would be when they hang up, but Pete’s hard pressed to do that.

As always, Patrick’s the one to push the point. “Two hours, okay? I’ll call you back.”

Pete nods. “Whenever you want. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here. Go get checked out before Travie has a stroke.”

That earns Pete another huffy breath of almost-laughter. “Two hours.”

Then Patrick hangs up, and Pete’s left with nothing but dead air before he gets the dial tone. He’s not surprised.

They don’t do goodbyes; they never have. It’s better to always be stuck saying hear from you soon than implying that they might never see or hear each other again.

Pete sets his cordless next to his leg so he can pull out his cell that he slid it into his sweats pocket because it has wireless access that connects outside of the house. He can easily contact Hollows and get arrangements set up without having to leave the table.

Gabe and the guys can wait until he’s done for an explanation. Patrick and Travis are coming home soon. Someone has to officiate everything and start the paperwork.

It’s Pete’s job. So that’s what he’s going to do.

And maybe, maybe, he’ll actually sleep more soundly tonight after talking to Patrick again. It’ll be like a lullaby. Only better.

Everything takes longer when Patrick is trying to get home. Doctors need days to make sure he wasn’t in danger of dying. A random storm decides to sit over Paris for a week. At this point, Patrick’s almost expecting a meteor to take out the entire Eastern Seaboard just to spite him.

As it is, the private jet - a testament to just how much Patrick had well and truly terrified the highest level of upper-management - was only able to land twenty minutes ago. A comical eight hours behind schedule.

Patrick would laugh if he wasn’t so irritated by the amount of hassle he has to go through just getting out of the cab. He’s tempted to use his crutch to bust one of the taillights when the driver starts backing out nearly before Patrick’s bag is out of the trunk.

Injured or not, his reflexes are still top-notch, and he catches his crutch before it falls to the ground. That driver didn’t deserve the ridiculously high tip he received. Maybe Patrick will tell Pete about it, give him the cab’s license plate number and let Pete file a complaint and cause a scene.

Pete always likes doing that.

Smiling to himself, Patrick rearranges until he can hobble-swing his way up the driveway without collapsing in the dim light shining through the living room curtains. When a shadow briefly cuts through the glow, he rolls his eyes.

Of course Pete's awake. Nevermind that it's past one a.m. on a Friday morning, and they’re both due into the office somewhere around nine.

Patrick wants to be annoyed and put up a fuss, but he'd rather see Pete. Case in point, Patrick didn't bother redirecting when Travis poured him and his crutches into the backseat and gave the driver Pete's address. There hadn't been any reason to pretend he was going anywhere else.

Juggling his duffle while trying to navigate steps with crutches and a heavy, plaster cast is a veritable nightmare. He’d normally unlock the front door on his own, but it’s too much work. He leans the edge of his crutch against the doorbell and leaves it there, letting the cheerful bells trill incessantly until Pete gives up pretending Patrick’s lessons on stop coddling me to death, Jesus Christ, Pete have finally sunken in and opens the door.

“Are you trying to give me a migraine?” Pete has his Department Director face on but doesn’t have the tone to match.

“Are you wearing my shirt?” Patrick counters without missing a beat. It’s a torn, battered, worse-for-wear Elvis Costello t-shirt from somewhere Patrick can’t even remember anymore.

All he really knows is that he doesn’t like it half as much as he pretends. He only keeps up the act because he likes bantering with Pete. Besides, if Pete’s wearing it, he’s asking for banter.

It’s so good to see him that Patrick nearly sways. Things slot together when Pete is close enough to touch, near enough for Pete to see Patrick roll his eyes when Pete calls Patrick a clingy girlfriend in James Bond’s clothing.

“Yep,” Pete nods, completely unrepentant.

Patrick tries and fails not to grin like an idiot. “You went all the way to my apartment to get that, didn’t you?” When the only response is a shrug, Patrick snorts and shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah. You’re in no way creepy. Here, take this.”

Relieving the doorbell, Patrick leans the crutch against the siding and tries to hand-off his bag. He’s still clumsy, though, and not entirely accustomed to the pain of fabric accidentally scraping against his bare and healing nailbeds.

The duffle slips and hits the landing with a dull thud. Pete immediately swoops in to heft it into the house. He keeps a hand on the door, holds it fully open to accommodate Patrick’s hardware.

“I’m laid up for at least six weeks.” Once he starts ranting, Patrick doesn’t stop until he’s lowering himself to the center sofa cushion. He tosses his crutches over the back while Pete locks up.

He’s lost the duffle by the time he comes to sit on the coffee table across from Patrick. Leaning as far forward and to the left as possible without lifting his ass from his perch, Pete snags a throw pillow - one Patrick picked up when Pete thought his condo wasn’t homey enough after losing his dream house to Ashlee in the divorce. He sets it on the table beside his hip and gives Patrick one of the too-wide grins he’s been hiding.

“You’ll still be better at leave than Gabe.”

“Are you going to give me my own team, too?” Patrick laughs, but it sticks in his throat as Pete carefully places a hand under Patrick’s right knee and the other on his cast-covered calf.

Gently, Pete lifts Patrick’s leg to rest his foot on the table, propped atop the pillow. “Do you have a couple boyfriends who need a field gig?”

“Do Trohman and Asher count?”

“Asshole,” Pete smiles again. There’s something strained around the edges that Patrick can’t stand, though he expected it after going radio silent for more than three hours; it’s the longest they’ve been out of contact since Patrick blipped back onto the radar.

He uses his good leg to kick at Pete’s feet. “I’m sorry I took so long.”

Shrugging, Pete rubs at Patrick’s cast-free knee. “Not your fault.” Glancing up but failing to meet Patrick’s eyes, he shakes his head a few too many times. “You haven’t mastered weather control or teleporting yet. And you have to listen to the doctors if you want to get back to breaking faces and toppling crime organizations.”

“You make it sound like I’m single-handedly bringing down the mob.” Patrick’s voice is getting quieter, softer but more intent.

The tension is a palpable thing tugging and squeezing through the room and pressing against Patrick, pushing him to move. Making him crave contact and closeness.

It’s not just the tension. Reunions are always like this with Pete.

“You say that like you don’t think you could.” Gone is the semi-professional, Director-mask Pete so often hides behind.

This is … It’s just Pete. Overworked, worrisome, insufferably darling Pete. It’s the same guy that sat Patrick down a million years ago and talked him into giving up his M.A. in Music to follow along into the underbelly of the crime world and bring it down in tiny, strategic pieces. It’s the guy that rebuilt the Department and doesn’t take all the credit - even though he deserves it - and tries so hard not to play favorites.

Even though he has them, and Patrick tops the list. Sometimes, Patrick hates that. Most times, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to how much Patrick needs to take care of Pete and keep him safe. That was the selling point of this job, afterall.

If Pete was going to run headlong into danger, Patrick was damn well going to stick close to his back and shield as much as he could.

Kicking his left leg up onto the table, Patrick knocks his feet against Pete’s hips, lets him know he’s boxed in.

“Why would I want to?”

Pete’s quiet, but his body is coiled tight like he’s ready to pounce. “Because I asked.”

“You don’t ask for too much.”

As Pete opens his mouth to protest, Patrick wraps his good leg around Pete’s back and tugs. It’s an awkward angle, but it’s unexpected enough that Pete falls to his knees.

Pete laughs, loud and braying. It would be obnoxious if Patrick hadn’t missed everything about him so fucking much.

“Are you asking for something?” Pete slides his hands from Patrick’s knees to his hips and lets them drop against the sofa, bracketing Patrick similar to the way he’s trapped Pete.

“Maybe?” Patrick plays it off as unsure, but they’re running the script at this point. No matter what happened or how close this job came to completely tearing them apart, this is what they know.

And the familiar makes them manic.

Pete surges up, knocking Patrick back against the cushions when their mouths connect. What the kiss lacks in finesse it makes up for with desperation.

Patrick whines when Pete shifts back.

“You are really sexy in your plaid pajama pants.”

“They’re all that fit over the cast.”

Shrugging, Pete picks at the fabric. “Don’t get defensive.” He brings his hands up to frame Patrick’s face and press their foreheads together. “They’re easy access, is all I’m saying.”

When they come together again, it’s softer - almost annoyingly so since Patrick is convinced Pete’s being cautious of the tape at the bridge of Patrick’s nose and the stitches riding high on his cheekbone. Patrick won’t complain, not right now. He’ll indulge Pete more often than not, especially when it’s a connection they both so clearly need.

They’re caught up for a while, trading soft presses of lips and sharp nips, stubble dragging against stubble enough to be annoying if the faint scratch wasn’t just one more tease. Eventually, Pete presses closer, his stomach rubbing roughly against Patrick’s groin, and Patrick sucks harder at Pete’s tongue. His head falls back on a groan, and somehow, his hand is still tangled in Pete’s hair.

Pete takes it as an invitation and brings his head down to nose under the hem of Patrick’s shirt, tongue tracing a hot trail along the skin he exposes. To get a better view, Patrick lets go long enough to throw his shirt off.

He’s tugging at Pete’s while Pete attaches his lips to a scar that rides high on Patrick’s ribs. There’s no reason for the skin to be more sensitive - Patrick would swear it’s not - but when Pete blows cool air over the damp skin, Patrick arches his back and tries to get closer. He’s chasing any skin he can reach, pulling more and more frantically at Pete’s shirt.

By the time Pete lets Patrick pull it off, he’s already working on Patrick’s pants. The broken leg makes getting enough leverage to help harder, but Pete smirks and kisses him to stop Patrick’s cursing. Backing out of it, Pete tries to turn and work Patrick’s clothes over his cast, but Patrick’s too impatient for that.

Slow builds always make him antsy. He feels like he’s been hard for hours; the low-level anticipatory arousal has been simmering longer.

He’s all but writhing as he hooks fingers in Pete’s waistband and yanks. Letting himself be manhandled for a moment, Pete only shoves Patrick away to kick out of his jeans. Then he’s climbing over Patrick, knees sinking into the soft fabric of the sofa and finally letting all the skin connect.

Pete braces his hands on the sofa-back and catches Patrick’s lips again, sinking back to sit against Patrick’s thighs. There’s no way he’s resting all his weight there, and broken leg or not, Patrick grabs at Pete’s hips and tugs.

His fingers dig into soft flesh and there may be bruises. Neither of them will care.

His own moan mixes with Pete’s gasp when the motion brings their cocks together. The position is off and the slide too dry, but it’s enough to be dizzying.

Patrick says Pete’s name - presses it into his skin - as Pete licks his palm and shifts to wrap his hand around them both. He can’t get the rhythm right, mostly because Patrick keeps tugging at him and leaving little marks below where his shirt collar falls.

“Dammit, Patrick.” Pete’s breath is all but a whimper, and it’s the last straw that has Patrick releasing Pete’s hip.

He wraps a hand around Pete’s and helps guide the beat, makes it faster than he likes but keeps it on the rough side, makes it as close to what Pete likes as he can. He’s digging his other hand into Pete’s back, pressing fingertips into Pete’s spine until Pete bucks into it.

It’s not long after that. Pete, for all he obviously tries not to, lets go and slumps into Patrick first. Patrick whines until Pete bites at his jaw and presses his entire bodyweight down. Coupled with the wet warmth painting the skin of his stomach and the easier slide of their hands, it does just the trick.

Patrick shakes, not sure when the afterglow stops and actual shivering starts. It’s intense, purely because everything’s shattering. They’ll get properly re-acquainted with each other later.

Now that they’ve taken the edge off.

Patrick will re-map every inch of Pete’s skin while Pete catalogues scars like he’s developed OCD. It’ll be hours of light, teasing touches and bringing each other so close to the edge then working back down until someone breaks and begs.

Moments stretch on as their breathing slows. They stay curled together, Pete holding Patrick together while Patrick holds him up. Pete tries to slip away several times, but Patrick can’t yet. He’s a little clingy, even if they’re a sticky mess that’s going to become more and more irritating. There are worse things to be.

“You should sleep,” Pete whispers against Patrick’s lips.

“Trying to,” Patrick mutters, eyes slipping closed as the jetlag starts to kick in. He blindly works his way into another lazy kiss.

He’s right; Pete usually is, even though he’ll never stop being shocked by it. They should move and try to sleep for a few hours before they have to put on a professional front and be proper adults. But Patrick is warm and feeling Pete’s sweat cooling enough to raise goosebumps on his flesh is intoxicating.

There is literally nowhere else Patrick would like to be right now.

“We have a bed upstairs.” The words puff out as a cross between a laugh and a sigh, almost getting lost between Pete’s mouth and Patrick’s. Pete strokes a hand through Patrick’s hair and noses down to Patrick’s chin, tilting his head back until their eyes meet. “I even put clean sheets on it. The green ones you like.”

Apparently, Patrick was wrong because that sounds better than trying to balance both of them on the sofa around his cast.

“Stairs suck.”

Pete smooshes his nose against Patrick’s cheek until Patrick bats at him and shoves against his chest.

“If we make it, I’ll bring you breakfast in bed before you debrief with Hollows,” Pete offers.

Try as he might, Patrick can’t help biting his lip around the brightest smile he’s felt on his face in a long time.

“Heart pancakes?” It’s a hopeful question that he’d be embarrassed about if Pete didn’t carefully slide off Patrick’s lap and start tugging at his hands, always conscious of his right leg.

“Always,” Pete promises. “What else?”

The stairs will be an experience Patrick tries not to repeat too often. But it doesn’t matter because he’ll have a bed with a side known as his, and Pete will be a suffocating limpet until Patrick hums him to sleep.

They’ll get up too early and be late for their respective meetings. But they’ll be together. Holding each other up, even when they shouldn’t. Bending the rules into acute angles and stopping just short of the breaking point.

It’s all part of the tradition they’ve built for themselves. Patrick knows it is more than that. One day - maybe, possibly - they’ll admit that it’s an illusion of what they really are. They’re not ready for that. Yet.

They might never be.

So Patrick will keep doing what he does, both in the field and for Pete. Pete will worry, hover, and all but live in his office. They’ll be everything and nothing at all.

The gold standard. Except when they’re not.