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Undercover Woes

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It was Nightglow who noticed first the transport car. He was busy weeding one of his Conjunx’s fields near the main road when he saw the Zap-Horse cart pass by. Now, it wouldn’t have been an uncommon sight; around Primus’ Blessing, most farmers were using Zap-horses to travel from a point to another. But Nightglow prided himself in knowing all the carts around, as well as most Zap-Horses. And these ones were new. The lithe mech didn’t recognize the two occupants either. One was a bulky, green mech and the other a smaller, dark blue and orange mech. Nightglow rose to his pedes and straightened his long skirt as he walked closer to the fence to watch and hail them.

“Hello there, strangers,” he called out with a smile as he wiped his hands clean over his apron. “May Primus be with you.”

The big green mech pulled on the reins and the cart slowly stopped. Nightglow leaned against the barrier as the green mech turned toward him and smiled. “Hello there,” he said with a big grin, and Nightglow grinned in turn. This stranger already seemed like a pleasant mech. “May Primus walk with you, Goodwife. It is most lucky for us to have meet you!I hope you will forgive my bluntness, but… we’d really need some help,” he chuckled helplessly.

Nightglow laughed softly, hiding his mouth with his hand. Such a polite mech! Surely, one should call him a Goodmech! “I would be most happy to help you, Goodmech, if I can. Now, what would seem to be the trouble?”

“Well, you see… My Uncle purchased a property here a few vorns ago, and… Well, I’ve tried my luck on Cybertron and in the big cities, but honestly, I’d like to go back to a simpler, quieter life in a good farm,” the green mech shuffled. “So I talked with him, and since he never had time to really take care of the property before, he agreed to let me have it.”

“Oh! Oh!” Nightglow was delighted. “So that means you’re coming to live here, Goodmech?”

“If Primus will it, I’m most determined to install myself and my Intended here, pretty Goodwife,” the green mech answered easily with a bow as he made a gesture to show the other mech, who had stayed silent until now. Nightglow nodded he was making a face… he was almost… pouting? He seemed, at the very least, displeased by something.

Did he fear Nightglow would lure his nice Intended away? Really, it would be silly. Nightglow was perfectly happy as Farrier’s Endura, he had no need to go and flirt with a perfect stranger. But then again, if one wasn’t bonded yet, then the engagement could be called off, and perhaps the sour expression on the smaller mech’s face came from his doubts.

It was strange, if the two mechs were indeed fiancees, that the blue mech wasn’t wearing a proper dress yet. Then again, some farmers communities waited until the Bonding Ceremony was performed before they made the Endura wear the proper clothes to his or her new station. They must have come from such a community. Squinting a little, Nightglow was able to make out a necklace around the blue mech’s neck and he grinned. Why, it was a proper engagement necklace, and a pretty one, too! Bright red jewel, in a circle of gold, with some of Primus’ words engraved. My, such a sweet gift! They must love each other so much for the large mech to have bought him such a thing.

Smiling gently at the Goodmech’s Intended, Nightglow spoke. “It is nice to know we’ll have new farmers coming here. Primus’ Blessing is such a small town, it is always delightful to get new inhabitants. Pray tell, Goodmech, what property have you been given by your famous Uncle? For I can already think of three or four empty farms in dire need of renovations, and in dire need of the stern hand of a farmer and a Goodwife’s loving touch.”

“We’ll live in Shady Acres, Goodwife,” the large mech answered.

Nightglow actually clapped. “Oh my, how wonderful! It is a very nice property. I remember, when I was a sparkling just reaching at my Carrier’s waist, going to Shady Acres for teas with the Enduras and the sparklings. Old Shiftground took good care of it. It is most unfortunate he chose not to bond and offlined without heirs.”

Bulkhead nodded solemnly. “It is always a tragedy when a farmland can’t be properly cared for anymore. I sincerely hope I’ll be able to make that farm beautiful once again.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage, Goodmech,” Nightglow said with a bow. “And I realize I was most impolite, gentle Goodmech, for I have not told you my name yet. I’m Nightglow, Endura of Farrier.”

“My name is Bulkhead, Goodwife,” he answered with a bow of his own. “And I’d like to present you my Intended, Sentinel,” he added as he took Sentinel’s hand in his own. Nightglow smiled. So sweet!

The newly named Sentinel bowed his head at him. “Ma’am,” he said, and Nightglow frowned a bit.

Bulkhead faltered. “Ah, dearest… It is not the correct way to address to someone you just met,” he corrected his Intended gently. “You should call Nightglow just like I do, Goodwife, until we get to know him better.” He wasn’t chidding, really, but he certainly sounded a bit disappointed.

Sentinel’s face flushed a bit. “Ah… right. I’m sorry. It is… very nice to meet you, Goodwife,” he said again with a curt bow at Nightglow.

The darkly colored mech raised an optic ridge. Really, it was rather direct; not exactly proper behavior when one was meeting for the first time. Bulkhead gave him an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry for my Intended rudeness, gentle Goodwife. But Sentinel grew up on Cybertron, and he’s not used to our ways, I’m afraid.”

Oh. It explained so much; city ‘bots, even more so ‘bots coming from the Commonwealth’s core world were often a bit rude. Endearing, but very awkward in polite rural society. They didn’t tend to stay long, for they always seemed to get too flustered by their way of life. Some stayed, and settled in bigger towns along the Erian River, but they rarely did so. Sentinel must have loved Bulkhead very much to come along with him to Agri III. But he must have felt so sad to leave all he knew behind him! Nightglow gave him a gentle smile.

“It is forgiven, Goodmech. I’m sure your Intended didn’t want to appear rude. You must be so tired after your journey, it must makes your processors ache and your glossa loosen.”

“It is true that we’re tired, Goodwife. I was hoping we’d have reached Shady Acres by now, but I’m afraid I’m lost,” Bulkhead answered, embarrassed once again.

Nightglow laughed softly. “Oh, but you’re not, I assure you, Goodmech. Shady Acres is down this road,” he said, gesturing at a crossroad a bit lower on the path. “You take the left path and follow it for four hics. It’s long, I know, but Shady Acres is separated from Happy Vale -- that’s the name of our property, by the way -- by the empty property of Restful Hollow. You should find a dirt path on your left after that; take it and continue for a few hundred of meters, and the house will be here, in a circle of tall Beryllium Oaks.”

Bulkhead smiled widely. “Your help is most appreciated, Goodwife. I’m most happy to have met such a nice, delightful and helpful individual on my arrival, and it would be my pleasure to stay and talk further with you” he said, bowing deeply. “I’m afraid, however, that we must haste to join our new home before the night cycle settle. I’ve no doubt lot of work lay ahead of us, and that we’ll need our strengths.”

“I would have liked to accompany you, Goodmech,” Nightglow said in turn, “but my field still need care, and my Conjunx is away for the day. I can’t allow myself to leave now, especially now that the bell tolls to announce the end of the classes for the sparklings. My Creations should be home shortly, and I’ll have to take care of them. But be assured, Goodmech, that I’ll come to visit and give you whatever help I can as soon as I’m able.”

“It is a most generous proposition, gentle Goodwife,” Bulkhead said sagely. “It is well appreciated, by me and by my Intended.” Sentinel nodded slowly. Bulkhead bowed once more. “Farewell, noble Goodwife, and I pray we get a better chance to get acquainted soon,” he said as he climbed back in the cart and hailed the Zap-Horses to advance again.

Nightglow waved the equipage goodbye and watched them disappear on the path. Kneeling back on the ground, he started to pick out weeds again.

Farm life wasn’t waiting, after all. Even if he just had juicy gossip to share with his fellow Enduras now!

***************************

“I don’t see why you had to let the conversation run for so long,” Sentinel groused as the Zap-Horses pulled the cart on the path. “What was that anyway? You weren’t really lost, were you?”

Bulkhead vented longly as he tightened his grip on the reins. “No, I wasn’t, Sentinel. But small talk count for a lot for farmers, especially when introducing oneself for the first time. Polite conversation is very important when one of to make friends with his neighbors. By telling that mech that we were a bit lost and indicating right away what we were after, it allowed to talk and start bonding,” he explained.

Sentinel snorted. “Bonding. Yeah, right. Newsflash, you oaf. We’re not here to ‘bond’ and ‘make friends’ with the local! We’re here on a mission!”

“An undercover mission, Sentinel,” Bulkhead nodded grimly. “Which means establishing a cover, because we can’t know how long it’ll take us to fulfill it. And establishing a cover means we need a reason to come here, then try to blend in with the locals.”

“Since when are you an expert about infiltration?” Sentinel asked, feeling annoyed.

“Since I had Blurr coach me about some of the aspects of the work and what do and not to do,” Bulkhead answered simply. “A mech who’s going to be in a place for an unknown length of time must learn to blend in. He needs to set up a public face, to find some sort of employment, then to try and make friends with as many people as possible. He can, for example, frequently go to the bar and drink and play cards with a few mechs. They need to bond some, to create trust. Then, and only then, can he start to really gather intel. People have loose glossas around people they trust; they’re more likely to let little secrets and all kind of info slip in casual conversation if they feel at ease. Basic training,” he shrugged. “I can’t say I did it before, but I trained with Blurr and Cliffjumper for a while before we came here. They seemed satisfied enough by my progresses.” He sounded proud of himself.

Sentinel pursed his lips. Well, as much as he wanted to rant and snort at the other mech, he had to concede that Bulkhead had taken their orders seriously and spend lot of time preparing for the mission. Sentinel hadn’t gone too much into the details of Agri III’s going, too busy looking over any sign of Decepticon activity in this corner of the Commonwealth, but Bulkhead had apparently spend his time looking over agricultural records, as well as reacquainting with farmers on the close Moonbases to better prepare himself. It was hard to attack his professionalism.

Still…

“Were you forced to tell them about that bit with your Uncle? They had no need to know that! It could put all the operation in danger!”

“No,” Bulkhead answered quietly. “On the contrary; it exactly the bit of truth that will give a good basis to our mission. Farmers aren’t suspicious, but some do check facts. So if they ever try and dig a bit, they’ll find out that the property belongs to my Uncle indeed. They’ll find out I learned farming on one of the Moonbase farm, and that I’m a qualified worker. The bit about engaging in the Autobot is secondary; it simply shows that, like many young mechs, I tried something different before coming back to my roots. And that’s what will be important to them. Officially, I was just a low Repair Crew technician -- my name wasn’t released when we bought Megatron back to Cybertron, for security purposes. There’s technically nothing that link me to a ‘war hero’. I’m just your average guy opting out of the Autobots to live a healthier life.”

Damn, but he hated it when the hulking mech was right! Sentinel gritted his teeth. “And my own background? Did you have to downgrade me so much?”

“I’m not the one who chose your ‘official history’,” Bulkhead defended himself. “I had absolutely nothing to do with it! It’s Blurr who suggested it and the Magnus who approved! Beside, it would have looked weird if a lowly technician was romantically involved with an Autobot Officer. You being a secretary for the Deskshop Section of the Elite Guard makes you more… approachable. It helps that you indeed spend a lot of time in-between your promotion as a pencil-pusher for the Elite Guard.”

“I wasn’t a pencil-pusher! I was a Junior Officer… with a desk job,” he allowed, unhappy. “Not my fault my XO at the time thought I needed to learn more about theory before sending me in the field!”

“I’m not saying it was!” Bulkhead defended himself. “It helps, really; if they ever talk to you about filing forms, you’ll know how to answer.” Sentinel grunted and looked too the side, watching the countryside slowly defile.

“Why can’t we just transform and roll out? It would be quicker.”

Bulkhead sighed. “Because farmers don’t use their altmods on the roads, unless they have their energon crystals’ harvest loaded. Altmods are for work, not for travelling.”

“That’s stupid.”

“That the way things are,” Bulkhead told back, optics hardening a bit. “You’ll need to be careful about what you say. Being displeased and a bit rude because you don’t know better is one thing, but to denigrate a whole way of life just because you don’t agree with it is just asking for trouble and unwanted attention,” he warned the other mech.

Sentinel pursed his lips and didn’t say anything for a while. The Zap-Horses were advancing at a good pace, and Bulkhead started humming as they neared the dirt path they had been told about. There was indeed a cluster of tall tree not too far on their left, and squinting, Sentinel was able to make out a roof and walls through the crystalline foliage. Bulkhead pulled on the reins as they came closer, and finally the Zap-horses stopped right before the entrance.

The Prime eyed the house critically. Rather large; two flores. Right in the middle of a large half-circle of trees who plunged the house into a peaceful shade. The house was painted white, with darkly colored shutters, matching the roof. A small construction was placed next to the house, and another two buildings were standing farther away, at a short distance.

“A tool shed, the barn and the henhouse,” Bulkhead explained as he noticed Sentinel frowning in wonder at the additional buildings. I’ll need to check their state before we see for a few mechanimals. Uncle Blocker told me he had managed to get the property taken care of even though he didn’t live here, but you never know,” he said as he got out of the cart.

“I don’t see what’s the point of buying a land if you don’t come live on it,” Sentinel commented as he also got out.

Bulkhead’s lips thinned. “It was first intended as a gift for one of my cousins. It didn’t work out,” he said flatly, and he gave Sentinel a look, daring him to ask further questions. Wisely, the Prime shut up. It didn’t stop him from standing at the door, just under the veranda, with his arms crossed over his chest, foot tapping impatiently on the ground as Bulkhead searched the key in one of his subspace pocket.

“Well, are you going to let us in?” he barked.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bulkhead mumbled as he finally found the key. “No need to be in such a hurry.”

Calmly, he opened the door and stood to the side, gallantly letting Sentinel go first.

Dusty, was the first thing that came across Sentinel’s CPU. The whole place was full of dust and dirt. They were standing in a large entrance. Slightly to the left, stairs were leading to the second level. In the back, to the right after the stairs and to the left, they could see open doors; through the one at the back, Sentinel distinguished a couple of furnitures covered by white, dusty sheets. Couches, he deduced from their form. He advanced a bit further in, and Bulkhead leaned over his shoulder, optics darting right and left.

“Right, so… if I remember what my Uncle told me, kitchen is just on our left, and it’s connected to the living room we see in the back. There should also be a small cellar door that leads to another cellar and an office as well as a work room. Second floor has the berthrooms and a washroom,” he mused. “And normally, there’s also an attic. Good house, don’t you think?”

“In poor state,” Sentinel immediately said.

Bulkhead’s shoulders sagged a bit but he just shrugged. “Well, it’s need some cleaning, but I think it’ll be a nice place to live once it’s done.”

Sentinel hummed, not convinced. “If you say so.”

Bulkhead shuffled on his pedes. “Well, I… I’ll just go take our baggages out of the cart and put the Zap-horses in the barn. Why don’t you explore while I do it?” And he hurried outside before Sentinel had a chance to protest.

“Why you…” he mumbled unhappily, before he sighed, vents working hard. Right. Explore. Bulkhead was probably right. They would be here for an unknown among of time, until they managed to find these suspected Decepticon spies, so better he starts to familiarize himself with the house. Sincerely, Sentinel hoped the mission wouldn’t last long. After all, how hard could it be to find and arrest suspicious mechs, especially in a backwater village on a backwater planet?

Okay, so perhaps he was a bit hard with Agri III. It had been drilled into him that the energon farms on the planet were among the most productive of the Commonwealth, and it was known for the good quality of his energon, as well as its devotion to Primus and ambiguous feelings for the Allspark and its power. They recognized the Allspark as an artefact of Primus, probably sent to help suffering population, but themselves totally swore off its use to bring forth new mechs and femmes. Primus had created them with natural procreation in mind first, and no artefact should change it, they claimed.

Silly, really. Personally, Sentinel wasn’t much of a believer; he sometimes attended ceremonies in an official way, as was proper for an Elite Guard Officer, but he wasn’t one to go and pray in the churches anytime. Except, he supposed, he would have to and try if he wanted to… ‘blend in’, given the mindset of the planet’s inhabitants.

He really, really hoped they would catch these Decepticreeps soon. However, he grimly acknowledged that they had few clues.

Three orns ago, Cybertron had intercepted a Decepticon signal coming from Agri III, around the region of Riverbend, one of the main town on the river that ran on a good part of the planet. Before the Intelligence Division was able to identify what exactly the signal was, it had abruptly stopped. One orn later, another signal had been emitted… and this one had enticed a return signal from a Decepticon ship. This time, whatever it was lasted long enough for Intelligence to locate the origin of the beacon in the area surrounding the small Agri III’s farming town called Primus’ Blessing. Inquiries with Agri III’s ruling Council had been fruitless, as they were rather unconcerned by Decepticons. Really, they were more Neutrals than Autobots. Some said it was because they didn’t have much to suffer from the Great War. They had never been bombed, for example, as their energon production had been too important for both side to be risked by anyone.

Still, that Decepticon signal had raised all kind of alarms. Fearing a possible plot to poison the crops or something akin, Cybertron High Council had decided an undercover mission was in order, to unmask possible traitors and spies.

They had needed someone who knew his way about rural life, someone who wouldn’t be suspicious for the locals. And Bulkhead had been chosen. But it had been argued that, despite being a (unrecognized) hero, the large mech wasn’t fit to run such a mission. An Officer was to go with him and assist him, they said.

And for some reasons, they had chosen Sentinel…

Shaking his head, he started to move through the house. It was rather dull and could have used some paint and some decoration. He went to the second floor and quickly inspected the berthrooms. He counted at least five of them, four middle sized ones and a large one with a huge berth. The Master berthroom, then. It was, much to Sentinel annoyance, the only one still fitted with a berth. The other rooms hadn’t had any. It meant he and Bulkhead would have to share the king sized one in the Master berthroom. Joy.

The washroom was just next to it. Sentinel frowned and was a bit displeased to see there weren’t a proper washrack inside. There was a sink with a pump, and a bathtub made of an unknown metal with a hose to fill it. It certainly didn’t fit his personal hygiena criterium, but it would have to do. However, he had to admit privately it wouldn’t be a bad place to live in for a while. As he returned to the entry hall, he caught sight of Bulkhead pulling a large trunk inside.

“So, how’s the rest of the house?” he asked cautiously.

“Acceptable,” Sentinel said simply.

Bulkhead smiled. Well, it was a small victory already, if Sentinel had nothing obviously negative to say. “I’m going to put that stuff in the Master berthroom, if you don’t mind. Then perhaps we can take a cube together and speak,” he asked cautiously.

Sentinel pursed his lips and nodded. “Alright.” He turned away and went to the living room, where he started to take the sheets off the furnitures to judge their state. Well, he had seen worse. They weren’t the nicest he had seen, but he could recognize their qualities. They were sturdy and made to last. The colors were a bit faded and mismatched, and Sentinel thought he would have to see if he could have them repainted or polished. Carefully, he sat down on one of the couches. There were three of them, neatly arranged around a small, low table. A couple of armchairs completed the circle.

“So many… I wonder why?” he muttered.

“For social gathering,” came the answer, and Sentinel almost jumped out of his armor. He hadn’t heard Bulkhead come in. “Farmers’ mates, the Enduras, they often spend their cycles together to sew and knit or spin,” he explained. “Any farmhouse has a large piece that can welcome them and their husbands for reunions, so it’s customary to have a lot of chairs to sit.”

“Ah… good to know. So it means we’ll have to… welcome guests often?”

“Well, in theory. But since we’re newcomers, it would be more appropriate to invite us to their own houses as to give us the time to settle and rearrange the place to suit our needs,” Bulkhead said as he sat down in the couch facing the one Sentinel had settle in. “So, here we are… uh, welcome home?”

Sentinel twitched. “This is hardly home. It is a base of operation.”

Bulkhead shrugged. “Well, yeah… but since we’ll be living here, I think that makes it home alright. So,” he added quickly before Sentinel had a chance to open his mouth, “I think the first thing we need to do tomorrow is go to see the Mayor and the Father.”

Sentinel nodded. “Yes, yes, I suppose seeing the Mayor to present ourselves as… new inhabitants of his village is important, but why see the priest so soon?”

Bulkhead blushed. “Well… we’ll need to organize the bonding ceremony quickly.”

Sentinel paled. He had tried very hard to forget all about it. They were, after all, supposed to pose as a bonded couple, since two unrelated mechs living together without being legally bonded in rural Agri III was unheard of. Of course, they could pretend they were already bonded, but Bulkhead had argued against it the moment it had been suggested.

“It wouldn’t work. The Church of Primus keeps straight, neat records of all the bonding they celebrated. They would notice a fake one right away, and they wouldn’t need too much work either. Just a call to a church we supposedly celebrated our union, and they’ll know we aren’t really a couple. And our bonding wouldn’t be legally recognized by them if we pretended we registered with another church,” he had argued before the Magnus and a couple of mechs who were supervising the preparations for the mission.

“What would you suggest, then?” Ultra Magnus had quietly asked.

Bulkhead had blushed then spoke his mind. “I… It would probably be better to perform a bonding ceremony on Agri III, in Primus’ Blessing’s own church. That way, it would let us better integrate the community while we fill our mission objectives.”

There had been lot of arguing. Especially on Sentinel’s part. No way he was bonding, even for show, with the big oaf! They just would have to find someone else! Except, there was no one else, and Ultra Magnus had left him the choice: the mission and apparent bonding, or ending what was left of his career in the most desolate and isolated outpost the Council could find for him. Tough choice.

Vents working hard, Sentinel gulped as he looked at Bulkhead. “So soon? Is it really necessary?” He was almost pleading.

Bulkhead looked embarrassed and passed one hand behind his helm, rubbing it awkwardly. “Well, perhaps not… but it would be very improper for us to live long together, even as Intended, without a chaperone. People would start thinking of us as morally deviant mechs. Sure, we could ask a priest to come and live with us until we’re ‘ready to bond’, so he can attest of our morality, but since we need to start gathering intel as fast as possible…” he trailed off. Yes, an intruder in the house wasn’t wished. “Beside, a wedding is a big event in small villages like this one. Every inhabitants should come to wish us well, so it would be a perfect way to start meeting everymech in town and dig for the ones who are most suspicious.”

Presented like it, it made sense… But it didn’t help Sentinel calm down. He crossed his legs nervously. “R… Right.” It could help the mission go faster. But still…

“Why must I be the… the Endura? I’m your Superior Officer, I should be the Conjunx!” he exclaimed, trying to not let Bulkhead see just how ill-at-ease he was.

Bulkhead shook his head and sighed. “We talked about it already. At length. Several times. You can’t be a credible Conjunx, Sentinel. You know nothing of energon farms, or of the proper way to behave in a farmer community like this one. My build alone qualify me as an ideal Conjunx; though you’re nicely build and have a great altmod for farming, you remain smaller and more… delicate than me. And your a city mech; given how reluctant you appear to be here, it wouldn’t be credible in the least. And, even if we decided to change now, it would not be possible, as I’m fairly sure Nightglow noticed your engagement necklace.”

Sentinel glanced at the thing around his neck. Really, it was magnetized to his frame, having of necklace only the name. The red jewel, some kind of ruby, was glinting softly as it caught a ray of light. The circle of gold it was encased in just added to the quiet beauty it inspired. “I don’t see the point in wearing it, really,” he said, grunting. Sure, it was a pretty trinket, but Sentinel felt it was more trouble than it was worth.

“It’s to let other ‘bots know you’re taken for,” Bulkhead explained, “and that you’ve agreed to a bond already. Self respecting mechs, even if they find you attractive, won’t go after you since you’re almost bonded already. And it allows you some leeway in your demeanor. It’s a proof I know you well and can understand and excuse your social faux pas. People will readily believe me if I tell them anything about you, for it’s clear proof that you’re my bonded to be.”

“And what would you tell them?” Sentinel asked suspiciously.

“That you had to leave a job you loved to come here, and that you’re very unsettled because you know almost next to nothing to farm work. Which is technically true, after all.”

Sentinel grunted and didn’t comment.

“So… Mayor, Priest and then the rest of the villagers?” Bulkhead asked helpfully.

Sentinel shrugged, trying to appear uninterested. “Sure, I guess. Well, if you haven’t anything more to say, I’m going to recharge.”

“Hum, good night?” the large mech said.

Sentinel stopped at the door. “Bulkhead?” he asked. “I’ve… read how the Church of Primus celebrate bondings.”

“Uh, yes?”

“... It seems that I can’t escape… interfacing with you for the sake of the mission.” His body shook in revulsion and fear and perhaps, just perhaps, a little of desire. Bulkhead nodded slowly, not daring to speak. “I know I can’t escape it, if only to keep the appearances. But let’s be clear, it will be the only time. Got it?”

And without waiting for an answer, he left and almost climbed the stairs running.

Staying alone, Bulkhead’s optics shuttered several time rapidly. “Uh… Either he didn’t read much about farmers’ life… or someone really messed up his debriefing,” he muttered.

Oh, it was so going to be NOT fun when Sentinel realized exactly the truth of the matter…