Milton Bailey Brandt opens his eyes. His vision swims, then clears. A dark room, grey sunlight that filters through windows somewhere up high, walls all black, floor dusty grey.
He is restrained, head and hands firmly held to a chair with duct tape. So is Jonas, a bit to the left, against a wall, gagged and staring darkly.
Milton tries to reach for him, and finds his mind numbed. He is on blockers.
Riley walks into his field of view. She wears mirrored sunglasses and relaxed shoulders, sits down in a chair across from him with an easy smirk.
“Hello Riley. Or is it someone else?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
Nomi replies as she struts around his chair, arrogant smirk in place. Her glasses are heart shaped.
“Oh, I will know. You might believe you have the upper hand, but we all know it won’t last.” He wants to lean forward, and settles for baring his teeth. “They will find you, with my help or without it.”
“Won’t do you any good though, will it?” Riley says, tilts her head ever so slightly. Gorski.
“Before this is over, I will have the pleasure to kill each and every one of you.”
“No, you will not.”
That’s a new voice behind him, a voice that he only heard in Wolfgang’s mind.
“Is that you, Kala? Why don’t you come over here and look me in the eye?”
“No.” Her voice is much cooler than expected. “You won’t ever look at anybody again.”
There is a prick in his neck, then Riley is in front of him, fist balled.
“Good night, Whispers.”
“What do you want?” The voice on the other end of the line says.
“Wolfgang Bogdanow. Today. Once he’s with us, you will let us leave the country.” Will says. “You won’t trace us.”
“We will know.” Nomi adds through his lips, borrows malice from Lito.
“That is unacceptable.”
“It’s either that, or we kill your most valuable operative.” Will says.
“Think of that story.” Lito threatens. “The cannibal, taken down by a newborn cluster.”
“You need us to be afraid of you.” Capheus says. “But we are not.”
“We are angry.” Sun’s knuckles are white. “And if you hurt him, you will pay.”
There is a long moment of silence on the line. Seven, incomplete, they don’t dare to breathe.
“Name your terms.”
“Oh god.” Hernando paces the cheap hotel room. “Why did we agree to this. We shouldn’t have agreed to this.”
“He did not give us much of a choice.” Dani points out. She’s on the bed, knees drawn against her chest. “Shouldn’t he be back by now?”
Just then, the door opens, and Lito steps into the room, a bag slung over his shoulder and a short, slight Asian woman by his side.
“Lito! Where were you? Are you alright?”
“We don’t have time, Hernando.” There’s an unusual determination in Lito’s eyes. “We need to move, now. Have you packed your bags?”
“Get them. I promise I will explain, as soon as you both are safe.”
The small woman is already moving. She gives both of them a slight smile, then she takes Dani’s suitcase in one and Dani’s forearm in the other hand.
“Hernando, Dani, this is Sun, one of- my very good friends. You can trust her as you would trust me.” Lito declares.
“Nice to meet you?” Dani says.
Hernando looks troubled for a moment, but Lito catches his shoulders and looks at him, and whatever happens between them, it makes Hernando nod.
Wolfgang comes to in a vehicle. Which doesn’t make any sense, because there was an operating table in the room where they held him.
Then Kala is by his side.
“Leave.” He croaks.
Her tears fall on his cheeks, her forehead on his.
“You need to leave. They know who you are.”
“I’ve got her.” Nomi is there, a bit distant, but present. “They tracked her to Bombay Airport, but they don’t know where she is.”
“New ID, coming right up.” Bug’s cheerful voice says through Nomi’s headset.
“They’re under surveillance, but there has been no move against them.” Nomi replies.
“You’re my family.” Kala whispers.
There are two white suits in the van with him. One begins to unstrap him while the other aims a taser at his chest. Sun grinds her teeth together, and Will knows this space is inevitably small.
“Don’t move.” A tinny voice says.
“It’ll be alright.” Riley is behind him, ethereal warmth. “Just stick with the plan.”
The vehicle stops and Wolfgang is shoved out of it, face first into a puddle.
“You don’t want to do that.”
Wolfgang looks up at Jonas, handcuffed and dressed in a dirty bathrobe. Then he realizes that Jonas was addressing the white suits.
“Come on.” Kala and Capheus help him up.
“What did you do?” Wolfgang asks.
“What we had to.” Sun replies and eyes the other three men.
It’s late afternoon, and just like that, Wolfgang knows he is in London, close to Wembley Park, he can see the map on Nomi’s screen.
“You are free to leave.” Jonas meets his eyes as they talk through the visiting link.
“What are they going to do to you now?” Wolfgang asks.
“Nothing worse than they were going to do to you.” Jonas smiles bitterly. “And I might deserve it.”
Just like that, Angelica stands in between them. She caresses Jonas’ face, and a tear runs down her pale cheek as she looks as Wolfgang.
“Jonas is safe.” Nomi says, like that idea has doubtful appeal to her. “Now move.”
“Goodbye.” Wolfgang says.
They let him go, barefooted and in hospital scrubs, a dull ache in every muscle of his body.
Nomi leads him to a bag with clothes, shoes, a snickers bar and a Gatorade, hidden in an alley sixteen streets away. She directs him through London’s maze of cameras for three hours, until he can only see his next step. All the while, Kala is there with him.
Rain soaked, Wolfgang’s eyes get peculiar double vision. Vision. Tamoxifen and vancomycin and doxycycline and linezolid.
“Almost there.” Nomi urges.
Some homebrewed Ethambutol. Just high enough to do the trick, just long enough to be permanent…
There’s a hostel keycard shoved in between two bricks under a trashcan. The hostel is run down, no one in the reception hall looks twice at him.
Will operates Wolfgang’s body for him, bars the door with a chair, and then he falls onto the bed, and they’re all right there with him.
“Wait.” Hernando says and stares at Sun who is driving the rental. “A Korean Lady. A crying Korean Lady in your head.”
“I was not crying.” Sun says.
“Ah, yes.” Lito clears his throat. “About that.”
There are whispers, on the edge of his hearing, and he can’t make them out.
Milton opens his eyes. It’s grey, veiled, but there is no fabric on his face. He tries to shake his head, can’t, blinks. Black, fog, black. Fog.
Something moves, a silhouette, a hint of brown through the grey.
“He can’t see me.”
He tries to step into her mind.
“You’re not dead.” Riley says. It sounds like a smile. “You’re not dead, but you’ll never know the people you have to thank for that.”
“You can go back to your family now. You won’t ever hunt another one of us.” Gorski says.
Milton steps into Gorski, and finds himself looking down, at his own bound body. There is an IV with a dark yellow liquid still dripping into his veins.
“One more day should do it.” Gorski says.
Milton stares at him.
“This is not ideal.” Capheus mumbles.
Berlin is all dark grey and silver sky, the scent of piss and concrete. He knows these streets, he’s walked them by Wolfgang’s side, but with their eight sleeping off the drugs somewhere in London, the German signs only have vague meaning.
It’s very early morning, everything is tranquil. Nobody is following him. Yet.
He walks around the block, gets into the backyard and takes the keys from their hiding place inside one of the flower pots.
Felix only needs one look at Capheus to jump up and draw his gun. Capheus holds up his hands, keys dangling from his fingers.
“How did you find those?” Felix asks in German.
“Wolfgang showed me where they are.” Capheus answers in Will’s English. Carefully, he puts the keys down. “My name is Capheus. I am a close friend of Wolfgang.”
“Where the fuck is he?” Felix asks sharply.
“He was abducted by an internationally operating Organization. An associate of his, Lila Faccini, set him up.”
Felix blanches. “Don’t make me ask again. Where is he?”
“We rescued him two hours ago.” Capheus says calmly. “But the Organization we are up against will not let us go without a fight.”
“And why are you here?”
“You are the person most important to Wolfgang. That’s a well-known fact. You are in danger.”
“And I’m just supposed to believe that?” Felix grits his teeth.
“You and Wolfgang met in second grade detention. He was bullied for being from East Germany. You fought together.” Capheus crooks his head and smiles. “Let it be known that two fought against many, and won.”
Felix stares at him, not convinced. Suddenly, Kala is there, and Capheus lends her his voice.
“You are the only person who knew what happened to his father. Because he told you.”
One second, two, three. Felix lowers his gun.
“I want to see him.”
“That is the plan. I’m here to get you out of Berlin.” Capheus takes a careful step closer. “They are already watching you.”
Felix nods, this is not news to him, and straightens his shoulders.
“Where are we going?”
“So this woman- Sun- is a part of you?” Dani asks, jaw still slack.
“And I am a part of her.” Lito nods.
Hernando is leaning back, fingers curled over his chin. “Ah.”
“What does that mean?” Lito looks at him. “Is that a good ‘Ah’ or a bad ‘Ah’?”
Hernando opens his mouth, shuts it again, and shakes his head minutely.
“Help.” Lito mouths at Sun, and at Capheus.
“Give him a little time.” Capheus advises with an encouraging smile. “He will come around in a minute.”
“He hasn’t said anything in the last five minutes!!”
“Are you talking to one of them right now?” Dani asks, eyes wide.
“Yes. Yes, sorry, I was talking to Capheus. He is driving.”
“The bus driver from Nairobi?” Dani recollects.
“Yes. Sun doesn’t know how to drive stick.”
“Neither do you.” She reminds him.
“This, this borrowing of skills…”
“We call it sharing.”
“… does it work all over the world?”
“Yes. We helped Sun break out of prison in Korea.”
Lito gestures, and receives a blank look in return.
“Where she was wrongfully held.” Lito hurries to add. “And her brother sent Assassins to kill her.”
Hernando makes a nondescript noise.
“Twice.” Sun adds, for good measure.
“Maybe a little longer than a minute.” Capheus sighs.
Wolfgang wakes to the sounds of drunken teenagers in the hallway.
“Hey.” Riley smiles at him.
He meets her eyes and stands next to her, in what looks like an empty flat. It’s nighttime outside, and the information that floats somewhere in the ether of the cluster’s minds tells him that this is also London.
“Not for much longer.” Nomi comments. “We need to move somewhere where BPO doesn’t have as many operatives.”
“Need to ditch him first.”
Will looks darkly at the hallway. In contrast, Riley looks at the door with ease.
“Meet our guest?” She looks at Wolfgang.
Wolfgang looks from her, to Nomi who doesn’t look up from her two screens, to Will, who nods.
“You’ll want to see this.”
The door doesn’t creak, it’s well oiled, and Riley avoids the creaky floorboards with practice.
Whisper’s nostrils flare.
“Another visit? I feel so valued.”
“Be quiet, or I will make you regret it.” Kala says.
She’s at a table, pipetting something from a taller flask into a smaller one. There’s an infusion set ready to be used beside her. Her lacy shirt is crumpled and grimey at the sleeves, her hair pulled into a messy bun. Dark circles surround eyes, and there’s ice in her assessing glare when she measures Whispers.
Whispers decides to stay quiet, and Wolfgang thinks that it’s the wise decision.
Kala looks up, and their eyes meet.
“Hey.” Wolfgang says softly.
The next moment, he’s across the room, and Kala gasps and leans into him.
“Is that you, Wolfgang?” Whispers asks lowly. “It must be, judging by Mrs. Rasal’s reaction. I have to admit, I assumed that you were the most ruthless of your cluster…”
“I also know how to use a syringe.” Riley says.
Back in his hostel room, Wolfgang closes his eyes just in time. He feels Whisper’s breath on his cheek.
“Oh, the things I’m going to do to both of you when I get my hands on you…”
Riley takes the infusion set, injects the liquid Kala prepared, and sets it up next to Whispers with practiced ease.
“Want me to shoot him a blocker?” She offers.
“I’ve got it.” Wolfgang grits a smile. “Can’t do anything to me right now.”
“Oh but I will.” Whispers smiles.
“I still say we should kill him.” Kala all but growls.
Wolfgang looks at her, precious and furious, and kisses her.
“When did that happen?” He mumbles against her lips.
“While you were being kidnapped and tortured daily.” She replies.
“Enjoy your time with her. Enjoy every second.” Whispers mumbles.
“Actually, I changed my mind.”
Wolfgang looks up, but Riley already has a syringe with midnight colored liquid in her hand. All of Whisper’s neck is full of puncture wounds.
“When can I come to you?” Wolfgang asks.
“We’ll meet tomorrow morning.” Riley replies. “Nomi already booked our flights.”
“Where are we going?”
“Los Angeles? Are you fucking serious?” Felix says.
“We need a certain infrastructure.” Capheus explains while they wave for a cab. “Fast internet, airports, and a big enough city to offer exit strategies.”
“Dude, it’s still freaky to hear you speak German without accent.” Felix mutters.
Wolfgang snorts, and Capheus smiles in return.
“The German in my head thinks you are funny.”
“Tell Wolfie I’m goddamn hilarious.”
“He can hear you.”
“And we need to stay clear of Europe for a bit.” Capheus says.
They get into a cab, and Capheus tells the driver an address in the south of the city.
The house is brick, with a shabby charm, unkept bushes in the lawn, too close to the highway for prime real estate.
They knock on the door, the bell is broken, and a black girl with blue and purple braids answers it.
“Come in.” She immediately gives the way free. “Capheus and Felix, right?”
“Yes.” Capheus smiles. “It is nice to meet you, Amanita.”
There is a moment of hesitation, then Amanita hugs him, and then Felix, who looks fairly puzzled.
“Uh, you’re not one of them, right?”
“No. I’m Nomi’s girlfriend.” Amanita smiles. “Which kind of makes us In-laws, I guess?”
Capheus laughs, and Felix shrugs.
“Come on.” Amanita nods at their bags. “I’ll show you your rooms and introduce you.”
“The house is a temporary solution.”
Floorboards creaking, the hallways smell like dust, but the rooms are all freshly painted.
“My Dads came down and renovated it while we were in Europe.”
“That’s a story for after dinner.”
There is a big living room which currently houses only a long, bare table and a variety of different chairs.
“You’re the first to arrive, but the others should come in tonight.”
“What’s taking so long?”
“Need to make sure BPO isn’t following us if we’re gonna gather the whole cluster in one place.”
The basement is surprisingly well lit, and warm, humming with two servers and several pcs.
“This is the reason we set up base camp here.” Amanita gestures around.
In the central swivel chair, a man turns around, arms extended and grinning wide.
“Welcome to Bug’s kingdom.”
“Hello, Bug. I’m Capheus.”
“Nice to meet you, man! I looked over the Facebook pages of your party. It looks like you’re going toe to toe with your enemy.”
“Ah. Well, thank you.” Capheus clears his throat.
“Bug, what did I tell you about leading with private information?” Amanita asks.
“Right, sorry Neets. And you’re Mr. Brenner. I absolutely don’t know anything about any ongoing police investigations against you.”
Felix snorts, and shakes Bug’s offered hand.
“Good, that means I don’t have to blow you up in your sleep.”
Bug laughs. “Right. We’re all friends here, right?”
“Of course we are.” Amanita shoots Felix a look, and he can’t help the smirk.
“Now come on up and help me prepare dinner for twelve people.”
Will and Kala arrive next, at six pm, and Felix realizes why Wolfgang wanted to travel to India when Kala smiles at him.
“You’re the girl he’s in love with, aren’t you.”
Will and Capheus cough, awkward.
“I’m the girl who’s in love with him.” Kala replies.
“And you’re the ones who can help me cut ten pounds of chicken.” Amanita smiles generously, and manhandles both of them into the kitchen.
It’s just about half past eight, when Lito, Hernando, Dani and Sun arrive. Felix greets each of them politely, and watches as Will, Kala and Capheus embrace Sun and Lito like long lost siblings.
Or lovers. He’s not quite sure.
He also sees Will’s ears flush when he’s introduced to Hernando, sees the knowing smile Kala and Sun exchange, and the twinkle in Capheus’ eye when Lito introduces Dani to Amanita.
“There is way too much going on here.” He mumbles.
“Tell me about it.” Bug says.
Felix manages to almost hide his jump, and gets a grin in return.
“Is it always like this?”
“No clue, man. This is the first time they’re all together in one place like this without one of them being tortured. Also, with SO’s this time around.”
“I’m not a significant other.”
“But a significant outsider.” Bug crosses his arms. “Like Neets, and Hernando and Daniela.”
“And you.” Will says.
Felix and Bug look at him, and he smiles at them. “We’re very grateful that you’re here. Both of you.”
“Well. Don’t sweat it.” Felix says, unsure what the man wants to hear.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Bug winks and does double shot finger guns.
Felix ignores the broadening of Will’s smile and goes back into the kitchen.
Riley and Nomi arrive an hour later, when the food is already on the table.
“Did you hear from Wolfgang?” Is the first thing Kala asks, as soon as they’ve both sat down.
“He’s almost here.” Nomi says.
“The blockers should wear off soon.” Riley adds. “He took the last dose six hours ago.”
Felix’ fingers twitch, but he forces himself to stay calm, leans back against the wall of the living room, windows and door always in view. There’s an underlying tension to the room. Riley and Will are curled up together on the couch, but neither is completely relaxed. Amanita has not taken her arm from around Nomi’s shoulders since the woman arrived, and Nomi leans into her, but she is always watching her laptop’s screen.
Hernando and Dani sit on the other side of the couch, and Lito is crouched in front of them, both hands entangled with Hernando. They talk in low tones. Meanwhile Sun and Capheus are outside, doing what looks to be a tai chi routine that looks suspiciously like stress management to Felix. Finally, Kala is standing right next to the door, tapping her foot, arms crossed and shoulders tensed.
The clock on the wall reads ten, half past ten, eleven.
Thirteen past eleven, someone knocks.
Almost. He can almost feel them in his mind, feels enough to know they’re close. Physically close. Fucking blockers.
Wolfgang compares the address one last time, glances along the road one last time, and knocks on the door.
It’s torn open immediately, of course, and then Kala is in his arms.
He vaguely registers someone pulling him inside, the door pushed closed, and then someone hugs him, two people, four, seven. Right then, that is enough to overcome the last presence of the blockers, and the cluster breathes.
A long moment, nobody says anything. Then Kala makes a noise where her face is buried in his neck, and the hug loosens just enough to let her tilt her head up.
It’s the best thing Wolfgang has ever felt. To kiss her. It’s the best thing she has ever felt, too. It’s so, so good.
Someone laughs, someone else whistles, and a third person from outside says “Wow.”
The cluster loosens, and turns to their significant outsiders at once.
“Not gonna lie, this is a little freaky.” Bug says.
“What?” Riley and Nomi ask at the same time, with the same frown.
“You’re.” Dani gestures from one to the other.
“Synchronized.” Hernando says. “All eight of you are perfectly synchronized.”
“Um, well.” Will rubs the back of his head, and Lito gesticulates. “It’s kind of overwhelming.”
“To be together like this.” Capheus says.
Wolfgang catches’ Felix eyes, confusion and uncertainty, like Felix isn’t sure what he’s seeing is really Wolfgang.
Carefully, he draws back from the cluster, breaks up the formation and steps out of the group hug. He turns to them, silent apology for the dissonance.
“You’re one of us.” Will says.
“You’re part of us.” Capheus nods.
Wolfgang smiles, and then turns back to Felix.
“Sorry for not telling you.”
“Damn right you are.”
Felix hugs him, tight.
Riley starts the music, Nomi and Sun pull Amanita into the middle of the room to dance. Hernando and Lito kiss, Will and Riley kiss, Capheus tells a story of Van Damme to Kala and Dani. Lito and Hernando ask Will to dance, Nomi and Riley laugh, Dani cheers them on. Kala is right there, in Wolfgang’s arms.
“Is it always like this?” Felix asks, breathless, after Amanita brought the third round of shots.
“This is the first party where we’re together like this.” Kala answers. “But yes.”
They’re thinking the same thing, and pull Felix to dance. It becomes blurry after that, like it always does, an intoxicated mess of love, ecstasy and connection, colors and skin and sweat and pleasure. All at once, the cluster lets go.