"And given the condition of the body, you're thinking it was set out around the start of the harvest, same as the others?" Reid asked, crouching beside the hole the scarecrow pole had been removed from, running the earth through his gloved fingers. Samples had been taken days ago, when the body was found and removed, so there was nothing to be lost in handling it.
"We're pretty sure, yeah. The ME says it'd be harder to tell if there was rain, but it's been cool and clear. It's a good year for the corn, if these murders don't fuck it up." The officer pointed into the corn. "We've had to block off part of the field as the crime scene, and the owners are pretty upset, because this is the healthiest corn they've got, over here."
"I'm assuming the soil, here, was tested for blood residue? At the very least because it's the site the body was found and it would be helpful in determining if this was the site of the evisceration or just a dump site."
"Didn't see much point," the officer admitted. "A lot of the farms here use bloodmeal on the corn. Corn wants a high-nitrogen soil, and bloodmeal and manure are cheaper, around here. Unless we're lucky and there's enough undamaged material to go for a DNA test, it's kind of pointless, and you're going to wind up with mostly pig or cow anyway."
"So, where do we think the organs went?" Rossi asked, watching Reid prod the soil, contemplatively. "Is the killer taking trophies, like those Egyptian jars? The entire abdominal contents of a body is a lot of volume, particularly times four."
Reid looked down the row as if seeing it for the first time. "With the length of time and the rate of decomposition, I'm not sure there's going to be much organ to find, but you might try digging along the rows of corn near the body. If this is the healthiest corn in the field, and the farmer's already using bloodmeal, I'd be willing to bet someone buried the organs here and left the body to mark the spot they'd treated. That doesn't really answer the question of why it would occur to someone to do that, but it's consistent with what little evidence we have. It's at least worth looking at."
"So, what's the story with you two? I know you're both on Fitzgerald, which I'm not on, except the part where I was investigating the actual Fitzgerald part of Fitzgerald, but I'd think you'd be sick of looking at each other, by now," JJ joked, as she and Chaz set up the room they'd be working out of, hanging the map and photos of the crime scenes.
"What, we're stuck on the task force from hell, so we can't be friends?" Chaz reached over JJ's head to pin a corner she couldn't quite reach.
"Reid doesn't really... have friends," JJ said, carefully, taping a photo to the top of a white board and starting a list from the initial report under it. "I know that sounds ridiculous. Obviously, he's friends with some of our team, but it takes him a very long time to be comfortable with most people. Aside from Frank. We have no idea what happened with Frank."
"Frank's a genius, and he's not a shit about it." Chaz set to work at the other end of the board with the most recent case. "Which is surprising, because he's a shit about everything else. No, that's not fair. He's incredibly kind and thoughtful, he's just an obnoxious prick -- not that someone should applaud him for being that way, but angry that no one else thought to make those accommodations first. Less 'I'm better than you' and more 'you should all be better than this'. He has expectations, but he doesn't actually think anyone else is going to meet them."
"Kind and thoughtful? Frank?" JJ eyed Chaz sideways, wondering if he knew who Frank actually was, like she and Garcia did. "He makes me nervous. There's something wrong, there. As much as Garcia tells me she used to know him, and he's always been a good guy, there's just something about him that bothers me."
"It's probably the chaos. Like any chaotic system, he's predictable, but only if you know how he works. Otherwise, he looks random and uncontrolled, and I don't think either of those are true. He's just not operating under the same set of principles most of regional normal is using, and there are a lot more moving parts." Chaz checked the paperwork in his hand against what he'd written on the board. Writing and talking at the same time was always a little more interesting.
"He strikes me as dangerous in ways I can't really put my finger on," JJ hedged, remembering that Garcia had been hesitant to have her undertake the initial negotiation with Langly. "I've only really met him a few times, all of them on cases, but I just can't take him at face value. You've spent more time with him. Should I be worried about Reid?"
Chaz snorted, taping up the next photo and switching the marker to his other hand, so he wouldn't be in JJ's way. "If you're worried about Reid beyond what a breakup would do to him, I'll remind you that Frank's not the only dangerous individual in that relationship." He held up the hand with the marker in it. "Yes, I get that he shouldn't have to be, but I think you're underestimating Reid's ability to take care of himself. The man's almost forty, and he's a field agent and a profiler. I'm relatively sure a healthy personal relationship with someone who already understands the complexities of his work isn't going to be more difficult for him than it is for the rest of us."
"You're single," JJ reminded him.
"That's intentional. You married a cop. You get where I'm going with this? It's the 'someone who already understands the complexities of the work' problem." Chaz finally looked away from his work, catching JJ's eye. "And I know what you're doing, Agent Jareau. This isn't actually about Frank, at all. You're trying to figure out if I can handle working with Reid, because you know what he's like, and you know it puts people off. Well, surprise, there's two of us. ... Except I actually do know how to use a computer."
"Why are you not a profiler?"
"First mistake. I am a profiler; I'm just not BAU."
"You cannot possibly be serious. This is about the Octium job?" Yves looked back and forth between Byers and Frohike.
"More directly next to the Octium job." Byers tipped his head. "You remember why we -- they -- needed the chip?"
"Something about you not getting turned into a paste, as I recall. I can't say I was paying that much attention at the time. Unlike ninety percent of the female population, I never found your absolute helplessness endearing, Byers."
"And yet, you're all over it, when it's Frohike being useless." Langly tipped his head back to look up at Yves. "I see how you are. You only like floppy dick when it's floppy granddad dick."
Byers huffed and sputtered, entirely appalled. "Langly!"
"You're how old, Langly?" Frohike asked, clearing his throat.
"Not my point." Langly looked back down at the screen. "Besides, when am I ever helpless or useless, huh?"
"You don't want me to answer that," Byers assured him. "But, this is hardly the point. The point is that my father once uncovered an Air Force covert ops project that was not in the best interests of the American people--"
"That's putting it lightly," Langly scoffed.
"--and he disappeared after they tried to kill him. He wouldn't go after them, and we didn't have enough information or support to do anything, at the time."
"So, you've been lying in wait this whole time, and you've finally been found out?" Yves did not look impressed.
"Oh, it gets even better than that." Langly turned on another screen and laid out the basics of the original abduction that got them involved. "This guy with the State Department stuck his foot in the same hole and got bit. Overlord's people kidnapped his wife and daughter -- shut up, Byers -- and the daughter was one of our sources, so that's how we got sucked back in. And then when we figured out that this whole thing was actually the same project that almost killed Byers and his dad, back in the day, we couldn't just sit there and do nothing."
"And ... now you think you have the support you need?" Yves looked around. "I suppose you're better funded, at least."
"Special Agent Langly's Boyfriend got us an FBI task force, which I'll tell you because your employer already knows about it." Frohike sipped his coffee and looked up at the original Fitzgerald investigation. "He's been hassling the agents involved."
"Bollinger's the other case," Langly corrected.
Yves finally found words. "Langly has a boyfriend? Langly's dating someone? There's a person out there who imagines this is a good idea? There's a federal agent with poor enough taste to--"
Langly looked up again, smugness writ large across his face. "Oh, yeah. I'm boning this hot, young profiler. Hot. So hot. Extra spicy. Ask Byers, he wants a piece of that."
"I do not want to sleep with your boyfriend, Langly." Byers sighed, rubbing his face. "But, he is conventionally attractive, highly intelligent, and well-spoken. None of us are sure how this happened, but they're apparently in love."
"Frohike, take my seat. Fuck up my main display and I'll find a yardarm to hoist your nuts on." Langly got up. "I gotta take this call."
"There's... nothing ringing..." Yves looked over her shoulder to watch Langly's retreating back.
"No, I'm pretty sure it's ringing. He's just the only one who can hear it." Byers watched that sink in. "He's a lot more interesting than he was the last time you saw us."
"You've got both of us, and no one else," Reid said, when Langly answered. "I got your message. Four for dinner? Allie or Garcia?"
"Oh, I wish." Every intentional sound Langly made came through, and nothing else, leaving the long, hissing inhale crystal clear. "So, right around the turn of the century, we knew this chick who did corporate espionage. And she got hired to come after one of our fronts. By Helmsman. And now there's a pending contract for a hit."
Reid looked to the foot of the bed, where Chaz sat, eating questionable Mexican food. "I need to get home now."
"No! Absolutely not. And somewhere, someone's laughing, but stay in Nebraska. It's safe in Nebraska. Well, for certain values of 'safe', that involve serial killers instead of lunatic journalists and semi-domesticated assassins, but from what you said, you got sent for a reason, and I'm assuming it's a real good one, if you took Villette with you."
"We're still waiting to hear what happened in Baltimore, but I can promise you it wasn't what we were told was happening in Baltimore." Most of the words were coherent, despite Chaz having his mouth full. "Turn on the news and see if there's anything about a mass shooting."
"A mass shooting in Baltimore?" Langly sounded surprised. "No, I'd have picked that up. The traffic routing would be screwed up. There'd be emergency broadcasts."
"Then you're right. We're better off in Nebraska." Chaz gave Reid a pointed look. "Any chance your old friend's contract had more names than just yours on it?"
There was a long pause. "Frohike says no. It's just us. So, if this is related, he's using more than one contractor, which is consistent with what we've seen, so far."
"Just... make sure I know you're alive." Reid swallowed. "And don't do anything stupid, Frank."
"Me? Stupid? When have I ever--"
"Two nights ago, when you decided to dance with the murder-spider without eating first." Chaz waited to take another bite until he finished the sentence. "Seriously, Frank, don't do anything stupid. We'll probably be home in a few days. I don't imagine this one's going to be that hard."
"Oh, great, now you cursed it," Langly scoffed. "Now, it's gonna be something epic and weird."
"Four victims--" Reid started and then caught himself. "I'm not supposed to be talking about this. This isn't Fitzgerald, and you're not on it."
"And I'm not really big on the murder thing. Corpses. Blood. Let's just not."
"So, what are your plans to avoid becoming a murder victim?" Chaz asked.
"Right now, we're going to have Yves accept the contract, and then feed Helmsman bad info, while we use her contact with him to nail him down. And I hope you do get back, soon, because this is going to be a pain in the ass to keep up for more than a week or two, and literally everyone I could give this information to is in Nebraska."
"That's not true." Reid took a deep breath. "Give it to Garcia. She's been involved in enough of this that even if she's not part of the taskforce, I don't think she's going to take it poorly. If you've come to a point where you have to go after him, before we're back, tell her, and she'll come up with someone to send in. Probably the tactical team we've been using for the raids. I don't want this to happen while I'm stuck in rural Nebraska, but if it has to happen, know that you can still get help. I'll call her, before I go to bed."
"Are you sure we're not going to wind up telling him we're coming?" Langly drawled.
"I'm not sure how much it's going to matter, at that point. We took out two facilities, and no one knew we were coming. If he's getting information, he's getting it too late."
"Yeah... all right. Yeah. Let's go with that." Langly sounded like he was trying to convince himself. "So, back to the 'going to bed' part... You two going to call me, when you go to bed?"
"When have we ever-- We're on a case. We are in a motor lodge in rural Nebraska. What makes you think--"
"Because I know the two of you? You freak out about something, and then you bone down to burn it off. And don't tell me you're not freaked out, I can hear it in your voice, Reid."
Chaz held up a finger and took a few swallows of something that claimed to be horchata, before replying. "Are you actually suggesting that we strip down and put you on speaker?"
"... May-- Yes. Yes, okay, I am. You know why? Because I'm pretty flipped out, too."
"What about By--"
"Come on, Spencer." Amusement crept across Chaz's face. "Phone sex for your boyfriend? He's suffering without us."
"Okay, and now you've made it gross." Reid squeezed his eyes shut. "I promise I'll call you, when we get into bed. That's it. You will know I'm alive; we'll say goodnight; you can go to bed with Byers."
A long pause, and then, "I'll take what I can get."
"So, we're got four bodies, all male, no identification," the consulting pathologist explained, nudging her heavy glasses back up with her wrist. "And for some real head-turning news, no cause of death."
"Excuse me?" Reid finally looked away from the partially-skeletonised most recent victim, turning his eyes to the unsettlingly familiar face of the pathologist, who hadn't yet been introduced.
"That's what I said, when Marina -- the coroner -- called me to take a look. She didn't want to sign off on them until she could be a little more sure in her report." The pathologist's golden-blonde hair shone as she shook her head. "It's the weirdest thing. Let's start with the obvious. They've been eviscerated. All of them. And I understand you lot figured out where to find the viscera, what little's left. But, there's no ligature marks and no defensive wounds, and it's a little hard to tell in this condition, but the blood pooled in the legs and feet, meaning there was enough blood to worry about pooling."
"They were already dead," Chaz concluded, trying not to correlate the pathologist's beak-like nose with her bird-like motions.
"Give the man a corndog. They were already dead." The pathologist gestured at Chaz with one skinny arm. "And that's where the problems start. No stabs, slices, bullet holes, broken bones, or other notable injuries. No obvious signs of disease, though we're mostly missing the organs. No lightning strikes -- saw one of those once, but the girl lived. These guys died because their hearts stopped beating, which is to say, we don't know why."
"What about poisons?" Reid asked, trying to figure out if there was enough intact tissue to even find an injection site, if it wasn't ingested.
"After this long, good luck finding most of the organics in the tissue or fluids anywhere. I sent samples up to the lab, but negative results don't mean much, by now. There's some things we can absolutely rule out, because they'd still be there, but there's too many that wouldn't survive the way these bodies have been handled. And the evisceration helped. There wouldn't be this much tissue left, if the gut bacteria was still present." The pathologist nudged her glasses up, again. "I'm willing to sign off on it as murder, but good luck proving more than desecration of a corpse, with the evidence."
Chaz cleared his throat. "Do you mind if I call a medical examiner I know? She's something of a specialist in weird deaths. Worst case, she'll find nothing more than you have, and we're back to the beginning."
"Please, the more eyes we have on this, the less chance it's going to bite someone when the prosecution can't demonstrate a murder took place." The pathologist stripped off her gloves and made a note on a clipboard hanging next to the door. "You two are FBI, right? Any chance you've got the legendary Madeline Frost on speed dial?"
"Actually, yeah, I do." Chaz offered lopsided smile. "I'm afraid I didn't catch your name when you came in."
"Mary Langly, forensic pathologist." She held out a hand and Chaz shook it, unable to keep the curiosity off his face.
"You don't happen to be related to the Saltville Langlys, do you?" Reid asked, face cautiously blank.
"Why'd you find my cousin, Dick?" Dr Langly asked, half joking.
"He came up, recently, in relation to another case. Old news, though. Late nineties, in Nevada." Reid shook his head.
"You're serious, aren't you."
"Like I said, he showed up as a witness in another case. The name stuck with me."
"Everything sticks with him. He can quote books he read when he was ten, and give you the page numbers." Chaz rolled his eyes.
"That's most of what I know about Nebraska, I'm afraid. Saltville Langlys and the unusual implementation of the Coroner's Office." Reid shrugged.
Chaz finished changing the subject. "I'll leave Dr Frost your number, if that's all right? She'll call you directly. She's... ah... a little brusque. It's not you. She's just like that."
"Thanks!" Dr Langly looked a great deal like her cousin, when she smiled. "It's going to be a real pleasure to have an opportunity to work with her."
"We can't tell her," Reid said, in the car.
"No, but we can tell him," Chaz countered. "She's still alive on paper."
"He has to know. He knows his parents are dead. He's probably not talking to her for a reason, like the fact that nobody's heard him talk about his family pretty much ever."
"Then why did you say anything?"
"I was surprised! And then I was curious. And don't try to tell me you weren't thinking it, like I know you're about to. I was watching you think it."
"Fine, but I didn't ask!"
"None of the victims are local, for a fairly broad definition of local. There's not enough people for disappearances to go unnoticed, and no men have disappeared from the surrounding communities in a number of years, let alone college-age men of about six feet, which our victims seem to be," Rossi explained, over lunch.
"It's an average height, for the age bracket," Reid remarked between bites of a chicken salad sandwich he was already having second thoughts about, but Chaz was hungry, so he was hungry. And he really suspected Chaz was doing it on purpose.
"So, the next question was how to figure out if people who didn't live here had gone missing in the area." JJ took over, as Rossi went back to his pork roast. "And we realised that impounded cars would tell us a lot, with the population distribution and the comparatively low rate of tourism, so we went to the impound lot and checked into rental cars and cars with out-of-state plates that had been sitting for at least two weeks, or in the case of the rentals, had been picked up two to four weeks ago -- those get returned to the rental agencies, so you can't count on them still being available, which is a pain in the ass."
"I'd assume any vehicles that got returned with significant damage or blood would've been reported, at some point in the process." Chaz was eyeing a second box of chicken and gravy, having made short work of the first, mostly on the drive back from the restaurant.
Reid pushed the box toward him. "There's probably not going to be blood from the victims. Maybe from the killer, but that's unlikely to be a substantial amount, given the later lifting of the bodies."
"Doesn't matter. The rentals are practically sterilised between customers." JJ shook her head and eyed Chaz's second box of takeout, now open in the first. "Is the fried chicken that good? Should I have gotten the fried chicken?"
"As long as you don't get the chicken salad," Reid muttered, considering the other half of his sandwich balefully.
Chaz grabbed an unused plastic fork from the pile in the middle of the table and dropped two pieces of chicken into the lid of Reid's sandwich box, pouring a small pool of gravy next to them, and leaving the fork. "If you're done martyring yourself to bad chicken, you should have some of the good chicken."
Reid shot him a burning glare, knowing Chaz had been completely aware of how bad the sandwich was, this whole time. "Thanks. We'll see what my stomach has to say. I don't know why I'm so hungry, today."
"It's all that not eating catching up with you," Rossi teased.
"You have seen me eat, Rossi. You have heard me talk about trying new restaurants. I have taken you to some of those restaurants."
"There is a difference between occasionally putting some food in your mouth and actually eating enough, and I'm not sure you usually make it to the second of those."
"I'm going to second this callout." Chaz held up a greasy hand, smirking as he listened to all the things Reid couldn't say go by. "You really do need to eat more, or at least more often."
"Anyway!" Reid picked up a piece of fried chicken by the plastic fork stuck in it, offering JJ something that might have passed for a smile if it involved more than his lips. "Weren't you going to tell us about your victim search via impounded cars?"
"I'm pretty sure we've found three of them. The fourth may have been a passenger with one of the others or may have arrived by other means. But, these three haven't returned to their homes, according to local police, and their cars are still here, which is pretty suggestive. Still trying to get in touch with any friends or family members who can tell us what they were doing here."
"Local police, here, have offered to help us out with canvassing local businesses. If they checked into a hotel, stopped for lunch, or picked up a souvenir, we should know by tomorrow afternoon." Rossi watched Reid struggle to eat fried chicken without putting his hands on it.
"What's interesting, though, is that none of the hotels report guests not having checked out." JJ dipped a dinner roll in her soup. "So, we're thinking these are people who didn't mean to stay. Probably stopped to eat, and then meant to get back on the road, but the killer picked them up."
"So, how does that work with where the cars were found?" Chaz asked, wiping off one hand and pulling his laptop out of his bag.
"No relevance. The cars weren't found near the dump sites or near any businesses. They were pulled off on the sides of some smaller roads that lead up through the farms, but not the farms the bodies were left on." JJ shook her head. "The cars are being processed, now. Hopefully we'll find something that doesn't belong to the victims, but with college boys, half the trace evidence in the car is going to belong to college girls."
"Your killer's thinking ahead. Whether or not the victims' cars are used to transport the victims to the dump sites, they're disposed of afterwards, and not near the dump sites, and since they weren't clustered -- I'm assuming they weren't clustered -- they're probably not near the kill site or the killer's home." Chaz took a bite of the chicken he still held in one hand, the other hand opening things on the laptop. "Give me locations? I want to see how this lays out in relation to other things," he said, with his mouth full.
"He's really good at geographic profiling." Reid tipped his head to indicate Chaz, as if there were any question who he was talking about.
"Pattern recognition skills." Chaz caught Reid's eye over the laptop screen, amusement passing between them, silently. "He remembers things. I know where they belong."
JJ unlocked her tablet and shoved it across the table. "Notes from today are still open. I've got the original reports in there, too. The files should be linked, if you scroll up."
Chaz looked at the tablet and shot Reid a loaded look.
"Because I work better without it, okay?"
"Hey, gorgeous and potentially slightly less gorgeous, because I'm entirely biased. I can't talk right this minute, because I am up to my balls in Helmsman's operations, but I'm entirely glad you're still alive to call me." Langly's fingers flew across the keys, the phone sitting on the desk next to him, and Yves watched him curiously, trying to figure out what she wasn't seeing.
"Slightly less gorgeous?" Chaz sounded melodramatically offended. "I hope you mean Spencer!"
"He doesn't." Reid's amusement came through clearly. "So, you know we're in Nebraska. I have ... something to ask you, when you're a little less busy."
"Lincoln's a shithole, I think Saltville got ploughed under, a dozen years ago, and don't trust the Mexican food. Did I miss anything? Probably. But, it's Nebraska, and I'm pretty sure you can take care of yourself, in the Cornhole of America." Langly heard Frohike swallow a laugh, behind him, as he reached out and hit speaker on his phone. "Working, though. Gotta go. I love you."
"I love you, too," Reid replied, the words quiet but crystal clear. "I'll be home soon."
"You'd better be. This bastard's going down."
"Remember what I told you--"
"I know, I know. Call Penny. Kiss kiss, Special Agent Sexy. Tell your evil twin I said goodnight." Langly disconnected, both hands still on the keyboard.
"I refuse to believe this," Yves said, after a moment. "That is ridiculous. And it's made more ridiculous by the fact that the phone didn't even ring, so this was obviously staged, though to what end, I can't imagine. You were never keen to impress me, before, though perhaps you've gotten taste."
"I have. I have excellent taste in feds." Langly fell silent for a moment, text scrolling in multiple windows, as he waited for something to go by. "Which means I still don't give a shit about impressing you, and if I had my way, we'd have knocked you back out and sent you parcel post to Abu Dhabi."
"He's changed, since the last time you saw us," Frohike said, quietly.
"No, he hasn't," Byers retorted. "He's not different. He's just more. He's still exactly Langly, he's just Langly times ten."
"Langly turned to eleven," Frohike agreed, after a moment's thought. "That really is the best way to think of it."
"I am yet another cryptid Mulder never boned," Langly muttered, understanding the text flying past him, without really seeing it, and extracting what he needed into documents that weren't displayed on any of the screens. There was only so much he'd give Yves.
"A cryptid," Yves scoffed. "You expect me to believe that you, the fifty-year-old virgin... well, maybe that would make you a cryptid."
"You can't prove that, and you'll never know if it's true."
"I can't imagine why I'd need to do either."
"It's those times when you don't know the truth that it comes back to bite you in the ass."
"I expect that's the closest you've ever come to a sexual encounter, Langly, being bitten on the ass by the truth."
Frohike winced. "I can promise you that's not the only thing that's bitten him on the ass, in recent months. He's really not kidding about the fed."
"Spencer, I know I'm the last person with any business saying it, but chill. Breathe. Sit down and eat something." Chaz sat at the small table he'd pulled away from the window of the hotel room, eating yet more of the good fried chicken. They'd managed to get back in just before the place closed for the night, and he'd tried to balance his order so he wouldn't look like an asshole, keeping the staff late. In the end, they'd cut a deal where he'd paid for five meals, and they'd packed up a good portion of the remains of the day's buffet for him -- the parts that looked edible, anyway.
"We're in the middle of a case, and we have nearly no leads. There is almost no evidence, none of the bodies are fresh, and what little evidence we might have is so horribly compromised and contaminated that it points exactly nowhere, and none of the victims' families are local, so we're stuck relying on the local police wherever they are and telephone interviews. And victimology is great, but I'm not sure it's going to tell us anything useful, here. It's less important who they were and more important that they were here and not local. Young men, twenty to twenty-four, passing through York on the way somewhere else. They're probably fairly healthy, given what we know, which tells us that whoever killed them -- and did so without leaving an obvious mark -- was strong enough to lift an incapacitated man of about my height and probably Rossi's weight, and to do so four times without significant injury to themselves." Reid stopped pacing long enough to pick up his coffee from the edge of the table and take a long swig. "Because if they'd injured themselves, they wouldn't have been able to do it again."
"So, we're most likely dealing with a man between twenty and forty, likely white, given the local population, probably a farmer after that stunt with the entrails, which may extend the upper age a bit." Chaz let himself be dragged back into speculation, in the hopes Reid would at least sit down. "But, how's our guy luring these presumably heterosexual college boys -- although the interviews might change our mind about that -- to wherever they're being killed?"
"What if he's not?" Reid finally dropped into the other chair, coffee still in hand. "What if he's ... we know it's not a blitz attack, but what if he's ambushing them near their cars. Injecting them with something, maybe? Dart gun? We're not going to find holes in the bodies, as they are, and like Dr Langly said, the toxins have decayed if they were there at all. ... It's still weird saying that."
"Yeah, I'm ... And I've heard about how he gets around dead bodies, so this is just funny." Chaz tossed a chicken bone into the box in front of him as his phone rang. "Need something in Michigan?" he answered it.
"If you ever leave town without washing the oven again, I swear to you, I'm going to roast peanuts in it, right before you get home. Why is Falkner telling me you're in Nebraska?" Hafs asked.
"Sorry about the oven. In my defence, I didn't know I was leaving town. As to why I'm in Nebraska... try asking Prentiss and then tell me what she says. I really don't know what's going on. I just know it was strongly suggested to me that I take this serial case in Nebraska. It's a little weird, but so far it looks BAU weird, not WTF weird."
"Prentiss-- What the hell happened, Chaz?"
"I honestly don't know. I just know Rossi wanted me on this and Falkner okayed it. You should ask Prentiss. In her office." Chaz was fairly sure that mentioning this was a question to be asked in person would get the point across. "You should probably also check on Frank. I heard things went a little sideways, there."
"I know what's going on with Frank. We're working on that," Hafidha assured him. "Penny and I will take care of your chew-toy. I promise he'll still squeak, when you get him back."
A confused sound that was almost a laugh left Chaz's mouth, and Reid's questioning glance was met with a vision of a small rubber Langly. The ensuing perplexed look was worth the extra effort.
"I appreciate it," Chaz said, managing to sound like he wasn't stifling a laugh. "And so does Agent Reid, even if he's not sure what he's appreciating, yet."
"I'm not kidding about the oven, though, Charles."
"I'm sorry about the oven! Look, when I get home, I'll make moussaka, and I'll wash the oven after."
"That may be an appropriate act of repentance. I'll let you know when I finish washing the oven. Called you while the cleaner sets." There was a brief pause. "I'll bother Prentiss in the morning. I think I'm going to go watch bad cop shows and yell at the television, until I can wipe whatever that is--"
"Frank's funeral potatoes recipe."
"I bet you Stabler washes the oven."
"I bet you Stabler doesn't even know how to use the oven. Come on, he's set up as the good guy, the sensitive male, and then he just keeps acting out all this toxic masculine bullshit. That is not a man who has gotten past microwave dinners."
"Are you fucking profiling my bad cop show?"
"...I'm hanging up on you."
"Uh-huh. Love you too."
Chaz tossed the phone on the table and picked up another piece of chicken, prepared to go back to the conversation he'd left behind.
"I have no idea what you just tried to tell me," Reid said, from across the table, still staring into space in vacant confusion.
"Oh, Hafs said she'd make sure we got our chew toy back with the squeak intact."
"She thinks she's funny." Chaz took a bite of chicken. "She's right."
"Just so you know, this is not how you get me to stop making dog jokes about you."
"No, reminding you that you made dog jokes about me in bed is how I get you to stop making dog jokes about me."
Reid groaned, tipping his head back, one hand pressed over his eyes. "I wish you didn't remember that. I wish I didn't remember that."
"There's a joke here about meat and bone, but I know better than to make it, if I want to get laid."
"We are in the middle of a case," Reid said, again, leaning forward and gesturing with the coffee forgotten in one hand.
"We're in the middle of a case that isn't going to change in the next..." Chaz pulled out his pocketwatch. "...ten hours, at least. We've gone over all the evidence available, several times, and drawn all reasonable conclusions and speculation. We have thought it to death. And here's the other thing: you're usually working cases where another victim is forthcoming. This isn't one of them. Look at it. All the victims are clustered around the start of the harvest -- weeks ago. There are no fresh bodies, because there aren't going to be fresh bodies until next year. You know I'm right."
"Most likely," Reid conceded.
"So, yes, we're in the middle of a case, but we're in the middle of a case in which no one is likely to be in danger any time soon, and there's nothing more we can do for the next ten hours, give or take." Chaz pushed a box of rolls and cold chicken across the table. "You'll see it better if you leave it alone for a few hours."
"You are such a hypocrite."
"Do as I say, not as I do. Doing as I do is how you wind up suffering like a moron who spent three days running on caffeine and sugar, and just crashed straight into a migraine and something grotesque and probably viral, because you know what else needs sleep? Your immune system." One corner of Chaz's mouth tipped up and he ducked his head, trying to hide it. "Besides, aren't you supposed to be older and smarter? I shouldn't have to tell you this."
"Aren't you supposed to be younger and healthier? I've never gotten sick from three days up," Reid teased, stretching the truth only a little. He hadn't gotten sick, but there was no way he was entirely well by the end of that. JJ was fond of telling him he looked like he'd risen from the dead, when he did things like that.
"The point is, you're not going to feel like you've been hit by a bus, in the morning, if you eat something and go to bed."
"And yet, you're offering to keep me up all night."
"No, see, Frank would be offering to keep you up all night. I'm just offering a shortcut to pleasant exhaustion and hopefully unconsciousness." Chaz shrugged and finished the last of the chicken he hadn't offered Reid. "I'm going to take a shower and go to bed. You get to make your own decision."
Reid stayed up longer, going back through what they had, over and over, watching Chaz try to sleep. Finally, he gave up, turned off the last light in the room, and went to shower.
It wasn't until he was in his bed, that he realised he wasn't going to be able to sleep. He stared at the ceiling, trying to convince himself that Langly would be fine, that the man had survived this long on his own wits, and a contract to kill him wasn't going to make that much of a dent in his day. Reid could almost hear Langly's voice in his head -- 'Oh, look, it's a new day, and now somebody else is trying to kill me. Again. God, I love this fucking country.' But, if anything went wrong... No, everything always went wrong, and it probably would, again. This was Langly. The man seemed to be a master of last-second improvisations that shouldn't have worked.
But, what if they didn't, this time?
In the other bed, Chaz had pushed himself tight against the wall, and Reid could hear the tiny, angry sounds that signalled a nightmare. If he thought about it, Reid could probably figure out which one. Instead, he got up and crossed the room, sitting on the corner of Chaz's bed, as he reached into the liminal space between them. He couldn't open the connection -- he'd never be able to -- but the connection was never quite gone, just closed, like a hallway with a door at either end. So, he knocked, jiggled the handle, and waited for Chaz to notice he was there.
After a few moments, Chaz suddenly relaxed, almost melting back against the bed, as the tension ran out of him and he settled away from the wall. With a half-awake inquisitive sound, he slid a hand across the bed, toward Reid, who caught the fingers in his own.
Minutes passed, Reid just holding Chaz's hand, in the almost-dark, his concern for Langly a constant hail of noise in the back of his mind, as he tried to focus on the moment. Lean, cool fingers loosely curled around his hand, the smell of cheap motel, the light coming in through the closed blinds from the parking lot, the grinding tremor in his right wrist-- He stopped a moment to make sure that was actually his, and then bent his hand against his thigh until his wrist popped, spurring another inquisitive sound from Chaz.
This time, Chaz woke up. Eyes still closed, he took stock of the situation -- where was he, again? Which case was this? Why was Spencer so upset it was echoing off the inside of his skull, like some borrowed winter wind? Oh. Right. "Hey. Get your phone and come to bed. Call him. We're stuck here for the duration, but you can hear his voice, even if all he's going to tell you is he can't stop to talk."
"It's the middle of the night," Reid protested, half-heartedly.
"Are you fucking--" Chaz propped himself up on one elbow, still holding Reid's hand. "When has that ever made a difference to any of us? It's not like he sleeps normal day-job hours! We have normal day jobs and we don't sleep normal day-job hours!"
"There is absolutely nothing normal about our day job," Reid muttered, stretching his wrist.
"Okay, something else is going on here, and I'm not going to go digging, because me getting my ass righteously kicked is not going to make either of us feel better."
"I've already called once, today, and he's busy and hasn't called back. And I know better than to push."
"You're trying not to be clingy and desperate." Chaz nodded. "Get your phone and come to bed. There's someone out there with a small army of surveillance engineers and cartel hitmen, and they're trying to kill all three of us. I'm pretty sure calling because you want to hear his voice is understandable. Didn't he admit to watching your GPS, while you're out of town?"
"I told him he had to stop doing that, and now I'm going to look like a hypocrite."
"Good. Because you are one. Just call him." Chaz squeezed Reid's hand and then let go.
Reid finally stopped arguing and got up for his phone, sitting a little further up the bed, when he returned. He sat and stared at the phone. No message light. This was stupid. If Langly answered, maybe he'd sleep better, but if Langly didn't answer, he was going to be a mess. If Langly didn't answer, he was going to render himself useless and still be stuck here. And if Langly answered, he was going to look like an ass.
Sighing, Chaz reached out and punched the speed dial he knew would call Langly. If he was wrong, he just called Byers, but he was pretty sure that was Langly.
"What--" Reid started, panic splashing across his face. He'd finally convinced himself he'd be all right without calling, and now--
"Hey, Special Agent Sexy, if you're calling to give me a good time it's gonna have to wai--"
"I just needed to hear your voice," Reid said, quietly, trying to keep his voice steady.
"What's wr-- Oh, shit. Yes. I'm alive. I promise you, everything's fine. We're just tying up some location data so this guy goes away for good and his goons don't come after us, later. But, we're pretty good at that. Right now, we're not at the worrying about it point. Right now, we're still at sit in a nice safe bunker and steal data." Langly paused for breath. "Do you want me to leave you messages, maybe every few hours? I'll do it. Look, I'm setting an alarm right now. I might be incoherent, but I'll be me, and I'll be alive, and you'll know."
"Yes." Reid's voice was small. "Thanks."
"Are you crying? You're crying. Oh, god, you're crying. I'm so sorry. Why didn't you call me?"
"You're busy. I figured you'd call when you had a minute." Reid sniffed and tipped his head back. "And I'm not crying."
"Okay, I'm making a minute to call you. And if you freak out, call me. Nothing is going to happen, here, without you hearing about it. I'm fucking awesome, remember? And someone's always got a cel phone, even if I don't have mine."
And Reid heard what he meant -- that he wouldn't just disappear, again, even if something did go wrong. "Thank you. I can't do it again, Langly. Once was too much. I love you. I'll, ah, let you get back to what you were doing."
"I will be here for you to come home to," Langly promised, "because I'm not letting some wanky Air Force blowhard take me out, if the goddamn shark virus didn't do it. Kiss Sticks-and-Boner goodnight for me."
Reid finally laughed, as he hung up.
"Liar, you're totally crying." Chaz poked Reid in the side.
"It doesn't count as crying if my face isn't wet," Reid argued, head still tipped back.
"Which is going to happen the second you close your eyes or tip your head forward."
"I'm very good at this." Reid took a few long, shaky breaths and finally looked back at Chaz. "I still want to go back."
"We will. Just give it a couple of days, so we can say we've handled everything. Who knows, discovering the scenes might set the killer off again. He'll do something stupid, and we'll get to go home triumphant, instead of coming back out to... what did he call it? The Cornhole of America?" Chaz snorted and pulled the shitty motel comforter up a little higher. "Does your team know what he's like? Do they really? Because yeah, he's funny as hell, and we both know it, but I feel like your side of the floor regularly underestimates your appreciation for a dirty joke. Or a bad joke. Or a fart joke."
"I'm pretty used to them underestimating me." Reid finally stood up just enough to pull the covers out from under himself. "It's that much more fun to watch them react when I do something ...human."
"Have I mentioned recently that I really appreciate what a completely manipulative shit you are? I mean, I speak from experience." Chaz draped an arm across Reid's waist and drew him a little closer, a welcome, more than a demand.
"Why, no, you're not a feral coyote! You are a sweet and gawky puppy, unjustly maligned!" Reid teased, hand curling around the back of Chaz's shoulder and holding on a little too tight. "Evil twins."
"You're going to cry, aren't you."
"This is ridiculous. I just talked to him, and he's fine, and I should return to being a rational adult any minute, now. I know better than this."
Chaz pulled a little harder, wrapped himself around Reid's body, one hand gently stroking his back. "You literally the opposite of 'know better'. The last time you and I were out of town on a case together, he got abducted and tortured. You watched your last girlfriend take a bullet. Spencer, whatever the hell you think you know, the evidence here is not friendly to that conclusion. I still support that conclusion, though. We're going to finish up, here, and then we're going to go home and nail the coffin shut on Helmsman."
"I feel like we should behead Helmsman and drive a stake through his heart, just to be sure, speaking of irrational impulses," Reid joked, tears dripping onto the bed, between them. "I just want to go home. I should be there."
"We should probably ask about Baltimore, before we get too close to home," Chaz reminded him. "Because if it wasn't for Baltimore, we'd still be home. You know there's no reason for us to have ended up here, otherwise."
"I don't like this. I don't like any of this. And do you know what I like even less? I have no idea what's going on, and it makes me extremely nervous."
"I know I'm supposed to say something about how there's nothing to be afraid of, but right now, I'm pretty sure that's a rational fear. People are out to get us, and more of them are after you than me. Nervous is probably the sign of a sane and reasonable mind." Chaz wrapped his leg more tightly around Reid's, rubbing his toes against Reid's ankle. "I don't like it either. I don't like it, and it scares the shit out of me. And it scares the shit out of you. And that is not the feedback loop we should be encouraging, if we're going back to sleep."
"Show me something beautiful."
And Chaz's first thought was the way Reid looked at Langly, always fond, sometimes exasperated, usually amused -- the look of someone profoundly in love. And Reid countered with the way Langly looked back, faintly suspicious, but totally game. That led down the rabbithole of Langly appreciating all sorts of things, though most of them involved Reid, in some way, from smiles to stunned ecstasy. And not for the first or last time, Chaz wanted to have someone he could look at like they looked at each other. But, for now, they wanted him, and he wanted them, and it was enough. It was more than enough to build an incredible dream that he and Reid could share -- a warm bed with the sun pouring through the windows, and Langly between them, wanting, welcoming.
Chaz and Reid moved as if there were only one of them, and it took JJ a moment, watching them, to realise there were two of them, that she hadn't just watched Reid come down the hall alone. But, both of them were standing in front of her, dressed nearly identically, and partially in clothes from the day before, if she didn't miss her guess, both holding coffee that they sipped at the same time, with the same motion. They really didn't look that much alike, even as Villette lightened from the lack of direct sunlight, but JJ had no question where the idea of them as twins had come from. She watched them have an entire conversation in a series of minuscule flicks of facial muscle that barely qualified as expressions, before they turned their strangely collective attention and intentionally-expressionless eyes to her and Rossi.
"Pigs," Rossi declared, without preface, and there was finally a break in the perfect unity, as Reid's eyebrow arched up.
"The farmers have been checking, every morning, to see if the crime scene tape is down -- it's blocking part of the harvest, and apparently some very good corn -- and this morning, they all found butchered pigs and a lot more very good corn than they remember being there, when the scenes were established."
"Normally, I'd say something ignorant, here, about plants growing, but corn doesn't ripen that fast, does it? The first scene's only been blocked off what, a week? Can you even tell if the corn is good after a week?" Chaz frowned contemplatively and sat on the edge of the table.
"About a week, and even a few days more wouldn't have produced corn like this. There's photos, obviously, from when the bodies were discovered, and, well..." Rossi gestured to the before and after photos taped up under the crime scene information.
Reid blinked like he'd been smacked, horrified amusement curling the corners of his mouth. "Aren't you glad you came with us, now, Agent Villette?"
"I hate you. This is my case, now, isn't it?" Chaz sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"I don't understand." JJ looked back and forth between the twins.
"He means it's an X-File," Rossi translated.
Chaz nodded. "It's an anomalous crime. Inexplicable events -- in this case, the corn -- have happened during the commission of a relatively explicable crime. That's my speciality. That's what the ACTF is for." Chaz ducked his head and smiled. "It's why we're sometimes called the WTF. All our cases are like this. Most of them are weirder. I have to call Falkner and make it official, but my team is in one of those frosty states that starts with 'M', so we're it. Welcome to the WTF."
"Remember Alcea?" Reid asked. "Like that, but... with more corn, apparently."
"All your cases are like Alcea?" And JJ had known that, but she hadn't quite come to terms with what it meant. "Things like that are just... normal?"
"Not that normal, or they wouldn't be anomalous, would they?" Chaz went to get a better look at the corn photos, as if they would tell him something. Frankly, he didn't know a damned thing about corn or corn growth rates, but given the three-month harvest season, he could assume there was no way this was natural. Still, he looked at them as if he knew enough to glean more information from the shape of the ears or the colour of the corn.
"Is this why you're weird around him?" JJ asked Reid, cocking a thumb at Chaz.
"Don't be ridiculous." Chaz squinted at the corn. "He's always weird. That's got nothing to do with me."
Reid pointed at Chaz and nodded, but JJ looked unconvinced. 'Anomalous'. That was certainly one word for it. In all the years she'd known Reid, she'd never seen him act so comfortably, trustingly, synchronously with another person.
"Tell us about the pigs," Reid said, after a moment.
"Almost the same as the humans." Rossi slid his tablet across the table. "Dead of unexplained causes -- and this time, there's enough tissue left to check for anything we could possibly want to check for, so we'll know how unexplained, soon enough. Eviscerated, post-mortem, and the entrails buried under the corn. Weird decomp on the entrails, though. They look like they've been there a lot longer than overnight, and they smell like it, too."
"They weren't dressed up as scarecrows, though," JJ added, her eyes drifting toward Reid. "But, they are all from one farm."
"Rossi? Why don't you and Villette do the pig farm, and JJ and I will deal with the victims' families?" Reid suggested, with a brittle smile.
"Not a fan of pigs?" Chaz teased, opening his mouth to make a joke about being in a police station, when the explanation for Reid's sudden discomfort slammed against the inside of his skull. He paled and gripped the edge of the table with one hand. "Not fan of pig farms. Right. Sorry. Yeah, sure, I'll do it. Do we think the pigs were taken by someone working there, or were they stolen?"
"I think they were stolen," JJ volunteered, flipping through a pile of actual paperwork, until she came up with what she was looking for. "The pig farm called in the missing pigs around the time the farmers started calling about finding them. Everyone's day started a little less than pleasantly. It looks like the pigs were walked out of the barn to the back fence, which is cut, loaded into a truck, to judge by the tire marks, and driven to the sites. And they all happened last night, which doesn't leave much time to do anything complicated, because these calls started at the crack of dawn."
"And we didn't leave the last site until after ten, because I wanted measurements. I wanted to get a feel for the way the scenes went together, so they had to either be right behind us or they waited until we came back to town." Chaz rubbed his face and looked at Reid over the top of his hand.
"Waiting for us to be done presumes they knew we were there." Reid shook his head. "I don't think that's a good assumption. Also, it doesn't leave nearly enough time to get the pigs into four different cornfields and then remove the organs, dice them, and bury them. And moving the pigs? That wouldn't have been easy. Have you met pigs? And why pigs?"
"You want this science reason or the dick reason?" Chaz asked.
"The science reason is that pigs aren't bad transplant organ sources, as far as non-human parts go." Reid finished his coffee and stared into the cup, wishing it would refill itself. Maybe that's what he'd get, if he lost that fight -- infinite coffee. He could dream.
"And the dick reason is taunting the police?" Rossi ventured.
Chaz nodded. "This is looking more and more like either an extremely nasty teenage prank or actual ritual sacrifice, and I lean toward the latter because of the corn, which pushes me toward the science answer. Or, potentially, the convenience answer. If you cant suddenly come up with four more human victims, your choices, around here, are cows, pigs, or chickens. Chickens don't strike me as large enough? Which leaves pigs and cows, and I get the impression moving an unwilling or uncertain cow -- nevermind an unconscious or dead cow -- is going to take even more effort than a pig. They're huge."
"And we're definitely looking at someone who knows how to move a pig." Reid looked up from his coffee and gestured at the report JJ had referred to earlier. "If not, there would have been a lot more damage. Don't give me that look! Pigs are terrifying. Have you met a pig? Look at this -- someone just walked them straight back to where the truck was parked. Do we have video?"
"Next question." Chaz caught Reid's eye. "Is this related to why our presumably-heterosexual, fit, male victims went with their killer, without a mark on them?"
"Next next question: Have we got anything on the victims, yet?" Reid looked at JJ.
"Not yet. That should start coming in over the next few hours."
"We don't know this guy." Langly looked thin and sick, but sounded furious, sitting wrapped in a blanket at the kitchen table as Byers slid another plate piled with pot roast and potatoes in front of him. "There is no connection to any of us, except Overlord. This is some utter fucking rando who inherited a vendetta, and is acting it out like it's his own."
"The institution has enemies." Frohike pointed the neck of his beer bottle at Langly. "It's not personal, now, if it ever was."
"I'd say it was pretty personal!" Byers rarely got loud, but his voice was definitely strident. "The man tried to kill his former best friend, and then tried to use me to make sure he was dead and stayed that way! Me! Against my own father!"
"Honestly, Byers, your dad's kind of a dick." Langly stared at him, daring him to challenge that assessment, and for a moment, it looked like Byers might. "I'm starting to think that's just a dad thing. Your dad, my dad, Reid's dad. ... We don't talk about Villette's dad, but I wish I hadn't opened that file. I guess your dad was a dick with principles, at least."
"Fat lot of good it did him, and he gave them all up, in the end. Just... walked away from all of it! Everything he'd worked for! Everything he'd fought for! And after years of harping on my bad life choices--!" Byers gestured emphatically with a serving spoon, flinging a glob of insufficiently-stuck mashed potatoes across the kitchen.
Everyone's eyes followed it, and Byers carefully stuck the spoon back into the potatoes and stepped away from them.
"Assault with a deadly potato," Yves drawled, unwilling to admit she was actually impressed with Byers's cooking, after the last couple of days.
"Nah, that was a couple months ago." Frohike waved his beer dismissively. "Acetylene potato gun. Instant mashed potatoes in the worst possible way."
"I came out of that with a whole new respect for potatoes. And my boyfriend."
"And we're back to the boyfriend. How, exactly, did you even meet this boyfriend, if you've been living in stark seclusion, this entire time?" Yves squinted down the table at Langly. "Is this some sort of witness protection? The FBI taking good care of their dirty little secret?"
"They didn't even know we were alive. They were definitely not looking after us. No, an old friend wanted my help with something and sent me the hot fed as a peace offering, to make up for finding me. I don't think she was expecting me to keep him as a bonus on the contract." Langly paused and shrugged one shoulder. "I don't think he was expecting to keep me. But, here we are, and I'm really pretty happy with it."
"She sent you a sex slave?"
"She sent me eye-candy. Not that I was looking." Langly looked awkwardly at anything that wasn't Yves, finished his Jolt, and tossed the can across the kitchen, landing it in the sink. "And then the folding chair collapsed and he fell on me, and there wasn't a lot to do but look. He was still a fed. Not supposed to grope the fed. It's just a bad idea. But, you know, after an evening of stupid chair accidents, it was meant to be. I've got no regrets. He's got... Do we know what the hell was going on in Baltimore? Because Baltimore's why he's in Nebraska, and I feel like we should know if that's our problem, too."
"Not a mass shooting. I know that much." Frohike shook his head. "From the local PD the only thing that stands out is there was some kerfuffle about a press conference that didn't go as planned. A bunch of reporters showed up, and nobody knew why they were there. They all insisted they were supposed to be meeting with the FBI about an agent going rogue. FBI showed up later, saying the governor had asked them to profile a shooter, and nobody knew what they were talking about, either. I think it's a setup, and I don't think it's Helmsman."
"Bollinger and Narcisse." Langly sighed, looking unexpectedly tired and fragile, and Byers put a hand on his shoulder.
"We're already working on that. Called in some favours and got a 'Local Hero' fluff column inserted in a couple of the dailies -- they've got higher circulation than we do. Nibbs offered to sneak us in as online-only, and I said we'd take it."
"Little old ladies are going to think he's such a nice boy," Frohike promised. "Which he is. Doesn't explain what he sees in you."
"I treat him like a person. One of these days, he'll figure out he can do better." Langly shook his head and regretted it. "Right now, we have to survive long enough to nail these bastards to the wall, so he has time to make that decision, later."
"I think you're stuck with him, Langly." Byers patted Langly's hand, which felt thinner than it had two days ago. "I think he's in this for the long haul."
"Yeah, I hope so, but I'm not putting money on it. It's me."
"Hey, if we haven't thrown you out, yet," Frohike teased, tossing another dinner roll onto Langly's plate.
"Yeah, but we're-- Oh. ...Huh." Langly blinked a few times in surprise, tearing the roll in half and stuffing it with potatoes.
A common cause had brought them together and kept them together, he reflected, keeping his mouth full so he wouldn't have to say anything. So, would the same thing work with Reid? Or, once the case was really over -- once both cases were really over -- would they drift apart? Reid wanted something permanent, something stable, someone to come home to. And Langly... never really thought about it. He wanted to be a badass, to be respected, to be a legend, but that was his own life. It had never really included anyone else, not even Byers and Frohike. Looking ahead, from here, though, he had a gorgeous boyfriend he loved -- at least he was pretty sure that was what that was -- and a hot federal cryptid who liked spending time in bed with both of them. And really, he had no idea how these pieces went together. Reid would decide. Reid would tell him. And they'd draw a few more lines about what wasn't okay, and if it lasted, he'd take it. And if it didn't... well, things would go back to the way they'd been, and that had never really been so bad, not even when they'd been poor.
Byers's phone rang, and it took him a moment to notice, not only because his phone never rang, because only two people had the number and one of them was in the room already, but because that wasn't the sound his phone made when it rang. All the same, once he figured it out, he answered it, to strange looks from around the table.
"Are you with Ringo?" Hafidha asked, with no prelude.
"He's right next to me. You could have called--"
"No. I'm going to say this to you, because I already said it to him. He's off-duty for at least twelve hours. He has to be. He needs to eat and sleep. Look at him, Fitz. Does he look well?"
"He looks like he's losing weight."
"I'm fine!" Langly said, loudly, and with an entirely typical vehemence.
"Langly, you look like you're dying," Frohike gently pointed out. "Shut up and eat your potatoes."
"He has to stop," Hafidha warned, again. "I can keep an eye on what he's been watching, for a while, because most of it isn't safe enough for Penny. But, you need to get him to stop, because I promised someone we both care about that I wouldn't let him kill himself. He can still use a computer, but with his hands, not his brain. And I know he can feel what he's doing to himself, and I also know he's ignoring it. And I know why. Trust me, I know. But, he can't make this mistake, and I think he'll listen to you in a way he's not listening to me."
"What can I do to help?" Byers asked, reaching out to take Langly's hand and getting slapped away.
As Hafidha began delivering instructions, Byers got up from the table, going to the refrigerator and pantry, as she talked about food, first. At the table, Frohike and Yves watched him curiously, while Langly proceeded to finish what was on his own plate and then Byers's.
Langly knew he was sick, and he knew it was from working too long, too hard. He understood, now, what Chaz had meant about the smell. But, it was impossible to eat enough to fuel what he'd been doing, especially because he hadn't been sleeping. There came a point where he physically couldn't swallow any more, and had to stop eating, but he couldn't stop working. He couldn't lose the thread. And so he'd pushed through it, through the dizziness and the headaches, the pains that crawled up his legs and tore through his forearms. He'd kept working right up until he couldn't feel his hands, right up until he suddenly couldn't see. And then, panicked, he'd called Hafidha and handed off the threads he'd been holding, promising he'd be right back for them.
He'd poured packets of sugar into his mouth and washed them down with Jolt -- liquid, he could still fit. And as his vision came back, he told Byers he had a splitting headache and he was taking an hour. Byers had insisted he come to the table and have supper with them -- supper he hadn't cooked yet, so Langly could just sit down and wait for food. And he hadn't been sure he'd be able to eat, but by the time Byers had finished cooking, his body had figured out where to put the heap of Twinkies and shitty protein bars he'd been cramming down his throat. And the whole time, he'd kept up the argument with Hafidha about whether he'd be well enough to take back his work, the two of them silently arguing across a file on one of the servers, in the other room.
"You're going to bed," Byers said, as he returned to the table, "and I will sit on you, if I have to."
"And what's Penny going to say about that, hmm?" Langly's voice could've etched glass.
"I'm not worried about Penny. I'm worried about what I'm going to say to Dr Reid, if I don't." Realising his phone had no camera, because Langly had built it, Byers picked up Frohike's tablet from the counter and peeled the bandaid off the camera, as he brought it around to take a photo of Langly. He flipped the tablet around to display the photo. "You're going to bed, Langly. You have to."
Langly's hand flew to his face, to the bones that were sharper, now. "What? No, no-- What did you--?"
"That's what Agent Gates is trying to tell you. You need to stop. You need to rest. Let her handle it, for a while, so you can recover."
"We're so close, Byers. We can do this. We can take this sonofabitch down and burn his entire operation to the ground. I just need a little more." Langly looked up at Byers, his eyes larger and somehow more sincere, in his sunken face.
"She's good, Langly. Let Agent Gates do this part." Byers put the tablet down and held out his hands to Langly. "Come on. We'll go to bed. We're almost there, but I want you to live through it."
"It's not that bad," Langly insisted, pulling the blanket tighter around himself as he stood and let Byers lead him away. "It's just a headache. I'm fine."
"Reid." Langly's eyes leapt open, and he struggled to get his hand out from under Byers, who woke up slowly.
"What are you doing?" Byers sounded tired and confused. Looked it too.
"Getting my phone, since you won't let me make calls like a normal network cryptid," Langly huffed, rolling to the side for more leverage to lift Byers. "Get off my arm. It's asleep, anyway. Which I'm still not."
"Do you have any idea how much caffeine you've had? I'm surprised that didn't kill you." Byers moved over enough for Langly to extract his hand.
"Please, I could mainline pure caffeine and it might give me the jitters." Langly grabbed the phone and hit the delay button. "Hey, Special Agent Sexy. Just wanted to let you know I'm still alive. Everything's fine, here. We've almost got this bastard, for real this time. And now I'm going to hand the phone to Fitz so he can explain why I'm in bed and not working on this."
Byers didn't realise what was happening fast enough to dodge the phone that got clapped against the side of his head. "Ah... this is a message, right? Right. Well... your boyfriend is alive, but he's not well, and Agent Gates has instructed us to limit him to more, er, normal interactions with electronics, for a while. Also, he hasn't slept since you left, so I'm going to do whatever I have to in order to make sure that happens. Don't worry! We've kept him alive this long!"
Langly rolled his eyes as he took the phone back. "Anyway, call me, later. I have a bad idea I want to talk out with Sticks-and-Bones and a whole lot of dirty words to whisper in your ear."
He hung up and jammed the phone between the mattress and the edge of the bed frame, where he'd be able to reach it, later, without waking Byers. "So... what are you prepared to do to keep me in your bed, Byers?"
"Anything reasonable and several things that would be unreasonable in other circumstances." Byers eyed him warily.
"How about napping on more of me than my arm? I'm pretty sure you're not going to cut off the circulation to my spleen."
"We've confirmed the identities of three of the victims," JJ said, looking up from the pile of paper spread across the table where she and Reid sat, as Rossi stepped back into the room, carrying a bag that smelled like lunch. "They're just like we guessed -- average, reasonably-happy, heterosexual college boys."
"The interviews don't reveal any recent changes in behaviour, friends, or living situation, aside from some amount of excitement surrounding their travels." Reid held out a hand, and without a word, Chaz stepped around Rossi and put a wrapped sandwich in it. "Thanks. They're not all coming from the same place, nor are they going to the same place, but the credit card records do show they all stopped at the same truck stop, just outside of town. What am I about to put in my mouth?"
"About a quarter pound of cheese and enough vegetables to be seen from orbit." Rossi unpacked the bag he was holding onto the table. "Villette just didn't have the stomach for pork chops."
Chaz looked slightly ill, as he carefully moved a few piles of documents out of his way and sat down, setting another bag on the table between himself and Reid. "You were right about the pigs."
"Of course I was right about the pigs." Reid unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite "Swiss?"
"I like it."
"You're going to hate it later," Rossi muttered, "and I hope you're not in the car with me, when that catches up with you."
"One? It's a cheese. Two? It's not a soft cheese. Three? It's the only dairy product I've put in my mouth today. I'm fine," Reid argued. "Tell me about the pig theft."
"Fun part first," Chaz said, washing down a bite of his own first sandwich, "there's two of them."
"Two pigs?" Reid looked confused. "I thought there were four..."
"Two pig thieves," Rossi corrected. "One of them knew where the cameras were and sprayed them, but there's about a third of a second that includes a second figure wearing all white."
"White? In the middle of the night? In the middle of a break-in? On a pig farm? I bet that wasn't white by the time they were done." JJ shook her head and took the sandwich Rossi handed her, as he went on.
"We're pretty sure the first figure -- the one actually dressed for this excursion -- is male. The one in white is less certain."
"Are we sure the pigs are actually the same people as the murders?" Reid asked, one hand shielding his full mouth. "Two people seems like it might be copycats trying to capitalise on the original murders and the number of horror stories involving cornfields. They may just be trying to spread panic in the wake of the original crime."
Chaz looked curiously at him for a long moment. "Spencer? You feeling okay?"
Reid froze and then looked down at himself. "Fine. Why?"
"Because you're usually paying more attention than that. The magic corn? The no cause of death? Mostly the corn, though. I'm really sure that's the key, here."
Reid squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "Right. Sorry. Still a little..."
Chaz looked down the table at JJ and Rossi. "Excuse him. Someone's trying to kill Frank, again. It's the Fitzgerald case."
"Do we need to send you home, Spence?" JJ asked, putting down her sandwich. She looked up at Chaz. "If this is Fitzgerald, do we need to send you both home?"
Reid took a deep breath, eyes still closed. "Yes."
"No," Chaz said, a split second later. "Baltimore."
Reid was on his feet before Chaz could finish the word, eyes flashing, hands clenched at his sides. "Fuck Baltimore."
JJ inhaled audibly.
"Frank wants you in Nebraska," Chaz reminded him.
"Frank nearly worked himself to death this morning. I'm not sure he gets to have an opinion right now!" Reid snapped, well aware that he'd finally lost the control he and Chaz held so dear.
"Hafs says he's lost a little weight, but otherwise he's going to be fine," Chaz promised, looking up at Reid with that strange stillness other people found so unsettling. They both knew what was happening, here. They both knew panic was never pretty.
"Maybe he'll finally fit in my pants." Reid's head tipped down, an ill-fitting smile creeping across his face, as he pressed the heel of his palm against his eye.
"Come on, have a sandwich, and then we'll finish the bubble gum, so we can go kick some ass."
Reid nodded, shaking as he sat back down. He gripped the edge of the table, trying to make it stop. "I know you're right."
JJ shot Rossi a wide-eyed, but pointed look, and Rossi shrugged in return, just as surprised.
"Brief detour," Chaz said, looking up the table at JJ. "Do we know what happened in Baltimore, yet?"
She shook her head. "Prentiss won't discuss it over the phone."
"Corn. Murder. Cryptids." Reid was still staring at his hands, fingertips white against the edge of the table. "If there are two of them, what are the chances they're both anomalous?"
"Slim," Chaz said after a moment. "It's rare, but because of the, ah... epidemiology, it's a lot more possible than actually manifests. When it happens, it's usually in families. Still, I have a sense about this one. I think the one in white is our anomaloid." He wiped his hand off on a napkin and pointed to Rossi. "Stills?"
Rossi slid his tablet down the table. "You're thinking a cult, aren't you."
"I'm definitely thinking something with religious overtones. Possibly magical overtones -- in the fantasy novel sense, not the mystery cult sense, and I'd make that distinction because it alters the type of mythology we'd be dealing with." Chaz flipped through the stills from the video, and then pushed the tablet toward Reid. "Here. Second figure's not just wearing white, that's a choir robe or something."
"Female," Reid said after a moment's study.
"I don't think it's a dress," Rossi said, and Chaz shook his head.
"He's right. I see it, now. That's a really atypically belted chiton, and the belt is something more typically seen in fantasy-medieval women's styles. See the way there's the diamond shape and the cord goes up and hangs down? We can't see any higher, but I'm willing to bet either the person or the outfit has breasts. Most likely female, either way. That or a man dressing into the role of a woman for ritual reasons, which would be an aspect of the mythology, but I'm not up on corn-related tropes." Chaz picked up the tablet, again, enlarging part of the image, then tilting it and squinting. "Something's not right with that hand, and the resolution's not high enough for me to figure out what it is. Might just be the light, but there's some kind of ... discolouration? A tattoo, maybe? It's not dark, whatever it is. Lighter maybe. A scar?" He tugged at his own cuff, reflexively.
"Let me see?" JJ held out the hand that wasn't holding her sandwich, and Chaz slid the tablet across the table. She studied the image. "I think it's shadow. I think the light's passing through something, because there's a pattern, there, lighter and darker."
"I agree about the pattern, but I really can't tell at this resolution. It probably is just light and shadow. Some kind of wire or chainlink, probably." Chaz shrugged. "So, he's wearing a ski mask and she's missing above the waist, before he sprays the camera. But, that is probably a male and female team, and she's anomalous, at least."
"Given the difference in dress, I'd venture she's also some sort of authority figure to him, possibly because she's anomalous," Reid ventured.
"You think she's another like Alcea?" Chaz asked, stepping through it in his head. "It would explain how easily the men and the pigs-- Circe?"
JJ laughed. "No, she turned men into pigs, not turned men and pigs into corn." She paused. "You're serious, aren't you."
"You never got the whole story about Alcea, did you?" Chaz raised his eyes to JJ. "And I can't tell it to you, or I'd have to kill you. Or, more importantly to me, I would be so fired."
"She and Rossi were both on that case. They're on this case, now..." Reid tipped his head thoughtfully at Chaz.
"Falkner is going to shit a brick." Chaz sighed.
"They were exposed to two anomalous individuals before you even got there," Reid pointed out. "It's not like she can blame you for providing details that may become relevant to the case we're actually working."
"Cryptids," Chaz said and took a deep breath.
"You mean like Bigfoot?" Rossi teased.
"No, but given some things I've seen, I wouldn't be surprised. You remember when Frank thought Alcea was using that mind-control gas, and then we figured out she wasn't? That was just her. That's a thing she can do with her mind. And the reason she can do it is something we call the Anomaly. Some people have it and most people don't, or it wouldn't be anomalous. And the Anomaly latches on to some aspect of the host's history and beliefs -- sometimes stories, urban legends, anything it can use to explain itself to the host. We call that the mythology, and because the host is still in some amount of control, so the powers they manifest are constrained by and based in the mythology the Anomaly latches on to. So, Alcea knows some of Frank's old friends, and she heard stories of the gas, growing up. When she got into a stressful situation, the Anomaly gave her the ability to manifest the effects of the gas, via a different delivery method. In her case, screaming. Which makes some amount of sense. The Anomaly showed itself because she was in serious trouble. What do most people do when they're scared? They scream. It's a lot more complicated than that, but that's the essence of how it works. People who have the Anomaly suffer some kind of trauma, and then the Anomaly gives them the power to do something about it. Unfortunately, a higher than average number of anomalous people also gain a fairly continuous urge to do harm to themselves or others, so you've got this tiny percentage of the population that makes up a statistically significant percentage of serial rapists and killers -- and they're the ones no one catches, because most of the time, their work doesn't look like something a person could do -- lightning strikes, a rash of suicides, spontaneous dehydration..."
JJ watched Reid who didn't have that faintly mischievous look he'd always gotten when Morgan was bullshitting them. Instead, he ate the rest of his sandwich, nodding and tipping his head toward Chaz at appropriate intervals. "Are you fucking kidding me? Okay, Reid, haha, joke's over. What the hell?"
"He's serious. I never worked on any of the X-Files, but I knew Fox Mulder, before he, ah... retired. This describes about a third of his cases, from what I could tell." Rossi looked a lot less disturbed than JJ, as he glanced over at Reid. "You said two anomalous individuals. Assuming you're not talking about yourself, which honestly may not be the best assumption, knowing you, it's either one of our cases or it's Duke."
Chaz looked like he was about to swallow his lips, trying not to laugh. "You probably have had anomalous killers, over the years. Things where everything lined up, but shouldn't have been possible, usually. The guy who shoots people with an unloaded gun, the one who claims to have drugged his obviously drugged victims but there's no trace he gave them anything but sugar water, the one who walked into a closet and apparently stopped existing. There are usually other explanations, but every once in a while..."
"This seems less like cryptids and more like bad policework," JJ said, after a moment, her sandwich forgotten.
"Once you see it happen in front of you, one of the obvious ones, you will never forget it," Reid assured her. "Although, you have seen it happen. It was just much more explicable through other means and mild misdirection."
"So, tell me, Melvin, what is going on here?" Yves sat on the edge of the kitchen island, watching Frohike cook breakfast for all four of them, even though Byers and Langly hadn't gotten up, yet. "The last time I saw you, you were still working in UFOs and fake Elvis sightings. Now, you have a surprisingly well-outfitted ... still a warehouse. Can't stay away from them, can you?"
"Why would we? The space is good and the place is inexpensive, compared to residential space." He gestured with his elbow, spatula still over the pan. "Pass me the Salsa Vendetta?"
Rather than get up, she put the jar between her feet and stretched. "And, somehow, here you are, despite everything, having almost silently made it big. Money, presumably power, and no one knows your name. Do they even remember your work?"
"You assume I stopped publishing." Frohike glanced over his shoulder. "With all this money, why wouldn't I still be writing?"
"Because you can't go anywhere. Because you can't let anyone know who you are."
"Please. I'm an international man of mystery. My kung-fu action is legendary. I'm not going to get a little thing like having to be invisible get in my way!" Frohike slid an omelette onto a plate and moved on to the next. "I'm a journalistic ninja."
"You're not actually going to tell me what you've been doing for the last almost twenty years, are you?" Yves finally realised.
"Nope. We didn't get this far to risk it all, now."
"I am not a risk, Melvin. A risk doesn't come to your house and tell you someone's trying to kill you! A risk doesn't offer you her employer on a silver platter!"
"Unless you're setting us up." Frohike opened a can of bacon, one eye still on the pan of eggs.
"Why would I be setting you up? I've been hired to kill two members of your household. I'm standing in your kitchen. There's no need for a setup. If I wanted them dead, I'd have killed them. ... Though Langly does still tempt me."
"To kill him? Common reaction. To anything else... just don't tell me about it."
Byers groaned and squeezed his eyes even tighter shut. "Why aren't you asleep, yet?"
"Sleep is for assholes." Langly huffed, knowing he'd really, entirely overdone it on the Jolt -- something he hadn't been sure was even possible, until that moment.
"Okay, so, I repeat: why aren't you asleep?" Byers fumbled with the blanket, trying to drag it up over his head, but he thought it might be caught on Langly's foot.
"Because I want you to kiss me, you jerk."
And that woke Byers up. He shoved himself up, so he could see Langly's face, so he was sprawled across a lot less of Langly's body. "You what? Why?"
Langly recoiled against the bed, blinking and rolling his eyes as if the answer should be obvious. He shrugged one shoulder. "Because I want to remember what it's like."
The blood drained from Byers's face, to be replaced a moment later with angry offence. "What is with you? You think it's funny to throw that back in my face? Or do you think if you piss me off I'll leave you to kill yourself in peace?"
"Byers, no. I'm-- No. Just--" Langly managed to untangle his arms from where Byers had the blanket pinned, and he reached up and took Byers's face in his hands. "Last time I was kind of drunk and flipping out. And flipping out. And drunk. And did I mention flipping out? Because I was definitely flipping out. It's not really-- Look, I just want to remember what kissing you is like and have it be a good memory, not a bunch of panic and something I know we're never going to talk about."
"How do you know it's going to be good? Worth remembering? If you were that wasted, maybe I'm the worst kisser ever born."
"You're not. I met her, once. Once was enough." Langly offered a lopsided smile and let go of Byers's face, his arms dropping bent onto the pillow above his head.
"... You... I don't remember this. Where the hell was I for this?" Byers blinked in surprise.
"I don't know. It was like eighty-seven? Eighty-six? I was somewhere in West Virginia, maybe? I didn't even know you." Langly's smile turned wicked. "Oh, surprise, I had a life before I met the two of you."
"Of course you did. I just didn't think--"
"I keep telling you, Byers, just because I don't talk about my life doesn't mean it didn't happen. You can't take Frohike's word for everything." Langly stretched as lazily as he could manage. "Which isn't the point. Are you going to kiss me?"
"Are you going to make it through breakfast without grabbing the network?"
"I've been in bed, not sleeping, with you putting my arm to sleep and crushing my junk with your hip for hours, and I haven't grabbed the network yet. I don't think Frohike's cooking is going to change that!" Langly reflexively tried to fold his arms across his chest, but slammed his elbows into Byers's arms, instead.
"Good, because I don't want to be kissing you goodbye."
"Oh, shit. Come down here. I'm fine. You heard Hafs. She'll give it back, after I eat lunch, because all I need is a couple of meals and a few hours offline. I'm not dying, Byers."
"You still look like it."
"... Okay, maybe I need a shower." A tiny smile curved Langly's lips. "Definitely need a kiss."
Byers rolled his eyes. "Does this shit work on Dr Reid?"
Prentiss looked up to find a thin, dark woman standing in the doorway of her office -- the technical analyst from down the hall, she thought. "Can I help you, Agent...?"
"Gates," Hafidha said, stepping in and closing the door behind her. "Agent Villette asked me to come see you about Baltimore? He thought you would know something about how that connects to why he's currently sitting in in a motor lodge in Nebraska."
Prentiss nodded to the phone on her desk and then looked at Hafidha. "Why don't we go get a pastry? I skipped breakfast, and I'd like to eat something, before I discuss an open case involving agents from both our units."
Hafidha understood at once, pulling a small black box with an LCD screen from one of her multitudinous pockets. She didn't need it, but it made a great prop for moments like these, and she waved it around the office while she checked for transmitters. But, the only signals she could find were supposed to be there. Assuming that Agent Prentiss was correctly assessing the situation -- and it being her office, Hafidha had no reason to doubt her -- the bug was a more traditional sort, probably attached further down the line and not broadcasting wirelessly. Not her end of the electronics spectrum, and suddenly, she wished Langly were there.
She nodded and stepped back toward the door. "Let's do something more exciting than stale crescent rolls from downstairs."
"Something we can walk to. I don't want to deal with traffic again," Prentiss agreed, gathering her coat and purse as she stood.
They made their way downstairs talking about nothing -- how was Reid holding up as a liaison, was that one case causing any tensions in their unit, was that really the Solomon Todd in the elevator the other morning? Hafidha looked mildly distracted, until they'd gotten two buildings down the road, in the direction of a decent coffee shop.
"Baltimore. I looked it up, before I came to you. What do you know about a man named Harry Bollinger?"
"The tabloid reporter who's been stalking Reid?" Prentiss looked surprised. "Not much, aside from the fact he's earned himself a restraining order."
"Then you don't know about Narcisse."
"I know she's still awaiting trial, and her story keeps getting stranger. Are you telling me Bollinger interviewed her? Is that what set this off?"
Hafidha shook her head. "Not quite, but the link's there. There's a prison reform activist named Belle Frain in the middle. She believes Narcisse's stories, despite the physical evidence, and she's contracted Bollinger to find a scandal -- as many scandals as possible -- that could be used to smear Reid's name in the press, before the trial."
"So, the same tactic she's had all along, but now there's someone listening." Prentiss nodded slowly, never noticing the way the lights changed just as they came to the curb.
"You better hope Agent Reid doesn't have any secrets, because someone's going to know, and someone's going to talk," Hafidha warned, holding up a hand, before Prentiss could object. "I'm not talking about your agents. But, anything the Bureau has on file becomes an open book, if you can bribe the right people. And they're not going to be asking about cases. Just about an agent's personal life. Maybe some statistics about shootings. They're going to go fishing, and if they hit someone who thinks the information is mostly harmless, or worse, someone in records who doesn't like Reid, we're going to have a problem."
"He's going to have a problem," Prentiss corrected. "I'm going to have a problem."
The question was implied. "We're all going to have a problem." Hafidha tipped her head apologetically. "I've seen the records you should be worried about. I had to retrieve them for Falkner, when you offered us Agent Reid. And none of that's a problem for us. We've got worse. We've got the infamous Solomon Todd. But, Duke's got a handle on his own legend, and he's had that since way before he joined the Bureau."
She figured it was prudent to leave out the part where she'd spent some time essentially as a supervillain.
"And Bollinger's not directly the problem, because I know the restraining order was granted. Nice thing about being a federal agent. The whole building's been warned to document any communications he attempts and have them reported to me and to the local PD. And he's figured that out." Prentiss stepped off the curb again, traffic having stopped just before she reached it. "What I want to know is how a photojournalist for an online paper with a total readership of about a thousand people has the kind of pull it takes to fake a press conference and, more than that, to get someone to call from the Governor's office. If I'd jumped at that call, the way someone obviously expected I would, my team would've gotten ambushed by the press on the way into a situation that would've made them all look completely incompetent. Instead, they arrived a little later than expected, and came in knowing they'd been set up and investigating that."
"And Agent Villette is still in Nebraska."
"Not actually my decision," Prentiss pointed out, pulling open the door of the coffee shop. "Villette drove Reid to the airfield, and Agent Rossi asked him to join them, assuming the situation in Baltimore was related to Fitzgerald, rather than to Narcisse. And that was my fault for not being more clear. I mentioned I'd handle anything that came up related to Fitzgerald, while they were gone."
"So, in your opinion, Agent Villette is not in any danger from the incident in Baltimore, aside from the second-hand bad publicity of working with Agent Reid." Hafidha followed, taking in the change in the air and the powerful smell of fresh, buttery baked goods. She stepped up to the counter and placed a large order, pointing at everything that looked good in the pastry case.
"Bringing some back for your team?" Prentiss asked, as she waited for her coffee.
"Hell no. That's all for me. They want some, they can walk down here."
As they sat down, Prentiss eyed the nearly bone-thin woman across the table, behind a massive assortment of pastry. "You didn't come to me to ask about Baltimore. You came to tell me about Baltimore. And you came to see if anyone had been keeping me in the loop about Reid's stalker."
"So, I know you can't investigate that, because of the conflict of interest. But, because he's on loan to us, and the stalker may endanger our team, we can. And I've had Frank Arroway's help. Of course, we can't discuss the results of our investigation with Agent Reid, but we can pass the relevant parts on to the local police. And since this Baltimore stunt came through your office, now you should know. In return, I want what you know and I don't, and I was hoping that included how the hell this happened, but obviously not."
"Well, we're relatively sure the call to me wasn't placed by a person physically inside the Governor's office, or even the building. Everything checks out, there -- security logs, video record, interviews with the night staff."
"Which means someone either spoofed the number or spliced into the line." Hafidha nodded, taking another bite of a pain au chocolat that didn't compare to the ones at the place Chaz liked. "I'm betting it's a splice, because you wouldn't have been able to call back a spoofed line."
Prentiss nodded. "And that's exactly why the callback is part of the procedure. So, we're looking at someone with access to the box... but I think that still puts them inside the building."
Hafidha tipped her head from side to side. "Maybe. If it were the nineties? Yes. Things are a little more interesting, now. I'll go have a little chat with the phone company's servers, and see if anything jumps out. There's a number of places the phone number could've been intercepted and redirected, and I'm hoping whoever did it left a mark. You should probably get someone out to check the physical equipment. I'd say take Arroway with you -- he's got a completely unnatural talent for telephony -- but, Fitzgerald just got nastier, and I don't think it's safe for him to leave the house, right now."
"Why is it that you know so much about the Fitzgerald case?" Prentiss asked, mildly unsettled that the task force of three working on an entirely classified operation had come to number six.
"Because like your agents Jareau, Rossi, and Garcia, I was there for the girl. And then, unlike those three, I was there for her mother. I know why parts of this case are ACTF's jurisdiction, not yours." Hafidha licked chocolate off her lip. "You also inherited Sol Todd, for this one. So, the task force may be two agents and a consultant, and I know that's to protect the rest of the Bureau, in case you have to cut them off as having gone rogue, but you actually have eight people working this case in their spare time. And we've almost got the guy. We've almost got all the pieces. Actually, we've got enough that you could probably take him now and keep him in prison for the rest of his life and four more lifetimes, but if we don't take out--"
"The whole organisation, this is going to come back to haunt us, later." Prentiss nodded.
"Haunt us? Most likely kill us. Anyone who even breathed on the case files. Six agents, you, Falkner, Todd, Asher's family, Agent Garcia's boyfriend, Frank Arroway -- those last two already have a contract on them, as of a few days ago -- the tactical teams for both raids... And since ... let's say the organisation, because I'm trying to avoid certain words right now, is using teams of cartel assassins, they stand a very good chance against all of us, with the possible exception of Villette."
"Villette?" Prentiss blinked. "Did I miss something?"
"Let's just say his skillset's a little more Agency than Bureau. He'd have done well in East Berlin."
Reid's phone rang and then made a noise it was not supposed to make. As the concern darted across his face, Chaz looked over with a tiny head-shake.
"You should get that. It's Hafs."
"On this line?"
Chaz shrugged. "It's wireless."
"It's encrypted! End-to-end!" Reid looked horrified, even as he realised he had no idea what he was talking about, but was repeating what Langly had told him about why exactly this wasn't possible.
"It's Hafs," Chaz said, as if that were an answer.
Reid answered the phone, looking disgruntled. "Agent Gates, I presume?"
"Took you long enough to pick up."
"Let's just say I had some concerns about my supposedly secure line suddenly having a new ringtone."
"Frank breaks encryption, but encryption isn't meaningful to the way I understand data. Which means I'm the only person I know of who can do this to your phone. And I have Frank's permission, so he's not wasting energy chasing down my signal. Feel better, yet? Good. Put me on speaker. I got Baltimore."
"We're in the car," Reid protested, looking out the window at miles of cornfields as far as the eye could see. "Give us just a minute to pull over somewhere."
"Do yourself a favour and get out of the car. Let's not take chances."
Chaz pulled over, completely unsurprised when Reid was out of the car before he'd turned off the engine. He followed, plucking the phone out of Reid's hand and noting it was already set to speaker. "And now that we're freezing our asses off in a cornfield in the Cornhole of America, what are you not saying where our bold and righteous employers might overhear?"
"Baltimore wasn't Helmsman; it was Bollinger. We're still not sure how, but why is the same as always. The idea was to make the FBI look incompetent and then throw Reid to the dogs."
"Start over," Reid said, "and assume neither of us know what happened in Baltimore. There was a call from the Governor's office about a shooting that didn't happen. That's all we know."
"Sit back and pray for coffee, because this is going to take a minute..."
By dinner, Langly was barely even pretending, any more. The laptop next to him on the table blinked and flickered, but he hardly bothered to touch the keys, occasionally setting down his coffee long enough to make a quick gesture in the air. They almost had a map, both a physical one of Helmsman's residences, businessplaces, and favourite restaurants, and a relationship map of the people he was dealing with, regularly. One step down, and the spread widened massively. Two steps, and most of the project was accounted for, in terms of divisions and locations. Three steps, and everyone who worked for the project in any capacity could probably be discovered. And that was what they needed -- everyone, everywhere.
"We're going to miss someone. You know we're going to miss someone, and then it'll be like halfway through the trial, and we'll go out for a nice lunch somewhere, and fucking snipers," Langly huffed, shovelling more mac and cheese casserole into his mouth.
Yves looked up from the tablet she'd borrowed, where she'd been skimming the financial information on their targets. She had a particular eye for the way money moved, and following it always led interesting places. "Then don't stop watching them, just because it's supposed to be over. I'm sure you should be able to automate most of this, once you've located the relevant individuals and filled in all the blanks. Just have it alert, if an unexpected contact is made."
"You're assuming we're not looking at a kill order passing as a pizza order," Frohike pointed out. "Yes, I know how paranoid that sounds, but have you been us? Weird cliche is cliche for a reason."
"Can't be any stranger than a hacker pretending to work, while someone else feeds him data." Yves pinned Langly with a look.
Langly pushed his chair back, the legs squeaking against the tile floor, and shoved himself out of the seat, both hands on the table.
Byers's eyes widened. "Langly, don't."
The tablet Yves was using suddenly powered off, and the phone she'd been taking calls from Helmsman on cycled through its entire list of ringtones and then called its voicemail, on speaker, the synthesized female voice asking for a passcode echoing through the sudden silence in the kitchen.
"Langly--" Byers hissed.
"I am the network," Langly lied, wondering if he could get Hafidha to teach him to do that. "Did anyone tell you Helmsman already had me? No? Didn't tell you his people pounded enough electricity through me to light up New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Funny fucking thing. I'm one with the machines, now. All of them."
On the other side of the room, the coffee maker started, and Langly had never been so glad he'd wired it for bluetooth, after Reid fixed it, because otherwise he'd have had to go at it the long way.
"So, maybe don't credit someone else with my fucking work!"
The lightbulb above where Yves sat exploded, spraying glass against the inside of the fixture. That one, Langly'd had to hit the repeater and follow it into the electrical wiring for -- something he'd only try in the house, because he knew it so well -- but the look on her face was worth every minute of mapping the circuits, and the closed fixtures meant he wasn't raining glass all over dinner.
He picked up his plate and stormed across the kitchen to get more casserole, never having stopped handling the incoming data from Helmsman's people -- phone, email, GPS, all of it still ringing off the inside of his head as he sorted and filtered it to where it belonged. Yves was at least slightly right, though -- he could cut down on the power drain by letting the servers do the processing. If he just focused on maintaining the connections and keeping them invisible... He wished Hafs and Penny where there, and at the same time, he wished they were even further away than they were. The longer this took the less safe they all were. There was only so long Yves could keep Helmsman at bay, before he pegged her as incompetent, or figured out she'd switched sides.
Coming back to the table, Langly started offloading functions and filters onto hardware that would handle them better than his brain -- or at least with less fuel cost. "And now that we've established what I'm doing, I need someone to take some things off Hafidha's hands, because I'm going to need to hand this back to her, in a few hours."
"I'm not sure that's possible," Byers observed, warily.
"Not like that." Langly rolled his eyes. "She's trying to figure out how Bollinger got the leverage for Baltimore, or if someone else is more directly responsible."
"You don't think Narcisse--" Frohike started, but Langly cut him off.
"She's as good as Vanity. All she needs is access."
"You're thinking Narcisse is the call from the Governor's office?" Byers asked, chewing contemplatively.
"No, I think Narcisse set it up. I think Frain is the call, because she's dumb as a brick, but none of us know her voice." Langly washed down another mouthful of cheesy pasta and ham with a swig of over-sugared coffee. "I just can't figure out how Narcisse is getting a line out. She's not supposed to be allowed near a computer, even if there are some in the prison library."
"If your mysterious woman and the computers are both inside the same building, it doesn't take much to get them in the same room, no matter how many locked doors are between them. Other people pass through those doors regularly. All she has to do is convince one of them she has an exceptional sob story." Yves pointed her fork at Byers, unwilling to look at Langly. "You know I'm right."
"If it's true, it's going to show up somewhere." Langly stared into his plate. "Byers, Agent Gates is about to call you. See where she is with the phone company. You and Frohike should be able to help her with that. Yves, I need you to talk to me about Helmsman and money. What am I not seeing?"
"I hardly think--" Yves started to say, and then the tablet beside her rebooted without warning, the screen lighting up as Langly tripped the 'wake-on-network' signal.
"Now is not the time for screwing around, Yves. You're down this hole just as far as we are, and if it comes down, I don't think any of us are walking away. The faster we're done, the faster you get to walk away and pretend you've never heard of us, same as always." Langly raised his eyes, staring down the table.
Yves leaned over Byers and pinched Frohike's cheek. "Now why would I walk away from that?"
Langly eyed Byers. "There are worse things in heaven and earth than me having a boyfriend, and I'm so glad we replaced the walls."
"You don't really believe that stuff about cryptids, do you?" JJ asked Rossi, as they moved on to the next farm, asking questions about the community, about major traumatic events the neighbours might have suffered, recently.
"I'm not sure it matters. Comes out the same, either way -- someone out there is killing people in some fashion we can't yet explain, and using their organs for fertiliser. We write the profile, find the killer, and hopefully arrest them." Rossi shrugged, slowing down to let a young man chase a few chickens across the road. "We've got a few sad stories, so far, and most of them repeat. Which ones are you liking?"
"Well, anything where everyone died probably rules them out as suspects, and anything from more than a few years ago, probably. So, that leaves out the Langlys, unless this is their missing son's revenge, and--"
"JJ? What's the son's name?"
"Richard. Oh. You don't think--?"
"I'm pretty sure. Mark off the Langlys. I'd be real surprised if young Dick returned from the grave to commit serial murders in his hometown." Rossi studied where the corn had been cut. "What else have we got?"
"The Wilsons' farm burned down, last year, but they took it as a sign to move to Minnesota, so not them. The Barletts lost their daughter a few months ago, but I think they're too old to be our mystery couple..." JJ flipped through her notes, observations as much about the people telling the stories as the stories themselves.
"Worth a look. Do they have any other children?"
"One son, but he lives in Lincoln. Should see if he came back to help out on the farm, maybe hooked up with a local girl." JJ skipped over a few more pages. "A lot of these look like bad country songs -- the divorce where she took the tractor, the truck, and the dog; everyone died when the cattle spooked in a storm; broken heart drunkenly wraps his truck around a phone pole, collapsing it through the living room window of the girl he loves. The Pattersons are a really sad one. The daughter gets hit by lightning, but survives, both parents die in a harvester accident, a few years later, and then the kids lose the farm, a couple years after that. Some kind of eminent domain proceeding. The land wound up getting sold as a research farm -- those big grey warehouses out east."
"Where are the kids now?"
"Nobody knows. After they lost the farm, they just disappeared. Speaking of vanished children returning for revenge..."
"Hold onto that one. What else do we have?" Rossi pulled to the side of the road just short of the turn into the next farm, wanting to finish reviewing what they had, before he walked into more stories about the same people. Or maybe even those people, in some cases. "What about the ones who lost their whole crop, last year?"
"Kurzmann. Single father, twin daughters and a son, all teenagers, lost their whole corn crop to some kind of blight that didn't spread to the neighbouring farms, because they cut several acres and burned it for safety, but they couldn't stop it in their own fields. Looks like they did everything right, but the mould got the better of them, all the same."
"Hang on to that one, too. That's got nastiness written all over it. I'm not sure why they'd be trying to help other people's farms, instead of their own, though. Seems like if you do it on your own land, you could hide it better."
"There's no tragedies, no obvious triggers, in the families that own the fields where the bodies were found. Wicklow's son went away to college -- that might count. Hartman and Steinbrenner --" JJ stopped and flipped back a few pages. "No, we're looking at this wrong. You're right-- it's about helping other people. We're not looking for people with a vendetta in the local community, we're looking for people trying to help it thrive. None of the victims are local. All of them are surrounded by what we're told is dramatically improved corn. I'm still not sure about the choice of cornfields, though."
"It may just be convenience. The owners of the corn may not be important." Rossi shifted in his seat, turning more toward JJ. "All the sites are close to the road. The corn would've provided more than enough cover for the murders, provided they were quiet, and given the lack of signs of a struggle on both the human victims and the pigs, they would have been. This may just have been a test to see how well the ritual would work -- four random victims, four random farms."
"Okay, but why the pigs?" JJ tipped her seat back, staring at the roof of the car and gesturing with a pen. "If the murders were effective -- they improved the quality of the crops around them -- then what purpose do the pigs serve? Is it because we found the sites? Is this, like Villette suggested, a jab at the local police?"
"We found the sites, but the sites haven't yet been harvested. We interrupted the ritual," Rossi proposed, staring into the corn across the way. "With the sacrifice of the pigs, the corn is now even better than it was, or at least there's more of it."
"Okay, I'm still not sold on the cryptid angle, but let's go with that and take it further. The pigs are because everyone's watching. We have photos of the scenes before and after the pigs. If there was any question that the ritual, whatever the actual mechanism is, is working, this would serve as proof. They're showing off. They're doing something for the community, so they want to show everyone it works."
"And yet, they're not taking credit for it, in any way. Most of the aspects of the ritual seem to mimic legitimate farming practises, aside from the murder part, but there's nothing here that says 'look at me', just 'look at this'. There's not even anything that says 'don't look at me', aside from spray-painting the camera at the pig farm."
"What if that's because they are 'legitimate farmers' in their own minds? We've already established this isn't about the murders, it's about the corn."
Rossi sat back up in his seat. "The corn. It's about the corn. We need to go back and ask the farmers if the way the corn was planted or treated looked different to the way they'd do it, around the bodies. Any attempt to claim credit's not going to be on the bodies, it's going to be in the corn, and none of us understand farming well enough to see it."
JJ tipped her seat back up and reached for her phone. "I'll call Reid and get them started on the others."
"So, what we know is that--"
"We know that if I have to spend another day listening to the local stations, I'm going to set myself on fire in the middle of a cornfield, in self defence," Chaz complained, resting his head on the edge of the table. "Also, everything I have ever heard about Kentucky is true; it's just not true in Kentucky. It's true in Nebraska."
Reid put a hand between Chaz's shoulders, looking terribly amused, and pushed a box of takeout in front of him. "You should eat."
"Have you really never had a case in Nebraska, before?" JJ asked, watching Chaz's fingers slowly close around a plastic fork.
"I probably have," Chaz admitted, going straight for the mashed potatoes. "But, this? This is like Minnesota with corn."
"He's fine," Reid said, quietly. "We were out at one of the research farms, and he's allergic to one of the varieties they're testing. He broke out in hives, and--"
"He's right. It's the Benadryl." Chaz rested his head on the table again. "I'm not allergic to anything. This is bullshit."
""Well, you are now!" Reid pointed out, before looking back across the table at JJ. "He's having an extreme reaction to the antihistamines. He slept through the last three interviews. At this point, I'm just glad this didn't end in a hospital."
"I don't need a hospital. I just need more sleep and less corn. This case isn't going to have more human victims, this year, so I think we can afford that," Chaz argued, trying to figure out if he could eat without having to hold his head up. The room was definitely spinning, and he definitely wanted that to stop.
"What's the last interview you were awake for?" Reid asked, paging through his notes.
"The one after the research farm. Jason and his sleeping sister." Chaz stabbed the fork into the pile of potatoes and gave up. "I'll drink dinner later. With a straw. Maybe in bed. Grab me a couple quarts of pineapple juice on the way back to the room, so I don't die in my sleep?"
"Right. Jason Arnoldson and his sister, Chloe." Reid shook his head. "Overall, what we found was that, aside from the corpse scarecrows, there was nothing notable done to the area where the entrails were buried. Had they not been marked with corpses, the farmers would just have taken the increase in corn as a natural occurrence and maybe have sent the soil for testing, to see if they could repeat it."
"So, we're back to it being about the murders. Hanging the corpses up as a display." JJ looked up from where she was transcribing her own notes.
"Is it a display?" Chaz muttered, eyes closed, cheek pressed against the cool tabletop. "Is it a display or is it a marker? Or is it just part of the ritual?"
"Even if it's part of the ritual, it serves some purpose. The corpse, itself, draws attention to the scene, to the site of the ritual and its aftereffects, whatever those might be." Reid swiped a piece of fried chicken, figuring if Chaz wasn't going to eat it, at least one of them could stop being hungry. "Presumably, it serves to draw attention to the improvement and its method."
"If it's part of the ritual, it's not supposed to draw our attention," Chaz argued, eyes squeezed shut as he discovered that closing them did not make the spinning stop. "It's potentially channelling a higher power. In small words, it's for the gods to notice -- never mind that the gods aren't real, and any inexplicable events are the results of an anomalous individual, there are mythologies that rely on the expectation of a higher power. Cults and charismatic preachers. Given the way our faceless woman was dressed, I'm thinking some kind of cult of Persephone or something. Grain gods. Or something more local, but the weird chiton makes me think somebody's misappropriating Classical mythology."
"Wait, did you say Jason Arnoldson?" Rossi looked up from his tablet. "Not Jason Patterson?"
"Jason Arnoldson." Chaz nodded, cheek squeaking against the table.
"Because Arnold and Leslie Patterson, now dead, had a son named Jason and a daughter named Alexandra, and both of them have been missing since their farm was seized by the county and then resold for research farming."
"The sister is definitely Chloe, whoever she was, before," Reid said, shaking his head. "Jason said she's been sick for years, spends most of her time sleeping. I wrote it off as chronic fatigue. Their house is falling apart -- if I hadn't seen him in the yard, I'd have thought the property was abandoned -- but Jason says he's been working a small farm, mostly sheep and vegetables, to keep them both alive. He's pretty dedicated to his work and his sister."
"Sick for years?" Rossi looked over at JJ.
"Alexandra was hit by lightning," JJ said, eyes coming up from her transcription. "That'll make anyone a little weird. I'm really pretty sure you were talking to the Patterson kids, which is interesting, because no one we talked to knew what happened to them."
"You said the house was falling apart, which would likely be noticed if anyone were visiting them regularly, so I think we can assume they're living fairly self-contained lives. If they are the Pattersons, though, they don't own any property in York County, any more." Rossi opened a map and slid his tablet across the table. "Do you happen to remember where this place was? We can check the property records."
"I really don't think Chloe is one of our UnSubs." Reid shook his head, again. "If she's as sick as Jason claims, and given what I saw in that house, I have no reason to doubt it, there's no way she's going to be traipsing through a pig farm in the middle of the night and committing murder."
"She's the cult leader," Chaz muttered, pulling Rossi's tablet into his lap, where he could squint at it, without raising his head. "If I were going to make this argument? She's anomalous, she's sick because she has no way to take care of herself properly, even with Jason helping her, and she's sleeping all the time because she's performing these rituals. Or he's performing the rituals and she's the power that makes them go. He's the priest, she's the goddess."
"And that raises the question of who's actually in charge, there." Reid stretched his legs under the table, busy trying to wipe chicken grease off his fingers with a cheap napkin that disintegrated before it did much good. "If she's the 'goddess', is she directing the priest, or is she responding to the locations where he's setting up the rituals?"
"Both. She taught him to summon her. That's the delay. She's been anomalous since the lightning, but there haven't been weird sacrifices until now." Chaz batted the tablet back across the table, with a location marked. "But, we're assuming these are the people we're looking for. We still have no faces and no evidence, so they could just be Leslie Patterson's lost children, too embarrassed to ask for help from the people they think betrayed them. Obviously, no one stepped in to help, when they lost the farm."
"Didn't Dr Langly say something about a girl who got hit by lightning?" Reid finally gave up on the napkin.
"There's a living Langly?" JJ looked surprised.
Reid nodded, keeping his focus on his greasy hands, to avoid showing his own opinions on the subject. "The forensic pathologist who took a look at the bodies as a favour to the coroner. The... niece, if I'm not mistaken, of the Langlys you're thinking of. Cattle ranch up by Saltville?"
"Have we taken a closer look at her, yet? I had the Langlys on the short list, until I realised their missing son was buried in Arlington." JJ shot Reid a long, pointed look.
"Okay, but, unless dead people are getting flights to Nebraska, who's the other half?" Reid asked, shrugging. JJ knew Richard Langly was still alive. Garcia had told both of them at the same time. The point was that he couldn't have gotten to Nebraska and back, especially in the middle of what the Fitzgerald case had turned into, without someone noticing.
"Maybe you should take her out to dinner to discuss the case," JJ suggested, a little more sharply than she meant to. "Ask her all those little questions you don't ask someone over a corpse."
"Me!?" Reid blinked. "What about--" He looked at Chaz, still glazed and vacant, face mashed against the table. "Okay, not Villette."
"Rossi's not the right kind of appealing, and neither am I. It needs to be one of you two -- nerdy and under forty -- and it really can't be Villette."
"It could be Villette!" Chaz protested, dizzily. "Just... not tonight."
"And what are the chances this would happen tonight, anyway?" Reid shrugged, wearing his best innocent look. "It's already late -- past the hour at which well-intentioned men call women they don't know. We can make a call, tonight, to set something up for tomorrow. We're not really risking more victims -- at least not human victims."
"You really don't want to do this," JJ observed. "Why now? This kind of thing has never been a problem for you, before."
"Because right now, I think Villette's actually the better choice. He's got a particular insight into the kind of person we're looking for -- specifically he knows how to spot the Anomaly -- and I'd rather put him forward, because this is an instance in which that actually matters." Which was complete bullshit. Reid could spot an anomalous individual pretty well, at this point, if only by their weight and eating habits. And while he did want Chaz's... extra eyes on the subject, he found himself exceptionally uncomfortable with the idea of going on something that might be construed as a date with his boyfriend's cousin. And the fact that he was willing to foist this off on Chaz, who was also sleeping with the other Langly in question, did not reflect well on him, in his own mind.
"Gimmie." Chaz nodded, cheek squeaking against the table again. "If she's the one we're looking for, she's going to be more comfortable with me than with him."
Just want to take a minute to thank every last one of you crazy motherfuckers who are still reading this for some reason. *laughs*
"I'm sorry. I know you're busy, but I can't really put this off any longer." Reid took a long, slow breath, and Langly filled the pause.
"It's fine. I'm doing a little work on Bollinger, because I can do that with my hands. Hafs has Helmsman for a few hours. Got something good?"
"You have a cousin. She's a forensic pathologist, and right now, she's a suspect."
"Okay, that's a lot to take in. I have a cousin? Where are you again?" Langly stopped typing.
"York, Nebraska." Reid cleared his throat, but couldn't quite get the nervous squeak out of his voice. "She introduced herself, and I asked if she was related to the Saltville Langlys, and then she asked if I'd found her cousin, Dick."
"She's from York? I don't have cousins from York. I have cousins from Benedict, but not from York." Langly was a little louder, voice a little sharper.
"Her name's Mary, and she looks a lot like you," Reid said, cautiously.
"Are you calling to tell me you boned my cousin?"
"No, I'm calling to tell you Chaz is going to be interviewing her as a suspect in a series of murders, tomorrow. I just.... whether or not it's her, I wanted you to know she existed and that she asked about you, before we have to make that decision. I wanted you to know you still have family."
"Wait, Mary? Uncle Joe's nutty little rugrat? The last time I saw her, she must've been like three. She was screaming and running around the house, and I'm pretty sure she bit me on the ankle, yelling something about dinosaurs." Langly laughed, a little hysterically. "She's a what, now?"
"Forensic pathologist. She, ah... works with dead people." Reid couldn't keep the amusement out of his voice.
"I feel like I should be a lot more surprised by this." Langly sighed. "God, I keep thinking of her as this screaming little ball of noise and hair, and I know she's older than you. No. Wait. Is she?"
"She's a little younger than Chaz, I think, so probably not. Still, she's... It tells me a lot about your family that the two of you are so much alike, after so many years apart."
"This is what I get for dating a profiler, isn't it."
"Shit." Langly sighed again. "My cousin aside, the two of you having fun in the ass end of corn country? Keeping each other distracted from the corn spirits?"
"Not... really, no. Corn spirits?" Reid kicked his shoes off and stretched out along the bed.
"Don't go out in the corn in the dark. No, like, really don't. You'll get lost, and corn is sharp as hell, and those fields are huge. Please don't get lost in the corn. There are people I'd wish that on, but you're not one of them."
"You know, I have experienced cornfields before this. This is not my first case featuring a few hundred acres of grain."
"Then you know I'm not kidding." Langly paused. "And what do you mean you're not distracting each other? My dreams of the hottest twins in the history of the Bureau ripping each others' clothes off in a filthy motel bathroom in Middle America aren't coming true? Killing my boner, here, Reid."
"At this point in the conversation, I'd be willing to blame every single subject leading up to this point far more than any failure on our part to fulfil your entirely unrealistic fantasies," Reid teased, remembering how Langly felt in his arms. "If it helps, I miss you. I want to be there with you, right now."
"Why do I doubt that has anything to do with my aching need to get you naked?"
"Because you know me that well?"
"I'm gonna be right here, when you get home. I'm gonna be right here, and I'm gonna drag you into the shower and wash the stench of Nebraska off you, and then I'm gonna hand you Helmsman on a silver platter. And then after we nail that bastard to the wall, you can thank me." Langly choked on a laugh he tried to swallow. "You can thank me all night long."
Reid laughed, eyes squeezed shut against the ridiculousness of the entire situation. "You are absolutely incorrigible."
"Still got you to laugh."
"Just one of the many things I love about you."
"You mean that, don't you."
"I-- Yeah, I do. I'm not lost without you. I don't need you to give my life purpose. But, I am utterly mad for you, with every inch of my being. I have everything I need, but I want you. I love you, and I'm so glad I get to enjoy you, for however long this lasts."
"Thought you were holding out for forever."
"Forever has to happen one day at a time, and I'd rather appreciate every one of them, in turn, than miss something because I'm looking too far ahead."
Yves was leaning against the wall beside the door, when Langly came out of the front bathroom, jamming his phone back into his pocket and wiping his sweaty hand on his jeans. He couldn't make calls with his mind, until they were through with Helmsman, and he could afford the resources. He was too busy wondering whether Reid would notice that he'd gotten thinner to notice that he'd stepped right past her.
"I'm happy for you," Yves said, quietly, and Langly straightened like lightning had run down his spine.
He turned on her, hair stuck to the sweat on his cheek, and jabbed a finger in her direction. "Don't you have anything better to do than stand in the hall and listen to other people's calls?"
"I was waiting for the bathroom, Langly. People who aren't you have to pee." Yves rolled her eyes and pushed herself off the wall, leaving her a bare inch from Langly. "And you're loud. And if you replaced the walls, you didn't replace the walls on the bathroom."
Langly's eyes widened, and then he looked away. "Shit."
"As long as I don't have to hear it." Yves waited until he looked back at her. "You really are in love, aren't you? I never thought I'd see the day. Your special agent must be something extra special."
"Extra special? Try extra sexy." Langly stepped back toward the hall that led to his desk, walking backward, each step serving as punctuation to a word, until he turned around. "I am the luckiest. man. alive."
Chaz groaned and rolled over, still suffering the aftereffects of his earlier encounter with the corn from hell and the allergy meds from purgatory. "Will you just come to bed?"
"I'm in bed," Reid retorted, still completely unable to sleep, after the call with Langly. Fifteen minutes in the bathroom, nine of them spent agonising over whether he could block Chaz well enough, and he'd probably be asleep as soon as his back hit the bed again.
"You're in that bed. You should be in this bed. Especially if you're going to loudly think things like that about our Langly. ... as opposed to the other one. Is it still weird that there's two of them?" Chaz yawned and pulled the cheap blanket up to his nose.
"It's still weird, but what's weirder is that you're already thinking about her naked. She's a suspect."
"She's smart, attractive, and having dinner with me, tomorrow. And it wouldn't be the first time I slept with a serial killer, and then arrested her. I'd rather not do it again, but I know I can. It's not going to get in the way of me doing my job."
Reid lay still, blinking at the ceiling. "I couldn't say the same."
"You don't know until it happens. I thought I was going to vomit my heart onto my shoes, but that might've been the part where she almost hit me with lightning. I liked her -- still like her. I could've loved her. Instead I sent her to Idlewood."
"And now you're going to do it again."
"She's smart, she's pretty, she might not be a serial killer..." The blankets rustled, as Chaz shrugged the shoulder he wasn't laying on. "Besides, I'm thinking it. It's the middle of the night and my brains are scrambled, and I'm trying to go to sleep. What do I want, a wet dream about a potential serial killer or a nightmare about Texas?"
"You're right," Reid decided, suddenly, sitting up. "I'm in the wrong bed. Neither of us is going to get any sleep like this."
"Decided you're not going to go lock yourself in the bathroom, hmm?"
"We're in the middle of a case, you're not well, and your interest is obviously somewhere else. I was trying to be polite."
"You want evil twin points?" Chaz asked, as Reid stretched out next to him. "It's your fault I'm thinking it."
"You were on the phone while I was on the phone. Clean hands, dirty mind," Chaz teased, pulling the blanket back up over both of them. "I had the wrong Langly on the phone for any of what you were thinking. And yes, I could've stopped hearing you, but... I wasn't even on the phone a whole five minutes. More effort than it was worth."
Reid pulled away, ever so slightly, spine straight, arms folded around himself. "I'm sorry. I have better control than this. You know I do. I'm--"
"Terrified something's going to happen, and you're not going to be there to stop it. You want to know he's alive. You want proof." Reaching across the inches between them, Chaz took Reid's hand from where it rested on his own waist. "You just need to hold it together a little longer. We'll get there."
"And you don't tell me we'll get there in time. You don't tell me he's going to be fine," Reid observed, fingers clenched tight around Chaz's.
"Because I don't know, and I'm not going to bullshit you. But, I made you a promise, and I meant it."
"Untie your ribbon and my head falls off. I remember."
"If the shit hits the fan, you'll remember everyth... no. You won't. I will. But, I'll make it right. I promise you, I'll make it right. We've been through enough. You. You've been through enough."
"Yes," Reid agreed, finally letting his fingers follow Chaz's arm up, curling his hand around the back of one bony shoulder. "We have."
Chaz leaned in, covering the last space between them, and pressed a lingering kiss to Reid's lips. "You're still..."
"I know. I could do something about that, but you're here, and that would just be awkward, so I'm really hoping I pass out before this gets any more uncomfortable." Reid didn't pull away from the hand on him or the warm presence wallowing in his thoughts.
"Remember with me. We've done this before."
"Ritual remembrance, reverence of the dead."
"Like he keeps telling you, he's already dead. You're still doing him," Chaz joked, half expecting to take a knee in the crotch.
"He's dead on paper!" Reid recoiled, wide-eyed, fingers suddenly so cold they felt wet. "It's a whole other--" He swallowed, suddenly dizzy. "Too far..."
"You just got off the phone with him a couple hours ago. Nothing's going to happen, tonight. And you know what he can do. He will let you know. At this point, Hafs is probably the only person who could stop him from calling you, and she wouldn't." Chaz curled his hand, gently nudging Reid back toward him. "I can't promise you tomorrow, but tonight, he'll be fine. We need to sleep, so we can catch a killer, because the faster we do that, the faster we go home."
"And it's the middle of the night, and we're waiting for interviews, so there's literally nothing else we can do to speed this up." Reid sighed and curled up under Chaz's chin. "I know." He pressed his forehead against Chaz's collarbone. "This is completely unreasonable."
"It's physical. When have you ever known your body to be reasonable?" Chaz snorted, burying his face against Reid's hair. "And if you've achieved reasonable, you should teach me."
"Remember with me." Reid finally considered the wisdom of the idea.
"Put your back to me," Chaz said, without thinking, twice as surprised when the chill that shot through both of them was followed by Reid doing exactly that.
"I don't have to trust you. I am you." Reid pressed himself back as if he expected them to occupy the same space.
"Tonight, we're you," Chaz promised, letting his mind fill with memories of both of them and the right Langly, his fingers already kneading Reid's hip.
Visions of Langly in varying states of half-dressed ecstasy filled Reid's mind, and the echoes of his own pleasure in those moments rattled under his skin, ringing down his nerves like a distant promise. He palmed himself absently. Was that his hand? Maybe that was Chaz. But, he wanted more -- he wanted Langly, lean and pale, riding him, desperate for a second, a third. He wanted to be wet with sweat, with semen, with spit, every fluid that passed between them another proof of life. And that was the truth of it -- he wanted Langly alive, more than anything else, and all of this would just accent the reality of it, a celebration of survival, hot and wet and raw, all the things he usually found so entirely off-putting about humanity.
But, he wanted it. This time, it was an ache in his bones. He wanted Langly's cold hands on him until those long fingers warmed. Warm hands were a good sign. He wanted Langly panting against his neck, every breath a testament to their survival. And they would survive this. They had to, if only because they would be the first to fall, if things went wrong, and the wave of deaths that would follow...
Life, Chaz reminded him, and the memories that followed were all Langly smiling, mostly those wry little twists of his lips when he thought of something before anyone else did. And then, Langly in the hospital, trying to talk his way out of it -- and succeeding admirably. Chaz's view of Reid half-carrying Langly to the car, and that was the first time Reid had really seen that, the first time he'd seen the determination and certainty on his own face. And that was a strange comfort -- someone else's unvarnished view of him as competent and self-complete. And then the end of that day followed, and Reid writhed at the memory of Langly needy and desperate, between his thighs. His breath caught and his chin tipped up, baring his throat as his hips rolled. That was what he wanted, now, that raw desire, that heart-mending feeling of his lover's living body pressed against him, buried inside him.
And for all that popular culture encouraged one to find that feeling, that need for physical reassurance, romantic, he found it dangerous, rude, smothering. It might be sweet if it were what Langly wanted, but right now, they were both much too busy for this.
"He's alive, and I'm here," Chaz offered, his hand still kneading Reid's hip, which answered the question of whose hand that had been. "And we are not too busy for this, or we'd be working."
Reid wrapped his arms around himself, again. "I should be able to stop this -- to stop worrying, to stop sabotaging myself."
"Breathe. Come back to me."
"I can't become dependent on you. It's not fair to either of us."
"Then, next time, I'll kick you out of bed. This isn't a normal situation. This isn't --"
Reid rolled over, knocking Chaz onto his back, and pushed himself up. "The hell it isn't. This relationship has been months of constant danger to one or both of us. We were almost shot in my living room, we've been stalked, he's been abducted and tortured, I had a murderous robot sneak into my apartment to kill us both -- it never ends. This is a perfectly normal situation!"
"It's not supposed to be," Chaz argued, pulling and nudging until Reid knelt across his thighs, and he could hang the blanket over Reid's shoulders to keep at least some of the heat in. "I'd say you need a holiday, but I know better. We need to dismantle Helmsman's organisation -- and that should counteract most of what Bollinger's got up his sleeve, too. Narcisse's lawyers are running out of motions. The trial's what, next month? You and I both know she's not walking away from this."
"Unless someone's given her access to a computer. Then she's absolutely walking away from this, probably walking away from the prison, and very likely coming back after us."
Chaz's brow creased as another piece finally fell into place. "If she does have access, why would she use it to fake a call, to arrange a press conference? Why wouldn't she do something more direct, right up front? You said it -- she could just walk away."
"I don't know." Reid closed his eyes, trying to get the pieces to fit together. "Great. Now that's going to keep me up."
"You're already up. Neither of us is sleeping."
"Weren't you going to distract me, so we could both get some sleep?"
"Tried. Failed. You're stronger than you think you are, Spencer." Chaz wrapped his hands in the blanket and pulled down, encouragingly. "You're also letting all the cold air in."
"Then push harder," Reid muttered, folding himself down onto Chaz's chest.
"No. I'm not going to do that to you. I'm not going to do that to myself." Running his hands down Reid's back, Chaz let his breathing slow. "Come back to me, anyway. We'll try again."
Reid offered the first memory, the first time he'd fallen asleep curled up against Langly's side in that fantastic chair. Another followed, waking up in Langly's enormous bed to Langly stroking his hair, smiling down at him, the laptop propped on his other leg. Little kisses, memories of distracted affection, filled the space behind the things he tried to focus on. The way Langly looked at him, not just as the sum of his more interesting features, but as an entire person, capable of mistakes and desires, and more than that, as the object of an increasingly obvious profound affection. And he thought of the way Chaz looked at him, the way he looked at Chaz, as if they were the sole keepers of some immense and terrible secret. He looked at Chaz like he looked at himself in the mirror -- mercilessly, knowingly. And maybe Chaz was kinder to him than he was to either of them.
And the bloom of the memory Chaz passed him, in response to that thought, filled him entirely, until there was room for nothing else, nothing but the pure warmth of that light, the sensation of ringing crystal, clean and razor sharp in the wet horror of blood and smoke and impossible pain -- he knew himself, then, as Chaz knew him. He knew himself as light and razor-edged simplicity, as the hands that treated a wound long closed, as clarity and order and precise minimalism, as something self-contained and powerful, but fundamentally good. And he knew, then, why Chaz wouldn't push harder. He knew it in his bones.
"You're not a monster," Reid insisted, as Chaz's relief from that night washed over him.
"Of course I am. And you're a freak. But, we've learned to live with what we are, because there's no road to anything else, and I don't think either of us would take it, if there were."
"There was a time you would have."
"There was a time when I was much less fond of myself and much less sure there was a place for me in the world."
"You still don't like yourself very much," Reid observed, aware he might just as easily have been talking about himself.
"And the place I occupy is one I clawed out with my bare hands. But, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I made that mistake, once."
Reid answered with a memory, the first one they'd shared, of himself sitting on the couch with a book and a plate of hashbrowns, with Langly stretched out next to him with the laptop, propped up on his shoulder. "I don't know if this is where I belong, but I like it, and I don't want to lose it." Half a smile crossed his lips, as he unfolded himself, straightening out his long limbs to wrap himself more comfortably around Chaz. "And you... I don't think I can lose you. We're... this isn't meant to be possible, and I know it should bother me a lot more than it does, but you fill a space I didn't know was there, and might never have noticed."
"There's not a hole," Chaz promised. "I'm just bending the light so you won't see how much space I take up."
"Take up more space." Reid pushed himself up to lay a kiss against Chaz's lips, feeling the contact from both sides. "I think it's working, this time."
"The executives of Single Bullet are extremely paranoid and cautious men. If this job were easy, you'd be paying someone else a lot less money to handle it, but we both know what's at stake, here. There's no way to make this look like an accident, until they at least attempt to exit the building, and they've been working on a development proposal all week, trying to outbid Morgan-Carter." Yves rolled her eyes and wheeled, pacing back the other way through the back room. "Yes, of course they have food delivered. I've already replaced the driver on three occasions, and the orders are paid by credit card and delivered through a blast-proof vault that can only be open on one side at a time. And they tip well. There is no way into that building, except by invitation, and if there is one thing I know about Frank Arroway, it's that if anyone goes after the security systems, he'll put the place in full lockdown and summon outside assistance. We have to wait them out. There is no other way."
Frohike watched her over the back of the couch, as he poked at his tablet, trying to convince the servers to do a better job filtering and processing the names from the prison. Someone in there was helping Narcisse, and they had to figure out who, before she managed to get in far enough to do the kind of damage that could cause serious problems. At best, she could order her own release. At worst, she could orchestrate the kind of prison break anyone who'd ever seen a riot had nightmares about -- a full security failure, or worse, a targeted failure that sealed some doors and opened all the rest, trapping the majority of the guards while the prisoners made their possibly-armed exit. Probably armed, if he considered the statistics.
"No, you listen to me. Fifteen years ago, I walked into E-Com-Con and walked right back out with the Octium IV prototype. It took me less than five minutes from the door. You know that. That is why you hired me. I am very good at what I do, and if I tell you there is no way into this building, then there is no way into this building. If you want to force your way in, you will lose all hope of stealth or surprise, and the local police will arrive long before you have managed to breach any of the walls. Those offices were designed to withstand most things short of a direct nuclear strike, and even that may only remove the portions of the building aboveground. You are dealing with people accustomed to doing business in warzones, with people who may at any moment decide that kidnap and ransom is more profitable than finishing the negotiation on the table. You are dealing with people who make the CIA look like a bunch of dawdlers with their thumbs up their asses."
A pause, and then, "Yes, thank you. They'll have to go out for something, eventually, and when they do, I'll be waiting. I may not be able to get in, but they can't get out without my knowing. It will take time, which I understand is limited, but this will be taken care of, and it will be clean and untraceable. I'll call you on Friday. Don't expect to be able to reach me before then. I can't have this phone ringing where I'm waiting."
"He's getting impatient," Frohike observed, as Yves huffed and zipped the phone back into one of her pockets.
"I'd say we have to move faster, but I'd rather not kill Langly to save Byers. It seems like a bit of a waste. Whatever I might think of his personality, he's really almost talented."
Frohike made an unconvinced sound and gestured for Yves to join him on the couch. "You're looking in the wrong place. You and that asshole Kimmy were almost always working with high-end machines. You could afford it. Langly was almost as good with a third of the hardware. He was building his own parts to get more out of less. Now that he's got all the toys he could ever want? There's only one person in the world I can guarantee could do better work and faster, and I'm not sure how much longer she's going to have the crown, with the way he's been since Helmsman got to him."
"He's really a cryptid, you mean?" Yves shook her head as she folded into the corner of the couch. "Melvin, be real. He rigged that in advance. Probably some sort of prank he meant for the two of you."
"Notice you don't have him on video anywhere, but you do have Byers. You know why?" Frohike looked up from his work. "Because he keeps turning off the cameras around him."
"So, he's got a good jammer. If he's as good as you think he is, I have no doubt that would be a night's work, if even. Don't tell me he's got you believing it, too..."
"When you see what I've seen, you'll understand. I'd tell you the story -- I was part of the story, so I know what's true -- but it's his decision whether he's going to share that. It's his story, not mine."
Reid didn't look up from the pages in his hands, when the door opened. Paper was taped to the walls, scattered across his bed and the table, notes scrawled right and left handed between circles and arrows, depending on which hand he'd picked up the pen with. "I'm going to take it from the four hours of missing time that you slept with her."
"Not actually your business, but I didn't." Chaz shrugged off his bag, dropping it into a chair, and started looking for the patterns on the walls, some clue as to which part of the case Reid was looking at, and where he was trying to go with it. "I wanted to. She wanted to. But, I said I had to get back and catch a killer. Maybe once we've done that..." He shrugged. "Maybe I'll come back and visit. I like her."
"Then why--" Reid stopped and took a breath. "I would've preferred some warning you were going to do that. I was hoping you'd slept with her, because the other answers I could think of were a lot less pleasant, especially right now."
"I know she disturbs you. She reminds you too much of him. I figured I'd spare us both the discomfort, but you're right. I should've warned you before I backed out that far. I've been a lot more careful since we figured out the limits aren't there any more, and I forgot how complete that disconnect feels."
"And you hadn't decided whether you were going to sleep with her."
"No, I hadn't," Chaz admitted. "And if I had, I wasn't going to tell her what we are, what I am, and that opens up all sorts of consent issues, because we're not one person to anyone else. But, I didn't. Even though I don't think she's one of the killers."
"I'm going to assume you've got something better than your attraction to her to back that up?" Reid almost smiled, the pointed lift of his eyebrows softening the barb into something almost brotherly.
"Besides the fact that she's accounted for on camera during the pig theft? Yeah, actually." And that's when Chaz noticed what was wrong. "If you're working, where are Jareau and Rossi?"
"You went out for dinner. They went out for dinner. But, they only left about half an hour ago."
"And you went to dinner first, I hope?"
"I'm not actually hungry."
"Spencer." Chaz pinned Reid with a look.
"Unlike some people, I can get by on the occasional sandwich." Reid shrugged and taped another page to the wall.
Chaz rolled his eyes and opened his bag, drawing out two slightly flattened paper bags. "Lucky you, I brought home probably the only edible things I could find on the menu. I don't know what that was, but I can promise it wasn't Mexican food. The empanadas are mine, though." He opened both bags, and then tossed one to Reid. "You're welcome to the quesadillas."
"Is that really the decision you want to make?" Reid asked, folding forward a bit to catch the bag with both arms as it smacked into his chest. "Not going to pull a Rossi on me, and concern yourself with my regrets?"
"I spent the entire night with you, after that sandwich. If you don't think you shouldn't eat it, I'm pretty sure I don't have to care."
Reid fished out a quesadilla, peeling the foil off it as he tossed the bag onto the bed, behind him. "Okay, why is Mary Langly not our UnSub? Besides the pigs."
"I'd have to start with the part where she eats like a normal person, even in front of me. I ordered first, figuring I'd make the point, so she'd know it was safe to eat in front of me -- that I'm like that, too. It usually works. Even with people who don't order as much, at first, a lot of them will go for seconds or order a huge dessert, once they figure out I'm entirely serious about my dinner. She didn't go for it, and she didn't seem any easier watching me eat. If she's anomalous, which, depending on where he gets it, she might be, she hasn't cracked, yet. And the fact that she's not showing means she's not life-long like I am -- it's not genetic, for her. Even before I went over, I was eating like this. So, depending on him, she might have been exposed, but she's not cracked. She's not our goddess or priestess." Chaz picked up the cup from the truck stop that he'd left on the table before he went out and found it much lighter than he remembered.
"Sorry. I finished it," Reid apologised around a mouthful of cheese.
"That's why you're still functional. Okay, I feel better about you not eating, if you drank my suicide punch."
"That was way too well-balanced for a suicide. You knew exactly what you were doing when you poured that."
"Yeah, I was flirting with the clerk." Chaz laughed. "Come on, I grew up on gas station burritos and questionable choices in fountain drinks. Of course I knew what i was doing. And it's good, isn't it? I couldn't believe they had ginger ale."
"It would've been better with tea than with cola," Reid argued.
"You still drank more than a litre of it, so I know I hit on the lemon ginger."
"I'll give you the lemon ginger. It still should've been lemon-ginger tea."
"Just be glad I didn't go for lemon-ginger Mountain Dew."
"See, I'd drink that."
"So would I. But, they were out of Dew, so the question was cola versus root beer, and either one works, here."
"Tea. The answer was iced tea," Reid insisted, shaking his head. "That all you've got on Mary?"
"Nope. She's also got no significant relationships. Like... none. Okay, one -- the coroner. They've known each other since grade school, and we know she's not the man in black. One friend, no significant other, no housemate, no siblings -- no relatives at all, as far as she knows, since she's working under the assumption 'Cousin Dick' is probably dead of his own recklessness. So, if she's it, who's the other guy?" Chaz shook his head. "And she's the consulting pathologist. If she were the killer, we'd have even less than we do -- she'd be covering for herself or misdirecting. And you think she's not. And Frost thinks she's not. So..."
"It's not her." A tiny smile curled the corners of Reid's lips. "I didn't think it was." He gestured to the papers taped to the walls.
"You think it's the Pattersons."
"I do." Reid set the remains of the first quesadilla back on the foil and stood up, to explain.
"No, sit and eat. You can chew and explain this to me at the same time. It's me. I'll ask questions if you get blurry." Chaz ducked into the bathroom to try to fill his empty cup from the sink, but wound up filling it from the bathtub, when he realised it wouldn't fit under the tap.
Reid sat back down, the taste of food reminding him how hungry he was, and tried to find the beginning, assuming Chaz would pick up the thread as soon as he could figure out where to start. They'd checked out the farm Jason and his sister were living on -- a place that according to county records hadn't been occupied in twenty years, and it looked it. The land was still owned, but the heirs had never done anything with it -- which was a point the Pattersons had made in the proceeding that took their land. Why hadn't the county taken the abandoned farms? Because they weren't contiguous or large enough. The Patterson farm was the right size, and unlike the neighbouring properties, only about a third of it was in use, since the parents had died, so they weren't expecting much of a fight. Sure as hell not the fight they got.
The thing that had stood out to Reid -- the thing he couldn't point out to Rossi and JJ -- was that Jason's argument, in the end, had come down to feeding his sister, which was repeatedly dismissed with suggestions that he get a job in town, if he was worried about having money. Instead, the two of them had moved onto one of the abandoned farms, where, to judge by the survey photos, Jason was growing a small field of corn, interlaced with something else that didn't quite show up on the photos, because the corn was in the way, but Reid suspected it was pumpkin, from what he could see, which meant there were probably also beans.
"Three sisters," Chaz said, nodding. "The essentials. Because he probably can't buy food, if they're trying to stay away from people, and presumably, he's trying to feed a gamma."
"And he's got goats," Reid muttered through a mouthful of cheese, holding out his hand for the coffee on the table behind Chaz, as he fished another quesadilla out of the bag.
"Okay, I remember the goats. And the chickens." Chaz passed the coffee and pulled out a chair, dropping into it. "You think she's been sacrificing them to their farm."
"One or two goats a year, probably. It's a small farm, and to judge by the area of influence from the sacrifices we know about, they could likely reach a substantial portion of their land like that. Also, it's a small enough number that they're likely still coming in under the breeding rate."
"Right, so, what changed?" Chaz swigged the mineral-tasting water and regretted not picking up another soda on the way in. "They've gone from making animal sacrifices on their own land to making human sacrifices on other people's land. And the animal sacrifices probably would've gone unremarked anyway. We're in farm country. The only difference is most people who kill goats would eat them instead of sacrificing them to the corn gods."
"So, here's something interesting. Assuming she's the goddess, she's not eating the sacrifices. The sacrifices aren't being made to her, they're being made to the corn, itself. The way the organs are chopped and turned under like fertiliser..." Reid licked the roof of his mouth. "Do you want coffee? There's probably still some left."
"Yeah, that's... probably going to be an improvement." Chaz left the cup on the table and went to grab the other mug sitting next to the last cup of coffee left in the pot. "Keep eating. I know you skipped breakfast."
"Of course I skipped breakfast. Who eats at that hour? Breakfast is a cup of coffee. Sometimes, I'll stop for a croissant from downstairs, but I'm still not eating it until it looks like food. Nothing looks like food until I've slept seven hours or been awake four, preferably both, but I think we both know how often that happens." The curve of Reid's lips looked razor sharp, for a second, while he was unwrapping the next quesadilla. "But, you're right. Something changed, and I'm not sure what. It's an enormous step to go from sacrificing goats to better your own crops to sacrificing humans on the neighbours' farms for... probably the same reasons, particularly when those neighbours have wronged you."
"I have a very, very bad thought, and you're not going to like it. I don't like it."
Reid raised his eyebrows, mouth again full of cheese.
"Jason's not the only priest. Depending on her mythology, someone else may be summoning her. Remember how we said the scarecrows were there to draw attention to the sites? I bet you Jason and Chloe don't hang up their goats."
"Mrf--" Reid rolled his eyes and better composed the thought, hoping Chaz would get where he was going, while he tried to wash a wad of half-chewed tortilla and melted cheese down his throat with cold coffee.
The pigs hadn't been hung up, either. They'd been laid on the ground in the same place the scarecrow hangers had been, and had otherwise been handled in the same fashion, but they hadn't been raised up.
"There was no need. Chloe and Jason did the pigs, but I don't think Jason did our victims. I think someone else is using Chloe. I think we may be looking at the start of a cult, and this may be why she's so sick, right now. Again, none of the victims were local. These aren't people anyone knew, they were just convenient for the purpose. No one would miss them, right away, and when someone finally did, there would be other, larger places to look before anyone even considered York."
"Which is great, but why are we looking at four different fields? Why aren't they all in one field? The area of influence isn't large enough to affect the entire crop. Unless you're telling me we should be looking at the farmers as having become this cult, and maybe they only took one victim each, because nobody's easy with murder the first time, but then why would they have called the police? They do all seem fairly genuinely upset."
Chaz stretched his legs under the table, putting his feet up on another chair as he stared at the ceiling. "One victim each. Okay, here's a jump -- you're right. It's one goat. Their farm's small enough to see the benefit from one goat. Whoever's responsible for the human sacrifices expected one sacrifice per farm to be enough, because they were thinking in terms of property lines, not area. Which also explains why the victims are so close to the road, when moving them further in would've made more of an impact."
"Which answers 'why are the victims in a stupid place'." Reid nodded slowly. "Though we did suspect that was because it would be difficult to carry them, but if they were executed on the spot, as becomes more and more likely, then the answer is still convenience, but also an expectation that this would be close enough."
"Otherwise they'd have been moved closer to the centre of the field. But, if you've ever tried to walk through a cornfield--"
"Which I have, and it's not an experience I look forward to repeating."
"Exactly. It's not something you do unless there's a reason."
"And reaching as much of the field as possible is very definitely a reason, so someone didn't actually know what they were doing, most likely. Brings us back to motive. We know what, we know how, but we don't know why. And why--"
Chaz nodded. "Is going to give us who. Why are you talking instead of eating, speaking of why?"
"Because JJ and Rossi are going to be back any minute, and I don't want to have to remember how to use words. And it's still easier to do complicated concepts like this. We're mostly visual and conceptual, and some things don't translate well. And we're down to the hard part." Reid took another bite, anyway.
"Emotional, not conceptual. I know what that is and where I picked it up. But, yeah, very visual. Light and illusion. You'd be good at it. You are good at it."
"For a very good reason, and you know that." Reid swallowed, gesturing with the quesadilla. "Statistics. Maybe what we need is statistics."
"Are these the four worst performing farms in the county? Okay, but who would care? Why would it matter enough, at that scale, to anyone?" Chaz shook his head. "Farm workers. We need to see who works on all four of these farms, if anyone."
"Harvest workers might switch from year to year, but they're unlikely to switch in the middle of a season, unless something unexpected happens, or they're moving from a smaller farm to a larger one. Most of the people working there are only going to have time to handle one farm, at that size." Reid's eyes rounded as he turned them on Chaz, tipping his head.
"Oh, shit. You can't be serious." Chaz reached behind him for his laptop. "We have to know what varieties of corn they were growing in those fields."
"We need to go talk to Jason and Chloe, again, in the morning, and we need to keep you away from those fields, first, just in case. If someone's getting Chloe out there, she can probably put a face on them, and maybe even a name."
"And you want me to get it, because she's never going to talk to the locals, after what happened." Chaz nodded. "We'll have to get her to tell us, though. She's not you. I need her to be thinking about it, so I can find it."
"We bring food. We establish she's anomalous," Reid suggested, skipping several unasked questions.
"You know I'm probably going to have to send her to Idlewood. Maybe not to stay, but if she's as sick as Jason thinks, she needs help from people who know what's happening to her. I know people who have come back out -- the ones who just needed help getting back on their feet. If we're right about her, I don't think she's a threat by herself. I'm pretty sure she's killed people, but so have you and I."
"That's different, and you know it."
"Is it?" Chaz argued, looking up from the screen. "Our perceptions of the situation told us we had no other choice, or at least no better choice. And you can say that's true of an entire stratum of murderers, but I don't think what's happening here is much different from any number of cases of one victim being set on another."
"Most of those were abduction/torture or hostage situations," Reid pointed out.
"I still think -- assuming we're right about what's happening -- that she's a victim. Either way, she goes to Idlewood. They'll work out whether she's safe to release, once she's not sick any more, if she's not sick any more, but if we're right, I don't think she'd have too many problems living on a small farm that's not in Nebraska. I'm more worried about the people here knowing or learning how to manipulate her mythology. It's unlikely she'd be able to hear them calling her from rural Pennsylvania or something."
"You look at her, and you see--" A knock at the door interrupted the sentence, but Reid knew he didn't need to finish it. He got up to let JJ and Rossi in. "We'll go back and interview them again, tomorrow. Tell me what you see, then."
Chaz stopped the car and turned in his seat. "We're going to have this conversation, because we both need you paying more attention than I think you can, right now."
"I can do my job. I have another ten minutes before we get where we're going, and when I get out of this car, I will be doing my job, and even you will not be able to find a crack to lean into." Reid continued to study the empty field beside them, the last of the corn in it having finally been brought in.
"Yes. I am. I do that. It's the least upsetting of a parallel set of events I could be annoying myself with, so it's the best choice. If I stop, I'm going to be staring into alternating corn and no corn for the next ten minutes and getting more and more upset. I'll settle for mildly irritated, until I have something that will occupy the whole of my attention." Reid offered a brittle smile. "What can I say? I left my Sudoku book in my go bag. Oh, that's another-- no. That's actually more upsetting."
"Wearing my underwear is more upsetting? Hey, at least it's clean. And your size." Chaz shook his head. "Totally off the topic I meant to--"
"Why exactly is it so disturbing to you that I'm interested this woman? Because really this is not your concern. This is one of those places we diverge, and I think we've both been pretty good about those so far. And I respect you enough to ask you, instead of just pulling out boxes in your head until I find an answer."
"Okay, let's start with the obvious one. You're sleeping with me and my boyfriend. So, it absolutely is my concern who else you're sleeping with. And more than just on the physical level, I have the exact same consent concerns you do, as the third party to this. And you've already said you're not telling her -- and I get that. You can't. And even if you could, who would believe it, other than someone else with an immediate, personal experience of the Anomaly. But, I'm pretty sure you have to tell her something. At least that she's not the only person--"
Chaz caught the undercurrent. "I'm sleeping with her cousin, and I can't tell her that. I can't even tell her he's alive."
"I'm completely sure there's something wrong with that. Several somethings."
"And it's my problem, Spencer," Chaz insisted. "I can and will keep this out of your way, if I choose to let it happen. And you know how I am about condoms, so this really isn't going to wind up in your lap."
"No, it's going to wind up in my mouth," Reid retorted. "I know you don't lick rubber. That's what I know. And what I don't want to find out is what's going to end up in my mouth because she was sitting on your face. Or worse, if I pick something up from a case--"
"As soon as you know, I'll know. I'm not worried about you." Chaz rubbed his face. "But, I take your point about her. And I will be that much more careful... If I even make the decision to do this."
"You've already made the decision, Chaz. I can see it."
"No, I haven't," Chaz insisted. "And you're not like this about Fitz."
"Why would I be? Fitz was there first. He knows exactly what he's getting into." Reid blinked, as if the very idea were absurd. "And so do I. You, of all of us, could be upset about Fitz."
"It's not my place to be."
"Nor is it mine." Reid pressed his thumb into the corner of his eyesocket. "And I do have concerns that aren't mine to have, about this situation. And I'm trying to stay clear of them, because those really aren't my concern, and I'm not sure why I can't shake them."
"Well, thank you for your--" Chaz stopped in the middle of the sentence. What the hell was he doing? It was a valid question. Almost everything Reid had said, he should have considered without the help. But, he saw her, and ... what? He was better than this. Yeah, the voice in the back of his head reminded him, and then there was a girl. And she likes you. You know what you're like. "Tell me anyway. You're seeing something I'm not. And I'm probably going to be an asshole about it, because I don't think I want to know, or I'd have noticed."
"That's the sanest thing you've said in two days that wasn't about this case."
"Oh, you want to hear something that'll really make you think you're losing it, Mary was surprised when I called her, because she'd expected it'd be you. Something about the way you were looking at her. She thought you were checking her out." Chaz looked like he might be trying to swallow his lips not to smile. "I told her it was because she reminded you of your boyfriend."
"Which is exactly what that is," Reid agreed. "I'm going to regret asking, but how'd she take that?"
"I could see her recalculating her entire worldview over her Diet Coke, for something that really told me she wasn't anomalous. She was pretty sure you were one of those nice, heterosexual field agents like you see in the propaganda films. She was also a little surprised anyone alive looked anything like her."
"She didn't tell you that," Reid realised.
"No, she didn't. But, I was still considering her as a suspect, at the time. Most of the conversation was about the case, and I waited to see what would rise to the top, but there's nothing there. But, I stuck it out long enough to come up with reasons I could actually put in a report. Things that weren't 'but i read her mind, and she's not guilty'." Chaz studied Reid's expressionless face, and the churning not-calm-enough behind it. "What are you not saying to me?"
"Right now? Something incredibly catty. I think it might actually be yours, because that doesn't sound like me, at all."
"That is exactly what I was afraid of. We're going to have to work on that, once everything settles down a little. I'm going to have to work on that, because I don't need to be doing that to you." Chaz sighed, rubbed his face, again. "This is still new, and the rules keep changing as we set them. And I'm sorry I didn't see this coming."
"You think I'm getting everything you're suppressing." Reid nodded slowly. "We're not having that conversation right now. I think you're right, and I think that's something we need to do alone, not in a semi-public place, and not immediately before a critical interview."
"A critical interview with people who are half-likely to try to feed us to their corn." Chaz twisted back around and started the car. "You're right. You're right about a few things, even. First, we catch the killer, then we'll work the bugs out. Hopefully, before we go home to Frank."
"Even if you decide I'm right, you can't just ditch her. That's me, not you. And it's not something I feel particularly good about." Reid watched the fields as they once again moved past the window. "You should at least call her."
"Because we're supposed to be better, together, and not twice as bad?"
"You're back. Forget something?" A young man with ragged-cut blond hair came around the side of the house, trailed by a goat, as they got out of the car.
"I was hoping we could talk to your sister, Chloe," Reid said, quietly, a request, not a demand. "After some discussion, we realised Agent Villette may be able to help her."
"Help her what?" Jason snapped, gesturing to the decaying farm around them. "She eats, she sleeps, and when she's well enough, she goes out to sit in the fields. My sister's dying, agents."
"She was struck by lightning, wasn't she?" Chaz asked, hands crammed in his pockets, as he tried to look smaller. "I knew a girl who was struck by lightning, and she was different, after. She started eating enough for three grown men, and she got thin. Started saying some scary things to people. But, I know a doctor who helped her, and if it turns out the same thing happened to Chloe that happened to my friend, we can probably help you save her life. It's a rare sickness, but I've heard of it. I've seen it."
"Your friend, huh?" Jason looked back and forth at the two agents in his yard, suspicion in his eyes. "Well, good for your friend, but we can't afford to pay for a doctor. Sure as hell not a good one like that. If it's even the same thing."
"She smells like strong mead and burning honey," Chaz said, looking up and catching Jason's eye.
"How do you know that?" And now Jason looked even warier, one hand scratching the goat's ear.
"I told you. I have a friend this happened to. Please, let us help Chloe."
"Still can't afford it."
Chaz shook his head, the calm pouring off him. "It's not the kind of thing you have to pay for. The disease is so rare, they're still studying it. There's a place on the coast for people who have it -- not everyone gets it from the lightning, but I know that one. Let me talk to her and see if I'm right about what's wrong, and I'll call Dr Ramachandran and have him make space for her. She'll be able to stay with other people who have it and a whole team of doctors who know how to treat it, and you can visit her -- it's like a hospital -- until they decide if she's going to get well enough to come home. Some people don't get better enough for that. This sickness kills people, when it's untreated, as I'm sure you've noticed."
"We're probably going to get into trouble for taking time away from the murders," Reid said, still hanging back, drawing attention away from Chaz, "but we couldn't just leave and not offer to help. We're supposed to help people. We're supposed to make sure they're safe. That's part of the job description. So, when Agent Villette thought he recognised what was wrong with Chloe, I knew we had to come back."
"I don't want to be responsible for her death because I did nothing." Chaz shrugged and opened the back door of the car, slowly and obviously taking out a grocery bag. "I brought her some of the foods people who have this condition usually like. Nobody likes everything, but there's a few things in common. I thought it might help her feel a little better. Might help us identify if it's the same problem."
"You really do know, don't you?" Jason finally caught the calm and some of the certainty in the way Chaz spoke.
"I do. I know this condition very well."
"Your friend must've been some kind of special, or you're a real nice guy."
"She is," Chaz said, looking like a strong wind could knock him down. He shoved the memories down and clung to the serenity and trustworthiness he projected.
"He is," Reid said, at the same time.
"You wait for me, here. I'll see if I can wake her up. Sometimes... sometimes she's too tired. She's only up a few hours a day, any more." Jason nodded and headed back into the house.
"You did that well." Reid was barely audible.
"There's rarely a nice way to tell someone you want to take their sister to Arkham, but I'm something of an expert."
"These are really good." Chloe hadn't been able to get out of bed, but Jason had gotten her propped up against some pillows and a rolled blanket at the top of the bed, and now she sat surrounded by the assortment of snacks Chaz had brought her, cautiously sipping a strawberry protein drink.
"I brought a whole case, and they're all for you," Chaz promised, with a bit of a self-conscious smile, hefting the box from beside the bed, and then setting it back down. The sleeve of his shirt pulled up and he stopped himself from tugging it down, watching her eyes find his wrist and linger.
It gave him a moment to study her. Minimal scarring, and on her pale skin, it would have been stark -- just a few thin lines, just under the surface. But, looking at her put him in mind of those months he couldn't look at himself in the mirror. Her face was sunken, skin thin, blistering around her too-red lips. A few scratches on her hands looked recent, but also like they might not heal. And the smell in the room was one that pulled at his senses, set off all the alarms in the back of his head.
"Your brother told me the doctors, here, stopped trying," he said, opening a box of Twinkies and holding it out to her, when she looked up. "That he's the last person still trying to help you."
"They tested everything," she said, with a small, frustrated gesture, taking a Twinkie with the other hand. "I used to love these, when I was younger. But, when dad and momma... We couldn't pay the doctors any more. We had to stop buying food from town. But, we do all right."
"I can tell Jason's doing his best for you. He's really trying, isn't he?"
"It's not enough. And I tell him it isn't meant to be. I've been touched by the sky, and when my work is done, I'll go back to the sky." Chloe smiled sadly, clearly wishing her brother could understand.
"It's not enough because you have a very rare condition, but I've seen it before. My friend was hit by lightning, just like you, and it changed her. Changed her like it changed you, I think. But, she's alive and she's healthy." Chaz paused and made a decision, glancing toward the door that led out to the living room, where Reid and Jason waited. He rolled up his sleeves. "Just like me."
"There are others?" Chloe's smile split her lips, and Chaz handed her a tissue for the blood, from the box on the nightstand. "Of course there must be, I couldn't do it all alone."
"We're all a little different. I haven't seen the same thing twice, but I know the signs -- you're sick, tired, hungry; the doctors say they can't find anything wrong, but you just keep losing weight; and there's something else, isn't there? That's the part that changes. It's something to do with the farm, isn't it? Your brother's fields look much better than the neighbours'."
"That's why I'm Chloe. The lightning killed Alexandra and made me in her image, but it took time to understand it. It took time to know what I was. But, when momma culled the chickens, I blessed them, and the grain grew. And then I knew we'd been chosen. My family was given a gift."
"I'd like to help you survive the gift you've been given. I know some doctors who can probably help you, and you don't have to pay them. They're researchers working on a cure for the bad parts. They're trying to help people like you -- people like us -- regain control of their lives. Our lives."
"You're really like I am?" Chloe still didn't look quite convinced.
"Kind of. I don't work with plants. I... help people remember things and talk about them." Chaz tried a bit of spin. It wasn't inaccurate! It was just... not the whole truth, which he wouldn't be sharing with some random gamma in the middle of Nebraska, no matter how much he wanted to help her.
"Then how come you're a cop? I'd think you'd be better in a nursing home! All those old people who can't remember..." Chloe watched him curiously.
"Because the victims of crimes don't always remember what happened to them. They only remember parts. But, I can remember with them, and because it didn't happen to me, I can ... see things they didn't notice." Chaz would never cease to be amazed at how well he lied under pressure. Most of his work was with suspects, not victims. Most victims didn't need to relive their trauma in the kind of detail he'd provide. He didn't need to relive their trauma in the kind of detail he'd provide.
"Jason said you're here about the dead people in the corn. Doesn't seem like you could help them remember anything."
"I don't need to, because I think you know what happened. I saw the corn around them." Chaz offered Chloe another protein drink. "Can you tell me who killed them?"
"And if I tell you, you'll take me to the good doctors?" Chloe's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"If you tell me you want to go, I'll take you whether or not you tell me. I'll take you, if you tell me you killed them yourself. It doesn't matter. There are two things I want to do, before I leave Nebraska -- close this case and get you on a plane with me, so we can take you to get help. Your brother can come too, to help you get settled. I want to make this as easy as I can, because most people who go there... they don't have that choice, and I know how hard it is." Chaz pointed at the scarring around his wrist. "Trust me. I know. And I wasn't in a nice place like Idlewood. I was stuck in a regular hospital for that. You know what that's like."
Chloe ducked her head, shook it. She still wasn't quite convinced of what he was saying, but she'd hear him out. "Promise me you'll help Jason, if I tell you what happened. He's ... He tries so hard, but he can't fix everything."
"We'll do our best. Idlewood has people on staff who just help families understand what's happening. I'm telling you, it's the best place for what you've got. If it's possible for you to recover, to go back to a mostly normal life, that's where it's going to happen. And if you don't recover, they're fully equipped for that, too. But, you're still sitting up and talking to me, eating regular food, so I think you're going to be all right. I have been in much worse shape than you are in right now, and I'm still here."
"They were just trying to help, I thought. I tried to tell them they weren't doing it right, but they wouldn't listen..." Chloe opened her drink, just to have something to do with her hands. "But, there wasn't anything I could do. I tried to show them, but they were so sure. They thought I was a goddess. It was supposed to be a joke, they said, but then I came to them, because they called me. I didn't know what to do -- the county... We're not even real any more. I was sure when the harvest came, they'd have to stop."
"Now, they'll stop. Show me who they are, and I'll make sure of it." Chaz caught the word a moment too late. 'Show', instead of 'tell'.
"You'll remember with me?" Chloe asked, curious.
"If you want me to. It's ... better if I don't, unless you think you need it. It's not pleasant."
"No, if you're like me, show me. Prove it. Prove it to me, and I'll believe in your doctors."
Chaz took a deep breath and nodded slowly. "Finish your drink, so you don't spill it. When you're ready, think of the first time you saw those people, and just go through it in your head. Just begin at the beginning, and I'll ask questions, if I need you to go back and look again." He reached for the box between them. "And I'm stealing a Twinkie, if you expect me to do this."
And that was what brought her eyes up, in the realisation he might not be joking.
"I have to go," Chloe had said, "they're calling."
And go she had, with Chaz right behind her, as Reid called JJ. It was all corn, nothing but corn around them, and Reid realised he couldn't be sure where they'd gone, until Chaz spotted a landmark. But, Chaz had to be the one to follow directly, and they both knew it. But, Garcia could put JJ and Rossi on the right road, at least.
Jason had wanted to go, this time. He'd wanted to go out with his shotgun and solve the problem once and for all, but Reid had stopped him, reminding him that the problem was going to be solved just as permanently, if perhaps a little less satisfyingly, and after a bit of shouting and waving the shotgun, Jason had finally sat back down and picked at the food Reid had run up to town for, just before sunset.
The chanting sounded Greek, if Chaz didn't miss his guess, but it was the worst impression of Greek he'd heard in a long time. The only words he could be sure of were Demeter and Persephone. Three voices, young men, no more than a row over, which aligned with what Chloe had shown him... except there should have been four. And he'd never been so thankful for-- that wasn't true. He'd never been so thankful in the life he'd lived where people could remember it for the power to be unseen. Four had to be somewhere, and he was hesitant to reach out, to take his focus off Chloe, until he could be sure what was happening.
And then they came into the row, Chloe first, pressing aside the corn with her already-tattered thin arms. Chaz slipped through just before the gap disappeared. It seemed like the corn had more leaves than it had when Chloe had first approached it.
"Why have you summoned me?" Chloe demanded, the corn creaking and rustling around her. Looking at her, then, Chaz had no question why she might be thought of as a goddess -- he'd been feeding her, all day, and the baseline gamma traits had started to come back, her hands finally healing, a faint glow of actual light returning to her cheeks, but now he could see the lightning under her skin. Lichtenberg patterns that hadn't scarred visibly were dark in her sudden radiance.
"Just one more time," one of the young men said, pulling the drape off what Chaz had taken for some kind of marker flag, behind him.
That was what had happened to number four. Still breathing, but otherwise motionless, strapped to a scarecrow support.
"I told you this was not the way," Chloe warned, stepping closer. "You have taken none of my lessons. I showed you the right way."
"If this isn't the way, how come it works, huh?" the second man asked, shaking his head. "If it was the wrong way, you wouldn't come, but here you are, just like always."
"Why would you do this now?" Chloe asked, as the third man started chanting again, and the glow beneath her skin expanded outward, reaching up to the fourth man hanging above them. "Don't you know they're coming for you?"
"Oh, but they're not coming for us. They're coming for you," the first man said, as the fourth man blossomed in red light, the halo drawn down into the corn. "It's sad the experiments have to come to an end -- you could really have done us some favours up on the test farm -- but we can't afford this kind of trouble. I heard they're asking about you, anyway."
"They'll never find me. They want to bring human justice to a human killer. That's you, not me. I'm the Lady of the Growing Grain. No man's law can hold me." Chloe held her arms out to the suspended man, and around her, the corn grew and changed.
Chaz watched the leaves weave together, realising that she'd cut off the row except from the ends, which was going to make backup a difficult proposition. Of course, he wasn't sure they were going to need backup, either.
"You're Alexandra Patterson, and you're a psycho killer," the first man said, pulling a knife out of his pocket and flicking it open. "It's just this time your victims fought back."
Chaz was on him, before he finished the sentence, disarming the man and twisting both his arms behind his back to bind them. He shoved the man aside, knocking him to the ground, and pulled out his badge, showing it in the light of Chloe's power. "Federal agent. Let's do this the easy way. On your knees, hands behind your heads."
"You gotta get Ralphie down from there!" one of them insisted. "She's killing him!"
"Pretty sure you're killing him," Chaz argued, but addressed Chloe anyway, as he stepped past her to get to the other two men. "You should probably stop."
"I can't. They performed the ritual. There's no way to turn it off. If I could stop, I'd never have started."
"She's a fucking monster!" the second man spat, pointing at Chloe. "You have to kill her, before she kills us all!"
"No." Chaz shook his head and smiled, zip ties in one hand, as he tucked his badge back into his pocket. "I'm the monster, and you're the villain. Hands on your head."
It took JJ and Rossi much too long to get through the corn. Even with a GPS beacon to guide them, they still had to get close enough to find the exact location, and twelve feet was a long way in a cornfield, particularly one that seemed to be fighting them, as they got closer. JJ hadn't wanted to leave Reid behind, but when he explained he had to sit on the brother, she knew there was nothing for it -- that was why Villette had gone in alone, in the first place, and she hoped he was still standing, when she got to him.
"Hey! We're over here!" A muffled voice sounded, deeper in the field, a row or two over. "Scene's clear, but we need medical!"
"If you two can secret cryptid power this corn out of the way, that'd be great," Rossi called back.
"Yeah, that's... why we need medical..."
"Do you ever just... wish we'd packed for a jungle expedition?" JJ muttered, slicing between stalks with her pocket knife, before she pushed through.
"I think this would be much easier with a machete, but I think the farmers might be upset," Rossi teased, gun in hand. "And I'm supposed to go through first."
"Right, right. I have the knife, you have the gun. I just want to get out of this corn." JJ sliced through another row of strangely tight corn leaves, and stepped aside as Rossi went ahead of her.
Rossi took in the sight that waited on the other side of the corn, a few yards to the left. Three men knelt at the base of a pole that supported a fourth man, long dead from the look of him. Villette knelt beside a young woman who looked like she might also be dead, her blond hair blown like cornsilk around her, and a half-eaten Clif bar crushed under the side of her face. She was too thin to be alive, he was sure.
"She's still breathing, but she's not going to be for long, if she doesn't get some help." Chaz looked up at JJ and Rossi.
"Garcia called an ambulance, as soon as Reid called her. It should be waiting back by where we parked, but..." JJ looked back through the corn behind her.
"I got us in here, I can get us out of here. You think you can handle the three of them, or should I just leave them tied to the pole until the locals get here?" Chaz gathered Chloe into his arms and stood. "If we mark the end of the row, they'll get a lot less lost than you did."
"GPS sucks in corn," JJ pointed out, eyeing the three men. "I think we can take them. How far is the corn... like that?"
"I don't know," Chaz admitted, backing down the row, with Chloe draped over his shoulder. "But, straight down the row is the road, and from the road, everything's obvious. Their ankles are tied, too. To each other. They're not going to get far, even if they do run. I have to get to the road. I promised her brother she'd survive."
Chaz sat in the hall of the hospital, beside Chloe's door. She seemed to be recovering, and he hoped to be able to move her by that evening, but the doctors wanted to keep her another few days. Right now, he didn't have his cel, because he'd called Dr Ramachandran to make the argument for him, and handed the phone to the doctor still standing in Chloe's room. He could hear the argument through the door, though he mostly ignored it in favour of the book in his hand, some trashy novel he'd picked up in the gift shop.
"Hey," a voice interrupted his reading, and he looked up to find Mary Langly. "I, ah... I heard you were up here, and I just got done with the latest body. Thought I'd come up and deliver the report in person, maybe take you out to lunch..."
"I would love to go to lunch. I would love to discuss dead bodies with you over an incredibly large meal. Unfortunately, I can't go anywhere, right now. Our living victim's on the other side of that door, and so's my phone." Chaz gave her a pained look. "You can steal a chair from somewhere and sit next to me, though."
The sound of another irate tirade started, and it came through the door loudly, if not clearly.
"What is even going on in there?" Mary put a hand on her hip and leaned back, in almost the same motion as her cousin.
"I'm trying to have the patient moved to a facility in Virginia that's equipped to handle her condition. I'm getting pushback because no one here can figure out what's wrong with her besides 'something metabolic', and I'm not family, and her brother's ... It's complicated. Her brother's the last living family member, and he wants her moved. I know what she has, and I want her moved. The doctor on the other end of the phone is a specialist, and he wants her moved. I mean, she's getting moved. It's just a matter of how long that's going to take."
"I am so glad I never get sick." Mary rolled her eyes and shook her head, before shoving a manilla folder at Chaz. "Okay, time for Plan B. You take the reports, and I'm going to run down to the cafeteria. What're you up for, three cheeseburgers and a slice of chocolate cake?"
Chaz laughed -- she'd obviously picked up on the way he ate, after the other night. "Throw in a coke the size of a water tower, and that's probably about right. You sure? I don't want to stick you paying for--"
"You picked up dinner. I'll even it out." Mary shrugged and cocked a finger at him, as she turned and dashed down the hall, white coat fluttering behind her.
"She's fine, Jason," Reid insisted, holding the elevator door. "And the Bureau's footing the bill for the hospital, because we put her in danger."
"She put herself in danger." Jason shook his head. "You just finally got her out of it. And thanks. I didn't know what we were gonna do."
"Jason? Listen to me. We put her in danger by using her to catch the killers, and that is why the FBI will pay for her treatment, until she gets transferred. So, if anybody asks..."
"You guys really are something else, you know that?" Jason shook his head, again, disbelieving, and looked up at the number as the elevator stopped. "So, you really think she's going to be all right?"
"Agent Villette knows a lot about this disease, and if he says she'll live, I'd say the chance of her dying is fairly small. Nothing's ever absolutely certain, but right now, things look good." Reid stepped out of the elevator, trying to ignore the smell of disinfectant. Hospital smell still put him on edge for reasons he didn't much want to examine. "The difficult part's going to be transferring her to Idlewood, but I know Agent Villette wants that to happen tonight -- the sooner we get her moved, the better her chances become, at this point."
Jason nodded, following Reid down the hall, to the nurses' station. "Jason Arnoldson," he said to the woman at the desk, like he'd dome this a thousand times before. "I'm Chloe's brother, and I'd like to see her."
"There's an FBI agent with her, right now. One visitor at a time." The nurse looked sternly at Jason.
"That's fine. I'm the other FBI agent." Reid lifted a hand to shoulder height and ducked his head. "Agent Villette and I can wait in the hall."
The nurse finally noticed him. "You look just like that other agent. You two twins?"
"Separated at birth," Reid assured her, because it was easier than anything else he could say.
"Oh, go on," the nurse scoffed, shoving a sign-in sheet at Jason. "Chloe's down the hall in two thirty-eight. She might still be unconscious. Maybe take a few pounds, before she wakes up, but she's stable. Don't you worry about that."
Jason offered a weak smile, as he set down the pen, heading off in the direction the nurse had pointed, and Reid followed, trying to brace himself for what he knew was coming. He had to not stare. He had to keep his mouth shut about 'Cousin Dick' and not stare. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, but Chaz was very definitely staring. Staring, smiling, joking. And there was that razor-fine ache they both shared when something wasn't going to get the happy ending, and Reid knew how this would go.
They came around the corner to find Chaz and Mary perched in identical waiting room chairs, next to the door, bags full of burger wrappers at their feet, and all hands full of paper, as they chattered in staccato bursts, heads nearly touching, gesturing to pages with other pages. The two looked up at the same time.
"It's a jet injector," Mary said, smiling broadly. "And I don't know why the hell they would've dosed the last victim again, post-mortem, but they must have, because the body's almost mummified, which explains a lot about what we were seeing and not understanding about the others. The guy looks like he was stuffed in an industrial dehydrator -- no wonder we couldn't figure out the blood. There's almost no fluid left, and what there is started to settle downward, just like before. I mean, this one's not gut--" She finally noticed Reid wasn't alone. "Jason, aren't you? I remember you and your sister, from when I was still doing my residency, because I thought I wanted to work with the living. I'm just gonna ... stop talking about dead people now."
"This is what they were going to do to Chloe, isn't it?" Jason asked, looking Mary right in the eye. "They were going to ... inject her and dehydrate her?"
"Actually," Chaz cut in, "they were going to kill their friend, stab her, and blame the killings on her, claiming they woke up and fought her off, after she killed their friend."
Mary rolled her eyes, switching some papers to the other hand as she reached down to pull a packet of fries out of the bag at her feet. "Some friend. What I don't get is how they got her out there. What possible reason could a woman that ill have to go anywhere near the sites?"
"She was trying to stop them," Jason said, quietly.
"Why the hell didn't she call the police?" Mary shrugged like it was obvious, nearly pouring the fries into Chaz's lap. He caught her wrist and stole one.
"You knew Chloe before, didn't you?" Reid asked, casually. He knew she'd catch on, after a few questions, if she was anything like her cousin. "Before the lightning?"
"No, I knew Alexan-- Oh." Mary looked back at the door, the pieces coming together in her head. "The labs. The county. The county sheriff."
"There you go." Chaz nodded and sneaked another fry and looked up at Jason. "You should go see your sister. That's why you're here, right?"
Jason nodded, eyeing the door uncertainly. "She's really all right?"
"You told me that she's sleeping most of the time, lately, so with that in mind, I think she's fine. She ate well, yesterday, but it looks like she overexerted herself a bit. I'm pretty sure she just needs the sleep. Once she gets treatment, she'll probably stop sleeping so much. I can't promise she'll put on much weight, but she'll probably put on a little. It takes a while for the body to recover from something like this. But, right now, she's just sleeping." Chaz reached over and pushed the door open a bit. "She looks about like she did yesterday. She's just not sleeping in her bed at home."
"Thank you," Jason said, looking like he might say more, but he took the door and passed through it, once Chaz moved his hand.
Chaz waited until the door closed, before he turned to Mary. "But, we have to move her tonight. That means--"
"We're not playing naked twister? Yeah, I got that part." Mary shook her head, more hair falling out of the loose twist she had it in, pens jutting at eye-gouging angles. "Would've been fun, but I wasn't really expecting it. The dead bodies? The nose? Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses? You're cute, but I'm not that lucky."
Reid relaxed, subtly, and Chaz could feel it. It was almost out of spite that he picked up the folder from between them and scrawled on it, shoving it into Mary's hand.
"That's my number. Mine, not the work one. I have to finish this case, and there's one more serious one waiting, when I get back, but... call me. I have to get a weekend somewhere, even if they never happen on actual weekends..." Chaz made a face like a distressed frog, and Mary laughed.
"Because crime never sleeps?"
"Something like that." Resting his elbow on his knee, Chaz rubbed the back of his neck, looking like he might be considering rolling up like a hedgehog, just to stop taking up so much space.
"Your partner doesn't look thrilled about this."
"My partner's afraid we're all going to go out somewhere, and he's not going to be able to tell you from his significant other, from behind. Or the side. Possibly the front, in the right light. You really do look a lot alike." Chaz pulled out his phone and started flipping through photos.
Reid realised what was happening a moment too late. "No. You can't just--"
Mary looked stunned, gazing at the only photo of Langly that Chaz had -- the one from Florida. "What'd you say his name was?"
"He's not going to," Reid snapped, then took a long breath, the chill of panic still clinging to his palms. "We're not supposed to discuss our personal lives in the field. I'm sure you can understand."
"Don't want pissed off family and friends of the bad guys going after your family while you're not home." Mary nodded. She'd watched enough cop shows to get the idea.
"Happened to our former team leader, more than once. Former, because he finally had to disappear to make it stop. They were after his son." Reid stuffed one hand in his pocket, the other still clutching the strap of his satchel.
"Yeah, I'd be careful after that."
"Anyway," Chaz said, slipping the phone back into his pocket, "the point is, you should call me. They've got to give me a day off eventually. I'll fly down and you can show me what excitement looks like in Nebraska."
"Pretty sure you've already seen that. This is the most excitement we've had in years. The next step down's probably the Friday Fish Fry," Mary teased, patting her pockets and tugging at her coat, until she found what she was looking for, triumphantly whipping out a card and nearly putting Chaz's eye out with it. "Sorry. It's, ah, got my number on the back. I figured I should be prepared for any eventuality."
"As soon as I'm sure we've got the next case wrapped, and nobody's tapping my phone, you'll hear from me," Chaz promised. "And I'll probably say all kinds of stupid things."
"He will. I've spent enough time with him that I can be absolutely sure he'll say impressively stupid things." Reid nodded, a hint of amusement playing around the corners of his mouth. "And because I've done this before, that's what pay phones are for, Villette. And don't always use the same one."
"It is the twenty-first century, where the hell am I going to find a pay phone?"
Reid gave him a long, pointed look. "Where do you find anything, in the twenty-first century?"
Zero proofing, I just want this off my desk.
And on this day, I rose from the dead to bring you a chapter.
"I think we've got him as nailed down as he's getting," Langly said, staring up at the monitors above his desk, ankles crossed on the edge of it, as he reached down for another protein drink from one of the two cases next to his chair. He'd stopped pretending he needed the keyboard a couple days ago, and things started to come together even faster. "We've got to go get him. He's starting to get jumpy. I don't want him hiring somebody we don't know. I don't want him paying somebody before we get to him. I have enough people who want to shoot me, without adding another."
"Is tomorrow soon enough?" Garcia asked, as she tried to pull the necessary information out of everything they'd gathered. "You know Reid doesn't want you in the field without him, and I don't blame him. You're a consultant."
"Absolutely nothing to do with the dead girlfriend," Langly drawled, trying to find his lap under the pile of snack cake wrappers. He'd gotten sick of Twinkies around the third day, which wasn't something he'd ever expected himself to say. "But, yeah. I think we can do this in the morning." He leaned back tipping his head over the back of the chair. "Byers, do me some quick scheduling. Make it look like we're going somewhere tomorrow morning. Yves, give him about half a minute, and then make the I told you so call. Put a lock on us coming from ... where are we supposed to be coming from?"
"You can get there from here, and you own it. Byers has the address," Yves called back from where she leaned over Byers's shoulder, on the other side of the room.
"This is really somebody we don't even know?" Frohike asked again, still surprised, all these days later. "It's not just a name we don't know?"
"Why would we know them?" Byers shrugged, setting up meetings and arranging the perfect scenario for a car wreck on the bridge. "Overlord knew my father. We weren't really that close. I was still a kid, in his mind, right up until we pulled the plug on Scenario Twelve D. I'm sure he kept an eye on us, but we didn't get much of a chance to step on his toes again, before everything went sideways. We're just a warning passed down to the next generation. Helmsman would never have known us, if we didn't step out in front of him like we did."
"He's going to try to blow our cover," Langly reasoned, still trading information with Garcia, to build a probable timeline for Helmsman's next few days. "It's the obvious thing to do, to try to discredit our work because we're somebody else's secret project, or worse. Narcisse tried it, but mostly so she could justify trying to kill me."
"We will worry about that when we get to it," Garcia announced, tweaking some of Byers's plan and confirming the spotters on the route. "For now, let's try to avoid getting my boyfriend actually killed, shall we?"
"How many agents are you dating?" Yves looked across the room at Langly.
"Wait, what, me? No, no. She's talking about him, not me. That is one hundred percent a Byers thing. He's the one into blondes." Langly shook his head, checking and confirming a few more pieces. As the room stayed silent, he suddenly straightened up, dumping an assortment of snack cake wrappers onto the floor. "Stop looking at me like that! Her, not me! I am not, we didn't, and he wouldn't."
"But, that would explain so much about all three of you..." Yves looked entirely amused at the idea.
Frohike snorted. "Hey, Byers, you going to assure the lady there's neither slapping nor tickling going on?"
Byers turned an alarming shade of red. "Anyway! You get to kill me in a horrible accident on the bridge, but he's not going to pay you until Langly's dead, too."
"I thought we established I don't care about his money, because you're paying me. Also, I like you, for some reason. Two of you are adorable."
"Screw you, I'm cute!" Langly snapped. "And Byers gets to play dead, this time, because we need to establish that Yves is serious, and she intends to get us both. It'll be easier if one of us is taken care of and she starts talking about picking off the other at the funeral."
"Get him to calm down, and he'll start to relax. He'll start thinking it's almost over, start planning further ahead than we intend to let him get." Yves turned and leaned back against the desk, next to where Byers was working, sure that Agent Garcia could hear her just as well as everyone actually in the room. "And then he stops being my problem and starts being your problem. And with any luck, I'll never see any of you again. For real this time. And not because you're dead."
"Hey, speaking of people you never wanted to see again, you remember that absolute wet dishrag behind me that one time at the range?" Langly asked, leaning back again, as he arranged the angles and personnel for Byers to quietly slip away after he survived the accident.
"You mean the one who slapped your ass like he owned it and nearly walked you into a brick wall?"
"That's my ass and I own it, no matter who might've put their grubby hands on it. You can't tell me you wouldn't have jumped if it was your ass!"
"He'd never have made contact, if it were my ass."
"Yeah, well, he got married a few months ago." Langly shook his head, hair falling over the side of the chair. "I know, who would ever, right? Get this: some tall blonde. And she's pretty good, too. I stubbed my fingers on one of her systems. Took me a whole extra twenty seconds to circumvent her shit."
"Dammit, Ringo, I am at work," Garcia huffed.
"I was there to deliver my congratulations on the wedding. God, they're my friends. Sort of. He was. Almost." Langly sighed. "Who am I kidding? He was a total wet dishrag. But, I think I got this right. Byers, tell me I got this right. You're the one that has to survive it."
"He's heavier than you think he is," Frohike said, looking the scenario over on his own screen. "Go up a size on the buckles and another half inch on the straps, or he's going to rip his shoulders out and go through the windshield, at that speed. Trust me. I know these things."
"Do we have another half inch on the shoulders?" Langly asked, turning his chair to look across the room at Byers's back.
Yves spread her fingers along Byers's shoulder and glanced at the numbers on the screen. "Half inch? Easy."
"Reid making it back in time for this?" Langly asked, trying to sound casual and failing miserably.
"He will be wherever we tell him to be, at whatever time we want to see him, tomorrow," Garcia promised, in the most soothing voice she could muster. "He's already in Virginia."
"With Villette." Langly finally relaxed a little. If Reid was staying with Chaz, then he was staying somewhere they had no reason to believe Bollinger had found, yet. "I want him and Villette ready for the takedown. Ask Hafs if she can spare us a few hours, too. I don't want to walk in without some backup for myself, too."
"The numbers look pretty good from my end, but there's always the chance Helmsman's going to do something unexpected, and we'll have to regroup," Garcia warned. "These things don't always go as planned."
And Langly knew it. "I have walked out of worse shit than this alive. Right now, all we have to do is watch him, and then catch him. He'll loosen up a bit if he thinks Byers is dead, because really, it was always about Byers. Like father, like son. And now, like daughter, and please tell me nobody told her we're doing this."
"No, but we probably should, before she sees it on the news," Garcia pointed out. "You don't want her to go through that shock at all, even if it's not real. Especially if it's not real."
"Villette can tell her. We know he's not being watched, and they actually talk to each other pretty regularly. About, you know, the thing." Langly was intensely conscious of Yves on the other side of the room.
"Okay, from the top, again!" Garcia insisted, almost cheerfully, the strain just barely audible. "Let's make sure we're not going to accidentally kill someone I actually like, while faking his death!"
"A car wreck." Frohike snorted. "Like father, like son."
"Spencer, if you're going to pace, can you at least do it on the wood instead of the rug? If you wear a hole in the rug, Hafs is going to shit a brick." Chaz was draped uncomfortably across the couch, trying to work the third round of cramps out of his leg from the longest time he'd spent sitting on his ass in transit, for a case, in years. To the airport, on the plane, out to Idlewood, and then back to the city. At least he'd gotten to spend some time walking around, while Chloe was getting settled. He hadn't slept; he'd planned the day badly -- hadn't eaten enough, had too much coffee, as defined by the fact he'd had zero liquids that weren't coffee, since he'd left the house with Chloe the night before. Two nights before? Time was a smear, at this point. But, what was important was that he absolutely had to sleep, before morning.
"Fine." Reid stepped to the side, to the space next to the rug. "It just... none of this sits right with me, and I can't go home, because Bollinger is probably camped a block away, regardless of the restraining order. And I'm finally home, and I don't get to see my boyfriend, until the middle of an extremely complicated arrest that's probably going to end in me losing my job -- after which, I still probably won't get to spend time with him, because I'm going to be filling out the paperwork for this case for days. And I know, that should be an exaggeration, but in this particular case, I'm pretty sure it's not. There's a lot to justify, here."
"Kneecap anything that gets in my way, and let me handle Helmsman," Chaz suggested, rubbing his face with both palms. "Then you won't have to shoot him in the face for the good of all mankind. That's gotta cut down on the paperwork at least a little, right?"
"I'm pretty sure if you wanted to go in that way, you could do it without my help, like we did in the warehouse." Reid sounded almost amused for the first time since he'd gotten to the hospital with Jason.
"See, I probably could, but I'm tired. You slept on the plane. I didn't get to sleep, because someone had to watch Chloe." Chaz peered over his fingertips at Reid. "And now I can't sleep, because you're pacing. I need to sleep. You need to sleep. We're finally home -- my home, at least -- and we can just go upstairs and become unconscious for the next eight or ten hours, and still be up in time for tomorrow."
"I only need a few hours. I slept on the plane." Reid shook his head.
"Okay, but you're keeping me awake," Chaz repeated, hands making a pleading gesture he didn't even try to control. "Come to bed, Spencer."
"Did you just think a filthy pun at me?" Reid finally stopped pacing. "I don't know why I'm surprised."
"I don't know either. You are me. This shouldn't be shocking." Chaz paused, considering whether he was actually going to be able to follow through. "Actually shocking? I might be too tired."
"No, I know you're too tired. I can feel it."
"And it doesn't seem to be slowing you down at all."
"Do you remember what happened the last time he went in without us?" Reid sank to his knees, next to the couch, face in his hands for a long moment, before he shoved his hair back and looked at Chaz.
"He was by himself, that time. One man, one motorcycle, one long, empty road. This time--"
"It's going to be the same thing. I don't recognise the address, but I know about where that is. We're supposed to meet him there, in case 'there' changes."
"You think he's not bringing another pair of hands?" Chaz reached out and rubbed the base of Reid's skull, listening to his breathing slow.
"He's not supposed to be, and there's only one pair of hands left for him." Reid turned his head to rub his cheek absently against Chaz's wrist.
"You can't be serious. We can't bring Duke in. It's bad enough we've got a contractor. We're about to start something that's going to be in the headlines of every major paper in the country in less than forty-eight hours, and the work has to be impeccable. And it's not that I doubt he can do his job, but Sol Todd is no longer an agent, and we're going to get walked all over for--"
"He's a civilian consultant, just like Frank." The corners of Chaz's lips curled in amusement, his eyebrows lifting in mild disbelief. "Come on, you didn't actually believe he was just spending his retirement sitting on the corner of Brady's desk for no good reason, did you? He's past retirement age, and we couldn't just get rid of him, so we took him as a consultant, for the good of all mankind. I don't want to think too much about what he'd do, if he actually retired. I'd fear for the future of our nation and our species."
"And this is your first suggestion." Reid looked up balefully, even as the dizziness from their mutual exhaustion crept up the back of his head.
"He's not retired, yet! Not really. But, if I were going to send Frank into something, I'd send him with Duke. They understand each other, I think, in that semi-retired gonzo journalist sort of way. They didn't' get each other killed in Florida!"
"That was reckless," Reid muttered, resting his head against Chaz's arm.
"No, that was very well thought out, and it worked as intended. Reckless was when we took the warehouse without backup." Chaz shifted and pressed a kiss to the top of Reid's head. "C'mon, we can argue about this in bed. It'll be more comfortable."
"And you'll fall asleep in the middle of it."
"With any luck, so will you." Chaz snorted, letting his hand slide down Reid's back. "Me first, though. The last thing we need is another accident like that."
"The last thing I need is my boyfriend getting abducted and tortured, again, or worse, just murdered, this time. I keep saying it. This is how it always ends. Why can't we pick him up somewhere inconspicuous, like Hafidha's doing with JJ and Rossi?"
"Listen to me. I made a promise to you, and I meant it. Whatever happens, however long it takes, he will survive this. He will, because one of us should get the happy ending."
"Hate to break it to you, but it's never me."
"It's not me either, so this time it's you." Chaz rolled his head sideways, resting his cheek against the top of Reid's head. "We should go to bed, or I'm going to fall asleep just like this, right here, and we're both going to hate me in the morning."
Reid sighed and pulled back, ducking out from under Chaz. "Fine, come on, let me help you up the stairs before your leg cramps again."
And Chaz wondered again how he'd gotten so lucky. How he'd come to have a less-evil twin, who was warm and light and gentle, at least to a point. How he'd come to be with someone so much like himself, and yet, so different. But, just maybe 'how' didn't matter. Maybe all mattered was that, for now, it was true, though he wasn't sure it would last past the end of the case. And that thought, he kept to himself. Reid was upset enough, tonight.
"Famously reclusive Baltimore businessman Kennedy Fitzgerald is presumed dead, this morning after a four-car accident that pushed his car off the Rochambeau Bridge, as he drove to a meeting regarding his latest philanthropic work. Fitzgerald is best remembered for his work with..."
The first thought Byers had, as the car plunged toward the Potomac, was that he'd made a terrible mistake, and this time, he was actually going to die. Of course, he knew that wasn't true -- he'd done the calculations, himself, and Frohike had gone over them again. But, plunging toward the water, he was suddenly sure he wasn't going to make it. The seals would blow, the quick-release buckles would jam, the windshield would crack on impact -- it was amazing how much fear fit into such a small amount of time.
"He leaves behind no family, and his business partners remain unreachable, at this time."
Alcea watched the black SUV bob in the water, as the news helicopter circled, filming the rescue crew preparing to go in after her father. She knew this was part of the plan. Chaz had explained that Whiskey thought the death would be easier to fake, if Byers went off the bridge -- there would be no need to justify why an otherwise healthy man in his mid-fifties had died from the crash, if they could make it dramatic, and the best way to do that without actually putting Byers in danger was to drop him into the river.
"Oh, god, Johnny, what'd you get into this time?" Gathani sighed, beside her.
On the other side, her mother ate donuts and lemon curd. "At least he had the decency to tell us, this time."
"Last time he didn't know how to find us," Alcea reminded her.
"We have been assured the foundation's work will continue, despite the loss of the man who started it all. The future of Single Bullet Construction, however, remains unknown, though it is presumed the corporation will finish its open projects, rather than transferring the contracts."
"Just calling to confirm the little blue duckling is alive and well. Not a scratch on him." Garcia sounded entirely cheerful, and it took every ounce of Reid's will not to snap at her.
"How are Sparkle and Shine?" he asked, instead.
"Shine stopped for donuts. No problems there. Sparkle's in position and waiting to be told where the party's going to be." Gacia paused, her voice more concerned, as she picked up the tension. "Spencer, nothing's going to happen, before we get started. There's--"
"Nothing was going to happen last time, either. I don't care if we do know the caterer. I'm more worried about the clowns!"
"Whiskey and Sparkle have eyes on Shine."
"Then so does anyone looking for him!"
"Sparkle's involved, so I'm pretty sure that's not true."
Reid took a shaky breath. "Fine. You're probably right. What time's the party?"
"We don't know yet. We're waiting for the host to settle in for the day, and get rid of some undesirable company. We picked up a suggestion that our caterer may not be the only one at this party, but the other one's serving the accountant."
"And have we got that caterer accounted for?" Reid asked, knowing if he squeezed his phone any tighter, the back would pop off.
"Absolutely. We gave him the address and everything, and the second party's just waiting to start, as soon as he arrives." The cheer was back in Garcia's voice. Paul Asher hadn't been in an FBI safehouse since Langly had been abducted. He was still just as concealed, but the number of people who knew where was much lower. He'd still been kept in the records, though, as if they'd been moving him around, just waiting for someone to make an attempt.
"I just want this to be over."
"Depending on how our festivities progress, it may be sooner than you think."
"Kennedy Fitzgerald, fifty-five, has been a long-time proponent of socialised medicine, spending his own money to open free clinics across the state of Maryland. But, after today's accident, not even his own highly-trained specialists could save him."
"Hello, again, Mr Byers."
Byers spun around, wet and cold, to find a face he'd never thought he'd see again brightly illuminated by the merciless lights in the hospital morgue. "You--?"
"Once again, you persist in coming into my office in a body bag and not being dead. At least your friend came through upstairs, like a proper patient." Frost washed her hands and checked the list beside the sink. "But, I won't be declaring you dead, this time. You're just supposed to stay with me until Agent Villette comes back for you. I hope you're not squeamish. I have work to do."
Byers took off his soaking wet suit jacket and hung it on the row of hooks by the door, rolling up his sleeves. "You can't have anyone else in, if I'm here, right? Tell me what you need done. I'm your assistant, for the day."
"Mr Byers, you are covered in river water, dripping it all over the floor and hopefully not on any of my bodies, and you have no training." Frost looked vaguely amused, but unmoved. "However, if you would prefer to stop being wet, you are welcome to scrubs from the cabinet to your left."
"Er, thank you." Byers glanced around, realising that even if he had dry clothes, he had no privacy to change. He hoped standing behind the cabinet door would cover enough of him.
"Mr Fitzgerald was reported dead on impact. A public funeral is planned for later in the week, and details will be made available once the body is released. Although Fitzgerald has no living family, we have no doubt the people who benefited from his philanthropic efforts will be there to thank him one final time."
The waiting was the hard part, Langly knew. It had always been the hard part. No matter how many times he'd done crazier shit than even this, the waiting had gnawed at his bones. So, in absolute defiance of all good sense, he opened up another thread and called Reid -- a call that was answered before the first ring could finish.
"Hey," Reid said, and Langly could hear the strain in his voice.
"Nothing important," Langly promised, still watching Helmsman's data with one eye and passing traffic with the other. "I just miss you."
"I wish we'd had another day. I wish--" Reid stopped himself, feeling the pain and the horror unfurl inside his chest, as he considered all the ways this could go wrong. And there would always be a hundred things he hadn't thought of, but more than anything he wished Langly was at his side, so at least they'd face it together, whatever came.
"We're gonna nail this bastard to the wall, and we're gonna do it today. This is where it stops."
"This is where the end begins," Reid countered. "Helmsman is one person. We're facing an entire organisation."
"And Paul Asher's going to burn it to the ground. Give it five years, and everybody involved will be in prison, dead, or quietly reassigned to Alaska." Langly's voice tasted smug in his mouth. He'd waited almost twenty years to find someone with the power and the willingness to help them, to put an end to the people who'd almost killed Byers. And maybe it wasn't the same people, any more, but it was clearly the same organisation, up to the same shit.
"It's not going to be enough," Reid argued. "You know that. What are we going to do when they come after us, again, and we don't have the resources--?"
"Same thing we always do. First, we survive. And then I show you exactly how much I appreciate that we're both still alive."
"Langly, I'm serious!"
"So am I. I also had your door replaced, while you were out of town. No murder spiders, this time. Promise."
"Damn it, Langly, what if I'd gone home?"
"Locks are keyed the same as the old ones, for now, but the door's a lot less of a piece of shit. And I had it painted the same colour, so you probably wouldn't have noticed, except that it opens easier. It's still your door. It's just a less shitty version of your door."
Reid sighed, tensely. Maybe it wasn't a sigh, maybe it was a huff. Langly couldn't quite make out the subtleties in the sound.
"I told you I was going to do it, and you didn't tell me not to. And after whatever the hell that was in Baltimore..."
"I know you're right. I know you are. I'm just...I keep thinking--" Reid paused, the lack of sound impenetrable to Langly. "Doesn't matter. We're going after Helmsman. ... This is going to cost me my job, at least. And I just keep telling myself it doesn't matter. This is the right thing to do. And I'm going to do it... I just don't know what happens, next."
"Hey, job or no job, you're not losing the apartment, because I said so. And more than that? We'd hire you, if you actually want to do something besides sit around in your ivory tower and be a reclusive academic. You've got skills. We've got problems that need solving." Langly cleared his throat. "Of course, I don't mind the idea of you as a reclusive academic... Lounging around half-dressed and writing about old poetry. Maybe you could read me a few dirty verses."
"English and French have some hidden jewels of erotic verse, but you really have to go to Latin for the stuff that'll make you want to drop your eyeballs in denture cleaner."
Langly swallowed, reminded once again that for a tight-laced academic, Reid was, in fact, a man who could describe even the simplest of sex acts in lurid detail, with a straight face. "I feel like maybe we should stick to French. It's the language of giving you a raging boner, right?"
"Purportedly the language of love, but with you, I'm not sure there's a difference," Reid teased, the tension slowly bleeding out of him as Langly's voice filled his ear. Maybe he wasn't there, but he was a lot less worried, just hearing Langly's voice, after hours of news on the radio about Byers's supposed death.
Langly sputtered, genuinely almost offended at the idea. "You take that back. I wasn't in love with any of them."
"I meant me." Finally, Reid sounded amused.
"As if you need a language to give me a boner," Langly scoffed, leaning against the wall behind him and making sure to stay in view of the camera stuck on the bike's mirror. He was just some guy who'd pulled into an alley to take a call, and the worst he expected was maybe to get nailed with falling garbage, if he got too loud. No one was suspicious of guys in bright colours talking on their cel phones in the middle of the day. "God, I missed you. Miss you. Still. Present tense."
"I've been losing my mind not being able to get back to you."
"It's true!" Chaz raised his voice so Langly could hear him. "He's been unbearable for days!"
Reid huffed. "I have been reasonably concerned! I leave town suddenly, because -- well, we thought it was this case, but obviously it's not -- and by the time I hear from you on the ground, there's a contract on you and a killer standing in your living room!"
"She's not a killer. Not really. She's corporate and industrial espionage. And she wasn't standing, yet, either. I think we still had her tied up on the couch. She's bad news, but she's a whole other kind of bad news." Langly went to run a hand through his hair, before realising he'd tied it back. "And look, she helped us, right? We bag Helmsman, and with any luck I never have to see her again."
"It's the principle of the thing, Langly. There are people who want to kill you, and I'm across town. The last time..."
"The last time I wasn't expecting them. This time I'm hoping to short somebody's cel phone and blow their balls off with it. This time I'm already pissed off and a lot more dangerous."
Reid took a deep breath, before the next sentence. "Langly, the rate of mass and serial killers among--"
"I don't do corpses. You kneecap people. I think I'm entitled to a little tactical castration, if people are trying to kill me."
There was whispering, and then a change in the background noise, which Langly knew meant he was on speaker.
"Speaking as the most functional gamma any of us know, you're right. And as long as you stick to people who are actively trying to kill you, you're probably fine. Just watch yourself. Stop and think about what you're trying to justify, and consider how you'd have handled it six months ago. Think about what the man of the hour would say to you, if you told him."
"The man of the hour is the most uptight prick I've ever subjected myself to for an extended period of time," Langly complained. "And he has exactly no sense of self-preservation. None. The day we met, he almost got us all shot. Twice. At least twice."
Chaz paused. "I may have underestimated him."
"Everyone does." Langly chuffed in amusement. "That's kind of the point. It's why it's him instead of me, today."
"I thought it was him because we need you to get us through the security."
"You could've used Hafs for that, and we both know it. It's safer with both of us, but you only need one." Langly pulled a call in the process of being made, missing the next thing Chaz said to him. "It's official. Party's on, same place we were expecting."
He could hear the click of seatbelts and the sound of the car starting.
"We're on our way. Don't-- Just promise me you'll get there." And they all knew it was stupid, but Reid said it anyway.
"Without a scratch," Langly promised, despite that. "And when we're done, the paperwork can wait the three minutes it's going to take me to throw you against the nearest wall and have my wicked way with your hot body. I have missed you so much."
"Not at the scene, but yes. In the elevator, if I have to. You can take out the cameras, right?"
"For you, I'll stop the elevator, too." Langly pulled his helmet on, not disrupting the conversation in the slightest. "Okay, I gotta go, if I'm gonna get there. Give Sticks-and-Boner a kiss for me."
Langly looked up at the sound of a car door slamming to find Reid walking tensely toward him, while Chaz hung back, waiting for the last of their team. His lips curled in what might've become a coy smile, but then Reid's hands were on him, pulling him away from where he leaned against the bike, fingers tangling in his hair, clutching at his hip, and then a kiss Langly was sure could've started a forest fire. The kiss came on hot, hard, and desperate, Reid pressed as tight against him as possible, and for a moment, Langly had concerns about rupturing the panic bags in his jacket, but those faded into concerns about the way Reid's breathing had gone ragged, the tiny sounds echoing against the roof of his mouth. So, he did what any reasonable man would do and wrapped his arms firmly around Reid's waist, holding him just as close, if a little less forcefully.
Another SUV pulled into the church parking lot, the sound of people getting out of it making no difference to the two entirely absorbed in each other. If it were serious, Chaz would've said something, and they knew it.
"Yowza." Rossi's eyebrows looked like they might levitate off his face, as he finally caught a glimpse.
"At it again, huh?" Hafidha asked, offering half an open bag of marshmallows to Chaz.
"I don't think I've ever seen Reid maintain that kind of full-body contact with anyone." JJ cocked her head and tried to figure out how long it would take before Reid tried to politely excuse himself from the kiss. "Are they even breathing?"
"It's the first time they've seen each other since You Know Who took out the hit on Frank." Chaz nodded up the street toward their target's exceedingly long private drive. "It's good. They'll finally be able to focus."
Hafidha shot him a knowing look, and Chaz turned away, apparently fascinated with that tree they'd parked beside, clutching the marshmallows jealously to his chest.
"Are they going to be at it all day?" JJ tightened the straps on her vest.
"Give them a few minutes, JJ. Helmsman's not going anywhere." Rossi sipped his coffee with one hand and checked his gear with the other. "Don't you have a husband? Doesn't he greet you like this, when you come home?"
"I think he's tired of being married to a fed," JJ muttered, before she could think twice about it.
"Didn't you marry a cop, though?" Hafidha leaned sideways to see around Rossi. "He should know."
"He does know. That's why he doesn't like it."
Chaz tried to swallow enough marshmallow gunk to get words to come out of his mouth. "That's... actually exactly what you're seeing, here. I know I'm not supposed to be profiling my co-workers, but I'm the one who shared a room with him, so it's less 'profiling' and more 'straight from the horse's mouth'."
Rossi cleared his throat, still watching Reid and 'Frank'. The way they touched each other, he thought Reid might be crying. "So to bring things back around, while we wait for our two lovebirds, what I want to know is why this Helmsman didn't go to ground on the base, if he's Air Force. You can spit and hit Andrews from here. If he's worried enough to be hiring assassins, why is he out here on civilian property, instead of on base, where he's hidden behind miles of bureaucracy and red tape, as well as regular patrols and fairly solid protection at all entrances?"
"Because he's not sure he can trust them to protect him, right now." Hafidha twirled a cherry-red curl around her finger, as she talked, trying not to reach for things only she and Langly could see, in front of people who weren't actually her team. She didn't need her hands, but sometimes they helped her keep things in order. "Think about it. He's been operating without sanction for probably ten or fifteen years, to judge by Ray Helm's death date -- it depends on how long it took for Helm to actually step down. And now he's been ordering hits and abductions, using foreign drug cartel assassins who were probably smuggled illegally into the country. And we know he's been using the base exchange to make at least some of those calls, because that's how we traced him -- how Frank traced him -- the first time. If this goes poorly, on base is the last place he's going to want to be."
"And from what he knows, only two of the three targets we're sure of have been dealt with." Chaz nodded slowly, getting a feel for the mindset. "So, he's holed up somewhere he's personally handled all the security, with a few personal guards to hold off anything that gets through the gate. He's still worried about Frank. He's especially worried, now that Fitz is dead. In some ways, he'll be relieved -- the problem is taking care of itself, without further intervention, on his part, but until Frank's dead, Frank's almost as dangerous as Paul Asher."
"How is Mr Asher?" Rossi asked, casually.
"I think he'd really like to get back home to his wife and daughter," Chaz ventured. "I spoke to him for a few seconds this afternoon, just to verify that he was still alive, after the agents at the safe house called in the attempt."
JJ checked her watch again, but they were still well inside the window. "Everyone all right over there? I heard they sent out Sparky Johansen. I know Sparky. She's a good agent, for her age."
As Chaz assured JJ that all the agents involved in taking down the 'second caterer' were fine, Reid finally stepped back from Langly, eyes wet and cheeks dry.
"I love you. Don't you dare die."
Sliding an arm around Reid's waist, Langly pulled him to face the rest of the team. "Come on, if the shark virus thing didn't do it, I don't know why I'd start dying now. Doesn't sound like fun at all."
"Don't do anything reckless," Reid begged, hating the sound of his own voice.
"Like going in with you? Please. Shitty, reckless ideas are a way of life, and I'm good at them." Langly dropped a small kiss on Reid's cheek. "I'd be more worried if this wasn't a deeply concerning thing to do."
"That's... Okay, fine. You've been getting shot at longer than I have. I'd still really rather you not get shot."
"I'd really rather not get shot. I'd rather none of us get shot. That's why I'm just as bulletproof as you are. C'mon, we had days to plan. I'm not stupid and I'm not broke, any more. The jacket's not for show." Grinning, Langly squeezed Reid's hip. "I love you, Special Agent Sexy, and if I'm dead, I don't get to ravish you after we get the bad guy. So, obviously, I'm not going to be dead. And you better not be dead, either. I'll be pissed."
"What about Villette?"
"I'll still be pissed!"
Reid untangled himself from Langly's now-wandering hands and walked down to where the rest of the team had gathered, pointing at Chaz. "You're with us." He turned to JJ and Rossi. "We're the only agents actually on this case. I'd like the two of you to watch the back of the property, in case we missed something in the initial assessment."
JJ looked offended. "You're trying to protect us."
"Yeah, actually, I am! This is a career-ending decision we've made, here, and I'd really prefer not to sacrifice too many of us to it. You two can always claim you didn't know the finer details of the case, that we just called you for backup, to make sure no one ran out the back, when we came in the front. You'd have no reason to question a call from an agent you've known as long as you've know me."
"Unlike some people, I already retired once," Rossi pointed out, faintly amused. "I could retire again. It's not so bad doing book tours."
"If I go down, Prentiss goes down with me."
"Shit," Rossi pronounced.
"Right. Now, we're on the same page." Reid nodded. "Agent Gates knows her business far better than I do, so I leave that to her. Any last news, before we do this?"
They moved in on foot. There was no sense in making more noise than necessary, considering that there were at least five people on the grounds who weren't the guy they were looking for, and some of them would be outside. The drive was long and heavily wooded, and Langly looped the cameras along it just long enough to get out of range, as they walked. They were quiet and almost invisible, something they hoped they'd remain, until they came up to the gate.
And then Chaz dropped back, letting Langly pass him. "You won't see me for a bit, but I'll be here."
Langly nodded and Reid managed to keep a straight face, reaching back to pull Langly up next to him, where Chaz had been. Just two guys who missed where their back yard ended, at a glance.
As they came up closer to the gate, Langly letting Reid lead him, as he stared blankly into the signals, looking for the receiver that would open it, he stopped suddenly, blinking. "What the hell, Villette?"
Reid looked to the side, suddenly concerned and intensely curious, only to find Langly staring exactly at where he knew Chaz to be. "What are you looking at?"
"His phone. I can see his phone." Langly looked a little dizzy. "What the god damn hell is going on here?"
"You didn't tell him, did you?" Reid appeared to address the space that held the terminal point for the phone's signals, and then looked back at Langly. "I don't think he realised that you could still see him. I don't think Hafidha ever told him."
"What the hell?" Langly hissed, again, finally tearing his eyes away from Chaz's phone to stare at Reid in irritated disbelief.
"He's a cryptid." Reid shrugged. "We don't have time for this conversation, right now. I can see him, you can see him, nobody else can see him, and he's going to stay that way, in case something goes wrong."
"How can you see--"
"Because I am him. It gives me a headache, though, so I'd rather not." Reid kept his eyes on things that weren't Chaz. "You want to open the gate?"
"Hang on. I'm still breaking the alarms. We're going to walk right in like we were invited. With any luck somebody'll buy it long enough for us to get to the house." Langly stared into space, looking perplexed. "Gate's ready when you are."
"Let's get a little closer." Reid nodded, slowly, shifting his gun to his back and pulling his sweater down over it.
The gate swung open, and they strode through it, surprising the two guards on the other side.
"Good afternoon! It's a lovely day, isn't it?" Reid smiled disarmingly.
"This is private property, guys," one of the guards told him, pointing back the way they'd come.
"Tommy's expecting us; didn't he tell you?" Langly rolled his eyes, as the gate swung shut behind him. "Just like him. Gets so wrapped up in his work he forgets to say a word to anyone."
The guards started to look confused, and Reid struggled to keep his eyes off the space where Chaz wasn't. "Look, we weren't told about any visitors--"
"We opened the gate," Langly pointed out, looking entirely put out. "I promise we're supposed to be here."
"Tom may look a fool, sometimes, but he's not the kind of fool to give an opener to just anyone," Reid joked, keeping the guards' eyes on him.
"We'll call it up, and then you can go ahead," one of the guards finally grudgingly offered. "Who do I tell Colonel West you are?"
Langly got his mouth open, first. "Tell him John and Bertram Byers are here. We're all old friends of Ray's."
Somehow, Reid managed to keep breathing, nodding along, keeping his eyes on the guards as Chaz finally moved again, quick as a snake. In seconds, the guards were on the ground, hands bound behind their backs, and Chaz stood over them, finally visible again.
"Give me a minute." Chaz rubbed his face and took a few long breaths. "You want to try the main building like that, too? If you say yes, you're paying for the pizza."
"I'm paying for the pizza either way," Langly reminded him. "You gonna make it, if I say yes?"
"Two down, three to go. I'll be fine." Chaz grinned, lopsidedly, ignoring the headache creeping up the back of his skull. Why did he never sleep enough before shit like this?
"At least three," Reid corrected. "Three we're sure of, and then Helmsman, himself."
"They're still not expecting us," Chaz pointed out.
"Which means they're twice as likely to shoot as we come through the door, because you need to be able to see them to prevent that." Reid raised his eyebrows, inquisitively.
"We just walk up to the door like we belong. It's working so far. Obviously, if we got this far Heckle and Jeckle over here must've let us pass." Langly shrugged, turning his head to pop open the straw embedded in his jacket collar. He took a few long swallows and closed it with his tongue. "God, that's gross."
"As long as it keeps you standing up." Chaz ran a hand through his hair and looked up at the house. "We have to start moving or someone's going to look out a window and realise something's wrong."
Reid nodded as Chaz slipped into that headache-inducing space between light and reality. "John and Bertram Byers? Really?"
"Hey, if they actually managed to call the house, it would've brought all the trouble out to meet us."
"That's usually a bad idea, Langly."
"The older I get, the more I realise enclosed spaces only help you if you're familiar with them, and there are too many doors in that building." Langly slid an arm around Reid's waist just long enough to get him to stand still for a quick kiss on the cheek. "Let's go ruin somebody's day."
The door was answered by a woman in uniform, her other hand on her gun, stairs visible over her head, at the end of the corridor. "How did you get up here?"
"We're supposed to be meeting with Tom, but I guess he forgot to tell anyone. The gentlemen down the hill were just as surprised to see us, but they waved us through and said they'd call up to the house, so you'd be expecting us. Did they not?" Reid looked as innocent as his face would manage.
"Maybe you should call them back," Langly suggested. "We can wait. I'm sure Tom's not going to notice if we're late. He's always so busy, especially with his latest project."
Reid nodded, sympathetically, feeling Chaz lurking just over his shoulder. Whatever Chaz was doing, this time, it was well-honed, with a single target, and Reid was firmly locked on the outside of it.
Another moment of staring at them, and the woman stepped aside, shaking her head and trying to stifle a yawn, as she let them into a long corridor that stretched the length of the front of the house, a room opening to either side, a little further down. "They probably did call. The equipment's been screwy all day."
As she turned back to close the door, she yawned again.
"Never enough coffee in the world," Langly said to her.
"Don't I know it." And slowed by the exhaustion, even if she remained unwilling to surrender to it, she fell to Chaz's quick hands, and he shoved her out the door, straight into one of the supports for the porch top, binding her hands on the other side of it and ducking back through the door, before she managed to catch her breath to shout about it.
As the first sounds left her mouth, Chaz shut the door and was rewarded by the sudden silence of a well-insulated building. Grimly, he turned back to the other two, just in time to catch a flicker of movement at the edge of the corridor, where it opened into some kind of sitting room. He lunged too late.
The first sign Langly had that something was wrong was the sudden sting in his thigh. The next was the sudden rush of current that followed. Taser, he thought, as his jaw clenched and his head tipped back. And then he realised he was still conscious and standing. He'd been through worse than this. He'd become something else. The wall was smoking where he'd grabbed it to brace himself, and the light switch had melted. Shattered glass rained down from the overhead light.
"Excuse you!" he barked, and the man in the doorway nearly dropped the taser, but instead jolted him again.
This time, he was ready for it, throwing his arm into the brief distance between them, fingers pointed, as he turned the power back on the man holding the taser. Reid darted forward to claim the weapon as it dropped from the airman's suddenly open hand.
"Frank, that's the house current," Chaz warned, as the lights further down the hall dimmed. "You have to stop."
"Corpses," Reid said, quietly, and Langly's hands closed on themselves.
"That was an accident," Langly insisted, suddenly pale and a little green. "I didn't know it was going to do that."
"And now you do." Chaz clapped him on the back and took a static shock to the palm for his trouble. "Don't do it again. Return the taser, sure, but make sure that's all you're holding."
"Shit." Langly rolled his eyes. "Because I've been in the wires since I got the alarms, and I wasn't paying attention."
"He all right?" Chaz asked Reid, who was crouched next to the fallen airman.
"He will be. He's still breathing and he's not burned."
"Are we going to be safe if I don't tie him? I'm not sure I feel good about it with a regular person, after that. I don't want him to seize or barf or something and die from it, because we restrained him."
Reid considered the man a bit longer. "I don't think he's going anywhere soon. If we disarm him, I don't think he's going to be in good enough shape to come up behind us."
He was checking the man's ankles for backup weapons, when the first bullet slammed into his back like a solid punch between the shoulders. In the time it took to catch his breath, he heard Langly shriek, and then a few stumbling footsteps and a crash, from across the hall. Good. Langly had taken cover. And then Chaz was gone -- almost a full disconnect, and Reid felt himself start to panic at the sudden emptiness, still trying to play dead long enough to get the shooter to come down the stairs, where he'd have even the slightest chance to fight back without getting shot instantly, probably in the head, once they figured out he was wearing a vest.
Why had none of them been watching the stairs? Probably because Langly exploding a light fixture had pulled both him and Chaz into a reaction to that, instead of the rest of the situation. It was probably also what alerted the people upstairs that something was wrong. Still, he couldn't really hold it against Langly -- some people seize when tased, other people apparently vent large amounts of electrical energy. They'd work on it.
And more importantly, where the hell was Chaz? Reid knew he couldn't roll over to check. He'd lose his head, before he got far enough to be sure. There was still no sound from the top of the stairs, as if the shooters were waiting to see if the first volley of shots had solved the problem, before they descended. Reid waited, lying still, heart hammering in his chest. He hoped Langly wouldn't do anything too reckless, too dangerous, as he thought back to the earlier conversation about cel phones.
All they had to do was make it through the next few minutes. He'd been in worse situations, by way of his own inattentiveness. They could still make it out of this, not just alive but successful.