It had been a long series of flights, tracking down the subject of the alarmingly thick file in his hand. He tossed it on the hotel room desk with a sigh, closing his eyes against the unsteady swirl of the runes in his organization's logo. The letters H.O.P.E. shimmered slightly in the dim light, and the afterimage twisted nauseatingly on the insides of his eyelids. This assignment was a simple one; seek and destroy the demon in the file, who had been feasting on living energy for almost two decades now according to reports, and was now assumed powerful enough to cause a significant amount of trouble for most of the organization's hunters. Demons that fed unchecked for so long usually had reached the stage where manifesting horns, tails, fangs, or even flightless wings wouldn't cost them any extra energy to keep them physical. He was the only HOPE agent on record to have taken on anything that powerful and lived to tell the tale.
The file was unhelpful in the many details it left out; there were vague descriptions and one useless artist's sketch, and he couldn't think of anyone in their right mind who would name their child Lancelot, so that had to be a pseudonym. The demons he'd hunted before had had odd senses of humor, but even demons knew where to draw the line. Except this one, apparently.
He went through the contents of the file in his mind, turning away from the desk to unpack his toiletries. Subject Name(assumed pseudonym): Lancelot Atrillo, Age: Unknown, Family: Anna Maria Atrillo, Grandmother, Human; Rochelle Atrillo-Cortez, Mother, Human; Marco Cortez, Brother, Human; Veronica Atrillo, Sister, Human; Luíz Atrillo, Brother, Human; Rachel Atrillo, Twin Sister, Tainted. No pictures since puberty, a name that sounded like the world's worst alias, a tight-lipped family, and a trail of lovesick idiots who rarely realized they'd been chosen for supper until spoken to by a HOPE agent.
There had been two bodies left behind in a hotel room in Cuba; the reports had indicated that one victim had been fed on, and the gunshot wounds were likely the wife attempting to scare off the creature, which had wrested the gun from her and shot her in turn before fleeing the scene. The trail had led all the way to this smallish town in Arizona, just outside of one of the remaining military bases since the Unmasking. The military tended towards unhelpful when it came to HOPE--he'd dodged a swing from more than one officer in the course of his investigations. Grey-green and orange, he'd long since learned, tended to be far more bonding than DNA. The towns that thrived on military business tended to take their issues with any local Extrahumans to the base, rather than the closest HOPE office.
He rubbed his temple; he was already getting a buzzing deep in his ears, an all-too familiar headache, and the only person he'd spoken to here so far was the desk clerk in the hotel office. The buzz changed pitch; the pain spiked behind his right ear, and he yanked his telepathy screen off its settings right as it sparked and shorted out in his hand. He dropped the melting piece of metal immediately and pulled his weapon, shaking out his shocked fingers.
Whomever was visiting knocked politely. He spared a moment of awe for the thousands of people living in a town with an unchecked telepath strong enough to melt a HOPE-issued screen. He opened the door with his tingling hand, weapon still at the ready.
The man in the doorway was white, with black hair and hazel eyes that squinted irritably in the too-bright afternoon. "Let me in," he said abruptly, "it's hotter than dragon's milk out here."
Having just escaped the blazing lot himself and with little desire to ruin the comfort his air conditioner had managed to provide, the room's occupant nodded and stepped aside to allow the man entry. He took in the military uniform--the embellishment on the collar indicated a Commander--and the way the man began unbuttoning the uniform jacket as he entered. It dangled from two fingers as the door closed, and he held his arms up to allow the HOPE agent to swiftly check him for weapons or magic. He found neither, and checked the Commander's dog tags--"Iverson VII, M. G. A pos. Human-Telepath SA, 22-03-2194."--before tapping the man's elbow and putting away his own weapon. "What can I help you with, Commander Iverson?"
"You can start by telling me what the hell HOPE thinks it's doing, sending one of their bloodspillers into the Dire Wolf's territory without consulting him at all," the big man's tone was almost conversational as he settled himself on the corner of one twin bed. He allowed the agent to take his jacket to check it separately.
"The Dire Wolf's territory ends at the reservation line," he shot the officer a sideways glance as he turned out each pocket of the jacket, "on every federal map, including HOPE's."
Iverson scoffed. "What, the current reservation line? No agent of HOPE is that naïve, right? The Dire's territory covers most of northern and central Arizona, as well as parts of southern Nevada and Utah. It has since before those state borders existed, certainly since before the old United State of America's governing idiots began denying the existence of the supernatural." He shot the other man a look at his suppressed sigh. "Yeah, yeah, I know. 'Extrahuman entities and unexplained science.'" The way those hazel eyes rolled spoke volumes of what the officer thought about that particular distinction.
It also gave an observant HOPE agent just the angle he might need to ease a little tension with the locals. He relaxed a little and offered the Commander a smile. "Actually it's just that I heard my training officer for a second there, correcting me every time I called it 'magic.'" he perched on the other bed, hoping Iverson wasn't actively reading his mind, "he'd start in on 'unexplained science,' and how 'magic is a word for simpletons, Shee-row-g'nay, and HOPE doesn't hire simpletons.' He could throttle himself with is own rage for hours." He finally offered a two-fingered salute, forgoing the offer of a handshake for the sake of the other man's telepathy. "Takashi Shirogane. I'm after a demon--chased it here from Cuba, so no need to worry too much about your locals. I'll have it bagged and out of here before any of them know they're in danger."
"Hunting in the Dire's territory goes through the Dire," the telepath seemed unmoved by the charming anecdote and warm smile, "I'm just here to make sure you eat before he summons you to meet with him."
The surge of hot alarm that shot up his spine almost reached his face. The military establishments had never, in his decade of working for HOPE, ceded dominance to an Extrahuman about anything, except in France. He'd been to a few other countries where the military had resented HOPE's presence because they interfered with the torture of non-military Extrahumans in a kind of foxhunt that occasionally ended in civilian casualties, but he'd never even heard of any place outside of France putting an Extrahuman in charge above local military assets.
He hoped, again, that Iverson wasn't reading his currently-scrambled thoughts, and delicately cleared his throat. "Well, then. Would the Dire object terribly if I ask my baby-sitter where to get the best local fare?"
Iverson grunted, and Shiro thought--hoped, prayed--it might be amusement. "Dietary restrictions?"
"I have trouble digesting fatty foods," the agent admitted readily. To Iverson's credit, he didn't even glance at the band on Shiro's right wrist, with its steadily blinking green light.
"Insada's, then," Gary got to his feet again, pulling his uniform jacket back on over his broad shoulders and making quick work of the buttons, "they have a nice whitefish with a lemon-pepper glaze."
"Not sure how I feel about ordering fish in the middle of Arizona," Shiro joked, grabbing the file and his keys to follow Iverson into the blazing sun. "It's Shiro, by the way." He wasn't certain if the squint in his direction was because of the sudden light or the offer of casual address.
"Yeah, I have an accent and the way I say your name will bother you," Shiro supposed such a powerful telepath was typically used to being right, but he wasn't as sure he was fond of hearing his deepest thoughts said out loud, "so I'm going to call you something you can stand to hear me say." He looked Shiro over out of the corner of his eye. "I'm going to call you Phil."
The agent tipped his head, amused. "Because I'm a government agent overseeing Extrahuman activity in the world at large?"
Iverson's squint was inscrutable. "Because I can say it without you dying a little on the inside, and I like the name Phil." He unlocked his sedan--sensible, white, four-door, and as no-nonsense as its owner--and motioned for Shiro to get in. "Gary." The introduction was accompanied with a wave of his fingers as he lowered himself into the driver's seat.
"Nice to meet you, Gary." Shiro was starting to get the impression that the telepath's demeanor was as much a lack of social graces as anything else. "How'd you do it, by the way?" He rubbed his thumb over his shocked fingers thoughtfully.
"You're gonna have to be more specific," the Commander kept his eyes on the camera feed as he backed out of the parking spot, and Shiro took the opportunity to study his face. Square jaw, wide cheekbones, heavy brow ridge, almost ridiculously plush lips under a nose that looked like it had been broken more than once. Shiro supposed that even SA rank telepaths said the wrong thing on occasion.
He'd been staring in distracted silence. "Uh, the screen," he huffed a laugh, trying to play off his hesitation as confusion, "it blew, before you knocked." He couldn't quite decipher the look on Iverson's face at the announcement, but recognized enough to know it was partially shock. "You didn't know you'd blown it?"
"I didn't mean to," the response was hasty, and Shiro wondered how many times a young, far-too-powerful telepath had had to offer those words. Gary cleared his throat and shook his head slightly. "The screens...even the best ones only muffle a mind to me. I could hear the screen, active, like a fly by my ear, but no background chatter. I couldn't hear you so I listened harder, and I know better. I apologize."
Shiro winced, thinking of the fried network of metal on the floor of the hotel room. "Well, just for endangering my life, I'm going to make you pay for lunch." He managed to keep his tone cheerful, biting back the instinctive demand to know who the hell had left an SA rank telepath so grievously untrained. He shot Iverson an apologetic look, certain he would have picked up the thought anyway.
Their eyes caught and held a moment longer than Shiro was comfortable with, given the fact that Gary was driving. The telepath's attention returned abruptly to the road. "I can't hear you at all," he said quietly, pursing his lips. He didn't sound puzzled or concerned; from what Shiro could tell, the tone was one of relief. He considered what he knew; A and SA rank telepaths usually developed their abilities before puberty, most went stark mad by twenty and either had to be put down to keep them from turning everyone they came into contact with into scenery, or killed themselves to escape the cacophony of other minds. There were less than two dozen adults of the classifications in the world on HOPE's registry, and Iverson wasn't one of them.
He made a mental note to speak with the local office about exchanging records with the nearby garrison. "Well," he finally offered, a little lamely and a bit late, "happy to ease the burden any way I can." He looked away, out the window, and wondered if 'mental silence' was something that should be tested for. It certainly seemed like it could be an asset to a HOPE agent. After another block passed, he dragged in a breath. "I don't suppose the Dire Wolf would be all right with my asking you if you know anything about my target? The name it went by in Cuba is--"
"I know who you're looking for," Gary interrupted him, tone brusque, "and I'm not going to help you." He turned left into the parking lot of a large restaurant and circled to find a space to park.
Shiro squinted at him in disbelief. "Are you serious? It's a demon--they feed on living energy. Its presence is a threat to everyone in the Dire Wolf's territory--including you and the soldiers under your command." He studied the lack of expression on Iverson's face intently. "Isn't it?"
"I'm your guard, not your encyclopedia," the Commander put the car in park and turned off the ignition, unbuckling and exiting the vehicle without another word or sideways glance.
The HOPE agent scrambled after him. "Wait, Gary--if there's something going on here that keeps people safe from demons--"
Iverson rounded on him and leaned down slightly into his face. Shiro suddenly realized how much bigger than him the other man was, and sternly reprimanded himself to pay attention. "Humans." Gary corrected him shortly, mouth tight. "When someone who works for your organization says 'people,' they mean 'humans.'" He straightened up and turned back towards the restaurant. "Just...say what you mean, Phil."
"But it's not--" Shiro found himself hurrying to catch up with the officer's long strides, "it's not just us humans that demons feed on, it's anyone with living energy. Everyone in this town, human and Extrahuman alike, is in danger from this thing."
"Convince the Dire, not me." Iverson held the door open for him. "I think your whole organization should be locked in a building while it burns down around you." He raised both eyebrows politely, then turned his attention to the host to ask for a table for two, please.
His comment left Shiro reeling for a moment. He'd encountered hatred for HOPE before, of course, but most of the time it was a heated, visceral thing, snarled out between fangs or from under glowing eyes. Psychics were technically human, and Gary had spoken as mildly as though he were commenting on the weather. He followed the host in silence, instead noting how carefully people leaned away from the aisle as they passed. He saw no fear when they looked at Iverson, only immense respect. The fear and distrust was instead offered to him. He was a little confused; this was hardly a small enough town to be so openly distrustful of a stranger, and he didn't exactly look the part of a reputable government agent.
They sat down and accepted their menus; Shiro watched Gary surreptitiously over the top of his, trying to make heads or tails of how an unchecked SA telepath in his late twenties didn't terrify everyone around them. He rubbed thoughtfully at his earlobe before returning his focus to the menu. "Did you train your abilities at the local garrison?" He smiled politely at the slow lift of the other man's head.
"Galaxy," those rich hazel eyes seemed to look right through him despite knowing he was somehow mentally silent, "the garrison out here was founded by the remaining few of the US Galaxy Defense Force, so it's Galaxy Garrison." He took a drink of his ice water, setting it carefully back on the coaster in the ring of condensation. "Yes and no. Once I was old enough to attend the garrison's academy, I received specialized training to hone my gift." He turned his drink, coaster and all. "Before then I was in a private facility."
He glanced up again, caught sight of Shiro's suppressed grimace, and shook his head. "A legitimate one, for what that's worth," he specified, "'properly' overseen by HOPE medical staff."
"Is that why you hate the organization so much?" The other asked quietly, setting his menu down to give his own water a subdued sip. "Because--" he found he couldn't bring himself to say any of it--the psychic 'training' facilities even those overseen by HOPE, were a dark reminder of the bloody war after the Unmasking. He gestured vaguely instead, not sure he was hungry after thinking about those glorified torture camps hiding behind claims of legitimate psychic-medical research.
"My parents sent me to the one in Old Toronto, actually," Shiro thought he saw the faintest flicker of a smile on Gary's round lips, "it was pretty boring. Suppressant regimen, blood tests, card tricks, range tests. No electroshock, hormone therapy, lobotomies, or oxygen overdosing. The horror stories about the other facilities had my parents doing a lot of research. They were scared, but they didn't want to see me hurt." He waved a hand at Shiro's continued concern. "It's not like I was in St. Petersburg."
The example got his point across, and Shiro finally nodded, looking away. "I...didn't realize that hormone therapy could be considered torture," he admitted, absentmindedly running a finger down the list of appetizers, "to be included in that list."
"Growth hormones," Iverson shrugged, dropping his eyes back to his own menu, "harvested from people in the early stages of pregnancy. It supercharges the ability, in theory, in order to short-circuit the synapses that developed there and burn them out."
"No wonder so many psychics go mad," the agent breathed, shaking his head. "So, if that's not why--"
"Dryreef is a Sanctuary," their server said, quietly but coolly as she appeared beside their table. Her eyes were a bright blue with shimmering pink pupils, her hair as white and gleaming as distant starlight, and her skin a soft, rich brown. When she offered him a smile, it didn't reach her eyes at all and mostly conveyed a chill demand for silence. "That means we tend not to appreciate questions which invade our privacy."
Shiro lifted his fingers from the table in a show of surrender. "My curiosity tends to be invasive. I'll do my best to curb it." He fought the rising urge to offer her the satisfaction of a duel in the parking lot as her heavy stare remained unwavering.
"Lu," Gary broke her concentration gently.
She shook herself and blinked hard, then brightened her smile to the professional false cheer of anyone in the service industry. "Terribly sorry about that! My name is Allura, and I'll be your server today. What can I get started for you?" The glow in her eyes and hair faded, and Shiro could no longer make out the swirling pink in the depths of her pupils.
He dragged in a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, levering his eyes back to his menu so he could look anywhere but at the woman who made him want to offer everything he had to erase his offense. "Uh, I'll start with the gyro wrap bites, for my entree I'd like--would you mind telling me the sourcing on your tilapia?"
"There are three accredited local fish farms within an hour's drive," her smile turned fractionally warmer, "we rotate between the three so as to avoid encouraging unhealthy breeding practices and stressful situations for the fish."
He found himself entranced by her cheerful enthusiasm. "Sounds great. I'd like the lemon-pepper tilapia with the steamed vegetables and white rice, and an iced tea to drink, please." He folded his menu, which she accepted deftly with one hand. She exchanged a look with Iverson, then took his menu as well and retreated.
The HOPE agent nearly launched himself across the table. "A little warning that there were fae in your quaint little desert oasis might have been nice," he hissed, trying not to let the amused twitch of Gary's full lips distract him, "there's no way, as well-informed as you are, that you don't know that HOPE's official stance is that they severed ties with this realm."
That plush mouth twitched again, and both of Iverson's brows raised. "That sounds to me like something to take up with the local HOPE office," he noted mildly, "and to answer your invasive question, it's because my parents had to do all the research that they did to find a facility that wouldn't abuse me. Because living in the world and hearing everything, I know how much fear your organization fills people with. I know the practices endorsed by HOPE, the hateful rhetoric it encourages--how it says Extrahumans were created as a punishment for humanity's sins. I know the statistics of Extrahuman suicides in reaction to that rhetoric, have seen and heard the mental scars it leaves, and have stopped one too many lynch mobs bent on murdering innocents to feel anything but seething, unbridled rage for anyone who wears that badge." He took another drink of his water, folding his hands once he set down the glass.
Shiro looked down at his own water, twisting it back and forth between his fingers to listen to the ice cubes clink soothingly against the glass. "I never really paid attention to the religious aspects of the organization," he admitted, then shrugged a shoulder, "HOPE can't control what people do in reaction to our policies or beliefs. I'm sorry it's so terrible for Extrahumans but it seems a little reactionary to blame that on the organization."
"Humans," Gary corrected stiffly, "HOPE can't control what humans do or how they react, but your organization was literally founded on the premise of controlling Extrahumans. 'Human Oversight and Policing of Extrahumans,' doesn't exactly make that subtle." He shook his head slightly. "How can you 'not really' pay attention to the religious aspects? HOPE was literally founded by remnants of a radical sect of the old Catholic Church."
"That was over a hundred years ago, right after the Unmasking," Shiro scoffed.
Iverson shook his head again and let out a heavy sigh. "Starting to think the reason I can't read your mind is that you haven't got one," he muttered.
"You're very rude for a welcoming committee."
"Not usually my job," he grunted, "local HOPE agent should be doing this, but his sister has a dance recital today and she told him she'd break his legs if he missed it."
"So the agent assigned here is a local?"
"Family's been here since World War III," Gary confirmed, "moved from...New Jersey? I figure you'll be heading there later to yell about paperwork and transparency, and what constitutes vital information for HOPE to have on hand, so you'll meet him on your own. He and the Dire went to school together, so try not to make him cry unless your goal is to have a werewolf the size of a large SUV pissed off at you."
"As entertaining as that sounds, I think I'll do my best to be civil." Shiro shook his head, smiling faintly as Allura returned with his appetizer and a plate of simple nachos for Gary. "Thank you," he gave her a faint, uncertain smile, "and I'm sorry."
She raised both brows. "Certainly no need to apologize, sir," her accent was crisp and lyrical, "I'm the one who flew off the handle. Do you think you'll be needing any more dipping sauce than that?"
"Uh, no, thank you." He watched her go, slightly bewildered. "I don't--I can't figure out if that's some sort of fae aura or I really am this much of a disaster." He turned a dazed look on Gary.
"She doesn't have a special aura, she's just very attractive." The Commander shrugged. "But judging from the way you keep trying not to stare at my mouth, I wouldn't rule out 'disaster.'" The amused glance he shot Shiro's way made the other man cringe. "You aren't the only one. Lu's got a lot of fans around here, local and tourist."
"I can see why." Shiro pulled his eyes away from the waitress to give his lunch companion his best flirtatious smile. "I bet you do, too."
Holding up a finger, the bigger man finished chewing his nacho and took a quick sip of the soda Shiro hadn't seen Allura set down. "I'm going to stop you right there," he selected his next bite carefully, "I'm demisexual and you won't be here long enough to be worth the emotional labor to get past your job, much less any quirks about you I might find undesirable."
Shiro watched him for a moment, then nodded. "Fair enough. I apologize if I made you uncomfortable."
He received a grunt and a shrug as Gary chewed, then swallowed. "A hell of a lot less than most people, since I can't hear how explicit your mind got."
The smaller man hastily washed down the gyro bite with a swallow of tea to avoid choking. "Kind of wish I couldn't hear that myself, sometimes." They both devoured their appetizers in silence for a few minutes. "Can you tell me anything about the Dire Wolf? I know the position is unique and genetic, and part of the heritage of the local tribe." He tried a corner of another gyro bite in the sauce, humming in pleasant surprise at the crisp taste. "I don't know anything about the man himself."
"Dire Wolves used to be...I won't say 'common,' but they weren't unheard of a few thousand years ago. Common perception is that they're distant ancestors of modern werewolves, back before weres figured out how to manifest wolf-man forms. The Dire jokes that domestication has always made wolves smaller, but I wouldn't recommend laughing when he does. His lupine form is about the size--have you ever seen a bull moose?"
Shiro shuddered. "I hunted one once that a well-meaning fresh vamp had turned. Told the home office that next time I'm taking one of the jeeps with mounted weaponry."
"Not a bad idea," Iverson nodded," the Dire Wolf's form is about the size of an adult bull moose." He watched Shiro's second shudder with a kind of vicious glee in the back of his eyes. "He's not a fan of outsiders, particularly ones who think they have the right to come into his territory and arbitrarily kill people."
He opened his mouth, closed it, then cleared his throat. "I mean, technically it isn't arbitrary, I have orders--and it's just a demon, anyway, there's no reason to act protective of it, they're...they're deadly pests. Rabid bats, at best." He took in the steady way Iverson stared at him, and sighed. "I'm going to be doing a whole lot of learning on this particular hunt, aren't I?"
"If the Dire doesn't just bite your head off right away," the Commander agreed. “But at least you acknowedge that not everything the agency taught you is entirely trustworthy.”
“Kind of hard to miss at this point.” The comment only earned him another vague grunt, and Shiro let himself lean back to enjoy his meal at Allura appeared again with the hot dishes and her entirely-too-disarming smile.