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Flint, Spark

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01 (One Million Emotions)

The dojo in the gym was empty at 0300, and the coffee pots had been turned off in the mess, effectively evicting the last handful of R&D stragglers loitering there.

Niko waved Q-Ball good night on her way... somewhere else. She'd been edgy since the team had returned from New Jersey a week ago, sleeping in fits and taking too long to finish her reports.

She'd been thrown out of the library when they closed their doors at zero hundred sharp. She'd been digitizing parchment fragments in an as-yet untranslated, ancient alien language, focusing on patterns and glyphs with each facsimile she created.

Not urgent work, but important, a personal project that didn't quite keep her mind still when meditation brought her close call to the fore.

She would have gone to the mountaintop park where she'd spent almost all of her free time as a raw recruit, but they shut down early in the winters. Instead, Niko wandered, an afterimage of the Po sensation doll rolling back and forth through her head.I might have been able to catch it and live, she thought. My training might have let me protect myself.

Well, they had warned her about danger when she joined the Series Five team and accepted the implant. We'll monitor you for signs of post traumatic stress, but you seem to be coping quite well. The psychologist on-call and Ariel both had pinned down her main feeling as guilt. She could have told them that herself.

Niko didn't even know how she'd arrived in the service garage, but she wasn't alone when she got there. A clang echoed on the poured cement floor, followed by familiar cursing, a series of dinks, and rolling. She picked up a handful of ball bearings, one at a time like a crumb trail, ending at the hoist where Shane was elbow-deep in some kind of converter. If she had to guess.

"Good morning," she said. "Lose these?"

"I knew exactly where they were. I just couldn't get to them—lend a guy a hand? Elma's not much help with this kind of thing."

He was wearing a t-shirt and an old pair of heavy slacks, both streaked in machine-shop grime. Her teammate kept odd hours ordinarily; she didn't ask what he was doing here.

"What do I do?" she replied instead. Niko could piece together a skull or an ancient bowl from hundreds of shards, but this was new to her.

"I need two bearings; follow my left arm arm until you get to my hand. I can take it from there."

She found a crate to stand on, and wriggled in alongside him. It was tight going; more than half of their mechanics were female-bodied, or just plain small, and Shane was neither.

"You know, I never got to thank you for catching the Po doll." There was his elbow, and not a lot of room to maneuver around it.

"None needed. It was nothing. Here, let move up some."

He shifted, putting one foot on the crate beside her and levering himself against the hoist to hold both of them and the machinery somewhat steady. The converter swung slightly back and forth anyway, then slowed and steadied. Nothing.

"We've known each other for three months, Shane, and you risked your life for me. That's not nothing where I come from."

There—Niko moved a little bit forward and turned at the waist, putting them face to face. She felt the skin on the back of her a knuckle tear, and winced, but kept going until she found Shane's palm. The steel bearings were warm between them, and for a moment their fingers intertwined.

She felt a quiet light-heartedness she didn't know Shane possessed until now, and kept quiet. Information she had claim to, perhaps. But not a right.

Then he got a grip on the bearings and let her go, and moved aside just enough for her to get out of the converter.

"Yeah, well, I would've done it for any of you."

"I know," she replied. "That doesn't make it 'nothing'."

Shane smirked, popping the bearings into place with a high-pitched metal-on-metal sound. "If you say so, Lady."

Niko rolled her eyes, and wiped her greasy hand off on his shirt, then turned to go.

"I do say so. I'll see you in the morning. Later, in the morning, I mean."


02 (Mindnet)

Goose had never seen his own specs unredacted. That didn't stop him from sitting down with his own file and reading through as much of it as he was allowed to, pretty much the second he got clearance for it.

Technically, he didn't have to train his body; his biodefenses would take care of keeping him in top shape, drawing a constant, low stream of power from his implant charge.

Most days, though, when he finished up a series of calls or reports, prep work for upcoming trials and even maintenance on Triton or Ranger 1, he could feel his own skin under his clothes. Like a battery with too much juice.

Today he turned down Doc's invite for a trip out to Alice Springs (Your loss, my Goose Man; there's this new pizza shop that's supposed to be to out of this world...), and hit the gym instead.

He could still hear Killbane, old digs opened up again, with each each strike of foot against track—weak, soft, frail, Runt. He slowed after eight klicks and fell into a walk after nine. Even when he tried to reject everything the Supertroopers stood for, they hung around the space between his ears.

Punching bags, then. He hadn't broken one, yet, but he'd knocked one off its hook four times since they returned Mindnet to the research team at Longshot. He'd like to take a trip back up, visit Icarus and Winter, but even though he'd been officially cleared... That didn't count for much with people who'd seen him-not-him take the device by force.

He didn't notice Niko until she was right beside him, taking a step and a half for every one of his to keep up. She'd asked something, and he hadn't caught any of it.

"Huh?"

"Shane, I said there's a ring free. If I do one more set of drills I might die of boredom. Come with me?"

Six different ways to turn her down showed up unannounced in the next second; Goose rejected all of them. He liked Niko—liked all of his teammates since he'd had a real team to be on. He wasn't going to insult her by suggesting she couldn't hold her own, or that she'd be careless enough to invite an injury.

Instead, he said as they reached the sparring rings, "That was some trick you pulled with the Queen of the Crown."

"Reverse psychology," she said. "To be honest, I didn't know whether it would work, but we had to try something."

"You ever wonder what we were thinking when she cranked Mindnet up to 10?"

Why did you ask that? What if she actually answers you?

"I try not to," Niko said, and popped in her mouth guard.

Woman could shut down a line of conversation faster than him.

"Tae Kwon Do?" he asked.

She signed, "Yes," took her opening stance, and bowed once.

Goose mirrored her, and welcomed the first blow.


03 (Scarecrow)

"As far as we are able to ascertain, the Scarecrow has been—"

"Go on," Shane said. He gestured in a spinning motion with both hands. "Has been what?"

Niko was regretting her unilateral decision that neither of them were turning in until they both finished their mission reports. She was so close, but instead of finishing she kept going back to edit her first few pages.

Shane, on the other hand, had put on his cocky, ten-feet-tall-and-bulletproof face. The one that meant he was more worried than he let on.

He'd spent a full day with Doc and Triton when they got back, and he'd stuck close to her side on the no-notice diplomatic escort mission that followed. This was the first chance they'd had to sit down in the same room and sort out their story since the trip back with Zozo.

Niko cracked her spine, then elaborated, "How would you say, 'we think he's not going to be a problem in the future but we can't be sure?'"

"He's probably gone for good, but you should sleep with one eye open, anyway?"

"Ha, and also ha." The last remaining piece of sandwich on her desk had been shredded and reshredded at least three times; Niko picked up a wilted lettuce leaf and rolled it between her fingers. It formed a slightly damp, rubbery ball.

"Say neutralized. 'We believe he has been neutralized, but... if he's not we've got a problem."

"I'm still not saying, 'sleep with one eye open'."

"Suit yourself," he replied. He bit his last pickle spear in half, chewed, and swallowed, then dried his fingers on a disposable napkin and typed out a line.

Niko looked back to her terminal screen, fighting a blush, when he licked his lips.

"We advise caution with regard to similar entities," she said at last.

"He's bigger than we are," Shane said, darkly, typing, "Stronger than we are, and might even have a higher capacity for cruelty than we do. "

"I'm not putting that in my report," Niko replied.

"I am. The piece of trash stole my horse and tried to kill my—you."

The red-on-black liquid crystal wall clock blinked 2300 hours, its second readout ever-shifting toward 2301. Niko typed; the keys sounded inordinately loud, the heat on her cheeks like a steam scald.

Niko had been six years old, or so, when she started thinking Xanadu when she thought of home, and a few months after that she had stopped having nightmares entirely.

She didn't fear death, or things she did not know; the last person she had cried out for in her sleep, facing monsters she could neither see nor fight, had been her mother. A woman whose name she didn't remember, whose voice she could not hear, whose ghost remained only a fading scent and a touch.

When you embrace fear, you maydirect it. She hadn't understood the proverb when she first learned it, but now she had a better grasp. She wanted to let it go.

"You said something to me, after I collapsed back on Granna. Didn't you?"

"Only to go back to sleep," Goose said, looking intently at his console, rather than at her.

All right, then.

"As far as we have been able to ascertain, we have no reason to believe that the entity known as Scarecrow has not been neutralized, but we advise caution... no, too many negatives... "


04 (Scarecrow's Revenge)

Niko excused herself to go run a series of completely unnecessary systems checks. She was gone seconds after he said the word brunettes, the doors hissing closed behind her.

Goose smacked himself in the forehead, and dragged his hand down over his face.

"Elma," he said. "Could I be a bigger idiot than I just was?"

"Would you like an honest answer, Ranger Gooseman, or one designed to improve your present mood?"

The AI spun lazily on her screen, and it took all the willpower Goose had to not switch the display off right then.

"You sure know how to make a guy feel better about himself," he replied, instead.

"You are an idiot's idiot, Goose. But I would not have you any other way."

Goose made a noncommittal noise and took them into hyperspace. Six hours until they hit the Kuiper belt, and had to drop into sublight. Too much traffic so close to the settled worlds and moons of the Solar System.

He left Elma in charge of the autopilot, and followed Niko back into the tiny lab, where she was now sterilizing sample containers.

She hadn't been crying, which was good, not that he expected she would be, and she didn't look like she was coming off of fury. Probably he'd just embarrassed her, or the innuendo had made her uncomfortable or something.

Does it even count as innuendo, if it's the bald-faced truth?

"Someone needs to be up at the controls," Niko said, sealing a neat stack of petri dishes and returning them to their storage compartment. There was no hyperspace view in this part of the P-38. She fidgeted with the magnet that would hold the dishes in their container down, if they lost artificial gravity. She cursed once when the disc snapped into place, biting into her finger.

"It's a straight shot; Elma is as good as either one of us, until we slow down. Are you okay?"

"Define 'okay'," Niko said.

A blood blister was forming on her finger; she rubbed the mark absently with the thumb of the same hand.

"I think we can agree that 'thrown into a cosmic rift' is more neutralized than 'ran off, while on fire.'" he said.

It sounded like something Doc would come up with, to break the tension. It sounded stupid coming out of his mouth. Goose smoothed his hair back, and it sprung right up again, and then shifted so he wasn't blocking the door.

People didn't tend to like that from him, so he tried to not use that piece of body language on people he liked, or needed to appease.

"No, Goose, I'm not," Niko said, slowly.

She was leaning back against the storage cabinet right now. The lab was so small it put a wall at her back and at both sides.

"Is it Scarecrow—?"

"Scarecrow will come back," she said. "Or he won't. I can't anticipate that particular future from this particular past, and frankly, I don't think I want to. But it's not that. I can be prepared for that, if I need to. It's...” she hesitated. “You."

Him. Yeah, that sounded about right.

"Okay," Goose relied. "I need to apologize, right? I made a stupid joke, that made you uncomfortable, and I won't... do that again. "

"A... joke?" Niko asked. She went stiff in the shoulder, and then loosened.

He nodded, and even as he was he thought it had to be the worst idea he'd had in at least three weeks. "That's it, right?"

Niko bumped into him when she stepped past, and wrenched away like he'd shocked her.

"Yes, Gooseman, that's exactly—thank you for your apology, and—"

But the door to the cockpit had hissed shut behind her again, leaving Goose alone. The urge to follow and explain, not just smooth over but actually tell her... what?

"I don't even know how I feel," he grumbled, went back to the too-short two-man rack instead of up front to the cockpit.

"Elma, how long until we're home?"

"Approximately five hours, forty five minutes to the Solar System, and another five hours sublight travel from there, Goose. Traffic allowing."

"Great. Just... fantastic. "


05 (Trouble at Textron)

Fate, luck, and some quick volunteering kept Niko on missions where Shane was not for a few weeks. Then the sting faded to an ache, and the ache to a memory.

She apologized herself, for her behavior following his apology. And with that, it was almost, but not quite, like it had been for the past two-odd years. They were playing cards in the rec room (no retocognition, and no x-ray vision allowed) when the Textron lunar base's distress signal came in.

The time from the call of "all hands" to Shane flickering out of existence, holding the door firm so that his teammates could survive him, passed in a blink and a breath. From then until he flickered back into the physical world aboard the P-38 took years, a lifetime.

Niko's every instinct told her to welcome him back cordially, but for once her body moved faster than her mind. She pulled back when Shane stiffened in the embrace, but although his mouth was open in a small, shocked O, she read no ill-will in their contact.

But then SAM began telling his side of the story, and the interview with the AI lasted all the way back to Earth, followed by debriefings and reports and two new missions after. Before Niko knew she hadn't seen him in a week. His absence felt like more than the memory of an ache.

Shane arrived at her quarters with a bottle of wine and a pizza—mushroom, pineapple, and roasted red peppers— from Riccolito's in Alice Springs.

She stood dumb for a moment in her doorway, then moved aside and invited him in. "Shane, I— It's good to see you. I mean that."

He grinned. "'I hear some cultures renew bonds of friendship over food.' And the mess's offerings hardly count as food. I checked. The mess pizza, and possible ways to say... "

"You got that from Doc," Niko replied, into the pause.

"Got it in one. He had some ideas about how to say that I..."

Shane was looking everywhere except her, but mostly at the too-small purple logo on the bamboo-board pizza box, grease slowly seeping through to the outside.

"— remembered the garlic bread crust?"

"I would never forget," he said, and followed her into the kitchen.

They ate, and drank, spread out across Niko's futon, in mostly companionable silence. They talked occasionally about past missions, mutual friends, the unbearably hot summer this year and the CO2 scrubbers Q-Ball and Buzzwang were working on, slowly putting ozone back into the upper atmosphere out here.

She didn't even notice when the lights started fading down, the dimmer timer set to mimic the outside world three timezones west of Western Australia. Her home AI began playing the sounds of crickets on loop, causing Shane to look around for the bugs.

"It's just a recording; I got used to them on a dig a few years ago, so..."

"I've heard weirder," he replied.

Niko laughed a little, and then stretched. They had the same early morning tomorrow, but sleep didn't seem worth bringing the evening to a close.

"Thank you for coming," she said at last. "I know I said so before, but I mean it; I— you're—what I mean is, you're one of the best friends I have, and I don't want to think about a world without you in it."

Those were the wrong words, and she wanted to put them back and rearrange them, to make them say the things she meant. But they were like dig turned over by grave robbers, out, and as they were. Nobody never got to see the site as it should have been.

Niko bit the inside of her cheek, and closed the pizza box. She was on her way back to the kitchen with it when Shane finally spoke again.

"I've always had more on the line than just making sure my teammates don't get killed, you know. At first it was my freedom—it still is—but this is the closest I'm ever going to get to a family, and I—.

“I'm real good at messing things up. But I need you to know, that if you ever want to... try... being more than friends, that I want that too. Every day for a while now."

Shane had stood up at some point, and started toward the door. Now he was only a step away, his hand moving toward the release button.

She set the pizza box down and followed him; that seemed to shock him enough to hold still, and then she had her arms tight around him.

"I want that," she said. Not the right words, but you got the idea of the shape they should have been in.

Shane slowly returned the embrace, resting his chin on her head, and holding her tight. He said, "Good—that's—good.” He let out a breath of a laugh, and then continued, “I didn't actually have a plan, beyond 'tell you that and run'.”

Niko started giggling, and didn't stop for a long time.