"Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die."
The Counter-Terrorism Unit of MI5 is a law unto itself.
Richard Bordeaux made it into one when he first took charge.
He took charge, or was appointed to take charge, and accounts vary, but the fact is that he remains in charge, has just been given a knighthood, and is either being set up to die really soon, or he's not going anywhere.
If you ask Richard, he'll tell you honestly that he doesn't give a fuck which one it is.
But then, anyone who's asked to see the Ireland Paper, and then to see the original report that the Paper was based on — and oh yeah, everyone who's got the sense to ask for it does see both, after they actually start reading — will tell you that the Head of Counter-Terrorism?
He's got cause not to give a fuck.
He's got Ireland.
He's got names on a wall, from when he and the National Security Coordinator and the Intelligence Analyst were junior agents, and those names sit smack to your left peripheral vision as you go in, because that wall is right at the left-hand side entrance of Thames House.
You can't fail to notice that impolitic and yet somehow placatory plaque.
'We're at peace there now,' the Government say to him, the Home Secretary says to him, a subtle criticism, a gentle disapproval. 'Let the dead bury the dead, Sir.'
Richard always says in return, 'why? because the dead buried their own bodies, the living should bury their names —! no. We get to show respect every day we walk in here. And remember why we do this.'
Section D. The Grid. The Counter-Terrorism Department. There's a lot of words for 'this', but none of them come even halfway to explaining what it is that gets done there. Or what half of the people working there still use as a means of defining terrorism in the first place.
'Well, let's face it,' says the Head Intelligence Analyst, when it's his turn to lecture potential Grid-workers, 'as far as England was concerned? Ireland used to be the bogeyman when it came to terrorism, before 9/11.'
He sounds calm about it. They get the feeling that he's really not.
No-one ever chooses to be the one who pushes him and finds out just how far that calm tolerance of their questioning goes.
They read the reports, instead. That's the point when a good third of the year's recruitment drop out.
So yeah, the ones who survive the testing think when they get accepted (it doesn't matter what they think if they're not in, but at least they won't have to look at that plaque every day of their working lives). Yeah, let's do that. Let's remember it.
One of the names there, well, the first name, actually, and a bit larger than the others, in that odd way that makes people wonder if it's a trick of the light, is the name of Bordeaux's wife, though how could anyone know that she was his wife, when she's still listed under her maiden name?
Anne Charles, her name was, or at least her Anglicised name was. She came from some little backwater German shithole, got out when the wall came down, promptly got her Western passport, and then listed herself as a foreign agent, under that same Anglicised maiden name.
No-one seems to know much else about Anne, except that she died.
Hardly anyone remembers that she was married to Bordeaux, since he never talks about it (and nor does anyone else who knows the whole story, and if you even think about asking them, you're too stupid to live, never mind having the necessary half a brain cell required by the Grid).
The only thing anyone really seems to know or remember about her is that three years after she died, they gave her the VC.
They all pretend that's why her lettering's that much bigger than everyone else's.
The other name, the one just below hers, well. They all know it meant something to their Department Head, though they won't ever challenge him on it.
Robert de Vere.
Who got precisely no honours until a year ago, and even that was a paltry little OBE.
You don't get anything, even dead, when you were a double agent whose only loyalty was to a junior agent, bright and fresh out of the MI5 training grounds, you don't get shit, even if you were the best double agent ever, except to be remembered for being dead. Unless, of course, that junior agent you were so loyal to suddenly gets to the top, and makes sure your name is carved on the memorial plaque at Thames House.
The Counter-Terrorism Unit is fucked, and it's not because the Government disapproves of its actions.
It's because it blatantly loves and relies on each and every one of their actions — and then publicly disavows in the same breath each and every moment of hard-won progress that Section D has given up its respective souls to offer them.
And only three people know how it got that way.
Three people, and Ireland.
Countries aren't capable of forgetting, after all.
Nor are the three men who went in charged with 'mopping up'.
It might be seen as unfortunate that they now function as the heads of their departments within the National Security overreach.
It's even more unfortunate that one of them is the actual head of National Security, or to put it more professionally, its co-ordinator.
And they all dream of Ireland, when they succumb to nightmare.
All three of them, they dream of what they found, when they went in to 'mop up'.
The National Security Coordinator.
The Head of Counter-Terrorism.
The Head of Intelligence and Analysis.
They went in, and they mopped up, and two of them whipped Richard Bordeaux through his grief and into efficiency, and two of them set up the Grid as it stands now, and two of them are officially responsible for what MI6 and MI5 do with the information obtained.
It's never the same two, not for any of it.
And there's only one of them who calls any of them, including himself, out on his behaviour, and he's not the one whose voice matters to anyone with the power to make things happen on time.
So that's the Counter-Terrorism Unit, and these are the men who set it up in the block unit (grid, hah) that it is now, and there's a plaque on the wall as the newest and the oldest and the bedrock recruits walk into the building, just in the left hand side of the peripheral vision they've all been taught to pay more attention to than what's right in front of them; there's a plaque on the wall that forces people to have a daily moment of memento mori, and meanwhile, just about everyone and their granny has learned that if they call their moment of blowing people up for kicks 'terrorism' or 'a cause', they get attention.
Oh Christ, do they ever get attention.
And in the last days of April, the attention they get stems primarily from Richard Bordeaux, the Section Chief of the CTU.
It's nothing like what happened to Anne.
He tries to keep reminding himself of that, while they put their latest op into place, while he puts his Section Chief and his Senior Case Officer in the positions they're best at, and prepares to sit back and move his players like the thinking chess pieces they cheerfully acknowledge themselves to be.
In other ways, it's exactly like.
But at least this time he'll be closer to the action than digging through a pile of bodies to find the four-day-old corpse of his wife.
He'll be closer to the action than being too late to give his lover any solace other than breaking his neck while he bubbles out blood from a punctured lung.
Richard Bordeaux is the head of what they call the Grid. And he's not going to let anyone else die, not on his watch.
And not ever because they put a Government's cause before saving themselves.
Friday, May 1, 08:47
There is, somewhere, an unspoken rule that when a Grid agent goes to meet the National Security Coordinator, it has to be in the middle of the rush hour, near to a bridge, and with the additional bonus of burger-van produced and very stewed tea for refreshment, because God knows the man can't be civilised and arrange the rendezvous at the nearest Caffè Nero or something.
It's probably why they all fight not to be the agent landed with the meeting.
Sometimes, Edward York feels that his life is a permanent drawing of the short straw.
Then again, he reasons, whoever it is who shows up, Henry Bolingbroke doesn't get even the faintest hope of not being the one who has to meet them, so his life might actually be worse.
Strangely, that makes Edward feel no better at all.
And he's getting a bit tired of feeling bad for everyone whose professional and personal lives he ends up getting dumped with trying to sort out.
Especially considering that technically, he works for the only two of them within the Government's purview and limited range of notice that he actually gives a shit about.
Kate Mortimer, who knows every bit of past that the Grid has to offer up (to those who can be bothered to read), likes how despite history and infighting and general stupidity, work at the Grid somehow manages to go on. Besides their Department Head and their Chief Analyst, they have a Section Chief and a Senior Case Officer and a freaking awesome (even if she says so herself) Junior Analyst, and right now, they're playing on every single intolerance that a certain member of a faction of Yalta has for his own sexuality.
"Well, thank you so much, angel, for that gorgeous offer," come the all-too-familiar tones of the Section Chief of the Grid, sounding with appalling clarity into his analyst's ear-piece, "but I've already got so many dicks in my life that I'm going to have to simply force myself to turn you the fuck down."
The burst of joint laughter which follows that over-the-top, ridiculously, overtly offensive remark does absolutely nothing to settle the unhappy analyst's nerves.
Kate Mortimer, who refuses to change her name, because she likes it, and who sometimes thinks she works part time as a nursery supervisor and just hasn't noticed, because there is no pay in the universe large enough to compensate her for the unending idiocy that is her life, and so, by a process of elimination, has figured out that she must only be working part-time at her job in the Grid, rolls her eyes to the ceiling and doesn't even bother to say anything.
It wouldn't make any difference if she did, so she might as well save her breath, which is something she wishes to hell her SC were capable of, especially when he's in the middle of a supposedly convincing attempt at assuring their target that he is, in fact, not an MI5 agent with glorified ideas of his own powers of attraction, but someone the target isn't going to regret to the end of his days having asked back for coffee.
Then again, it's Hal, who somehow always manages to pull this scenario off when most other people (and Kate happily includes herself in this group) would be ending the evening in violence.
The emphasis on 'dicks' hasn't escaped her. It couldn't, in fact, have escaped a corpse which had previously been rendered deaf by means of repeated perforation of the ear-drums, but it hasn't escaped her, either.
On the other side of the glass wall, the Grid's Head Analyst pinches the bridge of his nose in his hand and seems to be praying. Since Kate's heard the actual words he uses when muttering to himself before, she can't help wondering if in fact the rumours are true and he has a direct line, not from his lips to God's ears, but from his brain to Satan's hairy arse.
She's heard said demonic hairy backside evoked one too many times for there to be no connection, and praying is the one thing Edward York is almost guaranteed to never be found doing. Unless, of course, he's a Satanist, and the muttering is his way of indulging in some not-so-private worship.
Considering who he works for — well, who they all, technically, work for, hence the embittered 'dicks' comment from her SC only a moment ago, Kate's not really about to rule that one out.
"I heard that," says the mild voice of the Department Head behind her, and Kate, with a supreme exertion of her resources of vast willpower, only flinches slightly, making sure her mouthpiece is off before she replies, because honestly, the last thing she needs is Hal getting in on the act while pretending to have a conversation with their target.
"Well, yeah, you would, because you were listening in," she agrees, and then, after the requisite amount of time has passed for any formalities to be merely passing courtesy and as such thoroughly insulting, adds, "Sir."
"Good God, has Hal actually driven you mad?" asks the newly-minted Sir Richard Bordeaux, KCB (and Christ and his angels help what remains of the Empire) in mock concern, but there's something a little flinty in his tones which suggests the over-emphasised 'dicks' comment didn't pass him by, either.
"No, that's tomorrow morning," Kate says a little grimly, "when I'll have to listen to him explain just how some people find being gratuitously insulted by a foul-mouthed twat the biggest turn-on ever, and oh, have I seen some of the things this man likes to keep in his bedside cabinet, and have I thought about going shopping recently, which yeah, actually, I have, to both, and now I have mental association issues, because our target is disgusting, and I'm very much not, but there never seems to be enough time to actually get around to going shopping, and there are things I wouldn't mind replacing, and I think we might have used up all the — er." She stops there, because judging from Richard's expression, he's also having mental association issues, and he's none too happy about them. Probably because of her complete lack of details, but still, Richard Not Looking Happy usually leads to Unpleasant Assignments that are Worse Than Monitoring Hal, so Kate waves a hand, and moves briskly on. "Anyway, yes. So ugh, as usual, and also thank you, Hal," she adds, switching her mouthpiece back on, "for providing me with horrible images I so don't need, again. Although," she says thoughtfully, switching off again and turning back to Richard, "I suppose they're better images than when I get both of them running commentary in my ear about someone revolting."
Which is something she's more than likely to get before her shift's over, because Harry Percy, as the formally-recognised senior case officer and also, unfortunately for Kate's beleaguered brain, the best sniper they have, has allotted himself the task of doing at-scene observation, and, since he loves feeding Hal one-liners that can be used to make everyone's brain ache, he's no doubt going to be doing so shortly.
Currently, he's probably also making up imaginary sniper-points from somewhere on a rooftop. Or a bridge. Or the top of a bridge arch. Something to do with heights and the bizarre sticking power of a spider, anyhow, and calling it 'necessary prep', because he's an annoying fucker with a death-wish, and Kate still doesn't know why the hell she married him other than the honestly fantastic sex (which is so much better now that Hal's in the mix, because sometimes she can just kick back with a glass of wine and bring herself off slowly while watching, but it's not like she's ever, ever going to tell either of them that, even under the best kind of torture). They'd get far too smug.
Harry gets all the fun on assignments like this, or at least what Kate would call fun, because honestly, dealing with lecherous annoying targets has never been Kate's idea of a good time, even if Hal finds it endlessly entertaining. Still, she has to admit that when it was her out there flirting with innuendo-laden coffee, it did usually end in people actually getting shot, so she supposes she can't complain too much now that it's Hal and his cornucopia of untraceable drugs, which he puts in the coffee along with the innuendo, because there is so much less paperwork these days.
It's just that even with less paperwork, Kate sometimes wishes she'd never shown Edward that she has even better analyst skills than she does field agent abilities, because she misses all the wonderful opportunities for violence that being out there used to give her.
"...right," says Richard weakly, and okay, so she might have said some of what she was thinking out loud, as well as the bits she knows she said out loud, and maybe she has a bit of a filter problem after her tenth cup of coffee, but it's not as though he hasn't heard most of it before, and usually from the source, because Harry seriously cannot shut up even when his contact changes over at the end of a shift, and Hal likes annoying people and doesn't care who's listening, so really, Richard doesn't need to look quite so stunned.
Across the room, Kate's direct, and possibly-demon-worshipping, superior is looking wistfully at his pen, and holding it up to his ear thoughtfully. He's probably thinking about drilling it into his own brain, and Kate sympathises. When you have a grandiose title like Senior Intelligence Analyst, you kind of expect to hear the occasional bout of intelligence to analyse — although why Edward's still expecting that, she's not quite sure, since he's been monitoring the Grid's agents for longer than she's even been one of the agents, and he must have learned by now that no, it doesn't get any better.
And she's not thinking about the colossal fuck-up that Hal caused by joining the Grid. Mostly because that part of things?
Well, she caused half of it, by making Harry chase after Hal and making Hal notice what Harry was doing and then insisting that they could all have a life, all of them, in their little Edwardian house up at Herne Hill, they could make something for themselves, something for just them; make it and keep their jobs and be the stronger for it.
So yeah, she cares about Hal. Obviously. Or she'd never have pushed. And that's as far as she's willing to go about any of it: her role, Harry's role, or Hal's possible impulse for self-sabotage.
The rest of it, she's not willing to even casually contemplate, let alone discuss. Henry the helicopter-dad from hell and Richard the perpetually embittered can go fuck themselves.
"Since," she murmurs to herself, "they haven't got the sense to fuck each other."
"Excuse me?" Richard asks sharply, and Kate smiles at him innocently.
"Marital problems," she says sweetly. "Don't ask."
Richard, hands in the air, backs off, and Kate gives herself a mental high-five, as a reward for astounding deflection in the face of being caught out speculating.
Seriously, there should be a medal for it, considering how often the analysts all have to excel in that field.
"So," Henry says. He's awkward, but then these days, as far as Edward can tell, that's normal, sadly — or perhaps it's just how he is around the people who used to be his contemporaries and who now, at least officially, report to him.
Edward has no idea how conversations and meetings between Henry and Richard go, other than the abysmally foul mood they tend to put Richard into, but he does know that Henry's always on edge and slightly snappish with him — possibly because he's the only one left who's likely to be able to answer, or be inclined to answer, the questions Henry's not quite going to ask.
Hal's two-years-since Monday morning supernova of resignation from MI6 and acceptance instead of his far less high-powered position at the Grid was really not one of anyone's banner days, and it inevitably brought out the best in absolutely no-one as a result, particularly Richard, Hal, and a wildly furious and betrayed-feeling Henry, who had for some God-unknown reason assumed until then that Hal was planning to take over from him as NSC one day.
Edward, unwilling peacemaker at the time, is still the only one on speaking terms with all of them, and he also still wonders just how everyone can prove to be so fucking stupid about what they want, and why, just because they work for something referred to as Intelligence, they all assume it's automatically conferred on them and they don't need to use their brains ever again when it comes to their personal lives.
Well, Edward mentally amends, other than for Kate and Harry and whatever it is they've got going with Hal, God help them. If nothing else, those two have their priorities sorted, even if Henry would have a stroke if I ever explained that particular triangle to him.
He tries to keep any hint of where thinking about those three invariably leads his brain completely away from his expression, and imagines that he looks perfectly half-witted as a result.
"Yes," he says instead, as unhelpfully as he can manage, because he's sick and fucking tired of not only being Richard's sounding-board, but then being forced to go and drink horrible tea and then being forced while drinking it (or carefully not drinking it, because he sort of likes his taste buds where they are, thanks all the same) to fill in words for the inarticulate and hopeless and completely annoying, aka his nominal director. "So."
Henry looks into his tea with disgust. "Progress report?" he asks then, and Edward wonders if his tone of repulsion is due to Edward's failure to say everything for both of them and the absent Richard as well, or his tea.
Really, either would be entirely forgivable.
Edward sighs, and tries to find a way of presenting the events of the last twelve hours in something which approximates a Henry-digestible format.
Honestly? He's going to be leaving just about all of what happened out of his report — but then again, he suspects everyone's going to be much, much happier that way.
"Hello, my love," Hal purrs into thin air, and grins at the exasperated sigh he receives in stereo in return.
"I do hope he's actually asleep and you weren't faked out," Kate snaps, at the same time as Harry is saying in frighteningly similar tones, "look, do you think you can choose an actual street section, or even just a grid area of London, you tosspot? Only I never was much good at the long jump, even in school, and I am on the roofs..."
"Aw, how sweet, you care," Hal says, and immediately looks down out of long habit to find the expected little red dot on his chest. "Yeah, yeah, super-sniper, I know it's all just a cover for your sickeningly sappy emotions —" At that, the red dot moves rather quickly to his left hand, which he knows Harry actually will shoot at if he's pushed too far, even in fun, and he stops. "Er, right, yeah, or not."
"Damn straight," Harry says, and Kate's over-caffeinated hiccup of laughter promptly echoes through Hal's head via his right ear, in lieu of the obvious comment that should follow such an obvious feeder line. The gorgeous little bitch probably has him on speaker, for the entertainment of the Grid's sleep-deprived and punchy. They've all been awake since ungodly-o'clock yesterday morning, after all, and Hal's at least had the benefit of one or five amphetamines since then, while he doubts anyone else is running on anything but fumes and vile coffee and, in Harry's case, a pretty bad onset of chronic hyperphase insomnia that no-one's managed to get a grip on in the last two weeks, not with sex, not with booze, and not even by Kate or by Hal's pet illegal pharmacist.
Thanks to said pharmacist, Hal thinks he might be the least cracked out of all of them right now, with the help of the lovely little tabs he started popping around midday, but Kate's still got him wrapped up and sewn up and doesn't give a damn about advertising it, and Hal's probably the running joke of the grid for the fact that he's the fucking Section Chief and he's being handled by his analyst, more blatantly than old John Falstaff ever did, and he was a handler, and Hal's pretty damn sure that Harry's never stopped encouraging her in how public she makes that fact —
And he really couldn't care less about any of it, and fucking hell, he's high as a kite, must be, to be even thinking about all this.
High or not, though, Hal's pretty happy to admit that when it comes to assignments and Kate and whatever keeps her awake and in his ear and settling him down, he's whipped as all hell's get-out.
Easy though the admission is, it's still kind of cheering to know that Harry's just as bad and as unashamed about it, though.
And after Hal's last job, it's nice to have people who are just backing him up, and don't care about much else.
Hal, no matter what he'll say out loud, didn't mind his time at MI6 as much as he likes to pretend. He doesn't even mind the memories of his dad and his dad's expectations all that much, and he actually wishes the old sod hadn't taken it all so badly.
But there's things his dad doesn't know about, and is never going to if Hal has his way, and one of those things is how there was that one assignment that was way too much for him, and how Kate Mortimer was in the middle of it; and how her fucking loony-tunes super-sniper, super-spook SCO of a husband was on the outskirts, saving their arses; and how Hal hadn't wanted to let them go when it was all over, and he'd had to; and how Kate had been worried about him, and how because she'd been worried, Harry had actually offered to tag him so they could check in and make sure he was okay; and how leaving them, walking away from all they were trying to offer, had felt weird and crappy and wrong, and yeah, after that? Even if Richard hadn't waltzed in with his glorious cover-up paperwork, he'd pretty much been thinking about handing in his notice then, if he's honest.
But Richard did go in and cover his arse; for no reason except that two of his top operatives had said Hal was worth something, Richard Bordeaux went and handed in a fake report on his actions, and made him look good, when actually what Hal had done is screwed up right left and centre and nearly got his handler killed
(and only the devil knows whether Falstaff is ever going to forgive him for that, now or in the next life)
and Hal hadn't wanted to let Richard go, either, still doesn't, and he'd handed in his resignation from MI6 as soon as he was out from under psych-obbo.
Now he's Section Chief at the Grid, and half the time he's a sociopath wreck and knows it, and the other half he keeps to himself, because he thinks he might be edging on turning all the way psycho, because damn, does he ever love the manipulation-mind games.
His dad's basically disowned him, and Harry's still a fucking loony-tunes sniper who doesn't even fake not loving death more than anything or anyone except maybe Kate and now and again a good hard fuck with Hal, and while he knows Kate loves them equally-if-differently, she tends to run them both like they're her own private spook-stable, and she's still got him wondering as to whether her mind or her body is the more gorgeous, and the main difference between now and then, when all the same things were nearly, almost, halfway true?
Those two, his Kate and his Harry, those fantastical, lunatic two, they're not letting him go, either, and sometimes, sometimes, on his better days, he thinks maybe Richard would fight to keep him on as well, and he knows that even if they all threw him out, threw him over, Edward York would somehow come through for him, he'd come through all the quagmire and blood-laden stink of Government and the SIS and bureaucracy for him, and fuck knows why, 'cos it's not like the man gives a shit
(except maybe he does about Hal's dad, but Hal's not thinking too hard about that, now or ever, he's not about to owe anyone anything for the privilege of being safe to any degree)
and it's better than he ever thought he could have, even if it does come with worryingly precise red dots on vital parts of his anatomy most days of the week.
He's listening to Harry's cheerful, foul-mouthed grumbling in one ear, and he's following the red dot, and just relishing the fact that he can hear Kate breathing in the other ear, and thinking to himself that tonight they did well, they did fucking well, and oh, thank Christ, his high's wearing off, and he didn't have to play out the game to the end, he didn't have to use the syringe and knock anyone out before sex was the last resort, and it's all fine —
and then there's a sting right at the back of his neck, and the last thing he registers isn't Harry's annoying little firefly dot, but the wall to his side, somehow turning itself to smack him in the face.
Fade to black, he thinks, and is pretty sure it's his own laughter following him into the abyss he's always known was waiting for him.
"I told you," Henry says, as Edward reaches the very abrupt end of what he realises sounds like nothing more than a censored butcher's bill, "to rein Percy in."
"Yeah," Edward says with a sigh, because damn it, he is so sick of all this, and Richard's supposed to be the one going through this irritating interrogation, and he damned well should be, and he damned well would be if it weren't for the fact that he's too busy acting like a neurotic mediaeval monarch and has locked himself in his office and isn't taking calls. Which, seriously, fuck him, because Edward has a distinct lack of a Section Chief, a Senior Case Officer, and his own senior analyst to cope with, and he does not need Henry being suspicious on top of all that. "Yeah, well. Circumstances alter cases."
Henry glares at him. "And what is that supposed to mean, exactly?"
For one brief, madly joyful moment, Edward, who has had an incredibly long, headache-inducing twenty-four hours, considers telling him exactly what it means. Then he chooses wisdom, and shrugs. "Kate was involved," he settles for saying, instead of giving a blow-by-blow account of just what had to be done in the (much) earlier hours of the morning, and all because of Henry's son.
"Ah." Henry actually looks sympathetic and understanding, which he definitely wouldn't be if he'd managed to work out even half of the truth, so hooray, at least they're safe from that. "Well, of course, yes, ah, yes, I, that would, that, that does, obviously, er, alter the matter."
Jesus God, you have no idea, Edward thinks, and manages a non-committal hum in response.
Kate's terrified. She's terrified past the point of being useful, but she's not going to log off, and she's not going to leave.
It's Richard and Edward, both of them out from behind their different impermeable barriers, glass or mental, who take over the comm-station she's been manning since dawn yesterday, take it over and start proving in a way that even breaks through her onset of impotent, retching fear just why and how they came up through the backbiting ridiculousness that the Grid embodies when you're a junior officer, and now head their particular fields.
She keeps forgetting that the two of them cut their intelligence-sharpened teeth on Ireland.
And for some reason, she's thinking of the name Anne Charles, she's thinking of the only woman ever to have earned a VC (and fuck, they're always posthumous, aren't they, are they thinking right now, while they give Harry instructions, of how to get Hal one?) in the whole history of the Grid's existence.
And then she realises no, she's not thinking of it, she got reminded of it, she got reminded of it because when she started screaming for Hal and for Harry and not caring who answered as long as someone did, and losing her mind right in the middle of the Grid's comm-centre, and Richard went white and started to recoil as though she was some sort of relic from the Black Death, Edward had barrelled out from behind his glass walls, and he didn't look like a desk-bound man headed for his late forties any more, he looked like a fucking docker, and she'd watched in some sort of fugue as he took Richard by the shoulders and yelled straight into his face —
"You think we can afford another Anne? Or another Robbie, damn you? We can't, and you know we can't, we have Hal and we have Harry, and that's it, now put that mind of yours to work!"
— and oh, fuck, yes, that's the thing, isn't it, that's the thing with them and Hal's dad and the stuff no-one talks about, whatever happened with Ireland and Anne Charles and Robert de Vere and the names on the left-hand side of the wall when you come into Thames House, and all the honours you only give to the dead, that's it.
But if it's what she thinks —
If Richard used to have Charles and de Vere like she has Harry and Hal —
Kate can't think, she can't function, and she needs to be back on the comms, she needs to talk to one of them, she needs —
"Kate." Edward's voice. She doesn't want to hear it. She doesn't want to know what it's going to say. "Kate, my lovely. I need you to turn your earpiece on to two-oh-four. Okay?"
And then there are small hands over hers, and there's proper, radio-based sound in her ears again, and she's looking into the grim little visage of Richard's estranged Sûreté wife, who can't be so estranged after all, because she's there, and she's holding Kate's hands, and she's looking at Richard for instruction.
"Give to me an earpiece," she says clearly, and Kate, numb from the inside out, detaches her hands from Isabel's implacable grasp, unplugs half her detachable headset, and hands it across.
"Merci," Isabel says, mouthing exaggeratedly, and hooks herself in.
She holds one of Kate's hands again as soon as they're into the comm system.
And Kate loves her for not trying to smile, or say nice things, or try to make it better.
Because Hal's going to die, and Harry will too while he goes after him, and it's all her fault.
It's all her fault.
Kate listens to the heads of Section D doing what they're best at, and longs for a gun.
And Isabel's hands refuse to let her go, and so she can't go and get one, or shoot anyone, or help, or anything, and it fucking hurts.
Kate rages into empty space, and the tears pour down her face, and no-one but Isabel sees or hears any of it.
The invisible worm in their systems, she realises, has truly become invisible.
It doesn't stop her desperation. And it doesn't stop her listening.
It will never, ever stop her hating them all.
"I'm going to kill them," she says, when she hears the first scream, and Isabel stops clasping her hands between hers, closes her right hand around them instead, ignoring Kate's nails as her hands turn involuntarily inwards, trying to claw, and touches her face with four small fingertips. Kate realises that Isabel's left hand is missing its thumb, and subsides into shock.
"You will not have to," Isabel says clearly. She knows who Kate is talking about. She knows it isn't Richard, nor Edward.
Kate thinks, she wouldn't be even talking to me if it were.
Isabel takes her hand away from Kate's face, and gestures towards their ear pieces.
And Kate breathes.
Because yes. Yes. Harry loves death. And Harry can't sleep.
And in her absence, and with Hal out of the game —
He needs a good fuck, she thinks, and something which isn't quite a laugh escapes her. Isabel puts her hand over Kate's mouth. Her eyes are solemn.
Someone came for Isabel, years ago. Someone came for her, and they both survived. She knows what this is.
But because she survived, she still has hope, she still has belief, and Kate's lost all of hers, in less than five minutes she's lost all of hers, and it's tearing at her heart, at her lungs; it's agony.
Kate breathes in Isabel's skin, her scent; she recognises the faint traces of Ariel washing powder on her sleeve; she breathes, and the not-laughter subsides. Isabel nods, and drops her hand back to wrap around Kate's wrists.
Over the comms, Richard and Edward give Harry their instructions.
Kate hears gunshots through her earpiece, and grins. She must look savage, inhuman, she thinks, and tries to stop herself. Her teeth cut into her lips as she tries to fold the expression away.
Unafraid, Isabel holds on to her. Even with her thumbless left hand, her grip is as strong as any man's.
She says, in her almost childish, flat little voice, so at odds with the strength of her hands, "Le roi gouverne par lui-même."
Kate wonders what that has to do with anything, but then she realizes Isabel is looking at Richard and Edward, and she thinks nothing and everything, it means nothing and everything, and I don't want to know about it either way.
She thinks that in another age, Richard would have made a good, if fucking disturbing king.
Her mind drifts.
Harry is silent in her earpiece, but his gun is not.
Harry is alive, and that means so is Hal.
She has to believe that.
She tries not to think about the screaming.
Eventually, when the gunshots stop, and she hears Hal's voice say Harry, fuck, what — and her earpiece dissolves into static, and Richard and Edward look at each other and say nothing, and say nothing, and she thinks that while no-one can hear them, they might be saying everything to each other in their odd private language; when Richard drops his head into his hands, and says quite clearly, "Thank God," and Edward turns every comm off for the first time in all the while that Kate has worked at the Grid; when he creates a blackout of communications in the Counter-Terrorism Unit without a care for how any other department might react; then, and only then, does Kate let herself feel the warmth in those hands.
She thinks par lui-même, and she thinks about how very painfully loving utter selfishness can be, and she thinks that perhaps she, too, could have made a good king, if that's what it means to play le roi.
And she allows herself to hope.
"Wait, Richard went hands-on?"
Really, Edward thinks, there's no need for that sort of incredulity. Henry should know by now that it takes an Act of God to prevent Richard from trying to be directly involved when things start going wrong, and no-one would want that sort of divine intervention in any case, because when he doesn't get involved?
Things are so much unimaginably worse.
Henry's one of the few people still alive who knows that for a fact, and he owes his job to it, and his son owes his life and having any sort of a remaining career to it, and why, Edward wonders, does he always go for the cheap quip rather than accepting the well-known order of things?
"Mm," he agrees. "So did I."
"Yes, but you —"
Edward raises his eyebrows. He'd give quite a lot to be able to do the single-eyebrow mockery that Richard mastered years ago, but he thinks the muscles above his eyes are lacking a middle hinge, or something, because he's never managed it.
"I?" he asks less than encouragingly.
They have an unspoken rule not to talk about that. They don't talk about when he was Richard's SCO, and Henry was playing mind games with the Home Secretary, and how they managed to get themselves and Isabel into the kind of colossally fucked situation that usually ends with people being dead or disgraced.
The reason they're not is because Richard pulled everyone out of it, and it's also the reason Edward turned analyst and Henry turned politician for good and Isabel rejoined the Sûreté, and they do not discuss it.
"I thought you might, well, miss being out there, I suppose," Henry says at last, surprisingly unapologetic. "Bit odd that you didn't go, come to think of it."
Edward thinks back to the early hours of the morning; thinks of Kate's nails drawing blood from Isabel's palm, of the deathly radio-silence from Harry's comm, broken only by scarcely audible breathing and the repeated gunfire.
He thinks of how Hal had sounded, the wordless yelling that was all of pain and fury and never a hint of breaking in his raw voice.
He thinks of how he had shouted at Richard, how very close to unforgivable he had been. Of how he had finally said the words out loud that he's been thinking for so long, ever since he was forced to realise that he and Isabel will never, ever match up to the memories Richard has of Anne and Robbie. Of how afraid he has been that Richard will never find a reality in the present that matches his loss. Of how angry he still is that Henry refuses to accept that he could, he can be that reality, for Richard.
He thinks of shutting off the comms to everyone who wasn't Kate.
He thinks of how somehow, he had done the right thing, for once, and been in the right place at the right time, and he had made something happen that wasn't a new source of despair, and how somehow, irrationally, all the things he's been afraid of for so long had happened together, and it had still all worked out, it had been all right.
He thinks that it might keep on being all right — or better, at least. That what happened in the new dawn of a strange kind of maying might mean that Richard will be able to start living again, even though it wasn't because of Richard, this time, that the world nearly went up in flames. Instead, because of him, because Richard had a moment of utter and complete faith when no-one else could quite manage it, the world didn't quite end up incinerating itself.
There is no way of ever explaining that to Henry without letting him know the details. And that — no. He can't do that to him. He can't explain to a man who refuses to even look at what he wants, let alone accept what he could have, just what he keeps pushing away.
He's not capable of that much cruelty.
"I was more useful where I was," is all he says at last.
Hal has no idea how much time has passed, or how long he's been cuffed to a chair, or how long he's been alert and furious.
But he knows he should never have doubted that Harry would come for him.
He can hear men dying, he can hear the single-bullet spit of an expert sniper's gun, and he knows how foolish he was to ever doubt that Harry would come for him.
And when the gunfire stops, and Harry is in the doorway, his face sheet-white and blood-spattered and not a trace of sanity in his hot blue eyes, Hal knows that Kate's not in anyone's ear any more, and if he was frightened (not that he'll ever admit it) Harry's gone well beyond fear and into his own private hell.
It's not that the idea of hell, of being lost, is an unusual spectre, because it's not, not for any of them. It's just that Hal never thought that Harry's hell-dimension involved losing him, and the realisation is humbling.
Not enough to bring him to his knees, though, even figuratively. Just enough to make him sound like the sane one.
"Harry, fuck," he says, and then, "what do you think you look like, mate?"
Harry blinks, slowly, and runs his hand over his face, and looks at his palm with a kind of insanely detached interest. Hal thinks it must be stained madder-red, what with all the gore that Harry just wiped off his face with it.
"Hey," he says. "I'm cuffed here. And not in the fun way. Give a hand on the land, would you?"
Harry shakes his head, like a large bewildered dog, and steps forward. "I," he says. "No keys."
"Yeah, obviously not, so pick the lock," Hal says with a huff of exasperation, and puts up with Harry's oddly efficient yet graceless fumbling with the painfully constricting metal, even when the necessary centimetre of tightening takes place before the lock pops, and then he turns around in his chair and tries to stand up and falls back into it, and lurches upright again and kicks it over and practically falls over his own feet in his urgency to grab Harry any way he can.
To grab him by one shoulder and the worryingly soggy material over the opposite hip, and pull him in, and kiss him with teeth and tongue and the kind of madness that he's thought until now only he knew about, the other side of the ability to kill, the need for blood in the mouth and the hot throbbing of a body so turned on it doesn't know whether it wants to fuck or fight.
He kisses Harry with every conflicting want his body can feel, and he gets it right back, and there's blood in both their mouths when they're done, and he's always known what draws him to Kate, but oh, fuck, yeah, yeah this is why, with Harry.
This is why.
Hal's got someone who'll kill for him and kill with him, and damn, it's better than anything his pharmacist can whip up.
"Comms are off," Harry grates out at last, and Hal laughs.
"Fucking good job, right?"
Harry's grin, with the bottom teeth stained slightly red from where he bit into Hal's lip, is the best kind of rescue.
And damn, but Hal wants it.
He has to admit, though, he wants it in a bed.
And hopefully with Kate.
He obviously said that bit aloud, because Harry's laughing, and flicking through the channels on his comm, and trying to hail Kate, and Hal can't resist it.
"Open Channel D," he says, and Harry wheezes with laughter, and lets Hal take a little of his weight, because yes, he did fucking well get shot in the side, of course he did, since he's a twat-faced idiot who doesn't know how or when to stop, and Hal's going to get Kate to tie him to the bed when they get home, seriously, and he's going to be the one doing the stitching, and without anaesthetic at that.
"Batman or Spiderman," Harry eventually says in response to Hal's 60s-inspired ridiculousness, and wonderfully, blissfully, just as Hal begins what he knows is a predictable, but is also a hopefully vaguely reassuring response of 'what the fucking fuck are you on about,' Kate's voice comes through Harry's earpiece loudly enough that Hal can hear it.
"That's Superman, not Spiderman, you pair of filthy revolting cunts," she says. "And no, neither of you get to support him being the best. He's mine."
"I love you," Hal says blissfully, and hey, he must be going through Harry's mouthpiece, because he can hear it echo, and oh.
Right, so they all said it. At the same time.
"Jinx?" he offers.
It's really not a surprise when Harry hits him.
It actually is a surprise to feel the joy spring up in his heart when he hears Kate laughing at the sound of the blow striking him, predictably dead-centre on a forming deep-tissue bruise, and his subsequent involuntary yelp of pain.
"Fuck you both," he says around his gritted teeth.
"Oh, promises, promises," Kate says scornfully, and it's quite possible that Harry hasn't stopped laughing since he first heard her voice again, and that, Hal thinks, is pretty much how it should be.
"So they're — I mean, everyone's — it all worked out?" Henry asks, and Edward, for the first time in a long while, feels a kind of pity for him, because he could have had what his son has, he could have been living it, he could be living it, he could be supported by it, and he's the one who chose to cut himself off, he chose to isolate his brain and his heart, and Christ, but that must be insupportable at times, that loneliness.
"Yeah," he says gently, "you know, your boy did good," and is about to say something else, something kind, reassuring, supportive —
and there's a hand on his shoulder.
"I'll take it from here," Richard says when he turns around to look at him, and the Thames is reflecting from his eyes, a grey-gold brightness that's almost hallucinogenic, and Henry's smiling, small and tentative, and Edward somehow manages not to laugh, because who knew that shouting at Richard about the dead actually had a good kind of delayed reaction?
"Of course, sir," he says, and can't quite control his grin.
He hands his revolting, skinned-over tea to Henry, who takes it automatically; he straightens his coat, and moves off into the diminishing traffic of the City, and he doesn't look back.
He knows that he wouldn't see anything even if he did, and that's good, that's better than good, that's something amazing.
For once in his life, he's happier knowing that there are some things which stay invisible. Even to the Grid's Head Analyst.
Kate's not sure what she expects to find when she lets herself into the house in Herne Hill. She's too tired to have even theories, let alone fantasies; she's too wrung-out and wrenched-through by unwanted realisations and scattered emotions to have even let her mind play with possible variations on reality.
She's just damn sure that even if she had been able to think, she would never have come up with what she sees when she walks in, which is two half-drunk and very bloody men sitting on the stairs while one of them does a terrible stitching job on the other, and they both keep actually. Fucking. Giggling.
"Right," Kate says slowly. "So... I was the only one who had a really sodding awful time, then?"
"Nope," Hal says, far too cheerfully for a man with as many bruises as she can see developing on just his face and neck and — oh, ouch — hands. "We did too! But. But then there was vodka. It's okay now, you should have some."
"And vodka, unlike Hal's rotten bloody first aid, fixes things," Harry says, frowning down from his lofty height of one-stair-up at the first aider in question. "Seriously, are you doing cross-stitch down there?"
"Oh, come on, cross-stitch? Course not, it's cable, like all the best people get," Hal retorts, and Kate's tired and she's punch-drunk and she's pretty sure she's got Isabel's blood under her fingernails, and she's allowed, sometimes, to be a fucking girl about these things, so she goes and sits on the stairs with them, and drinks half-frozen vodka, and criticises Hal's stitching and licks a bit at his knuckles when her tongue feels cold enough to be vaguely useful, and leans against Harry's legs, and if her eyes close, and if she's not sure who strokes her hair until she's half-asleep, or who carries her up to their bed, or who she falls properly asleep on in a sort of starfish sprawl, there's no-one but them to know she does any of it anyway, so it doesn't matter.
When she wakes up an hour later, jittery and cotton-mouthed and still wanting very much to shoot things, though, it does matter, and it matters because it's them, and they're not careful or gentle, and they don't expect her to be, and Harry's cable-what-the-fuck-stitching opens up, because she keeps prodding at it, and there pretty much isn't anywhere that anyone can touch on Hal without complaint, and it's good, it's all kinds of good, and it drains the last of the fear-residue right out of her.
It's them, and she's home, and they're safe.
She'll deal with the rest of it (like random simultaneous threeway declarations of love) later.
But for right now?
She's got what she needs.
At the corner of Tallis Street, a small hand, missing its thumb, slips into Edward's, and grips.
And Edward York, his eyes on the stone and paving that he loves, and Isabel, Isabel whom he once dragged out from a warehouse near the East India Dock, covered in blood and her hand mangled almost past repair; Isabel whom he had taken just too long to get to, because he had thought he couldn't trust Richard to be hands-on any more (he had been wrong about that, as it happens, but earlier that morning he got it right, so he thinks it's all cancelled itself out) and who has forgiven him long since for the time he wasted for both of them that day; Isabel is by his side, and he walks on through London with her hand in his, and he hears and remembers and analyses and stores for future reference every voice and sound as he passes them.
That's his job, after all.
He wouldn't change it for the world.
They said, 'We can't. We're afraid.'
'Come to the edge.'
'We can't. We will fall!'
'Come to the edge.'
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.