Chapter 1: Back to the Start
February 17th, 2014
Holigrad, Eastern Slav Republic
I left something for you in the church.
White plastic hung from the rafters like sheets of ice. Three years' worth of dust had settled on the scaffolds and the debris inside. A thick layer coated the alter. He drew a line through it, then brushed it off his glove when it clung. No cross. Probably looted. Yes, he could believe that.
Below the shattered roof, snow had gathered and smoothed over the remains. Above, the midnight sky watched him, indifferent.
Leon gripped the handgun a little harder. His breath plumed out and formed puffy wisps of clouds in the air. A breeze gusted through the church, made the sheets flutter. Shadows, born from his flashlight, played behind them, each one a reaching hand, or a head. He ignored them. Looked for signs. Calling might have brought someone (or something) out, but he wasn't a rookie. Making those kinds of mistakes was a thing of the past.
I left something for you in the church.
He didn't need the absent signature to know who the note was from. The perfume that hugged the surface of the paper told him everything, and unwritten words informed him of trouble. Look out, look out, Ada's about. But so far, she hadn't shown herself. So far, nothing. Nothing out of place, nothing disturbed. Nothing had been in the church for a long time.
His eyes found the small ladder to the wings, spied another that went up into darkness. Nothing had been on the ground floor, at least. A rat dashed through the stream of light, its squeaks tiny and furious. It vanished into a pile of rotten wood. Not too cold for vermin.
He climbed the first ladder, thankful for his gloves and leather coat. Freezing his skin to metal would be a sure-fire way to look and feel like a complete ass, even if the only ones around to see it were the rats. The walls collected the sounds of his feet on each rung, threw them back at him.
Cryptic distress calls from out of the blue didn't happen too often. Especially not ones that were nothing more than a garble of static punched with words. B.O.W. Eastern Slav Republic. Send help. I repeat, we are outnumbered. The speaker didn't sound Russian, or even distressed. The DSO puzzled over it for an irritatingly short amount of time before kicking him out the door to investigate. After all, he 'knew the terrain'. Someone needed to tell the bastards that the terrain had a bad habit of changing after three years. And also that a few days running around after various plaga, B.O.W, and cranky resistance fighters didn't really qualify as being experienced in the local geography.
But he'd agreed to go anyway. A part of him itched to see Buddy again, see if he was still around. And, Leon had finally admitted to himself on the flight over, to see if he was still alive. To reassure himself that all those past fuck-ups hadn't overwhelmed Buddy and left him swinging from a rafter somewhere. Or on a bed with empty bottles. Or at the bottom of the river, trapped in his wheelchair –
His foot slipped on one of the rungs and his heart lurched. Stop it. Just because you didn't see him on the street when you walked to the hotel doesn't mean he's six foot in the ground. Stop assuming, Kennedy, and concentrate on the mission.
Hardly much of a thrilling mission so far. The scented note had been slipped under his door while he slept, and he had zero leads on the distress call. He reached the top of the ladder and looked around. Still nothing. His hands clasped the sides of the next ladder and he looked up into the gloom. A light at the very top. Encouraging, although odds were some poor homeless guy had made his way up there to stay out of the cold.
One hand found a rung. He hesitated, tilted his head up again. The air carried the faintest hint of decay. And mingled within, like a rose strangled with rotting flesh, perfume.
I left something for you in the church.
Unease rose in his throat. Adrenaline ignited every cell. He didn't have to climb the ladder. He could turn around, walk away.
You never walk away though, Kennedy. You can't.
He took a deep, silent breath, and started upwards towards the light. Halfway, he paused and strained his ears. A low whistle shivered through the tainted air. Just the wind. He kept going, felt his pulse hammer in his neck. Get ready, it seemed to say, get ready, get ready.
A quick peek over the top. Some kind of attic space, lit by a small electric lamp on a table. The vague shapes of furniture hulked in piles, covered by cloth and more dust. A pipe organ loomed out of the shadows, the keys gleaming like teeth. Darkness in the corners and ceiling thwarted the weak glow from the lamp. He shone his flashlight around, saw nothing but walls and more furniture, and hauled himself up into the room. The dust scattered itself into flurries at his feet.
Every muscle tensed. Hair prickled the back of his neck and arms when he edged towards the lamp. The rose won its struggle with the decay and caressed him in a cloud. A sliver case rested next to the lamp, and next to that –
Half a rat, frozen and stiff. Its tiny eyes stared up at him. No hindquarters, just a clean slice through. Explained the smell. Leon tore his own eyes away. Apprehension coiled in his stomach. He unlatched the case, prayed it didn't contain more dead rats, or something equally as nasty.
Inside, red silk spilled around syringes. Three empty, two full of – he held one against the light – a royal purple liquid. Shit. Looked like he'd been dropped headfirst into another fucking biohazard situation, but the colour was… odd. Familiar. Purple. What had been purple?
It fell back into place. Memories he wished he could forget. Spain. The castle. Luis Sera's face when the tentacle ripped through his chest. Saddler's smile, his purple robes, his hand holding the vial that contained the same coloured liquid. Purple –
"Purple is for Plaga."
His whisper blew white over the syringes. Something was here. He tightened his grip on the gun. Spun around.
The flashlight jittered over the furniture, the organ. Nothing. Well, wasn't he a jumpy little –
Behind him, on the table, a soft wisp of noise.
He spun again, gun up, light showing… another rat. He sighed out the tense breath captured by his lungs. The rat ambled towards him, stood on its back legs and sniffed in his direction, whiskers quivering. Brave little rodent. He kept his light on it as it scrambled around the case, its nose still sniff-sniff-sniffing everywhere. When it came upon its dead fellow, it stopped and, in halted degrees, nuzzled over the rigid fur. It turned its head in his direction and blinked up into the light, as though this strange bright creature had something to do with its companion's death.
Leon shrugged one shoulder at it. "Sorry for your loss."
He let his gun drop to his side. Maybe there wasn't anything here at all. Maybe Ada had meant for him to wait for her in this dingy, creepy little room. Maybe she'd explain what the damn syringes were for, although he wasn't holding out too much hope for that. Predicting Ada was going to be mysterious and enigmatic about something was like predicting the sun would rise the next day. After everything that happened in China, he felt like he'd earned a few answers.
Something on the floor caught his eye. He kneeled down and brushed his fingers over the red spots of blood on the floor. Still sticky, hadn't even had time to freeze. Too recent for comfort. The blood sloughed into flakes when he rubbed it between his fingers, and his lips pressed together.
A sharp squeal raised his gun again. He turned in time to see a dark shape flit from the table up into the void of the ceiling. No rat. Beams creaked above. He cast his flashlight around, caught wood, stone and a swaying chandelier. Another creak to the right. He pivoted, illuminated a hand before it snatched away into the shadows.
"I didn't come here to play hide and seek," he told the room. "Come on out, whoever you are. Show yourself."
The soft thud from behind startled him. The narrow beam of light found more blood, crawled up to show a whiskered face, nose no longer sniffing. With its mouth opening and closing, the rat shivered there on the floor. A gash tore it open from throat to stomach. Jesus, poor thing.
"Are you here to shoot me?"
The words came from the far side of the room. He recognised that voice, and wished he didn't. He kept his gun level. "I don't know, Buddy," he said, and crept forward as though the floor was made of thin glass, "that depends. Planning on hurting me?"
A sigh was his answer, on the other side of the room this time. Silence broke with another mournful whistle from the wind outside. He tried again. "I take it that rat popsicle's yours. Didn't know they were the national dish around here. Last time I had pierogi, and I'd prefer that to a ball of fur. Why don't you stay still, say hi to your favourite American properly?"
The silence returned, thicker than the blood on the floor. Then, careful and considered: "Turn off your light."
"Just want to make sure you're not gonna treat me like one of your furry friends."
"I won't hurt you."
So reassuring. Leon backed against one of the walls. Now that he didn't have to worry about any attacks from behind, he pressed the little button on his flashlight. The gun stayed up. Bad place for a fight. Too many places for an enemy to hide and definitely not enough light to see by. Nevertheless, he kept the flashlight off. After a few seconds of nothing, he scanned the shadows.
"All right, so where –"
A shape flashed in front of him. Instinct grabbed his fingers and he squeezed so hard the gun nearly went off. The shape didn't move, stood a few feet away. His heart thumped in his chest, and strangled his voice. "For fuck's sake, Buddy! I almost did shoot you! What the hell?"
"I'm sorry." Buddy-shape took a step back. "I… it's nice to see you again." The words sounded fake, like they had been rehearsed and then fumbled when show time rolled around. Leon slowed his breathing, but his muscles stayed tense.
"Wish I could say the same, but you're looking too much like the enemy right now. What is all this, what's going on?"
"She didn't tell you."
"I don't know her name." The lamp only showed outlines; hair, an ear, cheekbones, brow and the sharpness of lips. Eyes looked too much like black cavities. Outlines tilted back a little, and he made out a nose, nostrils flared. Sniffing, like the rat. "You've… changed."
"Think you're going to win that competition. What the hell happened to you? Where's Ada?"
Buddy swayed in front of him. When he spoke, his voice trembled with something that sounded like anger, or frustration. "Coming. Soon. Maybe. She… knew you'd come here. I didn't want you to. It was unfair."
"So, you're playing the mad man in the attic. Great." He holstered his gun. "Want to explain why you're throwing half-eaten rats at me and jumping around like Spiderman? In fact, how about we start with how you're jumping at all."
"Why did you leave?"
Instead of cringing away, he clenched his jaw. "Hey, no. Not playing that game. I asked you first."
"I woke up and you weren't there." The words came slow, ponderous. He'd rather they were accusing or pissed off. "I thought you'd stay, at least for a little while."
The reply faded in his throat. Guilt that had been simmering away for three years boiled over. "You… were fine," he said eventually, "I came to see you in the hospital. After the operation, do you remember? You were pretty high, kept talking about how much you liked the picture of the sunflowers on the wall, only you thought they were trees. Always pressed that button to bring the nurse over and ask her why they were yellow. I told you I was leaving."
He remembered the morphine bag. The sad way Buddy poked at his dead legs and smiled that slightly-horrifying, uncomprehending smile of a doped-up person . Gotta leave now, Buddy, Leon had said after a while, I gotta get home. The lucidity cracked through, and Buddy had gripped his sleeve with the naked desperation of a child. Don't go.
"It's not like I enjoyed leaving you in that place. I felt bad, and I still do, even though I shouldn't. But that still doesn't explain why you're… like this."
Footsteps creaked towards him. His hand went back down to his gun. Why had he put it away? Buddy leaned in close, too close. His height would have intimidated any lesser man, but Leon held his ground. A copper smell tinged the air; the remains of Buddy's rat snack.
"You left," came the sigh in his ear. His hand wouldn't move. Or his feet. "You left," Buddy said again, from behind clenched teeth, his lips brushing Leon's ear, "and I died."
Leon closed his eyes. Shivered.
"Glad to see you boys are getting along," said someone behind Buddy, "but you shouldn't play so rough, Alex."
The lips retreated. Buddy stepped away, and Leon staggered to the side. Roses clung to his arm and steadied him. "Ada," he managed to rasp out, "what the fuck is going on?"
"I'm sorry, Leon. I'll explain everything in a moment, I promise." She let him go, and near the table came the sound of rustling. "Alex? I'm going to turn the light on now."
More footsteps, and then an overhead bulb flickered before bathing the room in a dirty light. Strange how it made the place look smaller. Ada watched him from across the room, her red coat trimmed with black fur. He didn't return her smile. Buddy stood next to the table, hands shielding his face.
"It takes a few minutes for him to adjust to the light levels," said Ada, "a throwback to the first generation of plaga. UV is out of the question. That knocks his price down a bit on the black market, unfortunately."
"Stop," rumbled Buddy behind his fingers, "threatening to sell me."
Anger rose, hot and tight in Leon's chest. It tasted way too much like betrayal, like he'd walked in on his lover and his best friend fucking each other. "Look," he said, "I want those answers, and I want them now. I don't know what's going on, but I don't like it. Why are you calling him Alex?" Buddy peeked over his hands and exchanged a glance with Ada. That just pissed him off even more. "Tell me!"
Ada moved to his side. Her hand found his shoulder and only the anger kept him from touching her face in reply. "Leon… a couple of weeks ago, Alexander Kozachenko – Alex – died."
"That's your real name?"
"Don't tell him that." Buddy glared through his fingers at them. "He has no right to know."
"Since you both dragged my ass all the way out here, I think I have every right to know. How did you die? Did you inject yourself with another plaga?"
Buddy's jaw clenched. He took his hands away from his face, and squinted in the light. A rough layer of stubble covered his chin and the shadows under his eyes seemed too dark to be human. Was he paler than before, or was that Leon's imagination? When he spoke, Buddy's gaze found the floor. "It came back. That's all you need to know."
"That's not good enough." He stepped forward. Buddy looked up at him, then to the side, moving back as Leon came forwards. "Do you hurt people? Eat them like you ate that rat? Well?"
"I would never eat –"
"You must be joking." Ada came between them, close enough for him to see the sincerity in her eyes. "I gave him a dog once and he wouldn't touch it. Too human for his own good. He's fine as long as it's kept in check."
"With whatever's in those syringes, right?" She nodded. He laughed, and it sounded more furious than sceptical. "So that's why I'm here. I can't believe it. I thought that after China you'd care enough about me to at least spare me this."
"It's because I owe you that I brought you here, Leon." Her lips pressed together, and he ached for the tension between them to disappear. Over her shoulder, Buddy paced three steps to his left, then his right, crossing from the light to the gloom that still collected under the rafters. "This should be your decision. There's a lot of people who'd pay good money for a mutated master plaga, and several of them already know he's here. I can't go back with a useless body full of bullets from my own gun. Do you understand?"
"You brought me here to kill him." His teeth bit into his own tongue, and it took every ounce of self-control not to head back down that ladder, out of the church and put miles between them. Ada crossed her arms, resolute. Reminded him of Claire when she did that.
"That's one option. You could leave him with me, walk away. I can tell you want to. Or," she said, and turned to Buddy, "take him back with you."
"No." The words slipped out too fast. Ada turned back to him, her face impassive. "Dammit, I don't have time to look after a high-maintenance pet, Ada!"
"Then you can deal with this. Here and now."
Shit. Shit, shit. Why was everyone always completely determined to constantly fuck him over? If it wasn't his own damn government, then it was his lovers. His ass found a covered, dusty old armchair. His fingers pinched between his eyes. "Fuck. Let me think."
"Take as long as you need. Alex, eat something. I brought you food."
Buddy drifted to the table where a paper bag rested on top of the case of syringes. He withdrew something red wrapped in clear plastic. Raw meat, maybe steak. After a furtive glance at Leon, he ripped into the plastic with his teeth and tore off a strip of meat. Liquid oozed over his fingers. Leon made his gaze focus on Ada instead.
"The DSO can have him. Keep him in the facility, monitor the plaga."
"Test on me like an animal." Buddy ripped another chunk of meat into his mouth. Under his lips, the tips of too-sharp teeth peeked. "I'd rather die."
"Maybe you should. And you are an animal, you're eating raw meat. Any other weird things you like to chow down on? Maybe kittens, or children's tears?"
Buddy stopped chewing for a moment. His eyes pulsed red like a heartbeat. "Blood is quite nice."
"See!" Leon threw a hand at him and turned to Ada. "How the hell can I even consider taking him back? What, am I supposed to turn him loose on the neighbourhood every night? Raid the nearest pet store and bring him rats to eat? I'm not about to go out of my way when this whole thing's his fault in the first place!"
"I wasn't aware that I'm not allowed to die."
"You shouldn't have injected yourself with the fucking thing to start with." He remembered being in the same church, telling himself he wouldn't beg Buddy for the plaga. Perhaps he should have. "You could have stopped it all right there if you'd just listened to me. No one else had to die!"
The red faded from Buddy's eyes. He said something in Russian, and Ada made a small noise in the back of her throat.
"I don't think he meant that, Alex."
"Cut it out!" Leon's voice snapped the air like a whip. He pointed at Buddy. "You, speak English. Not going to have any of that 'talking-behind-Leon's-back' bullshit. And you," he said to Ada, the edge easing off his tone, "more explanations. Tell me about the plaga."
She sighed and perched herself on the arm of the chair. Her hand found his leg. "It's… integrated. The host can cause physical mutations, but I'm not sure to what extent. And there's no BOW around to see if it can control them. When you shot it you must have damaged it. Not enough to kill it entirely, but enough to make it seem like it had died and taken the host's spine with it." She tucked her hair behind one ear and nodded to Buddy. "What we think is that it underwent a metamorphosis, a cocoon stage, and mutated upon the host's death."
"And the stuff in those syringes stops it taking over completely."
"The serum ensures the host stays in control, yes. I can get some any time I like, that's not an issue."
"So you knew he still had the plaga in him and never told me?" What a surprise.
"It wasn't like that." Ada's hair flopped back into place when she straightened. "Just a theory that it might not be completely dead. We kept tabs on him, the serum was developed in case the theory proved true. His death was unexpected and had nothing to do with outside forces."
"And you want me to take him. I bet he chews the furniture." It was supposed to be a joke, but fell flat when he looked across at Buddy. Red eyes stared back. Purple and black circled them like the world's clumsiest makeup. That was a little better. Not human. If he had been slavering and feral then that would have been easier still.
"I'm not a pet," said Buddy. A halo of brown hugged his pupil. "Not yours, or hers. I can't believe I –" He shook his head. "I was an idiot. Of course we were never friends. How could we be?"
"We parted on talking terms. Good enough for me." The lie clogged his mouth like the many layers of dust in the room. He swallowed away all the times he'd ever wondered how Buddy was doing, how he'd fought to keep from digging into records or using his contacts to see what he'd been up to. Buddy had needed space. A chance to live again.
And that went so well, didn't it?
Buddy stepped forward and crouched beside the chair. His face seized with desperation, an echo of when he had grabbed Leon's arm in the hospital.
"If you're going to shoot me," he said, his words low and urgent, "do it properly this time. Cut off my head. Burn my body. Whatever you need to do." The brown bled out in his irises, covered the red. "I never want to crawl out of a grave again."
What could he say to that? Leon turned his head, focused on the wall opposite. Fingers clenched in his sleeve. He didn't shake them off.
"I saw Irina," said Buddy. "They buried us together. Wasn't that kind of them?"
"Stop." Leon stood up, pulled his arm away. The floor churned under his feet. "I don't want to fucking hear it!"
Buddy watched him, only his eyes visible over the arm of the chair like a little kid peeping over the covers at a monster hiding in his bedroom closet. A pissed-off, manipulated monster. Ada sighed and fiddled with some kind of device in her hands. Probably talking to one of her super-secret bioterrorist contacts.
He paced the floor as Buddy had done. The dust blew around him. "Why am I always the poor sucker who has to make these decisions?"
"Because you usually make the right ones, Leon." Ada's device vanished into one of her pockets. She looked down at Buddy with all the compassion one might show an injured animal. He shied away from her and pressed himself against one of the lumps of furniture. "And you're good at showing mercy, in whatever form it takes."
Buddy's fingertips made tiny circles on his knees. He didn't look up as Leon approached, or at the whisper of noise of a gun being withdrawn. Why didn't he protest, or try and defend himself? It would have made Leon feel like shit, but at least it would be a reaction he could expect.
His gun shook. Dammit. Ada's neutral expression met his glare. She tilted her head up as though contemplating the cobwebbed chandelier. So even she didn't want to watch, huh? Figured.
He took a deep breath and steadied the gun. How many times would he need to shoot before the plaga died? Once? Several? Would he need to reload, or ask Ada if she had a rocket launcher stashed away somewhere? What if –
Buddy's eyes met his. They had stolen the pink from the sunset three years ago, and now the light turned them a faded tawny. Human. Not human.
"God damn it!" The words choked themselves from Leon's throat. "Damn both of you!"
He snapped his gun back into its holster. There. Decision made, for all the good it would do him. He sat back down on the chair and stared at nothing in front of him. This would all end in tears, wouldn't it?
Ada cleared her throat. "Do you want me to take him back? I've got contacts, so we can travel without too much hassle. I don't think your men would be too happy with a plaga on board. He might raise some interesting questions."
"I think the most interesting question is: what the hell am I doing?" He rubbed his chin with his hands. Fatigue crept up from out of nowhere, stung his eyeballs. Must be going soft in his old age. "If you're ever late bringing me that serum –"
"There'll be enough. He needs it every week."
"And if something happens to you? Are we just delaying the inevitable here?"
Her hand on his shoulder sapped away the anger. He looked up as she bent down and kissed him with rose-petal lips. "Don't worry about me. And you've been in worse situations than this."
"Not many." His palm moved to her hip, and for a moment he forgot where they were. His other hand found the back of her head. His words, quiet and barely there, breathed against her cheek. "Tell me I'm doing the right thing."
"You know you are, my dear." She pulled away from him and smiled. "Now, no sense in waiting, is there? If we start moving we can have this whole thing over by tomorrow afternoon."
"Sounds like you're trying to get rid of me. Try not to misplace him on the ride back, will you?"
"Don't worry. I'll take care of him."
Buddy's arms were wrapped around his knees. He scrutinised them both with that guarded look Leon had seen on him during the civil war. Suspicion wrapped in silence. Leon couldn't quite bring himself to crouch down to his level, so instead he put his hands on his knees and leaned in close. "If we do this, you gotta keep a tight leash on that… thing, okay? I'll help as much as I can, but if you get out of control you know what I have to do."
Buddy nodded. Flecks of rat blood still freckled his chin. Jeez, he was going to be a fun roommate. Ada's device beeped in her hands. She scanned the screen, a frown on her face. Her thumbs danced over buttons as he watched. "What are you telling them?"
She brushed the hair out of her eyes and gave him a small smile. "That some handsome agent swept in and stole my prize. They're not too happy with me."
"Not going to get in any serious trouble, are you?"
"I'll be fine. Come on, Alex," she said, and glided over to the door, "We need to leave now if we want to beat the sun. Ever been in a helicopter before? "
Coaxed off the floor, Buddy followed her, his head down and hands by his sides. "Can -" he began to say, and then stopped, shook his head. Ada frowned, opened the door with a creak.
"Can we… go past the graveyard?" Head still down, not looking at either of them. Ada blinked and glanced towards Leon. Of course, Irina would be there. Maybe JD, if his body hadn't been tossed in some incinerator. Leon had seen the pointed memorial in the market square, had taken a moment to peruse the names. He didn't know if they'd included the rebels or not.
"I think we can spare a few minutes. Leon, we'll see you later."
She blew him a kiss and stepped through the doorway. Buddy lingered, finally met Leon's eyes. He opened his mouth as though about to speak, then closed it. After one final reluctant glance, he followed Ada with all the enthusiasm of a beaten dog. The door closed behind him.
It would have been childish to kick out at the furniture, so Leon contented himself with a hissed "fuck". How was he supposed to explain this when he got back? Maybe he could stuff Buddy in his closet or attic whenever Claire or Sherry came round. Be a lot less hassle than trying to explain why he had a plaga sleeping on the couch.
Another rat dodged between his feet and ran squealing under the chair. One of the lucky ones. His phone buzzed in his back pocket. Hunnigan. He'd have to tell her the distress call was a dead end, start the first in a long line of lies to people he cared about.
Leon sighed and pressed the answer button.