Disclaimer- Sony, Mattel, various animation houses, not me. Everybody clear on that? Good. This fanfic is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence, language, and sexual situations. All the good stuff, right? :) This is obviously an AU, (alternate universe for those of you not familiar with the slang,) for reasons you'll see about four or five paragraphs in. ;) Thanks to Alhazred, Jennifer Bigley, and Niki Hollingsworth for their help fleshing this evil little idea out into a full-fledged evil story. :)

Changeling

June 23, 1984

Jefferson Smith knew there was something wrong as soon as he pulled into the driveway. He wasn't sure why; chalk it up to that sixth sense field agents develop after a while… one that never really goes away. Or maybe it was simply that his best friend had just died, been killed in an explosion that had taken the lives of a number of good men and women, and now Jeff was going home to try and explain to a four-year-old boy why his father was never coming home.

Wherever the feeling came from, it was strong enough to have Jeff reaching for his gun even as he was getting out of the car. He'd barely reached the steps of Jim's beach house when he received the first confirmation that his feeling wasn't just nerves: the front door hung open. "Hung" was apparently the operative term, since as he drew closer, Jeff could see that the door was only attached to the frame by the top hinge.

Gun at the ready, Jeff moved carefully into the house, his frown deepening as he noticed the television set and stereo system were still in place. That suggested whoever had broken in here wasn't a common thief. But what else could anyone want from Jim's house?

A thumping noise from the closet drew Jeff's attention, and he stealthily made his way over to the door. Throwing it open, he was only slightly surprised to see Mrs. Gandalfi, the babysitter he'd left to watch Josh when the call came in from N-Tek. Upon seeing Jeff, the elderly woman burst into tears.

"Mr. Smith, I don't know what happened! One minute I was reading on the couch reading, the next, I was waking up locked in the closet with a headache!" she cried.

Knockout gas. Jeff's scowl deepened. The house had definitely been hit by pros... but what would professionals want with Jim's house? He wasn't- hadn't even been very high in the organization…

Josh. Jeff was already in motion as the thought struck him, flying towards the back bedroom where the boy slept. It was crazy, no one could possibly have been after the kid… but he had a feeling he was only telling himself that to keep the awful fear at bay.

Skidding to a stop at the door of the boy's room, Jeff felt his heart sink. The bed was empty, the covers thrust aside roughly. Several drawers hung open, and Jeff would bet his paycheck they had been emptied of clothes. Josh's favorite stuffed animal, a teddy bear in an N-Tek jumpsuit, lay forgotten in a corner of the room. That settled it… even if he were hiding, Josh would never leave his bear behind.

Jeff's shoulders sagged as he holstered his gun. Hands trembling, he picked up the bear and sank down to sit on the bed.

"Some guardian I am, huh?" he asked the bear softly, staring into its black-button eyes. Tilted right, he could almost imagine that the bear's face bore the cocky smirk that had been Jim's trademark. "I couldn't save Jim, and then somebody steals Josh right out from under my nose. I'm sorry, Jim… but I promise, I'll find him. If it takes me the rest of my LIFE, I will find him."

The bear simply stared back.

*****

May 25, 1999

He was working late again. Damn it.

"You DO have a home, you know," Chuck Marshak observed, strolling into Smith's office. "I know, I helped you move in. You, me, and Jim… and you paid us with a case of beer. Cheap beer, too."

The man at the desk didn't even look up, though Chuck KNEW the younger man had heard him. _Ignoring me, huh? _ the grey-haired man thought wryly. _We'll just see about that._ Knowing someone for twenty-four years gave you certain privileges, as far as Chuck was concerned. Keeping your friends from working themselves to death was one of them.

"Jeff. A certain degree of dedication is appreciated in a director of the agency. But I think you've gone beyond the call of duty here. Go home. Eat something besides takeout, drink something besides coffee, and get some SLEEP. Are you even working on N-Tek business anymore? Or is it your personal project?"

That got Jeff's attention. As the other man looked up at him, Chuck was struck by the fact that Jeff looked older than HE did, even though Chuck had at least ten years on the man.

"It's Jim's birthday, Chuck," Jeff said softly, putting his pen down. "He would have been forty-five. Josh should be… nineteen this year. He's gotten his driver's license, graduated high school… and I have no idea where he is."

"Don't do this to yourself, Jeff. Jim wouldn't want you killing yourself over this. You have your own life, you know. When's the last time you went to a movie? Or for a walk? Or got laid, for that matter?"

Jeff glared at him, an expression that had caused brave men to turn into jelly. Chuck ignored it with the ease of long practice.

"That's what I thought. Come on, call it a night and go home, before I sic Maggie on you."

A raised eyebrow and the ghost of a smile answered. "I thought that was "Dr. McAllister" to you lowly agent types."

"I make an exception for people who offer to help me cart my unconscious boss down to his car," a throaty voice interrupted. The psychiatrist strolled through the door, trank derringer carried obviously in one hand.

"Maggie…" Jeff's tone carried a warning that was, once again, blatantly ignored.

"Jeff, are you familiar with the definition of the term 'obsession?'" Maggie's arm sweep indicated the papers that lay piled on the desk. "As your friend and your psychiatrist, I'm telling you to go home, get some rest, and start LIVING."

N-Tek's CEO sighed in defeat. "All right, all right. I can see I'm outnumbered here…"

Whatever else he would have said was cut off by the blaring of the alarm.

*****

Berto Martinez really liked working for N-Tek. He got to set his own hours, for the most part- nobody cared if he ended up working all night and then sleeping all the next day. He got the most high tech, expensive toys to play with and very nearly free reign on whatever projects he wanted to pursue. And best of all, his inventions were out there saving the world while HE got to avoid being shot at. No doubt about it, he definitely had the best job he could think of.

Humming tunelessly, he set the code breaker program to compile, and drained the last of his can of Jolt. Other agents might be able to drink the sludge the cafeteria called coffee, but he had to settle for getting his caffeine in carbonated form. One of the drawbacks of growing up in Colombia, he mused, stretching.

_Let's see…_ He had fifteen minutes or so until he'd be able to work on the next phase of his project. Maybe he should see how the MX probes were doing. Dr. Yevshenko had just moved them to the big tank so that they could replicate themselves and build up a sufficient quantity to use in testing. It would be interesting to check on the energy readings, see how fuel-efficient the probes were…

It wasn't very far to the MX lab. Keying in his entry code, Berto ambled through the door. As always, he was somewhat awed by the sheer size of the holding tank, full of green suspension fluid that glowed eerily, lit from within. To think that these probes, and the transphasic energy that powered them, were HIS discovery. No other mind had been able to make it work. Berto chuckled to himself. He tried not to get a swelled head about it, but… he couldn't help taking a LITTLE pride in his work.

"Well, well… look what we have here. A little lab rat is out of his cage."

Berto was pretty sure he disliked the owner of the voice, even before he turned completely around. Insult aside, there was a sneering quality to the husky tone that had the hair standing up all along his back. And when he finally saw who was speaking, his suspicions were confirmed. The newcomer was wearing no uniform, no badge, and had a prosthetic arm that Berto would have bet anything was not standard issue.

The blond smiled thinly, and the metal arm suddenly unfolded into a wicked-looking claw. "Do you know what I do to rats?" he inquired, taking a step forward. "I make them SQUEAK."

The threat galvanized Berto into action, and the young scientist quickly threw himself towards the alarm switch. He doubted the intruder was going to let him live one way or another, so his best chance of survival lay with getting a heavily armed security team down there as soon as possible.

No sooner had the alarm begun to blare than Berto felt something grab him around the waist, hard. As he was lifted off his feet, he realized with shock that the cyborg had actually grabbed him with that claw, the claw that was slowly beginning to bear in on his midsection with crushing force.

The intruder lifted the young scientist until they were face to face. "Looks like you're in for a crushing defeat," the cyborg sneered. In desperation, Berto reached out for his assailant's face and pulled. To his horror, the "skin" came away in his hands, revealing a sneering, demonic metal skull. Berto let the latex mask fall from limp hands as he stared in shock.

"El Muerte… Madre de Dios," Berto croaked, eyes wide. The skull's jaw moved in obvious amusement.

"Good words to die on, kid." Negligently, he threw Berto away from him, sending the young man hurtling into the probe tank behind him. Over the pain that shot through him, Berto could faintly hear a cracking noise, but he honestly didn't know if it was the tank or his spine. Then he fell to the ground, landing in a slowly spreading puddle of green ooze.

The blond cursed, realizing that the tank had sprung a leak. The sound of footsteps approaching indicated that his time was running out. Casting one look back over his shoulder at the motionless Berto, he ran out the door.

Berto was beyond noticing, however. The pain in his body was fading, but it was being replaced with the truly unnerving sensation of the nanoprobes in the suspension fluid oozing their way into his body, seeking the nearest environment conducive for their survival. The invasion was… indescribable. And then there was the question of power… what would happen to him when the probes' energy ran out?

The pound of footsteps startled him, but he was already too weak to even raise his head.

"What the- Martinez? Oh SHIT." That was Jake Nez, Berto recalled hazily. The other agent was one of the MX project's primary security specialists, so they'd crossed paths a number of times.

"O'Malley, get a med team down here, STAT!" Nez yelled, holstering his pistol. Crossing the room in two strides, he knelt down beside the younger agent.

"Martinez, can you hear me? It's Jake. Med team's on its way… you just have to relax."

Berto shook his head, alarmed at how much that took. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, he managed to croak, "Generator."

Jake blinked. "What?"

"Transphasic… generator. Yevshenko. Probes… need charge."

The older agent stared for a moment, and then shook his head. "You're the doc here… but I can't move you yet. Wait for the stretcher."

"No… TIME," Berto grunted. "Probes'll… fix everything…"

"All right, but I'm telling Smith this was YOUR idea," Nez grumbled, picking Berto up and slinging him over one shoulder. He then took off for the generator at a run.

*****

It was getting harder to breathe, let alone move, but when Jake dumped him in the chair, Berto somehow managed to get up the energy to cross himself. He'd read somewhere once that the Archangel Michael was the patron saint and protector of soldiers and policemen. He really hoped that secret agents fell under that protection, too.

"Ready, Dr. Martinez?" Dr. Yevshenko's lightly accented voice echoed through the chamber.

Berto nodded sharply. "Do… it," he gasped, hands curling around the armrests of his chair. There was a humming noise, then the world was filled with shining green light.

It hurt like hell.

Berto knew he was screaming like a banshee, but he had no strength to stop himself. Good GOD, it HURT! It was as though every cell in his body were catching fire, burning with a super-heated green flame. He was burning, he was dying… and yet, he could feel himself growing stronger on the green light that poured into his body. Then the pain shot up in intensity, and the world went away.

As he fell into the blackness, Berto thought he could faintly hear the beating of wings.

*****

Waking up was a surprise in itself. When the transphasic energy had slammed into him, Berto had honestly thought he was dead. Apparently, though, his body had survived the strain of the infusion, and now he was free of pain. Not even a slight headache remained of the crippling agony he remembered. Berto stared at the ceiling tiles, reveling in the complete lack of hurting.

Wait a minute… ceiling tiles? A hand flew to his face. No, he wasn't wearing his glasses… but without the corrective lenses, the ceiling should just be a mass of undifferentiated whiteness. Instead, he could see the outlines of the panels in the ceiling, the small holes punched in the foam board, the texture of the Styrofoam that made up the-- What the HELL?

Berto sat up quickly, absently noting that his ribs didn't even protest the quick movement. His glasses lay on the table beside his bed, which was in a normal room in N-Tek's medical section. He'd seen them a hundred times before, usually for his routine checkups. A chart hanging by the door caught his attention, and suddenly, Berto realized, he was reading it as if it were right in front of him, though he was easily ten feet away.

"What's HAPPENING to me?" he murmured. Low voices caught his ear, and as he shifted his awareness to them, they suddenly became clear as day.

"No, Mr. Smith, he's not awake yet, but he should be very soon. Near as we can tell, he's just exhausted from the process." That was Dr. Annie Marx, N-Tek's head doctor. The baritone that answered her obviously belonged to Jefferson Smith. Berto had only met the director once or twice, but his wasn't a voice you forgot.

"I'll just go in and wait if you don't mind, Doctor," Smith replied. "I'm anxious to see how he's doing."

"Of course. I've got some other patients to see- he's in room 35."

Berto snapped back to himself just as Jefferson Smith walked through the door of his hospital room.

"Dr. Martinez, I presume?" Smith said. At the eye-roll Berto couldn't hold back, the black man chuckled. "I'm sorry; you've probably gotten your fill of that."

"Ever since I got my doctorate," Berto replied, shaking his head. "But yeah, I'm Berto Martinez."

Grabbing a chair, Smith pulled it to Berto's bedside, sitting down slowly. "How are you feeling? You gave us all a scare, you know."

"Yeah, me included," Berto agreed. "I was just checking on the Max Probes when this… thing walked in. I barely had a chance to hit the alarm. He beat the crap out of me and the tank cracked in the fight. I got doused with the probes… they were running low on energy… that's why I had them put me in the generator."

"The Max Probes… that's the experimental nanotech you and Dr. Yevshenko are working on? I thought they were intended for machinery, self-repair and that sort of thing?

The scientist sighed, absently moving to shove his missing glasses up the bridge of his nose. "They are. They were never intended for a human being… this was a completely unforeseen accident. God knows what they'll do in my systems. I can tell you already that they've healed all my injuries, and corrected my eyesight- it's a LOT better than 20/20 now. Hearing seems to be above normal too. I'll have to run some tests, but if the probes are behaving in an organic system the way they're designed to behave in a mechanical one…" Berto shook his head. "I think we're in for a hell of a ride."

*****

"You want me to WHAT?"

Jeff winced. The probes had definitely increased Martinez's lung capacity, but he'd hit that last note all by himself. All right, so he hadn't expected the young scientist to leap in joy at his suggestion, but he hadn't expected a shriek loud enough to cut glass. Powerfully aware of the amusement radiating from the woman behind him, Jeff took a deep breath.

"Dr. Martinez, please calm down. It's a perfectly reasonable request. Your report says that your strength and speed have been increased beyond human levels, your senses are beyond the normal measuring scales, you've clocked your own agility and endurance-- Field training is the next logical step."

The boy whirled from where he was pacing in front of Jeff's desk. Blue eyes blazed from behind the fake lenses of the glasses he still wore. "I am a LAB RAT," Berto stressed, punctuating his statement with a gentle thump of his fist on the desk. "I am 18 years old. When I joined N-Tek, it was with the understanding that I was never so much as going to SEE the field! And now, because of some stupid accident that was not even my fault--"

"Dr. Martinez." Rachel Leeds interrupted, cutting the scientist off before he could really get going. "I appreciate your position, but allow me to point out that if your abilities ever become known, you very well may become a target. Field training would at least keep you from being an easy one. With your intelligence and your physical condition, qualifying for Level 4 agent status will be simple. You can decide after that whether or not you actually wish to become a field agent."

Berto deflated. "I guess that's fair. It's just…" Crossing to the windows of Smith's office, he stared out at the deep green water. "I've always been a geek. I barely passed my physicals for level 1. I hated gym all through out high school. This job… it was perfect, you know? I could make a difference, and I was still safe. But… I wasn't really safe after all, was I? If that thing got in here… it could get in anywhere. Nowhere is safe, is it?"

"No," Jeff said quietly, remembering how he'd found Jim's house empty all those years ago. "Nowhere is. Which is why we do this job." Collecting himself, he stared keenly at the young man who was still staring out the windows.

"Have you been to see Dr. McAllister yet? After what's happened…"

Martinez chuckled softly. "Oh yeah. She's been vehement about my not working myself into exhaustion to avoid thinking about things… or just because I'm fascinated with this twist in my own experiment. She's looking for an alternative to tranquilizers right now."

Jeff chuckled despite himself. N-Tek's head of psychiatry was not averse to rendering agents unconscious if she felt they were driving themselves harder than they should. The sight of Maggie going "agent-hunting" with her specially-made derringer was a familiar one. You could always tell when someone was overdue for a vacation… they refused to remove their backs from the wall. He'd fallen victim to such behavior on more than one occasion himself.

Rachel broke the silence finally. "And… Berto… if it helps your decision any, I'm looking forward to training you… and to having you as a partner."

"Thanks, Rachel," Berto replied. "I can't promise to say yes, but… I promise I'll think about it."

*****

His apartment was entirely too quiet, Berto mused, locking the door behind him. No roommate, of course, not with the secrecy his job demanded. And no kitty yowls or excited barking greeted his entrance. He was never home long enough to give a pet the attention it deserved. The closest thing he had, in fact, was some refrigerator mold that looked to be on the edge of achieving sentience.

Grabbing a bottle of water out of his fridge, he mumbled a greeting to the mold and stumbled back to his couch. Enhanced stamina or not, Rachel's training was EXHAUSTING. But… he had to admit, he felt better than he ever had… and a lot more confident. If that thing ever showed up again, he thought this time he could actually fight it off.

Shuddering, he remembered how it had felt to be held in the air in that metal claw, the pressure inexorably bearing down on his internal organs, crushing them… and Smith wanted him to go into the field, where he'd face that ALL the time? No WAY.

As he sipped at his water, Berto's gaze fell on the painting his parents had given him the day he graduated from college. It was an artist's rendering of the Angel Michael, casting the Dragon down from the heavens. He'd been baptized Roberto Miguel Martinez, and his mother had always told him his patron angel would watch over him. If she knew what he did for a living, she'd REALLY believe it. Berto chuckled.

The painting had belonged to his parents for years, but it had hung in his bedroom since he was a small child. At first, it had simply chased nightmares away… but as he'd gotten older, it had taken on other meanings for him. Michael was the youngest of the seven archangels, the smallest, and the least powerful, according to the stories his mother had told him as a child. But it was Michael who faced Lucifer in the Great War in Heaven, and it was Michael who had cast him down in the end.

Michael was the patron saint of policemen and soldiers, he'd been taught. He watched over those who protected others, who fought the good fight. Rising from his chair, Berto walked over to the painting.

"What should I do? I mean… I have this power… I can do all these things… but I'm still just a lab rat… I'm terrified. I still have nightmares of that thing in the lab, and it's been almost two months! But… how can I not help?"

Michael didn't answer. But all of a sudden, Berto noticed something about the angel's expression he never had before. Yes, the warrior looked courageous, and determined, and definitely angry. But beyond all that… he looked scared to death. The Dragon Lucifer towered over him, breathing fire, fangs and claws bared, three times the angel's size, or more.

"All right… All right." Berto's mouth quirked. "I get the picture… and Smith gets a new field agent."

Outside Berto's apartment, there was a whir of beating wings. But when he looked, nothing but pigeon feathers rested on the sill outside.

*****

Rachel sounded annoyed with him, Berto mused. Not that that was an entirely unusual occurrence. He usually managed to aggravate her at least once per training episode. No reason to think his first real mission would be any different. Absently, he reached up to fiddle with his glasses, before remembering that he didn't wear them on missions.

"Berto… what are you DOING up there? I remember Mairot distinctly saying we'd be acting as FLOOR security."

From his position high above the Reichstag floor, Berto shrugged. "Yeah, but from here, I can see anything that goes on. You know I'm not comfortable in large groups of people… this way, I can get to any trouble spot in just a few seconds."

Rachel sighed. "I suppose you're right, but really, you're going to have to get used to crowds SOMETIME. Or do you intend to be the world's first agoraphobic secret agent?"

"Hey, I'm the lab rat, remember? I'm not supposed to have to deal with all of this."

"Mmm. Well, everything seems quiet down here, and the meeting's about to begin, so I suppose I'll talk to you later. Assuming all goes well."

Fate obviously possessed a sense of irony, because no sooner had Berto heard those words, than all the lights in the room below died. Cursing creatively, Berto was in motion almost before the first word left his lips.

"Martinez to Mairot," he called, rappelling quickly down the side of the building. "We have a BIG problem here."

"Problem?" the French agent asked, over Berto's biolink communicator. "What kind of problem?"

"The floor went black, and I can't hear a THING from it," Berto responded, landing easily. "I've got a REAL bad feeling about this."

Even if he couldn't see him, Berto could almost HEAR Mairot raising an eyebrow. "And where were you during this?"

"Bird's eye view," the scientist replied curtly, running into the main room just as the lights turned back on. "Que en el nombre-- it's empty!"

"Impossible," the reply came quickly.

"Yeah? Take a look through the link camera, and tell me it's impossible," Berto replied, running one hand over a table. "They wouldn't have enough time to cart everybody out… Did they just… evaporate?"

Dr. Yevshenko broke in on the conversation. "Trapdoors?"

Mairot's reply was scornful. "For over five hundred people?"

Eyes narrowed, Berto scanned the room's design. "No, wait… she might be on to something. I saw this episode of "Scooby-Doo" once… one of the ones with Batman and Robin? There was this house…" Kneeling down, Berto examined the base of a nearby chair. Sure enough, it was bolted to the floor.

"Yes!" The young agent shot to his feet. "They went DOWN! The floor's set on a pivot point- those columns on the sides. It's perfectly symmetrical across the line. They just flipped the floor under cover of darkness… probably gassed the delegates!" He took off out of the room, just moments ahead of the puzzled Reichstag security.

"It sounds like something out of a bad children's show," Mairot snorted.

Yevshenko ignored him. "I've got the building plans loaded onto your link. And… Martinez! The subway tunnels! They link directly to the basement!"

Berto nodded, racing down the stairs. "I'm on it. Mairot?"

"A team is already on the way, Martinez. You're in charge for now."

"ME?" Berto yelped. But Mairot had already cut the connection.

*****

Groaning, Rachel Leeds opened her eyes slowly, rising to consciousness. Her head was spinning; an aftereffect of the gas, and it didn't help that she could feel the floor beneath her shaking. As the world came into focus, she realized that she was lying on the floor of a subway car. Men in red and black armor guarded the doors, but other than them, she was alone.

Just then, one of the doors at the end of the car slid open, admitting one of the strangest men Rachel had ever seen. Dressed all in black, he wore a mask that made his face look as if it were nothing more than a skull. Despite herself, Rachel shivered as the newcomer came to her, offering a hand.

"You are awake, ma petit," he greeted her, his voice low and smooth, with a pronounced French accent. "I had hoped you would wake to join us soon."

Ignoring the offered hand, Rachel used the nearby subway seats to lever herself to her feet. "Who are you, and where are the delegates?" she inquired, wobbling only slightly.

He chuckled. "They are safe… simply in other cars on the train. I thought more privacy would allow us to… get to know each other. As for who I am… they call me L'Etranger."

"The Stranger," Rachel translated, hiding the shiver that went through her at the terrorist's insinuation. There was no way she was going to let anyone get the upper hand in this situation.

"To many, yes. But not, I hope, to you… I find women in your line of work so… stimulating."

"Why don't you keep your mind on your WORK," a cold voice broke in. All heads turned to see the speaker lounging in the door that connected to the next car.

He was certainly better to look at than L'Etranger, was Rachel's first image. Tall and muscular, he had short blonde hair combed away from his face. He was dressed quite simply, in a t-shirt and jeans, both black. His eyes, however, were hidden behind a pair of black wraparound sunglasses that gave him a cold, unapproachable appearance, and the twin .45 caliber pistols holstered on his belt only intensified it.

L'Etranger sketched a mocking bow. "Ah, Monsieur Dread, how kind of you to put in an appearance."

The blond snorted. "My father sent me on this mission to keep an eye on you, _freelancer, _" he drawled, his tone making the term an insult. "I can see why. Have you even checked her over for tracers yet?"

"Do not presume to order me, boy, whoever your father might be. I know how to deal with women such as this."

"You're a fool, then," Dread shot back, striding towards Rachel. She took a step back instinctively, only to feel her balance desert her. She wobbled for a second, then a strong hand gripped her wrist, as the blond man drew her forward to lean against him.

"Better?" he murmured in her ear. At her nod, he gently pushed her backwards until she collapsed onto the seats lining the car. His lips quirked, in genuine amusement rather than a smirk or a sneer.

"Why don't you go make sure our path is still clear?" he asked, never looking back at L'Etranger. The other terrorist growled, but strode out of the car. Dread shook his head, the small smile growing broader.

"He's an idiot. Don't worry; I won't let him touch you." As he spoke, he was running a small box up and down, around Rachel. When it neared her earrings, it began to beep. "Ahh… here we go. You're gonna have to take those off for me, Green Eyes."

Rachel did so, biting her lips. The tracers were the only link she had to N-Tek, but… fighting wouldn't gain her much. Handing the earrings to Dread, she watched silently as he opened one of the side doors of the car and tossed them out.

Finally, Rachel got up the nerve to speak. "Who are you? And why are you doing this?

"Name's Josh. Josh Dread. And you can imagine the type of ransom a train full of delegates will bring," he replied, coming to sit down across from her.

"Delegates, yes. But not agents," she replied dryly.

Josh grinned. "True enough, Green Eyes. But I'm in charge on this mission, so I get to decide what happens to you."

She rolled her eyes. "That makes me feel much better, thank you."

"It should. I don't like causing pain or humiliation. To me, there's no point in sex unless it's consensual. And my father taught me to always respect a good opponent, which I think you are. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to let you walk away when all this is over."

A raised eyebrow was her response. "Forgive me if I don't believe you right away."

He chuckled. "I expected nothing less."

*****

Rachel wasn't sure how much later it was when L'Etranger returned to the subway car. Josh Dread was a fascinating conversationalist, and despite her misgivings, Rachel had found herself drawn into lively debate with him. It was so easy to forget that the charming, intelligent young man across the car from her was a terrorist, responsible for her abduction and that of a large group of German politicians.

Josh looked up as the skull-masked man strode into the car. The blond raised an eyebrow as he casually got to his feet. "Problem?" he drawled.

"We have a tail," L'Etranger bit out. "N-Tek, I'd guess, in a light, single-man PLANE, of all things! He is closing in on us quite quickly, as well. I would guess he will catch up to us in no more than two minutes."

The younger man sighed. "Fine. Keep an eye on our guests- I'll go deal with our party crasher." Reaching the main door, he suddenly stopped and turned back around.

"And- TRY to be professional," he smirked. Then he was gone.

L'Etranger growled, then composed himself. When he turned back to Rachel, he was once again exuding charm.

"My apologies, ma belle," he oozed, taking a seat across from Rachel. "Some men believe that an accident of birth places them above the rest of us, non?"

"Birth?" Rachel asked. If she played this right, she might be able to use L'Etranger's antipathy for Josh to at least get some information.

The freelancer nodded. "Oui. The son of John Dread he is, the crown prince of the DREAD organization. A boy used to grabbing whatever toy he wants, then discarding it when he has tired of it. But do not fear, ma cherie, I will protect you from his… appetites."

Privately, Rachel thought she'd rather take her chances with Josh, who at least had treated her like a person, rather than a prize. But she said nothing, simply endeavored to look cowed. Deliberately, she bit her lip, increasing her appearance of vulnerability.

It must have worked, because L'Etranger leaned forward, placing one hand on her shoulder and caressing her cheek with the other. "Ah, no tears, belle femme. They will ruin your beauty."

The sound of commotion from the back cars signified that SOMETHING had gone wrong, and Rachel was willing to bet it was Berto's arrival. Regardless, the noise distracted L'Etranger just enough to give Rachel the opening she needed. Grabbing his arms, she pulled herself up off the seat, bringing her knee up into his groin as she did so. The man folded like a sheet of paper, and Rachel followed through by smashing his head into the subway seats as hard as she could. Letting the limp body slump to the ground, Rachel headed back through the train to meet her partner.

*****

Okay, he had to admit it… this was kind of fun. Ducking under the clumsy punch one armored goon threw his way, Berto easily sent his assailant flying with a swift kick. Turning, another barrage of punches sent two more goons to the mat.

"I am NOT becoming an adrenaline junkie," the scientist muttered to himself, back flipping out of the way of a fourth attacker. "Of course, if you guys were any smarter than tapioca, maybe I'd be more apprehensive." An impossibly fast sidestep allowed the last of the terrorists to throw himself headlong into a support pole, and he fell to the ground, out cold. Taking a moment to catch his breath, Berto surveyed the unconscious bodies strewn around the car.

"I think I have a talent for redecorating," he remarked.

"Well, I like the color scheme," Rachel replied, entering the car. "I see you're beginning to get the attitude of a field operative."

"Wiseass remarks so your teeth don't chatter?"

"Exactly. Are you all right?"

He nodded. "Yeah, fine. Of course, everybody I've run up against so far has been cannon fodder. You okay?"

Shuddering, she nodded. "I need a bath, but I'm fine. There are two major terrorist operatives on this train. A freelancer by the name of L'Etranger, and a high-level operative in the DREAD organization, Josh Dread. Apparently the son of the head. Blonde, wears black clothing and sunglasses. I left L'Etranger unconscious two cars back, but I don't know what happened to Dread. He said he was going to go deal with their 'party crasher.' I assume he meant you."

Berto grimaced. "Great… The delegates are all in the cars behind me… I didn't see anyone fitting Dread's description, so my GUESS is he's up in the engine compartment." He sighed.

"Look, Rachel, I think the best thing for us to do is uncouple the cars with the delegates and leave them behind in the tunnels. You can radio Mairot for pickup… since you're not exactly dressed for a full skirmish. I'll see if I can't grab our goons."

Her eyes narrowed. "You want me to leave you here? On your first major mission?"

"Mairot put me in charge for some reason, and yes. One of us has to make sure N-Tek retrieves the delegates. Of the two of us, I'm better able to handle a fight right now." Berto took her hand. "Please, Rachel?"

"Oh… All right," she sighed. "But you be CAREFUL, Berto Martinez!"

He laughed. "Believe me… I have no intention of doing anything else."

*****

Standing at the back of the third car, Berto watched the rest of the train disappear into the darkness of the tunnels. Mairot was sending operatives to collect the cars and the delegates, and Rachel had weapons taken from the downed goons, so he wasn't worried about her. Himself, on the other hand…

Taking a deep breath, Berto turned and re-entered the train, where L'Etranger lay, still unconscious. As he passed, Berto thought he saw the terrorist's foot twitch, so he slammed the black-clad man's head against the seats once again, just for good measure. After the look he'd seen on Rachel's face when she mentioned him, he had absolutely no qualms about hitting the slime while he couldn't hit back. As a matter of fact, he hoped L'Etranger woke up with a very bad headache.

The next car was empty, but not for long. Even as Berto entered, the door at the opposite end slid open, and Josh Dread entered the car.

"Ah, our mysterious guest," the blonde greeted him. "What, is N-Tek recruiting from high schools now?"

"It was this or the debate team," Berto replied shortly. "I don't suppose you'd just stop the train and let me bring you in for arrest?"

The other shook his head. "Sorry, no can do. By the way, what did you do with L'Etranger? Not that I really care much."

Berto's grin had much in common with a shark's. "I didn't do anything to him. Rachel, on the other hand… let's just say he'll be walking funny for a while after he wakes up.

To Berto's surprise, the terrorist's laugh was a real one, full of humor. "Ahh… I warned him not to underestimate her." He sighed. "Under other circumstances, I have a feeling I'd love to continue this conversation, but we both have jobs to do. So… shall we dance?" He dropped into a fighting stance, which Berto mirrored.

The two of them circled cautiously, or as close an approximation as one could get in a narrow subway car. Berto's eyes narrowed as he sized up his opponent. Josh had the reach advantage, not to mention better armament. He wasn't sure why the other was ignoring the two .45's holstered on his belt, but he wasn't about to complain.

Ducking the foot that lashed out towards his head, Berto dropped into a low sweep intended to knock Josh's other foot out from under him. To his surprise, though, the other simply flipped into the air, landing a few feet back.

"Agile," Berto commented, controlling his breathing.

"Dad insisted on gymnastics classes. Though I was usually more interested in my female classmates…"

The grin was infectious, and Berto found himself wishing he'd met his opponent under different circumstances. Putting that out of his head, he threw himself back into the battle.

Suddenly the car jolted beneath them, metal screeching against metal. Looking up, Josh cursed.

"End of the line… we're almost out of track. This thing's gonna derail soon… we'll have to jump!"

As the jolting grew worse, Berto wrenched open the door on the side of the car. "You first," he gestured.

"See you next time," Josh laughed, jumping out the door. Berto followed close behind him, just in time, as the train plowed into the mass of wood and stone that marked the end of the track. Getting to his feet, Berto brushed himself off, coughing from the dust that rose from the train wreck. He was not entirely surprised to realize that Josh was nowhere in sight.

"Figures," he grumbled, plopping back down to the ground. "Sneaky bastard." He was just going to lay there until N-Tek found him, Berto decided. He was owed that, at least.

*****

John Dread looked up at the knock on his study door. "Come in," he called, already having a good idea who it would be. Sure enough, the door opened to reveal his son, already removing his sunglasses as he stepped into the study.

"Ah, Josh. Come to deliver your report?"

The blond nodded, sinking into the offered chair before the desk. "You already know we failed, of course," Josh replied, crossing his legs casually.

"Of course. I wouldn't have used this as an evaluatory mission were it particularly important. What happened?"

Josh snorted. "L'Etranger blew it. Okay, maybe that's not entirely fair… N-Tek showed up."

Eyebrows raised, Dread nodded. "They are becoming quite the nuisance, aren't they? Something will have to be done about them… but continue."

"We took one of their agents into custody when we cleared the floor- she was working security. Name's Rachel Leeds- You might want to put a watch on her. She's a big part of the reason the mission failed."

"Indeed?"

"Yeah. Skullface decided that since she had blond hair, big green eyes, and a figure that could stop traffic, she wasn't much of a threat. She kicked his ass. I think he's in the habit of underestimating the female gender. And he lets his obsession with his "harem" get in the way of work."

Dread chuckled. "Hopefully I've taught you better than that. So… why didn't you dispose of her?"

Propping his chin on one hand, Josh shrugged. "She was unarmed, and wouldn't have been a problem if watched properly. And you always told me to respect a skillful adversary."

"So what happened?"

"Her partner showed up. Now that was weird, Dad… the kid had to be younger than ME, but he was a hell of a fighter. I admit, I underestimated him a little. He was much stronger and faster than you'd think anyone that skinny could be. We fought, the train derailed, and I took the opportunity to get away. Skullface made it out of the wreck, though Rachel ensured he'd be walking funny for the next few weeks. I dunno if N-Tek picked him up afterwards or not. I honestly didn't care."

Making a few notes in the folder before him, Dread shut it and then pushed it away. "Well, I suppose L'Etranger will not be on our list of contractors in the future. That should be all."

Rising, Josh slipped his sunglasses back on and turned toward the door. His father's voice stopped him as his hand touched the knob.

"And Josh- take care that your own interests don't interfere with your work." Dread smirked. "I know how much you like blondes."

Josh laughed. "You know better than that, Dad. I'm ALWAYS professional." Tipping Dread a two-fingered salute, he headed out the door.

*****

Jefferson Smith didn't often sit in on debriefings. He honestly didn't have the time. But this one was different. Not only did it deal with N-Tek's new super-agent, but Berto and Rachel had reported encountering two new Dread operatives on their mission, and Rachel looked definitely shaken. Jeff had NEVER seen the British agent's calm this deeply disturbed. That alone was reason enough for him to accompany Mairot to this particular debriefing.

Berto and Rachel took turns relating the events of the mission in professional tones, though Rachel's voice trembled just slightly as she described her conversation with L'Etranger. Her recital made Jeff's expression twist in disgust, and prompted a few French curses from Mairot.

"You will go see Dr. McAllister after you're done here, correct?" the Director of Operations inquired, dark eyes fixed on Rachel's green ones. She nodded sharply.

"Yes… you can be certain of that."

Mairot nodded. "Good. Tell her I'd like her to put together a profile as well, if she could."

"All right," Jeff broke in, "L'Etranger's a freelancer, you said… we should be able to find out more about him through our contacts. Right now, I'm more interested in what you can tell me about this… Joshua Dread."

Berto and Rachel exchanged glances. "Smooth," the scientist declared. "Practically unflappable. He seemed a little surprised by how young I was, but it didn't even break his stride."

"And charming," Rachel added, as Berto nodded vigorously. "And it seemed… oddly sincere, in a way. As if he actually LIKED us, and was just doing his job."

"That's it exactly," her partner chimed in. "He even talked about 'worthy adversaries--' as if it were all some giant game of chess."

Jeff sighed. "That fits what we know of John Dread. The man's a certified genius, and he's supposed to be a chess nut."

Tapping the papers he held against the table, Mairot looked thoughtful. "How intelligent do you think this young man is?"

The response was immediate. "Dangerously so," was Rachel's analysis. "He thinks fast on his feet, he's an excellent judge of character, and he's not the type to underestimate his opponent."

"And he's… honorable." Berto blushed as he found himself the target of three curious gazes. "He had two loaded guns on his belt, but he didn't even TRY to shoot me. He seemed not to like L'Etranger much, either."

"Mmm," Rachel agreed. "I got the feeling he had his own code of behavior. He certainly didn't try to hit on me the way L'Etranger did."

Jeff massaged his temples, staring into his coffee cup. He could feel a headache coming on. "All right, thank you both. Rachel, you go to Dr. McAllister's office- she's already waiting for you. Berto, better get down to the generator and get charged up. Things may be getting very messy soon."

The young scientist snorted. "I think, sir, that that is an understatement."

*****

To be continued?