Nick wanted to be a secret agent all his life. Unlike his father, who was content to mind the family farm, Nick wanted action. He wanted adventure. He wanted so much more than his small town had to offer, and exactly what the NSA made possible.
But this - he hadn't wanted this.
Nick blindly threw himself into the mass of party goers before his brain had time to think about it. His tux must have stood out amidst the leather and rags of every other person in the club, but disguise was not an option at the moment. He had the chip, he needed to get out.
And they were close behind.
He glanced back. Thug and Dementor (he knew, of course, their proper names, but preferred the nicknames he came up with so much more) were hard on his heels. He couldn't see Yorgi but the bastard had to know about the chip's loss by now. Though he hired stupid men, Yorgi did not reward those who kept him ignorant. Nick pushed through the people faster, heading for the stage. It brought him in the open but it was his best chance for escape.
One of the musicians blew a stream of fire from the muzzle contraption on his mouth and Nick ducked as he climbed on the stage. Just a little ways more and he could complete this mission and get out of this hell hole.
His chest went tight at the exact moment he heard the sound. It was an odd noise, half way between a sigh and the odd 'schlooping' sound a knife made when pulled out of half-done brownies. His sister loved to make brownies.
As the noise faded the pain came, sharp, sudden, and dry, evaporating any remaining air in his lungs. Nick fell back, onto the ignorant arms of the party-ers. One last thought crossed his mind as a consuming white light blocked out all else: But James Bond never gets shot.

Deep underground Mt. Weather, in the NSA Remote Intelligence Facility, Augustus Gibbons was slowly counting down the seconds in his mind until he snapped and ripped the speaker out of the ceiling. It seemed no place was too far or too remote to escape the horror that was elevator muzak. If he had to listen to 'The Girl From Epanima' one more time he was going to take a bath with a toaster.
Fortunately the doors opened before that became a necessity.
All he had been told was that at 0030 hours the mission deviated from the set parameters. Which, he knew from experience, was all he was going to be told until he arrived. But more information was spurious at best. Everyone knew what happened.
They failed again.
Hell, they might as well send Yorgi a gift basket and a free invitation to take over the world, because any attempts to stop him were obviously futile. Gibbons wondered if Yorgi preferred fruit or candy. He seemed like a candy guy. Adhering to a healthy dietary regimen might be too conformist. Harry and David's made up a lovely basket of seasonal treats this time of year.
Gibbon's paused before the sealed doors and held up his right hand. That part always amused him - like Pledging Allegiance every day. It felt like he never escaped grade school. A soft voice acknowledged, "Identity confirmed." The doors opened.
He entered in time to hear: "McGrath was uploading some data to us when he was killed. Take a look at this. I'm not sure yet exactly what it is."
Gibbons ignored his coworkers and headed straight for the monitor. Honestly, despite all their technology, it looked like a rotating misshaped Kinex project. "That's a fragment of a complex molecule."
"Gibbons." Harry was a short man; medically he was well within the normal height for a man of his age and build, but practically he was just enough shorter than everyone else for all to notice. As a result he had excellent posture and a strange manner of looking up at someone and down his nose at the same time. It must have given him neck pains, but Gibbons never thought too long about it as he was not a masseuse. Nor, did he think, Harry would let him touch any part of him aside from the traditional high-fives and completely-heterosexual-hugs exchanged freely among the NSA whenever they saved the world. Which was about once every nine days.
"Some of our analysts think it may be linked to a Soviet bio weapon," Gibbons continued, "called Silent Night."
Harry ignored Gibbons, addressing instead the man standing across from him. "James, what is he doing here?" It was well known Harry did not like Gibbons, primarily for his refusal to let anyone refer to him by his first name - even upon strict promises that they would not call him 'Auggie' - and secondly due to the company picnic of 1994, when Gibbons snatched the last turkey burger right from under Harry's nose.
James was equal to Harry in both height and age, but he seemed older and taller because of his clear advantage in maturity. He was fond of and had an amazing palate of tie colors; today's was cranberry. James was also going prematurely grey, giving him a startling resemblance to the current Speaker of the House, of whom he had a dead on impersonation. "I called him in. We've lost three agents on this already," James reminded Harry casually, the meaning anything but casual. "You could use the help."
There wasn't an audible 'bitch' at the end of the sentence, but it was there all the same.
"It took a little digging, but we discovered your agents were killed by a group calling themselves Anarchy 99," Gibbons informed the two. (But mainly Harry. Harry was the idiot.) "They're ex-military. They can smell the training on our agents a mile away. Sir," he added, turning to James, "I think it's time we tried something new." Gibbons retrieved a chip from his pocket and handed it to - Lord, who was that guy? The turn-over rate in this place was ridiculous, with people always either getting married or transfer or horribly murdered by terrorists. Gibbons just couldn't keep track of it anymore. He handed the chip to Random Lackey, who assumed a somewhat competent seat in front of the enormous motherboard and inserted the chip. Harry and James looked up at the screen and Harry put his hands on his hips in his traditional 'I-don't-care-what-you-brought-I-am-so-not- going-to-like-it' way.
Immediately pictures began flashing on the screen; most, Gibbons was proud to say, mug shots.
Harry kept his eyes on the screen but asked, "These guys aren't ours. Who are they? CIA?"
Gibbons maintained a casual response, knowing that would piss Harry off more than a spectacular tap dance number. "No, civilians. Convicts, mercs, contract killers. The best and brightest of the bottom of the barrel."
"They're the scum of the earth," Harry concluded, taking this far better than Gibbons expected.
"And they're programmable, expendable, and they work. I think it's our best shot."
"No," Harry replied sharply, "our best shot is - "
"McGrath's information, fragment though it may be, implies Anarchy 99 intends to strike soon," James interrupted mildly. "I'd be willing to lay money the most we have is a few days. A week at the utmost. Now Gibbons suggestion is.unorthodox, I admit. But it may buy us the time we need." Gibbons crossed his arms in front of his chest and smiled, wide and smug. He had them. "You have to give the orders, Harry; what will it be? Do we want to drop another mouse in the snake pit? Or do we want to send our own snake and let him crawl in?"

The Capital Country Club was known for catering to the most prestigious and influential politicians and businessmen on the west coast. It boasted, among other things, an Olympic size pool, three secluded Jacuzzi nooks, a professional staff of masseurs, a tasteful yet vibrant dance club, a lovingly tended PGA certified golf course, and a clientele that could not swim, dance, or golf if their lives depended on it. Most of their auspicious patrons enjoyed the Yellow Room, an open relaxed arena where they could socialize, enjoy cocktails, and indulge in the communal guilty pleasure that was Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton's Twister.
Such was Richard's intent when he sped up the driveway one charming autumn afternoon. Traces of the Indian summer could still be felt in the golden light and the air still warm enough to drive with the top down. It had been a rotten day so far, but Richard was looking forward to its improvement, due in most part to a certain number of computer generated tornados. His wife was in bed with an absolutely horrible cold that was best served, as she told him, by: "getting out of the freaking house instead of bothering me all day." Richard knew better; she was using the cold as an excuse to cuddle up in bed and watch Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back in a teary-eyed, frilly, feminine double feature, and when he returned she'd be surrounded by a mound of tissues with an empty pot of raspberry tea on the nightstand, right as rain. With the youngest daughter having just flown the nest and Richard not used to being alone, he invited his son and daughter-in-law along, knowing that they would both enjoy the grounds. David regretfully declined, needing to spend the day chained to his desk to manage his books. The boy had always been sharp in math and after opening his own business - garden supplies, who would have figured - he insisted that doing his own books was better than hiring a "scum-sucking accountant". Janelle, however, said she would love to come along as a relief to listening to David yell at the calculator that there was too a square root to 364.
By the time Richard rolled up to the entrance of the CCC he was feeling, for the most part, human. Human, but in a hurry. The next showing of Twister started in a minute and a half, and he hated to miss the opening. But, unlike every other time he'd arrived, Pepe was not there to take his car. Of course, perhaps he did not see the tiny parking attendant, as Pepe was a Little Person. Richard glanced around his car to no avail. "Come on, Pepe," he muttered. "This is unbelievable." He turned his car off and got out, calling, "Hello! Hello?"
The man who responded was definitely not Pepe. For one thing, the height. This man was definitely not an LP, though he was a few inches shy of true intimidation. And unlike Pepe, he had a sullen look on his face, though in all honestly Richard couldn't tell if it was the man's attitude or how his face was all the time. In all honesty he looked like someone dropped him on his head a couple of times as a child.
Richard checked his watch. Uh-oh. Thirty seconds. "Well, it's about time. Now, listen.Where were you coming from - Tijuana? I don't mean to be rude," he apologized quickly. Dammit, he should just buy Twister already and not go through this. "Listen," he continued, "Keep it out of the sun. I don't want the paint to fade. Do you understand English?" Pepe was, oddly enough, Peruvian but fluent in English, Spanish, German, and Ancient Greek. Richard couldn't determine this gentleman's ethnicity. "I pay enough for you people," he finished handing over his car keys.
When he turned to help Janelle out of the car she had that look on her face. She must have learned it from David because it ran through his family. He could have taken her for any one of his genetic daughters or his son in drag. His brain winced, and Richard made a mental note to apologize to the valet on the way out. After Twister. "Come on, Janelle. You're going to love this place."
Fred stopped him by the door, greeting him but his eyes on Janelle. It made little matter to Fred that his wife was standing right next to them. "Dick, how are you?"
"This is Janelle," Richard began, ignoring the fact that Fred refused to stop calling him 'Dick'. "She's my daughter-in-law."
Fred's response was cut off by the screech of tires. They all glance back to see Richard's bright red Corvette spin around and streak out of the parking lot. One of the side mirrors was knocked off as the car raced through a series of columns.
Janelle spoke right before he did, her low steady voice cutting off most of his panic. "Call 911."
"Who's - who's driving my car?" he sputtered.
The car turned a corner and disappeared onto the main road. Richard grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.
"911 Emergency. Who's calling please?"
"Hotchkiss! Senator Hotchkiss! California State Senate! Listen, somebody just stole my car!"

Xander hummed cheerfully to himself as he zipped along the road. It was one of those beautiful days when people spent all day indoors talking about how they should go outside. The roads were empty, though not for long now, and 'I'm A Little Tea Pot' was bouncing around in his head. Xander took a sharp turn without slowing down, his free foot tapping merrily with the melody on the spotless carpeting. Another quarter of a mile and several cars came into view, his people already out and ready to rig the car for the next Astonishing and Death-Defying Stunt of the Amazing Xando! (As Peter liked to refer to them. As Xander pulled in the middle of the cars he quickly switched from 'I'm A Little Tea Pot' to 'Kick Those F&$#ers When They're Down'. If J.J. heard him singing 'tip me over and pour me out' she'd never, ever let him forget it. She'd have it carved on his headstone. His crew was good - well trained and, most important, experienced. In less than five minutes Xander was back on the road, racing past scenic vistas with the cops hot on his trail. Hot on their trail were Byron and Allen, getting some filler shots. The sirens help him stifle any remaining verses of teapot songs and focus. "You, in the red Corvette! Pull over immediately!" Xander grinned. Show time. "Yeah, yeah." He tossed the cameras an exasperated look. "These monkeys are following me because I just took this car. Obviously the car doesn't belong to me, it's not my style." Corvette were a bit too 80's for him; they always made him want to burst out into 'White Wedding'. "It belongs to Dick, Dick Hotchkiss, a California state senator," he continued. "You remember Dick. He tried to ban rap music because he feels that the lyrics promote violence." Xander leaned closer to the camera on the passenger door. "It's music, Dick!"
And now for the part that personally pissed Xander off. "He also wants to pull every video game off every shelf in the country because he feels that the video games diminish the intelligence of our youth." There was no way in hell anyone was going to tell Xander the 68 hours he spent busting his ass to get through Zelda: Ocarina of Time diminished his intelligence or did not make him a better person. "Come on, Dick. It's the only education we got."
He made the turn up to the bridge. Time to wrap it up. "Dick, you're a bad man. And you know what we do to bad men. We punish them. But, since he's already in the California state senate - which is as close to prison as yuppies get - we've thought up something else. Dick, you've just entered the Xander Zone."
Xander picked up his walkie-talkie. "Okay, I'm coming in hot with a side of bacon!" This was the easy part. Everything was set up, the cameras were in place, and his crew was prepared to get their asses out of there before the cops realized what was going on.
The car headed onto the bridge; Xander fixed the gas pedal before stepping up onto the seat. He turned the wheel, heading for the ramp in the middle of the road leading to the edge. With the wind and the noise and the hundred or so foot gulf rapidly approaching the familiar rush of adrenaline hit him, with it the understanding why he did this time and time again instead of being a fricken banker. The car shot off the ramp and over the bridge, straight into a free fall. A sense of weightlessness scooped Xander up and he let himself be lifted up and away from the car. He reached back to his parachute as the car drifted down from under his feet.
What a wonderful day. What a great day. Xander was going to go home and have some pie. This was a great day.
He jerked the cord and the parachute sailed up over his head and snapped open. Black and yellow, matching his outfit and contrasting with the car in a complimentary way. J.J. always insisted on proper color schemes.
And the car fell front first into the ground, rewarding them with a huge fireball as it burst into flames upon impact.
Pete, Gorge, and Aloysius sped up as Xander floated to the ground. Gorge grabbed the camera, capturing Xander's triumphant return to earth.
"Moral is," Xander shouted straight into the camera, "don't be a dick, Dick!"
He touched down. "You guys got the cameras?" Aloysius nodded, helping him drag in his parachute. "All right, let's go, let's go!"
On the bridge above them dozens of cops peered over, identical confused irritated expressions. Aloysius grinned up at them and yelled, "Peace out!"
Yes, Xander decided, he was definitely going to have some pie.

That night, after a stop at his favorite pastry/bread bakery where his Aunt Gina'd given him an extra big slice of blueberry pie - a'la mode, no charge - Xander headed on home. He was feeling very contented and looking forward to an evening of Scooby Doo minus Scrappy. Scrappy was a fricken pain in the ass. He headed up in the elevator, trying to remember where he'd put Scooby Doo and the Mystery at Aunt Maude's Motor Inn, and pulled the door up to a dark, quiet apartment. Hanging his jacket up on the coat hooks, he switched the lights on.
And everybody cheered.
Seemed J.J. had other plans.
Looked like Scooby'd have to wait. Ah, well. Xander smiled for the guests and headed into the throng for proper host mingling. With any luck he'd be able to throw them out of here in a few hours. People rushed over to greet him and congratulate him on the day's work. He deflected with a few thanks and caught J.J.'s eye, knowing the look alone would get her over.
J.J. was one of his oldest friends; when he'd been jumping over cars on his bike as a ten-year-old she was right there with him, selling tickets to the neighborhood kids. She was the only one who could push in front of him in a bathroom line and live to tell the tale, and was able to wear bottle blonde hair like it was the height of fashion. She was one of the sharpest people Xander ever knew, and that included his Uncle Walter, but she played it ignorant when she came over; they both knew what was on his mind. "What's up?"
"You invited these people?"
"Of course not," she replied in her 'how-stupid-do-you-think-I-am' tone. "I came over looking for you and they came over looking for a party. Was I supposed to disappoint them?"
Xander rolled his eyes and J.J. grinned, patting his arm. "That's my boy. I'll hurl them out of a window if it gets too much for you." She shoved him into his guests.
Fortunately Aloysius caught him first. Aloysius was one of those lucky few people who could take a hint and would probably disappear back to his own domicile in twenty minutes. He also insisted on speaking in what he thought was hip slang; for the most part it proved amusing. "That's my dog! What up? Today was off the hook! You're psycho, bro!"
Sam, Aloysius' actual 'bro', picked it up. "Psycho? That was off the chain, man!"
Javier cut the rest of them off. Javier was, as he put it, 'way into biking' and was Xander's highest competition in that arena. "Yo, yo, yo! What's up with that crazy trick that we've been hearing about? Pull that?"
Xander shrugged. "My Superman seat-grab barrel roll?"
"Word."
"I'm still working on it." In reality he wasn't, he just didn't feel like getting into a contest with Javier tonight. Those things were known to go on for days at a time. Xander continued past them, heading for the bar at the back of the room. It looked like the least amount of people were there.
A tiny woman grabbed his arm. She smiled, the movement offsetting her heavy lip liner. Her huge head of fake curls contrasted wither the black dress that was too small even for her. "You're a hard guy to get ahold of, Xander Cage. You know," she said, tossing a look up and down his body, "an athlete like you should really have his own video game. Jordan King. I can make it happen." She handed him her card.
Xander took it, pretending to give the matter serious thought. He found the easiest way to deal with these people was to let them think they'd get what they wanted. "I'm gonna hold onto this for later."
"You do that."
He grinned and kissed her cheek. Oh, yes, it was definitely easier to let them think they'd get what they want.
And then let J.J. handle them.
As he walked away he heard, "You know he's never gonna sell out. That's why he is who he is. So you need to relax. Who invited you, anyway?"
"Excuse - "
"Shut up. Somebody throw her out, please?"
Xander was still laughing over that little exchange when J.J. popped into his view again. She had the 'work' look on her face, meaning they were going to talk business, meaning she was going to tell him to go on vacation. Xander hated vacations. His whole life was a vacation.
"Listen, this is for real," J.J. began. "I can get us an advance on Internet pre-sales. So you need to just go to Pago Pago or something. Get some girls, do them all. I don't care. Go on vacation." The last was almost a beg. It might have qualified as a beg if Xander hadn't know she was fully capable of castrating him with her bare hands at any moment she chose.
"It's Bora Bora, J. I got enough girls here. Since when did you care so much about money?" he teased.
"Look, I just need you to lay low till the heat's off, okay? I gotta an underground website to run. I got tapes to make and I can't do that with you in jail."
He pointed a tv in back of her running the day's stunt. "Did you see that?"
"I don't care." She was weakening. "Listen to me - "
Xander held out his arms. "I'm untouchable."
Obviously the wrong thing to say. Xander watched a lot of action movies, he should have known that. It was stupid, and he didn't think he was that stupid. The words were barely out of his mouth before the lights went out and the windows exploded. A bunch of guys sailed in, and another bunch burst through the front door. All were dressed in high-tech black gear that gave no clue as to what they looked like. They immediately began herding people around, primarily away from Xander and out the door. Shouts of "Let's go!" and "Move!" could be heard above the shrieks and yells of scared party-goers.
Not good. But Xander played it cool. "Okay, okay, I'll turn down the music."
A sharp pain conspired with the sound of a shot, surprising Xander that they'd actually shoot him. However, the pain was much less than he thought. In fact.he pulled out the small metal object stuck to him. A dart.
His knees suddenly got woozy, but he managed a feeble protest before he fell. "It was only a Corvette."

"Let's go, baby. Your order is getting cold."
Xander was never the kind of guy to take his own life. He enjoyed life far too much. And if he occasionally ended up in a situation with more pain that he bargained for, such as the time he broke all the ribs on his left side diving into the ball room at Chuck-E-Cheese, well, he always figured it was worth it. Xander understood that with pleasure came pain, and sooner or later pleasure had to be paid for.
But goddamn did he want a bullet through the head right about now. He hadn't felt this awful since Aaron convinced him to join the Midnight Nude Polar Bear club. Xander, being drunk of his ass at the time, immediately agreed and ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia and a tequila hangover. His head seemed to be caught in an argument over whether to explode or implode, someone was ringing the bells of Notre Dame in his ears, and his stomach was sinking like the Titanic. He didn't even know if he could move.
He tried lifting his head. It worked. Man, he wished it didn't as, he suddenly discovered, movement increased his symptoms exponentially. Xander waited for a second, and when he thought the pain was fading tried again. That was much better.
Only now he could hear. Geez, anything but Muzak.
"Want coffee?"
"Can you give me some hash browns?"
Xander pulled himself up and rubbed his face. He was rapidly feeling better, but with the symptoms dissipating he still felt like fricken Rip Van Winkle.
"Sure."
"Make them sloppy. I like them runny."
Diner. He was in a diner. Not a diner he'd seen before, but diners on the whole were rather safe places to be. Why the hell would those guys leave him in a diner, though? Had the whole SWAT team decided to come in for a bit to eat and forgot about him? Or were they all in the john?
A waitress with a friendly face passed by him after taking an order. Xander caught her eye. "How did I get here?"
She gave him a wry smile that said she'd seen far too much for a drunk bald guy in odd pants to register on her Richter scale. "Two big guys dropped you off ten minutes ago. Told me to look after you. Want some coffee?" she added, almost as an afterthought. "You look like you could use some."
Xander nodded mutely. If there was one thing he knew in this world, it was to never, ever turn down coffee. Coffee was always a good thing.
A strange noise drew his attention in the lessening fog of his mind. He looked over sluggishly and immediately his mind began to clear. The strange noise was the clicks of the waitress' high heels on the tile floor.
Xander took a good look around, forcing himself to focus. He didn't know what the hell was going on, but he needed to find out all he could. Across the isle a man with a perfect profile in a business suit read the Financial Times. He silently filed that away. The waitress rounded the counter to him and poured his coffee with a shaky hand. He filed that too. "You all right?" he asked.
"Fine." She didn't look fine. As she finished pouring she pinned Xander's eyes, then glanced quickly at the man seated next to him. A trucker type who stared straight ahead as he drank his coffee, as if he was trying to remember his lines. The waitress pushed his coffee to him and left. Xander picked up his cup; on a napkin underneath were the numbers '911'.
Xander glanced back over at the trucker, who was now staring directly at him. That was creepy. Xander wondered if it was in the script or that was a little improv on the trucker's part.
"I said, you got a problem, boy?" the trucker demanded.
Well, Xander couldn't remember him saying it the first time, but what the hell? He shook his head. "No. No problem."
The businessman and the trucker exchanged glances. The trucker nodded. Both stood, whipping out weapons; the trucker - a pistol, and the businessman - a shotgun.
"Nobody make a move!"
"Nobody move!"
"Just couldn't let him leave." "Keep your goddamned mouth shut!" They gestured with their guns for everyone to get on the ground. The trucker pointed his gun at Xander's head. Wow. God usually didn't answer his prayers that quickly. "Keep still or you'll stop breathing," the trucker threatened. The business man moved onto the waitress. "Empty the goddamn register! Now! Empty that register!"
Okay, he was starting to get tired of this. So Xander grabbed the truckers arm and jerked it behind his back, then slammed his head into the counter.and the full coffeepot. Immediately the trucker started hollering and crumpled to the ground, holding his face.
The businessman turned to him, shotgun aimed. "Get back! Get back. Get back?" The statement became progressively a question.
Xander grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and smashed it into the businessman's face. The businessman fell to the floor and clutched his nose. It was probably broken. Xander hoped it would heal wrong and disturb his perfect profile.
He turned to leave when applause drew his attention. A black man with a massive scar on the left side of his face and a tastefully expensive suit not seen in most diners sat in a back booth. He'd escaped Xander's notice, but his quiet authority pegged him as the ringleader. "Well done, Mr. Cage."
"Who the hell are you?" Xander replied, slinging the shotgun on his shoulder.
"The name's Gibbons. Augustus Gibbons." He rose, straightened his jacket, and strolled over. "You seem upset. Is there a problem?"
Xander cut straight to it. He was tired of fooling around. "What is this place?"
"Looks like a diner."
He grinned. "That's clever. You know you almost had me going there for a while," Xander admitted. This seemed to peak Gibbons' interest, so he continued. "I was a bit groggy before, then I started noticing thing. Like, you got a stockbroker over here, all dressed up, reading the Financial Times on a Sunday when the market's closed. Unlikely, but okay, I can go with that. I could even go with the stick-up man packing a cop- issue Beretta. It's known in a few circles that carrying a cop-issue is a sign of achievement, though unlikely Jim-Bob here would socialize in those circles. "But you want to know where you blew it? With her." Xander pointed to the waitress. "My aunt has been in the restaurant business all her life. There's no way in hell a career waitress comes to work in high heels. She'd have blisters the size of pancakes before lunch. And if she ain't real, then this whole thing ain't real." Xander was starting to enjoy this. It was a show of his own. If he had sparklers and couple of dancing doxen they could go on the road. "That's how I knew that this bozo over here wouldn't get a shot off even if we waited till St. Patrick's Day." He cocked and fired the gun at the menu on the wall. Four dollars for hash browns, my ass. Unfortunately, the price stayed. "Cause there's nothing but blanks in these guns." He tossed the gun on the counter, adding with a touch of humor, "Oh, and no offense but their performances were terrible."
Gibbons surprised him again. He laughed. He obviously had a great dentist because his teeth were flawless. "That's good. That's very good." He sounded impressed. Xander didn't know why, but he liked the idea of impressing this man. Particularly since he was just being his charming jackass self. "It's your turn," Xander said, "pretty boy. What the hell is going on here?"
"It was a test, Mr. Cage, that you aced." His smile was still there, though the 'pretty boy' comment diminished it significantly. Xander filed that away.
"He seems to have a poor attitude." Xander glanced back; a fresh- faced man about his age strode up the isle giving him a bare once-over. He stopped next to Xander but addressed Gibbons.
"Excuse me?" Xander demanded.
"Should we throw him back?"
"Hell, no," Gibbons replied, heading past them to the other side of the diner. "I love his attitude. Let's take this to the next level. Get on the Sat-Com."
"Take what to the next level?" Xander called after him.
Gibbons continued as if he hadn't spoken. "I want a full debrief in two hours."
"Yo! Take what?"
"I want everybody out in ten minutes."
"I don't know who you think you're playing with," Xander said, backing up to the door, "I don't play this game."
"Get Mike a doctor; don't want him looking like me."
"I got a party to go to."
Gibbons nodded towards Xander. "Shut him up." He sighed. "Why is it always the assholes who pass the tests?"
"And don't forget to pay for my windows!"
That was when the waitress pulled out a gun and shot him the second time in - it must have been the same number of days. Xander checked; there was a sharp twinge as he pulled the dart out. Yup. Same one. Dammit, why didn't they just got for the painless approach and shoot him in the head?

That's it, Xander thought as he regained consciousness with all the grace and ease of a drunken yak trying to belly dance, I'm going to die. If this goddamn fricken dart coma thing doesn't end it for me in the next five minutes I'm going to chew my own head off. I've kept up to date on those yoga classes J.J. forced me into, I should be flexible enough to do that.
He blinked. Where he sat.okay.from where he was chained to the floor the sun was in his eyes. The floor, come to think of it everything around him, was shaking with a deep steady rumble, like a starving lion. Like he was on a plane.
Xander's head cleared incrementally. Perhaps that was because he was on a plane. A cargo plane at that.
He had a terrible feeling he was the cargo.
An assortment of armed personnel mingled by the cockpit, chatting in a casual and cheerful manner as they prepped their gear and smeared on the classic black-and-green army look. Not a good sign. Next to him, a couple of guys were bound to the floor like him. Both with shorn hair, like his. Were they targeting bald guys? On second glance, (Xander immediately tagged them Zip and Pip for clarification purposes, as he just saw Down With Love two weeks ago and was a closet fan of Great Expectations) Pip had a nice helping of fuzz on his head; as it was platinum blonde and Xander was groggy he didn't notice it right away. Zip was Mr. Clean clean-shaven; his well tended skull indicated he was snatched up the same time as Xander.
Xander caught Zip and Pip's eyes and grinned to himself. "You guys haven't been to any diners lately, huh?"
Pip and Zip shared a look and shook their heads, laughing. "Diner finalists," Zip announced. "And I thought we were going to win a car, not a vacation."
A second or two later the soldiers stopped talking and headed straight for them. Business time.
Four soldiers helped them to their feet and roughly shoved them to the back of the plane. "Here we go, boys."
"Where's my peanuts?" Xander demanded, following the not-so-gently shoves. "Can you ask for the stewardess?" Parachutes were strapped onto them then hooked to the floor. He felt the plane dip. They were getting ready to drop the cargo.
The radio hissed to life in the cockpit. "Standing by to deploy drogue."
"Roger," the pilot announced, "deploying drogue parachute."
One Buck Rogers off to the side jerked a lever and the bottom slowly opened up. "This is gonna hurt!" Buck announced.
As one, Pip, Zip, and Xando the Magnificent glanced backwards then stared as the back hatch opened up to reveal a sun-baked scraggly forest. Though Xander was quite familiar with hot, sunny places he'd never been here before. Wherever it was.
"What the hell?" Pip murmured.
A white parachute shot out and the plane glided to the ground with a jostle. Xander turned back to the far too smug soldiers. What the hell indeed.
Another crackle from the radio. "Release drogue now."
"Roger."
Mr. Rogers jerked another lever. Line started zipping out the back, onto the dry brown earth. Pip clutched a handle, panic touching his face. "This ain't right, man!" he shouted to no one in particular. "This ain't right!"
No really? Xander thought it was the most proper thing in the world to be kidnapped, put in a fake diner, kidnapped again, then put in a plane and dropped into a foreign region for.who knows what. He did it every day! He liked to get it done before breakfast.
The smug soldiers waved 'bye-bye' to the little bald men. Xander could have easily decapitated them with his bare hands. Of course, he recognized that as not simply his masculine pride, but a rather healthy dose of fear. Army personnel though this seemed to be, and the logical part of his mind insisted they would be quite familiar with their equipment, especially when using it on civilians, Xander had an iron clad rule to never let anyone prep or even touch his equipment before a stunt. That way, if he fell to his death or suddenly exploded for some reason, there was no one to blame but himself. But with no options available to him Xander simply satisfied himself with bellowing, "I live for this shit!'
Yes. That would indeed show them.
Because it was about that time he was yanked forcibly backwards, out of the plane. He rolled to a quick stop on the rough ground, the hot pebbles working its way under his clothes. Crap. He was never going to get all the sand out of the nooks and crannies. Xander immediately got to his feet and wiped off his face, the familiar rush sweeping through him, as if he had just chugged a barrel of Boost. "Not bad!"
And the plane soared off, leaving them in the dust.
Xander grinned. "Let's do that again!"
Zip and Pip looked at him like he was nuts. So Xander repressed his little happy dance.
Once they got up and stabilized - Zip's legs were a little shaky after their landing - they picked a random direction and headed off. It was not a long walk but it felt like it, particularly because Pip cut Zip off rather abruptly right as he was getting into a rendition of "This Is The Song That Never Ends", a particularly moving rendition if Xander did say so himself. Pip's rudeness was understandable, though; Xander was enjoying a general 'amusement at life's oddities but he knew not everyone shared that point of view.
Apparently Zip was T.J. and Pip was Verg. Xander responded to their introductions cordially - jumping out of an airplane with someone tended for form a bond, especially if leaving the airplane was not one's choice - but he preferred Zip and Pip. T.J. and Verg just didn't give off the happy joy-joy feelings of the Rhyming Duo. But it did amuse him to later learn - after Virg had grown a bit delirious because of the heat, and T.J. affable because of the conversation - that his companions' hip nicknames actually stood for Thaddeus Johan Eisenwhit and Virgil Mortimoore. Not one to leave his buddies hanging like that, Xander quickly confessed he was, on all legal documentation, Alexander Harrington Cage IV. The group quickly agreed Xander had the sweetest end of the stick, and promised that if any should reveal what they heard today the other two were fully justified in killing them.
Verg's demeanor took a turn for Happy Land, however, when they came upon the cocaine field.
The workers ran off before they set foot anywhere near the fields. From what Xander saw of their backs the staff was comprised mostly of little kids and elderly people. Cries of "Gringos!" and "Andale!" burst out of the greenery as the bushes rattled back and forth, reminiscent of the raptor introduction in The Lost World. Truly terrible movie, but truly creepy scene. "Holy shit," Verg muttered. "This is Colombia. Not the college, man, the country!"
"How'd you figure that one out?" T.J. inquired wryly.
Verg ignored him. Verg apparently ignored most everything. "Cocaine, man. Those are coke plants!"
"Great," Xander said, rubbing his hands as if he whole-heartedly agreed with Verg. "I love Coke. It's so much better than Pepsi. Though I have to admit, I was a fan of Crystal Pepsi. Never should have taken that stuff off the market."
T.J. chuckled. Verg shot him a confused look, then gave up on trying to understand his companion's enigmatic speech and dashed across a shallow pond to the edge of the field. He immediately began breaking off branches and stuffing them into his pockets. Xander paid him little mind, it was best to give idiots as little attention as possible, but went directly to the rickety yellow vehicle and checked the ignition. "No keys." Dammit.
"What the hell are you doing?" T.J. demanded, glaring at Verg.
"You know what this shit's worth on the street?"
"Not exactly what he meant," Xander replied, subtly rolling his eyes. "The guys who own this field aren't going to be happy with you tearing it up for pocket change."
As if to emphasis his point, trucks barreled down the dirt paths between the neatly trimmed plants, dust rising up in the sky under the churning wheels and nearly obscuring the trucks altogether.
"What now?" Verg yelled at the approaching trucks. "Is this another test?"
"Let's go across the river," T.J. suggested. "Let's go!"
"Yeah, good idea. Good idea!" Xander called after their retreating figures. He stayed put. Xander was tired of playing these games. He just wanted to go home and watch Scooby. So he waited patiently as a group of shabbily uniformed me circled him on scooters. They were hairy and smelly and covered in dirt - these cops took their roles seriously. One man in particular came up to him; he was a good foot taller than Xander, and had more than enough hair to make up for Xander's lack of it.
"Guess you monkeys are just too good for me," Xander said. "Guess I failed this test."
The man grinned, showing off a front row of shiny gold teeth.
Xander turned, putting his hands on his head. "You guys got something to drink?" Hey, maybe they had some Crystal Pepsi. Cops were supposed to be able to get stuff like that.
He'd find out later, because right then Gold Tooth rammed the butt of his gun into the back of Xander's head. Turns out it was just as effective as those little darts.

Well, he had to give them something. The blow to the back of the head was far more compassionate than the little green dart. Instead of the all- consuming fog of pain that made him want to claw out his brain with a plastic spoon, there was on centralized piercing sensation at the base of his skull, as if someone was poking around in there with an extra-long ice pick. He had to say, of the two choices, he preferred this.
Of course, on top of that his shoulders were about to dislocate as he was hanging by his arms from a wooden beam. His eyes adjusted to the dim light, and Xander made out forms, then faces, of T.J. and Verg. He smiled as best he could with a bitch of a headache, a laugh escaping awkwardly. "Nice to see you again, fellas."
Verg looked up at him like he was an idiot. "Mah, mu-mu." His mouth was duct taped.
"Boy, they went all out on this one, huh?" Xander muttered, swinging back and forth like a Christmas ornament.
Wind swept quietly past the thin tin walls, and a car - probably an SUV considering the engine - pulled up outside. A single car door opened and closed. Voices, speaking too softly for Xander to catch. He was fluent in Spanish, but he all he caught clearly was 'que' 'hombres' and 'gringos'.
They were about to make a new friend. Xander didn't think it'd be Big Bird.
The doors opened and shut, bringing a shadowy figure into the room. The figure moved into the light and paused.
It was a man, small, with a greasy ponytail and mustache, and a face like a road map. Obviously they did not believe in moisturizer here. The man reached up and removed his sunglasses in the most menacing fashion.
The rhyming duo started laughing. Xander alone did not find this amusing. He was really tired, in both the sense that he wanted to go to bed and the sense that he didn't want to learn any new ways to render someone unconscious. He shook his head. "You got to be kidding."
Teeny either didn't get the joke or didn't find it as amusing. He strode past Verg, kicking his ankles hard enough to stop the laughter. "Okay, funny guys." He had a heavy accent; pretty good for a cop who's closest association with Columbia was probably Juan Valdez. Teeny headed to a table in the back and jerked a cloth off of it. Xander watched him out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't see what was on the table. "I'll show you what we do with funny guys who get in our business." He picked up something, metal clanged against metal.
Now Xander laughed. "What, hog-tie us and force us to listen to your bad accent?"
T.J. and Verg giggled best they could through the duct tape.
The tiny man laughed with them. That didn't make Xander feel good. "No," Teeny replied with a charming smile. He carried a machete covered in red smears; Teeny ran the blade along Xander's ankles. "We cut their Achilles tendon and watch them flop around like a marionette. Unless," he added, a threat in his words, "you have something to tell me, something I need to know?"
"Okay," Xander replied. "You're short."
Verg nearly fell over with laughter. With his chains he hung awkwardly at a forty-five degree angle.
"My friend says you could use a hair cut to update your style," Xander finished. "Get off me."
Teeny nodded thoughtfully, then kicked Pip to the floor, bellowing, "Shut up!"
"Two seconds ago you told us to talk. Now it's 'shut up'?" Xander grinned. Come to think of it, he was actually enjoying this thing. It was kinda fun. He'd have to work it into his next gig. "I don't mean to nitpick, but you're the worst at this torture thing."
Teeny smiled again, which Xander was beginning to understand was a bad thing, and punched him hard enough to send him swinging around comically.
Xander's amusement died quickly. "You slap me again, I'm going to throw you a beating."
The tiny man seemed to take this as a challenge. He slapped him again. Around Xander went the other way.
"Boy, I hope they're paying you extra for this," he murmured. Verg shifted uncomfortably; even J.J. knew not to mess with him when he used that voice.
Teeny grabbed his shirt, held him in place, and raised the tip of the blade to Xander's nose. "You know what, funny guy? Maybe I'll cut off your nose first. Huh? Funny guy."
Xander only really paid attention to about half of that. Because by the time Itsy-Bitsy got to 'cut', Xander realized what was bothering him about the situation. And it was a bad realization. A five-year-old's 'girls are different that boys' realization, as opposed to a sixteen-year- old's 'girls are different than boys' realization. "What's funny is," he said, more for T.J. and Verg's benefit than anything else, "this actually smells like real blood."
Teeny grinned triumphantly, glad to finally have gotten through to these idiots. "I hope you like it, because it's the last thing you're gonna smell."
If Xander was in a more jovial mood, he might have suggested the Jolly Green Giant getting some better come-backs - he might have even pointed him to a couple of helpful movies. Maybe later. For now he caught T.J.'s eye; T.J. nodded.
Teeny swung back to slice off his.whatever and Xander reacted quickly, kicking him in the chest. Teensy tumbled to the floor and T.J. pinned him, driving a knee into his abdomen. As T.J. handled the pint- sized warlord, Xander hooked his legs onto the beam above him and unhooked his hands. He jumped down and wrapped his bindings around Itsy's neck, pulled him off of T.J., and slammed his head into a post. Teeny went down.
.at the same time the gunfire erupted. They all ducked. Another sound beat rhythmically in the background of the bullets: helicopters. The shed was not a safe place to be. Xander yanked off his bonds easily enough and headed for T.J.; Virg was already making his way to the door as T.J. had yet to get up. He yelled something through the tape, but the shots and confusion overwhelmed it. Xander pulled off the sliver tape, like taking off a Band-Aid. "I'm hit!" T.J. gasped. Blood oozed from his knee, and Xander was pretty sure the bone was not supposed to bend that way.
Virg came running back towards them. Through the open doors Xander could see helicopters taking out vehicles and anyone they could see properly. "Virg! Give me a hand!" he shouted, unknotting Virg's wrists. Together they were able to get T.J. up and moving.
A stream of Spanish came loud and echoing, over a speaker. Virg glanced up, his eyes darting around. "What? What is it, man?"
"The Colombian army," Xander muttered.
"Shit, man! Man, this is total shit!"
"Virg!" Xander bellowed. The other man quieted instantly. "We gotta get out of here." Xander half-carried, half-dragged the injured man to the door, which was much more difficult than it sounded, even considering the door was less than ten feet away. "Try to walk, T.J. Try to walk. Virg! Get out here!"
Virg appeared momentarily, clutching a bag of cocaine as big as his head. "To hell with this," he declared, rather like Jean Val Jean, only.not. "Every man for himself."
And off he went.
Xander didn't waste time thinking about it. Obviously T.J. was not going anywhere on his own. Xander shifted him so he rested on his shoulders and scuttled out into the open, doing some sort of half-sideways- run thing in an attempt to keep T.J. steady and dodge the increasingly frequent passes of the helicopters. He headed for the bushes, the only place with marginal cover and safety.
When a huge fireball unfurled, blossomed like one of his mother's rose bushes, just to their left, Xander and T.J. ignored it by silent mutual agreement.
Crouching in the sparse brush, Xander set his companion down as gently as he could manage. T.J. stifled a groan in a very manly fashion; the Board of Testosterone and Masculine Decorum was sure to award bonus points for that. "I'm gonna get us some wheels." Xander glanced around to make sure the way was clear and patted T.J. on the shoulder. But in perfect heterosexual fashions, according to section 47 of the Board's manual - Rules for Straight Guys. "Hang in there."
T.J. nodded, his fingers clenched around the worst of his leg to staunch the bleeding. "Good luck."
Xander headed back out into the open before his mind could enter in various logical points, such as the enormous number of bullets that were whizzing through the air at this particular moment. Apparently the Colombian Army wasn't one for long heartfelt talks. He hurried past the panicking drug dealers, running his eyes back and forth quickly, trying to locate anything that could be used to get the hell out of there. He race back to the shed, along the perimeter. He hit luck in the back. Trucks - old, but sturdy enough. And, the most important thing, they were there!
And in the next moment, thanks to the Colombian Army, they weren't! Course, as a guy, he had to appreciate the sheer power and aesthetic qualities of the explosion, but practically thinking it screwed him over royally.
Xander rushed back into the open and dashed across the camp. The helicopters turned in a wide arc, giving him some time to move. As the copters passed over again Xander ducked by an up-turned truck. Flames licked the tires, but Xander judged he was in little danger of witnessing another explosion. He raked his eyes across the buildings, the rubble, the fields -
He smiled.
Cradled in shadows, by the edge of the coke fields, was a bike. It looked roughed up, but okay. Xander hurried to it, lest the Colombian Army decide they hadn't blown up enough stuff, and raced off.
He was a good way down the field when the helicopters turned back and headed in his direction. Xander glanced back and hunkered down, hoping his dark jacket and the shadows would make it hard for them to see.
No such luck. Twin trails of fire shot down by his bike, clouds of dust rising up on either side as the bullets hit the earth, like a twisted escort. Xander kept as straight as possible as the fire and the helicopters edged in front of him, then arced backwards as they reached the end of the field.
Soon as they were out of range Xander began shouting for T.J. No response, but he could have not heard it over everything that was happening. There was still another portion of the field left to cover.
And the helicopters came back.
Why were they so focused on him? There were lots of other, more interesting people to shoot at. As they closed in he headed for the fence circling the perimeter. It was tall and, like most else around here, heading towards ancient. It shouldn't be too difficult to overcome. Xander pressed on the accelerator, leaning back on the bike to give him the leverage he needed.
Turns out he didn't need that much. Another little incline on the gas and the bike took off like a rocket. Sailed him straight up and forward. Xander expertly twisted the bike in the air, sliding horizontally through the barbed wire.
The landing was easier than he expected. Xander skidded along, just outside the compound. Helpfully, one of the few remaining drug lords had gotten atop a tower and started firing at the helicopters, which took focus off of Xander.
"X! I'm over here! X!" T.J. rose out of the bushes as best he could, waving his arms in a desperate attempt get his attention. Xander nodded, turning the bike. Unfortunately the commando on the rooftop noticed as well and started firing in T.J.'s direction. Xander pressed on the gas and leaned back on his bike, sending it in the air a second time. And just before he plowed into the fatigued commando, Xander noted it was his friend from earlier. Goldtooth. Hmm. Small world.
Goldtooth landed just a few moments before Xander. Sadly, Mr. Tooth had nothing to break his fall.
Okay, the helicopters were definitely following him, Xander decided as he raced down a meager path through the cocaine bushes. He didn't really care why, he was pretty sure he wouldn't find out. He was just finding it rather annoying and wanted it to stop. Xander headed across the camp - he'd been back and forth enough times by now he could have crossed it in his sleep - leading the copters away from T.J. Last thing that guy needed was another bullet. Past burning vehicles, past the last stand for the coke dealers, past the main building. Xander turned and slid to a stop. He glanced at the building. The roofs were the right angles and the upturned car would give him the right lift he needed.
Xander thought about it. He was stupid enough to attempt it, and it was stupid enough to work.
No choice. Helicopters were headed his way. Xander floored it, sending the bike up the car and flying over the roof. The helicopters fired, exploding - yes, that was right, exploding; what the hell did those Columbians store in their skeezy back-water cocaine field headquarters, anyway? - the building. Xander felt the heat eating up his back; he was never going to be able to wear this jacket again. It was a good coat and had been through a lot, but he had a feeling this was it for the lad.
He flew along the porch, touching down with relative safety and for the first time thankful he shaved his head regularly. If he had hair it would be on fire at this point.
But first things first. Xander twisted, dragging the bike to its side, and skimmed into a large section of tubing. He watched the helicopters soar over head, circle once, then disappear into the night. Xander peaked his head out to check; they were gone. In the confusion he quickly located T.J. Xander dropped the bike and hurried to him. A glance told him his companion was no worse for his wait. "I got us a bike."
T.J.'s eyes were grim. He shook his head.
The bushes around them rose. Not bushes. Men, dressed as bushes. Dressed as well-armed bushes.
As they grabbed him only one through escaped into words. "Pussies!"

Xander easily recognized the figure crossing the rubble of the grey morning. He sat on a chunk of burned car, quiet as could be considering his arms were handcuffed behind him at an angle that was most certainly screwing up his bone structure, framed on either side by a de-bushed soldier. Their fatigues were lighter, because of the heat, but not their guns.
As Gibbons approached Xander glanced over at one of the soldiers, looking for some support. A connection - hey, buddies, we're all in this together. No such luck. "Look who it is. Frankenstein." Gibbons smiled, acknowledging it as he stopped in front of the prisoner. Xander shrugged, burying an urge to return the smile. Guy was a jackass and probably responsible for all the crap Xander'd just gone through, but he didn't seem too bad of a guy. "Uncuff me so I can beat the hell out of you."
"Relax, X," Gibbons replied, "you just graduated at the head of your class."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Xander demanded, charging to his feet. If there was one thing that pissed him off, it was careless treatment of life. If he wanted to risk his own life, that was his choice and nobody else's. "You almost got us killed out there!"
"We knew the Columbian Army was moving in," came a new voice Xander cast a look aside. It was the fresh-faced man again. He looked remarkably chipper for being in the middle of the smoldering ruins of a Colombian drug ring this early in the morning. "Excuse me?" Aside from being perky he was smug too. "It was my idea to send you as a decoy. How do you like tha - " The fresh-faced man didn't manage the last part of his thought, seeing as Xander head butted him. He went flying back, sprawled spread-eagle on ground. Probably ruining his J.Crew tastefully color-coordinated outfit.
Next thing he knew, Xander was on his knees. And being on his knees was not the best location considering how many fierce looking men with guns were around him. Still, he maintained his cool. "Pretty fast for an old man," he tossed at Gibbons. Because naturally Gibbons would seize the chance to hit him above anyone else.
"See what I mean, Gibbons!" the not-so-fresh-faced man yelled, scrambling to his feet; a clumsy maneuver as he tried to keep his hands protectively covering his nose. "Harry's right - La - "
"Todd, I think you'd better get that nose looked at," Gibbons interrupted.
"Get up." The amusement was gone from Gibbons' eyes. Damn. Xander hated when people started to mean business. Meant they were in danger of getting serious.
With not much of a choice, Xander got up.
"Walk with me."
Xander walked.
"You know I'm the kind of guy that believes under the right circumstances, a man can change," Gibbons began, strolling along as if he were in a garden or at a street fair. "For instance, last night you exhibited courage, leadership, and a willingness to protect a man you hardly knew."
Xander didn't think it was the time to mention T.J.'s offer to let Xander visit his Hawaiian mansion, complete with pineapple shaped hot tub and eight-foot walk in closet in every room. Instead he remarked, "So give me a medal."
"I'd rather give you a job."
Xander stopped; Gibbons halted at the same time. "Look at me. Do I look like a fan of law enforcement?"
"This is your lucky day, Alexander." Gibbons grinned and kept moving; Xander stayed put for as long as he could manage then tottled along after him. "This is your chance to pay back your Uncle Sam for all your wonderful freedoms you enjoy. The job's not that difficult. I just want you to meet some people and find out whatever you can about them."
"What type of people?" He was so not joining the circus. Xander hated the circus. Fricken elephants.
"Dangerous, dirty, tattooed, uncivilized. Your kind of people."
Honestly it sounded like fun. But Xander wasn't going to let himself get carried away. He moved in front of Gibbons, cutting him off. "Hold up." Xander took a moment to consider the appropriate response and finished, "My kind of people would say: kiss my ass, scarface."
Gibbons passed off the rejoinder without acknowledgment. "See, this is usually the part where I'd take my gun, press it to your temple, and ask you very politely to do what I want. Politeness gets you everywhere in this world, don't you think?"
"Yeah, sure. Would you please kiss my ass, Mr. Scarface?"
"But," Gibbons continued, "you're not the type that's afraid of death. You're afraid of life, so the end of it shouldn't cause too much alarm. That puts us in a quandary. You are familiar with what 'quandary' means, aren't you?"
"Naturally. I play a mean game of Scrabble," Xander replied, hoping he was as skilled at ignoring the cutting remarks as his friend there. "Guess we better call this a day, then."
"Not just yet." Gibbons moseyed up to him, his manner relaxed but his eyes focused with an almost dangerous intent. "You ever watch lions at the zoo?" His voice dropped to a sweetly ominous lull. "You can always tell which were captured in the wild by the look in their eyes. The wild cat. It's always the female; she's the one that tracks, that hunts, that kills, that nurtures. The male just lies around waiting for food. Some people think of it as misogynistic, but I see it as so wholly appropriate. Species aren't that far apart, don't you think?" Gibbons didn't wait for him to reply. "She remembers running across the plain, the thrill of the hunt. Four hundred pounds of killing fury locked in a box. But after a while their eyes glaze over and you can tell their soul has died. "The same thing happens to a man. Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary is no joke, Alexander. They'll take a wild man like you and throw him in solitary just for the fun of it. No more mountains to board, no more oceans to surf. Nothing to take you away from the fact that you are a little man with no idea what to do with your life. Just a six-by-eight cell with no window and only a bucket to crap in." Gibbon's voice suddenly took a turn for a lighter. "But you can avoid that by doing me this small favor." "You don't have shit on me," Xander growled. "I noticed you have three X's tattooed on the back of your neck," Gibbons replied, strolling around Xander. "I think that's rather appropriate since you're looking at three strikes. Grand theft, reckless endangerment, and that little bridge stunt of yours makes you a three time loser. Maybe you ought to call yourself 'Triple X'. But," he finished, making it sound oh- so simple, "if you do what I want, I'll make all your little recent criminal transgressions go away and let you get back to that pathetic excuse of a life." "Or you think maybe I should be like you," Xander challenged, though his voice was weaker than he'd like. It was difficult for him to look at Gibbons so he forced himself to. "Get all shot up for the old Stars and Stripes. I bet that flag is a real comfort every time you look in the mirror." Gibbons' spine tensed minutely and he stepped forward, his words sharp and bitter enough to inflict scars of their own. "A small price I paid for putting foot to ass for my country." He walked away, to the edge of what little space they had, as if he needed space of his own. "Don't tell me you're afraid of this," he taunted, brushing a finger across his marred cheek. The mildness of his voice egged Xander on even more. "I hate to break it to you, Mr. Cage, but you aren't exactly in the running for Miss America yourself."
"I ain't afraid of nothing!" Xander spit out.
He didn't think Gibbons bought it. "Is that so? Well, let me reassure you on that score at least. Should you decide you don't want to spend the prime of your life in a cell half the size of my walk-in closet and agree to this little favor, there is a program in place designed to increase the possibility of your survival. Bear in mind I said increase, not guarantee."
Xander thought back quickly. "That's what Todd was talking about. The 'lah'."
Gibbons grinned. "I think you'll do just fine, Alexander. What my associate was referring to was the - hey, Bob! Don't do that, don't do that thing there!" Gibbons waved a random guy away from a hunk of rubble. The guy, Bob, Xander supposed, looked around as if he wasn't sure who Gibbons was yelling at. Then he shrugged and moved away from the pile. "Todd was referring to the.Latent Attack Reserve Array - or L.A.R.A if you prefer anachronisms. Or 'Lara' if you're lonely for female companionship. Chances are you're not even going to need to use it. "So, what's it going to be, Triple X?" Gibbons called back to him, his impatience for an answer overshadowed by his polite, civilized tone. "You want to get on a plane, take a trip, meet a few people.or is 'would you please kiss my ass, Mr. Scarface' your final answer?" Xander was silent for a while. Two equally unappealing choices. He never saw himself as a patriotic man. Then again, he never saw himself as a prison man either. Patriotism, prison, patriotism, prison. God Almighty, he hated the letter 'P'.
There was nothing else to do. So Xander swallowed his pride - fricken' 'P' again - and called out, "I fly first class!"

He flew coach. And not just regular coach, but the ass end of coach, the seats that no one would want to fly in if they were paid and held at gunpoint.
In first class they had a choice between lobster and Welsh rare bit. In second class - pasta primavera or New York Strip steak. In coach it was Unidentifiable Meat Object Number One or Number Two. Xander's seat, as it turned out, had not been purchased with the meal option. But Tammy, the stewardess, had given him an extra packet of peanuts after a half-hour of assuring her he was not allergic to peanut oil.
They didn't even get a movie. Cheap bastards.
Which was fine. Xander was finding plenty to occupy his time with, surveying the data Gibbons set along about Anarchy 99. And at least he could use his computer, and there was no large smelly person sitting nearby. That in itself put this trip above numerous others.
The plane was silent, most of the passengers gone to sleep a while ago. Xander enjoyed the quiet and the dark, and the illusion of solitude that went with both. Cheering the gloomy passage, in his CD player Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber translated and sang (respectively) The Dance Of The Cucumber - with Larry dressed in Authentic Argentinean Garb.
"What game is that?"
Xander pulled out his earphones and looked up. A young man, in his teens, blonde hair, kinda chubby, stood by the bathrooms - which were located directly behind Xander's seat. "What game are you playing?" the young man repeated with the amiability of one gamer to another.
Telling the truth was out of the question. An impulse came and went, carrying Xander on its crest. "Anarchy 99."
He made to put his earphones back in and the kid headed down the isle, presumably back to his folks. Xander hesitated, then took his earphones back out. "What's the matter, can't sleep?"
The kid grinned, reminding Xander in an instant of someone he knew when he was much younger. "I'm stuck between my mom and step-dad, who snores."
Xander laughed, the sound coming out as a single expulsion of air. The kid nodded, and turned back.
"Come back here, sit down, check this out." Okay, so his invite had more the taste of an order, but the kid seemed to get it and headed back with a promptness that said he was grateful for the summons. Though the seat across the isle was empty the kid chose instead to sit on the arm rest, hands on his knees, so he could lean in and get a better look.
"Is it first person shooter?" he asked.
Xander played with the keys, seeing what information there was to be had that he hadn't ferreted out already. "Unfortunately yeah. Your guy's an undercover agent who deals in stolen cars."
"Cool." Only teenagers could say cool and make it sound as if it were the highest compliment to be had. "So Anarchy 99 must be the bad guys, then."
Xander nodded, licking his lips anxiously. "99. It says here that's how many people they killed taking over a crime syndicate. In one night." Xander hesitated, murmuring, "This might be harder than I thought."
He ran the file of photos, black and white shots clearly taken far away and with subjects unaware. Lots of big, bulky men, but to be fair some skinny, scrawny men. And a good deal of women. Women who seemed incapable of wearing proper clothing. Anarchy 99 seemed to think of scantily clad females as not simply proper but vital interior d├ęcor. Not that Xander was complaining.
"Damn!" the kind muttered. He caught Xander's eye and quickly amended. "Uh.I mean.nice.social group - they have going."
Xander grinned. Yeah, this kid definitely reminded him of someone. "They're hot," he admitted, then asked, "You got a girlfriend? No?"
The kid smiled through his denial. "No."
"Nothing wrong with appreciating some beautiful graphics," Xander remarked.
The kid nodded. "What weapons do you have?"
"Let's see, what weapons." Xander accessed the list of weapons. The 'inventory' promptly appeared on screen and scrolled quickly to display all. Damn. So that was where the money for his first class seat went. He grinned. "Just about anything I want."
"Sweet," the kid commented. Sweet almost ranked as high as cool.
Xander's smiled faded but he kept up good humor for the kid's sake. "Gonna be tough, though." His voice died down to where he wasn't sure the kid heard him. "I never played this game before and I gotta get it right the first time." He glanced at the kid and fibbed easily, "No game short, no strategy guide - "
"Dude, that's medieval."
"Yeah," Xander agreed, swallowing a smile. Both paused as someone pushed past them to the bathrooms. "Hey, you better get back over there before your step-father comes over here and I gotta drop him or something."
The kid laughed and headed off, pausing a few seats down. "What does your guy get out of it when he finishes?"
Xander shook his head. "I don't know."
"I bet by then he gets something out of it," the kid said, turning away.
Xander shouldn't have asked; he couldn't help it. "Like what?"
The kid stopped and thought, but the answer came to him as naturally as it didn't come to Xander. "He gets to be the hero."
Just as simple as that.
And the kid returned to his seat.

Prague, Czech Republic Prague was a beautiful, historic city with much to offer its guests, but as Xander had a vicious headache nursed into fruition by serious jet lag and over eighteen hours of an empty stomach he didn't give a rat's ass. It was bitterly cold, the kind of cold that was a living thing, forcing its way inside the car, swallowing them whole and then pointing and laughing. The tiny car in which he rode had no heating. Come to that it had no seatbelts either; Xander had the feeling he was lucky it had doors.
He rode in the back; if it wasn't for the crappy car he could have leaned back and played make-believe that he was a rich mogul on a long ride to clear his head of Dom Perigone and extravagant evenings. The two men that picked him up sat in the front, large and silent. Like potatoes. Xander tried his hand at cordiality. "Yo. What's your name, slick?" The driver glanced in the rear-view mirror. "My name is Ivan," he replied, a hint of pride in the name. "Ivan?" Xander hadn't expected to meet an Ivan this fast. "What's your name, buddy?" he called to the other guy over the dying transmission. The second gentleman turned around to meet Xander's eye. He had a day's shadow of beard and looked like a guy who ate red meat straight off the bone. "My name is Ivan." Xander waited a beat before asking the obvious question. "You're both Ivan?" As one the men grinned and nodded, their heads bobbing up and down like Bobble-Heads. The car slipped along the streets, taking Xander past increasingly solitary roads until it turned down one alley and stopped in front of a building that had to be, Xander determined, the butt-end of Prague. From the outside it was the kind of place homeless wouldn't enter even to save themselves from frostbite and certain death. Inside didn't look much better. The Ivan's helped him with his bag, muttering in Russian as they did. Down a corridor and through a door was a dingy room, sparsely furnished, with a tiny, smarmy man with a rat-like face sitting in wait. He rose as they entered, giving Xander a cursory glance and word. "Take a seat." Immediately he turned to Ivan and Ivan, speaking softly in Russian. Xander had no idea what was going on, but he was sharp enough to know the smarmy man didn't like him. He gave them a moment or two before clearing his throat. "Guys, what's up?" The smarmy man turned back to him, clearly annoyed at the interruption by this idiot American who had no idea what was going on. "I told you to sit down." "I've just been on a plane for 12 hours. I think I'll stand, thanks." The tiny man absorbed and, if not accepted, seemed to tolerate this. "My name is Milan Sova. Czech secret police. Here, you are under my jurisdiction." With his accent it sounded like 'my yurisdiction'. "You take my orders, you do what I say. If you become any kind of an inconvenience, I'll shoot you." Does he think this actually works on people? Xander exhaled and nodded. "That's great. Is this where I'm staying?" Milan glanced back at the Ivan's and continued, following Xander around the bed like they were in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. "You are here because your government is putting pressure on my government. This is an internal affair - Czech affair - that you are interfering with!" Boy was he pissed off. He'd probably been dealing with Gibbons; Xander could understand how that man would piss anyone off. "I will warn you only once: don't shit in my lawn. Get whatever information your government seeks" - he grabbed Xander's arm to emphasis his point - "and get out." Instead of raising himself up to his full height, which he knew people were fond of doing when making a point, Xander lowered his head a bit to look Rat Boy in the face. "Let's get this straight. You may not want me here, but I definitely don't want to be here. Two: I've never been under anyone's yurisdiction. And three, if you're going to shoot anybody shoot that monkey that sold you the suit." Milan glance covertly down at his suit, presumably to figure out what was wrong with it. "Now I'm tired. I'm going to sleep." He headed to the bed and lay down. Milan wasn't deterred. He was definitely going to be a thorn in his side, and Xander sure as hell didn't see either of them as Androchles. "Be ready in three hours." Great. With the time it took him to get ready he would have two hours and fifty minutes of sleep. Barley enough, but enough. He pulled his coat over his head and shut his eyes.

"Everybody in this club has two things in common: they're filthy rich and they're criminals." Milan strode in the entrance, carelessly and purposely letting go of the door. Xander barely caught it on its sharp swing back before it knocked him in the face. "I'll fit in, except for the rich part." Cheerful, annoying music beckoned them as they entered. The lights were all a soft technical blue, casting an uneasy, unwelcoming tone to everyone and everything. Xander stopped Rat Boy in the cold stone hallway before the main entrance. "Remember, we don't know each other." "I wish we didn't," Milan answered, completely sincere.
Walking down the main staircase the music gradually blended into a more up-beat, hip tune. Xander made his way to the bar, smiling at the pale, unsmiling bartender. "Yeah, can I get a cranberry club soda?" He took of his jacket, the club was noticeably warmer than the outside, and held the puffy coat out. "Throw this back there?" he asked. "I'll tip you something."
The bartender ignored him and called to someone.
"Put it in the back, please?"
A girl appeared next to him, holding out her arms in a silent offer to take his coat. He gave it to her and she wandered off. "How much? Do I get a ticket?" he called after her.
No response. The bartender placed his drink on the bar before him with a 'thunk'.
Friendly people, these.
Milan eased next to him with the stealth of an exploding monkey. Xander eased away from him, not liking the idea of touching they guy any more than necessary. Not that he was worried about the homosexual undertones, Sova just seemed to have not bathed in a while. "That's them," Milan announced in a stage whisper. "Anarchy 99. You see the guy on the couch in the center?"
He could only mean one group, the only group afforded a comfortable amount of furniture. They talked, drank, and laughed in a small private alcove that gave a great view of the entire club. "That's Yorgi. He's the leader. He owns this club and five."
That's about as much as Xander heard. The moment Milan got to 'he's the leader', Xander pushed his way expertly through the crowd, up a slight set of stairs to the alcove. Two guards manned the entrance. He slapped them on their backs, announcing in the perkiest manner he could manage, "Guys, I'm American. I'm going to see Yorgi. Yorgi!" he called out, shoving through them and jogging into the alcove. "Hey, Yorgi! I hear you're the guy - "
The click of a gun behind him cut Xander off in mid-sentence. He glanced back at the pursuing guards with mild irritation. Bad little dogs followed him. He dismissed them and kept talking. "I heard you're the guy to talk to about cars."
Yorgi, despite the wuss name, couldn't be more than mid-thirties. Young for a guy trying to take over the world but then kids were smarter these days than they'd ever been. He was average height, slim, and held himself like he had a PhD. in getting in and out of trouble. His dark suit and hair were expertly tailored and his eyes were small and cold as the weather. Yorgi's look was one of distinct uninterest. "Take yourself outside."
"Take myself outside? I'm just - " A giant rose on either side of him, the black leather and large muscles obviously designed for intimidation. As they approached Xander tossed off casually, "Okay. I'm not welcome." He turned to leave. "Guess you'd rather have cops in your club."
Angry Russian behind him. One of the guards indicated for him to step inside once more. "Want to talk?" he asked, hiding his smile. If there was anything he knew it was how to crash a party.
One guard, heavy beard, odd musky smell, threw an arm around his shoulder and walked him towards one of the windows. "Hey, you silly boy. Come with me and show me the cop and don't be mistake."
Xander didn't hesitate. He pointed to Milan, sitting at the bar like he had an atomic wedgie, taking tiny sips of his drink. "See that guy over there? With the suit made out of hotel drapes? That's a cop."
Beard-O pointed to Milan to make sure he understood Xander, then gestured to subordinates for the rat-faced individual to be brought up. From where he stood Xander could hear Milan trying to talk his way out of coming and unconsciously dig himself deeper.
After his kind escort led him into the alcove, Milan stood there uncomfortably. Yorgi and his pals stared at him, letting the silence stretch on until finally Sova broke the ice. "So, what is this all about? I've done nothing."
"You've done nothing?" Xander repeated, throwing a hefty bit of mocking in his tone, thanking J.J. for forcing him to watch all those hokey cop shops. "Who do you work for?"
Milan's arms flapped in a weak imitation of a shrug. Xander wouldn't be surprised if he passed out. "I work in a bank. So what?"
Xander headed over, shaking his head. "You've got to be." He didn't finish what was on his mind, choosing instead to rifle through Milan's coat. Mr. Sova batted him off ineffectually. "What are you doing? Stop it! Stop it - " Ah-ah! Right next to the Tic-Tacs. Xander yanked out Milan's badge, flicking it open in the smarmy man's face. "What's that, your bus pass?" Immediately Yorgi was up off his seat; the rest of his colleagues followed. Xander held it out for them to see. "Czech 5-0." Yorgi took the badge from his hand, giving it a quick but thorough glance. His eyes rested on Milan. "Leave my club." He did not deign to mention what would happen should Milan not takes the kind suggestion to depart, but the clear implication was Milan would depart one way or another. Milan intelligently took the hint when they shoved him down the stairs. Yorgi was kind enough, however, to return his badge to him. Yorgi then turned to Xander. "How did you know?" Xander shrugged, as if it should have been obvious. "When he was paying for his drinks, he was flashing his badge to half the bar." "Cops are like plague." Yorgi made them sound lower than the plague. "No matter how many you pay, there's always another with his hand out." "I'm from the streets," Xander replied, glancing back at the duo behind him, who were arguing fiercely. Two of the guards apparently were either angry about the cop or in a lover's quarrel. "I know cops, believe me." "I appreciate you bringing this to our attention," Yorgi said with the cool amiability of a politician. "My question to you is: why?" "I figure no one likes cops crashing their party. I figure, I do you a solid, we could talk." The pair behind him were getting a bit too much to talk over. Yorgi's eyes rested on the two of them for a moment. "Kolya!" They quieted down instantly. Xander waited until he was sure they wouldn't start up again, and concluded, "I just want to buy cars, man." Kolya edged closer to him, clearly invading Xander's personal bubble. He backed away a bit, just a notice to Kolya that he was uncomfortable. "Is this guy going to hump my leg?" he asked Yorgi. Kolya rattled off something, nodding to Xander. "What's your name?" Yorgi asked. Xander glanced at all of them; Kolya especially seemed to be awaiting the response with eagerness. "Xander Cage." "I knew it!" Kolya cried, slapping his bearded friend for good measure. "You are amazing! On snowboard, motorbike, everything! You are awesome!" "Thank you, man." Well, it was nice to know Kolya wasn't trying to hit on him. He shook Kolya's hand vigorously. Xander loved meeting fans. "My brother is crazy, too," Yorgi put in quietly. "And a great admirer or yours. He has seen your tapes many times. Kirill - Olga." One sentence blurred into another and it took a moment for Xander to realize he didn't know who Kirill or Olga was. A skinny man with a cigarette hopped off through a back door. Was he Kirill or Olga? Kirill, Xander bet. The guy didn't look like an Olga, which he saw as primarily a feminine name and. Xander took a long look around. And come to think of it there weren't any women in the room. Odd, considering the pictures; this group allegedly used women like pillows. So no pillows meant this was the business room. Even with the implied femininity of 'Olga' it was rather misogynistic. He'd have to tell Gibbons he found a use for his word. Kirill reentered, Olga - presumably - after him. Xander wasn't sure what he expected - 'Olga' immediately brought to mind images of large women with ill-fitting dresses and mustaches though he knew the probability of a woman like this amongst Anarchy 99 was negligible. In a way she was both it and not it. There seemed to be an age limit (later twenties, early thirty- ish), and a general dress code among the group which all adhered to: alternative style clothes in dark colors. Mainly black, but in the blue light any darker color blended into black. Olga's taste, like Yorgi's, ran to more professional than biker-punk. Cleaner lines, opaque materials, cuts that hinted rather than revealed. Lighter hair than the others but the colored lighting made determining the exact shade impossible. It was pinned back neatly, contrasting with the dangly spangly glittery earrings that danced from her ears. Amazing legs, though.
And a kind of down-to-the-bone aloofness that gave Xander the impression Kirill had been sent not to fetch her but to carve her out of a block of ice. Like the sculptures in the town square at Christmas. That she wouldn't blink an eyelash if someone hauled off and shot sweet old Nonna in the head right in front of her.
She afforded him no more that a cursory once-over as she halted in front of Yorgi with near military precision but for an underlying seductive element that added poise to her movements. When she spoke he noticed her voice more than her words - not that he understood, anyway; it was all Yiddish, uh, Russian to him. But her voice was low and smooth and smoky, like costly brandy, and gave Xander odd tingles throughout his hands. Tingles that spoke: move, touch, tickle.
Yorgi replied to her statement, glancing as he did to Xander. Finally she looked at him, her eyes settling on his with the intensity of an anvil. Olga took a long lingering walk around him, inhaling silently as she came to a stop just off his right shoulder. For the first time Xander was grateful J.J. taught him the importance of proper cologne. Olga turned to Yorgi. "Throw him back." The tumbling Russian accent sent a sudden image of silky dark chocolate. And what with chocolate, which Xander was quite fond of even if he wasn't a girl, it took him a moment for her words to register. "Excuse me?" he cut in. The second time in three days someone said that about him. He didn't like it anymore.
She ignored him, addressing Yorgi once again. Her refusal to pay him mind made him want to dance naked on the table, anything to get her to look at him. "There are bigger fish out there," Olga continued.
Xander laughed, loud enough to draw her attention. Her eyes were green slants in the dim light. He hooked his thumbs in his pant's pockets and replied, "Not many, sister." Let the implications speak for themselves.
Then Olga did something he didn't expect. She smiled. She laughed, melting some of the frost that emanated from her like a fog machine. "How very clever of you, Mr. Cage. Is good to know American educational system does not go to waste." Another look to Yorgi. "Niet."
Yorgi lifted his brows. "Niet?"
Olga inclined her head.
Yorgi gestured for Olga to come close, then took her arm and led her to a secluded part of the room. The undercurrent of their words whispered across the room like smoke off dry ice. Olga's earrings grew more animated as she grew vehement at Yorgi's refusal to acquiesce. The only word that kept coming up was niet; Xander already knew what that meant. Olga hissed something from between her teeth; it sounded like Yorgi-no-vich. Kolya whistled, and Xander stretched up a good foot and a half to whisper in Kolya's ear. "What'd she say?"
"Olga call him Yorganovich," Kolya informed him, sotto voce. "Is.Yorgi does not like that name."
Xander nodded thoughtfully. "She doesn't like me, either, huh?"
Kolya shook his head, grinning and slapping him on his back. "No, my friend. But we do, da! That good?"
"That good," Xander agreed, his eyes traveling back to Yorgi and Olga. "If Olga doesn't like me, does that mean Yorgi doesn't like me?"
Kolya shrugged.
"Pah!!" At least it sounded like 'pah'. In reality it was simply an audible outburst of frustration and anger as Olga turned away and headed for the small office area at the end of the alcove. Clearly she'd lost the argument, answering Xander's question. But if she was displeased with the outcome, no evidence was apparent within a few moments. The icy composure reasserted itself with rapid ease.
"See, Mr. Cage?" Kolya whispered. "Yorgi, he not like people to forget who is boss."
"Right," Xander answered, then smiled suddenly at Kolya. We're one happy family. "Great, man.'
Yorgi turned to Xander with a smile. "Now we can talk business. This way, please."
Kolya grinned at him as they walked away. "Welcome to the Xander Zone!"
Xander shook his head, giving the large man with the maturity of a pre-teen a thumbs-up. "Now, that's funny, man. That's funny."
Yorgi took a seat behind the desk and gestured for Xander to do likewise in the chair across from him. "Sit down, Mr. Cage."
"My friends call me X," Xander replied, taking his seat.
"So, X, what exactly are you wanting?" Yorgi inquired.
Xander retrieved a list from the back pocket of his pants and set it on the table. "Ferraris, high-end pasta rockets, 10 to start."
Yorgi picked up the list, skimmed it over, then stood and handed it to Olga. "This car, number 10, will be very difficult to find in Europe."
Xander watched Olga read over the list. Her face displayed nothing, even when she got to car number 10. "Oh yeah," he said, trying to catch her attention and he didn't even want to think about why. "That one's for me. I put it in there to get something out of the deal."
"Well, you certainly know your cars," Yorgi remarked. Approval. Approval was good. Approval was very good.
"Yeah. Cars, bikes, boards. You name it. I like anything fast enough to do something stupid in."
"Yes."
Olga caught Yorgi's eye, her gaze far more expressive that words. She held up the list, emphasizing her silent point.
"Ten cars is hardly worth the effort," Yorgi continued, a trace of reluctance in his voice. "Barely two million, U.S."
"Now, hold on a second," Xander said, "the American buyers I represent, to them, 10 cars is an appetizer. And it's a mil max, sister," he finished, tossing a look at Olga that expressed how freaking thankful he was for her intervention.
Her smile was a ghost, flitting in and out of life. "You don't actually think you can cut price in half, do you, Mr. Cage?"
"Two mil for ten cars - you gotta be kidding me."
"Is starting price, Mr. Cage. Negotiation is not out of the question." She templed her fingers, rolling the next words off her tongue with slow consideration. "We would not object to lowering price to.a million nine."
"I was thinking more like a mil two," he responded. Gibbons hadn't given him a gold card. In fact the prom queen'd threatened to castrate him if he treated their funds like a personal checking account.
"This is an expensive business to run."
Xander grinned. "Smile for me one more time I might push it to a mil three." Her smile was a razor blade. "One million seven." "You're not getting anymore than one four." "Extravagance is what makes life worth living. One million six."
"One point five."
Olga's casual glance to Yorgi was rewarded with a nod. "I assume you are familiar with wire transfer," she said. "Unless this is your first time. In which case, don't worry." Wuuur-rie. Olga leaned forward, eyes sparkling. "We'll be gentle."
"Sweetheart, is there anything else you need to do?" he asked, his attitude puffed up like peacock feathers. Geez, the only people that ever got him on edge like this were cops. And this was even worse; if he had to hang around these guys for any serious length of time he was probably going to have to kill her. "Why don't you run along, paint your nails; we big boys are having a conversation."
A piece of paper appeared in her fingers without him aware of how it got there or where it came from. Her skin was expensive porcelain when he slipped the paper from her hand, fine and cold. Xander unfolded the paper; it was an account number. "You have 48 hours to complete the transfer. I advise you to be prompt, Mr. Cage." She stood and made to leave.
"Or else what?" Xander asked, needing to throw one last thing in her face.
"Or else we roll dice to see who gets to kill you and how." She slipped away like a shadow.
Xander turned to Yorgi, not giving in the nagging voice that wanted to watch her go. "She's joking, right?"
Yorgi smiled and stood. "Olga never jokes. I do not believe she knows how. So, X, now that business is finished, we party." He called out something - Xander resolved to get Russian language tapes at the first opportunity - and led Xander back to the main seating area. Kolya, quite perky at his brother's command, hopped over to the door. "Bitches, come!" Girls began to stream through the door, far more than all of them could handle. But it was nice to know they had a choice. Xander settled back, satisfied at the beginning of what looked to be a prosperous evening. Much better now that there was something to battle the overt testosterone in the air.

Seven in the morning was an ungodly hour to be woken from a blissful sleep. Hell, it was an ungodly hour to be awakened from any sleep, even if it was the crappiest, most horrific nightmare of one's life. Particularly if one had been awake until 5:37 am that morning, knocking back vodka cranberries and arguing with the coat-check girl over whether or not he really did own his coat.
At the high-pitched, piercing ringing Xander groaned and reached for his phone. As his body pitched and he nearly fell off the bed he remembered he wasn't at home but in a tiny freezing shack somewhere in Prague doing something that could likely get him killed and he wasn't even getting paid for it. He pushed himself up, rubbing his eyes and searching for the source of the ringing. The beeper on his end table. He grabbed it and after fiddling with it for a moment it flipped open.
Gibbons stared back at him from the tiny screen, looking as happy as Xander'd ever seen him, which meant he looked like he had severe bowel blockage. "Dammit, Gibbons, I thought this was a cell phone."
"Wakey, wakey, Alexander. Have a nice rest?"
"Dial it down, Gibby. I got to sleep an hour ago."
"Call me Gibby again and I'll have you killed. You were given a specific list of cars to go after, Triple X. Who told you to alter that list?" Uh-oh, he sounded pissed.
Xander sighed and sat up more. "You know 'Triple X' sounds like I'm lord and master of the curtained room in the video store. If you insist on giving me a nickname could you think of something better? Something that doesn't make me sound like a porn king?"
"Sure, Bambi, I'll try. The list?" "The cars on that list sucked. They would've seen right through it. You know you guys should switch travel agents." He pulled himself up out of bed. "I got that info you wanted. Hang on a second." Xander whipped his coat on. They didn't believe in heating his room either. He went to the computer on his desk and accessed the information. "You ready for this, sweetheart?"
"Anytime you are, honey-buns."
Xander hit the send button.
A moment later Gibbons whistled. "Names, birthdays, ranks in the Red Army. Favorite foods?" He whistled. "Chesty LaRue, what did you do? How the hell did you get all this?"
"Kolya, Yorgi's younger brother, happens to be an action sports fanatic. So naturally, he's a fan. But when you kill a bottle of vodka in three swings, you're gonna talk too much."
"I never pegged this bunch as Ding-Dong fans."
"That's just Kirill. Apparently he's got a major problem with the powder."
A surprised look crossed Gibbons' face. "Cocaine?" "Sugar. Oh, I got something else."
"I wait in breathless anticipation."
"Their personal bank account number. Where did I put that?" The scrap of paper was deep in the pocket of his coat. "Okay, wait a second." Forcing himself to focus on the swimming numbers, Xander checked twice to make sure he'd gotten it right before he sent it on over. "Stolen cars, nightclubs, prostitution, extortion. What's the big deal with these guys? We got criminals like this in the U.S. And Big Macs."
"In case you didn't get the memo, Hootie McBoob, your job is to gather information, not to ask questions."
"Well, I did my job, and you're quite welcome, by the way. I'm coming home."
"Not just yet," Gibbons informed him, that annoying smirk on his face. "You're a victim of your own success. I want you to get closer to these guys."
"Wait a minute. These guys are cool, but they're not that cool." An involuntary thought of the Ice Queen sent a shiver up his spine. Her hair was golden-brown. The lights came up at the end of the night, giving him a clearer, though alcoholic, gaze of everyone.
"Go deeper. Tell you what," Gibbons offered, "I'll send a guy over with a care package to help you out."
"I thought we had a deal," Xander reminded him, non-too-gently.
"You change the cars, I change the deal. Do this for me and you can come home."
Xander rolled his eyes. "Just do me a favor. Next time you send someone to save the world, make sure they like it the way it is."
"Oops."

The Ivan's drove him again. They were nicer than he thought. Suspecting he'd have a hang-over (as Ivan explained, it was to be expected when spending any length of time with a group that owned fourteen nightclubs) Ivan brought him a thermos of coffee and Ivan sneaked him a couple extra- strength Advil.
Milan met him at the door and led him through a series of laboratories to a twenty-something guy, this-shy of geek, trying desperately to impress a girl. Said girl was trying desperately to convince him she didn't understand English so she could escape. Well, at least the poor boy tried. "That's him," Milan said.
The guy looked up, his eyes wide behind his glasses. "Wait, you're Triple X?"
"You're the care package?" Xander replied skeptically.
"That's right. Agent Shavers, Agent Toby Lee Shavers. Come on." Toby put his glasses away and nodded for Xander to join him as he hurried away. Toby walked with the natural quick bounce to his step that bespoke too much caffeine. "You have to rate high, and I mean high, to get Agent Gibbons to send all this stuff over here, man. I kind of wish I was going with you, mixed up in the fury of the situation. That's just crazy. License to kill, death, destruction, mayhem. Got a gun under your pillow. Never know when some freak villain just gonna pop out and - BLAM!!" Toby bounced around, waving his arms. After taking a moment to calm down he asked, "How long you been with the agency?"
"Two days."
Toby stopped dead. "You're shitting me! No way - that sucks!!"
"Yeah, it sucks, but it beats jail."
"No," Toby replied, "it sucks because I spent six years in the basement of some windowless NSA, gadget freak room, man. And I got a degree. I got a degree from MIT. Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude." He shook his head, grinning. "And they probably picked you up, what, pumping iron in San Quentin?"
Xander grinned right back. "You ever get punched in the face for talking too much?"
Toby's smile disappeared. "Show me the stuff."
Toby showed him the stuff.
First the gun. Toby opened the silver case like a father showing off a new baby. "This one made my career, the definition of perfection: my multi-purpose, multi-function field revolver."
He looked a bit too proud of it. Xander grabbed it out of his hand and examined it. He had to admit he was impressed. "Oh, I like this."
"Then you'll love these." Toby held up a set of multi-color projectiles. "These are all attachment darts. Darts for everything. See the green ones? See the green ones? Datura knockout darts. Pow! The guy goes down for 12 hours, wakes up, doesn't know who the hell he is, where he is, and his head's splitting like a cord of firewood, man."
Xander cut off Toby's chuckling. "I was shot twice by those."
"And.the red ones are tranquilizer and blood splatter darts. All the appearance of a kill shot without the nasty aftereffects. Like death, for one. You've got exploding and surveillance darts and your standard .44- caliber bullets, if you want to get nasty. A little wet work. You know what I'm talking about, right?"
Xander hid a smile, flipping open the chamber, spinning it, and clicking it back in with a flick of his wrist. He tested the weight and aim. Good. Real good.
"Ah," Toby said, "knocked over a few 7-11's have we?"
"Nah, I had me leg in a cast for three months. All I did was play first person shooter video games." Got to be an expert duck hunter, too.
Toby nodded, as if he understood. "That's a really sad story. Okay, check this out. On to my baby." Another case, this one holding a set of binoculars. "Eagle Eyes," Toby declared, holding it like it was an infant. "Nine enhanced-vision modes." He pressed a button and a high-pitched whine sounded for two seconds. "Every little boy's dream: the penetrator mode. Check it out."
He gestured to a woman practicing her shooting across the room. Blonde. Orderly. Handled her gun like it was an extension of her hand.
And when Xander lifted the goggles to his eyes he could see through her clothes. Hell, he could see right through to her skeleton, but twisting the focus knob lessened the intensity and gave him a perfect shot of her as a lingerie model. He felt twelve again. "Oh my god."
She glanced back, as if she heard him and knew what he was doing. Toby tugged on his sleeve. "She's checking you out, man."
Xander put the binoculars away, marking in his memory where he put them. "I'll hang onto these."
"Now onto my latest achievement." Toby started walking away and Xander followed, suddenly interested in what the geek had up his sleeves. "I just put the finishing touches on them last week." He dug through a box and held up a package of bandages like he was a hostess on The Price Is Right. "Huh? What do you think?"
"Bandages?" Xander declared, wanting to make sure he got it right. "Great, if I get a boo-boo."
"No, Mr. X," Toby replied. "Watch and learn." He pealed back the adhesive, revealing a coiled set of miniature wires. "There's enough primer cord on this little bandage to blow a hole in a bank vault, vaporize a human being, or whatever agents such as yourself might find a use for. Check this out." Toby pulled a silver remote control out of his jacket pocket. "This is the detonator. How cool is that?"
Xander shrugged. "Let me see."
So Toby let him see. He plastered the bandage on a stack of wooden crates, apparently there for the sole purpose of being blow up, grinning like a little kid. "You might want to back up for this."
"It's a bandage," Xander told him, obediently taking a few steps back.
"You know what, just go on and get behind the wall there. Go, go." Toby waved at him. Xander rolled his eyes but did as he was told. He was willing to give the guy some credit after those spectacular binoculars. "You ready?'
Xander nodded.
"I've always wanted to say this." Toby took a deep breath. "Fire in the hole!"
He pressed the detonator. Rhythmic beeps.
And the crates exploded. Xander'd never seen anything like it. Toby was soaked in wooden fragments and Styrofoam popcorn and everyone within twenty feet ducked. Xander himself jumped behind the wall, clutching his head.
Toby came bounding over like a puppy. "You like?"
"I really like."

Yorgi had been watching him from the office on the second floor for the past ten minutes. The man was like a machine, just standing by the window and staring.
And in a moment he was gone, back into the depths of the office. From the first floor of the warehouse, where Xander stood admiring his new cars with Kolya and the others, he could see the back of Olga's head. Her hair was in that same neat binding again. He wanted to pull it out just to piss her off. After a few seconds she moved near the window and peered down at him. The lighting hadn't lied last night; sharp green eyes. Her lips parted as she sucked in a breath, as if she wanted to say something; for a second it was like she was standing next to him, not ten feet above.
Then she turned away and Xander turned back to his cars.
"So, what do you think?" Kolya asked, eager to please his idol. He held out his hands and answered his own question, as if it was agreed upon already. "Beautiful."
"You like the cars?" Yorgi called, striding towards him. His face was a mask, but if Xander had to guess it was a pissed off mask.
Xander walked over to him. "I love the cars, they're dope. You like the money?"
Yorgi halted by him, surveying the row of automobiles. "I love money, but I do not have it."
"Really? You look like you're doing extremely well. All these employees, beautiful cars - "
"This is not time for being funny."
Rapid clicking drew their attention; Olga headed towards them, her spiked boots resounding on the stone floor. They had to be painful to wear. She stopped just off Yorgi's left shoulder and whispered in his ear.
Xander grinned. "What - you didn't think I wasn't good for it?"
"Never crossed my mind," Yorgi replied. They laughed together in the companionship of two men who nearly killed each other. Xander handed over a piece of paper. "There's a cargo ship waiting for you in Rijeka. Here's the address." He pointed to the one car cloaked in a sheet. Like it was dead. "This one's mine?" Yorgi headed up to it, doing a fair if unconscious imitation of Vanna White. "Car number 10. Kolya found it hiding in Berlin. It was very difficult to find." Xander reached for the clothe, but Yorgi waved him away. "No! Please. Allow me. You were kind enough to give me the money." He jerked the sheet back.
Love at first sight. It was all Xander could do not to fall to his knees and start making out with the thing.
Deborah. He'd call it Deborah.
"Now, please.drive." Yorgi tossed him the keys and went to open the door.
Xander glided his hand along the side, flicking the hidden lock for the doors. "Now, allow me."
Turning the key in the ignition nearly undid him a second time. Oh, Debbie, baby, purred like a kitten. He was happy with everyone. But only Yorgi was in the car. "You're all right, Yorgi."
The man smiled. "Everything's all right with vodka. You must come to party tonight. Big party at one of my clubs."
"Yeah?"
"Yes."
Right before Xander could accept the invitation a large section of windows fell from the ceiling and shattered on the floor. Immediately nine car alarm systems started blaring. Xander and Yorgi got out at the same time; a silhouette raced along the roof, hidden from sight through grimy windows.
Yorgi and Xander moved at the same time once more, spinning around and aiming laser-sighted guns straight at each other. "What's going on, my friend?" Yorgi demanded.
"You tell me," Xander replied with dangerous calm. "You got a sniper up there or what?"
"He's not with us! He must e with you!" Yorgi yelled.
"Bullshit! Tell you men to get down or I'll give you another hole to breathe out of. Are we clear?"
Then came one of those tense moments in which Xander questioned his career choices. Sure, he had weapons pointed at him before. Sorta. Cops, mainly, and he had always been prepared to do what they asked rather than face the possibility of getting shot. A bullet hole was not a desirable thing in his opinion. And here he was with a man who had no qualms about blowing away most of his head. That could give a man some unhappy thoughts to think on. Thankfully Xander had mastered control over his urinary tract many years ago or this would be a different situation.
"Yorgi!" Olga charged over, managing to look refined even as she looked homicidal. Upon reaching him she lowered her voice to an urgent whisper, a stream of hot Russian that steamed the last hairs off of Xander's head. Yorgi's jaw worked as she spoke.
As quickly as he aimed the weapon, Yorgi pulled his gun away. "All right. It's not yours. Let's go and get him together."
So they went on a car chase. Yorgi kindly let him behind the wheel, what with it being his car. As was expected, he ruined his new tires racing out of there, but one couldn't think of preserving such things as tires when chasing a prowler down like a dog. With his long tan coat their prey was all too easy to spot on the dark streets, particularly with the extremely cool headlights that came with Debbie. Xander pressed down the gas pedal; with his free hand he spun the chamber of his gun until a blood splatter dart hit the top of the list. The prowler glanced back, once, twice, as if he wanted to check that the car was really there, not some vodka-induced hallucination. "Son of a bitch!" Yorgi exclaimed. "That same cop from the club!" He leaned out the window and took aim. Xander kept his cool, a skill her perfected after countless death-defying stunts. Real gun. Real bullets. "Filthy cop!" Xander jerked the wheel, spinning the car to the right and taking Milan out of Yorgi's line of fire. He aimed, the laser-sight helping immeasurably, and fired. Milan's body stopped functioning but his momentum carried him into a crate. The shot a convincing red wet mark on the back of his coat, he slid to the ground. Kolya zipped by on his bike, Olga and Kirill following in a car. Kirill caught his eye and grinned, giving Xander a thumb's-up. Olga kept her eyes on the road. As their silver BMW slid up to Milan's prone form Xander and Yorgi sat in silence. Xander tapped the handle of his gun nervously; he glanced at Yorgi, who smiled at him companionably. Xander smiled back. Olga stepped out of the car and knelt by Milan, pressing her fingers to his neck. In another moment she looked up, shook her heard, passing a finger cross her throat. Yorgi's smile spread. "Most people talk a lot. Few are up for the moment." He paused, not - Xander got the impression - for effect but rather to contemplate his happiness at the occasion. "Welcome to Anarchy 99."

The club they went to this night was much hipper than the one in which they first met. Flashing lights, loud heavy music, scantily clad people. Things that shot.other things.that looked like electricity but without the nasty electrical shock part.way cool.
Xander hung by the bar, waiting for Yorgi as instructed. The drinks were good and he had an unlimited free ticket thanks to the Big Y. He glanced over at Kirill, who smiled and puffed away on his cigarette. The music was too loud to hold a conversation, but as the band ended a song Xander leaned over and shouted, "Why do you do that to yourself? That cigarette's gonna kill you one day."
"I like smoke better than air," Kirill replied, laughing. His voice was wheezy and thin. "If I could, I'd smoke in my sleep. I would still do it after it kills me."
Xander smiled and nodded as Kirill wandered off to speak to Kolya. All of Yorgi's men stayed close by - even his one woman. Olga laughed at something the large man said, then greeted Kirill's entrance with a bright smile that brought a sudden, swift bite of jealousy. Xander frowned and pushed it away. He didn't have time to think of things like that. He needed to focus on Yorgi and remember that he'd been extremely lucky Toby's dart was enough to fool his gang. Speaking of Fearless Leader.Yorgi stepped up to the bar and ordered a drink. Xander waited until they both had a sip to speak. "You were talking about Anarchy 99. What is that, some motorcycle gang of yours?" "Niet. It's what we've been living since 1999 when we left the army of Mother Russia. Many of our comrades died in combat, and we said: to hell wit this shit. They die for what? Politics? Whose politics? Not ours! So we decided from then on to do what we want, when we want. It is in their honor we call ourselves Anarchy 99." Yorgi held up his glass and Xander toasted with him. Yorgi set his glass on the bar and started walking. Xander followed; this was starting to feel like his relationship with Gibby. "You know," Yorgi continued, "there's an old punk song. It says: America stands for freedom - " Xander immediately joined in. He always found that song amusing. "But if you think your free/ try walking into a deli/ and urinating on the cheese!" "You got it!" Yorgi exclaimed.
"Anarchy Burger by the Vandals. Way cool."
"Yes, incredibly cool, X."
It was a good thing when two people could both agree that something was cool.
"Look, I'm with you, but what are you going to do? You got rules and government everywhere. Always was, always will be."
His less than discreet probe for information was successful. "Maybe not always." Yorgi caught his eye, a sudden excitement and secret adding a creepy kind of joy to his face. Xander suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
Yorgi wandered over to Kolya, Olga, and Kirill's trio, nodding for Olga to join him. She stretched out her arms to the younger brother and Kolya picked her up grandly from where she sat on a banister, depositing her down right next to Yorgi. She leaned up on her toes and planted a smacking kiss on Kolya's cheek. "Olga," Yorgi prompted, holding his hand out.
She placed her fingers in his. "Da?"
He pulled her towards Xander. "I want you to make friends. I'm making it your job tonight to make sure he doesn't get lonely."
Olga raised her eyebrows.
"We are family," Yorgi reminded her, his voice more than slightly reprimanding. "We must all get along even if we don't like each other."
"Da," she replied.
"Don't be shy."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Miska, Yelena." Yorgi snapped his fingers at two women. The girls instantly extricated themselves from what they were doing and snuggled under his arms and all three sauntered off.
Olga looked at him - finally and for the first time turned her eyes and her complete undivided attention on him. She stepped around a tall man with his arms full of drinks, one languid movement that brought her right up against him. "What do you want to play?" she asked over the music, her eyes piercing and shadowed in the flashing lights. "Yahtzee? Jump rope?"
Xander ground one foot on the floor, then the next. It was a nervous tic, one he'd never conquered but learned to subdue. "Do you want to dance?" he asked, feeling like a twelve-year-old at a grade school dance.
She laughed. "You know how?"
"I'm really a good dancer. I swear."
"Well, if you swear. Da." She nodded to the dance floor, taking his hand.
The room was packed; it was a feat simply getting on the dance floor, let alone dancing once on it. Somehow they managed even though what they - and countless others - were doing couldn't technically be called dancing. According to his cousin Lydia nothing could be considered dancing without years of training, but then Lydia was a part of the New York City Ballet Company and at twenty-seven had the figure of a fourteen-year-old.
Olga rippled against him, oh-so close not because of any indication of romance (which, in his head, was always translated to roh-maahnce) but for economy's sake. There was really no other place for her to move. And Xander ran his hands down her back and sides to keep them dodging the idiots that constantly insisted on moving around or shoving their way through. With all the spikes and metal this group was wearing it could be dangerous bumping into them.
They danced for a while in silence, with Olga, close as she was, doing her best not to look at him. She was good, too; she nearly had him convinced it was not on purpose. It was quickly turning out to be a proven way to piss him off, but Xander consciously ignored it this time and instead focused on the pros of being this close to an attractive female. Pro: He enjoyed being close to attractive women, because occasionally he could touch them, and that made him think of sex. The music was fast-paced and loud enough to make his eardrums bleed. Gradually, as the songs progressed, he began to pick up on little things that made dancing with Olga more pleasurable. How he could step to the side as she stepped back to avoid getting his toes stepped on. How if he moved just a bit when she tilted her head back he wouldn't get a mouthful of hair and instead could take a moment to ponder her scent. Pro: Women smelled nice. Xander inhaled, exhaling loudly without realizing it. "Sandalwood?" "Da. May I give you a piece of advice, Mr. Cage?" Her voice was low but cut through the noise with ease; it made him wan to say yes even if he didn't want to know the question.
A large sweaty man pushed past them, shoving Olga closer into him. Xander tucked his arms around her waist quickly, hoping to catch her if she fell. She didn't, but neither did she punch him in the face and tell him to take his capitalist pig hands off of her.
Pro: When dancing with a woman, sometimes you get close to her breasts. Breasts are good.
Pro: It's also good when she doesn't punch you.
Xander contemplated her request, grinning partly because of the proximity and partly for the power that came with her desiring something of him. "Only if you call me by my first name."
"What kind of a requirement is that?" she asked. "I don't know." Xander shrugged. "I guess all this 'Mr. Cage' crap keeps making me feel like a principal. The only people who've ever called me that are teachers. And cops."
She smiled, hiding it almost as well as she hid everything else. "Alexander." The word rippled on her tongue like water over riverbed stones. "You are a sportsman, da?" "Da." "What is word in your sports world for man who is not experienced? "A virgin?" he suggested with a smile.
"Da." The word weighed on her face. "Niet. A sportsman who is not experienced. Has not training. And amieature?" "Amateur." "Amateur. You" - the word fell into their conversation heavily - "are an amateur in this world." As the music arced she slipped under his arms and turned to face him, ducking back in his bubble of personal space to maintain the privacy of their conversation. "If your money for the cars had come in two seconds later today Yorgi would have put a hole in your head. And I know from experience blood is very hard to get out of leather interior."
"No, no, no, wait a minute," Xander said, shoving her a good two feet away from him. Con: Women screw with your brains, even if you try to prevent it. "If this is some sort of scam to get me out of what you see as infringement on your territory," he continued hotly, "I hate to break it to you, sister, but I ain't going anywhere." He stuck his smug face in hers on purpose. "I like you people." "God help you," she replied, the abundant frost eating its way through his hearty enjoyment of the honest American tradition of showing other people up.
Xander set back, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "And I don't take kindly to threats." "It is a foolish man who mistakes a warning for a threat," Olga responded, her voice as quietly dangerous as his. Con: Because women are smart. Smarter than men.
"You would do well to listen, Alexander; the chances are pale that you will make it out of this alive." A'ly-vah.
He shrugged. "How is that different from one of my stunts?" Xander took the volley of Russian she hurled at him as indication she was displeased with his response. She pulled away from his grasp with a force that caught him unaware. "I have spent enough company with idiotic men determined to find - dig their own graves. Do as you see fit, Mr. Cage. My apologies for this distasteful conversation." Olga turned, pushing her way through the crowd. Xander struggled after her. "Hey, hey! I thought we were supposed to be a happy family!" He grabbed her arm; she was strong, much stronger than anyone would have thought to look at her, he could feel her muscles bunching and flexing under his hand. "What's with the ominous conversation? What, are we suffering from PMS?" Con: Because at some point men are stupid enough to bring up PMS, and that is a guaranteed anti-lay. "Niet! Forget we talk. Your skull is obviously too thick for conversation to register!" "Watch the stupid comments, sister," Xander growled. "Only immediate family has that privilege." "What are you going to do?" she hissed back, taunting. He didn't register her movement, only that the next instant her face millimeters from his, the entire impression of a sleek sizzling razor blade. "Spank me?" Spanking - interesting concept. But Xander didn't think they knew each other well enough, and what with his being a secret agent and all... So he thought, What would James Bond do? So he kissed her.
It was, in retrospect, an odd thing to do. But it had been a very odd conversation and he was having trouble keeping up, and how was it she didn't like him so much - he'd never met a person that didn't like him so severely upon so little acquaintance; it wasn't as if he'd stolen her car or anything - and now that he thought about it not a lot of it made sense but not that he really thought about it he didn't care that much, or at all really, except for the simple idea that he'd never knew what sandalwood tasted like even though he'd caught the scent on numerous occasions. Sweeter than he expected, but spicy too, with a touch of mint or something that cleared his senses with a cool rush. And if he thought the itchy tingles were bad when she spoke they were even worse when he actually touched.
It was he who pulled away, which surprised him, and she again passed on the opportunity to punch him, which surprised him more. Olga simply watched him for a moment with a quietly piercing gaze. She didn't speak because it wasn't necessary, her eyes all that was necessary. Xander wondered fleetingly if this was what Yorgi's shoes felt like, then pushed the idea aside when it left a bitter taint.
He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. "What? I couldn't think of a snappy comeback. Come on." Xander nudged her, disconcerted at her unchanging expression as he hadn't been before. "What's with the long face? Don't tell me I just infringed on somebody's territory."
"I am no one's territory," she told him. TerRi'toorh-y. But it lacked the bite he was growing used to. "Excuse me, Mr. Cage." Olga slipped away, soon enveloped in the masses.
Xander did not follow her. He didn't think it smart, and if he didn't think something smart he made sure to pay attention and not do it. Instead he hooked his thumbs in his pockets and whistled, long and low. "Yep, one big happy family."

Yorgi's house was a very very very fine house. In fact, it was more of a palace. Renaissance architecture and so forth. Cascading fountains, elegant statures, sweeping stone staircases. The darling little cherubs decorating the place were unexpected. The security cameras and guards all over were not.
Neither were the pillows. In the fountain, lounging around the door, a few even taking turn sliding down the staircase railings once a dip in the fountain got them nice and slippery. Not a one seeming to care that it was below zero and they were in bikinis. None of the guys seemed to mind either. Kolya, clearly the most eager of their happy band, rushed up to one in particular and tossed her over his shoulder, bouncing her up and down gleefully before he bounded up the steps into the mansion.
Xander inquired as to how Yorgi located such a magnificent pad as they entered.
"The original owners just one day decide to move out," was the reply, complete with the trademark Yorgi Sneaky Smile.
Xander shook his head and tilted back to see the muraled cathedral ceilings. "This is amazing, man."
Yorgi patted him on the shoulder. "Make yourself at home."
Xander wandered around the main area, giving particular but not noticeable attention to the cage where a rotating schedule of Yorgi's men sat and watched security cameras. People settled into talking on the right side of the room - if they were guys - or talking on the left side of the room - if they were gals. While each side would occasionally glance at each other, neither crossed the invisible boundary of the middle of the room to speak to the opposite sex. Geez, it really was a high school dance. No one except for Kolya and his snow bunny, that is. He seemed to tend to the obvious frostbite that must accompany prancing around in a wet bikini in Czech's weather by snuggling her close. Kolya's laugh, rambunctious and frequent, broke the polite buzz of conversation, his companion's soft murmur a pleasing antithesis. The self-proclaimed womanizing Kolya was surprisingly tender and focused on the petite brunette; she in turn giggled and cooed and in short didn't even seem to realize there were other people in the room, let alone other men. Xander sensed Olga approach and smiled to himself as she came to a stop at his side. The watched the couple in companionable silence, before Xander said, "You know, what with all his talk about bitches and so on I really expected Kolya to be more of a ladies man."
"Kolya likes to talk big but in the end he is marshmallow. Soft and cuddly." Xander glanced over at Olga to confirm the smile he heard in her voice. Genuine and warm, it made Xander remember he was talking to a person. "Is for Yorgi he likes to pretend. He wants his big brother to be proud of him. Is common enough."
"And the girl?" Xander asked.
"Katya - Koyla's engaged," Olga informed him. At his surprised look her smile grew. "Is not what you expected, yah?" Not waiting for him to answer she continued. "They were friends as children and when Kolya departed from Mother Russia with Yorgi, Katya left her family to come with them. They plan to get married as soon as Yorgi gives permission."
Xander turned to her completely, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Yorgi has to give permission?"
Sympathy and humor touched her face, as if she though he had no idea what he was getting into. "We all belong to Yorgi, Mr. Cage; one way or another. Even you, now."
"X!" Yorgi's voice called out behind them, as if to emphasize her point. He clapped Xander on the shoulder, looking quite merry. "Time for bed. It's getting early. Olga," he continued, turning to her. "Since you two have become such good friends, would you kindly show him to his room? Is the red room, X - I think you will enjoy it."
"I'm sure I will," Xander replied, getting the distinct impression there was something Yorgi was leaving out but nevertheless getting much amusement from.
After everyone bid goodnight, Olga led him out of the main foyer/ living room to a circular hall with doors to the east and west and a longer epic hallway continuing in front. Olga turned east towards the dark doorway and indicated for him to enter.
He stopped instead by the entrance. "Ladies first."
She swept past him, tossing back a light, "And chivalry is supposed to be dead." Olga flicked the lights as she entered, revealing a tasteful room done in an unexpectedly manly purple. "You have several rooms in which to play. You're sitting and living room" - the living room was back- to-back with the sitting room, this time in a soothing blue - "full bathroom to the back and a small study. Has books but is not requirement for you to read. And this." She patted a dark mahogany door, the only closed door in his area. "Is your bedroom. Another bathroom is attached to it."
Xander leaned against the doorframe, intentionally edging in on her bubble of personal space. "Anyone ever tell you, you would make a great real estate agent?"
"Niet. But I will take it as compliment." She didn't back off. Xander didn't know whether to take this as a good or bad sign. "Is there anything else you need, Mr. Cage?"
He grinned and rubbed his hands together. "What about something to nibble on?"
"Call the kitchen; they will send you whatever you want, at all hours."
"What if I'm hungry now?" he replied, leaning closer - leaning but not touching.
She arched a single imperious eyebrow. "Do you find this actually works on women?"
"Would you believe I have no trouble making friends?" he teased.
"Really?" she responded with subdued mock-astonishment.
"And that some people even find me mildly entertaining."
"I cannot believe that is so!" Olga teased, waving the idea off with a flick of her hand. And Yorgi said she didn't know what a joke was.
"You don't find me entertaining?" Xander challenged.
"I find you many things, Mr. Cage, but entertaining never entered the list," she dashed back smoothly.
He leaned in again, eyes lingering on her mouth as he smiled. "Liar."
Olga shook her head even as her lips curved. "Is true."
"Then what's that?" Xander said, nodding at her smile.
"Is general sense of amusement for the ridiculous."
"Is that so?" he asked, coming closer until only a hair's breath away.
"Da."
Xander shook his head, muttering, "Liar."
"I am tell - " He didn't wait for her reply. He didn't even listen to her reply. He just did what he'd wanted to do since he first got her to smile; cupped an arm around her waist and pressed his mouth to hers, absorbing the subtle curve of her smile as if trying to memorize it.
It was so freakin' suave, he'd have to reward himself with a brownie later. Two brownies.
And then the cool spiciness hit him and he forgot all about brownies as the itches in his hands made him guide her arms up around his neck - or did they move there of their own volition - and jitters started running up and down his nerves like he'd drunk too much caffeine. Like that time J.J. bet him he couldn't drink a straight gallon of Boost and he won and couldn't walk straight or hold a cup without spilling it for three days. He'd ruined five good dress shirts just trying to drink his morning coffee (decaf, at J.J.'s insistence) that first day and some part of him remembered this and whispered, don't spill her. Another part of him recognized this didn't entirely make sense, but as the jitters and imperceptible trembles that came with it made him feel susceptible to most anything, and as he really didn't want to spill her and ruin another good shirt (he wouldn't even try to ponder the sense of that) Xander wrapped his arms lower and hefted her closer, bringing her slightly up and over him. He leaned her into the doorframe for support and in a movement so naturally he barely noticed it she wrapped her legs around his waist for balance. And the cool rushes of sandalwood cleared his head and made him dizzy at the same time and he held her closer, searching for the sweetness he'd found earlier that now ran along the edges of her spice. Tantalizing.
She gasped, leaning back her head against the frame and breathing in deep, like a diver breaking the surface of the water. She looked down at him with eyes like night mist and seemed to have words at the edge of her throat, but then his hand ran up her side and with a slight murmur of his name she closed her eyes and dove again.
Noises. She made noises. And not the horrid screeching noises his college girlfriend made - sounded like a cat giving birth while being run over by a truck. But a soft moan deep in the back of her throat that nearly made him drop her as the jitters suddenly and severely spiked.
"Niet!"
And then Olga pushed him away and jitters turned to shivers as he became aware of the icy air conditioning. She sucked in deep, heavy lung- fulls of air, but Xander couldn't tell whether she was trying to take in the oxygen or the cold. "Niet," she said again, the word racing out on a rush of air. She covered her mouth with her fingers, as if trying to hold something in. Avoiding his eyes, she rushed out of the room.
Xander tried to say something, but it came out an unintelligible wheeze. It didn't matter, though, as she was gone. So, he stood there until his head cleared and he was able to pick up his coat successfully, then entered into his bedroom.
His first impression was surprise that the entire room hadn't burst into flames. Whoever Yorgi's decorator was, they loved candles. They were everywhere, decorating the room like pillows decorated Yorgi's club.
Perhaps the nice young lady hanging off his bed post was the decorator.
Music played softly in the background and she writhed against the post in what Xander presumed she thought to be a seductive manner. Her bra and panties were nice - red lace - and it warmed his heart to know Anarchy 99 was able to keep up to date on the Victoria's Secret fashions.
Yorgi had left a present for him.
This presented a dilemma, which Xander pondered as the lady danced to her heart's content. Yorgi would be mad if Xander turned down his present. But would Olga be mad if Xander turned down Yorgi's present? Or, would Xander be dead if he turned down Yorgi's present?
As Taila crawled onto the bed, Xander knew what he had to do.what was going to go down.um.dammit! He scrambled for the appropriate vocabulary. What interaction he would be in the process of participating...yeah, that would work. With sandalwood still racing through his veins, he pulled off his shirt. "The things I'm gonna do for my country."

Xander had never been an early riser, but in such cases as these it was not wise to wait until everyone else had experienced a full night's sleep. Being a spy apparently meant excellent toys but horrid hours. While the rest of the castle still had dancing sugar plums in their pretty little heads - Christmas wasn't for another few months, but with all the snow outside he felt the sugar plums would make an exception - Xander snuck into the main foyer to get a closer look at the video hook-up Yorgi had, to see just how tight a ship Yorganovich ran.
It was unmanned and the cage was unlocked; Yorgi either trusted his people or didn't know enough not to trust them. Considering what he knew of Yorgi so far the first seemed more likely, and therefore the station's abandoned state put Xander's nerves on edge. He probably wouldn't be alone for long.
Ten screens with rotating pictures gave a complete view of the compound. Guards were up and about; Yorgi obviously provided them with top- of-the-line alarm clocks. Xander circled the monitors and examined them from the back. There were wires connecting each screen to the others, but none that he could see where a feed would come in. Antennas on top of the set-up, though, and he followed the direction of it to a window. Outside a signal tower was tucked safe and near invisible in the snow, a little ways up on a mountain.
"It is to help sort out the signals for the cameras."
Xander didn't even turn around. He hadn't heard her come in, but then it wasn't that surprising. He wondered if Yorgi found her Batman-like persona, specifically the entrances and exits, irritating. He wondered if Yorgi was familiar with Batman. He wondered what the process would be to ship American comics to Prague, and if what sort of interesting bloopers came from not-quite-correct translations, such as the in Ocarina of Time when everyone ran around calling Link 'Fairy Boy'. He wondered if she knew about last night. He didn't want to know. "Wouldn't it be simpler to have it hooked up through here?"
"Yes, if these were the only cameras installed," Olga replied, indicating the ten orderly screens. She hooked her fingers in the chain link fence surrounding the station, which made her look much farther away than she actually was. "There are more cameras, hidden everywhere. It would require too many wires to have it hooked up directly here, so the signals are simply redirected to the tower, which sorts them out and sends them back here."
Xander leaned back on the windowsill and crossed his arms in his favorite let's-see-how-far-we-play-this-game stance. The one he used whenever J.J. whipped out the Princess Bride Rhyme-A-Palooza. Does anybody want a peanut? "How many cameras does Yorgi have?"
Olga shook her head. "I do not know. Yorgi has them hidden everywhere with specific monitors set up in his rooms alone. No cameras in personal chambers, though."
"Standards?"
"It would seem."
Xander, tentatively, got up and strolled over to her, stopping right before the fence. "Guards?"
"Twelve groups of four on a rotating eight hour schedule beginning at midnight. Nine are stationary posts, the other three travel in an expanding counter-clockwise circle around the perimeter."
He started walking towards the cage door; Olga took up step along side him. "What else?"
She remained silent, though her eyes prompted him to ask another question.
"Where does Yorgi keep his valuables?"
Olga caught his gaze with a sidelong glance, and a bright smile spread across her face. "What, do you plan on robbing him?"
"Where would he keep the stuff he doesn't want anyone else knowing about?" She tilted her head towards him and lowered her voice. "Yorgi has secret compound underneath the house. In the past few weeks he has spent much time down there, but he is the only one allowed. For now," she finished. "You lookin' to expand?" "I may be," she replied in a closed tone.
Xander hung on the fence. "Maybe I want to come to."
Olga smiled. "That depends on Yorgi."
"Can't you put in a good word for me?"
"Maybe I don't want to."
Xander reached the door, swinging it open with a gentle push. "This is all very kind of you."
"You're welcome." With reflexes heightened through years of playing Mortal Kombat with J.J. (who was not above cheating but refused to admit it even under bribery of brownies), Xander grabbed her arm, twisting to immobilize but not hurt. "Why are you telling me all of this? Did Yorgi tell you to do - " He felt the cold tingle of metal against his neck before he even saw her move. She was fast; if nothing else he had to give her that. He ran his eyes over her ensemble this morning. He supposed it was possible to hide a gun in that, but he still was curious as to where. Xander stretched his neck, which he supposed gave the bullet more room to enter, but it made him look wonderfully arrogant. Maybe the wrong thing to do, for when she spoke icicles jabbed into his brain, but he was tired of these games and cloak and dagger stuff. "It is better for you to figure it out this way than to get yourself shot trying to do it yourself," Olga hissed. "Da?" "Da." Xander snatched her gun and twisted it. He tried to get it just out of range, not confident he could jerk it out of her hands completely. Besides he didn't want to risk the gun accidentally going off.
But, to his surprise, it came out of her fingers easily. Xander was about to make some sort of triumphant remark when he noticed a strange sensation.some kind of unnatural nudge.below the Mason-Dixon line. Olga's smile suddenly reminded him of a wolf - odd, as he always thought of the wolf (and the lion, the shark, and the ferocious armadillo) in terms of the masculine, but right now every scary thing he'd ever encountered was getting an instantaneous sex change.
He cleared his throat. "Is that really necessary?"
Olga shrugged. She could do a pretty convincing 'innocent' when the occasion called for it.
"So, what, you go from spouting vague threats last night to tossing" - he shrugged - "information in my lap?"
"We are on big happy family, remember?"
"We would be, if it weren't for your .45 south of the border."
Olga inclined her head and slipped her second weapon back into its invisible holster.
"Do you even like me?"
"I think you are Neanderthal."
"Big word. Very impressive."
"I looked it up in dictionary just for you."
"Nice to know you thought of me."
"Take me to breakfast."
"What?" Xander asked.
"Take me to breakfast. The next shift starts in five minutes," Olga continued abruptly, turning and heading towards the exit. "It would not be good for you to be found here. Come."
"What makes you think I will?"
"Because I told you to."
"I hate to break it to you, babe, but I don't even do what my Ma tells me. Okay, I do," he amended quickly, "but that's only because she had that alligator accident two years ago. And last time I checked there weren't a lot of alligators in the Czech Republic."
She paused by the door, she seemed to be enjoying this. "You will come."
"Ever get those hallucinations checked?" "I know something you know."
Xander frowned. "Isn't it 'I know something you don't know'?"
"Not in this case."
"Okay." He sniffed and shrugged. "I'll bite. What do you know?"
"That cop you shot." She tossed a glanced back at him. "He is not really dead."
"I'll drive."

Yorgi was a habitually early riser, same time every day - excluding weekends. His wakefulness stemmed from a serious jones for Sailor Moon, which only ran in the Czech Republic at the crack of dawn. So every morning he would wake up, catch a half hour of the Sailor Scouts defeating yet another cartoon villain whilst wearing all-but-non-existent skirts, and go back to sleep.
This morning, right before the Sailor Moon theme started, his phone rang. Yorgi picked it up after a brief mental debate. "Moshi, moshi.Informacia. I can always use information. Who is this? How did you get this number?"

"It's a blood splatter dart." Xander let Olga chose the restaurant as she was more familiar with the area. And upon entering he wished he's had more of an input. It felt slightly uncomfortable wandering in and demanding a table in a place that looked like catering to the Premier of China would be a step down. So, to hide the discomfort he piled on the cockiness and they got a table only by the grace of Olga. He wasn't sure what her long conversation with the maitre 'de was about, but he was certain it wasn't flattering. The restaurant certainly wasn't what he was used to. Waiters in full uniform, chandeliers, eight different forks. Olga ordered for them both, and Xander was pleased to find his meal was just a high class version of bacon and eggs.
Xander held it up for Olga to see. She smiled like a child as she took it from his hand, then carefully examined every particle o it. She shook her head softly, muttering in Russian. She didn't sound happy, but at the same time it didn't look like she was going to kill anyone.
"It's good. It's very good. Whatever is in here made his breathing so shallow I had trouble detecting it. But his pulse, that it could not hide. You get it too low, bad things happen." She dropped the dart into his palm. "But you should have killed him. In this world you can't take any chances."
"Yeah, you're probably right. Why didn't you tell Yorgi and the others he was alive?" Xander asked.
She ignored his question. "Where did you get that?"
Xander glanced around at the restaurant's other patrons, but they were focused on their meals in the single-minded way of people so well bred that other human beings could hold no appeal for them. "Can you keep a secret?"
Olga met his gaze head on. "You will have to answer that question yourself."
"What would you say if I told you that I'm not what you think I am?"
"Oh, did you actually graduate from high school?"
"Serious, now."
"I am being serious." Olga laughed, then schooled her face. "I apologize, go on." Xander hesitated for a moment before blurting out. "I'm a secret agent."
"No, seriously, where did you get it?"
"No, really." He leaned across the table and whispered, "I'm a secret agent."
"Of course," she replied, her agreement a little too energetic to be sincere, "because governments make a practice of sending untrained, albeit skilled, sports stars to handle issues of world security."
"Yeah, basically."
"Very well, then, who do you work for?"
"NSA."
"U.S." she scoffed, as if that answered everything. "Of course. They would be stupid enough to send someone like you."
"Thanks for the compliment."
"Welcome." Her phone rang and she held up a finger for him to wait as she answered it. Xander turned his attention to his food; for such a snooty restaurant they laid a good plate, but he supposed the flower arrangements alone were not enough to spawn that level of snootiness. The bacon even tasted like it came from a real pig - so as far as he was concerned it had. Olga started giggling like a schoolgirl, chattering at a rapid-fire pace. It must have been a girlfriend or something. Yeah, a girlfriend. Or.something.
She hung up neatly, laughter evaporating immediately. "Yorgi knows you're an agent. Kirill is waiting with his rifle outside the entrance." A few quick glances took up the entire area. "There is a back door."
Xander shook his head. "I go out the back door they'll know you warned me."
"You'd rather die?" "Nah, I'd rather think of a more interesting way to get out of here." Olga nodded, for once the mask dropping to reveal frustration and worry. "I will tell you what you need to know. Then we will figure a way for you to get out of here and you go back to your people. If you show your face in Prague again I'll kill you myself."
Xander nodded, recognizing her seriousness, but doubtful Gibbons would just let him go home. "I need to know more about Anarchy 99."
Olga took a moment to gather her thoughts before answering. "You've seen the clubs, the parties, the girls. What Yorgi hasn't introduced you to is what goes on during the day. He has been gearing up for something - big. There's been a lot of activity, especially in the last three weeks. I told you there were people coming in and out. Far as I can tell they are Russian scientists."
"What are they up to?"
"Yorgi has a laboratory set up in the underground compound. There has been a brief tour, but he has not told even his inner circle what is going on yet. He has planned a private celebration for us tonight. No one has been allowed to speak to the scientists but Yorgi, but there are rumors. Rumors that they are genetic scientists, the ones that worked with infectious diseases in the underground mountain laboratories." She paused, then continued with difficulty; her fingers slipped around his wrist. "I don't know what is going to happen, or when it will happen. I do know, Alexander, that your people do not have much time. Tell them to keep their eyes painfully open for the next few days."
"I will."
Her fingers tightened. "We have to think of a way to get you out of here."
Xander nodded, swallowing. He knew he wasn't going to like this game. Next time he saw Gibbons he was going to.well, not really do much of anything because the dude could put him in the hospital faster than Granny Fanny Cage could suck down a pint of Hagen Daaz, but he would think some very mean thoughts. Sure, he put his life in danger with reckless disregard for its worth countless times before, but if he died least he could blame it on the harness or something out of his control rather than a skinny, slightly smelly guy with a high-powered scope taped to his rifle. Well, dude, you're a sports star. Think of something!
He turned to her. "Anarchy 99 doesn't have a policy of taking out its own - ends justify the means kind of thing?"
"I am not liking that question."
"But would he," Xander asked, "go through you to get to me?"
Olga was silent for a long moment. Then Xander rose and pulled on his jacket and she with him. Olga slipped in front of him, and Xander had to duck his head so it was even with hers - and Kirill didn't have a clean shot - but neck pain was much better than sudden and violent death. At least in his dictionary.
They neared the entrance; Xander glanced out the huge window alongside them. A flicker of light marked Kirill's position on a rooftop across the street. He hadn't fired yet, so odds were good he'd wait until he had a clean shot. Thank goodness Olga was such that Kirill thought twice about blowing through her to get Xander. Olga glanced back at him as she reached the entrance. From what he could tell they were still in Kirill's line of sight. Now or never. "Draw!" Xander bellowed. Both weapons were in her hands before the word was out of his mouth. He grabbed her arms and she helped him take her weapons in a realistic fashion. Xander grit his teeth and elbowed her, hard, in the stomach. He both felt and heard the blow connect, and Olga stumbled back on a hard rush of air. Her slight nod told him she was okay. She charged at him, putting on a good show, but effectively ending up in a tight grip, held at gun point.
Xander hauled her out into the street, Olga clawing like a cat and struggling enough that he worried about hurting her. But somehow, between them, they managed to keep Olga in front of Xander, and keep Kirill from shooting anybody. Pedestrians screamed and ran for cover, and Xander ignored them like he ignored most people. He ran, well, as best he could towards a back alleyway he'd seen when they arrived. Shots echoed behind him as they bounced off stones where he'd been seconds before; Kirill must have decided he needed to have something to report to Yorgi other than him sitting on a rooftop watching Yorgi's only connection to the female mind get carted away by a bald ox. Xander turned down the alley and hurried down the winding staircase, buildings looming up around him and shielding them from Kirill's sight.
Deborah was parked quietly in the parking lot at the rear of the restaurant. Xander pulled out his keys and glanced at Olga, who was breathing heavily, her eyes darting around the open area, ferreting out any danger.
"Come with me," Xander said.
He knew she would turn him down. But he had to ask. And as it was she never got the chance to say no. That second he was thrown up against Debbie's hood, a burlap sack tied over his head and his hands bound behind his back. Three men, far as he could tell. He heard a scuffle by Deb's trunk - Olga - and an American voice shout, "Come on! Let's move!"
Xander was shoved in the back of a car, and it sped off.

Opera.
Not an opera fan, but Xander made the best of it seeing as he had no choice. Two men marched him along, one on either side, until they came out into a larger space - the sound reverberated around them as it hadn't a few moments ago - and his feet sank into plush carpeting.
The sack was pulled off his head and his hands were unbound.
And right in front of him Gibbons sat, solemnly listening to what appeared to be a rehearsal of the Marriage of Figaro.
"Gibbons!" Xander called out, in no mood to play their little games. "My favorite kidnapper. Next time could you see about sending a limo? Where's Olga?" he demanded.
Gibbons put a finger to his lips as a slight woman appeared on stage and began a (even to Xander's untrained ears) superb aria. It was quite beautiful, but Xander needed answers, and he'd discovered the best way to get Gibbons to talk was to egg him on. "Oh, come on, just tell me what happened to her. What, did you guys take her or something? I'm not that stupid; she was right there, she saw what happened. You really going to risk her running back to Yorgi and telling him - "
"Telling him what?" Gibbons finally spoke. "That you were abducted. Considering Yorgi wanted you out of the picture already he might send us a fruit basket." Xander glanced at the stage again as the soprano climbed a particularly high scale. He hadn't been to the opera since his cousin Lydia dragged him two years ago and he made completely undignified gagging noises through Don Juan's dying libretto. "Is this really necessary? You already broke me; no need to get cruel and unusual."
"Even you are not beyond a little culture, Mr. Cage."
"Oh, so it's Mr. Cage, now, is it?" Xander teased.
Nothing.
"Where is Olga?!" he bellowed.
"Fear not, Mr. Cage. We don't need her mysteriously disappearing and alerting Yorgi that we're onto him. We shot her with one of those helpful green darts you're so familiar with. When she wakes up the pounding headache will most likely cloud any memory of your abduction. She'll be headed back to her little gang of cut-throats, safe and sound." Gibbons reached into his pocked and held out a plane ticket. Xander took it and laughed. "A ticket? Now that's funny. Where am I going?"
"Home."
The word was so quiet Xander wasn't sure he heard correctly. "Home?"
"Your cover's been blown," Gibbons informed him, no audible variations in his voice. "You're no longer useful."
"That's it? I'm done," Xander checked.
"No tricks. We have enough intel to move forward."
"With what? What, that L.A.R.A.?"
"Quick, clean, effective," Gibbons answered. "Can you think of a better way? Don't worry about it. It'll all be over soon."
Xander didn't want to think that meant what he thought it meant. "You mean this team will come in and kill everybody," he checked.
Gibbons was silent. It was answer enough.
"Not all of them are as bad as you think."
"You had to shoot a cop to get in with them. How 'not as bad as I think' could they be?"
"Olga - "
"There's not time to play favorites. The cards have been dealt."
"What the hell do you mean the cards have been dealt? Have you even been there, man? I'm the one hanging with these people twenty-four hours a day. You don't even know - "
"Oh, by the way, that bank number you gave us? Your friends have made some large cash transfers to a group of Russian scientist known to specialize and traffic in biological weapons."
"Yeah, yeah! Those are the guys Olga told me about!" Xander exclaimed, trying to convince Gibby of - he wasn't even sure what of.
"You knew this and did not inform us?" Gibbons sounded like nothing more than a pissed off school teacher.
"She told me about it this morning. Right before she saved my life," he threw in Gibbons' face pointedly. "I was going to relay it to you as soon as I had time."
"Go home. That's an order," Gibbons continued as Xander tried to interrupt.
One really couldn't argue with the NSA. They were pricks like that. And trying to beat Gibbons senseless with his own arms would probably be messy and painful, and wouldn't really change anything except to maybe get Xander shot with those damn darts again. So instead Xander hollered in frustration and kicked a charming red velvet seat before storming out.
And since he was concentrating on storming and not paying much attention to the NSA pricks that ruined his day, he didn't see Gibbons grin.

The Mission Impossible theme would not stop running through Xander's head; nor should it, he thought, considering how appropriate it is for the particular moment.
Olga liked to use the word particular.
If this were a crappy romance novel - the kind he wouldn't admit to reading under ritualistic torture or pain of death, just as he'd sooner chew off his own legs than confess to being an avid Passions fan - he'd say he came back for Olga, to see if she was alright and try to get her out of here. But deep down he knew that he was doing this to piss of Gibby even if the ticket he had been kind enough to provide Xander with had been first class, champagne brunch included. Xander knew it would get back to the big man on the NSA campus that the Cage idiot had gone and screwed up the whole attempt at saving the world thing and millions died horribly as a result and that would show him.
On second thought, Xander entertained the possibility that maybe it wasn't such a good idea anyway. But can't be helped now, Xander thought, crawling over the edge of a cliff to a sentinel's point and taking out the guards there like a bunch of hammered Rednecks on Super Bowl Sunday.
At least he'd worn all black. He'd learned that much from James Bond movies and Toby had been kind enough to provide a comfortable yet practical bodysuit that did not impede upon his masculinity nor did it make him look like a gymnast.
Xander scurried down a winding staircase, glancing around for the cameras he knew were there, and ducked behind a row of motorcycles as a camera panned across the courtyard. While waiting for it to rotate away from him, Xander made use of the explosive bandages, curtsey of Toby himself - who acted like a five-year-old with a shopping spree through Toys- R-Us when Xander told him what was going on. Awkwardly stooped and walking like a midget with a bladder infection, Xander ducked along each individual motorcycle, slapping a bandage on each of them. Then he moved onto the cars. No sense leaving anything to chance, especially when I'm were pulling all this out of my ass, Xander thought.
The front doors opened and Yorgi exited, along with his entourage. Kolya helped Olga along, who hid a limp better than she hid the multi- colored bruises along her face, neck, and arms. Rage swept bitter onto the back of his tongue, but reason shouted to Xander that she would never have come back claiming to have lost a fight with him without something to show for it.
Yet, other than the injuries of one member, the entire party seemed merry and gay. Several, Yorgi included, were wearing party hats and Kirill tossed confetti out as he pranced along.
They stopped by a door leading under the great staircase and Yorgi said a few words. The Russian tapes were helping - Xander thought he said something about a moose walking softly. Didn't make much sense, but with these evil megalomaniac types you could never tell. The others responded to his moose proclamation by cheering loudly and Kirill went absolutely crazy with the confetti. Yorgi nodded, unlocked the door, and they all disappeared into the darkness beyond the doorway.
Xander fetched his gun as the door shut and rotated the chamber to select a tranquilizer dart. The single sentry guarding the door was taken down too easily. As he dropped Xander grabbed his stuff and ran into the door.
He hadn't had a rush of adrenaline like this for nearly a week now. His brain must be going soft.
So Xander picked up his stuff again, shook his head to clear the pain, and turned the handle. The door opened and he went inside.
A long, sparsely lit tunnel greeted him, the kind required for every underground secret laboratory, and rusty metal set of stairs led deeper underground. Xander hurried down it, trying to remember what Lydia had said about walking quietly - balls of the feet, balls of the feet - and hesitated at the bottom. Two guards traveled further down the hallway, then disappeared as they turned a corner. Neither seemed to have seen him.
Not really sure where he was going, Xander wandered around, doing professional secret agent things like jumping in to dark corners and trying not to scream when he saw a rat. Soon, however, he heard Yorgi's voice and followed it. He caught sight of the gang just as they entered what looked like a vault.
With no chance of getting inside, and not wanting to risk someone catching him hanging around outside the vault - vaults were very important things and people tended to be touchy about who had access to them - Xander located a hallway that ran alongside the door. It led to a boiler room, and along the back wall Xander could hear banging and shouting coming from the other side. He took out his binoculars and fiddled with them for a moment before peering through them.
The room on the other side came through clear as day.
Talk about a lab. The room was huge, taking up mostly by a large vessel. It looked like a boat, but a very cool boat. Solar panels glittered on the top and the pointed nose reminded Xander of a swordfish. Scientist-looking fellows crawled all over the thing, doing very scientific things. Adjusting, twisting, painting the name 'Ahab' on it.
Yorgi stood by the back of the room, and on his command the scientists scrambled about and put a neon yellow and blue torpedo in the sub and a cage of mice on a table next to it. They handed Yorgi a small box with a red bow on it, and Yorgi accepted it in a gentlemanlike fashion.
Then all the scientists started celebrating as Yorgi slipped away to a glass room at the back of the lab. His immediately friends followed, and they closed the doors. Xander couldn't see clearly what they were doing as all the scientists were in the way, drinking champagne, slapping each other on the back, exchanging manly and totally heterosexual hugs.
But then the torpedo began to rise in the sub, pointing towards the ceiling, and all the scientists quieted down. They seemed rather confused, especially when bubbles started rising from the blue half of the torpedo. Several gentlemen dropped their glasses and all started yelling at each other. The yellow and blue liquids slowly mixed to create a violently green fluid and panic erupted among the scientists. A few ran to the back, pounded on glass behind which Yorgi hid.
When they realized he wasn't going to do anything the started running, trying to get out. A group grabbed guns and fired them at the heavy vault door. It didn't open. They started pounding on it, jerking the handle back and forth. Yorgi must have locked it.
Xander rose automatically, jerking towards the door, his mind suggesting and dismissing alternative ideas for opening the damn door. But a bright flash of light through the binoculars blinded him for a moment. And he knew Yorgi must have detonated the torpedo. So he looked again.
A white mist filled the room, like someone had been running the shower too hot and too long again. And gradually, as it swirled and curled around the scientists, they collapsed, and stilled, and grew silent.
After all were dead the mist began to clear, sucked up into vents near the ceiling. Yorgi and his crew stepped out of their shelter to view the damage. Yorgi was laughing.
And that was about the time the guards walked in on Xander.
There was nowhere to really hide, which, in Xander's mind, distinctly registered under the SUCKING MAJORLY category. He charged at them, figuring their two against his one would be slightly upset if he caught them by surprise. It kinda worked. He managed to knock one guy unconscious, but the other one - and his high powered weapon; dammit, why didn't Xander remember he had a gun too? Not that he wanted to kill anyone and not that he had any tranquilizer darts left and not that he had the time or the energy to beat the man senseless with, say for example, his shoe - oh great, now he forgot what he was thinking and had to start all over again. But the other one hit an alarm, and then managed to convince Xander that the best way to escape immanent and painful death would be to follow his rather helpful suggestions.
They dragged him into the vault and threw him on the floor. Yorgi and Co. were lingering in the aftermath of their little soiree. Yorgi surveyed the room - and the corpses - with clear satisfaction. Kirill, Beard-o, Koyla, and.Olga hung back a bit, laughing among themselves as Kirill imitated the dying screams of the men. Even from this distance he could tell her face was drawn behind the mirth. She knew what was going on, even if she didn't look at him.
He was starting to figure out that happened a lot.
Yorgi yelled at the soldier as he was kicked to the floor, his tone one of surprise and anger. Xander had only learned a few words so far, most of them explicatives, but fortunately that's mainly what Yorgi was using. Beard-o laughed - he was always laughing - and muttered something that the soldier vehemently agreed with. Kirill took a drag off a new cigarette deep enough to burn it down to the filter. Kolya and Olga hung back, her head tilted towards his, whispering.
"Mr. Cage." Yorgi cut into his ponderings, kicking him hard enough to sprawl him on the floor. "So nice to see you again." He kicked him, again. It was probably required in the Evil Doer's Handbook For Conquering The World. "Did you really expect to fool me?" Not very good, but appropriately menacing under the circumstances.
Xander shook his head to clear it and spat as blood tainted his mouth. He supposed the situation called for some sort of snappy comeback. Bond had them in store, and as he was so successful at this whole 'saving the world thing' Xander thought it wise to emulate him. However, Xander wasn't British and he didn't have a tuxedo and in actuality all he'd been trying to emulate in Bond was his track record with women. So he gave the best he had. "Eat me, Commie."
Kolya passed by them, muttering something to Yorgi. His brother gave a vague nod; neither Yorgi or Xander paid him much attention. They had things to do, like glaring at each other as if the fate of the world was dependent upon a staring contest.
But they both blinked, and lost, when shots echoed in the large chamber and the soldier and Beard-o dropped. Though both surprised, Yorgi was faster than Xander; his weapon was immediately in his hand. Xander blinked rapidly before it registered what he was looking at.
Olga's eyes narrowed as she aimed, guns in both hands, focusing on Kirill as he struggled to maneuver his sniper rifle into a position to fire. Another shot, but this time it was Olga who jerked back as if hit. The weapon dropped out of her right hand, blood streaking down her shoulder and arm.
Xander didn't stick around to think. He charged Yorgi, tackling the bastard like his cousin Lydia tackled that snotty babysitter Mrs. Rothchild after she kicked Lydia's Pomeranian, Muffy. Yorgi fell backwards, thwacking his head good and loud on the floor. The weapon skittered from his hand. Xander scrambled for his bearings and immediately commenced with a plan of beating the hell out of the greasy-haired idiot. Army, my ass Xander thought. Aunt Euginia had been in the army and she could still bench press twice her weight at the ripe age of 60. Yorgi succumbed to unconsciousness after a feeble two punches. While his mother might insist he was because he was a big, strong boy, he was more inclined to think it was because Yorgi was a puss. At the sharp hiss of, "Don't move," he knew Olga was okay. He glanced over and grinned at the sight of her pinning Kirill to the floor with his rifle. Kirill clutched his nose, the blood on the bottom part of his face indicating it was broken. "Xander, how's it going over there?"
"I don't think he'll be giving us much trouble," Xander replied. "Least, not for a while."
"Good. Nighty-night, Kirill," she muttered, slamming the butt of his rifle against the skinny man's head. His body relaxed, his mouth slightly open, revealing his nicotine-stained teeth. She bent over and picked up her gun, aiming one at each upstanding member of society. "Alexander."
He looked at her, not sure he heard right. Her voice had lost the rolling lilt of Russian, gained a clipped, brisk accent. "Olga?" "We have to go. Now. You first. Hurry, please."
Xander jogged up the stairs to the vault door; she scurried quickly after him. "You're not going to just leave them there?"
"Yes, we are," she answered firmly, waiting until he was outside to swing the massive door closed and secure the lock. Considering what trouble the scientists went to - and they still couldn't get the door open - Xander didn't think either Kirill or Yorganovich was going to get out of there any time soon. But he still wasn't satisfied. "What about all that 'you should have killed him when you had the chance' stuff?" "I don't have orders to kill them. For the moment." She raked her eyes across their surroundings, searching for any back-up that might have been alerted.
"Dammit - "
"Much as I love standing here, arguing with you, Alexander, we dearly need to get the hell out of here. Perhaps we should postpone this stimulating discussion until we are both ensured of our safety, if that is perfectly acceptable to you?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Fine. Whatever. You're the one who can kick ass."
She grinned at that.
Neither of them knew the tunnels very well, but under Olga's direction they hurried along corridors that seemed familiar. The alarm blared loud and painful against the damp bricks. Shouting and footsteps behind them indicated someone was following them. Company was coming.
Gunfire erupted around them and Olga jerked him down as a pipe above their heads exploded into searing steam. The ducked around a corner and Olga returned fire, Xander joining her quickly as he reloaded.
The fire lessened but didn't stop and Olga grabbed his arm. "We're not going to win this. Come on." Crouched low, she hurried down to the rusty staircase. Xander recognize it as the one that lead to the surface.
She waved him to a halt as they reached the thick wooden door marking the entrance and put her ear to the warped oak. Olga gripped her weapons anew and indicated there were two guards outside, then put a finger to her lips. Before he had the chance to make a sound, she fired several rounds through the door. She listened again, then kicked it open.
Gunfire forced them to seek shelter amidst the row of cars and bikes. Never one to give up opportune transportation, Xander grabbed the nearest bike. He looked around and quickly scraped off the bandage/bomb. Wouldn't do to have them blowing up, no matter how really cool the explosion would be. He grabbed Olga's arm and they both ducked as one of Yorgi's helpful little assistants reached a machine gun. "Get on!"
She needed no more persuasion. Olga swung onto the back, clutching him cross the chest with her bad arm, leaving the good one free to handle a weapon. And, taking into account the situation, Xander left off the manly revving of the engine and just took off.
The rain of bullets lessened for a brief moment as their pursuers reached the row of automobiles. This was better - if there was a better in all this. But Xander was used to having people chase him at high speeds, even if they were usually cops, and the familiarity of it washed away some of his nervousness. Bullets soared passed them and he was sorry to report that unlike the movies occasionally they did get too close for comfort. There was pain, but even though Xander had never been shot before he didn't think he'd been hit this time. Anyway, it wasn't as if there was the opportunity to pull over and check everything out.
The wide double doors for the fence was fast approaching in front of them, and Xander stepped down on the pedal even faster. He could feel Olga behind him, her fingers digging into the thick material of his jacket as she leaned back, returning fire, doing her best to ward off the most adventurous of their pursuers.
A section of the ground rose up ahead of them; Xander recognized it as a plate of spikes used to puncture tires. The spikes were facing the wrong way, but they probably intended to use it to block his way. Little did they know they were facing the Amazing Xando!
Xander leaned back on the bike, drawing up the front. Which made it all too easy to ride up the side of the raising platform and soar over the top of the fence. (Gee, hadn't he done something like this a few days before?)
The bike landed hard, bounced a few times, and Xander stopped as quickly as he could as Olga nearly fell off. "You okay? Olga, are you okay?" he demanded.
She nodded, swallowing hard.
Xander pulled the detonator from a pocket and grinned. "Watch this."
He pressed the shiny red button. Naturally it came with a shiny red button.
The explosion was so much more than he hoped. It was the most perfect thing he - as a man - had ever seen.barring, of course, naked women. Xander glanced back at Olga and grinned.
She shook her head but smiled nonetheless. "Men."
Xander started up the bike again and turned it towards town. And the safe house. "I suppose we're gonna have to tell Gibbons about this." He tossed a look over his shoulder. "Huh, Lara."
She was silent long enough that he had to turn back to the road. Unlikely as it was that there would be another vehicle on the road he didn't want to risk ramming them into a tree. Splinters gave him the little nails-on-blackboard shivers up his spine.
Then she laughed, and he felt it tickle the back of his neck. "Well, you are smarter than Gibbons or I expected, I must give you that." All traces of the rich Russian slur to her words faded away into the sweetly clipped accents of someone born and bred next to Bond himself.
"Like the video game," Xander said suddenly, surprising himself as he said it outloud. It had been intended as an introspective.
She responded to it anyway. "Yes. Like the video game."

Xander headed the bike back to the safe house in Prague; he didn't know where else to go and he didn't think it wise to waste any time introducing Gibbons to Olga. Though he had the feeling they already met.
Olga, for her part, clung to him quietly as they traveled the wet streets. She didn't say anything, but the breathing the echoed across his back was heavy and raspy. He only had to glance down at the red streaks on her right hand to remember that awful sick sound in the laboratory when bullet met flesh.
Outside the safe house, Xander helped Lara off the motorcycle - despite her protestations that she was fine - and let the bike fall where it lay. There were lights on in the entrance and the barren hallway when they entered, almost making it seem like someone was waiting up for them.
Xander opened the door to his room and flicked on the lights, Olga following behind against his orders. "I thought I told you to stay," he muttered, taking her arm.
"I can walk - " She stopped and nodded behind him.
Milan sat in a chair directly in front of the entrance, a pleasant smile on his rat face. Xander helped Lara sit on the bed and pulled off his pack. "Sova. What are you doing here, man?"
"First you set me up in the bar," Milan began. "Then you shoot me in the back."
"My boss does it to me. I did it to you. It's a vicious circle," Xander explained, digging through the boxes by the door to find the first aid kit.
"You think it's funny?"
"No, I don't think it's funny. You didn't take it personally, did you?"
"I always take it personally when someone shoots me."
Xander was starting to get a bad feeling about this conversation. He tossed the med kit to Lara and turned to Milan. "I did what I had to do to get in. We're on the same side, remember?"
"I'm sorry," Milan replied. "I switched sides." He pulled out a gun. "There's only so far a person can be pushed, you know? And I have to say, X, you might not be aware of this, but you can be a real jackass sometimes. Most of the time. Alright, all the time, but it doesn't matter right now. My government doesn't pay quite as well as Yorgi."
"My government pays twice as much," Xander said, keeping it cool, "and - "
Milan laughed. "And that money would come without a price? Did you think you could just walk into the spy business and have all the angles figured out?"
Xander fought the urge to glance behind him at Lara. Enough playing around. "What are you going to do, shoot me?"
"That was the plan. Where do you want it? In the head, to be quick? Or in the chest for an open casket, so I can see your heart?"
"Technically, if you shoot me in the chest, you won't be able to see my heart. Bullet hole's not large enough."
"Not with this little baby. It's blow a hole in your chest large enough for me to walk through."
"Well, then you wouldn't see my heart anyway," Xander pointed out, buying all the time he could. "You'd be showered in bits of it, along with my blood and guts and fragments of bone, but the actual heart would be decimated."
"Alright, so I'll just still see your chest cavity. It doesn't matter either way to me. Hurry up and decide."
"What were my choices again?" Xander asked.
"Head or chest."
"Can I have a little while to think about it?"
"No - "
Then there was a crack, and Milan fell backwards, his chair crashing to the floor with him.
Xander took his hands of his head and glanced around. On the bed, Lara shook her head and put her weapon away as she caught Xander looking at her. "Always go for the head. It is quicker and it doesn't necessarily mean a closed casket. Morticians can do amazing things these days." She looked down at her shoulder and winced. "Would you mind helping me with this? I'm not sure I can do it on my own."
Xander nodded. "Uh, can I take him out of here first?"
"Please. Oh, get the Ivans to do it," she amended. "They'll.know how to handle this sort of thing."
"Good plan."
As it turned out, the Ivans were already headed to his room to check out the gunshot, and were only too glad to get rid of Sova's body. They left in a cheerful mood, arguing amiably in broken English about the best places to hide a body.
"So," Xander said, kneeling in front of the bed and staring up at Lara. He tugged at the material around her shoulder, and the sleeve came away cleanly. His fingertips accidentally tracing its progress down her arm, drawing his attention to the subtle lines of muscle. "You're, um, you're an agent too, huh?"
"That's right." She winced as he peeled the fabric from her wound, sticky with drying blood.
"Sorry."
Lara passed it off with a shake of the head, holding his eyes with her own. Circles were beginning to form under her eyes, making them appear darker.
He doused some cotton balls with iodine, fumbling a few times, and dabbed her shoulder. "Sorry, sorry," he apologized as the iodine bubbled up in the wound. "I don't know anything about how to do this."
Lara smiled down at him. She had a nice smile, when she used it. "Don't worry," she whispered.
Xander nodded. "I'm sure Gibbons will send somebody over later, to fix you up properly."
"I'm sure he will," she replied wryly.
Xander paused. "Here I don't - " He brushed her hair, loose and wild from the bike ride, away from her shoulder with the back of his hand, doing his best to avoid dropping the stained cotton ball. "I don't want it to get in you wound." His knuckles traced the line of her neck and the curve of her jaw. "How long have you been doing this?" he asked.
Lara tilted her head back slightly under his touch. "This job or this agenting?" The question came out a soft sigh.
"Both, I guess," he murmured.
"I've been working on Anarchy 99 for the last five months."
"Is that a normal time for a secret mission?" Xander wiped away the last of the blood from her flesh, his hand finding its way onto her leg as he went to drop the rest of the cotton balls on the floor with the others.
"It's a bit long." Lara shifted anxiously as his hands traveled up her legs, towards the first aid kit in her lap, and continued, "I needed time, though, to - to work my way up into Yorgi's secret circle. He shares general information with just about everyone but is very particular about.particulars." Xander swallowed hard and ripped open the packets of gauze bandages to wrap up her shoulder. "And now?" "Now?" she echoed. With her with the shredded part of her shirt giving agonizing glimpses and her damp and dark from their wet ride, and her eyes luminous green slants in the fluorescent lighting, she appeared more than half witch, or like some mystical sea creature he'd dragged from the deep. Her words rode on the waves of her breaths, deep and hypnotic. "Now, we contact Gibbons. He has to know what we found." Xander nodded, mesmerized. "We should do that right away." He pulled the first aid kit out of her grasp, then cupped her chin, brushing the hair out of her eyes so he could see them better. "So, you're like Bond?" A wicked smile crossed her lips. "Why is it Americans always think British agents are like - " He closed the distance between them. And it was just like he remembered, only better. Warm and soft and spicy and cool, all mixed together in a way that had him aching with hunger. A growl caught low in his throat, and he eased her back on the bed - or she pulled him down. He wasn't sure which and he wasn't about to stop and think about it. The world was quiet, with soft sighs and low moans and murmurs of things that were not quite clear. She opened for him under his touch, and the last of her ice melted away with their clothes. He explored her, his discoveries like opening a treasure chest. Xander found so much to love about her; the smooth skin of her belly, the gentle ridges of her ribs, the tender part behind her knee, the line of her hip - the taste, the sound, the touch of her. And her hands crawled over him, seeking out secrets he hadn't known were there. She laughed as she nipped at his shoulder, and her nails traced fine tingling lines along his back. Her questioning touch on his scars, and his solemn kisses on hers - far more than he'd have liked. And her wicked smile traveled down his body, down the planes of abdomen, down his sides and his legs, straight down to his big feet that he'd been teased so often for as a child. She was fragile underneath his hands and he was gentle, caring for her like a precious object. And she gasped and watched him with those witch-green eyes, and she knew him. And he loved her.

"The purpose of the submarine is to deploy a binary nerve agent called Silent Night." Lara licked her lips and continued. "It's been missing since the collapse of the Soviet Union in '91. And it can kill millions." Over the miniature TV thingy, Gibbons sighed. "We knew they were up to something. You found out what it is. That's excellent work, Porter."
"There never was a sweeper team, was there?" Xander asked. He had the feeling he already knew the answer.
"If I told you not to jump off the Empire State Building."
Xander grinned. "Yeah, you're right. I'd definitely do it."
Gibbons held out his hands. "I inspired you. I'm an authority figure, that's what I'm supposed to do."
"Then tell me one thing. Why am I here? What the hell is the point of sending me here if you got her?" "Yorgi knew there was a spy in his mix. We had to throw the heat off of Porter, and bringing in someone Yorgi'd easily spot as an agent seemed the best bet. Our guys kept dying, though; I though at least someone like you would have a chance. Look, you've done a good job. Better than we ever expected. It's time for you to come home."
"What about Lara?"
"Porter's on this now; she can handle the rest by herself. The Ivans will take her in for proper medical attention tomorrow morning. Come home, Xander. That is an order."
"Sure." Xander switched off the high-tech pocket protector and flipped it shut.
Lara stood, strolling over to the edge of the roof, and leaned on the railing. They had to come up here to get a good signal. Xander followed her, putting an arm about her shoulders. She turned into him, the cool night air blowing the hair away from her face.
"How soon can Yorgi launch this thing?" Xander asked casually.
Lara looked up at him; she was far too clever for her own good. "You were told to go home. You're under orders, here, Alexander. No more playing around at being a spy."
"How soon?" he repeated.
"Now that Yorgi knows about me," she answered hesitantly, "he'd push the launch to as soon as tomorrow. But I wouldn't expect it so soon. I have perhaps a day or two and that's all I need. This is not your problem anymore."
"If Yorgi gets paranoid it's everyone's problem."
"I know that. But Yorgi will be on the lookout for you - "
"You, too."
"Not to mention," she overrode his interruption, "that you have not been trained as an agent. You could die."
"So could you," Xander fired back. "I've risked my life for a lot of stupid reasons. This is the first one that finally makes sense to me."
"This is not once of your stunts," Lara hissed. But her eyes were bright. He knew what that meant.
"I know. And I know I might die in there," he replied. "Funny, isn't it? After all my death-defying tricks, all my hiding - I finally find something that makes me want to stick around."
"And now you want to go and throw it away?" Lara responded quietly.
"No. But you do what you have to. And so will I." Xander tossed her a grin, the charming boyish one he used whenever he wanted to get his own way. Hadn't failed yet. "I just thought we could.do it together."

Toby was flirting.
It was a horrible sight to see.
"But when you break it down, I'm a simple man, you know? I'd be happy with a beautiful Czech girl, house, kids - "
Xander pulled Debbie to a screeching stop next to Toby, breaking up the junior agent's little Dating Game. "Hey, geek!"
Toby glanced over, and grinned. "Hey, X. How you doing? Hey, Lara," he tossed over, nodding to the woman in the passenger seat.
"No time for chit-chat," Xander interrupted. "Got new orders from Gibbons. Get in."
Lara turned around in her seat and smiled at the young man as he closed the door. Xander pressed on the gas, heading towards the back of the facility. "Hello, Mr. (what). How are you doing?"
"I was just about to get her number. You guys have the worst timing."
"So sorry to hear it. Now, we're going to need your help. We want all of that in here."
Toby glanced around, confused. "All of what?"
Debbie rolled to another stop, this time in front of the weapons compound. Xander took the keys out of the ignition, tossed them over his shoulder, and smiled.
A smug look crossed Toby's face. He shrugged. "Done."

"The castle is covered with surveillance cameras."
Lara translated.
"That's why we cannot get close enough," one man said.
"That's why someone needs to knock out the communications tower at the base of the mountain," Lara explained. "Mr. Cage has volunteered for that assignment."
A murmured passed through the crowd in front of them.
"Now is there anyone here who knows how to fly a plane?" Xander asked.
One woman stepped forward at Lara's translation. He knew her. He'd peeped at her through Toby's spyglasses. "I can."

"Too much turbulence around these mountains!" Inga shouted.
Really, I hadn't noticed. The plane was bouncing around like a kiddie ride. It was a good thing Xander hadn't eaten before they set out. "Just get me in line with that tower!" he hollered. "I'll do the rest." He peered out the window. Yorgi's castle was shrinking the further they got to the mountains.
The day was perfect for this kind of stunt. It was going to be perfect - well, as perfect as a day could be when one was storming the castle. J.J. would kill him for not getting this on tape.
Inga glanced over her shoulder. "Go now!"
He jumped.
Xander always like sky-diving. The rushing wind, the moment of weightlessness, the great emptiness around him, the feeling of his stomach hurtling out of his body. Even the ever-approaching ground, the impending sense of doom that came from the idea of slamming into the ground at a high speed. It reminded him of Lara.
He pulled the zip cord and the chute rocketed out behind him. From there it was a simple matter to glide down to the mountain, and when his ski board hit he unlatched the harness and the parachute floated away.
The powder was fantastic, it was more like flying that skiboarding. Xander knew they had to have him on video by now. And they wouldn't wait long before coming after him. Even the idea of violent and torturous death did little to damper his mood. It was just such a great day.
Violent torturous death.violent torturous death. Xander swallowed hard as he skidded to a stop and rethought that last part. Mentally he reorganized his 'to do' list. Appreciate beautiful day. Avoid horrid death if possible. Digging into the pockets of his jacket, Xander scrutinized the valley before him. Perfect.
The small detonating devices were hiding deep inside his front pockets. Two identical grey tubes. He flicked off the tops and pressed the large red buttons, then flung them behind him into the snow.
And pushed off again to get the hell moving before those things blew up.
He was just gaining speed when a boom echoed across the mountain. Xander glanced back quickly; a tunnel of flame and smoke wormed into the air. A ripple shot through the ground. The snow began to break up under his board; he was having a hard time staying up right. Xander urged his board faster.
In the distance he finally noticed Yorgi's men heading towards them on bikes. He guided his board off a break in the rock and it twisted under him, turning him around. Just in time to see a wall of snow speeding silently after him. A sick chill hurtled down past his stomach to his toes. He'd done hundreds of stunts, and Xander always counted on adrenaline to carry him through. This wasn't adrenaline, this was fear.
Xander threw himself right ways around, even as the air forced out by the snow propelled him forwards and sharp tingles of ice licked at his heels.
He shot by Yorgi's boys, who were suddenly far more interested in the mountain of snow and ice chasing him than anything else. Several saw it in time to turn around and flee. Most didn't. As they raced one by one the snow swallowed the fleeing men. The landscape blurred into unrecognition as the snow and air drove them faster than Xander could handle. The tower loomed in front of him. If he could maybe dash around it -
At the last moment he shifted, and the next thing he knew he was up in the air. Like backwards skydiving. Xander blinding waved his arms around, desperately searching for something to grab onto. Sure luck was on his side, and his left hand closed around the antenna that stood on top off the tower. He clung onto it, the snow plowing into his body. Like a blanket of ice, it curled around his toes, then knees, then shoulders in the space of a few seconds. Xander squeezed his eyes as the snow slashed through crevices of his clothes and brushed his ears.
Lara.
Then he stopped, blinked, and shook his head. The snow had stopped. Wriggling, Xander was able to work the snow from around his arms and chest. He tore off his smoked goggles and took a good look around. The avalanche had not only taken out the tower, but all of his adversaries.
An engine kicked up to his right.
Alright, maybe not all his adversaries. Three snowmobiles rumbled over the new hills, headed straight for the remnants of the tower. Towards him. Xander struggled more, fighting to free himself. But the snow clung to him like a giggly prom date. There was no getting out on his own.
The snowmobiles pulled to a stop behind him, the plows hovering over his head.

Two goons brought him to the library. Yorgi and Kirill were waiting for him, Kirill smoking a cigarette. Both had bruised faces, Kirill had a swollen eye. Xander's gentlemen escorts jerked him into the center of the room and threw him down in a chair.
"Mr. Cage," Yorgi began, staring out the window. "How nice to see you again."
Xander wasn't in the mood for it. "Yeah, yeah, stuff it."
"Very well. No chit-chat." Yorgi hurried to him and leaned over his chair. "Where is Olga?"
Xander grinned. "Didn't see her coming, did you? Neither did I. Its chicks, man."
"Where is Koyla?"
"He's your brother, you tell me." Understanding caught up with him and stared up at Yorgi. "He's not here?" No answer. Xander laughed. "He left?"
Yorgi spit on him. "Of all people, I thought you'd understand what I'm trying to accomplish. Can you imagine it, X? Imagine a city like Prague vanishing in a cloud of poison gas. Then Hamburg, London, Washington. Imagine not knowing who did it, or why. And so they turn on each other. These guys attack those guys. Those guys invade these guys. Soon, whole world implodes. Imagine government disappearing. And in the end imaging facing absolute, beautiful freedom." He slowly turned, settling his eyes on Xander. "But you will not be there to see it. Like Viktor."
He held out his hand. Kirill placed a laser-sighted revolver in his hands.
And that's when the whole back wall exploded.
The cavalry had arrived.
Pain throbbed in Xander's head and he forced it clear. Yorgi and his homies were still on the floor. Xander ran and ducked behind and overturned table. Shots rang out, both out- and indoors. Xander eased lower, trying to get out of bullet range. The flood of bullets lessened, and he heard Yorgi shout, in English no less, "Cover me!" Naturally Xander tried to peek, and immediately got his head nearly shot off by Kirill.
This time when the firing faded, it didn't start up again. Xander heard it ongoing in the distance, but not in the immediate area. He eased himself up, and cautiously peeked over the table.
Running steps in the hallway, crunching on broken glass from the windows. "Alexander! Xander!"
"Lara! In here!" Xander shot up and jumped over the table, falling spectacularly when his foot caught the table's edge. Holy cow, what am I in the sixth-grade?
Lara didn't seem to notice, however. Her pistols pressed into his back as she embraced him, caught his mouth with her own. She pulled back suddenly, running her eyes and hands along him furiously. "You're alright? You're not hurt?"
He cupped her face. "Lara, I'm alright."
She nodded with a smile and a sigh. Then something flickered across her face. "Where's Yorgi?"
Xander glanced around. "He left. Kirill too. I didn't see where they went."
"Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no." Lara raced to a large set of cabinets by the door and flung them open, revealing a complex array of computer equipment. Her fingers tore across a gaping space. "He took the hard drive. He's going to launch Ahab."
Xander stared at her.
They ran out of the room.
Lara took him to an ornate panel in the hallway, which opened to reveal a drastic array of weapons. "Pick one."
Xander, of course, selected something large and wicked looking. Lara merely took ammunition for her basic pistols. Outside the sounds of battle were elevating; for now Xander couldn't tell who was winning. He really hoped it was his guys, but he had always had awful luck picking sports teams.
He went first but Lara led, taking them quickly and quietly along the path to the underground facility. As they turned one corner a set of doors burst open and a group of Yorgi's followers spilled out. Xander aimed and fired - - and nothing. The gun clicked as if empty. Lara shoved him out of the way, firing rapidly and repeatedly. Clearing the hallway in seconds. Then she leaned over and flicked a switch on his weapon. "Just a suggestion - it would work so much better if you turned the safety off." She patted him on the head and they continued. They entered the stairway leading under the door to find their guys already there, rooting out whoever they could find. Grabbing several, Xander headed with Lara to the laboratory. The doors were already open, not a good sign. And though there were some of their guys already in there, most were not responding. As if to confirm their fears, a shot whizzed by them, nearly taking Xander's ear off as he entered. The next shot felled a guard to the right, and the next a man behind them. "Stop!" one soldier hissed as Xander crawled up next to him. "He's got us pinned down." Xander's mouth pressed into a grim line. Kirill. Think, dude, think, think. He looked down to see if the soldiers dropped anything useful. "Hey, you got a bazooka! Cool! I mean, why's it lying here?" he corrected immediately. "Stop thinking Prague police and start thinking Playstation. Blow stuff up!" "Is not bazooka," the man answered, distracted. "This is heat-seeker rocket."
"Heat-seeking?" Xander glanced over at Lara. "The son of a bitch is smoking." He hefted it up onto his shoulder. "Set it," he told the soldier.
It took just a moment. Then Xander edged out into the open, adjusted his grip on the rocket launcher, and fired. And prayed. I told him that cigarette would kill him. Please don't make me a jackass, Lord. And if I have to be a jackass, please don't make me a liar.
As the smoke and the sparks from the explosion died down, Xander stepped into the clear. When he wasn't shot down by a sniper he waved for the rest to come.
Ahab had already taken off when they arrived at the dock, and Yorgi was just speeding away in his boat. As he exited the mansion cave, Yorgi turned around and fired at those spilling onto the dock. Big Ivan twitched as three shots hit him and tumbled into the water.
On the water, Ahab's engines flared to life and the sleek boat rocketed down the river and out of sight.
The dock door started to roll shut.
Xander ran and jumped, skidding to a stop on his stomach on the outside of the door. He fired. Yorgi laughed and favored him with a finger gestures. Xander shut his eyes briefly, then focused. Act like it's Duck Hunter, man. He fired again.
Yorgi went down. His boat careened out of control and smashed into rocks, exploding as the gas tank was ruptured.
The Xander felt himself being pulled backwards in one big yank. He slide back into the dock, and Lara helped him to his feet. "How long until Ahab hits the city?" he demanded.
"Thirty minutes." Lara's voice was grim but determined. "Let's go."
They flew back outside; Xander grabbed the first person he saw. "Where's the helicopter? We need the helicopter."
The person - some unnamed lackey - shook his head.
"Then any transportation. A tank, a bus, a pony, a couple of really pissed-off ferrets - "
Deborah roared to a stop beside him. "X!" Toby called out, hopping from the driver's seat. "There you are. I gave you everything you wanted. This thing will damn near fly now. And I just want you to know, I know that you screwed me. Gibbons didn't authorize any of this. But seeing as he's going to kill you as well as me, I forgive you."
"You're a very generous man," Xander replied. "Agent Shavers, I'm giving you a field promotion." He handed Toby his gun. "Take over, finished the mop-up. You're in charge." Xander got in his car, nodding for Lara to take the passenger seat.
Toby waved at them through the windshield. "Yes, sir! I'm the man for the job! I won't let you down! Wait, wait, wait, wait!" He shoved a thick pamphlet in Lara's hands. "Almost forgot the manual. You'll need this. And, X? Go kick some ass."
"I fully intend to." Xander waited until Toby backed off and pressed on the gas.
Debbie really was a magnificent car, and it wasn't long before they had Ahab in sight. Fortunately for them there were a lot of short-cuts ending in a road that ran directly parallel to the river. Xander urged Debbie faster. "That thing must be going 80 miles an hour. How do we stop it?"
"The controls are on the bubble panel on the top. You see it?"
Xander nodded.
"The hard drive's in there. If we remove the hard drive than Ahab will not be able to function."
"You got the manual," he said. "See if Shavers put in anything we could use."
Lara skimmed through it. "His handwriting's atrocious. If we live through this I'm enrolling him in a course on penmanship." Pages flipped faster. "Flame throwers, mini-bombs, exploding hubcaps, rocket launchers - "
"Rocket launchers?"
"There's no way to aim it correctly at this speed. We'd never hit it. You have a tank on your hands, Mr. Cage. We can't use any of this on Ahab. And Silent Night only breaks down in deep water." She hesitated, the wind whipping her hair around her face. "I'm going to have to get on it."
"What?"
"I have to get on it. Alexander, listen to me, I know Gibbons. I've worked with him for years. If we don't stop Ahab on our own then he'll blow it out of the water."
"But that will destroy Prague."
"Yes, but it will save countless other cities. Now, in order to avoid that I have to get on that ship."
"Like hell you will."
"Oh, and you have a better suggestion?"
"Yeah. I'm going to get on it."
"You must be joking."
Xander flashed her a razor-sharp smile. "How's your shoulder?"
"Well enough," she lashed back.
"Is that so? You got shot yesterday and today you're well enough to go jumping onto boats. Come on, Lara," he said, gentler despite having to yell over the wind. "Let me play the hero for once."
She watched him, then shook her head. "If you die on me I swear to God I'll shoot myself and come after you."
He laughed. "That's the best argument against death I ever heard."
"Alright. Let's say you will do it. The next question is: how?"
"What else did Shaver's load into this thing?"
"Weapons. Hand-held." Lara pressed a button and the back seats rotated into a weapons tray. "Harpoon gun, parachutes built into the seats, ejectable roof."
"Perfect." He unfastened his seatbelt. "You're going to have to take the wheel."
Lara didn't ask, she immediately began to move. "It's a good thing I'm so flexible."
"A damn good thing," Xander agreed, squeezing into the passenger seat. He pulled the parachute straps out of the seat cushion and hooked them around him, then took the harpoon gun from the back seat. "Where's the ejectable roof?"
"Here." Another button, and the roof flew off. Xander couldn't help but wincing at Debbie's baldness. But as it was in pursuit of world peace, he could live with it. He snapped the end of the harness line to his parachute and stood up, very carefully. "You're going to have to cross that bridge for me to get into range!"
Under Lara's guidance, Deborah zoomed up and across the bridge. The road on the other side brought them much closer to Ahab. Xander pulled the trigger.
When he felt a sharp tug, he knew he'd hit his mark. "I wish I had a video camera," he muttered. "This is going to be one hell of a trick."
Xander pulled the ripcord. The parachute blossomed behind him, and he shot out of the car. Ahab was fast, and Xander was soon dangling several hundred feet in the air. It was like Xtreme Parasailing. With another bridge looming in sight, Xander latched a metal thinga-ma-hoochie (it probably had an official name somewhere) and untangled himself from the parachute harness. Then he fell, sliding down the line on the thinga-ma- hoochie, straight to Ahab. Straight into Ahab, as it turned out. Xander landed on the slippery metal plating with all the grace of a belly flop. Despite the pain he clung on as the parachute wrapped around the bridge and the ship lurched and the harpoon was torn out.
Xander inched on his belly to the bubble, then straddled the boat carefully. The bubble top was easy enough to open, but all the flashing lights and switches and buttons inside confused him.
As he was thinking about it, a panel opened up in the front of the boat and a missile array rose out into the air. Those same yellow and blue missies Xander recognized from the laboratory. With mechanical whirrs and clicks, they positioned themselves to point straight up into the sky. Instantly, the liquid began to bubble and mix.
Thinking time over. Xander yanked one of the missiles out of its holder and stuffed it back in upside down. Then he took hold of the hard drive and ripped it out. Shards and sparks accompanied it.
Then he fell off.
Not a gracious end, but as he was considering getting off anyway, it was infinitely practical. Still clutching the hard drive, Xander pushed against the current as Ahab, without proper navigation, propelled into the deep. Then there was a surge, and he was pushed up faster than he sunk down, and broke the surface.
Gathering his bearings, and most importantly confirming that the world was not destroyed, Xander swam to shore.

"Well, Busty St. Clare, I have to say, I haven't seen heroism like that outside of the movies."
Xander flinched as a paramedic applied antiseptic to scratches on his forehead. "And I bet it was a lot cheaper than paying nine bucks plus whatever for stale popcorn. More entertaining too."
Gibbons laughed. "That's for sure."
Xander held still as they applied plastic sutures to his temple. "Where's Lara?"
"She's getting checked out, too. Sure, she didn't have the ride you did, and the doctor at the compound did a good job with her shoulder. But she tore it open again during all the excitement. I ordered her to have someone take a good look at it. You know," Gibbons continued, "I've decided to forget the whole thing about you disobeying my orders, I'm so thrilled with what you did today."
"Thanks."
"Even though it wasn't necessary."
This gave pause for thought. "What?"
"I had this young man, name of Kolya, contact me a day and a half ago. Claimed to be Yorgi's brother."
"Yeah?" Xander replied.
"Turns out this Kolya wasn't too happy with what Yorgi was planning, so he left. Only he really wasn't too happy about what Yorgi was planning, so apparently some time after I spoke to you he snuck back. Seems no one really knew he was gone to begin with, so nobody noticed. Went down into some sort of underground laboratory Yorgi had and made a few changes." Gibbons nodded to someone, and a nameless lackey sauntered over, carrying one of the vicious blue/yellow missiles. Gibbons took it with a word of thanks, then unscrewed the bottom, revealing the blue liquid.
"Are you crazy!" Xander yelled, scrambling back on the stretcher. "Do you know how much trouble I just went to, trying to stop that thing??"
Gibbons eyed him humorously, then poured some of the blue liquid into a Styrofoam cup. Toasting it to Xander, he drank.
"What the hell - "
"Care for a little refreshment?" Gibbons asked, offering him the cup.
Xander took it with suspicion, and sniffed. It smelled.sweet. "You're not trying to poison me, are you?"
"What makes you think I'd do something as cheating as poison?"
Xander nodded and drank. And nearly choked. "It's blue-raspberry?!"
"Kool-Aid. Seems Katya loves the stuff so Kolya got her a bunch a while ago. Turns out blue-raspberry and lemon-lime match the colors of the ingredients for Silent Night perfectly."
"And all the Silent Night?"
"Submerged. Kolya didn't want it getting out."
"Nice boy."
"Very nice. We may have to hang onto him. So, now there's just the matter of the favor."
"What favor?"
"You saved the world." "So you owe me for that."
"Pretty much." "What do I get?"
"What do you want?"
"Really?" Xander asked. "Anything?"
"Really."

J.J. was a very smart woman. Much smarter than Xander, so he'd always found it paid off to follow her orders.um, advice. Sure he liked to harass her a bit, she looked like an extended puffer-fish when he pissed her off, but in the end he gave in. He always gave in; it was the best thing to do - for everyone involved.
This time he was particularly happy he did so. And that Gibbons was so accommodating with J.J.'s demands. But it turned out that Gibbons had three sisters of his own and understood the wisdom in taking female advice, especially when those females knew where you lived and had no qualms in pestering you until your head exploded.
Not to mention Bora Bora was beautiful at this time of year.
Though Xander thought it was a particularly nice, unnecessary gesture for Gibbons to reserve a whole beach for him.
And to provide the company.
Like Venus rising from the waves, Lara broke the surface of the warm blue-green water, flipping her wet hair away from her shoulders and out of her face. Her swimsuit, more modest than was expected at a tropical paradise but not terribly so, clung to her skin with the water, as if she was wearing nothing but a splash of green body-paint. Xander grinned and strolled over to the edge of their dock with a contented sigh. This spy stuff was better than he thought. Lara swam over to the dock and Xander grabbed her arms, pulling her up onto the sun-bleached planks of wood. She laughed and flung her arms around him, cool, wet, and slippery in his embrace. He was pleased to see the bandages around her right shoulder were still only orange, from the iodine he'd applied that morning. Xander checked anyway. "How's your shoulder?" "It's fine." Lara flicked his nose. "Mother. Stop worrying; the doctor said it'll be as good as new in a few weeks. Besides, worry about yourself. You keep forgetting sun tan oil and you'll get burnt to a crisp." "How about I just stick to worrying about you, okay?"
Lara laughed.
A sharp trill sounded from inside their cottage. Xander groaned. Gibbons. "Xander." Even through his mini-computer's small speakers, Gibbons' voice was imposing. "Xander, you there?"
He hugged Lara tighter. "I'll ignore it if you do."
"Deal."
"I know you're there," Gibbons continued. "I've got you here on satellite magnification."
Lara shook her head and muttered, "I do hope he hasn't been watching us all this time."
"Listen, when you two are finished with your vacation you need to call me. We've got a something interesting to talk about. Turns out we're all very pleased with the work you've done, and an offer has come down from on high - to make this more of a permanent job for you."
This stopped Xander.
"Course," Gibbons finished, "you'd have to pass spy school first. But I have a feeling that'll be no problem for you. Call me when you get back." The abrupt crackle and silence marked the computer shutting down. Xander blinked, then jerked away, gaping at Lara from arms-length. "He doesn't mean - "
Lara nodded, her smile like a beacon.
"Wait a second, you knew about this."
She shrugged, still beaming. "They passed it by me, to see what I thought."
"And what did you think?"
"I couldn't quite say. I never had a partner before. Suppose I'll find out."
Xander hollered happily and hefted Lara up in the air, spinning her around. Abruptly scooping her in his arms, he toted her into the cottage. "That's it. This calls for a celebration."
"Oh really," Lara replied, laughter riching her words. "And what exactly did you have in mind for this celebration?"
Xander winked. "You know what I had in mind." He plopped her down in front of the table. "Aunt Gina just sent it."
Lara shot him a skeptical glance. "Pie?"
"Pie."