Rating: T for language, violence, torture and mention of rape (but no actual rape.)
Disclaimer: I don't own Thoughtcrimes, just a DVD of the movie.
Summary: Brendan can't remember, and that might be a good thing.
Brendan woke up cold, aching and suffering black asphalt beneath his bare feet. There was light enough to put details to shapes: brick walls, trash, the hard edges of a dumpster, fire escapes and a dented metal door – the general paraphernalia of some back alley, complete with a rat scurrying across his path.
He should have felt weirded out by his surroundings, should have felt something beyond the oddity of being upright and, when he brought his hand to rub his throbbing chest, feeling hair and skin where cloth should have been. He remembered pulling on a sweater, slipping beneath the covers, and promising himself a good eight hours no matter what. He'd promised everyone he'd get some sleep. He'd needed sleep.
Brendan looked down at himself, arching an eyebrow at his dark green sweat pants still covering his legs. Small fortune there; at least he wasn't naked.
The bruises, though – on his chest, stomach and ribs – he found disconcerting as he didn't recall having done anything that would have banged him up so badly. A slow, deep breath cut off by a stab of pain in his right side told him something was probably broken, and he definitely would have remembered having caused that kind of damage to himself.
Stranger than any of it was the complete absence of panic. He felt strangely calm... no, detached, empty, floating, as though lost in one of his more vivid memories minus any actual familiarity. He couldn't help but wonder if this was a dream. It would have explained a lot, except that even in his dreams, sensation wasn't usually so sharp. He could feel goose-flesh undulate over his skin in waves.
Sleep-walking, then? It wouldn't be the first time, just the first time after a long time, since he was sixteen.
Brendan folded his arms over his chest when the cold nipped harder, turning vibrating quakes into body-length shivers. He shifted, and pain shot up from both feet all the way to his hip. He would have cussed, but talking... it didn't feel right. It felt dangerous, all noise did, and suddenly his stuttering breaths were like bellowing roars he couldn't tone down no matter how he adjusted his breathing.
Joining his phobia of sound was the inexplicable urge to get moving, pain in his feet be damned, destination be damned. While logic argued weakly that he wasn't in any danger, the rest of his brain screamed above reason that he was, and his pounding heart agreed. So he moved one gimping step at a time with knees locked to keep his legs from buckling. The cold asphalt had numbed his feet enough to tolerate the sting, but as muscles heated and blood flowed, sensation returned morphing pain into agony.
Brendan gritted his teeth, swallowing back moans that eventually broke through. Moans turned to soft whimpers interspersed with coughing sobs that made his chest burn. He was a walking manifestation of pure pain, a bundle of throbs, stabs and aches with each step. No rapid amount of blinking could wipe away the moisture hazing his vision.
It wasn't until he stepped out into some empty lot where a building should have been - sandy ground a bed for back-hoes, bulldozers, giant spools of cables and pyramids of girders - that it finally, thoroughly hit him.
Brendan had no idea where he was, what had happened to him, and where he was going. The recalcitrant realization hit him like a solid force that made him stop. It sharpened his senses until the the crash of his heart joined the thunder of his breathing ringing in his ears. Old diesel and fried foods coated his tongue and nostrils on its way to pack his lungs until he could barely breathe. Each individual grain of sand bit into his foot, every caress of cold air wrapped around his bones.
It was too much. His brain didn't want to process, it wanted to remember: Eating take out, watching TV, a shower, sweatpants, sweater, climbing into bed. Take out, TV, shower, sweatpants, sweater, bed. TV, take out, shower... the bulldozers played tag with the backhoes around the pyramids, spinning and twirling and fading in and out.
Take out, TV, shower, clothes, bed. Cold, pain, half-naked and bruised.
Something had happened to him in between. Something... something, not good. Something that had hurt. When the spinning became lurching like the final flutter of water going down the drain, Brendan lurched with it and almost fell. Panic kept him on his feet. If he fell, he would keep falling and never find his way back up again.
Brendan forced himself to stagger to the nearest machine and lean up against it. When he slammed his eyes shut, the spinning stopped, even if his senses didn't. He just needed a little head space to think: a closet of space, a box, hell even a match box. He was Agent Brendan Dean, part of the NSA. He was trained not to fall to panic, damn it! And that training had enforced establishing game plans no matter the situation.
Something had happened to him, obviously: something between the time he went to bed and the time he woke up in the middle of no where. Something that must not be over, because it didn't feel like it was over. Even now, unsteady and weak as they were, his legs itched to get moving again. But first he needed a destination, and since he had no clue as to where he was, that destination would have to be a person – a person with a phone. A store, maybe, or hotel, or...
"I said what the hell are you doing here!"
The rough bark was like a punch. Terror ripped through Brendan's body, shoving coordination from his brain. He jumped, staggered, tried to run forward only to end up falling back against the blocky teeth of the bull dozer's wheel. The sharp edges and rubber scraped against Brendan's already battered spine. He barely felt it, and managed to push himself off the wheel away from the machine. He wobbled four steps when he dropped to his hands and knees, pushed himself up, stumbled three more steps and fell again.
"Whoa, whoa, hey, pal, hold up there." A hand grabbed his arm, cold and hard. Brendan yelped and jerked his arm free while flipping onto his back to crab-scuttle away. He didn't go far when a coil of rubber blocked his exit.
The one who'd grabbed him recoiled with hand raised as though Brendan had tried to bite him. "Hey, dude, pal, it's all right. I'm not gonna hurt you." The man was years older than Brendan, well past middle-aged with a square face and head hidden under a knit blue cap. His bulky body was made even bulkier by a thick, dark blue coat with a silver badge on the front, and in the hand not raised was a flashlight.
"Easy, pal," the man said, then turned his head without taking his eyes off Brendan. "Hey Stew! Get your ass over here!"
"What? What is it?" another man, taller, just as bulky, with a beard, badge and flashlight, trotted up to stand beside the first guy. "Jimmy, what... Holy friggin' crap! How the hell did he get in here?"
Jimmy, wide-eyed, shrugged. "Must be another hole in the fence." He slowly lowered himself into a crouch, keeping his one hand out. "How'd you get in here pal, huh?"
Brendan blinked at him, looking from the man's badge to his face. Badges were good, badges meant authority. In this case – construction equipment, girders, cables – a security guard.
How did Brendan get in here?
When Jimmy tried to inch forward, Brendan involuntarily shrank back until the guard stopped.
"All right, all right, pal," Jimmy pathetically soothed. "I ain't gonna hurt you. You look banged up enough as is, anyways." He gave a nervous chuckle, blatantly uneasy. Next to him, Stew shifted from foot to foot, a step above nervous and just a hair's breadth away from giving into his anxiety.
And that calmed Brendan, just a fraction. At the moment, he barely had any strength to stay upright, so for anyone to be afraid of him meant he could insult their mother until he was blue in the face and they still wouldn't hurt him.
"Can you tell us what happened to you?" Jimmy asked. "Do you need help? The cops?"
Brendan flicked his tongue over his lips to wet them, and tasted blood. "C-cops," he rasped, more like whispered.
Stew's head reared back. "The cops did this to you?"
Jimmy's features pinched in a scowl that almost pulled a manic laugh from Brendan. "He meant he needs the cops, you moron." But when he focused back on Brendan, his features turned kind. "Cops it is, then. How about we get you some place warm until they show up, all right?"
Warm. Yes, that's what Brendan really needed to do first. Get warm. He nodded, and tensed instead of bolted when Jimmy crept forward.
"Do you know who did this to you?" the guard asked as he removed his coat.
Brendan shook his head. "Don't... I don't... remember." A light touch and gentle pressure to his shoulder cued him in to leaning forward enough for Jimmy to place the coat over him. He heard the man breathe a quiet but very disturbed "Damn," before the warm material touched Brendan's skin.
"Stew, help me out here," Jimmy said, bending low enough to get his arm around Brendan's waist. "And be careful."
Stew flinched into action. Together, the two men pulled Brendan to his unsteady legs, taking the majority of his weight as they dragged him to the foreman's trailer on the other side of the compound. It hurt enough to make Brendan want to scream, and he clenched his jaw until his teeth hurt to keep it from happening.
Jimmy unlocked the trailer's door one handed and kicked it open, Stew flipping on the lights as they entered. The one-room rectangle box with its desk, filing cabinets, computer and brown couch smelled of coffee and fast food. The two larger men eased their broken cargo onto the couch, Stew removing his own coat to lay across Brendan while Jimmy dialed his cell phone.
Brendan curled into himself, pressing into the corner of the couch and resting his head against the cushion. The warmth of the room and the coats rested against his skin without penetrating. He still shivered, the pain still throbbed, and his awareness narrowed to the state of his body. Hovering just beneath the aches was a familiar emptiness as though he'd been hollowed out – hunger. His mouth was dry, his throat trying to stick – thirst. And he was so damn tired. If his body became any heaver, he was going to sink into the couch and vanish.
"Yeah, we got a white male who's beat up pretty bad..."
"Jimmy, I think his feet are bleeding. There's blood all over the floor. Rick's gonna be pissed."
"Hey, pal, what's your name? Stew, keep the guy awake, I don't think he should be falling asleep."
A light tap on the cheek roused Brendan enough for him to force his eyelids open wider at Stew.
"Hey, buddy, we need to know your name. And you need to stay awake for us, just a little longer."
When Brendan's eyelids tried to flutter close, the next tap was harder. "Pal! Your name."
He coughed, trying to clear his throat, then whimpered when his chest burned. "Brendan," he choked. "Brendan... Dean."
"He says his name is Brendan Dean... No, he says he doesn't remember."
"The guy's pretty skinny, Jimmy. Maybe he was trapped somewhere? Were you trapped somewhere, Brendan?"
Brendan shook his head, wanting to remind them that he didn't remember, but afraid speaking would lead to another cough. And he was too tired, the very muscles of his throat wanting to shut down with the rest of his body. Taps to the cheek kept him awake, then shakes to his shoulder when that didn't work. He was tortured with the offer of water that Jimmy said was a bad idea.
"He might be in shock. I think I heard you don't give stuff to people in shock."
Brendan moaned. He'd heard that, too, but as cautious as he normally tried to be, right now he didn't give a damn. Too bad for him he couldn't say as much.
Time passed without Brendan noticing, and the ambulance arrived with blankets and an I.V. of blessed liquid. The medics asked him questions as they manipulated his body while checking it over. What hurt, could he breathe, how his head was and if there was anyone they could call for him all as they poked, prodded and flashed a penlight into his eyes. Each touch was like a needle-thin jolt of electricity, not painful but disturbing, tightening his skin as though it were trying to crawl of his bones and escape the contact. His weakness became a blessing that kept him from bolting. Then they moved him from the couch to a gurney, covering him up to his chest before strapping him down.
Brendan locked every muscle in his body to keep from struggling. He'd once memorized pi on a bet, and recited it now in his head, crumpling all thought and sensation to the numbers so he wouldn't feel the straps. His hammering heart was making it difficult to remember the sequence, and how to breathe right.
He was terrified, but had no idea why.
"You'll be all right, Mr. Dean. "
Brendan wanted to tell them to spare him the assurances. He couldn't remember what had happened to him, and that had never happened before in his life.
Telepathy, it seemed, wasn't always that useful. Some days, it was a pain in the butt. Other days, it was another method of torture. Freya wasn't getting anything verbally or mentally from the nurse leading the way through the halls to where Brendan was being kept. The woman's mind was a tangle of medical gibberish and schedules of who needed what medicine. Brendan Dean wasn't even an image in her head, just a name with a number next to it on a computer screen. Freya would have bolted passed her to the room, but experience had taught her just how much nurses didn't like that and would waste time meant for prattling off injuries by reestablishing dominance.
So Freya kept her urgency internal, focusing on Micheal's practiced calm and pretending it was her own. Contradicting it on the other side was Harper's professional frustration. Having an agent vanish and reappear was as rare an occurrence for their office as finding a telepath. Beneath the frustration was fear, because Harper was still human, and all the agents under him more than just a name and credentials.
When the nurse stepped through the double doors leading into the I.C, the two men decreased their speed just enough for Freya to take the lead. Her mind automatically sifted through the clutter of voices and emotions until drawn to the most familiar. Little more than an angle to the right had her breath catching in her throat.
It was the emotion more than the sight of him that hit Freya like a moving brick wall. Agitation, confusion, anger and fear. There wasn't much she could see of him beneath the warming blanket except for the violent flinches every time some nurse or medic walked by. The only visible part of him were the tufts of dark hair and a pale forehead.
Behind her, someone spoke: a male, probably the doctor. "They found him out at a construction sight around three in the morning. Two security guards called it in. He says he doesn't remember what happened to him, and though there is a concussion I wouldn't call it severe, so we think the memory lapse might be trauma related. Right now he's being treated for shock and hypothermia."
Freya approached the bed with slow caution, like approaching a skittish colt. Brendan's thoughts were franticly jumping back and forth – the mundane everyday of dinner, bathing and going to bed cut off by cold, pain and standing in an alley without shoes, socks or a shirt. It was like seeing a scene-change in a movie, a split second of darkness in between that fed the fear making Brendan's heart pound.
The doctor continued. "I won't mince words – whatever was done to him was bad. We found track marks on his arms; we're still trying to identify the chemicals. He has two broken ribs and two cracked, contusion to his left eye, hairline fracture on his cheekbone, severe bruising all over his body and he damaged his feet up pretty bad."
Brendan's mind lingered on going to bed and waking up in hell, back and forth, poking at the dense fog in between.
The agent's thought process came to a halt like stepping on the breaks. His head snapped up off the pillow to pin Freya with a desperate stare that managed to be both wild and exhausted. Even his swollen left eye buried under black and blue managed to pry the lid apart.
"Freya?" he rasped, and struggled to rise. He managed to prop himself up on shaky elbows enough for the blankets to slip low from his battered and bony chest. A nurse's gentle coaxing to get him to lie back down only did to keep him from sitting up any further. It was only when Freya rushed forward, taking his hand into hers, did he ease back onto the pillow. The anxiety and desperation melted right out of him, but not the fear.
Freya smiled tremulously. "I'm right here, Brendan. Director Harper and Micheal are here too." What happened to you was on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed the redundancy back. In it's place, just to be saying something and keep him talking, she said, "You don't remember anything? Anything at all?"
Since gaining a better understanding of her abilities, Freya had discovered that, sometimes, by stating the obvious, memories and thoughts once hazy were made a little clearer when the mind was forced to focus on them. Brendan's mind flitted between the two events like skipping rope. When nothing new surfaced, he shook his head.
The anxiety returned, announced by the heart monitor increasing speed. "I don't remember anything," he said. He looked up at her, and the desperation also made a come back. "Not a damn thing." (That's never happened to me before. Ever.)
Freya gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, composing her expression to read that everything was going to be all right, while inside Brendan's disbelief became her disbelief. She'd become so accustomed to the deeper workings of Brendan's mind, the steel trap that was his memory and the ever grinding gears of problem solving that she had surpassed her wonder of it and now took it for granted. It was an intimate knowledge, one that made Brendan predictable, and his mind so full it seemed impossible for there to be any room left.
For her, for him, that second of darkness between the two memories – that empty space no bigger than a thimble within a galaxy of firing synapses - was like a blemish, a stain, a grotesque deformity.
"Do you know anything?" Brendan asked, looking child-like in his hope.
It hurt Freya to answer. "No. When you didn't show up for work Monday or answer your phone-"
Brendan's brow knitted. "Monday?"
Freya bit her lip, wanting to kick herself. Brendan's only two memories of his disappearance might as well be yesterday and today for him.
"You've... you've been gone a week. A week and two days," she said. She flinched at the amount of dread that hit her.
"A week?" Brendan echoed.
Freya nodded numbly. She hated this: feeling what he was feeling, what he was thinking, knowing everything he was going through without knowing what could be done about it except for what she was doing now. She gave his hand an even tighter squeeze, like a silent promise that he wasn't going anywhere, and neither was she.
"We checked your apartment," she forced herself to continue. "Your bed was unmade, but that was it. No signs of a struggle. There were scratches on your locks, so we know someone broke in. Other than that, we don't know anything. But we have been looking for you."
Brendan nodded. (I know.). He gave her a weak, shaky smile that broke her heart a little more. (You should see what happens when an NSA agent tries to play hooky without calling in.)
Freya humored him by smiling back.
Micheal stepped up, then, followed by Harper. The presence of the NSA director renewed Brendan's agitation with double the force, and again he tried to rise when Freya put her other hand on his shoulder.
"I – I don't... don't remember, sir," he stammered with an apologetic undertone. "I don't remember... what happened..."
The director held up his hand. The stern professionalism on his dark face had been replaced with something Freya could easily call fatherly, and it was enough to put even her at ease. Beneath her hand, the taut muscles loosened as Brendan settled back on the bed.
"It's all right, Dean," Harper said. "The doctor said there's a chemical in your blood that may be what's attributing to your difficulty in recalling." He didn't mention anything about trauma, which was probably a good idea at this juncture. "We're going to do everything we can to determine what happened to you, so don't concern yourself with trying to remember. Just get plenty of rest and heal, we'll take care of everything else."
Everything including evidence collecting, which Harper didn't need to mention. Brendan knew the drill, and even now Freya felt his discomfort over what would come next.
The only questions Harper had was about Brendan's current case, if there was anyone who Brendan suspected might have panicked bad enough to kidnap an NSA agent. Brendan had been looking into a tip concerning a possible weapons smuggling ring. The team had had to be divided in order to gather as much intel as possible while they still had time (there were always deadlines when dealing with smugglers or assassins.) What the intel pointed to was one group trying to set up another, with no real proof of illegal activity in between. Unless a reliable lead had been uncovered, Brendan had been ready to set the case aside for the time being.
Freya relayed this to Harper when Brendan's exhaustion that had retreated at the arrival of Freya now surged forward with a vengeance. Frightened as he was, the agent could barely keep his eyes open.
"Brendan doesn't think either group would have been stupid enough to grab an NSA agent," Freya said, "or anyone poking around." She looked at the director, able to fill in the rest on her own. "Both groups were trying to lay low, and once we started investigating the accusations stopped. The minds I managed to look into all thought the same thing about backing off, keeping quiet, and not to pushing things. Brendan doesn't think either side took him, and I would have to agree with him."
Both smuggling factions had been cowards. The ones being accused had whined about their innocence, and the ones doing the accusing had been vague about what they'd "heard" and weren't forth coming with any new info. Brendan had been willing to look into two more leads before calling it quits.
Then he had vanished.
Freya was just finishing up Brendan's report when an agent from the crime lab arrived. Harper and Micheal stepped out when the curtain was pulled for privacy. Freya, however, stayed. Brendan could insist that she probably didn't want to see this all he wanted to, the thin layer of trepidation over the presence of a stranger kept her tethered within Brendan's line of sight. When scared and confused, no matter one's level of control, having a familiar face around was a beacon in the unknown.
A nurse supervised and helped as the female agent did her thing. Brendan's nails were scraped, a comb pulled through his hair catching minuscule debris onto a thin slip of paper, and his hands swabbed for any GSR. The worst part was taking pictures of all the bruising as the nurse helped hold Brendan upright. Freya couldn't stop herself from gaping at all the damage, especially to his back marked up in boot-shaped bruises, cuts, scrapes and the thread-thin red lines of lacerations.
And he was so damn thin, like when work became hectic and he barely paused to eat. Except different, too, without the determination and almost feral resolution that kept him going until the end. When it was the job that made him drop the pounds, his thinness made him something wild that, no matter how exhausted he looked, never made Freya doubt for a second in his ability to keep going.
Without the determination, he just looked skinny and tired. Caught up in fear and confusion, he seemed breakable. Freya moved forward enough to place her hand lightly on his upper-back while the lab-tech flashed pictures of his chest. She could feel the twitch of muscles with each flash, the knob of backbone beneath her fingers, the bars of his ribs under her palm, and the flutter of his shoulder blade against the heel of her hand because he was imperceptibly quaking.
When it was over, the prolonged accumulation of all that tension and discomfort knocked Brendan into a doze. The moment Freya and the nurse eased him back onto the pillows, his eyelids dropped shut, his breathing evened out and his heart finally settled. Except it wouldn't last. His trepidation was crouched in the back of his mind, prodding, cajoling – Freya could feel it. Brendan was unable to shake off the pervasive feeling that there was danger, somewhere, even within the safety of the hospital and the presence of people he knew.
Freya still took the opportunity to slip through to curtains to where Micheal stood waiting just outside the door. She past the doctor who was coming back in now that the evidence had been collected.
(A rape-kit should be performed,) The doctor thought, (to play it safe.)
Freya's stomach bucked and it took several convulsive swallows to get the bile back down.
"Freya?" Micheal asked, his gentle worry inflected in both voice and emotions.
Freya waved dismissively. "I'm fine. Where's director Harper?"
"Outside," Micheal said, then smiled. "Kicked out when he tried to make a call. How's Brendan?"
"Asleep, for now," she said. "Probably not for much longer. He was really agitated, like he can't shut off the fear, like he thinks someone is going to get him."
Micheal nodded. "It's to be expected. Without any recollection of what happened to him, he's going to be jumpy, probably for a while. Possibly even permanently."
Freya gaped. "Permanently?"
"Amnesia's complicated. Just because Brendan doesn't remember what happened to him doesn't mean there isn't a memory of it somewhere in his mind. The right stimulation – a touch, sound, smell – can trigger flashes of recollection, sometimes an image, sometimes a feeling. Since it's obvious he was assaulted, I wouldn't be surprised if a quick hand gesture makes him flinch."
Looking from Micheal to the door, Freya swiped her hand through her hair in frustration. Someone had hurt Brendan, and not only was there the possibility of never finding out who, but also the possibility of some of that damage being permanent.
"Brendan's mind is too sharp to forget." She looked back at Micheal. "There has to be a way to help him remember."
Welles' rueful expression quickly stifled that train of thought.
Trauma related, the doctor had said. If Brendan's memory lapse wasn't the result of a blow to the head, then it was the by-product of something so brutal, so horrible, that not even the steel-trap mind of a top NSA agent could cope with it.
A surge of panic, embarrassment and anger pulled her attention back to the curtained off section of the room.
"Is that really necessary?" Brendan asked. (Like hell it is. Don't touch me, don't you freakin' touch me!)
"I'm afraid so, Mr. Dean. Just to play it safe. It will be quick and painless, I promise. But if something was done to you, we need to know now so that we can take preventive measures."
Freya looked away, putting a mental wall between her and the room for when the doctor finally convinced Brendan of the necessity in determining whether or not he'd been... she couldn't finish the thought. She couldn't begin to imagine the kind of horror that would lead to a complete blank-out, and she didn't want to. Suddenly, the mere concept of Brendan recalling anything made her nauseas.
Staring at the wall on her right as though averting her gaze, she folded her arms tight across her chest. "There has to be something we... Ican do. If what happened to him really is somewhere in his head... I could – I could probably find it." Seeing it would be worse than imagining it, she had no doubts there. At least in the imagination, it was just the imagination.
"Sure you want to do that?" Micheal asked, always watching out for her well-being without interfering with what she thought was best.
Freya nodded. She'd spent far too long drowning in the chaos of deranged minds to be afraid of what people had to think. She knew what humans were capable of, even if it never surpassed being nothing more than a thought.
On the other hand, what had been done to Brendan hadn't been thought, it had been action. Didn't matter, though. Brendan would need closer, and someone would need to pay.
"There might be a way," Micheal said. "Through dreams. If Brendan is going to remember, he needs to do so on his own. Through the subconscious, you might be able to collect enough images of what happened to him without resorting to finding stimuli that would work the memories back to the forefront when he's conscious. We get what we need without risking Brendan's mental health."
"And if that doesn't work?" Freya asked, still staring at one wall while reinforcing the other wall. Wave after wave of humiliation threatened to drown her, which meant Brendan had been convinced.
"Then it's relying on good old-fashioned forensics," Micheal said with a mildly amused smile in his voice. "Better it hard on the crime lab than hard on Brendan. I'll talk to Harper, get him to see about arranging longer visits for you. Brendan could use the constant presence of a familiar face, anyways."
"Do we tell him what's going on?"
"No," Micheal replied. "He'll be desperate for answers. Like I said, it's better if he remembers on his own."
Freya inclined her head in agreement.
With a gentle squeeze to her shoulder, Micheal headed off down the hall in search of Harper. After a moment, the tide of embarrassment pushing against the back of Freya's mind began to ebb. Cautiously, she lowered her defensive wall.
Brenda's mental voice quaked. (Wasn't so bad my ass.)
Freya reentered the room and curtained cubicle to see Brendan partially on his side trying to curl into a protective ball. His face was flushed in aching abashment, his eyebrows slanted severely in a scowl, and his breathing and heart rate rapid. The doctor was on the other side of the curtain talking in low tones with another nurse about their findings. The regular nurse, looking sympathetic, was doing a final check of the machines monitoring Brendan.
Hazel eyes rolled up to look at Freya. (I wasn't someone's bitch. Best news I've had all day.)
Freya sat on the stool, reaching out to take his wrist and give a reassuring squeeze, only to have him jerk it back when her fingertips touched his skin. The scowl melted into alarm, alarm gentling to apology.
With a kind smile, Freya tried again, and Brendan let her, even if the limb did tremble in her loose grasp.
"That's okay," she whispered. She waited until the nurse was gone before speaking again. "You all right? Aside from the obvious, I mean."
Brendan dropped his gaze so he could scowl at his reflection in the metal rail. (I want to get out of here. Too damn noisy. Too many people. Crap, I'm so tired.) He breathed a sigh that seemed to pull the anger from him, and closed his eyes. His weariness was so thick it was making Freya tired, but the trepidation was still there, still waiting and whispering caution. When he opened his eyes again it was like watching someone wake from a deep sleep, full of effort. (What the hell happened to me?)
"That's what we're going to find out," Freya said, releasing Brendan's wrist so she could rub his chilled arm. "So just let us worry about the hows and the whys. You rest, get your strength back."
Brendan's eyes closed a second time. (I want to. Can't seem to. Every time I close my eyes...) A shudder ran the length of his body. (I'm back in that alley. And... there's something there. Always feels like there's something there. Something coming.)
"But you're not there," Freya said. "You're here, you're safe. And I'm going to stay with you for as long as I can."
The pale eyelids fluttered. (Not necessary. Not like I need a baby-sitter,)he petulantly thought. But beneath the thin veneer of annoyance was gratitude and relief.
Freya was about to say something along the lines of her having nothing better to do and the benefits of having a friend around to be his lackey when he needed things, when Brendan's mind slipped away into the incoherent. Once again, his breathing and heart-rate evened out.
Freya exhaled a sigh of relief. This sleep was deeper than the last; much needed natural sleep that didn't allow Brendan's unease any wiggle room.
Settling more comfortably on the stool, Freya leaned forward with her elbows on the rail, stared at Brendan, and waited.
Brendan and Freya were in a mall, looking for someone, a suspect. Their destination ended at a candy shop that was more like a carnival – complete with Ferris wheels and a roller-coaster – taking up most of the area of the building. Director Harper was there, and he wasn't happy. This was supposed to be the yearly office party, and Brendan was supposed to bring the beer.
Bare feet, bare chest, walking, walking, walking on cold blacktop in the dead of night with no place to go. Brendan was supposed to be somewhere else, someplace far away where no one could get him. He would have run if it hadn't felt like he was moving through molasses.
Brendan was walking around the office in his boxers. It was only when he realized it that everyone else did as well. They didn't react, but neither did that stop Brendan from trying to get away, except there was no place to hide. His reflection in the mirror-shine of the metal elevator doors was of a pale and bony man with protruding ribs. His shame was so palpable that Freya could taste it: an unconscious reaction to being harped on about taking care of himself, ignored when he was awake, unavoidable when he was asleep.
He just forgot, sometimes. He didn't mean to. He was also far more self-conscious than he let on. People took advantage of what they perceived as weak.
He was lost and alone in the dark, still bare foot and shirtless and scared.
Brendan was fired, over and over again for a plethora of reasons that were never quite clear. But someone knew someone who could get him a job as an... accountant? Only to shift to being the FBI, then back to the NSA to be fired again.
The interesting thing about dreams was that they rarely revealed anything about a person except for what was already known. Brendan did have a mild self-conscious streak that he mostly ignored. His biggest fear was screwing up and letting everyone down. And he would always be skinny. Everything else consisted of memories and emotions tossed into a mental blender to be spat back out. Most of it meant nothing.
The only images of interest were the in between flashes of Brendan wandering without a shirt or socks. More than once, in those brief seconds of recollection, Freya thought she could hear voices and sense a residue of pain, yet it was always buried beneath the terror of putting a face to those voices.
Freya spent the better part of the day with Brendan. He slept for most of it, sometimes in a light doze, sometimes so deep he barely dreamed at all. The nurses were forever in and out checking machines or taking his blood pressure. At lunch, Micheal dropped by bearing fast food in a bag, and a nurse urged Brendan to wake up in order to get him to eat a bowl of soup and some Jello. The two biggest concerns right now were possible infection and malnutrition bordering on being severe. What ever had happened to him had involved a complete lack of food for the entire week.
The drugs in his system turned out to be a cocktail of sedatives, painkillers and hallucinogens. Micheal told them as much after speaking with the doctor.
(Interrogation,) Brendan thought with a shudder. He gave Freya a look so helpless it stabbed straight to her heart.
(Deprive them of food, sleep. Break a few bones, cause pain, take away the pain then let it come back. Do it enough times and the person starts to open up a little more just to make the pain stop. Hallucinogens and sedatives throw them off mentally, making them more compliant.)
Needless to say, it had everyone concerned, Harper angry, and Brendan in a controlled panic.
(I have to remember.) But no matter how hard he tried, he could never push past the barrier between going to bed and waking up in the cold.
Freya was finally, politely, chased out of the ICU around dinner, which was just as well. Loathed as she was to leave Brendan, both Brendan and Micheal insisted she take a break, get some sleep and food at home away from the hospital.
The moment Freya arrived home, she remembered to call June. Her sister may have been the picture of placid concern on the outside, while inside she had been just as distraught as Freya.
It took twenty minutes to assure her sister that Brendan was going to be fine... physically. She wasn't ready to touch on mentally, yet. She didn't want to think about it.
Freya walked into Brendan's room to be rocked by a wave of discomfort and confusion. Brendan's Doctor – a Dr. Carlton – and a nurse were bustling around Brendan's bed, the nurse wiping Brendan's face while the doctor administered medication through the I.V. The words infection and fever floated through the doctor's mind.
Brendan himself was on his back, his upper body missing a scrub-top and the blankets pulled to below the bandages around his chest. His alabaster pale skin was glossy with sweat, the only color two splotches of red on his cheeks. The oxygen mask over his face amplified his rattling breaths that had his chest heaving and his fingers digging into the blankets as though holding on for dear life.
Freya rushed over and stood gaping at the foot of the bed. "What happened, what's going on?"
Both the nurse and the doctor looked up, the nurse being the one to respond when she moved away from Brendan to usher Freya back out the door.
"Mr. Dean contracted an infection during the night," she kindly explained. "He has congestion and a fever we're trying to bring down. Nothing too severe or you would have seen ice-packs around his body. Right now we're going to clean his wounds, so we need you to wait out here for a few while we do that, then you can come in and visit. I should warn you, though; Mr. Dean probably won't be coherent for it."
Freya smiled sadly. "I think the visits are just as much for me as for him."
The nurse gave her a reassuring pat on the arm and an understanding return smile.
It wasn't until twenty-five minutes later that Freya was able to come in and sit with Brendan. The pain lines on his face and death grip on the blanket were gone, but sweat still glittered at his hair line and slicked his neck.
Brendan's breathing was loud in the silence, above the beep of the monitors. The nurse came and went every five minutes to check the machines and wipe the skin of Brendan's face, neck and the exposed portions of his chest. His only reaction to the touch of cold cloth against heated flesh was a minute flinch and shudder.
Brendan's dreams were far too chaotic for Freya to keep up with, revealing nothing. Freya wiped his hair back away from his forehead. Right now, she was content to do nothing more than watch him sleep, knowing that while he slept, he healed. For all the warnings both Micheal and Harper had given about the chance of Brendan never coming back, Freya had refused to give up hope. It hadn't felt right, balancing hope with negative possibilities. She couldn't bring herself to prepare for the worst. She'd wanted to hang on until the very end, when Brendan's was either a patient in a hospital or a corpse in morgue.
There was no describing the relief of having him be a patient. It had been so long, a span of time like an eternity, since Freya had someone in her life that she could call a best friend. Too long since she knew what it was like to have people who cared for her. Brendan, Micheal, June: Family, even if two of them had no blood ties to her.
To lose any of them...
Freya pushed her hair from her face with a frustrated swipe. She wasn't going to let herself go there. Been there, done that with her father and she couldn't do it again.
Being told that Brendan had gone missing after a team had visited his apartment when he didn't come in for work or answer is phone, and being told to prepare for the worst, Freya had felt as though someone had reached in and tore out her heart. It was her father all over again, the return of a pain so sharp and consuming that it was debilitating. The kind of pain that seemed impossible to ever recover from.
Except that missing wasn't the same as dead, and Freya had clung to that like a lifeline. Never had she been more anxious to dive into minds, dig deep, and pull crumbs of insight concerning Brendan's whereabouts from anyone who might know. The team had gone through the suspect list of the case they'd been investigating, but Freya had found nothing. That didn't mean someone didn't know. They'd been halfway through the list when the call came that Brendan had been found.
Freya was sorely tempted to never let him out of her sights again. And that frightened her. Brendan's line of work didn't allow the comfort of certainties. There could come a time when Brendan was returned to them a lifeless body.
All Freya could do was try her damnedest to make sure that never happened. Still not a certainty, but better than nothing. And when there was nothing she could do to save him, the least she could do was find answers.
So despite, and in spite, of the chaos in Brendan's head, Freya forced her self to search it until June stopped by to check on Brendan and take her to lunch.
"Who are you? What do you want? Who are you looking for?"
Brendan lifted his head that felt unnaturally heavy. He couldn't see the interrogator's face, just the outline of his shape against the dark amber dusk of the room.
"What do you want!" the interrogator bellowed, and punctuated it with a blow to Brendan's face. Brendan's head snapped sideways and lulled limp as dead meat.
"Answer me!" interrogator snarled.
Brendan couldn't because he didn't have an answer. He didn't know who these people were, what they wanted, why they were so afraid.
Light flashed off the glass vial of a syringe descending toward Brendan's arm.
"This should last about twenty minutes," someone, not interrogator, said. "But he won't be lucid until after thirty minutes."
Every muscle in Brendan's body solidified into steel. He knew what they were giving him. They always gave it to him when he didn't answer the questions he had no answers for.
The needle bit into his skin, cold liquid slithering into his veins. A minute, he always had a minute before the monsters came writhing out of the shadows to make him scream.
A shrill shriek reverberated through the small room. Freya snapped her head up with a heavy blink, not realizing she'd dozed off. The dark room and the faceless speaker were gone. The shrill scream, however – too mechanical to be human – stabbed her ears.
Then the last vestiges of sleep left her when she saw Brendan writhing and moaning on the bed. She was on her feet, reaching out to wake him when hands grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her out of the way for nurses to swarm around the bed.
"Miss McCallister, I'm afraid you're going to have to leave," someone said. Freya was too intent on what she could see of Brendan through the gaps between medical personnel to put a face to the voice.
Writhing had becoming thrashing. Brendan's arms flailed and his legs kicked as though simultaneously trying to swat people away while attempting to get away. The moans increased in pitch and volume, sometimes shifting into a snarl, sometimes a begging whimper.
It was the images that halted Freya just within the doorway.
Cold concrete bled through the knees of Brendan's sweat pants. The man holding him down in a forced kneel by the neck he could see, and knew him. He'd seen him somewhere before, recent – rat-faced, with a thin mustache. He'd been working on something, something mechanical. A car or a motorcycle. Had to be a garage...
The recollection was interrupted by the buzz and thwack of a switch striking the skin of Brendan's back. Brendan winced, grimacing, gritting his teeth to hold back a cry of pain.
"I'm not going to ask you again. What are you looking for? Who sent you? What is your intent?"
Brendan swallowed to moisten his sticky throat. "I... don't know what you're... what you're talking about..." Another thwack, sting and grimace with a groan that was too hard to hold back.
"Stop lying! the more you lie, the more I have to punish you. You are not a child, young man. Do not make me continue treating you like one." Another thwack, either for good measure or to drive home the point.
"I'm not lying," Brendan snarled, part in rage, part in desperation.
Brendan's body arched off the bed in a perfect bow of curved spine and splayed ribs. Freya could see it through the gaps. A white arm flashed fast to be caught by a nurse before it could strike anyone.
"No... stop..." Brendan pleaded.
Monsters in the shadows, crawling toward him, reaching for him, promising so many terrible things that made Brendan sob.
"Please, make it stop, I don't know what you want. I don't know who you are!"
He was so hungry, thirsty, cold. All he had was a blanket in the corner too thin and ragged to keep a mouse warm. He curled up into it, burying his face like he used to as a child when the dark became too heavy to bear.
A strained whimper broke above the beep of machines and voices demanding medication and stats.
A hard boot to the ribs knocked Brendan onto his side.
"Who sent you? Tell me now!"
"Please... no... I don't... don't know... stop... no!"
He hurt so bad. Make it stop. Please make it stop.
"His fever's too high. He's delirious. We need more ice packs!"
A window. There was a window buried under grime to make Brendan think it had been boarded up. He'd wanted to see if he could shove hard enough on the window to shove the boards away. It was when his hand slid on the glass, wiping some of the grime away that he knew it wasn't boarded.
Wrapping the blanket around his arm, Brendan punched through the glass.
Freya started in alarm at a touch on her shoulder. She looked into the sympathetic yet frantic face of the nurse already steering her the rest of the way out of the room.
"We need you to wait outside, miss McCallister. Mr. Dean's temperature is too high and we need to bring it down."
Freya could only nod in response. The images flitted through her head like memories of a bad dream or movie seen years ago. They weren't clear, but then they didn't need to be.
Pulling out her cell, Freya called Micheal.
"It's cliché," said Merriweather leaning back in her chair, "but true. Criminal organizations prefer crowded mechanic's garages over abandoned warehouses. I still haven't figured out why."
Because two of Brendan's smuggling suspects had been mechanics, he'd had ample reason to go back to the same garage more than once. And it was the only garage Brendan had been to in months.
Freya jiggled her leg up and down to bleed off the anxiety of not being in the hospital with Brendan. The nurse's and doctor had gotten him settled when Micheal had arrived, but his temperature had still been high and his dreams vivid and telling.
Except she was more interested in keeping Brendan company than seeing any more of those... visions. She'd never felt that kind of fear from Brendan for as long as she'd known him.
Merriweather snatched the sketch-composite copy of the rat-faced man from her desk to give it another squinty-eyed look. "So Brendan managed to recall this face without remembering anything else." She shook her head, "That man's memory..." (It's gotta be unnatural.)
"Micheal said he might remember in bits and pieces," Freya said. She moved her hand from the armrest of the chair to the back of her neck and rubbed. Freya had been the one to describe rat-face, but the cover-story had been that Brendan had remembered something. Which, if viewed askance, had a certain amount of truth to it. The image had come from Brendan's mind, after all.
"So how is Dean?" Terri asked. Freya felt her worry before seeing it on her face.
Freya frowned, looking down at her other hand wrapped around the armrest. "He had a fever when I left. But he was sleeping. The doctor's hopeful." Strange how such words could feel both solid and hollow. Dr. Carlton's concern hadn't been buried deep enough for Freya not to catch it.
Terri pursed her lips, then tweaked them in timid smile. "Dean's tough. He'll get through this."
Freya nodded. She had too much first-hand knowledge of Brendan to think otherwise, and it gave her comfort.
Merriweather's last comment was the dead-end to further conversation. The women fell silent, staring at nothing in particular, until Terri's phone rang, startling them both. The female agent made an annoyed grab at it.
A succinct conversation later and she was on her feet, grabbing her jacket and gun from off the back of her chair. "They're bringing him in to the interrogation room. They want you to talk to him."
Freya nodded and followed after Merriweather.
They waited out of sight down the hall until the suspect was settled in the interrogation room. Terri led the way as far as the door. This was Freya's scene, now. Brendan's team was under the pretense of the telepath being a first-class interrogator with prodigy-like skills, and that she could only practice those skills when she was alone.
Rat face sat huddled in a jean jacket with fleece lining across from her on the other side of the table. He was tall, slender, with receding hair, a sharp chin made sharper by a goatee, and the very mustache she had seen in Brendan's dream. Hazy as the image had been, the guy was a perfect match to the face Freya had seen.
The man's fear was thick enough to leave a bitter coating on Freya's tongue. Images flashed, familiar except for the point of view.
The dark haired guy, curled up in bed, woke briefly when the needle was jabbed into his inner arm. Rat face... Leonard, kept his distance until the sedative took affect. It took him and Dave – the guy with the needle – to carry Brendan out of the room as though escorting a dead-drunk friend. The evening was late, too late for any witnesses to be awake.
Freya slid into the padded chair, clasped her hands on top the of the steel table, and stared without saying a word. Sweat broke out in beads across Leonard's forehead.
They dumped dark hair's unconscious body on the floor. Dave removed his shirt while Leonard held a gun on him, just in case.
Dave scoffed, "You're such a puss." His disgusted sneer faded, however, when the unconscious man began to stir. The sedative hadn't been the right dosage.
The dark head lifted, the hazel eyes blinked until focusing on the gun. Dark hair froze.
Freya pulled the picture of Brendan she'd been given from her jacket and slid it across the table to Leonard. "Why did you take this man?"
Leonard's mouth parted, twitching to buy time as his mind spat lies. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Leonard flinched when Mathias brought the switch down for the fourth blow. Skin split, blood welled, but all the dark-haired man did was groan. Mathias – fifty going on sixty, bald except for spider-thin wisps of gray hair on the top of his head – had some twisted ideas about how to make people talk. Everyone younger than him were nothing more than children to be punished. At least he paid well.
(It hadn't been a cover. The poor bastard was NSA. Ah, crap. Ah, hell.)
"Who's Mathias?" Freya asked. "Is that the man you work for? Did he tell you to take Brendan?"
Leonard shook his head. "I... I haven't a freakin' clue what you're talking about, lady."
Freya leaned forward with a heavy lidded look. She'd become quite adept at feigning enough of a bad-ass aura to keep from being underestimated. Today, there was nothing pretend about it. She was pissed, beyond pissed. She wanted to rip every deep, dark secret this little weasel had to hide and use it to humiliate and manipulate him until he was nothing more than a sobbing child in an adult's body. She wanted to show him what it was like to be reduced to nothing but fear and confusion.
"Cut the crap, Leonard," she spat with a lot of venom, and wouldn't Brendan have been proud of her for it. "We already have everything we need on you. We know you were the one who kidnapped agent Dean. Oh, and he's alive, by the way, and you can bet your ass he's going to be picking you out of a line-up in the near future. You don't have a lot of options here, Leonard. Cooperate with us and you won't get the short end of the stick. Screw with us and you can be sure that we'll make your life hell." She then laid out the details of what the NSA had in mind – jail-time, but shortened jail-time with a chance for parole if Leonard played fair, as well as protection from whatever this Mathias guy might try to do him.
This Mathias, whoever he was, scared the hell out of Leonard more than prison. "It was a mistake, all right?" he blurted. "Mathias, he was trying to lay low. He's got a lot of enemies, right? He's got joint ownership of the garage, so when the skinny agent guy came sniffing around, he panicked; thought one of his old partners had sent someone to find him. He didn't want to run so he had us tail the guy and bring him in when we could. We thought the NSA deal was a front. You know, a cover? We didn't think it was for real."
Freya's next question was spoken low and throaty, like a silent threat. "And if you had?"
Leonard's hands were trembling now. He lifted one shoulder in a shrug of pathetic nonchalance. "Uh... we, uh... we wouldn't have gone after him. We would have let him go."
Leonard forced himself to watch Dave slam his foot into the dark-haired guy's bare and bloody back. Dave would call him a puss again if he didn't. But he couldn't. It was sick, always had been. The guy had been skinny to begin with and Mathias was whittling him down to skin and bones. It was like watching someone kick a living corpse.
Mathias' sneer of vindictive pleasure, on the other hand, was a hell of a lot worse. When the old man pulled a syringe from his pocket, Leonard left while the getting was good. The screams he wasn't even going to pretend he could handle.
Leonard shrank lower into his seat. "It was a mistake. A stupid mistake."
Freya eventually yanked more names, faces and addresses from Leonard's mind without him having to say much. Once the information was obtained, Freya left Leonard to stew in terror over his fate. Merriweather, Kunzel and Patel ate up the information with rapt attention glazed with a little awe over Freya's pretend skills. They moved fast bringing up rap sheets and backgrounds on the people in Leonard's head.
"Mathias Wright," said Kunzel. "More interested in playing in other people's sandbox than making his own sandbox. He's been an associate to a lot of big names in drug running, weapons smuggling, prostitution schemes, you name it. The guy knows how to bail. His partners go down but he doesn't. Never enough evidence."
Freya wondered if the testimony of a coward and the fractured memory of a tortured man would be enough to put Mathias away for good.
After the names came the mentioned addresses. For one address in particular – a ware-house in the old train yard on the edge of the city – Freya tagged along. It was a beat-up place of weather-worn red brick, broken windows and lines of rust like old blood.
Human blood was what marked the room where Brendan had been kept. It had been cleaned up to be invisible to the naked eye, but not to the right chemicals. Drops of blood, spatters of blood, stripes of blood all the right amount for a man abused for no reason. Freya stood outside the door, staring at the neon blue glow of chemical under a UV light mapping the direction of drops and spatters.
Faint light tossed on the floor pulled her focus to the grime-caked window easy enough to miss except for the two clear sections where someone had wiped the grime away. It was just the right length and width for a malnourished body to slip easily through.
Freya wondered if they had chased after him. In the long run, it didn't matter. Brendan had escaped, and that was all that was important. Keeping that firmly in mind, Freya turned her back on the pathetic box of a room with its rust-stained walls and one window, and walked away.
Freya reluctantly handed the mug-shots of Mathias, Dave and Leonard over to Brendan, who took them with a steady hand.
"Turns out the FBI's been looking for this Mathias guy for a while," Freya said as Brendan looked through the photos. "He knew how to cover his tracks. But when he couldn't, he took off, changing his name and everything. Well, last name, never his first. Between what the FBI has on him, the exchange of less jail-time for a testimony from some of his employees, and the evidence found on you and from where you were kept, Mathias is going away for a long time."
The images in Brendan's head flickered like flames. Dark room, dark faces, being hurt, being questioned: dream recollections that were stronger than they had been while also reluctant to gain any more clarity. What Brendan had survived had been bad enough for even that remarkable memory of his to stumble over it. If he did remember any more, it would be half-obscured beneath a protective mist that allowed the mind and heart to handle it. But the doctor was doubtful Brendan would remember anymore thanks to all the drugs that had been shoved into his system.
Brenda shook his head and handed the photos back. "I remember the Leonard guy from the garage. The other two... they're familiar, but that's it." His subconscious emotions said other wise. The pictures of Mathias and Dave had sent a chill down Brendan's spine that Freya had felt.
Freya took the pictures from him. "It doesn't matter. At least you know and can put it behind you."
"Put it behind me," he echoed. (I want to put it behind me. But... I'm not sure if I know how.) His fever had cleared up, meals of broth and Jello giving him strength enough to sit up in bed for longer durations that didn't have him nodding off within two minutes. But the frailty was still there, and a residual fear that couldn't be placated with promises of everything being over.
Freya rested her hand over his thin wrist. "You will," she promised. "Trust me. I've come to realize that it's not about knowing anything. You put it behind you because you have to, or else you can never continue forward."
Brendan looked at her in surprise. "When did you get all sage-like?"
Freya wondered that herself, though it didn't stop the smug smile from stretching her lips. She tapped the side of her head. "I get the inside scoop on a lot of things." The smugness then lessened to wistful and melancholy. "And I've been there."
You could always trust in someone who knew. Maybe their experiences hadn't been the same, but Brendan's fear and confusion had felt familiar to Freya. Being lost was being lost, whether smothered by voices not one's own, or tormented for no reason.
If Freya could find her way, then so could Brendan. She knew him – his strength, determination, resolve – too well to ever dare doubt it.
She gave Brendan's wrist a gentle squeeze. "You'll do fine. And you can trust me in that, too."
Brendan woke up surrounded by soft warmth and misty silver twilight. There was a moment of chaos in his head melting dreams with reality, making blurred shapes of gray shadows strange to him. His heart pounded, his breathing increased, until the rising panic shoved the sleep-fog aside enough for him to recognize his room. With a sigh, he dropped his head back onto the pillow, just for a moment, then reached out for the bottle of pain medication when he became aware of the uncomfortable cramping in his ribs.
Brendan had been released from the hospital two days ago. The very same day, he installed new locks on his door – deadbolts and chains. He also resorted to sleeping with a gun between the mattresses. There were some who would say it wasn't healthy, but at least it was letting Brendan sleep at night. The shrink had said it would be a while before he felt safe again. Translated: it would be a while before he got used to the paranoia.
The way Brendan figured it – being NSA and all – he was already paranoid (and Freya would probably agree). So there was no question that he would get used to it.
Brendan popped the pill and chased it down with a swallow of water. Burying his head back into the pillow, he released a content sigh and drifted back to sleep.
For once, he didn't mind that he couldn't remember.