A/N: I'm probably stating the obvious, but italicized parts are Brendan's thoughts. :)
--Knock, knock, knock--
Brendan Dean stared forlornly at the heavy wooden door before him, wondering not for the first time whether the doctor and lawyer types who owned the gigantic houses in these grossly upscale neighborhoods ever had time enough in their busy schedules to actually set foot in them. Then again, Freya would blame my workaholic tendencies for getting me into this situation in the first place, he thought morosely.
--Knock, knock, knock--
Still no answer. He swore he had seen a light on in this house, unlike the four others he'd tried on this block since his flat tire had left him stranded at dusk on the side of a suburban highway without a spare, in the pouring rain.
Correction, hailstorm. Brendan ducked back under the eave of the house, cursing as he rubbed at the top of his head. The hailstone that had hit him was roughly the size of a marble, but it still smarted, and the size of the ice pellets didn't look to be shrinking either. He let out a massive sigh and leaned his back against the sturdy door. It was obvious that no one was home, otherwise he supposed they would take issue with his nonchalant use of their entryway. Rich people were usually overly worried about those sorts of things. His ice-maiden aunt Scarlet, for example.
A vivid memory flashed through Brendan's mind: his five-year-old self standing in Scarlet's foyer, white plush carpet beneath his sneakers which were sopping wet from being out in the snow, and Scarlet looking at him with disgust from the end of the hall. From that time on, his few memories of her consisted mainly of her cold stare and disapproving sighs. He cringed. Now there was one specter from his past he could do without. Unfortunately, he would be hearing from her again in exactly three days.
Scarlet was his father's sister, and she made it a point to call her nephew every year on her brother's birthday. What the logic of the habit was, Brendan had never figured out, but she kept calling and he kept suffering through the small-talk script. How's your job? How's your father doing? What did you get him for his birthday this year? The second question seemed pointless, since Scarlet always called brother, then nephew. The third was followed by an amused (a.k.a. derisive) snort, then a 'that's nice, dear' no matter what his response.
Brendan sneezed and pulled his NSA-issued cell phone from his pocket to try calling Freya again. Flipping it open, he saw the perpetual error message he'd been getting all day and wondered if Kunzel was playing a practical joke on him. 'Unable to connect call. Please upgrade tower-interface software.' Why the hell would the NSA, of all people, provide their agents with phones that had outdated software?
As he powered down the phone and popped out the battery, hoping a soft reset would do some good, a devious smile crept across Brendan's face. Maybe he could 'accidentally' miss Aunt Scarlet's call this year. Sure, the thought had occurred to him before, but she had always had at least three different numbers to reach him at, the most unavoidable being the office where his calls were automatically forwarded to his cell if he didn't pick up. Since his personal cell was gone due to the wonderful day he was having, and his work cell was on the blink, however…
No. Scarlet was innately more devious than he was, surprisingly good with technology for her age, and would undoubtedly find some way of contacting him from a phone without a caller-ID tag, and then she'd be even more snooty than usual for the extra effort it had cost her. It was best if he just faced the music with Scarlet, and with Freya. Brendan popped the battery back into the phone and powered it up, his shaking, cold body hoping against hope that it would work this time, and his sense of self-preservation hoping it wouldn't.
Freya was going to be furious. She had been hounding him all morning to go home early for a change, since they'd wrapped up their case yesterday and today was a Friday anyway. He'd finally conceded to calling it an early weekend when she caught him scarfing down Tylenol with a cough syrup chaser and threatened to tell Harper. And he really had intended to go home. Right up to the point that the berserk Evel Knievel wannabe nearly took off his front bumper while going fifteen over the speed limit, right in front of a police car no less, and the cop let it slide. Patience already frayed from his rapidly-encroaching cold, Brendan followed the kid on the motorcycle to his destination, which happened to be a mini-mart clear on the other end of town.
Dean entered the store after the kid, intending only to tell him off, maybe flash his badge and scare him a bit. As per usual, things didn't go according to plan and the next thing Brendan knew he was back in his car, chasing down the sticky-fingered biker who had ripped off several dollars worth of beef jerky, potato chips, and beer from the store after slugging the clerk in the face for trying to stop him.
The car chase had turned into a foot race when Evel ran out of gas on the highway. Brendan pursued him through the wooded area that fringed the ritzy Shady Pines community. Unfortunately, Evel was almost as fast a runner as he was a driver and by the time Brendan caught up with him (due to the kid slipping on a patch of pine needles) he had dropped his working cell phone and was sporting a scraped knee from his own encounter with the underbrush.
Brendan's only bit of luck had occurred when a cop drove by just as he drug wannabe-Knievel back onto the main road, saving the agent from a two-mile struggle with the long-haired, complaining teenager. Juvenile delinquent handed off to the police, Brendan had trekked back to his car in the rain, where he discovered his flat tire and missing phone, and the rest was history. So now he hit the 'send' key on his remaining phone, and his eyes widened when it actually began ringing. He let out a sigh of relief when Freya picked up on the third ring, and then abruptly started coughing.
"Brendan, is that you?" his partner's voice questioned.
"Yeah, it's me," he managed between coughs.
"Are you okay? Where are you?"
"I'm great, it's just…well…I could use a lift. I've got a flat tire and no spare."
"I thought you were going home," she said flatly.
Great. Now she's suspicious. How to best say this? With as little information as possible, that's how. "I was, and then I got a flat tire," he replied, clearing his throat.
"Brendan, you left here two and a half hours ago. What's really going on? You sound terrible."
"Well, I may have gotten a little sidetracked on my way home, but that's beside the point. I really do have a flat tire and no spare. And it's raining."
Freya heard him sneeze and could vaguely sense his frustration and discomfort even over the phone. She rolled her eyes, deciding to give him a break. For now. "Where are you?" Freya quickly scratched down the address on a sheet of paper and then told him to stay put when she found out how far away his car was.
Not that it would make a difference, I'm already soaked, he thought.
"I heard that."
"Of course you did. Thanks, Freya."
"See you in awhile."
Brendan had given up being discreet, and was now blatantly lounging on the lavishly-furnished, though poorly-enclosed patio that was the house's front porch. If the owners showed up, he would claim official NSA business and ask a couple of questions about any number of mundane—though plausible—topics and then leave. If not, who would be the wiser?
Due to the lack of walls, wind and rain still whipped by, though thankfully the eaves of the house were substantial enough to block most of the hail. Shivering, Brendan drew his jacket around himself tighter and tried to sink deeper into the fancy patio chair, which didn't really help since the cushions were as soaked as he was. This sucked.
He wasn't sure exactly how much time had passed when he heard the car door slam, but Freya was suddenly standing in front of him. Oh, you're here.
"Yes, I am. Come on, you can tell me how you got sidetracked while I'm driving you home."
Home would be nice…wait, what about my car?
"Agent Kunzel will drop it off later. I convinced him that it was the least he could do after reprogramming your cell phone. You so owe me."
I knew it was him!
"Is there any particular reason you're making me read your mind tonight?" Freya asked, her curiosity getting the better of her. Brendan had gotten used to her ability during the past several months that they had been working together, but she knew he still found it a bit unsettling.
Huh? "What?" The one-word question came out as a croak, and Brendan was suddenly coughing so hard that he ended up doubled over in the saturated lounge chair. When he was able to breathe again, he sat back, hearing water squish from the cushion as his weight displaced it.
He looked up into Freya's worried face. I'm okay, it's just a cold. Let's go.
The skeptical look she was aiming in his direction irked him a little, but he decided to ignore it and wearily got to his feet. That's when his vision swam. He felt his body begin a slow list to one side and the concerned look on his partner's face sharpened, even as everything else blurred more. Hands were grasping, first at his elbow, then his waist. By the time his vision cleared, his arm was around Freya's shoulders and hers was around his back. Her sweater-clad form was warm against his side and he shivered at the welcome temperature difference but at the same time tried to pull away. I'm getting you all wet.
Her grip tightened around him. "And I'm getting you out of the rain. You're burning up."
Not hot. Freezing.
For a brief moment, Freya picked up on mental images of blizzards and penguins standing on icebergs and sighed. "You have a fever, Brendan. That's why you're cold. Well, part of the reason."
Oh. Brendan's thoughts went silent after that, which worried her a little as she opened the passenger door of her car and maneuvered him inside. His thoughts seldom switched off unless he was unconscious or deeply asleep.
She closed the door after him and circled around to the driver's side. When she started the car, Brendan reached over and fumbled with his seatbelt, getting it fastened after the third try. What had begun as shivering was now all-out trembling and Freya could hear her partner's teeth clicking together. "Only you would decide to wander around in the rain after leaving work early because you were sick," she scolded lightly, reaching to turn the car's heater up as far as it would go.
"N-not my fault. W-was ca-catching a th-thief." Images of the convenience store and the skinny juvenile delinquent came unbidden to his mind.
"You couldn't have just let the police handle it?" Freya asked, but immediately picked up on more images: the cop letting the reckless driving slide, Brendan following the kid to the convenience store, the struggle with the clerk, the chase through the woods, and through it all Brendan's growing annoyance and anger. "I'll take that as a no." The images slowly grew less distinct and a couple minutes after pulling onto the highway, Freya glanced over and saw that Brendan's eyes were closed, his head leaning against the cool glass of the window, but he was still shivering despite the warmth coming from the heater. She turned onto a side street, deciding on a shortcut.
"Brendan, we're here."
Go 'way. Sleeping. He curled away from the hand on his shoulder, trying to burrow deeper into the seat beneath him.
"Well, it's time to wake up now. You're home. You can sleep more once you get inside." Freya shook his shoulder again, and this time got an annoyed, squinty-eyed, half-glare from Brendan.
Can sleep more right here too.
"Fine, sleep where you want, but I'm shutting the car off and using your spare key to go inside where it's warm." Freya switched off the ignition with a mischievous grin.
"You're mean," Brendan croaked out and pressed the release on his seatbelt.
"Yeah, well, I learned it from a certain NSA agent I know." Freya was reaching for the door handle when a wave of anger, resentment, and a variety of other negative emotions came flooding her way from her passenger.
What the hell is she doing here? Oh, I so do not need this today! "Freya, wait."
"What's wrong?" Her hand stilled on the door, and she followed Brendan's gaze across the rain-drenched parking lot to the doorstep of his apartment building. A slim, well-dressed woman slightly past middle age stood under an umbrella, looking impatient and displeased. "Who is that, Brendan?"
"My aunt." So this is what happens when she can't get through on the phone. Great move, Dean.
"You've been avoiding her?"
I was hoping to. The lost and mysteriously-broken cell phones would have made for great excuses, but she wasn't even due to call me for another couple of days.
"Don't you think you should find out why she's here then? It might be important since she came looking for you," Freya suggested.
You'd think so, wouldn't you? She probably just wants to see my apartment so she can tell me everything that's wrong with it.
Now Freya frowned. This wasn't like Brendan. "She's really that bad?"
There's ice water in her veins…and in mine too today, apparently. He shivered again. "J-just take me b-back to the office, Freya. I've got extra clothes there."
"Yeah, and then you'll find some excuse to work all night. I don't think so, Brendan." Freya wasn't really trying, but as she looked at Brendan's aunt across the parking lot, she began to pick up on the woman's emotions, and then gradually more specific thoughts. Her eyes grew wide when Scarlet—Brendan had absently supplied her name—began cursing her nephew outright while continuing to stab at the door buzzer. Images flashed before Freya of Brendan at various ages, mostly as a child, doing things that children did, and so she couldn't quite understand the level of anger that Scarlet held for him.
"See what I mean?"
Freya quickly turned her head to face Brendan. "Sorry, I didn't mean to read her…" she began, fearing she'd intruded, but he just waved off the apology and brought his hand to his face to cover a sneeze. "And yes, I see what you mean." Sliding the key back in the ignition, Freya started the car and turned in the direction of the road. Scarlet's thoughts continued to assail her until they reached the corner, and one emotion stood out, even over the powerful annoyance and derision: jealousy.
"Brendan, we're here."
He heard Freya's voice a moment before a blast of cold, and not entirely dry air hit him in the face. "What the…" Blinking, Brendan realized that the car door was open and Freya was waiting for him to get out. "You could at least give a guy a little warning," he grumped, reaching to unfasten his seatbelt.
"Yeah, well, I didn't feel like arguing with you this time. Come on, it's cold out here."
You don't say. Brendan climbed out of the car and started toward the building, aware of Freya hovering close behind him. This doesn't look like the office to me.
"You left a change of clothes at my place in case of emergencies, remember?"
They made it up the stairs to her apartment, and Brendan actually sighed in relief at the warmth of the space. He made a beeline for the coat rack by the window, making sure the rug was beneath it before he hung up his dripping jacket and slipped off his shoes. When he turned back around, Freya was holding out a towel and his duffel of extra clothing. Wow, that was fast. "Thanks. I'll just, uh…" he accepted the items and gestured toward the bathroom.
"I'll make us some tea," Freya said, following him as far as the kitchen.
Several minutes later Brendan was startled by a knock at the bathroom door. He straightened a little and banged his head on the half-open door of the medicine cabinet. Ow! Dammit!
"Yeah, I'll be out in a minute," he called. What had started as a simple change of clothes had turned into the complicated process of trying to get mud out of his hair under the faucet of the bathroom sink. Apparently he'd taken more of a spill in the forest than he'd originally thought. Dragging his fingers through the dripping mass a final time, Brendan resigned himself to the fact that the remaining bits of mud would have to wait until he could have a real shower. He straightened fully from the sink, this time avoiding the cabinet, and turned to leave. The change in position was more than his already-congested sinuses could take, however, and the NSA agent found himself clinging to the half-open bathroom door while the rest of the world went for a roller-coaster ride around him.
Unmeasured moments had ticked by when slim fingers curled around his arm. "I'm okay, Freya. J-just stood up too fast," he reassured. Staying still a few seconds longer seemed to cure the vertigo and made him confident to release his hold on the door. He turned automatically in the direction of the living room, but Freya's grip pulled him back, almost making him dizzy again. Brendan looked at her questioningly. "Didn't you say something about tea?"
"The tea is portable. First I'm putting you to bed," she said, still tugging. "It'll be late by the time Kunzel gets your car and you're not in any shape to be driving tonight."
"I'm not a little kid, Freya. I already told you, it's just a cold," Brendan argued with a frown, but let her lead him down the hall to the guest bedroom anyway. He wasn't one to easily accept others' concern for his well-being, and with the way his memory had been consumed all afternoon with thoughts of his uncaring Aunt Scarlet, his partner's solicitous behavior was enough of a contrast to make his cheeks warm with self-consciousness.
Normally it wouldn't have been an issue. He was an expert at hiding discomfort beneath humor or discussions of work. Freya had learned this well and generally she played along, respecting his unease in certain situations. Tonight was no exception on her part, save for the fact that it was an understanding silence that passed between them instead of playful banter. Brendan was just grateful that, if she was reading him, she wasn't asking why he was feeling so awkward. He wasn't entirely sure himself, except that he was literally sick and tired, and also angry and a little worried that Scarlet had come to see him.
"I'm going to go check on the tea," Freya announced, pulling him from his thoughts.
Brendan smiled and nodded slightly, noticing once she had gone that she'd managed to tuck him in even as he'd been preoccupied with embarrassment at the thought of her doing just that. Oh yeah, I'm definitely tired.
It wasn't long before Freya returned with a tray that included two steaming mugs of tea. She set the tray on the nightstand and handed one of the mugs to her partner, then perched herself on the bed next to him before picking up the other. Brendan nodded his thanks, but then sat staring intently into the depths of the tea as if he were searching for something.
Not one to pry, especially now that she was very able to, Freya let the silence linger until the steam drifting from the rim of her cup had lessened to the occasional wisp. She wasn't reading him, but familiarity had made her unintentionally privy to some of Brendan's stronger emotions unless she consciously blocked him, and right now those emotions were predominantly anxious. To ask if he was thinking about his aunt would have been redundant, so Freya chose a different question to broach the topic. "Does Scarlet have any kids?"
Surprise was evident on Brendan's face, and he actually laughed. "No. She would've killed them or sent them off to obedience school inside of a week. I don't think she ever understood how my dad could put up with me."
"Hmm." Freya frowned, and Brendan recognized it as the look she often got when on the verge of breaking a case.
In this instance he wasn't quite sure he wanted to know, but asked anyway, "Why? What are you thinking?"
"I'm not sure…it's just something I sensed from her when we were leaving. She was jealous…of you."
Brendan shook his head. "You must not have heard her right, Freya. Scarlet doesn't do jealous. She already thinks she does everything better than everyone else, and she certainly doesn't want anything I've got to offer."
"I heard right, Brendan, and you were definitely the object of her envy." The telepath looked thoughtful. "Maybe she wanted kids, but wasn't capable of having them."
"Have you and Merriweather been watching soap operas again?"
Freya swatted him lightly on the arm. "You don't think it's possible?"
"I suppose it's possible, but she never mentioned a word about it that I can remember." Brendan yawned and set his empty mug aside, pulling the quilt up around his shoulders to stave off another chill.
"Here, take these. They'll help with the congestion and fever." She handed him a packet of NyQuil tablets and a glass of water from her tray.
"Yes, mom," he joked, taking the medicine.
"Now go to sleep. It's past your bedtime." Freya grinned at him and ruffled his hair before standing up to collect their mugs and heading for the door.
Brendan awoke in the middle of the night, so shocked by the memory in his head that he didn't even care that he was lying on the floor, blankets tangled around his legs. He knew he hadn't been dreaming, because every detail was as vivid and clear as the day it happened.
He was three, and it was his dad's birthday. Scarlet had just returned from a long stint doing business in Australia, and she had exciting news that couldn't wait. Brendan's dad had taken him along to his family's summer home in the country where Scarlet was staying. He had figured it would be a good time to introduce his sister to her nephew.
The drive took two hours, and Brendan's first glimpse of his aunt was not as he'd pictured from his dad's description. They'd entered the house to find a puffy-eyed young woman with a box of Kleenex sobbing at the kitchen table. Brendan hadn't known what an 'engagement' or a 'break-up' were at the time, only that having both in two days was something that made his Aunt Scarlet very sad.
Brendan sat up and tried to untangle the mess of blankets, but despite the fact that he was still shivering badly, he made no attempt to get up from the floor. To his knowledge, Scarlet had never dated another man. She had also seemed to hate him from their second meeting onward. Does she really hold it against me somehow that she never got married, never had kids? Maybe I should call her. What time is it anyway? He was fumbling with his watch, trying to see the time when a light switched on in the hallway.
"Brendan, what's going on?" Freya's sleepy voice asked from the doorway. He squinted at the sudden brightness when she switched on the lamp. "Are you okay?" She crouched next to him, laying her hand on his forehead.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Apparently even my memory gets hazy sometimes, though. I just remembered something about Scarlet."
"You were right, Freya. My aunt is a soap star."