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Author's Note: Written for Aris Merquoni for the Yuletide 2008 Challenge. Thanks to my betas Rhiannon and Queen B for verb tenses, pacing, and sugar fixes.
Respice, Adspice, Prospice
by Tara O'Shea
Frances Pembroke is rarely, if ever, caught unawares. But then, her day thus far has consisted of throwing an ex-lover out of her house, followed by falsely presenting herself as part of an ongoing anti-terrorist investigation, and then witnessing a dead man be shot and vanish in an explosion that left his remains a smoking red splotch on a sterile examination table.
Still, she blinks in surprise, unable to form a coherent thought in the face of Father Harman's offer.
"A job," she finally repeats, as if saying the words aloud would make them any less ludicrous.
Harman simply inclines his head. "We need people like you, Ms Pembroke."
"People like me?"
"Investigators. That's why Michael's here. You found Hoyle. That was something we couldn't manage on our own. And to be perfectly frank, I'd prefer you were on our side for your own sake, as much as Michael's. You know as well as anyone--there's no such thing as half-way. You're either all in, or..."
"Or you make me disappear?"
"Nothing so crude. But we will ask you to sever all connections with our organisation."
"You mean with Mike," she says, but Harman's expression doesn't change. Frances taps her fingers against the tabletop. "You know, I'm the one who told Mike to turn you down."
"Yes. As a matter of fact, I do. I also know that you possess invaluable skills and contacts that would greatly benefit our organisation, should you choose to accept our offer."
She's amused that he still refers to it as a choice.
It's late, by the time Frances finally arrives home. One of Rice's men had driven her back to Ecowatch, to retrieve her car. Her hands had shook the whole drive home, and she kept having to pull off the road to pull herself together.
It had been a person, somehow, in that thermos flask. A Code V, Harman had called it. Mike was going to trade the mortal remains for Kirsty. She has no idea if the trade had already taken place, or if Rice and Dr March have stopped it in time. She has no idea if Mike is dead or alive. All she knows is that everything had changed and in a way, nothing has.
She bolts the door behind her, feeling foolish. A locked door probably wouldn't prove much of a deterrent. But it makes her feel better. She drops her purse on the table, and kicks off her heels. She's headed toward the kitchen and a bottle of wine when the lights in the front room snap on, and she gives a little shriek.
"Sorry! Sorry..." He seems genuinely upset to have startled her. He'd been sat on the sofa, his leather jacket thrown across the back of it carelessly. She can see the gun, half-hidden by its sleeve.
"What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to talk. I'm sorry, I know you didn't want to see me." He's like a little boy, guilty and flushed. She knows that's part of why she finds him attractive. It's also part of why she left him in the first place.
"I didn't," she snaps, her throat suddenly tight. Without thinking, she wraps her arms around him, burying her face in his shirt. "You idiot. You idiot," she keeps saying, unable to keep the quaver from her voice. Finally she pulls back and makes to slap him. To her surprise, he catches her wrist.
"Once tonight is enough," he says as he releases her. She worries she'll have a bruise, come morning.
"You probably deserved it. You bastard. I was afraid you were dead in some alley someplace, or tossed off a bridge."
"Yeah." He looks older, suddenly, and tired.
She takes him by the forearm and drags him down to the sofa, holding up a single finger for silence.
"You're going to tell me all of it. Now. And don't you dare leave a single thing out, or so help me--"
"Frances, I... I don't know if you'll believe me. It's like I said before, you have to see it for yourself."
"Don't worry. The hard work's already been done for you," she says, and tells him about Hoyle.
The sun is coming up by the time they finish trading stories. The coffee table is covered with the remains of take-away curries, and one of the two bottles of wine has perhaps half a glass left, along with dregs.
"So you're finished with Kirsty?" Frances asks as Mike rubs his cheek at the memory.
"It wasn't like that."
"Yes, it was." She takes pity on him then, reaching out to lay her hand over his. "You're just lucky your girlfriend was mixed up in a global plot to survive nuclear winter."
"She called you the ice queen, you know." He fishes a cigarette out of the crumpled packet. Frances reaches over and takes his last cigarette. "I thought you quit."
"I did." She lets him light her cigarette, and blows the smoke out with her breath. "A long time ago."
"I didn't want this for you, you know. It's dangerous, what I'm mixed up in. Real end-of-the-world stuff. I wanted you to keep clear of it."
"Well, I didn't. And anyway, you're the one who kept coming back for more." She takes another drag on the cigarette, head swimming. "At least I know now it wasn't all about Kirsty."
"Did you really think it was?"
"Up until this morning? Yes. Can you blame me? Anyway, you're not the only one who turns into a desperate, pathetic wretch for love, you know."
His eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles. "You were never desperate."
"I am very good at hiding it." She tries to keep her tone light, but it is a truth she is uncomfortable sharing with him. He usually never looked past the mask, but tonight he is determined to get under her skin. And she doesn't half want him to.
"Why did you leave?" he asks, when the silence stretches too long between them.
"You wanted to ride in on a white charger, rescuing damsels fair from, I don't know... whatever. But that's not me. That's not what I needed. It's not what I wanted." She blinks rapidly, pretending the smoke stings her eyes. "You didn't need me."
"I always needed you," he says softly.
She tries to pretend that it doesn't hurt, when he says that. But it does.
"One of us had to be the one to walk away. You were never going to do it. I had to, to stay sane. Though I'm not sure this is sanity anymore."
"Because now there are monsters in the dark?"
"There were always monsters in the dark, Michael."
When he kisses her, she lets him. It's as mad as anything else from the last three months. She put her job and her life on the line because, for all her protestations to the contrary, she cares for him still. Enough that it hurts like hell when she finally pushes him away.
"I won't have you, not like this, if it's just holding onto me because you're too scared to lose anyone else. If we do this again--it has to be different. It has to be real."
He gets that kicked puppy look, which always makes her hate herself even as she hates him. But she continues to stare him straight in the eye. He blinks first.
"You deserve better, you know," he says as he takes another long drag on his cigarette.
"Yeah, well... we don't always get what we deserve."
She stubs out the half-smoked fag, and begins gathering up the take-away containers. His hand on her forearm stills her.
"Will you take the job?" he asks.
"Do you want me to?"
When people ask her where she works, the lies come easily. CIB, T-Branch, MI5. She has IDs and badges for every occasion, and it's only when someone from her old life asks that she has to be cagey. She plays it off as a lateral move. Her mother thinks she works for GCHQ, and she doesn't disabuse her of the notion.
She meets with Tom in a wine bar. She tries to let him off gently. In the end, he's the one who says she's been distant over the last few months. He had been waiting for her, but didn't plan to wait any longer.
The irony is not lost on her.
Rice didn't want her out in the field. But Pearse insists.
She doesn't like the gun. It feels heavy in her hands, and she hates the noise. The paper target shows a scattering of shots centre mass.
"I would have thought a shot to the heart would be easy for you," Mike says, only half joking.
"I'm out of practice."
Later, she asks Rice for a graphite full-auto stiletto. She can't tell if he's impressed, or a little bit frightened of her.
Her first Code V is the hardest. A mother cradling her fourteen year old son who stares up with dead eyes, his neck flopping at an unnatural angle. The explosion takes out all the windows in the council flat, and three people are taken way in ambulances, injured by falling glass.
Afterwards, she goes back with Mike to his cavernous empty flat, and they talk about old times surrounded by all the boxes he has yet to unpack. She sleeps in his bed, and he takes the sofa. She only gets up once during the night, and spends too long staring at herself in the bathroom mirror.
Her next Code V is easier. And the one after that. She grows--not complacent, but more confident. More sure of herself, her job, and her abilities. No longer crippled by fears she will be a liability and put the others in danger. Sin of pride, Mike whispers in her ear, mouth twitching in a smile, when the paper target comes back on its chain with a tight grouping over the heart.
But she wasn't prepared for Jack.
She doesn't remember what he said or what Jack did.
All she knows is that, when Mike opens his door an hour before dawn, as the rain came down in sheets outside, she is in his arms. She is so cold she's shaking, but he is warm. They make it halfway to the sofa before he pulls back from her mouth.
"But you said--"
"Fuck what I said."
Later, when she wakes up in the lab, head and jaw throbbing, he tells her that's how he knew.
"The infection looks recent," March says as she holds the UV lamp up higher, tugging Frances' blouse a little further to the left. Mike stares at her black bra strap. Rice stares at the veins of dark red illuminated by the lamp's cold glow.
"Do you have any lost time?" Pearse is the interrogator, while Mike watches, a muscle twitching in his jaw.
"No. But then, how would I know?"
"We've pulled up all your entrance codes, recorded by the security system," Rice says, his eyes boring into hers. "No access to restricted material."
"Logs can be faked," Frances says wearily. "I should know. Check them against the backups. Check CC-TV, the works. Am I on suspension?"
"Do you want to be?" Pearse asks, eyes wide and guileless. She forgets sometimes that he hasn't always looked this way--bald, chemo has weakened his body, but the light that burns in his eyes has not diminished.
"No," she replies, rebuttoning her blouse.
"Do you have any idea who might have approached you?"
Frances shakes her head, trying to piece together the evening. She remembers coming home, having dinner and a glass of wine. Nothing more.
"They can make you forget." Angie's tone was kind and understanding. But it only makes Frances angrier--with herself most of all.
She keeps touching the bandage covering the lasered bite.
"You're one of us, now," Rice says as he drove her to the safehouse where she would spend the night until they could sort it all out.
"Wish it wasn't. You know who it was, don't you."
"So do you. I don't blame Mike. I know you probably want me to, but I don't."
"We'll have to find him, you know."
She nods. Streets slide past them outside the window, and her nails cut into her palms to keep her hands from shaking. "Why didn't he just kill me? Or turn me?" she finally asks, and Rice glances at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Because it's not you he's after," he says, voicing what she already knew. "Jack's had a hard-on for Mike ever since he got turned. Leeches are always spouting some bollocks about how they want to dismantle us from the inside. But I reckon Beresford's just in it for payback. Kirsty's gone. That left you."
"So what you're saying is, he used me to get to Mike."
"And how, exactly, is that any different from what you and Pearse are doing?"
Rice shrugs. "At least we gave you a choice. The leeches say they will, but they don't. Don't ever forget that."
That night, Mike shows her the note. It was in her coat pocket, a single half-sheet folded once. The scrawl is unmistakable. Mike had spent too many long nights filling out paperwork at the Met not to recognise it.
Did you like my present? "You could still walk away."
"From this?" she asks, the sweep of her hand encompassing the world they live in: shattered trust, test tubes, and carbon bullets. "Or from you?"
He stares her in the eye, and she's the one who finally blinks.
"Anyway, I don't want to run," she says as the edges of the paper curl and blacken. "I want to fight."
He doesn't ask her again.
Frances opens the door of her new flat and finds Angela March on the other side. Mercifully, she has a bottle of wine instead of a houseplant.
"All girls together?"
"I thought you might like the company."
"I've no idea where they've packed the glasses."
Sat on the sofa, red wine in mis-matched mugs, Angie seems very different to Frances than she does in the lab. Kirsty may have called Frances an ice queen, but Angie's the one who seems to glide through their world encased in glass. Untouchable. But here, in the flat with its horrid white walls, surrounded by mountains of boxes of books Frances doesn't have the energy to take out of their paper cartons, Dr March has stayed at the lab and Angie is human.
Frances doesn't have many women friends. Before, she would have said it was because she just never got on with members of her own sex. Now, she knows it's because she's more comfortable with men because they were more easily manipulated. But there is something simple about the two of them together. She thinks it's because Angie is like her. No white chargers required.
"How many times have you moved?"
"Just the once. Anyway, it was better for Rose."
"She's your daughter?"
"She and Alicia were twins. It was very hard for her. Is very hard."
Silence falls between them, but it is a comfortable one.
"Rice doesn't like me very much, does he," Frances says as they rinse out the mugs in the sink and lay them on a tea towel to dry.
"Vaughn doesn't like anybody."
"I wouldn't say that." Frances isn't blind. Angie blushes. "Anyway, he and Mike seem to get on."
"Not at first. Give it time. How long were you and Mike together?"
"Too long," she says and it comes out as a sigh. "Is it that obvious?"
"Vaughn said it was body language that gave you away." Angie's beautiful when she smiles.
"It's not like I mauled him in public."
"It's not that, it's--Mike's different around you. How did you meet?"
"I was with CIB, then. Mike had just made Detective Sergeant. He took some courses."
"Brought an apple for the teacher?"
"Something like that." It's Frances' turn to smile. "You know, I never liked Jack."
"I never met him. Not before, or after."
"Did you know that Mike had switched the canisters?"
"We checked the logs."
"I thought maybe that was why you let him--"
"No. I wish it hadn't been Jack, but Mike probably thought it would be easier."
"Small fish," Frances says with a knowing smile. "Are you ever tempted? Now that you know how they regenerate--"
"Hoyle was a special case. We don't get opportunities for live captures very often."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Robert's dead. The thing that killed my daughter, that we have locked up in our vault... If it were up to me, I'd have scattered him in the sea a long time ago."
In the end, it's Rice who neutralises Jack. Frances wishes she could have been there, but finds all she really cares about is that the bastard is dead. Or as close as makes no difference. There is no room in her job for personal vendettas, or poetic justice.
There's a shiny scar above her collarbone to greet her in the mirror every morning to make her remember. As if she could ever forget.
This time, when Frances appears on Mike's doorstep, he knows why.
In the grey light before the dawn, she finds his fingers and laces her own through them. Simple human contact feels like a blessing she doesn't deserve.
He offers it anyway and she takes it gladly. It's all the grace they can find, and it's enough.