Paulo looked up from where he'd been rubbing polish into the saddle to find his father standing in front of him, a small box in his calloused hands. Dropping the cloth and resting the saddle on his knees, Paulo took the box.
'What is it?' he asked, hand hovering over the lid. A faint chirping could be heard.
'Don't open it here,' his dad warned, reaching to take the saddle so Paulo could stand up. 'Silly bird got into the house and tried to batter its way out of the kitchen window.' They listened as the insistent chirping grew in volume. 'Sounds like he's waking up.'
'What do I do with him?'
'Thought you might want to go for a bit of ride, let him go away from the house.' His dad smiled. 'Your mother was a bit distraught over finding him on the floor, blood all over the window. He should be fine, though. Just needs a chance to get over the shock.'
Yeah, Paulo thought, heading out to the round yard where his horse was waiting patiently. Shock. It takes a little while.
The morning sun was warm and pleasant against Paulo's back as he rode across the ranch paddocks, the box held firmly on the pommel in front of him. Every now and then the bird would start chirping again, then fall silent, restoring quiet to the ranges. When the bird's twittering began to reach what Paulo thought was an impatient, borderline annoyed pitch, he stopped and dismounted, making sure he didn't jolt the box and further upset the already temperamental.
Opening the lid, he caught sight of a flash of dull brown- a little sparrow. It looked up, saw Paulo peering back at it and set up a frenzied chatter. Smiling, Paulo carefully opened the box and held it on an angle away from him, so the sparrow would have no problem flying away. There was a pause, then the bird gave a final twitter and hopped out of the box, balancing carefully on the rim, looking at its surroundings with interest.
'Go on,' Paulo urged.
The bird hurled a barrage of angry chirping back at him- I'm getting there. I'm getting there. Some people! - and then fluffed up its feathers, seeming quite happy to just sit on the box in the sun. Gently, Paulo gave it a little shake, and was rewarded with more indignant chirping.
Finally, the sparrow ruffled its feathers one more time then took off, flitting away, happy to be free once more. Paulo watched until the tiny bird disappeared from sight. He'd do that one day, he decided, swinging back into the saddle. Shake everything off and carry on. Birds were more resilient than people; the sparrow had smashed into a window a dozen times and almost been stood on, but there it went, soaring across the ranges without a worry in the world. People took a bit longer to pick up the pieces and keep going. But one day... It'd just take a little while.
Laura leant back in the chair, squinting against the glare. 'Hey, Alex? Can I ask you something?'
She waited until he sat down next to her, a glass of water in his hand, before continuing: 'You know how we agreed to wait a few years, then get married, then have kids?'
'Yep,' Alex said, sipping at his water, the picture of relaxation. Laura waited a few extra seconds, wondering if he'd catch on, realise what she was going to say.
Typical male, she thought, trying not to sigh.
'Well,' she said slowly, head down, eyes focused on her feet stretched out towards the balcony railings, 'I was just wondering if that plan was set in stone.'
Alex looked at Laura, half confused, half weary. 'I thought we agreed. I don't even have a job at the moment, Laura, and we're living in-' He gestured about, waving a hand back behind him towards the balcony door and the three roomed flat they were currently living in. "Pokey" wasn't small enough to describe their living quarters.
'But what if, say, hypothetically, something happened that disrupted the plan. Would that be okay?'
Completely confused now, Alex frowned. 'What're you-' He stopped short as Laura, almost sheepishly, placed a hand over her stomach.
The glass dropped from Alex's hand.
A cool breeze blew gently across the graveyard, snatching at the bottom of Amber's long coat. She shivered, not sure if it was from the cold or something else, before crouching down beside a grave, one hand resting on the dew soaked grass to steady herself. Slowly, she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out an envelope. After a second's hesitation, Amber reached forward and carefully tucked the letter behind a vase of fresh flowers somebody- maybe Alex and Laura- had left there recently. She stayed there, hunched over beside the grave, until soft footsteps, the crunch of leaves, made her turn around sharply.
'Only me,' Hex said softly, coming to stand beside her.
Amber turned back around, her eyes lingering on the headstone. 'It still doesn't feel real, does it? Like... I don't know, she's just gone away for a while.' She faced him, peering up at his face, eyes sad. 'But she's not coming back, is she?'
Hex didn't answer, unsure what to say, but Amber hadn't been expecting a response. She knew already. She'd known ever since Paulo had been sitting on that bench, alone, upset. But she hadn't wanted to believe it.
The two of them stayed by the grave as the wind picked up, whirling around them with a desperate intensity and throwing discarded leaves up into the air. It was Hex who finally broke the silence.
'We should go,' he said, quiet, unsure. 'We'll miss the plane otherwise.'
Amber gave a tiny nod, but waited for a second longer before standing up. 'Can you give me a minute?'
As Hex crunched his way back across the grass to the car park, Amber stood beside Li's grave, eyes flickering over the inscription on the headstone but not really taking in the words. She hated how fresh the grave looked, how it seemed like only yesterday she'd cried her way through the funeral. The other graves, the ones that had been there for years, were overgrown and faded, like the hurt and sorrow those loved ones left behind had felt... Lived. She hated how she never seemed to be able to stop crying. She hated that one minute Li had been there, laughing, joking, teasing her and the next... Gone. She hated how unfair it was. She hated everything about the whole situation.
But there was nothing she could do, nothing anyone could do. Li was dead; there was no way to bring her back, no way to reverse the events of that awful night. She just had to cope with it, like everyone else. Cope and move on, just like Hex had told her to. She'd asked how to start and he'd said to just walk away, forget about it all. Could she do that though? Did she want to do that? Did she have a choice?
Taking a deep, shaking breath, Amber dug her hands into her coat pockets. It was time to leave.
To be honest, I'm not sure why I'm writing this letter. I had the paper out, pen in hand, ready to write a checklist and instead I'm scribbling this down. Not much point to it, is there? Great, now I'm crying. And the ink's running. And- Stuff it. You're never going to be able to read this anyway, are you? So why am I still writing? Maybe because I never got to say goodbye and this is as close as I'm going to be able to get.
I miss you, Li. We all do. Life's just not the same without you. It's like the sun's not as bright anymore, the day's aren't as warm, the world's slowed down. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's true. It's not the same. It'll never be. You're gone, Paulo's back in Argentina, Hex and I are going to Boston, Alex is going to be a dad... It's all so scary, so different, and I'm not sure I like it. I want everything to be back the way it was, not just before we started the stupid investigation, but before I met Jasper, before we went to Australia, before our first MI5 mission, back when we were kids. Things were so simple- or they seem to be now we've gone through so many much more complex situations.
But maybe that's what growing up, growing older, is all about. You have to deal with other things. You're not going to get older, though, are you, Li? That's what really sucks. We were all going on about West being so young, too young to be caught in such a messy business. But you were too young to have your life, your future, everything, taken away from you. It's really not fair and I wish there was some committee, somewhere, that I go and see, ask them to rethink what they did. But there's not, is there? You really are gone for good. I think I'm finally starting to realise that now; it's taken me six bloody months to, but I think it's just starting to hit home.
I never thought I'd say this- though since I'm writing, does it count?- but I really miss you teasing me. And I miss teasing you, but you probably already guessed that, right? I miss stumbling out to my kitchen at some horrible hour to find you cluttering about, chirping away- uninvited of course. I miss not even being able to look at Hex without you sniggering in the background. I miss your cakes, the ones that we had to use for doorstops because no one could bite into them. I miss your seriously bad timing, always barging in at the worst- and most awkward- moments. I'm not going to give you an example; I'm sure you could think of plenty. I miss your inability to sit still for more than five minutes, even though it used to annoy the heck out of me. I'd give anything to be able to have you drag me off on some insane adventure. I miss you; I miss my best friend, my teacher, my confident, my sister.
We never did get to go climbing again. I'm trying to talk Hex into going with me, but he's not buying it. Since we're leaving for Boston in a matter of hours- back to the nine to five daily grind- I guess that's one thing I'm going to have to forget about. That's what really scares me, though: forgetting. I don't want to forget anything, ever, but deep down I know I will. In a way, that's even a more terrifying thought than having everything change. Maybe that's another reason I'm writing this, because, while I still can, I want lock everything in stone, every memory, every argument, every joke.
Operation Futura Case File
OFFICIAL DOCUMENT: PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Six years prior to the investigation undertaken by MI5 officers Melvin Smith, Amber Middleton, Alexander Craig, Li Cheong, Paulo Varela, Mara Hunter and Neil Blake (please note that junior officer Ava Phillips was also partially involved in the case, as was Jasper Price- see attached section for further details or refer to case file for Operation Guava; also refer to individual files on mentioned officers), MI5 head officer Abigail Newton (attached file) organised physics teacher Gerard Helton's (attached file) fake death. Helton had been contracted by Callum Morris (see attached file for further details) to create a lens able to see around the curvature of the universe, the theory being that doing so would allow the viewer to see the future. Having drafted the plans and uncovered a plot to end his life, Helton no longer wished to make the transaction and Newton offered to help him disappear.
With Helton now under the new name of Michael Dwayne, Newton used her connections with MI5, MI6 and local police authorities to keep him under almost constant surveillance. Her goal- the only reason she offered to organise a new life and identity for Helton- was to have him finish the plans and then hand them over to Colin Mitchell (see attached file or refer to case file for Operation Guava) who was a close friend of hers. Mitchell, too, was devising plans, but these were for a machine that would utilise the lens Helton was trying to create. In the middle of this, Operation Guava (see case file) was put into action with Amber Middleton being placed undercover and told to form a relationship with Jasper Price, one of Mitchell's employees for his drug and trafficking business. Price was arrested following this investigation, Mitchell fled the country with Newton's help and the MI5 director at the time, Harry Field, was killed, allowing Newton to move into the position.
Whilst out of the country, Mitchell was in regular contact with Newton. She relayed information to him about the events that took place during Operation Guava and Mitchell vowed to get revenge on Middleton and Luis Zolkin (see case file on Operation Guava, in particular attached files on Zolkin and Georgia Price).
Mitchell returned to London to both begin the construction of his planned machine and carry out his threats on Middleton's and Zolkin's lives. Newton, along with Mitchell's sister, Ella Mitchell (see attached file), got in contact with businessmen who had had a brief association with Mitchell in the past and were wanting to assist in funding the machine: Parker Hurst, Lucas Hart, Riley West, Alistair Payton and Christopher Adlam (see attached files). Last to be contacted was Naomi Fryer (see attached file), a retired assassin Mitchell had used in the past. Hurst and E. Mitchell were Mitchell's go betweens for communication with Newton and it was through this connection that Newton was told to approach Helton. She did so and he was threatened for both the plans and his co-operation after a mutual agreement and arrangement started to fall through. Helton obliged and the plans were handed over to Mitchell. During this, security guard Seamus Thornton (see attached file) came across Fryer, Adlam and Hurst moving machine parts from a boat moored in the Thames to a warehouse. He was attacked, threatened, framed for the murder of fellow guard Keeley Donovan and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Price, in prison, came in contact with Thornton and, through him, learnt about the machine. Using his own contacts, Price was able to put together patchy evidence and leads. He was unaware that his old boss, Mitchell, was organising the construction of the machine, or that Newton was involved. After escaping from prison, Price contacted Middleton and handed over what evidence he had gathered. Middleton informed Blake, Smith, Varela, Cheong, Craig and Hunter about Price's assumptions and they decided to mount their own, unauthorised investigation.
Mitchell managed to track down Zolkin and Newton organised his murder, planting a story that he was a dangerous assassin. Investigations into whether Fryer was involved in any way with Zolkin's murder are still being conducted. Newton informed E. Mitchell, who relayed the information to Mitchell. Having successfully disposed of one of his targets, Mitchell turned his attention to Middleton, unaware that Price was in contact with her.
Cheong and Varela infiltrated the group of businessmen- Hart, Adlam, West, Hurst and Payton- assuming undercover roles; Cheong as rich heiress Elise Chang and Varela as Enrico Martinez, a young, potential entrepreneur. Hurst informed Mitchell about Hart's "new friends" and was then sent to meet Newton and exchange information. Newton, having been shown photos of Cheong and Varela, knew their true identities, but didn't inform Hurst, preferring to instead double check and then contact E. Mitchell. During this, Newton discovered that Price was potentially assisting in the investigation against Mitchell and the machine, though she neglected to inform anyone else other than E. Mitchell. Mitchell was told by his sister that not only was his 2IC entertaining two MI5 undercover officers, but that they were close friends with Middleton, his intended target. She didn't inform him of Price's involvement, assuming that Newton was going to do this.
Mitchell was concerned over these revelations and sent E. Mitchell to see Newton in person. It is believed that Smith overheard the end of this conversation, though whether Mitchell intended this or not is still unclear. Smith also discovered a very important yet poorly concealed file on Helton immediately following this event, so it is believed that this all may have been a set up. Inquiries are continuing.
Hart, after being informed of the true identities of Varela and Cheong, was told to continue as normal and invite Varela to a dinner at his manor to "discuss business". Hart did so, though it is believed that he may have tried to warn Varela through a message encoded in a crossword before the dinner took place. If this is the case, Varela either wasn't aware of the message or didn't interpret it correctly as he agreed to accompany Hart to his manor the following evening (the date for this meeting was actually moved to the following night; see below for further explanation). Fryer was also told to invite Cheong along as well, though she did this only hours before the actual meeting was supposed to take place. Cheong accepted the invitation.
Meanwhile, Helton had started to back away from his agreement with Mitchell. When it became clear that Helton was a potential leak, Hart was told to meet with him and assess the situation. So as to not frighten Helton off and make him behave, Mitchell insisted Hart meet Helton in a restaurant and have Hart's new girlfriend, Laura Bryant (see attached file), accompany him. Hart contacted Varela and moved the meeting to the following night. Hart and Helton met in the restaurant, the meeting seen but not heard by Varela and Craig who were undertaking surveillance on Helton.
After analysing the situation and Helton's frame of mind, Hart contacted Hurst, who in turn contacted Newton and informed her that Helton needed to be removed from the equation. Newton then organised Helton's murder, making it appear as though he had committed suicide, and ensured that her face was captured on the security footage as she left the scene. Smith accessed the footage and saw this section of tape; it is believed this was a further set up, as were the emails Smith located when he hacked into Newton's computer.
Hart, West, Hurst, Payton, Adlam and Fryer attended the dinner at Hart's manor, as did Varela and Cheong. Knowing that the latter two were undercover, the former all waited until the end of the meal before revealing this fact. The escape of Cheong- once again, this is believed to have been set up and ensured it happened- and capture of Varela followed. Varela was transported via a van to the office block on Turner Street where Hart, West and Payton's company, HPW Industries, was based along with, hidden in a secure basement, Mitchell's machine.
E. Mitchell organised for Craig, Blake and Cheong to be kidnapped from their respective flats, but before she could carry this out, Mitchell told Newton to confront the three of them along with Hunter, Middleton and Smith over their unauthorised mission. She did so and the officers parted ways; shortly afterwards, Craig, Blake and Cheong were kidnapped and taken to the office block where Varela was still being held.
Middleton, Smith and Hunter attempted to infiltrate the office block and locate the other officers, with Smith remaining stationed in a van outside the premises, overriding security systems to allow Middleton and Hunter access to sealed off areas. Hurst approached both women after Smith lost audio and tracking contact of them, pretending to be fooled by their disguises, and ordered them to accompany him to the basement and the machine. During this, Price arrived in the van where Smith was and attempted to warn him about Mitchell's involvement. It is, as yet, unclear when Price first became aware of Mitchell's role in events.
According to interviews, Mitchell, Hart and Hurst were aware that Middleton and Hunter were the two workers that Hurst brought into the basement. Just before this, Bryant was also taken to the basement by Hart after being collected from her flat by Newton and E. Mitchell and was then tied up alongside Varela due to her attempts to free Craig (see attached files on both Craig and Bryant for further information on this situation and its circumstances). For a reason that is still being uncovered, Mitchell ordered both Middleton and Hunter to leave, but then, barely minutes later, called Middleton's mobile and asked her to return to the basement, without Hunter, and exchange herself for her friends. After Middleton and Hunter left the room but before the former returned, Hart, Payton and West removed all hostages from the main room of the basement except for Blake and Cheong, tying them up in various rooms off a maze of corridors behind the machine. Varela managed to overpower Payton and take his gun at some stage, whilst Craig and Bryant were separated and tied up.
Middleton re-entered the basement and held an unarmed Mitchell at gunpoint, ordering him to release Cheong and Blake. Blake left the basement, returning to the van outside, and informed Smith, Price and Hunter on what had occurred, while Middleton and Cheong attempted to locate Craig, Bryant and Varela. Mitchell was tied up in the main basement area; he readily gave up important evidence beforehand (see attached files on Mitchell, Newton, E. Mitchell and Price).
During their search for the three missing officers, Middleton and Cheong came across an armed Newton. She, too, relinquished crucial information (see attached files on Newton, Price and Mitchell; brief reference to case file for Operation Guava, though the situation is not explained in much detail here). After leaving the two officers, Newton arrived back in the main basement, untying Mitchell before leaving with E. Mitchell. Both women were apprehended along with Hurst at an airport before they could leave the country.
Mitchell waited in the lobby for Cheong to emerge from the basement corridors, then stabbed her in the abdomen, piercing the lower section of her right lung. Varela arrived at the scene almost immediately after this and shot Mitchell, who died instantly. Cheong was dead before ambulance or police could arrive.
Hart, West, Adlam and Payton were arrested after they gave themselves up when faced with an armed police blockade. Fryer attempted to shoot her way out of the blockade, injured a police constable and was sub sequentially shot. She was hospitalised but died shortly afterwards. Price willing handed himself over to police as soon as they arrived on scene and was relocated to a maximum security prison. He has agreed to give vital evidence in court voluntarily. Price has also admitted to another seven murders committed by himself over the five and a half years immediately before he was originally arrested and jailed. Investigations into these continue with assistance from local and international authorities.
The circumstances regarding Mitchell's conduct throughout the later section of the events has led investigating officers to believe that his "future machine" actually worked at one stage and Mitchell was aware of how events would pan out. In an interview with E. Mitchell and a written statement by Hart, it is revealed that Mitchell had been hiding in America when he fled from the UK. Over there he continued dealing and trafficking drugs and weapons, resulting in friction between himself and rival groups. It is believed that the damage to his throat and vocal cords was inflicted by such a group and that had he been forced to leave the UK again, he would have been killed by these new enemies. Investigations into these claims are being conducted, with collaboration from American authorities.
I just realised I neglected to whack a disclaimer at the start of this fic. Woops. Here we go, then... I own absolutely nothing in this fic apart from the OCs (i.e. everyone other than Alpha Force). Yes. Unfortunately I don't own the amazing machine; I completely stole it off Paycheck :) Awesome movie, everyone should watch it. Right now.
Hopefully you enjoyed that fic; it was quite easily my favourite to write so far. I know I said at the start of this fic that it would be the last for my little "series", but my imagination has obviously had other ideas. There is a ninety five per cent chance that I will be writing the idea for number five (set after this one obviously) I had, but not right away. Would people be interested in that particular fic? The main reason I want to write it is I have a few minor plot ideas I want to explore further, as well as a very pushy original character who keeps butting in. I just need to sort out the actual main plot, though. Despite trying to start work on a original novel, I'm unable to tear myself away from this lovely little section and, as a result, look out for a new fic from me in the very near future. It's a very lose Reunion challenge response and should (hopefully) be a little bit unique... Have I got you all intrigued? ;)
A huge thanks for the reviews and to those who stuck with this fic all the way from start to finish; I know it was a long ordeal, so I appreciate you and your patience :) Cookies to you all!