Take Me With You
X X X
Fifty years, the old man said.
Francoise was dead.
She'd died fifty years ago.
The woman he'd spent the previous afternoon with... didn't exist.
She hadn't existed for fifty years.
Joe's head spun as he stared at the elderly Frenchman, trying to wrap his head around the concept. He didn't know what to say, or what to do next - living on your own was enough to eradicate the social skills needed in this type of situation, but Joe had never had them in the first place. He found himself blinking several times before he could concentrate enough to speak - and when he opened his mouth, what came out was hardly eloquent.
"I don't understand."
The old man sighed and moved out of the doorway, gesturing for Joe to come inside. "I will tell you the story," he said, "Or at least what I know."
X X X
"What?" Commander Rousseau snapped his chair around to look at the Petty Officer who had disturbed his requiem, a scowl twisting his features.
He was given the satisfaction of a startled look in return, the young woman now hesitant to give her information. When the Commander lifted to his feet with that same unpleasant expression, she whipped back around to the console. "The Jack has arrived in Paris, sir," she told him, speaking quickly and keeping her eyes on the screen. "ETA to 009's location is thirty-five minutes."
"It can't go any faster?" the Commander grumbled, flopping back in his seat with all ideas of harrassment now cast out of his head. "Have the 00 rest of the Cyborgs been located yet?"
"They are not on 009's radar, sir."
Annoyed by this but aware that he couldn't change it, Commander Rousseau slumped in his seat with a muttered curse. It was too late to recall the Jack and he could not afford to show hesitation in the eyes of Black Ghost. He would just have to hope that when the Jack found his target, the rest of the team (how far away could they be?) would rush to 009's defense.
There was a small unit of soldiers permanently located in Paris, under the control of his comrade, Lieutenant Colonel Laurent. They were, like other small units, stationed there specifically because it was the hometown for a rogue Cyborg - and he was sure that Laurent would not get in his way if he needed to borrow some of those soldiers to contain the rest of the 00 Cyborgs.
Although, it was possible that Laurent would want a small piece of the prize... Rousseau frowned at this, slumped in his chair further, and turned his mind to a plan that would allow him to keep all the glory for himself.
Thankful for the distraction, the Petty Officer muttered a thanks to her guardian and resumed monitoring the Jack.
X X X
Standing awkwardly in the kitchen doorway of a small terrace, Joe watched as his accidental host put on a pot of coffee. Having had little opportunity in his life to see what someone's home looked like, he had been pleasantly surprised by the decor - and the warmth.
Having spent most of the day outside, Joe hadn't realised how cold he actually was. Stores were warm, yes, but he was only in those for as long as it took to ask for a job, and his own tiny flat only came with minimal heating.
"Follow me," the old man told him, walking stick in one hand and a perfectly balanced tray in the other. Joe nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to move out of the way, then followed (slowly) as they left the kitchen, crossed the hall, and came into a drawing room. A fire crackled on the far side of the room, and two large winged chairs were positioned by it. A small table sat between the two chairs and it was here that the tray went, the china clinking as it came to rest on the table with a slight drop.
Joe only paid a fraction of attention to this, his eyes on the walls as he took in the room from the doorway. A large double window showed the garden outside, whilst the furtherest wall was lined with bookcases. One shelf was dominated by a slightly dusty case of medals that his internal system identified as being from the war era, delivered to men - or the families thereof - who had been in the French Air Force.
Joe quietly filed away the information that his host was a Veteran.
"Come sit, come sit." The invitation was coupled with an impatient wave of the hand, which Joe obeyed. He crossed the room and sat in the second chair carefully, a little perplexed by the way the chair's cushions sank after him. They hadn't looked nearly this soft from across the room. He glanced to the fire and then to the art-deco mantle surrounding it, and here he saw photos. There were only a few and all of them looked as though they had cleaned recently, the glass gleaming in the warm light of the room.
Before he had time to observe them closely, his host was leaning forward to serve the coffee. Distracted by this, Joe watched until it was time to take his cup with a polite nod of thanks, his artificially enhanced skin barely registering the hot ceramic as his fingers curled around it.
"Mm," the elderly man murmured, inhaling the scent of the coffee. "Much better than that cold garden, yes?"
Joe opened his mouth to answer, then realised that he'd been spoken to in english. That was odd. He thought about questioning it, but elected to go along with it, switching to english communications before replying. "Much," he agreed, "Thankyou, sir."
"My name is Jean-Paul, son, call me that."
Joe tried to disguise his surprise as Francoise's words echoed in his head.
That's where my brother, Jean-Paul lives.
It didn't work, Jean-Paul smiling bitterly. "You know my name, yes?"
"I know you are Francoise's brother," Joe explained quietly. It didn't occur to him to use past-tense.
"Yes, that's right. Why are you looking for Francoise?"
Uh-oh. Joe never liked to lie, but he knew that he couldn't tell this man the truth - not only was it unbelieveable, but he didn't know what to make of it himself and didn't want to be the one responsible for more heartbreak for someone who had already suffered a great deal. "I, uh... wanted to see her," he answered.
"I wanted to talk about Paris," Joe elaborated, picking his words as carefully as he could, "I thought she would know a lot. I didn't realise..."
"That she's not here?" there was a gleam of a strange kind of sad humour in Jean-Paul's eyes as he answered, the smile less bitter and more remorseful this time. "Truthfully, I only had her declared dead a few years ago."
That sounded more than a little strange to Joe, and however shy he was, the heart on his sleeve couldn't hide that. "Why?" he asked carefully.
Jean-Paul sighed, swilling his undrunk coffee. "We grew up in the country," he explained, "Francoise, me, and our parents. We lived in a big, beautiful house and my father practised flying every day - he was a pilot in the Armée de l'Air, but... he did not return from the war. My mother died of a broken heart, leaving Francoise and I behind. We came to the city - she wanted to dance, I needed work. It was not easy, and she did not like my work as a stuntman, but we got by."
Jean-Paul paused to drink his coffee and Joe waited, having listened thusfar in dutiful silence. If asked, he could recall Jean-Paul's tale word-for-word; he was subconsciously storing every bit of information like his programming was supposed to.
"That is her, in the red tutu."
Following the old man's nod, Joe's eyes fell on the mantle piece photographs for the second time. He noted several different aircraft - or the same in different colours? - briefly, searching for the 'red tutu'.
And there was Francoise, smiling at the camera. Her hair was tied in a bun and had been stained a darker colour by some type of dye (his archives told him that only brunettes were considered 'proper' Ballerinas at the time the photo was taken), red ballet shoes on her feet and lithe body encased in a red tutu. It was unmistakeably the same woman he had spent the previous day with, but that... how? She had been unquestionably familiar when he'd encountered her the day before, and the red tutu just drove the feeling home. But if she'd been dead for fifty years...
She was the girl cyborg.
Archived footage - memories if he'd been more human - flashed to the front of his mind, bringing him back to that hectic day when he had first met the 00-team. The red tutu was the same as her Cyborg uniform, but in the chic clothes of the day before and with a smile on her face he hadn't been able to place her. When they'd met, things had been so intense - and himself so exhausted from 001's 'directions' - that he'd only had the briefest of moments to interact with her. He rarely revisited the events of that day, and when he did, it was to 001 that he paid his attention, not the rest of the team.
Everything clicked into place - why she'd known so much about the history of Paris but still wanted a history book, why she'd vanished so quickly after saying goodbye -- and why she hadn't returned?
Joe felt a cold wave wash over him as it occurred to him that talking to her brother was now a very dangerous idea... but he didn't know how to escape the situation without making it worse. He nodded to Jean-Paul to show that he saw the photo, then sipped anxiously from his coffee. It was rich and warm, but he was barely aware of it.
"She was a beautiful dancer," Jean-Paul continued, "She became a prima donna, or at least - she got the invitation to become one. They arranged to pick her up from her rehearsals and then show her the company she was invited to be a part of. I received a letter the next week, telling me that she loved the company and wanted to stay there, and she would visit me in the summer."
"Did she visit you?" Joe asked, unsure of what else he could possibly say.
"No," Jean-Paul answered, watching the fire instead of his guest, "That letter was the last I heard of her. I searched everywhere, talked to all of her friends. They were disappointed that they had not heard from her... after a year, I learnt the company did not exist. For a time, I thought she had lied about the company and run away, but I could find no trace of her. The police tried to help, but they could not find anything either."
"I see," Joe murmured quietly. He drank the last of the coffee, and set it down on the tray.
The soft clink of china seemed to pull the elderly man from the memories he had sunk into, and he copied the motion although his own cup was still mostly full. "I miss her every day, but in fifty years that has not brought her back. If you like, I can tell you what I know about this beautiful city."
"Oh -" startled by the suggestion, Joe was quick to shake his head. "It's alright, sir. Thankyou for telling me what you have, I... understand, now."
"Are you certain?" Jean-Paul was clearly doubtful, but Joe tried to brush it off by standing to bow politely.
"I am, sir. Thankyou again."
"You're welcome, son, but my name is Jean-Paul."
X X X
It was well and truly dark by the time Joe had left Jean-Paul's house, walked the skinny path, and gently closed the garden gate. His head was swimming under the weight of what he had learnt, and he didn't know where to begin dissecting it.
Once on the street, Joe allowed his feet to pick a direction for despite the cold grip of winter, he had no wish to return to his flat yet. It was not a particularly nice place to be, and if he had to be alone, he wanted to be around strangers at the very least.
Hands deep in his coat pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold, and nose buried in the tattered scarf he had been given by Jean-Paul to ward off the chills (if it was a thankyou, Joe didn't understand what for), he wandered in and out of populated areas as he wove his way out of suburbian Paris and back towards its heart. As he walked he turned Jean-Paul's story over in his head, fitting it against the probability that Francoise was a Cyborg. Certain that it was true, Joe found himself with a freshly uncomfortable question.
Why hadn't she told him?
It was possible Francoise thought he had returned to Black Ghost, he knew that. It was a logical conclusion, for he had rejected the offer to join them... and if they didn't know where he was - just like he didn't know where they were - then for all they could know, he might have easily gone back to Black Ghost. Joe had no intention of ever doing so, and the thought made him sick, but he was sensible enough to realise that they couldn't feasibly know that.
By now he had come to a children's playground and with despondency at his heels, Joe slumped in the seat of one of the park benches. A hand gripped the metal arm idly, ignoring the bite of cold that came with it.
What if Francoise hadn't wanted him to join the Cyborgs? Maybe they were still insulted and didn't want to invite him again... and if he'd known, he certainly would have asked to be on the team. It might have been easier to just not tell him, because then they wouldn't have to reject him.
Or worse yet, what if she hadn't realised that he was a Cyborg too? He had only just learnt that she was the same cyborg he'd seen that day, what if like him, Francoise hadn't picked up on it? It wasn't like he'd openly said he wasn't human.
Damn you, Black Ghost.
His head snapped up - he knew that voice!
It was the same petite blonde as the day before, the same charming green eyes, the same cute little smile... her clothes were different but he didn't care, she'd found him, she'd found him!
All his doubts were swallowed up by the mix of surprise and adrenaline-fueled ecstacy, Joe leaping to his feet. "Francoise!"
"Hello," she repeated, and as he left the seat, she turned to sit on it.
Joe immediately did the same, grinning widely. "I didn't think I'd see you."
"I found you," she told him, hands settling in her lap.
That was a bit of a weird thing to say. "You were looking for me?" He'd been at the bus stop...
"Yes, I was," she confirmed, turning to smile at him.
"How did you find me?" Joe asked carefully. If he was easy to follow he was going to have to learn to hide better, or else Black Ghost was going to find him.
"I tracked you!" Francoise answered, clearly pleased by the achievement.
"Oh. Well, listen - I didn't know where you were, so... I talked to your brother, Jean-Paul," Joe paused but didn't look at her, rushing to finish before she could chastise him, "He thinks you're dead, but... I know you're a Cyborg."
"I am a Cyborg."
He twisted to stare at her, surprised by the outright confession. "Why didn't you tell me yesterday?"
"I don't know," came the answer, a shrug accompanying it.
Despite his best intentions, Joe felt a flash of irritation. "Look, I hope you don't think I work for Black Ghost, because I don't. I ... I want to join the team, actually."
"I work for Black Ghost."
Joe felt an uncomfortable clench in his stomach as he sat up straight, scooting on the bench to put some distance between them. "What?"
A laser pistol had found its way to Francoise's hand, and too surprised to do anything about it, Joe could only stare in alarm. "Francoise, what are you --"
Her finger squeezed the trigger - Joe flinched - heard the blast - felt a whoosh of air - felt himself pulled away from the bench - and landed on his shoulder in half-melted snow, ten metres away from the bench. He didn't have a scratch on him.
Joe tried to sit up, hearing the words "You're welcome," with the twang of a New York accent. He glanced up to see another familiar face - with a mane of red hair, a great nose, and at that moment an irritated grimace on his face, the Cyborg that Joe remembered as '002' stood next to him.
"What's Francoise doing?" Joe asked, picking himself up unsteadily. He'd never experienced Acceleration as a passenger, and found it decidedly unsettling.
"That's not Francoise," came another voice, the accent distinctly British. Joe glanced over his shoulder to spy the bald Cyborg 007, and behind him... the rest of the 00-team, all clad in their brilliant red uniforms. Francoise stood off to the left, a two-year-old in her arms. She wasn't looking at him, eyes closed and a hand to her temple as she listened to something.
Joe felt his heart swelled in relief at the sight of allies and of the proper Francoise, but before he could say anything - or answer 007 - he was pushed off to the side by 002 with a cry of, "Look out!"
Shots from the laser-pistol buried themselves in the ground near where Joe had been standing, and as he regained his balance for the second time, shook himself off in annoyance. He could be distracted by Francoise later... for now, he had to show the team that he was worthy of joining them.
Dropping into a natural fighting stance, Joe eyed off their blonde opponent. "What is she, then?" he asked.
It's called a Jack, a voice in his head answered. Knowing immediately that it was 001, he nodded, watching with 002 and 007 as this imitation Francoise stood from the bench. Her form flickered like a hologram, some type of metal visible beneath the image.
They're a prototype imitation droid that can take on any human form, Ivan explained, They are designed to trick you into believing they are someone you know, but they aren't very good. They have no independent thought because they have no human parts, so their conversation capacity is limited and their targets usually pick up on the deceit very quickly.
That definitely explained the peculiar things she'd said, and how she'd 'tracked' him. Did that mean Black Ghost knew where he was? Damnit. "Thanks," he told the young Cyborg aloud, and readied himself as the Jack lifted the - her? - gun.
002 was faster, lifting his pistol and firing three straight shots through the Jack's shoulder. All three struck, creating a sizeable hole and disabling the hologram. Before them stood the droid, typical of Black Ghost design and made of the same alloy all over. 002's infliction didn't seem to have any effect, the Jack glancing to it disinterestedly as oil leaked from the hole and tricked down towards the snow-covered ground. Being completely artificial, it hadn't felt a thing.
Joe, unsure of what that was meant to achieve, prepared to engage Acceleration. He'd take care of this -
Wait, 001 instructed, Watch how a team fights.
Joe didn't care for the idea but forced himself to obey - and just as well. He hadn't seen the stout Chinese man who had snuck around behind the Jack and crawled under the bench. The oil leak had turned into a steady stream, pooling at the Jack's heel and staining the snow an ugly colour.
Watching, Joe spotted 006 under the bench and looking entirely mischievious as he got the signal from 007. A whoosh of fire ignited the oil, raced up the leak and set the Jack on fire, who began to spasm as the internal mechanics burnt midway through their calculations for an emergency procedure.
002 lifted into the air, and flew the short distance necessary to retrieve 006 whilst 005 - surely the biggest man Joe had ever seen - moved to the nearby water fountain and pulled it up from the ground. In one move he broke the pipe, causing the water to spout into the air. Two immense hands cupped around the water and directed it at the Jack, obliterating the flames in a matter of moments. Now nothing more than a blackened and saturated shell, the droid crumpled to the ground.
Joe could only watch in amazement, fascinated by the co-ordination of the group. He was reminded strongly of the day that he had met them, and wished more than ever that he had taken up that offer to join when 001 made it.
"Is that the only one?" 004 asked of Francoise.
The woman opened her eyes and nodded to her companion, a hesitant smile on her features. "It is."
Satisfied, 004 turned towards the others. In the background, 005 had attempted to repair the fountain by plonking it back where it was, though no water was coming through the top. "Good work, team," 004 told those who had engaged the Jack, who responded with nods that acknowledged him. The German then turned to Joe, and held out his metal hand. "Good to see you again," he said pleasantly.
Joe hesitated but took the hand, his grin small and shy. "Hello," he managed.
In case you were wondering, 009, we still have an empty seat on our ship. I cannot tell you -
"Please," Joe cut in, interrupting what he hoped was 001's invitation, "Take me with you."
The atmosphere cracked and the young man found himself looking at the grins of eight faces, the mismatched but otherwise perfect team pleased by Joe's choice.
Welcome to the team, 009.
X X X
Commander Rousseau glanced to his watch impatiently. It had been almost an hour since the Jack's ETA had been announced and he was tired of waiting. He was about to bark the order for a status update when a Petty Officer - the same one who had disturbed him earlier - swung around in her chair. She looked nervous... he didn't like that.
"Out with it," he growled, leaning forward to watch her intently.
"We lost the signal for the Jack, sir, and it is not responding to any new orders."
"In other words," Rousseau said slowly, his tone dangerous, "It's failed."
"... Lieutenant Colonel Laurent's men are collecting the remains now, sir."
The few things scattered on the nearest surface - a logbook, a bottle, 009's blueprints - were shoved into the air with a roar of anger from the Commander. He whirled to find the next target and found that every Black Ghost soldier was staring at him.
"Get back to work," he snarled, "And find that stupid rogue Cyborg!"
"Sir," the Petty Officer put in, after taking a step back from her enraged superior, "We've also lost the signal for 009."
"What?!" Rousseau stalked towards her dashboard, shoving the subordinate out of the way to look at the screens himself. Losing it meant one of two things - 009 had been destroyed by the Jack, which was not in the droid's orders, or ... or he'd had his tracking device disabled, and that meant he had joined the 00-team.
Black Ghost was not going to be happy to hear this.
"Sir," a Petty Officer called from the far side of the room, "Incoming transmission from Black Ghost... for you, sir."
Ten minutes later, a white-faced Rousseau put in the order to return to base.
X X X
Clad in the bright red uniform of the 00-team, Joe studied his reflection with no small amount of wonderment. It was the first uniform he had chosen to wear in his life, and although it was strange... he relished the security.
Beyond the glass was the murky water of the deep sea, the vessel set for the warmer waters of the south Atlantic. Dr. Gilmore had extracted them from Toulouse earlier, a day after he had remet and officially joined his fellow cyborgs. A quick bit of field surgery had neutralised the tracking chip he'd been mortified to learn that he carried, and once on board Dr. Gilmore had finished the job.
Then he'd been told to get dressed and join them for one of 005's four-course dinners.
He'd managed the first half, but in trying to find his way to the kitchen he'd become a little bit... lost. Unafraid of the fact - how lost could you get on a ship underwater? - he had started wandering, until he found himself in this strange little sitting room, decked out with comfortable chairs and enough floor space to dance.
He thought of Francoise doing just that and had to smile to himself.
"Are you going to join us?"
He turned and was not surprised to see Francoise filling the doorway behind him. She was no longer in civillian clothes, her uniform just the way he remembered first seeing it. He smiled more openly, turning to face her. "You always appear when I think about you."
Francoise paused, a light colour touching her cheeks. "Thinking about me?" she asked.
"Yeah... your brother told me you loved to dance."
"I do," she answered, a spark of passion coming to her. "Or, well, I did," she corrected, the spark dimming, "With so much fighting, there isn't much time to think about dancing."
"It won't be that way forever," Joe told her, with a confidence he hadn't felt before. In the past he'd always thought about staying out of Black Ghost's way and hoping they didn't find him... since finding his place, he had begun to turn his thoughts towards actually doing something about their communal enemy.
"I hope so," Francoise said softly. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was a Cyborg."
"It's alright," Joe replied with a mild shrug. "I probably wouldn't have said anything either."
"Well you're here now, so I guess it doesn't matter," she concluded, a little more relaxed now that he'd said he didn't fault her. "Are you coming to dinner?"
"Yeah, sure," Joe smiled, gesturing for her to lead the way. "I want to try some of 005's cooking, I've heard a lot about it."
"He's really very good," Francoise answered, voice echoing a bit as she lead the way down the hall. Their steps echoed in the metal environment as Joe fell into step beside her, keeping pace with the same ease that he'd had in Paris.
"I believe you," he said in response.
"Will you tell me what my brother was like, later?"
He smiled, the sounds of the communal dining hall falling into earshot as they neared their destination. "Of course."
And so they entered the room, leaving their private world temporarily in exchange for the warmth of comrades.
X X X