A/N: This is my attempt at reconciling the 'real world' with the pokemon one, though the fic itself is just a gameverse introduction to the greater background of my headcanon, in which a lot of my stories will be set. Two-shot. Surge's first name is not canon, and Ian Edgerton is from the TV Show Numb3rs, so minor crossover there, although no prior knowledge is necessary to understand the story--seeing as it's set a few years before the show.
Ah, warning for language though, including taking God's name in vain, so yeah. Otherwise, enjoy!
THE ROOKIE'S HANDBOOK TO CONSPIRACY THEORY
Part 1: A Step-by-Step Guide to MacGyvering a Black Hawk
"'Rangers lead the way', they say, 'Rangers lead the way'. Well, not without a 'Stalker to take 'em places, they fucking don't!"
Ian's mouth rose at the corner as he listened to the grumpy stream of words coming from somewhere behind him. "Are you unhappy with our position, Sparky?" he asked in a low, deadpan voice, enough to carry to his friend and no further. The swarthy man was prone at the top of a dune, in the lee of half a building's weathered ruin and covered in a dust-colored tarp. Chances were there was no one near enough to hear, but the desert tended to carry sound well.
He heard a rustle of movement but didn't need to turn to know that Sparky was giving him a one-fingered salute, and he chuckled silently. A second later, his friend's deep voice drifted to him once again.
"An' if you call me that again, Eagle-Eye, I'll fucking shoot you myself and say it was enemy fire."
"If you say so." Captain Ian Edgerton scanned the twilit horizon, his night-vision scope making every shadow and dip in the sand eerily green, and spotted distant movement on a ridge. He couldn't see whose people it was, similar as the uniforms were at this distance, though they were too far from the Humvee wreck to have been the infantry riding it—though if anyone had survived they'd be long gone by now.
He told Sparky anyway, murmuring across the small sandy basin in which his friend's downed helo rested. His news was received with a curse.
"I'm workin' as fast as I damn well can, Ian."
"Then you clearly need more incentive." If the people on the distant ridge came much nearer, he'd have it for certain.
"You're askin' me to MacGyver a fucking Black Hawk, Eagle-Eye, but I ain't got the parts to put her back together again!"
Ian knew nothing about helicopters, but he knew that was something he didn't want to hear. He'd been looking forward to get out of the damned desert. If he hadn't signaled them for extraction Sparky wouldn't have been downed and his co-pilot killed by the machinegun-fire that took them, but he'd still have needed to be picked up before his recon, such as it was, was any use. Hindsight screws with everyone.
"Can we walk it?"
He knew the answer already, so wasn't surprised by the snort which answered him.
"Without the Princess, between the cold and the insurgents we marked prowling around—and shooting us down—we'd never make the distance on foot."
"So we find the parts."
"In the middle of the desert, Eagle-Eye? Good luck with that!"
"You need to look down more often when you're flying, Sparky." Ian's crosshairs traveled over the sand, finding and marking the ruined Humvee once again. "I can see a wreck within distance of here."
A beat of silence. "Really?"
"I realize you had other things on your mind while you crashed, Sparky, but didn't you wonder why your Humvee tail never picked us up?"
Another beat. "Fuck. I'd hoped they just got distracted by the skirmish up north."
He was talking about the one the other Black Hawks on patrol had been drawn by. Ian had lost his radio to the effects of sand hours ago, so hearing the sound of Black Hawks heading past his location (due for extracting someone else, according to Sparky) had been a godsend—soon turned to disaster when they were marked while at a standstill to let him up. The lieutenant's radio had gone when he was shot down, so the only grace for rescue was for one of the other Nightstalkers to call it in, but with the fighting going on nearby they were more likely to be listed MIA before anyone could recon the area. And by then they'd more likely to be found by the insurgents themselves. Not a good situation.
"Sorry, Sparky. It's north-west, maybe two hundred yards; doesn't look in too bad a shape, but I haven't seen any movement. If someone was there they walked away from it." Or were forced to. There might not be much left there to scavenge.
"That close, huh." Sparky's voice was guarded, and Ian knew he was thinking similar thoughts. He sighed. "Keep an eye on me, eh?"
"Don't fall in any dust puddles and I'll see what I can do."
A responding grunt; then there was the sound of movement from behind him and, as Ian put his eye back to the scope, he saw at its corner the shadow that was Lieutenant Marcus Surge creep off into the dunes.
Marcus skidded down the gravelly slope with a curse, hands grazing the dirt and ankle wrenching slightly. Night had fallen properly, as opposed to the twilight it had been when he set out. He and Ian could survive for a while with the emergency supplies from the Princess, but he didn't put much stock in the ability to survive if the Iraqis came on them and the main force was too far back to rely on a timely rescue. The Rangers and the Nightstalkers generally scouted the front together but it risked leaving them cut off if the enemy managed to separate their patrol lines. Like now.
On the plus side—sort of—the Humvee's wreck lay at the base of the dune. Smoke still wisped around it, but to Marcus's relief it looked like its tires had been taken out by machinegun-fire rather than an RPG. The bullet holes trailed up the side and to the front—hence the smoke—but the wreck was in good shape otherwise and probably still had most of its engine.
It was only when he was circling it, cautiously and with his hand on his side-arm, that he smelled the blood and saw, in the beam of his penlight, the red spatter on the metal sides. At least one person had been caught inside it when it was attacked. He paused, taking a shallow breath through his mouth, and went to the door.
A few moments later he came back around to the far side, where the dune sloped back down towards the one he'd crested just a few minutes ago, tucking a dog-tag into his pocket and waving off a few bugs. He slumped down against one of the Humvee's wheels to rest for a spell, putting his head back against the rubber and wishing vaguely for a cigarette. The area was clear, as far as he could see, and when he'd looked in the vehicle he'd seen that most of the supplies inside had been looted already, which meant that the men who'd survived the attack had already been captured. The Humvee itself was still in one piece, battle damage notwithstanding, and hadn't been picked apart by salvagers yet.
His stomach rumbled, and he grimaced. Food hadn't been the first thing on his mind when he crashed, or even the second thing, but now that he'd stopped he was reminded that the last time he'd had a chance to eat was that morning. The only thing he had on him was an energy bar; it would suffice, but he'd have to eat quickly.
He was maybe halfway through the bar when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and tensed, his head snapping around and spare hand falling on the butt of his side-arm. He caught a glimpse of yellow or brown just before it vanished beneath the meager space beneath the Humvee's carriage (sunk into the sand as it was) and let out a breath.
Some kinda rodent.
He went back to eating, keeping his eyes alert and his ears perked.
Slowly his head turned, and he blinked. Standing upright beside the Humvee was a yellow rat of truly horrendous size. It may have been more disturbing if he was sure it actually was a rat, given that it was topped by two long, brown-tipped ears, like a rabbit's, or the fact that its slightly kinked tail was furry, rather than hairless like a normal rat's, or the nearly clown-ish red circles of—skin?—on its cheeks. He was struggling to decide if it really was a rat, or a rabbit, or some hideous cross-breed, and trying to remember whether there had been any nuclear testing in Kuwait (because he was damn well staring at some kind of mutant) when its ears twitched. That was when he realized that one of them was hanging lower than the other, fur matted red.
It was wounded.
And eyeing off his energy bar.
"Chuuuuu …" it whimpered, the sound utterly pathetic as it hunched in on itself, and he glimpsed the thin ribs in its scrawny sides. If he didn't know any better he'd think the thing was deliberately trying to scam some food from him, but it was a fucking mutant rat, and a starving, injured one at that; of course it looked pathetic.
Marcus never had been one to kick a downed dog. With a resigned sigh he tore a decent hunk off his bar and tossed at the animal. Its nose twitched and it came down on all fours, sniffing for the food while keeping a wary eye on him. He expected it retreat back under the Humvee as soon as it had the food in paw; instead it just plopped itself down with a grunt and started to eat.
Marcus blinked again and made a mental note to research nuclear testing in Kuwait before going back to what was left of his meal. They must have cut an interesting scene, he thought ruefully as he clicked off his light; man and mutant rat, sharing a meager dinner in companionable silence beside the wreck of a war-torn Humvee.
When he was done he just sat quietly for a few minutes, tucking the bar's wrapper back into a pocket and watching the rat sniff the loose ground for any crumbs before licking off its paws. It was kinda cute, he had to admit, in a scrawny, underfed sort of way. He'd have added 'oversized', but it wasn't, really. It was bigger than any rat he'd seen but the wrong shape in build for a rabbit or hare, and yet despite its size the size didn't look unnatural on it.
Maybe it's just some undiscovered species. He was in the middle of nowhere.
In any case, he'd wasted enough time, so he heaved himself to his feet, staying low, and checked his surroundings before pulling a knife and carefully prying up the wrecked Humvee's hood. He needed to stand to see into it, to assess the damage and see if there was anything he could salvage to repair the Black Hawk with, but he stuck to the side and kept low to present less of a target.
Minutes passed. He managed to pry several things loose—wires, bolts, connective ports—to take back with him. The main problem was power; the helo's battery was buggered all to hell. And so, he saw as he reached in and pulled it out at last, was the Humvee's.
Fuck. He dropped his hand and let his head droop to his arm with a thud. Without power, they couldn't move. Without power, the Princess was dead, and there was no chance anyone would come back to salvage her even if they made it back on foot.
The shrill cry made his head jerk up and instinctively he threw himself to the side as the over-loud rattle of gunfire cut the night. Sparks rained down on him as bullets impacted the steel side of the Humvee; heart pounding, he covered his head and crawled away as fast as he could, his fingers groped for his side-arm.
The machinegun-fire stopped and he pushed himself up. Drawing his Glock, he aimed it in the direction of the attack in a smooth motion and prayed that sand hadn't jammed it.
He only got two shots off before there was movement to his side and he ducked. The butt of a machinegun glanced off the back of his head and for a pain-filled moment the world spun around him; he tried to stand and lurched, falling against the Humvee.
Shaking off the disorientation, he looked up at two figures shadowed by the night and packing those annoying AK47s. His side-arm was still in his hand and he raised it automatically, but what the fuck could a 9 mil do against a couple of assault rifles?
Movement beside him made him flinch away; a weight bounded off his knee and a small shape hurtled at the men. He had time for a brief, hysterical note to himself never to feed an energy bar to a mutant rat again, because it apparently made them rabid, when the air was lit with a bolt of electricity, scored by the shriek of a suddenly frightening beast and the screams of dying men.
Silence fell. Marcus sat up slowly, blinking against the after-image burned into his retinas and breathing through his mouth to ward off the unmistakable smell of burned flesh. For a moment he was suspended, dazed, in time—then a small hopping figure appeared on his knee.
He flinched and jerked away, shaking the thing off him and pointing his gun at it as it hit the sand with a grunt.
What the fuck is this thing?!
His hand still shaking slightly with adrenaline, he stared, white-faced, at the mutant rat past the barrel of his gun. It picked itself up, looking irritated—could mutant rats look irritated?—the round fur-less patches on its cheeks still sparking slightly and looking redder than they had before. For a moment they stared at each other, Marcus's brain turning over frantically.
It saved me.
Twice: first by warning him that there was someone behind him and then by electrocuting the two enemy soldiers. Electrocuting them. The fucking thing could generate electricity.
… Wait, what?
He didn't get a chance to follow that thought through but it didn't matter anyway because it had pretty much burst fully-formed into his head. In the same instant the night air carried the sound of foreign shouts to him; without a thought he was on his feet, jamming the gun back into its holster and snatching up his penlight and the meager, scattered pile of parts before turning back to the rat. It wasn't standing in the sand where he'd left it, and for a moment his heart fluttered and he panicked; then—
—he saw it perched on the edge of the Humvee, tail and ears twitching and haloed by static.
Oh fuck no, he ain't wasting whatever charge he has left before he powers my Princess!
With his spare hand he snatched the rat up by the scruff of its neck, unable to restrain a yelp of pain—echoed by the rat's grunt of surprise—as his fingers twinged with static. Then, tucking the wriggling rat beneath his arm, he turned and sprinted (staggered) off into the night, wondering when the fuck he was gonna wake up in some Iraqi's cell and how he was gonna explain a mutant, electricity-generating rat/rabbit hybrid to Ian.
Ian scanned the dunes with his rifle, the scope tingeing everything a brighter green than it had in the twilight. He could still see Marcus's figure moving towards the Humvee and kept his sights on the lieutenant, but there wasn't much good keeping an eye on him if he didn't see trouble coming beforehand. Best if he could keep it from reaching the other man at all.
He shivered, then steadied his slightly-trembling hands; a chill had fallen with the night, and although the sniper had his gear from his recon trip it was still damned cold. He hoped Marcus kept moving; the sand will have retained some heat for the journey to the wreck, but most of that would be gone by the time he came back.
Movement captured his attention, just tipping a sand dune not far from the wreck—Marcus had vanished, but Ian could see a beam of light flickering intermittently around the basin where he was. Ian trained his sight on the motion to the side, keeping his breathing even and hands steady. They weren't allies, he could see; their clothes weren't uniforms as much as mismatched clothes pretending to be so, and their hair and faces—what he could see of them—were distinctly Middle Eastern. They were frighteningly close to Marcus, but they weren't getting any closer … for the moment.
He switched his view to Marcus once again, and his gut chilled at the sight of a group of figures creeping up on the wreck—and the beam of light was steady, indicating that Marcus hadn't seen them.
He didn't really think about it; a moment after this realization he had a target in his sight and caressed the trigger. There was no gunshot, his rifle silenced as it was; he was a scout, there was no point in advertising his presence with noise. He almost regretted it now—what the hell was Sparky doing?!
A distant figure fell. He chambered another round, finding and downing a second target, and then a third, when the final two reached the wreck and took unknowing refuge in its shelter. The sound of gunfire hit the night, followed by the sound of a 9 mil. Ian was still searching for contact when a sudden white burst burned his night-scope green and staticky, and he pulled away with a bitten-off oath, blinking rapidly against the residual shapes lingering before his vision.
When it had cleared he was back on the sight, and his jaw tensed; the group over the dune was shouting, moving toward the wreck. When he flashed across to it he was relieved to see a figure in full sprint toward the helo.
The crosshairs drifted back towards the dune, and grimly he chambered a round and rested his finger on the trigger.
Marcus heard them first. He didn't bother to look around, knew better than to; he just trained his eyes on the stars he'd used to mark Ian and the Princess's location once night fell and kept going. The mutant rat was stuffed down the front of his flightsuit to make it easier for him to run, the animal some weird tumor of heat at his chest.
He never actually heard the warning shout, the one which would tell him they'd seen him, but he marked it when one of their voices cut off suddenly and was followed by angry and panicked yells. He grinned viciously.
That's Eagle-Eye for ya.
He crested a dune and found himself looking down on the sleek black figure of his Black Hawk; he couldn't see Ian, but then the man's low voice came from somewhere to his left, near a crumbling line of bricks.
"Nice of you to join me."
"Shaddup," Marcus growled in response, skidding down the dune and nearly colliding with the Princess's hull.
"Don't take your time, Sparky," Ian warned, echoed by the faint chambering of a round, but Marcus just grunted in reply, scrambling into the cockpit and, ignoring the body of his co-pilot still strapped into the chair, dropping to where the helo's engine was spilled across the floor. He worked quickly, removing the dead battery and rerouting everything so none of it would blow (hopefully) once they were in the air. He couldn't hear any more shouts, only the faint click as Ian chambered round after round and the slight whoosh as he fired.
Funny, y'always think these things will be loud.
And then it was: machinegun-fire ripped at the top of the dune, and Marcus flinched in surprise, hoping it had missed his Ranger friend—confirmed when, in a lull, he heard the click of the sniper rifle. Hastily he unzipped his flightsuit and yanked the mutant rat out of its impromptu nest by the scruff of its neck. For a moment it blinked at him sleepily; then it yawned.
Marcus didn't really have time to be incredulous, but he managed it anyway—the fucking thing fell asleep!—as he taped wires to the rat's cheeks and set it down in the cramped hollow he'd made for it. Considering how charged the animal was, he ran the risk of overpowering half the engine, but he didn't have any other choice. It shook its head uncomfortably, probing at the wires with some expression which might have been a frown—if mutant rats could have expressions.
"Okay, rat," he breathed, and poked it. "Do your sparking thing, we gotta get outta here."
It tilted its head, and once again Marcus had the vague sense that it knew he was trying to communicate something and was trying to figure out what.
Marcus growled and poked the rat again—and again—and it scowled (there was no other word for it), ears flicking irritably and cheeks sparking. For a moment there was a whir in the engine and the rat jumped, sparking again in alarm and making the engine hum a second time.
"Go on, that's it," Marcus said, relieved, and poked it again on the belly, but more gently this time. The rat looked at him, surrounded by a definite air of confusion.
"Yes, c'mon!" Another poke.
Marcus wasn't sure what did it. Maybe it was his tone of voice; he used to have a couple of dogs who never responded to his words as much as his tone, and right now his tone was relieved and encouraging whenever the damn rat sparked for him. Or maybe it just got annoyed enough with his poking. Or maybe—and Marcus couldn't shake this feeling, no matter how much he told himself that surely animals couldn't really understand the urgent complexity of a situation like this—but there was something so very intelligent in its eyes that he thought that, maybe, it understood the situation after all.
Whatever the reason, it sparked again, and this time didn't stop, a low hum of a grunt coming from it and its face screwing up as it concentrated, sitting on the metal floor. The helo's engine turned over, its rotors starting to spin, and Marcus hastily replaced the side—loosely—to protect him from stray static. He heaved himself into his chair, snatching up his helmet and strapping himself in. He could barely hear the sound of shouts outside, his fingers flying over the console, but he couldn't miss the pounding of the wall behind him that he hoped was Ian signaling he was in and not an Iraqi deciding to massacre his Princess.
Marcus didn't hesitate; the helicopter rose into the air, lurching and lumbering and not at all graceful or steady, spinning in the direction of the UN's collective forces to the vain symphony of machinegun-fire behind it.
"Rats." The server nodded. "Dunno how they did it, but they got into the corn, the carrots, God only knows what else."
It took all of Marcus's willpower not to slap a hand over his eyes. Third day in a row. It was the third day in a row they'd been cut off from some A-grade ration or another because of rats.
Or rather, one goddamn rat.
"We're the United States Army; why can't we figure out how to keep a bunch of rats out of our food stores?" grumbled Evan, a lieutenant in another Nightstalker platoon, as he moved reluctantly along with a tray not quite as filled as he would have liked it to be.
Just one, Marcus thought darkly as they moved to a table. Just one very large, lightning-happy mutant rat. And he was going to wring its scrawny neck as soon as he got back to his tent—assuming it was still there.
It had been nearly a week since he and Ian had got back to base. The rat had run out of power halfway home and they'd crash-landed somewhere within Coalition territory. When he'd pried open the helo's shell the rat had been practically unconscious, slumped to the floor with its eyes glazed with exhaustion and cheeks blistering where the wires had been taped to it.
He should've just left it there; he'd known, then, that if he took it back and it was found it'd just be shipped back to some laboratory, or maybe even one it'd escaped from, and he'd probably just disappear.
But he hadn't. He'd wrapped it up in his flight-jacket and took it with him under his arm, pretending to Ian that he was bringing some of his dead co-pilot's personal effects with him—not a difficult thing to do, what with the man's dog-tags dangling over his fist. They'd been within walking distance of a camp, where they'd scammed a ride back to base after radioing in that Marcus and Ian, at least, were alive, and due to that initial over-the-line report the lieutenant had had a chance to clean up before reporting to his CO in person. So he'd made a space in his footlocker, padded the area with some of his shirts, and left a bowl of water there in case the rat woke up. Nothing had changed when he got back a few hours later with some food he'd nicked from his tray at dinner. There hadn't been much change the morning after either: the rat's breathing had been labored and he'd wondered why the hell he was bothering, or if it would be better to just hand it over anyway, because surely the scientists would be able to help it.
Then he'd taken a look at it again, its ears and cheeks cleaned and taped from a first-aid kit, fur matted and dirty—because he didn't really have the resources to give it a frikkin' bath—and still dead to the world, and he thought of what people like the CIA would do to the poor critter. Godammit, the thing had saved his life; it hadn't run, even though that would have been a real dumb animal's first instinct. And so he kept at it, offering it food and drink, and eventually, it had started to recover, the wounds on its ears turning to scabs. But it had always been tired and lethargic, and never really attempted to leave his footlocker while he was around.
Apparently it had no qualms about leaving the footlocker while he wasn't, he reflected grumpily.
He didn't even get halfway through his meal before he was interrupted by something which was, unfortunately, related.
"Sir." Sergeant Murdoch came to attention beside his table, hand raised in salute. Not a pilot, Murdoch; he was an engineer attached to Surge's platoon who moonlit as a damned good cook. Ian leaned back, raising an appraising eye at the burly man, and Marcus beat down a grin; Travis had that effect on people. He looked more like a front-line Marine than a grease-monkey.
"Reporting on the status of the damaged Black Hawks, Sir."
Marcus massaged the bridge of his nose, his urge to smile gone; since coming back at least three of his platoon's helos had stopped working, and they hadn't yet figured out how. "Go on, then."
"We checked the engines and all the inoperative helos had wires chewed through." The sergeant's lips twitched. "Hate to say it, Sir, but it looks like it was rats."
"Always with the rats," Evan moaned, jabbing at the food on his plate. "Hope the bastards got fried."
Not fucking likely. Marcus snorted internally, remembering the way the rat in question had sparked.
"There's something else, Sir. All the helos' batteries were completely drained."
Marcus thought of the rat's lethargy for the past couple of days and wanted to groan. Of course; it had powered his helicopter, and that was after frying two enemy soldiers, and that was when it was wounded and half-starved. No wonder it had been so tired—it'd needed a recharge. That explained why the batteries on his penlight kept on 'breaking'.
Belatedly he realized Murdoch was still talking. "… and we didn't notice the wires until our third sweep. We couldn't figure out what was wrong, Sir."
Evan hissed, and Ian rested his chin on his hand. "Sabotage?"
"If it weren't for the fact that the wires were chewed through I'd think that was it," Murdoch admitted.
Fuck. It does look like sabotage, doesn't it? Marcus realized with a clench of his gut. Batteries didn't just drain themselves, and with the wires chewed through people would think it might just have been made to look like a few rodents. It depended on how thorough the little pest had been about the job—obviously it'd been covert enough to make it a problem already, and he doubted that mutant rats would fall into anyone's equation but his.
"Right," he said grimly. "Guess I have some forms to fill out and reports to write, don't I?"
Fleetingly he wondered why he was bothering to cover it up at all. It had been hard enough hiding what had happened at the ruined Humvee—he'd ended up telling Ian and his CO that he'd found an overlooked flashbang in the vehicle and that's how he managed to get away—but if people were going to be screaming sabotage …
"Maybe the Iraqis are training killer guerrilla rats now." Evan snorted and grinned, even though he was mashing his food up with his fork. No one liked the idea for an interloper in camp. "Looks like they're targeting you after that great escape, Sparky. Better watch out!"
"Don't call me Sparky," Marcus growled as he stood to follow Travis out and see the damage for himself.
It didn't take long to check the helos, and then he stood for a while, thinking, with Travis waiting beside him. Patience of a saint, that man.
Sabotage really was the best way to go, he decided, even though it galled him to have to imply that someone in the camp was in on it—how else could someone have penetrated so far into their lines? It might put his platoon under suspicion, and him especially, but when it came to a search of his tent he'd just turf the rat out and pray it was smart enough not to come back for a few days—there were times, now, that he thought it almost understood what he was saying.
"Think Eagle-Eye's got it right," he said finally. "Bring me the request for replacement equipment forms, and I'll write up a report." He threw Murdoch a slightly—for him—reckless grin. "God save us while CID's here, eh?"
Travis chuckled, and that was when there was a flash from the generator tent and the entire camp went dark.
Marcus was Not Happy. Hell, the entire camp was Not Happy, but seeing as Marcus was the only one who knew what had really happened he felt he deserved more reason to be Not Happy than most.
Soon after the camp had been plunged into darkness it had exploded into an uproar; without the generator, nothing worked. The backup had been hooked up in moments, but the main had been discovered to be completely fried. Between that and the helos, Marcus knew he had to come forward; if it was discovered his platoon's equipment had been tampered with and he hadn't said anything after the generator had gone, he'd be in deep shit. So he'd spent the last few hours being interrogated, giving reports, assumptions, conclusions, and just generally covering up for an ungrateful mutant rat with a death wish (though who, exactly, was going to kill it was up for debate; at that point Marcus felt sure it would be him).
With a growl he stormed into his tent, then spent a few moments at the entrance clenching and unclenching his hands and trying to calm himself down before he confronted the little pest, even if he had no idea what the fuck he was going to do.
Idly he wondered if this was what it was like to have kids.
After a few moments and one last deep breath, he strode over to his footlocker and flipped up the lid, directing a glare down at the side where—he hoped—the rat was nestled.
The rat was there, but the damned thing was asleep. He stood scowling down at it for a few moments, wondering whether all this was really worth it and fuck, was that a hole in one of the shirts he'd used as padding because that hadn't been there before and now the damned thing was ruining his clothes as well as risking his career and his fucking life, and no, goddamn, it was not worth it—
The rat snuffled, its overly-red—flushed, even—cheeks sparking slightly and ears and nose twitching as it snuggled deeper into its little nest, and fuck it was too cute to just kill. Marcus groaned and plopped to the ground, leaning back against the footlocker and scrubbing his face with his hands.
"You're gonna be the fucking death of me and my sanity, rat," he mumbled into his palms. The rat's ears twitched and it opened one slightly glazed eye, yawning and stretching. He could see clearly now that yes, there was a hole in one of his shirts, as well as a number of burns from apparently random sparks. The rat looked at him, eyes half-lidded and looking slightly fevered. Then it rolled over, its fur crackling slightly with every contact with fabric, and went back to sleep. If Marcus didn't know any better … actually, fuck it, he didn't know what the hell was going on even after a week so he'd just assume that yeah, he was right and the thing was as over-charged as it looked.
The man snorted. It was kind of reassuring to know that a lightning-happy mutant rat could get bloated on electricity. "Brat."
"Pi," was the sleepy reply.
"No shortbread?" Marcus asked, resigned. The server shrugged.
Idly wondering how much food the damned rat needed to eat, Marcus found a table and sat, slapping the requisition orders he had yet to sign on its surface. Even at his meals, there was no escape.
He actually managed to finish and make it outside before he was accosted for the dozenth time that week, by his CO's aide. The sergeant informed him, tersely, that the CID guys had arrived and expected to speak to him promptly at thirteen-hundred hours. Marcus's gut clenched and his skin buzzed with adrenaline as he nodded the man off; if he went back now he had time to stop at his tent and shove the rat out the back, and lock his trunk so it couldn't get in again. He just hoped the rat was actually there.
It was, nestled among his (damaged) clothes and chewing enthusiastically on a piece of shortbread—and getting crumbs everywhere. Absently (and vainly) he hoped that the investigators really didn't want to search his room, or he'd get charged for stealing food. Maybe he could show 'em his ruined shirts and they'd believe he was unwillingly harboring rats, not saboteurs.
Hah. Not fucking likely.
With a sigh he lifted the rat out by the scruff of its neck, scooping up his shirts with his other hand and shaking them out as best as he could before dropping them back in. He closed the lid of the footlocker and, with the rat watching curiously, locked and tested it. He did so somewhat exaggeratedly, because he still couldn't shake the idea the rat was smart enough to understand him if only he could communicate it effectively enough.
"Y'see?" he said gruffly, feeling like an idiot. "Can't get back in, so don't bother trying, 'kay?"
He dropped the rat and it plopped to the floor with a grunt. It shook itself as it stood and used its tiny paws to push ineffectually at the lid, then chewed vainly at the metal before pulling back with a huff. Marcus watched, fascinated despite himself. It knew how to open and close the lid, and not just in the sense that if it wanted something in the locker it would have to get past the barrier; it seemed to understand the function itself.
Damn, I was right. It was intelligent. Extremely so.
"Pi." Looking annoyed, ears twitching, it looked at him sidelong and its cheeks sparked. "Chuuuu …"
Marcus swore and grabbed the thing before it could blow the lock (and its secrecy). He yelped and dropped it a second later, sucking on his singed fingers and glaring at it. It made a sound which might have been laughter, but it seemed to realize that what it had been about to do was a Bad Idea because it didn't try again.
Then again, Marcus didn't exactly give it a chance: still sucking his smarting fingers, he picked it up by the scruff of the neck and uncovered the tiny hole he'd made for it in the corner, peeking out to make sure it was all clear before shoving the rat through, forcing a grunt from its lungs.
"Don't come back for a few days, okay?" he hissed, then pulled back and shifted the footlocker over so it couldn't get back in the same way. Then he slumped against the trunk with a sigh, staring up at the canvas ceiling.
What the fuck am I doing?
He didn't know anymore.
For a long while he just sat, listening to the rat scratch experimentally at the entrance, before finally there was silence.
Marcus leaned against the helo's side, massaging the back of his neck, and sighed. His hands were filthy; he'd spent the afternoon checking and re-checking his new helo's engine and equipment. He was still confined to base because of the investigation, but the work soothed him; he had to be alert and watchful to make sure he didn't screw up and it gave his hands something to do, his mind something to focus on.
But there were only so many times he could check his helo before he got bored. He almost would have preferred to write his dead co-pilot's family … almost. And he had done that within a few days of returning to base, anyway.
"Thought you'd be here, Sparky."
"Don't call me Sparky," Marcus said automatically, but he greeted Ian with a lazy salute nonetheless, judging his hand clean enough to dig into his pocket for a packet of cigarettes. He didn't smoke often, but he thought it was warranted on this occasion and lit one up, not bothering to offer one to Ian.
The Ranger was carrying his rifle, and dragged a crate toward him to use as a table before sitting and beginning, in silence, to methodically dismantle the gun and oil each part.
"Bored, Eagle-Eye?" Marcus asked with asperity.
"I'd be happier out there." The dark-haired sniper nodded towards the distant darkness of the desert.
Marcus grunted. Wouldn't we all.
One of the investigators had oh-so-intelligently noted that the sabotage had begun not all that long after they'd returned from a skirmish in which both were the only survivors from their patrol (the remaining men from the Humvee were still MIA), but they'd both admitted to being separated for an extended period of time during which there had been contact with the enemy. They'd been interviewed separately, the interrogators trying to play them off one another, but neither were idiots. Marcus had been out of sight, yes, but Ian knew better than to believe the blond was a traitor, and if he hadn't already known the real cause of the problems in-camp Marcus would have refused to believe the same. They stuck to their stories and Marcus had been beyond relieved that he'd chucked the rat out—his tent being searched had been pretty much inevitable once he realized he was top of their list of suspects. Now the investigators were just trying to decide whether they were in on it together or whether they were innocent.
Marcus was just bored. And, though he'd never admit it, a little worried. It was good the rat hadn't tried to come back like he'd feared it would, but he hadn't seen head or tail of it since he'd chucked it out of his tent four days ago and the thefts from the kitchen had stopped completely. There was a slight—and, he told himself, irrational—fear that the rat had taken his rejection to heart and left altogether. The thought left him feeling bereft.
… Crap, don't tell me I've gone sweet on the thing.
He thought of heaving up the trunk's lid every morning to dig out a uniform and seeing it curled to one side all sleepy and content, and the awe he'd felt when it methodically tested the lock, and the sight of it throwing itself at the enemy just because he'd been kind enough to hand it some food, and groaned.
Christ, he had.
Fuck. He sighed, leaning his head back to the helo's hull with a thunk and looking up at the expanse of stars way above.
"Guess you haven't heard then," Ian said finally and without looking up from his polishing. Marcus grunted. "The CID blokes left tonight."
Marcus jolted straight like he'd just been—well, just been hit by a bolt of lightning. "Why the fuck didn't you say so sooner?!"
Ian looked up at him past his brow. "Doesn't mean we're off the hook yet, Sparky."
Marcus dismissed that with a flap of the hand holding his cigarette. He knew all it meant was that the CID were taking their investigation elsewhere, probably hoping the saboteur would come back while they were gone, but it meant the place was clear—relatively speaking. Maybe the rat would come back.
Marcus was loath to admit it, but he hoped it would.
It didn't. A few days passed, nothing happened, the case was closed as best as the investigators could handle and Marcus saw neither hide nor hair of his little unexpected tent-mate.
And now they were leaving with the push-on. The camp was a bustle of activity but practically empty of tents already, trucks and Humvees already creating a convoy west. Marcus stood beside his new Princess, his tent packed hours ago and helo ready and prepped for neither the first nor the last run that day. And yet his eyes still scanned the dirt and sand of the place where they'd made their camp, looking for a flash of dun-yellow.
Dunno why I'm bothering, he tried to convince himself yet again. This is its home, anyway. Couldn't have it causing blackouts all the time at Fort Campbell.
But he couldn't stifle the brief pang of—of disappointment. That's all it was. He wasn't sweet on a damned food-stealing, battery-draining, shirt-wrecking, lightning-happy mutant rat.
Aw, fuck. He sighed. Sweet on the thing or not, something had happened to him which was out of the ordinary and no matter how he complained while it was happening, he was sorry it was over.
"We're ready, Lieutenant!" someone shouted behind him.
Time to come back to reality, Sparky. Marcus donned his helmet and climbed into the cockpit beside his newly-assigned co-pilot. A few minutes later, the matte-black helo rose into the air and turned west.