Thanks, StarburstAwesomeness – I used your idea in this chapter. I owe you a one-shot; PM me and let me know what fandom you want! And everyone remember, this contest is always open, so leave a suggestion in the review and if I use it, I'll write you a one-shot of your choice.
They stood on the landing of a very steep and decrepit staircase. It was not unpleasantly so, however; in fact, it was nearly comforting. It felt real, if misplaced, and McCracken's lair was full of cold, glaring metal and the distinct feeling of moving about in a nightmare. The stairs descended onto a sandy shoreline – not white fluffy sand, but the cool, pebbly, rough kind belonging to beaches more for walking than for swimming. It was neither dark nor startlingly bright: the sun was visible behind a cluster of semi opaque clouds and a slight, salty breeze rippled across the waterfront.
This was, to say the least, peculiar. The location of McCracken's headquarters was unknown, though up until now they had all assumed that he took advantage of some sort of abandoned industrial lot. But this – this place was hardly that. It seemed that the farther they had gotten from the center of the building, the closer they had come to some sort of refreshing reality. A brick foundation merged gradually into steel beams, which eventually extended up into the hulk of metal that, for whatever reason, was McCracken's choice hiding place.
Still, it wasn't like Milligan could stand there and contemplate this for awhile (though he certainly had an inkling). Rubbing some of the gel out of his hair and making a face as he wiped it off on his pant leg, he said gruffly, "No time for explanations."
"None needed," said Mr. Benedict. "Thank you."
"You can thank me later," said Milligan, struggling out of his black uniform. "There's a very groggy and possibly murderous Ten Man sprawled out in the broom closet in McCracken's back room, so we have to run."
"Excellent," Mr. Benedict said crisply. Though he was clearly exhausted, his eyes had brightened in the fresh air.
Milligan muttered, "Oh, for heaven's sake," and darted forward, roughly pulling Mr. Benedict into a hug. "You're welcome," he said firmly, making it very clear that this conversation was over.
Politely inclining his head in acknowledgement, Mr. Benedict asked, "So, where to?"
"We have some children to save," replied Milligan, now standing before him in his usual disheveled state.
Fear crept into the back of his mind, an image of his daughter flashing in his head. Kate – ruthless, headstrong, proud Kate. Somehow, and he wasn't quite sure how, she had grown up. She was a young lady now, yet still had the lingering innocence and naiveté of a child. It was blatantly obvious that she remained oblivious to the fact that she was really quite pretty and very striking, a fact that Milligan remained ambivalent about. Part of him instinctively wanted to preserve this guilelessness forever, but he also knew that at some point a boy would enter the picture – had probably already entered the picture; Reynie's lingering glances at his daughter were not lost on him. He prayed that Kate was prepared enough, wise enough, understanding enough to grasp the fact that she was a remarkable young woman, and that this was something that many found attractive.
He was momentarily wrapped up in emotion and became abruptly aware that Mr. Benedict was talking to him.
"Sorry, what?" he asked.
"I was only wondering where we ought to go to next. It would perhaps be prudent to formulate some sort of plan before we go barging in and recklessly knock some heads together. Not that I deem you incapable of carrying off such an undertaking," he said, nodding graciously at Milligan, "but it is my opinion that –"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," said Milligan dismissively – of course he had a plan – and started down to the waterfront. "Follow me."
"Where are we, anyway?" asked Mr. Benedict. "I wasn't aware that this place even existed."
"It's a secret passageway, only outside," explained Milligan. "McCracken comes here quite often to have a break from being an evil dictator, and there's a large cellar through which you can access almost any room in these headquarters."
"Right," said Mr. Benedict agreeably. "Where is this cellar?"
"Somewhere around here," said Milligan, licking his lips nervously. He was acutely aware that a lot was riding on his ability to get everyone out of there, and if he couldn't find the cellar, well, that was a major problem.
"It wouldn't happen to be here, would it?" asked Mr. Benedict with an amused smile, pointing to a large door comprised of driftwood, clumsily painted a dark, mossy green.
"Thanks," said Milligan, hurrying forth. With a grunt, he pulled the mass of sticks and chopped up logs aside, exposing a dimly lit cave. It smelled distinctly of mold. He wrinkled his nose. "Well, come along," he said.
They were just stepping in when an arm shot out of nowhere and a hand clamped down around Milligan's mouth. In the space of two seconds, his wrists were bound and a thick strip of cloth was biting into the edges of his lips, rendering him speechless.
"You shouldn't be here," said a voice. He spun around. A woman, who appeared to be about his age, stood there, wearing a pair of fitted black pants and a blue and white striped t-shirt, its sleeves rolled up. She had calm gray eyes and an untroubled expression on her face. If anything, it was mildly taken aback as she looked over her victim.
"Oh, please," said Mr. Benedict good-naturedly. "Won't you let him go?"
Ignoring him, she released Milligan of her own accord. "Do I know you?" she asked a bit suspiciously, squinting at him and swiping a strand of her dirty blonde hair out of her face. "Are you – you're not...?"
Holding his hands up in surrender, Milligan said warily, "We aren't with McCracken, if that's what you're asking."
"No no – it's just that..." She faltered, but shook her head quickly and, to both Milligan and Mr. Benedict's surprise, perched on the edge of a mossy rock, briskly patting the spot next to her. Nonplussed, they seated themselves.
"I'm sorry, who are you again?" asked Mr. Benedict, extending a hand.
She stared at it for a moment, then gripped it so hard that he winced. "I'm Harper."
"Nice to meet you," said Milligan, peering at her strangely. She peeked at him, then hastily looked away. Mr. Benedict observed this, but chose to say nothing, instead rubbing his hands together.
"So what do you know about McCracken?" she asked, twirling a stem between her fingers.
"What do you want to know?" Milligan asked warily, feeling a bizarre compulsion to not look at her.
"Oh, come on," she said, rolling her eyes. "I live here. I hate them as much as you do. They ruined our town, and I'm the only one left who they didn't either recruit as Ten Men or trap them for their awful 'experiments.'" She made a noise of disgust, then continued, "You can trust me." Milligan remained silent, and she added, "Or don't."
Mr. Benedict cast a glance at Milligan, who was staring determinedly at his lap. "Well, I believe you, and wouldn't object to answering your questions, except we are a little pressed for time."
"Really?" Her eyes lit up. "Oh, please tell me it's something interesting."
Milligan raised an eyebrow.
"I stay here all day and sleep under there all night," she said bitterly, pointing to the small alcove underneath the staircase. "I catch fish with my bare hands and build fires to cook them on. Literally all I have here are a water filter, the few clothes that I could snatch before McCracken invaded this place, a bar of soap, and a bucket full of random odds and ends in case there's a surprise attack or, I don't know, an apocalypse." She shook her head. "I hate when I can't be active, you know? I'm always itching for adventure and –"
Milligan's head snapped up. "A bucket?"
"Yeah," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "They're convenient, you know? I can put whatever I want in it, and it's got all my other essentials – string and my pocketknife and stuff."
Milligan gaped at her, then caught himself and, heat rising to his cheeks, ducked his head again. If she noticed, she didn't say a word.
"Great," said Mr. Benedict energetically. He stood up, then graciously offered Harper a hand, which she declined, jumping to her feet quite agilely.
"Okay, what's the situation?" she asked. "Brief me."
"Four – five – children are in there," said Mr. Benedict, "including his daughter." He gestured to Milligan, whose immediate look of distress was enough to soften Harper's perpetually determined expression. "We've been involved with the Ten Men and McCracken before; he himself used to be a Ten Man back when my evil twin brother was conspiring to take over the world using a device he dubbed 'The Whisperer.' It was an unfortunate situation, and up until recently we had no idea that McCracken somehow eluded his imprisonment and escaped from the facility in which he was intended to stay the rest of his life."
Despite how absurd all of this sounded, Harper, to her credit, mulled over it for a few seconds before nodding solemnly. "So we have to get the kids out of there," she said.
"That's about it," Milligan confirmed. "And we have to hurry."
"The kids – they're good kids?" she asked somewhat anxiously.
"The best," said Milligan quietly. Oh, Kate...
"Right," she said, tossing her hair back into a high ponytail. "Let's do this."
So, that's it. Sorry for the delay in updates. I hope you liked this chapter; it's been in the works for quite some time! I will try my best to get another chapter up in the next week, but I say that a lot and it tends to not happen.
Let me know what you think, and feel free to keep giving me suggestions and requests. Whose POV do you want to see in the next chapter? What did you think of Harper, and Milligan?
As usual, thank you so so so much for your patience with me and support and positive reviews, it actually means SO much to me! Thank you. 3