This chapter is dedicated to those who got on me to update. Here's to you, Guest and Ruaitae. Enjoy.
Black Boots on a One Way Street
By the time the three make it back to the Bed and Breakfast, the scope of the warehouse destruction is finally understood. The walls are cracked and parts of the damaged ceiling now reside on the floor. The three stumble weakly over broken wood to reach the dining room.
"Oh, god," Myka breathes out when she sees a white sheet on the floor in front of them. Someone they love is under that.
Pete's the first to move, the others still paralyzed by the death grips clenched around their hearts. He hesitantly lifts the sheet and quickly falls back from the shriveled sight of the Caretaker underneath.
His horrified expression jolts Myka into action, "What? Pete, who is it?"
"It's Mrs. Frederic," Leena's saddened voice informs them. She stands in the doorway behind them with her arms hanging loosely around herself. Although her eyes are dry now, the tear trails are bright against her dark skin. "She fell and then…" her small voice dissipates and her gaze falls to the ground once more.
No more explanation is needed. Mrs. Frederic is – was - connected to the warehouse, when it went, so did she.
"Where's Claudia?" Artie asks, his voice coarse but gentle, the first thing he's said since the explosion.
After a heart stopping moment, Leena moves to the side revealing the sitting room entrance. He gives Leena a tiny nod and touches her arm as he passes; a small gesture but from Artie it means a lot – I'm sorry, it'll be all right, thank you.
Myka pulls Leena into a long hug, holding on for dear life like they'd fall to pieces if let go. A moment later Pete joins them, wrapping his arms tightly around the two. No words are exchanged, no false securities. But love, relief, and sadness flow between them like a trapped river bursting through a beaten dam. Eventually, they break apart and share small smiles, finding comfort in the fact that at least they are still here.
In the other room, Artie finds Claudia lying unconscious on the couch. Her brow is furrowed and her breaths are shallow but otherwise she is deathly still. Artie slows in front of her and kneels to her level. "Oh, kiddo," he mumbles into the air between them.
His head falls to rest on the cushion near Claudia's shoulder. He takes a tired breath and closes his eyes briefly. Pete said it was over, but Artie is well aware that things have only just begun. What happens next is going to put all of them to the test. And, Artie thinks, none of them deserve it. Especially not the young woman in front of him.
"Artie," a familiar voice rouses him from his much-needed rest.
"Vanessa?" Artie isn't surprised she is here, just not so soon. His heart flutters for a second but this time it's not because he is happy to see her. He wonders aloud why she is here, his voice quiet so not to disturb Claudia.
Vanessa takes a few steps toward the older man. A tiny smile curves her lips but her eyes are infinitely sad. She doesn't say anything; the bright green ribbon hanging in her hands is answer enough. Artie's eyes close tightly against a fast forming headache and he rubs away the wetness stinging his eyes.
Blowing out a breath, he struggles to collect himself. The footsteps of his agents – his friends – get louder as they tread through the wreckage and enter the sitting room.
"Doctor Calder?" Myka greets, confusion laced in her voice. Her gaze snaps between the doctor, the ribbon, and her silent boss.
A breathy laugh escapes Pete. "You guys move fast. Give the Road Runner a run for his money."
"What's going on?" Myka asks, feeling the tension rise despite Pete's halfhearted joke.
Artie stands then, keeping his eyes on the sleeping woman in front of him.
"Don't wake her," Vanessa advises quietly. "Not yet."
The older man sighs, disrupting the dusty air around him. "Alright," he concedes and rubs his beard. "Come with me," he orders to no one in particular and everyone in the room follows into the foyer.
Artie stops abruptly causing Pete to do a quick maneuver around his boss.
"Whoa, Artie, make sure to check your break lights next time. My Matrix moves are a little rus…" his playful voice dies on his lips at the sight of Adwin Kosan. The others slow behind Artie and collectively frown at the Regent. His hands are folded behind his back and his head is bent slightly, casting his dark eyes upward to meet the agents'. Vanessa moves to stand next to him.
"Jane felt the explosion through the Ramadi Shackle," Kosan answers the unasked question with ease. "And contacted us immediately."
"Is she okay?" Pete asks, worry evident in his voice.
Kosan nods faintly. "She should be here soon."
"What?" Pete smiles, confused, "She's still in Japan."
Kosan trains his eyes on Pete and refuses to answer, his equivalent of the look.
"Right," he sighs, rubbing his neck tiredly. "Top secret Regent teleportation."
Myka attempts to give him a smile but is sure it comes out more like grimace. Artie barely spares him a glance, his concentration on the Regents in front of him and the plan he knows they are implementing in their head.
Kosan's eyes flick around the group and into the room where Claudia is still sleeping. There's someone missing. "Agent Wells?"
Myka's eyes darken, her tiny smile diminishing. She shakes her head more in denial than in answer.
"She saved our lives," Artie supplies for her, his voice quiet. Every eye shoots to the older man, some filling with the horrid memory, others imagining how. But retaining the little tact they have, neither Kosan nor Vanessa asks them to relive the minutes before the explosion.
"Arthur," Kosan says instead, bringing everyone in the room back to the matter at hand. "We must discuss the future of the warehouse."
"It's gone," Artie tells them uselessly. Of course they know it's why they are here.
"Plans are already being made for its reconstruction," he informs them, raising both Pete's skeptical eyebrows and Myka's haunted gaze.
"Reconstruction?" Myka's voice finally resonates in the small room. Her stare burns incredulously into Kosan's, who remains unfazed.
"The fires haven't even died out yet and-and you're talking about rebuilding the warehouse?" Pete adds, his eyes squinting in astonishment.
"Look, we understand you are all exhausted," Vanessa finally speaks, drawing their attention and letting them forage her motherly empathy. "But artifacts don't stop being artifacts because there is no safe place to store them." The simple logic slowly cools the heated room, leaving fatigue and grief in its place.
Myka is the first to fall, sitting heavily on the steps, letting her drained soul search in vain for relief. Pete's eyes follow her descent and he instinctually moves towards her. The blood in his veins chills uncomfortably at Myka's acceptance. She is always on her feet, gogogo, never stopping when there is work to do. To see her lay down so easily, to stop, to lose hope, it's enough to causes him physical pain. He slouches slightly to bear the warehouse-sized weight placed on his shoulders.
"The warehouse is our top priority and we must continue to strive on with that in mind," Kosan says to the silent, weary agents. "Grievance and sorrow will have to wait." It's like talking to a brick wall for all the response he receives; a destroyed, cracked, crumbling wall.
Nevertheless, Kosan continues, finally revealing the main reason he has appeared at the Bed and Breakfast. "For the warehouse to be restored, a new caretaker must first be connected to its heart."
Slowly, one by one, the agents around him react. Pete and Myka share an incredulous look and turn to their boss for answers. But Artie refuses to meet their gaze. Instead, his focus is on Vanessa and his silent, useless efforts to keep this unwanted truth from being exposed. Behind the group, Leena keeps her knowing eyes downcast; no one officially told her but the cryptic ways of the warehouse and it's occupants have never been that mysterious to her.
"A new caretaker and a new warehouse, all in one day?" Pete finally expresses his sarcastic opinion, "What's next? A talking puppy?"
"Who is it?" Myka, ever the curious one if still a little angry, asks.
"Miss Donovan," Kosan answers simply.
The silence in the air is so palpable; it can be cut with a knife. Pete lets out a disbelieving breath as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other in an effort to keep from strangling the arrogant man.
Myka wordlessly studies the Regents. They aren't lying at all; they really expect Claudia to be the next caretaker. Her line of sight shifts to Artie. His face is drawn down in sorrow and defeat. His usually bright, loving eyes seem dimmed and tortured.
"Did you know?" Myka's small voice breaks through the silence. Her question is directed at Artie and the old man slouches minutely.
Artie inhales, preparing for the backlash of his answer. "I suspected it," he tells her because it's the truth. He wasn't told directly but not unlike Leena, he has learned the madness of the warehouse always has a method.
"Wait, wait, you're telling me that Claudia, our Claudia," Pete points into the sitting room where the redhead begins to stir, "is going to be the next Mrs. Frederic?"
"The warehouse," Vanessa chimes in, her soothing voice doing anything but, "chose her as a Second long before she entered our lives. She's destined for it."
Pete snorts his disgust as Myka's recoil from the word goes unnoticed.
In the renewed silence, rustling is heard from the other room. The group slowly abandons the foyer in time to see Claudia push a hand against her temple in an effort to lessen the headache splitting her skull. She exhales a quiet moan when the world rights itself and she sits up on the couch.
Artie is the first one she sees when she looks up and every fiber of her being wants to crush the man in a huge hug because he's alive. But her quick assessment of the room keeps her stationary. Although the people she loves once again surround her, there are still two missing. And their current replacements are the people she'd rather never think about again, let alone talk to. Claudia turns her gaze to the side and shuts her eyes. Nothing good ever comes of the Regents.
Her friends watch helplessly as Claudia builds up a cement wall they know is soon to be defended by anger and malice.
"The whole circus is in town," the redhead finally deadpans, her dangerous eyes returning to scan the group. "You should have told me, Artie. I didn't get a ticket."
Artie takes a few gentle steps towards her, ignoring the scorn in her gaze. "Claudia," he starts but quickly realizes he doesn't know how to proceed. He wants to sit down, to explain everything in full, including her so-called destiny. And he wants to help her with it. But that's not how the universe works. She's hurting, completely fueled with rage and hate towards the Regents and the plan they have cooking. And now, well it's too late to gradually bring her farther into the world she thought she knew. So Artie settles with a meek, "Are you okay?"
He knows immediately it's the wrong thing to ask, but it doesn't matter anyway. Claudia ignores him.
Her gaze is fixed on the green ribbon dangling from Vanessa's wrist. Artie wishes the doctor thought to put it away until it was absolutely necessary because the look Claudia is giving it is not pleasant.
"Miss Donovan," Kosan moves further into view, catching Claudia's attention.
"Save the small talk, Kosan," Claudia sneers and suddenly Pete and Myka feel like they missed out on an earlier part of their conversation. "Why the hell would I want to be one of you?"
Frustrated tears quickly cloud Claudia's vision and it only upsets her more. She can't cry; she's tired of looking weak in front of these ridiculous Regents.
Myka and Leena nearly stagger from the tugs on their hearts; they both want to help, to stop this madness but how, when it seems the decision has already been made?
"You of all people," Kosan states, "should understand the power and importance of the warehouse and it's survival."
Claudia stands faster than her small pale body would suggest able. "Don't you ever listen? I told you the warehouse is gone. It's dead. Blown to ashes," she exclaims, hating him more and more with every second.
"And we will rebuild it from those ashes," Kosan assures her, his calm demeanor faulting slightly at the stubbornness in front of him. "But not without a caretaker."
Claudia pulls back suddenly. Memories of Egypt and evil H.G. and a dying Mrs. Frederic flash before her eyes. "And that's me," she states without emotion. Suddenly the strange headaches, the piercing one right before the explosion, make sense. It's her, it always has been. "Let me see Steve," she argues calmly. If they want her to be the new caretaker for the rest of her life, they owe her at least that.
"I'm afraid that's not possible," a new voice enters the conversation. Pete and Myka jump slightly at the guest before Pete's face lights up and a fine mix of relief and dread befalls Myka's. Claudia's eyes narrow in repulsion as Jane Lattimer steps into the room.
"Then I guess your warehouse won't have a caretaker," Claudia states, daring the other woman to challenge her. Pete and Myka share a worried look at the fury and fortitude shinning bright in the redhead's eyes.
"This isn't a negotiation," Jane replies like she would to an unruly student of hers.
"Mom," Pete cuts in lightly, an uncertain smile on his face. He's never seen his mother in full Regent mode and isn't quite sure he likes it.
"You can't force her," Myka defends the redhead before anyone else can put a word in otherwise.
Tearing her gaze from the younger woman's, Jane turns to her son and his partner. "Thank you both for your input but this does not concern you. This is a matter between Claudia and the Regents," she adds over the beginning their arguments. "Arthur, take your agents into another room, please."
Artie hesitates. Her tone is so degrading that if he didn't already want to stay for Claudia's sake, he would stay just to spite her. But just as he opens his mouth to argue Claudia cuts him off.
"Just go, Artie."
She says it with enough resolve that Artie is stunned for a few seconds. He sees all the pain, defeat, and hate pouring off her that the father in him wants to grab hold of her and pull her away from the wolves' den. But, that part of him is still new and unsure and it's hard enough as it is to say no to the redhead already. So he falls back on his agent training and does as he is told.
Artie casts one last cautioning look to Claudia but it goes unnoticed, the redheads concentration has returned to the people controlling her future. Slowly, Artie leads his reluctant agents and Leena out of the room, effectively leaving the newborn to fight for her life against the pack of hungry wolves.
She decides she hates police stations. They are cold and demeaning, and usually smell like body odor and canned flowers. Both sides of the law have attitudes and the medical staffs knowledge of how to fix a possible broken nose is laughable. When Myka finishes giving her official statement, she downs a few painkillers and checks the damage in the grimy bathroom mirror.
It's not broken, just sore. She scrubs gingerly at the remaining dried blood across her top lip and gently probes the bruised skin under her left eye. She'll live.
When she finally exits the station, she finds Pete waiting for her. His hands rest in his jacket pockets, his back is straight and his head held high. He's like a tiger in the open, feigning disinterest, waiting to pounce at the perfect moment.
But she doesn't give him a reason to expel his rigid energy, instead walking straight to him. She stops a few feet away and keeps his gaze. Eventually his eyes flick around her face, taking in the damage done to her perfect skin.
"Do you regret teaching her those defensive moves, yet?" He asks, face stony.
Myka ignores the question, feeling her heartbeat speed up, anxious to divulge her worries to someone. "Claudia's not well, Pete. She's lost it," she tells him, feeling terribly like a guilty little girl confessing her sins to a knowing Priest.
Pete immediately reacts to her broken voice. He shuffles his feet and edges closer to Myka. He nearly reaches out to comfort her but stops himself, his arm swinging uselessly by his side. "What is she planning?"
The tears in her eyes complete the look of someone battered and defeated. "Something bad."