As it turns out, the next time 250 ends up in the hospital, there's no relationship upgrade.

They all agree to skip the formalities and jump straight to the burial. Irene and Britney were essentially the only family he had left, and Thomas the only friend. There would be no one to offer condolences or send flowers or file past the casket. No need to compound their suffering with a few painful eulogies to an empty room.

And so the graveside service is a small affair, closed casket. It's not that the second heart attack left physical trauma; honestly, 300 just couldn't bear to look at him, and at some point Irene and Britney had quietly ceded all control in the decision-making process.

It is, of course, sunny - a mild 72 degrees Fahrenheit, complete with oblivious songbirds trilling in the oak trees tastefully scattered throughout the cemetery. 300 stands by the headstone, a shiny black hunk of granite paid for by the Agency, and stares unseeing at the edge of the pit. His hands are clasped in front of him, white-knuckled, tight around the ring that is not his own.

Opposite him, Irene lowers her head, eyes closed in silent prayer. Tears rivulet down her face, plip-plipping to the earth, but she herself makes no sound. Thomas has a tight arm around her shoulders, his eyes solemnly locked on the flag-draped casket before him. Together they are statuesque, mutely fortified against the storm.

Britney, meanwhile, sob-hic-sniffles through the entire ceremony, half-drowning out the Christian rites and military rituals. Nobody comments. Half her world has been shattered. 300, at least, can understand the sentiment.

When the coffin is lowered, 300 does not cry. He does not speak. He has no reaction at all. When he reaches inward, feeling around for that little lead-lined box he likes to stuff his emotions into, he finds a nuclear blast crater, scarred and hollow. As an agent, he knows the body biochemically numbs itself to pain it can't handle. He suspects that this might be occurring.

Some ceremonial dirt is sprinkled onto the casket, and it's over. The sun shines down relentlessly, the birds whistle in ignorance, and 300 stands oaken, rooted by the headstone, staring down, down, down. The gravedigger loiters at the edge of his vision, a gnat with a shovel.

Irene reverently steps around the gaping hole and wraps 300 in a too-tight hug. She squeezes fiercely, her tears dampening his suit jacket, and the physical pain of her embrace is almost refreshing. Ever the mother, she smoothes down his jacket sleeves with a feeble smile when she steps away.

"Are you holding up alright?" she asks.

To his infinite shock, it is Britney who saves him. "Oh my God, Mom." The girl grabs 300's still-clasped hands and squeezes in an echo of her mother. "I'm sorry, George."

He blinks at her, this foreign creature wearing his rival's body. It occurs to him for the first time that they are no longer rivals. His words falter and die in his throat.

There is an uncomfortably long silence as they watch him, concerned. Finally 300 manages a stiff nod and sort of bobs their conjoined hands, and that satisfies Britney. She squeezes once more before letting go.

He keeps his hands clasped, the ring digging moon-shaped scars into his palms.

Irene steps forward demurely, offering a sad, sheepish smile. "I'm sorry, George," she echoes. "I wasn't thinking." She hugs him again, but he is incapable of returning the gesture. "Please know we're here for you," she murmurs into his shoulder.

The gravedigger hefts the shovel in 300's peripheral.

Irene steps away, and it is Thomas's turn. But the detective looks at his fiancée and her daughter. "Irene, can you give us a minute?" he asks.

300 looks up, blinking, as Irene hesitates, nods, and ushers Britney to the car. Watching with narrowed eyes, Thomas waits until they are well out of earshot before turning back toward the agent. He steps forward and lays a hand on 300's shoulder, his voice emerging low. "300, what are you going to do about Niels?"

300 stares at him. Slowly, a shadow of a smile darkens his face. He looks down into the grave at his feet. "I... don't know."

Thomas allows him a minute of silence. When he speaks again, his tone is almost parental. "Niels will never, ever let it go."

"...I know." 300 gazes at the smattering of dirt on the coffin. "But now... if he so much as mentions..." He can't bring himself to mention it. He stares down into the grave helplessly.

Thomas gives the agent a quiet look. "You'd just shoot him," he murmurs.

300's hands squeeze the ring. "I'd just shoot him."

There is another respectful silence as Thomas considers that statement. Finally, the detective sighs and scratches the back of his head. "Well, to be honest, the only way I can think of to get out completely is moving out of the country. And I don't know if even thatwould protect you."

His smile is a broken thing. "I wouldn't worry, Thomas. I think it's well past time Niels learnt how it feels to have a few of his toys taken away."

- -NIELS & GANG- -

When Niels finally walks through the door of his suit shop over a decade later, 300 is only surprised that it took him so long.

The bell jingles to herald his arrival, and the Dane steps inside, pausing in the entry. "Well," he says, looking around at the dark oak paneling that serves as a backdrop for the crisply tailored clothing. "This is quaint."

Sighing, 300 expertly folds a shirt and fwumps it on the counter by the register. "Mr. Gyldensted."

That perverse smile curls its way across Niels's face. He trails a finger along the outline of a mannequin and steps forward from the doorway. "You didn't give me much of a chance in your game, 300." He rubs a pair of slacks between his fingers, pretending to study the thread count. "Moving Thomas, Irene, and the girls into Witsec? Hardly playing fair."

300 fwaps a pair of pants into a crisply folded box and drops it on the stack. "I couldn't very well entrust them to your care, now could I?"

Niels has progressed to the center of the shop, skimming his fingertips over the jackets, the waistcoats, the shirts and ties and pants, even the edges of the display tables. "You wound me, 300," he says, and moves to step up to the counter.

300 grabs the pistol one-handed from his lap drawer and trains it on Niels's face without looking. The Dane stops short, raising his eyebrows. "You're not my job anymore, Mr. Gyldensted," 300 cautions, still focused on the product he needs to prepare for display.

"True enough," Niels concedes, but that smile serpentines across his face in 300's peripheral vision. "So you're simply a man who'll be convicted for murder one."

"Murder two," 300 corrects, selecting another shirt from the pile. "And you'd be surprised how far an agent's benefits extend into retirement."

They stand there in tense silence, Niels watching 300, who continues to fold his merchandise with his left hand, the gun unwavering. The Dane's smirk flickers, first with mild irritation, then with sly knowledge as he spots the ring on a simple chain around 300's neck, the second gold band on his finger. "I warned him, you know," Niels adds conversationally, his eyes narrow, his smile devious.

300 fwumps another shirt onto the pile. "Hm?"

"That all he'd get from you would be an old, broken-"

The bullet skims Niels's right temple and slams into the breast pocket of a mannequin on the opposite side of the store. 300's ringed hand keeps folding of its own accord, his eyes still trained on the clothes, the gun his only acknowledgement of the Dane's presence. "I know which is your good eye, Gyldensted," he comments, dropping another shirt on the stack.

A single drop of blood trickles down Niels's carefully composed face. The Dane raises his eyebrows again. "You can't just walk out of the game, 300."

Heaving another sigh, 300 fwumps the final piece of clothing on the counter to fold. "Mr. Gyldensted, believe it or not, the world does not exist to entertain you. Nor do I." He drops the last shirt into its stack and finally looks up at the Dane over the sights of his gun. "Now get out of my store."

And whether it's respect or boredom that makes up his mind, Niels smiles and raises both hands in surrender. He turns and ambles toward the front, weaving through the racks and displays, and pauses as he wraps his hand around the doorknob.

"You know," he says, glancing back over his shoulder, "Flyover Country, USA isn't exactly the ideal place to open a men's formalwear shop."

The door closes, and 300 has to smile, the ring on his neck a reassurance. "I'd say it's a worthwhile endeavor."

Remember that longer and more tragic version I mentioned? The one that involved Niels being a troll? Say hi, everybody.

I prefer it separated like this, actually. Now you can choose on your own whether you want to have your soul crushed with poor 300 or not.

I'm actually very pleased with this one overall. I like how it references the other stories I've written for the agents. Not to mention that I particularly love some of the lines (I should write a "fave lines" journal...).

As an aside: Someone who's already had a heart attack is much more likely to have another.

Let me know what you think and, as always, thanks for reading.