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Beta'd by VesperRegina, to whom all due thanks!

"This is what I'm going to miss."

The thought swept through his mind and was gone, as he kicked in the door and plunged into the building. From other directions he heard the noisy arrival of the rest of the team, precise to the second. They'd trained and worked together for so long now that they operated as smoothly as a well-oiled machine.

The machine functioned as it always did. Their information was accurate enough, and their targets had been taken utterly by surprise. The loop Leo had set up on their scanners was still playing faithfully on the monitor as he crashed into the surveillance room.

He wasted no time, though his inherent sense of neatness winced as the shots made an untidy mess. He so much preferred a clean head shot; it looked so much more professional. But he wasn't here to look professional, at least not in that sense. The whole idea was to make it look like internecine warfare, pirate against pirate – to destabilise the comfortable balance of power among the criminal element in this region that made it so hazardous for legitimate traffic. That was why he was using this stolen weapon, a type commonly in use among the less respectable elements; he'd done what he could to bring it up to his exacting requirements, but he still had to compensate for particle drift, which was irksome.

The element of surprise worked in their favour for just so many seconds. The third target threw himself flat and rolled into cover. Firearms were never further than a couple of centimetres from these people at any given time. That meant he was armed.

Hell and damnation. He hadn't time for a fire-fight. The mission was planned with absolute precision, as they always were. Spots and Pard would be expecting his back-up.

Grenades weren't in common use among the pirate community as far as he knew, but those he carried were also stolen. Not even the most advanced forensic examination would trace them back to Starfleet. It would add a little piquancy to the puzzle. He pulled the pin, counted, added an extra second, threw it and hurled himself out of the door. The blast scorched his boot as he scrambled away from the exposed area in front of the doorway.

"Who the fuck was that?" Spots' voice echoed down the stairwell. "Let me guess. Fucking Jag."

"Got to be." Pard's camo-smeared face laughed down at him as he arrived. "You blowing things up again, Jag?"

"I like blowing things up." His protest was demure.

"Tell us something we don't know." Spots grunted as the last lock yielded. "Now let's get this stuff out of here."

He ran lightly up the stair. His footsteps echoed off the bare walls, and his life was insubstantial and precious in his hands. The rifle nestled in his arms, warm and living.

Once again their informant had been proven correct. This lot specialised in light, readily portable goods. The store room contained only a few cases; the heaviest item was a reinforced briefcase that probably carried currency or bonds.

It all had to vanish. Pirates wouldn't leave so much as the smell of it.

He took the briefcase. The weight of it said that all five of them could have a hell of a lifestyle somewhere in the back end of nowhere for the rest of their days, and if anyone had the skills to disappear off the radar they did. The contents of the other boxes undoubtedly wouldn't do them any disservice in that respect either. The prospect passed through his mind and left only indifference behind.

He commed Leo. "All quiet still?"

"They're out there. Can't see them yet but you'd better get a move on." Black and massive, the pride's leader was crouched by the window at the landing. His instincts were utterly reliable.

A glance at the chronometer said they were still on time – just. Stripes would be bringing the ship around the curve of the mountains, flying low, skipping dangerously over the crests to keep himself off the scanners.

"Move it!"

Pard lifted the last box. It was flimsy and must have been there some time. The sharp movement split it, and sparkling things spilled out.

Her language was abominable. He jumped forward, set down the briefcase and started helping her to pick up the stuff, thrusting it anyhow into pockets and holsters.

Time ran out. She held the box differently, awkwardly, the split part under her armpit. He hoped it wouldn't spoil her aim; resolved to stay close and cover her. A grin in his direction knew his anxiety and what he intended to do about it. Pard and Jag, the team within a team. Afterwards she would come to his room like she always did, needing his coolness to quench the fire of her excitement. She was an adrenaline junkie, high as a kite, hooked on danger. One day it would kill her, and that day would probably be soon. She regarded that fact as the biggest spike of all.

The three of them ran out of the room. From the landing above came the sound of Leo giving fire. Spots glanced cautiously down the stairs, but the lower level appeared to be empty. They felt rather than heard the sound of the ship's engines. Stripes' invective through the comm said that he was being targeted and wasn't a happy bunny about it.

A last burst of rapid shots, and Leo hurtled down to join them. "Time to get out of here." He didn't ask whether they'd got everything. He knew them better than that.

They fired off a hail of random shots as they ran down into the shadows. Something fell heavily, probably a body. Outside, the ground shook to the impacts of a fan of high density blasts as Stripes cleared back the nearest area of ground cover preparatory to landing.

Hot, moisture-laden air hit his face, sour with high explosive and broken greenery and blood. Lances of light split the jungle; came terrifyingly close. He aimed over Pard's shoulder and fired without breaking stride, shocked by the sound of projectile weapons being used as well. Their bloody informant hadn't mentioned this lot! The ground underfoot was treacherous; Pard stumbled and he dropped the briefcase for an instant to steady her, firing continuously as he did so. As soon as she straightened up and nodded he snatched up the case again and the two of them joined Leo and Spots, now scrambling through the ship's doorway. The vessel's bulk protected them momentarily from direct fire, though ricocheting projectiles whined off the steel plating of the building's blast protection.

"By Jove, one does meet some dashed unfriendly cads in this job!" Stripes put on an execrable upper-class British accent as he gunned the engines, accelerating so hard that his unprepared passengers fell in a heap on the decking and filled the air with profane abuse.

The operative who went by the name of 'Jag' had fallen on top of his smaller and slighter team-mate. Her perfect teeth gleamed up at him. He could read her thought: Hey, at least wait till we get back to the transport! Some of the sparkling things had spilled out of her top pockets and the front of her camo was spattered with garnets. Wet, warm garnets that grew as he watched them and soaked obscenely into the fabric.

He started to rise, reaching for the medic kit, but her hand stopped him. "Don't bother."

He froze, not knowing what to say. One day soon had become now, and he wasn't ready for it. There ought to be bells and lights, not just the everyday noises of a completed mission, with Stripes pulling manoeuvres the book hadn't thought of in order to avoid ground-to-air fire and Spots crouching nearby, rehearsing his impressive catalogue of curses. Leo had a plasma bag halfway out of its casing, but the words halted him.

Pard grinned up at him. There was blood in her mouth. "You... always said you'd tell me..."

So he had. It had been a joke between them. She'd tried every way to prise his real name out of him, knowing he couldn't and wouldn't tell her. She'd interrogated him in ways that were exasperating and terrifying and delightful, using every weapon in her arsenal. The fact that he didn't know hers either of course was irrelevant; that was the way it was, the way he preferred it. She was Pard, short for Leopard; the fact that it was also a Yank corruption of Partner amused her no end. He was Jag – short for Jaguar of course, this being also the name of a classic British car manufacturer. Being a Brit, he liked the comparison. He wasn't so keen on the abbreviation with its American acronym, but he put up with it. It was a fertile source of gibes from his comrades when they ran out of real things to be witty about.

He put his mouth directly over her ear and breathed the two words. Her blonde hair was spilling out of its ponytail on the decking, and a red pool was spreading slowly towards it. Her scent struck him, familiar and musky. It was mingled now with the metallic smell of the blood. At the angle of her jaw he could see her pulse fluttering. It wouldn't do so for much longer.

She chuckled. "I lost my bet," she gasped.

"I shudder to think." He straightened up. His voice was perfectly level. The old half-smile played on his mouth; she'd recognise it.

"I always had you down as ... an aristocrat." She swallowed and managed another grin. "I had my money on 'Alastair'."

"Drat. You guessed it. I'm actually the long-lost heir to the English monarchy, but don't go spreading it around." He leaned down and kissed her passionately. When he drew back she was silent and still, and there was blood on his mouth.

In the middle of it all he could feel relief; relief that he wasn't going to have to tell her. He hadn't loved her nor she him, but there had been security of a kind in their relationship. The others, at least, would be able to take refuge in anger.

"I'm leaving," he said simply, looking around at them. "This was my last op."

Spots and Leo just stared at him. They knew, of course, why he hadn't told them before; it would have changed the dynamic of the mission, maybe even made them doubt his commitment. What they wouldn't understand was why he was quitting.

"Just like that?" Spots – 'Cheetah' in its long form – had light blue eyes and looked like a Viking in camouflage uniform. His pupils contracted, revealing his displeasure, but apart from that he gave no sign. Leo frowned but said nothing either. He was reserving judgement. At least he hadn't been insulting enough to imply that the decision had anything to do with Pard.

"You're a bit young to retire, old chap." Stripes, otherwise known as 'Tiger', had reached safe distance. He switched the controls to autopilot for a moment and slewed around in his chair. His resemblance to a cunning urchin meant that the ammo belt around his body looked weirdly out of place, and the lucky woolly hat he always wore on ops had fallen over one eye. "Was it something we said?"

"No. You know it isn't." He sat back on his heels. "It's just me. I wanted to do something different."

"Is it for the Section?"

"No. I've got another job. On my own. I'm out."

"Out as in out altogether?" Leo's voice was very deep, without inflection.

"No. I'll still be Starfleet. Just the respectable end." A long breath that was more ragged than he wanted it to be. "I'm going to be Weapons and Tactical Officer on Enterprise."

There was a pause while they digested this information. Beyond the viewscreen the atmosphere was thinning and darkening; in the distance the transport was visible, racing to pick them up before the pursuit closed on them.

"Oho. The fancy new NX-class. Well, you'll sure be blowing a few things up with that." The pilot grinned and turned back to his controls. "Give us a wave if you see us about, old boy."

Leo was still regarding him. His dark face seemed as always to be carved out of ebony. "I always knew you were respectable at heart. Just a case of how long it took you to figure it out for yourself."

He produced a caricature of a cheeky, cocky, Cockney grin, and the accent to go with it. "Respectable? Me? Give us a break, Guv."

"I guess the boss wasn't too pleased," said Spots quietly.

"He didn't roll out the bunting. But he didn't try to stop me."

"Useful, having an officer on the newest starship in the Fleet." Their leader's voice was a bass rumble. "That's why. That's only why. Remember that."

"I won't be answerable to him any more."

Leo gave the short huff that was the nearest he ever came to a laugh. "I'll leave you your illusions."

"Does your new captain know ... about all this?" Spots had beautiful hands. They made one think of an artist or a concert pianist. He used them to kill with awesome, professional skill. They moved now in a small gesture that encompassed the ship, the body, the blood, the guns, the contraband, and so much more that it all encapsulated.

"Not the fine detail."

"I'll bet he doesn't." Stripes cackled like a hyena. "Make sure he doesn't find out, either. Very straight guy, Captain Jonathan Archer. Starfleet brass prefer not to know about the likes of us."

Silence fell after that.

In it they did all the things that had to be done, firstly for Pard and then for the cargo. They sent out a coded mission status report, crunched in the middle of a seemingly random burst of information; they received no reply, and expected none. The docking with the transport went without a hitch and they disembarked, feeling through the plating under the soles of their boots that the seemingly innocuous 'freighter' they were now aboard had achieved a speed that its external appearance certainly would not have suggested it was capable of.

Jag went to his quarters. Normally this was where he'd be half way through his shower before Pard appeared and joined him in it. His skin prickled with the anticipation of her hands, but only the water slid over him and cared nothing. Her body was in stasis, clean and motionless, with the three puncture wounds in her chest and the shadow of a smile on her face, as though even in death she'd found something amusing.

He should be grieving but he wasn't sure how. He missed her but he wasn't sure in what way. He was consumed with what felt like anger, and he left the shower cubicle without even bothering to dry himself and flung himself flat on his bunk, where his memory recreated the slender lithe body straddling him and he fucked her savagely, with short, hard thrusts the way she liked it. The silence gasped and moaned, and he shouted aloud, Bitch, why are you dead, you shouldn't be dead! And afterwards there was only a spent and soiled solitude, and he sank his teeth into his forearm because Reeds don't cry.


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