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"They told me I shouldn't wake you, Rowe."

A chair slides, scoots back. Curtains rustle.

"Let's get some more light in here."

After the first week, you stop thinking about time as anything more than a suggestion. As far as your body is concerned, you have always maintained a maximum of three hours of sleep a night, always in a crumpled business suit instead of sheets. Mouthful of mild peppermint hospital toothpaste. Compressed into a tiny padded chair, knees up and shoulders crooked: it's natural, and you don't let yourself think otherwise.

Hospitals are not designed with coziness in mind. After the accident that claimed your parents and left you swinging your heels in plastic waiting-room chairs, you understood why. Comfort was a concept best-suited for homes, and a pragmatic fact of hospices was that people -- occasionally, unfortunately -- died in them.

Bringing that association back to your cozy living room with its three-piece sofa set would not make hospitals any better. Only your residence worse.

After the first week, you do not return to Cloud House, not even to shower. Instead, you clean yourself in the standard issue bathroom, dipping a handcloth into the sink and rubbing it over your face while hollow eyes stare back from the mirror. You alternate between two suits, white and white. The musty smell growing up all around your neck and collar tastes more and more of decay, but you barely notice it through the antiseptic of the hospital, their professional bleaching-out of life.

Rowe does not make any comment about the state of your affairs. Rowe can't speak around the tubes shoved down his throat, and he can't open his eyes to notice the scrape on your cheek from being clumsy with the plastic safety razor.

When you sleep, you do so in fits and starts. You dream of Claudia without meaning to: old memories, past days, the delighted sound of her laughter for a crème brulee with whipped foam on top. The way she would smell after a mission, leather holster and lilac perfume. The way she would curl up in the passenger seat of your car, hair gently mussed from the wind as you drove as carefully as you could home. Inevitably, Claudia's ghost vanishes just in time for you to wake up; the ache of missing her is always fierce, and you comfort yourself with the knowledge that at least your current partner is still alive.

Then you open your eyes the rest of the way and see Rowe's coma charts, and remember that this is no longer the case.


"Rowe. I think you should know -- I've done something I know you don't approve of."

The hospital lights tint the room yellow. Your skin is jaundiced in their glow; you don't care if the effect is real or not, if you look as ragged as the fluorescents would like to make you think.

"You'll give me quite the lecture when you're awake, won't you? Rowe?"

Outside, a trolley bundles its creaking way down the hall, muttering angry plastic complaints at its burden.


They exile you by force on the second week. One of the doctors is clumsy enough to stammer out something about brain damage and permanency, and while you find yourself smiling in response, you can't shake the memory of wolves on a television nature show Rowe made you watch once. 2 a.m., on assignment. You had wanted sleep. Rowe had flipped channels. You had eventually drifted off with your ears full of snatched rabbits and canine jaws, listening to the revolutions of predators and prey.

The wolves must have grinned the same way, mouths already thick with salivation.

Compromises are made. You are granted leave to visit during standard hours, which you take advantage of mercilessly. Standard is another word for flexible, so you show up when the morning shift begins at 5:30 a.m., sliding in through the emergency room doors with a pleasant nod to the weary counter workers. You stroll in like the best of diplomats, reaching Rowe's room at 5:38, and only leave when the clock ticks past 12 o'clock midnight.

No one dares to interrupt you for three days. But at Wednesday's 5:37, you walk into the hospital room to discover someone else already there, sipping from a plastic cup of coffee. Your fingers are already moving to the spot where your holster used to hang before you recognize who they are.

Claire. A woman who could have been from a world away, as far as your three-hour-sleep body is concerned right now; Claire takes care of Cloud House and is your contact during work. You've barely spoken to her in the last two weeks. You haven't pulled a job since the one that landed you and Rowe both in the hospital, he in bed and you tethered to it. The urge to return to business never even crossed your mind.

She is, habitually, a friend.

She is also sitting in your chair.

Claire does not look as if she has lost nearly enough sleep, but her eyes are ringed dark and puffy, even underneath her makeup. The foundation has been improperly applied, so that there is a fleck of it on her eyelashes, and it twitches every time she blinks.

She nods as you stare at her, a weak bob of her head.

"I'd heard you were still standing vigil, Jack."

"Good morning," you respond, voice impossibly dulcet. It surprises you, a little -- how mild you sound. The cause must be a flu, an illness that is making you sleepy, and unbearably permissive. You're not sure how you caught it; you haven't lingered near any other sick wards, and you can't think of anyone you might have interacted with outside the hospital. It could be a lie of your three-hour body, just like the way your fingers tremble when you study them under topaz lights.

Claire is uncomfortable, surrounded by the dead and dying. It shows. Even though she attempts to look casual, her hands keep squeezing themselves, finding no other vent for their helplessness save to wrestle like twins under the bedsheet of her handkerchief. Tear-spotted calico fabric struggles. In contrast to this, you are unnaturally pliable with your circumstances. You fit into your environment. The trait is a valuable one for spies; it is why you are a preferred match for Rowe, because Rowe is also a master at blending in. It is why you complement one another.

Claire does not. "I know that you're concerned about him, Jack. But you need rest as well. I thought I could take over for you -- "

"Please, Claire." Your voice tastes like green brillo pads in your throat, despite how carefully you attempt to keep it gentle. Neutral. Bleached. "He's my partner."

Logic does not win. "I understand that you've been worried, Jack. We all have. And we're here for you too. This must be hard, considering how long the two of you -- "

"I'm fine."

Claire's lipstick stains her teeth when she bites down, fidgeting. In a hard, cold quarter of your thoughts, you realize you are satisfied to see her inappropriateness. Not for the hospital, not for a spy, and most certainly not for Rowe.

She should leave.

You keep smiling. The expression feels ruthless, but you know it is only a trick of your thoughts; Claire will not understand it, no more than anyone else can. You have no reason to dislike Cloud Seven's assistant, but now that Claire's invading the hospital, you suddenly find that you don't want to look at her neat red skirt and her pretty head of hair, her belief that she's allowed to insert herself into the L/R team like this.

You want her out of your chair. Out of the room, out of the hospital -- out of the experience of waiting for Rowe to finally yawn and smack his sleepy jaws, returning from the nothingness he's fallen into.

Claire licks her lips. "Listen," another attempt, "it wouldn't hurt you just to go home and rest a little, Jack? I promise you, Rowe will be fine with me. I'll be here for him in case he wakes up."

Before you can condemn her, a burst of daring brings the woman to her feet, scurrying to your partner's side. Her worried fingers reach out to claim the man's hand, winding around it possessively, clutching the lifeline that would grant her validity of presence.

As you watch the ivory cobra of her fingers, you are only a little shocked to discover that the sour taste in your throat is not mucus, but jealousy.

You say no anyway.


Rowe likes to say that you're wonderful when you're ill. Delightful. Because your strength drains right out of you like the last drops of a keg and you would grin as if you'd been the one to swallow it all down. You aren't able to stop Rowe when the brunette reaches over and flops your pale hands in his own tanned ones, gesticulating with them like a puppeteer. Hello, he mimics, bringing out the falsetto he wore for waitress and call-girl disguises. My name is Jack, and I am the ponciest ponce who ever - Jack, do you think it's 'ponced', or 'punced'? I like punced. We'll go with that. Punce, punce, punce.

Wrists being flapped, too drained to protest, you only watch through a haze of warm, sleepy security. You smile, then. You smile a lot, but it doesn't always mean the same thing.

Rowe enjoys his opportunities for retaliation. He indulges in them when he can, taking his revenge for a thousand oblique jibes that you would litter throughout the day, affectionate caltrops to needle the other spy. Harder for him to catch you unaware than the versa; Rowe might slip up a dozen times a week, but you could always claim your mishaps were all part of the greater plan.

Despite your poise, Rowe is the better when it came to socialization. You both know it. The fact is long-established in how you operate together. Rowe's social comedy helps to switch the focus when your polished veneer leans a little too close to brittle. And that happens, more frequently than you'd like to admit. Only Rowe notices, which is why he knows to change subjects when your mouth starts turning upwards while your eyes begin to lower, narrowed.

On the surface, the two of you broadcast equal charm. But your diplomacy is a warning sign, a fence of charisma strung out with all the ruthless pleasure of barbed wire. You are perfectly willing to be friendly, but what changes everything about the equation -- what differs an L from an R -- is that you know that guns are meant to aim at the heart. They are not designed to cripple. Bullets are used to kill.

In your earlier years working for Ishtar's government, you exercised this rule of thumb constantly. You stopped after being partnered up with Rowe. Rowe had more attacks of conscience; Rowe was more willing to plead injury over death, even for your opponents. Rowe would whine and wheedle and hop on one foot if he thought it would get your to peg someone's kneecap rather than their skull. If ignored, he would sulk for days, flicking sodden pieces of lettuce across the dinner table and into your coffee.

Rowe did anything he could to get you to stop shooting to kill. And it worked. You watched yourself change with no small amount of amusement, becoming this softer Jack, this easier short-scruff hunting dog that was willing to let the hare run free.

After a while, you didn't even mind anymore.

Once the initial adjustment pains concluded, you'd learned to manage your time around the other spy. Not just on assignment, but afterwards together: expeditions to the local bars, museums. Rowe hates anything to do with fine culture; give him a street band, a country park, or a local bazaar, and he'd be fascinated for hours. Art galleries are not his cup of tea, and he expresses this preference frequently enough that it is an easier topic to quarrel over than a corpse.

Rowe likes to whine. It's strange to see him motionless. Even in his sleep, the spy prefers to roll about, tossing and turning and shoving his face against the car door while the two of you commute through the night.

He hasn't stirred once since being ladled into the hospital bed.

You're in the process of staring at his statue-frozen fingers when a knock comes upon the door. Not Claire. But a head of hair sunnier than hers; ruddy-tinged, bright and shining. The girl who enters does so with deference, closing the door behind her and waiting there until you nod in her direction. When she moves, she tip-toes.

This is easier to handle. "Noelle," you smile, watching how she stops several feet away from the radius of the chair and bed and coma patient. "As glad as I am to see you, are you entirely certain you should be here? There must still be those who would hunt for your life."

Relief at the greeting causes the girl's head to bob. "Miss Camille made arrangements for me to visit. Don't worry, Mr. Jack -- I won't stay too long. I just thought I'd come by." Her diction is ever clear. In retrospect, you wonder how they'd ever managed to hide her on Ivory Isle, amidst the buzz and slur of the small villagers' accents.

She waits for you to absorb her sentences before looking away from you, and towards the bed. An excellent ruler, she would have been -- respectful of her subjects although she has never been taught that she had any in the first place. "I hope Mr. Rowe wakes up soon. Here," she adds deftly, extending a paper cup towards you, clutching a juice bottle to her own chest. "I brought you something to drink."

Your stomach twists at the thought, but you accept it anyway. "Here's to hoping, Noelle."

You salute one another over Rowe's inert body. When you take a sip of the tepid coffee, you find powdered cream floating at the top, solidified in chunks. You drink it down regardless, vengeful with each contortion of your throat. Cream clumps. Hardly worthy adversaries. L/R has bested worse.

Noelle finishes her juice, and lowers it. When you bring your own cup down, you see a granulated trail sticking to the inside where the false cream hadn't been swallowed down.

You glance away quickly.

If Noelle notices your reaction, she is tactful in pretending otherwise. "I brought you something else," she confesses, fumbling in the small satchel-purse that hangs from her shoulder. The tissue-swabbed rectangle that she pulls out doesn't look familiar, but then she begins to unwrap the thing from its protective layers. "Here. One of the officers brought it to Cloud House -- we would have given it to you, but you weren't there. I took the liberty of cleaning it up. It was," she starts, and then her voice dies a little, falling away as she turns her face down, "it was... it's clean now, that's what matters."

As you blink, you discover that you are looking at a picture frame. The glass is tilted away from you; when you reach out to pull it closer, you encounter the silent resistance of Noelle's wrist, attempting to keep the truth hidden.

You tug again, and this time she lets you take it.

At first you can't comprehend the photograph she's brought you. That's because the glass cover has been badly cracked, splintered like a frozen wound from a vertical hole that punched straight through the picture.

The part of your brain that aims for vital organs also calculates the type of attack that caused this damage. A knife-wound. It must have gone right through. Like butter.

"He was carrying this on him when it happened," comes the obvious statement from your mouth, dull and neutral. One mystery is solved: the hospital report that noted glass in Rowe's wounds, driven deep within the gash.

Noelle nods.

The princess's teenage enthusiasm has scrubbed the wooden frame near to shining, buffing off the price-tag glue, but she doesn't have the right eye for detail. When you turn the frame over and examine the back, you can see a dark, clotted line bisecting the cardboard. All the way through. Like butter. Not good enough to keep Rowe's attacker from jerking the knife into his body and shoving upwards, a nasty tear of internal organs that barely shielded the heart.

The damage to the picture is equally vicious. Noelle is standing in the middle of the camera's view. You're to her right. Rowe, his face streaked by a crack, is caught laughing as he reaches over to muss Noelle's hair.

Such sunny days. Now Noelle is in hiding. You're here, in the hospital, and Rowe --

Noelle's voice chimes out, brave and clear as a bell. "Mr. Jack?"


"You know how you told me you smile when things are very bad?"

You move a little, shifting your weight from side to side as one of your fingers traces the dried blood on the picture frame. "Yes?"

"You're smiling now."

This brings your eyes back up to her, and only now do you notice that she, too, is fidgeting -– as out of place as Claire, but kind about it. "I'm sorry, Noelle." You're not sure how to explain that either, if you're apologetic for becoming distracted, or for brooding. Or for her knowing about you.

Noelle attempts a faint smile. "It's all right, Mr. Jack. I... I have to go now. Miss Camille has booked a plane for me - she says I'll be studying abroad for a while, at least until the new government has a chance to get established. I've a new identity set up for me and everything. They say I'll be quite safe."

"I should hope so, Noelle. You know what they say." Reaching out, you tab the girl on the nose with your fingertip, all tease and charm while your voice lowers in faux-conspiracy. "Spies could be anywhere."

She can't help but giggle at that, a little. Then she sobers, all too quickly for her age, but Noelle has always been mature. "Will you be all right, Mr. Jack?"

The coffee curdles in the back of your throat. "You don't have to worry, Noelle. Rowe and I will be just fine."

"I'll send you cards," she pipes up. Then she is gone, a fading blot of carrot-colored hair lingering behind her, a click of the latch as her final goodbye.

No one notices when you steal a container of bleach off the nearest cleaning cart.

Noelle tried her hardest, but she isn't perfect. Nor should she be. Noelle has not spent her life falsifying papers and working undercover, so she is not aware of the qualities of photograph paper and dye. The picture remains clumped to the backing when you try to separate the pieces, bonded by Rowe's blood for glue.

You talk aloud to give yourself company while you work. It makes it easier to keep your mind off what your hands are doing, just like a mortician might recite limericks to ease the time along. "I know I took off recently without properly telling you, Rowe." Bleach stings your nose, but you push the capful aside. "I suppose that wasn't quite fair of me."

Your fingers still.

"I almost kicked over a vase on our doorstep the other day. Our," you catch yourself, laughing, horrified, "I mean, the door to here. Someone left us flowers. No tag, no identity - just plants that could wither and be thrown away without regret."

The paper towel begins to dissolve into pink clumps where you are rubbing it against the picture frame. Rowe's blood. You can't seem to get it all off. The more bleach you add, the more the backing starts to dissolve, until you're crumbling cardboard against your skin and frowning at the stains.

"You always told me we were here to help support the law, Rowe. Not to take it into our own hands. Sometimes I forget that, when you don't remind me. You remind me of a lot," and here you're smiling again, but it's rueful, and it tastes like Rowe's brand of cigarettes in your mouth, and the picture-frame makes a tiny sound of protest when pressure causes the glass to shatter, just a little more.

"But I did, Rowe." Your voice is very polite in the hospital room, very earnest. "I passed my own verdict on that man. I went back to what I used to be, before you. The records show that it's self-defense, of course -- he had a gun, and there was the case of that knife he used."

When you try to peel a corner of the picture free, your thumb slips. You can't seem to get a good grip.

"On you -- "

Fumes cause your eyes to water, or at least you assume that's the case. Whatever the reason, you have to pause in your work in order to rub at your face, and this annoys you.


He doesn't move.

"I don't care what you're going to do after this, or if you're even still angry with me. Please wake up."

The lights are bright and yellow. Rowe's lungs move in a steady pulse, in and out to the rhythm of the machinery, but so faintly that you have to swallow hard before trusting yourself to look away.


It's when they come to deliver your new mission orders that you realize why you've been so restless: it's because the old habits have been kicking in, of oiling your gun during breakfast and laying it beside you on the table next to the salt and pepper.

Or that's what you would do, if you ate at your apartment instead of in your car, en route to the hospital almost before you'd finished waking up.

Most agents do the same with their own weapons. The act is not considered paranoia, but precaution. When you were another man, it had been second nature to unchamber your firearms each morning and work through a full cleaning, finishing with satisfaction just in time for the bacon to be done.

Standard procedure, back then.

You'd changed lives since.

But it is just as easy to return to the past, which is what ends up happening after you accept the manilla package with your newest operating instructions. There's a bodyguard assignment for some diplomat who's to ship out in two days. Low-grade work. It would take you out of the country for a few weeks, round-trip affairs included.

Three days later, while you are scrambling up some eggs to go with your pancakes and bullets, Dez rings you.

"Didn't you read up on your latest job, Jack?" The inventor sounds exasperated. You wonder why. "Your departure was yesterday! We had to run all over the place to find someone else at the last minute. The Royal Houseguard was very displeased -- "

"Good morning, Dez." The crackle of eggs provides a merry hiss in the background, and you flip over a spatulaful. "Yes, I did receive the package. Oh, no, I don't believe I need to be sent out yet. Thank you for the thought."

Dez's side of the connection is suffused with sounds like a choking noise, and then the man regains control of himself. "If you won't work, Jack, then at least instruct someone to fill in as your -– "

And Dez doesn't say replacement because you aren't suddenly smiling very brightly, so hot and fierce that it feels as if your cheeks are on fire, a reverse blush. You're smiling so hard that your body decides you've missed whatever Dez's last words were, so that there's only a distant buzzing. Noise. Entirely ignorable.

Miraculously, the inventor seems to take a cue from the silence, because he swaps topics.

"Claire isn't very happy with you, you know." A sigh, and he readjusts the phone to keep from dropping it. The rattle of metal keeps time in the background; Dez must be working on a new invention even while he's checking in on you. "You might have missed this in all the excitement of Noelle's coronation, but she and Rowe were getting rather close just before it happened –- "

"Assign us to another division." The sentence shoots out of your mouth as neatly as a bullet, expelling itself with the same automatic aim from your past. Right for the heart, no knees, no mercy crippling, bang. You reach for the bacon. "Now."

"What are you talking about, Jack?" Dez's squeaky mumble bleats in its confusion. "Your skill set is required here. And there is no 'us,' Jack. Rowe's status remains unchanged. L/R can no longer function as a team. You'll have to move on."

"Then I quit."

"Where would you go? What would you do? Turn out like half the other agents who tried to leave, and only became criminals themselves?" Heavy disapproval radiates from Dez's side of the connection; the inventor sighs again, fiddling with what sounds like a ratchet. "You don't really mean any of these things, Jack. Cloud House is your life. You know that, and so do I. These things happen in the line of duty. You just have to keep going."

The rest of Dez's words are much too easy to tune out. You let them wash away effortlessly, coating you in a bubble of meaningless sound. Once Dez's voice reaches a lull, you replace the phone back on its cradle, very gently, and step outside to have a smoke.

There's a bum leaning on the fence outside your apartment. No. Not a transient –- some fellow who's simply suited up against the cold weather, trenchcoat flaps turned up, hat pulled low. Only when you've descended the steps does he turn to you, and underneath the coating of snow and stubble, you realize you know who he is.

Grey F. Stratos. Professional killer. His little daughter smiled like a angel to Rowe's jokes, once she got over the fish-swallowing incident.

He waves a hand in your direction, sodden cigarette clutched between two knuckles. "Do you have a light?"

Legally, you should be antagonistic to Stratos now. The man's presence in the country can only be precursor to an assassination contract. Instead, you reach slowly into your pocket, and bring out your lighter. Only after you're holding it up to Grey's face and watching the fire dance off those cool eyes do you remember that it's actually Rowe's lighter; your body has been carrying it around ever since the accident, rubbing it like a worry-stone in your pocket.

The flame catches.

"Thanks." The sniper sucks in a tobacco flood and releases it through his fingers, straightening up from your hand. "I'm trying to cut down, but it never seems to help. I guess it's just a health hazard."

"What a coincidence. I was just in a discussion about your career choice," you volunteer blithely, a toss-off observation that feeds on its own amusement, just like a cinder.

Grey's mouth is warmer than any hitman's rightfully should. The sympathy is almost painful to witness. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. So, how long has it been?"


"You know what I mean. I was hoping you'd get the flowers."

"Four weeks." Your hands -- suddenly brisk -- start your own cigarette and clap the lighter shut. You busy yourself with looking at the city, watching the traffic lamps blink and dance. "He could wake up any day now," you finds yourself adding, lamely, and instantly hate yourself for it.

Grey leans on the fence rail. His trenchcoat smells like gunpowder and rain. The mix is innately comforting to your nostrils, which have become numbed from chemicals and air conditioning. Grey smells like stake-outs and patience, like work, which triggers memories of partnership. Claudia had worn her clothes like that. Rowe, too. Claudia, her hair down in the car, curls of it licking her collarbone. Rowe, falling asleep while smoking and almost setting his seat on fire.

Grey is a polite man, and pretends he doesn't notice how intently you have been staring at his shirt-cuff. His voice is a whiskey-smooth interruption. "You're an expert, Mr. Agent, you should know. How long can the brain go without oxygen and still be considered intact?"

"Five minutes. But that rule isn't absolute," you note sharply, textbook training leaping off your tongue despite your own willpower. "There's the chance for damage before and after that mark. Five is only a guideline, the point where most injury can't be undone. You can't go back."

"Only five." Patient, methodical, Grey taps the ash off his cigarette. "Seems like too small a number to be a point of no return, eh? A number that low for a single human life. After five... you're done. All life support can do is prolong the inevitable."

The roundabout hints nibble at you. Grey is a masterwork sniper. His methods always involve setting up the kill before he fires. When he opens his mouth, you halfway expect him to spit out a bullet casing, but all he does is offer up a mild revelation.

"You know, back when I worked for the Royal Houseguard, I once had a partner too."

Against your best instincts, you ask. "What happened?"

Grey lowers his cigarette in a long, smooth motion; he exhales a river of smoke into the air, staring at the white-out sky. "She died."


At five weeks, you discover an envelope from Pennylane on the chair in Rowe's sickroom. In it, there is a typewritten warning that further absences from work will be interpreted as an immediate need for counseling. Any continued interruption in your duties will impact your record negatively, and you may risk temporary suspension.

Underneath the impersonal orders is the distinctive flourish of Mister's signature at the bottom, stabbing crests for the letters and slash of the 't.' You are not perfect at graphology, but if you had a choice, you would diagnose Mister's handwriting as unsympathetic.

You have seen these notices before. You have read them as part of the case files of other agents, the ones who made the arrest list because they'd deserted. Like any successful establishment, the Royal Houseguard has had its share of turncoats. L/R has even been assigned to a few, tracking down the rogues who had gone mercenary without warning, the ones too dangerous to roam free.

One such warning had been in Grey Stratos's profile.

Independent thought is a necessity in your line of work. You are not meant to serve with the dull mindlessness as most government officials -- L/R has conducted enough maverick forays that you have been called traitor and hero in the same breath -- but that very quality is what makes every agent potentially an enemy. You are all trained to think for yourselves.

You are all threats-in-waiting.

The situation doesn't seem so bad when your mind phrases it like that. The quiet of your apartment becomes reasonable, logical: the stillness that preludes a storm. In that emptiness, you can look at what has happened in the past few weeks, and it no longer seems so irrational. It fits. It's a prelude.

Two partners. Two cooling bodies in your arms, with the killers turning to aim at you. Claudia's smile mixes with Rowe's smirk. Your apartment smells like lilac perfume and lite-cut cigarettes, and you touch the walls as you wander through the dim-lit rooms, guiding yourself through the laws of what is now your reality.

Clau. Rowe.

You leave your home eventually, but there's nowhere to go. Faced with the prospect of Cloud House and the hospital, you choose to park in the garages of the shopping districts, hiding away from anyone who might think to interfere with you.

"I would have killed that man," you state once, arms crossing under your head as you push your seat back and listen to the cooling air settle, heavy with exhaust and car oil. The passenger's seat is empty; you do not look in its direction, but only continue to speak aloud. "The one who shot Clau. But you didn't let me. She died, and you didn't want me to take the law into my own hands. You don't like it when I kill, Rowe," you continue, and now the smell of leather is on your fingers as you scrub your face, tainted with a thousand ghost-cigarettes smoked on the road. "Not even when someone I know is murdered. But you weren't able to stop me, the second time. And I didn't want to stop myself."

An hour later, the portable phone rings. You ignore it. After several minutes, the shrill jingle stops, only to wind up fresh for another round. For your own sanity, you choose to peel yourself out of the driver's seat to answer, but your fingers linger over the handset before you pick it up.

It's Dez. Baulkish voice, humored and petulant in one. The inventor is eternally frustrated; you haven't given him any reason to be optimistic. "I went by your apartment just now, but you weren't there," he begins, and automatically, you start to phase him out. "I think you should know, Jack, we've been worried about how you've been acting. Listen, you really don't need to be this worked up, it turns out that -- "

"I'm not."

Silence spreads itself between you for a brothel-minute, and then Dez sighs. "We've... found a new partner for you, Jack. Maybe it's best if you think of it like that." His voice winds up, rolling on towards new horizons, new possibilities. The future. He's an inventor, he's like that - leaving the past behind, accelerating into the unknown. "We've been wondering how to break the news to you, but I really do think you need to meet him. It might put your mind to rest."

"I'm busy," you lie, and then hang up.

Claire rings again the next morning. "Look," she begins, her voice a gawkish apology in your ear, "I'm sorry to wake you up at so early -- "

"It's fine." It's tricky to cradle the receiver between your cheek and shoulder as you tear off another length of packing tape, but you manage. The box between your knees is nearly full. It had taken you from the hours of 3 to 4 a.m. to get the dishes in order; the kitchen reeks of coffee brewed in lockstep, and your tongue is trying to retch itself in one long curl of muscle against your teeth. But that's not important. By noon, you've calculated, you can pack over half your necessaries into the storage bins and have them in the backseat of your car. "I wasn't sleeping."


Claire doesn't have to know why you're awake. "Don't worry. What did you want to talk about?"

To give her credit, she pauses. The attempt to speak again takes a few careful tries, phrases picked out delicately as roses in a flowershop. "Listen... no, well, Jack, really... " White roses, formerly red before they'd been bleached clean, smelling of hospital chemicals and syringes. "I know you've been acting withdrawn lately. And you have good reason for it, I know -- but it's not healthy for you."

You feel the smile creep up again. It's no longer bland; the muscles are hard and tense and fully aware that they are concealed behind a mask of charm. "You don't have to be concerned about me, Claire. I'm fine."

"Um." You can see her clearly in your mind's eye. Biting her lip, twisting fingers in the string of pearls around her neck, all while her weight shifts back and forth on her high heels. "We were thinking about coming over, and I really do think it would help if you saw -- "

"I won't be here."

When she hangs up first, you're not sure if you're surprised, but it doesn't bother you.

You're navigating down the steps to the front door with an armful of dishes when the postman arrives early. At first you're irritated -- why should a postal deliveryman open a door when there's a perfectly good mail slot –- but then, as you juggle the box in your arms to peer around it, you discover an even less pleasant surprise. Red hair, bright and tousled. It's Claire.

"Oh, lucky stars, we thought we'd missed you," is all she has a chance to say, before you hear Dez's voice prattling something outside about surprises, and then Claire's face vanishes to be replaced by someone a great deal taller. And tanned. And grinning.

You think you drop the box, but you're not sure.

The figure leaning in your doorway is doing so on crutches. He's dressed in bulky pull-over gear -- loose sweatpants tied in the front, a ratty T-shirt underneath a windbreaker underneath a woolen jacket -- but the whole ragtag effect only looks perfectly at home with the clownishness of his smile.

There's other conversation going on -- you're sure of it, Claire is babbling something about a lucky recovery from miles away -- but all you can pay attention to is the dark-haired figure on your doorstep. Your toes hurt where the dishes fell on them, and that part of your brain that works in realms of bullets and wolves is already telling you that you've likely given yourself a fracture.

It doesn't matter.

Rowe is busy talking. He doesn't seem to notice how shocked you are, the way that you are breathing air that tastes clean instead of bleached. "Hauled me away from a perfectly beautiful nurse for this?" Giving a grunt as he hefts himself inside, Rowe gives a toss of his head as his bangs cluster across his eyes. "This can't be my teammate. You've found the wrong one, Dez. For starters, this guy looks like a right... let me think. What's the word, starts with L, lackadiddly lackluster lush?"

Rowe clicks his tongue, tapping one finger against his chin in exaggerated thought.

"Aw, that's it! Loser."

With a wink, Rowe snaps up his hand, a jerk of his wrist as he levels his thumb directly at himself. The motion causes one crutch to sway; rebalancing himself with an awkward effort, Rowe breaks out into a mimicry of foppishness, mouth round in surprise before he beams triumphant.

"Guess that makes me the R of this operation, partner. What about you? Want to fight me for it, eh? We can box for it, I can take you. Pansy like you wouldn't last five minutes against me."

Only when Rowe bunches up his fist and gives a mock-jab in the air do you shake yourself out of your daze, and you find yourself smoothly, effortlessly giving in.

"All right," you smile, and the muscles feel like summer, warm and rich and alive. "If you insist, I might find it in myself to be the L again."

Rowe winks.

That night when you sleep, you dream of nothing, straight through. Eight hours later, you rouse to the noise of early-morning cartoons down the hall, with Rowe joining in on the laugh track.

You grin into the pillow, roll over, and close your eyes once more.