The Next Emergency – 5

Andy sat beside the bed where Leon was sleeping. He wasn’t badly injured and he hadn’t lost too much blood. However, it was severe enough that they wanted to keep him overnight. When he was released, they’d want his arm kept in a sling for a few weeks. He wouldn’t be allowed in the field.

Somehow, Andy couldn’t bring himself to feel upset about that last. He heaved a sigh as he smoothed his hand through Mariya’s fur, focusing on the soft, smooth locks between his fingers. He had so much he needed to tell Leon and very little of it was good. At the same time, he wasn’t ready for his partner to wake yet.

“Hey, Andy Capp,” a soft voice said.

Andy’s eyes flew opened and he bit his lip. Releasing his breath in a huff, he said, “We’re both out of the field.”

“Nate took you out of the field for what you did?” Leon asked, his brows furrowing.

Grimacing, Andy said, “She says it’s not a punishment. It’s… until I come to terms with what I’ve remembered. She wants… My doctor will have to clear me.”

For a moment, Leon simply lay on the bed with a frown on his face. “That make sense,” he said, finally. When Andy tensed, Leon reached out and set a hand on his knee. “Don’t misunderstand me, Andy Capp,” he said, in a gentle tone. “It’s just that… I know that this isn’t easy for you to know. It’ll take some time for you to get your head wrapped around it.”

Andy nodded. In a softer voice, he added, “She wants to see… if maybe the Organization’s doctors can get rid of the conditioning too.”

Leon grimaced.

Dropping his gaze, Andy said, “She… called it a d-dangerous liability. If Dr. Caudill hadn’t been there to call me off…” he trailed off. He could feel himself beginning to panic.

However, Leon surprised him by saying, “Name five things you can see.”

“What?” Andy asked, blinking rapidly. Meeting Leon’s gaze, he said, “You… the window, the trees outside, a lamppost… cars?”

Leon grinned. “Name five things you can hear,” he said.

Although he didn’t understand what Leon was doing, he said, “My voice, the machinery, the public address system, my – my breathing, and – and I can hear my eyelids fluttering. Leon, what are you…”

“Name five things you can feel,” Leon said, nodding encouragingly.

Frowning, Andy shook his head. “Your hand on my knee, Mariya is sitting on my foot…” he trailed off and closed his eyes. “My clothes… I can’t think of anything else.”

“You also aren’t panicking anymore,” Leon said, his voice soft. When Andy looked at him in surprise, he smiled. “We’ll get through this, Andy Capp. Whatever happens, you aren’t alone anymore.”

Tears welled in his eyes, but dashed them away with the back of his hand and smiled. “Thank you,” he breathed. Heaving a sigh, he nodded quickly. “You’re right, but I needed the reminder.”

“That’s why I’m here, partner,” Leon said, nodding.

Heaving a sigh, Andy said, “There was an incursion by ACRE at the Brussels field office.” His voice was soft and his tone serious, but he was perfectly calm as he spoke. “They got away with certain Organization files. The Section Two agents that were sent are trying to figure out exactly which ones.”

“That’s bad,” Leon murmured, scowling.

Nodding, Andy said, “There’s more… Kolya and Kit were both injured in the attack.” His brows furrowed. “Kolya will be out for a couple weeks, but he’s at home for his recovery. Kit… is at OWL medical in Albany. He’s in rough shape, but he’s conscious and the prognosis is good.”

Leon heaved a sigh and flopped back again his bedding. “He’ll be fine,” he murmured. His eyes closed for a moment as he repeated the words.

Nodding, Andy said, “From your lips to the Great Father’s ears.” Heaving a sigh, he threw propriety to the wind and climbed onto the bed, to curl up against Leon. “We’ll all get through this, Leon. ACRE won’t win, whatever files they may have gotten.”

“From your lips,” Leon said, his tone wry. He kissed Andy’s brow and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. In a few moments, Leon had drifted back to sleep. Andy reached down to lift Mariya up beside them. Then – as she curled up against him – he drifted off to sleep as well. If the nurses were bothered by the scene, they also had the good sense not to disturb their slumber. Heaven knew it might be the last true rest they would get for some time.

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The Next Emergency – 4

Leon followed Lorenzi and Authier into the room where the meetings were to take place. He frowned when the pair turned to stare at the doorway. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Andy was standing just outside the room, allowing Mariya to inspect every corner for possible intruders. Turning to the pair of agents, he smiled. “He’ll join us in a moment,” he assured them.

True to Leon’s prediction, Andy joined them as soon as Mariya had finished checking the room for him. “I have both post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attack disorder,” he said, as he began his own check of the room. “I… can’t enter a room unless I know it’s safe. Mariya is trained to check for intruders hiding in corners… among other things.”

“She’s not simply an emotional support dog, then,” Authier said, frowning thoughtfully. “She’s a trained service animal.” When Andy nodded, he continued, “That would mean that your psychological issues are on the level of a disability, Agent Surikov.”

Andy nodded without turning to face them. “Until I was paired with Mariya, I was entirely housebound, Agent Authier,” he said, his voice faint. He shook his head. “It didn’t seem to matter… I could work from home using email and video conference calls. I did my shopping online or by having stores deliver my groceries.”

He gave a weak laugh. Turning to face them, he smiled. “My doctor would even come to my apartment for our sessions,” he said. “It was at her insistence that I got a service dog. That… reopened the world for me. It enabled me to travel to a writer’s conference and… in the process, I met Leon.”

Leon nodded. “He’s come a long way in just three years,” he said, smiling faintly. Changing the subject, he asked, “What security measures do you have in place for the meetings?”

“This area of the hotel will be closed to everyone who isn’t directly connected to the delegates,” Authier said, nodding slightly.

Andy continued his circuit around the room. “And have you… what is the word, Leon? Scrutinized?”

“Vetted?” Leon said, grinning. Andy had been living stateside for nearly seven years, but he still had trouble with certain words and idioms.

“Vetted?” Andy repeated, scowling. At Leon’s nod, he smiled at Authier. “Have you vetted those people who will be allowed in the area quite thoroughly?”

“We left that up to their own governments,” Lorenzi said, shaking his head. “If their own governments trust them…” he trailed off.

“Their own governments may well trust them to do harm to Prince Roderick, Agent Lorenzi,” Andy pointed out, his voice soft. “We shan’t know if that were the case, until we check them all quite thoroughly ourselves. Yes?”

“I’m beginning to see how you came to be an enforcement agent,” Authier murmured.

Andy grimaced. “I was formerly with Vector, Agent Authier,” he said, his voice soft. “That training and… an incident that preceded my leaving the organization are, in fact, the root causes of my psychological issues.”

“What kind of training did they put you through?” Lorenzi asked, frowning slightly.

Andy grimaced and turned away. Changing the subject, he said, “I don’t like these windows. They’re too large and open.” He pointed through the glass, adding, “A sniper could position themselves in that building yonder and have a clear view of the delegates.”

“Curtains?” Leon suggested.

Shaking his head, Andy said, “Wouldn’t stop a determined sniper, however… if the material were of the sort that would block heat signatures…” he trailed off.

“I’ll get in touch the local field office and see if the folks in Section Eight can get us something we can use,” Leon said, nodding.

“You might have someone check that building previous to the meetings, as well,” Andy suggested, glancing at Authier and Lorenzi.

When the time came, Andy and Leon did one last sweep of the room. Leon had a few words with Barcroft, who assured him that everything that could be done had been. The building across from the meeting room had been swept. Everything seemed quite in order.

Satisfied that the delegates attending the meeting would be a safe as they could possibly be made, Andy and Leon went to fetch them from where they had enjoyed breakfast. As they were heading into the conference room, a pretty blond hurried up to Barcroft and spoke with him softly, but urgently.

Andy sent Leon a concerned frown. Nodding once, Leon hung back from the group and the stopped as Barcroft stepped up beside him. “One of the people in King Kahgli’s entourage doesn’t check out,” he said. “Armer finally managed to verify that he’s not who he said he is.”

“Any hint that King Kahgli knows?” Leon asked.

Barcroft shook his head firmly. “From what we’ve been able to learn, she thinks he’s who he’s claimed to be,” he said. “The only reason Armer figured out the truth was that she chased down one stray detail that didn’t fit with the rest of his history.”

Leon nodded and then quickened his pace. “Which one?” he breathed, as he was about to slip into the room.

“Delarn,” Barcroft breathed. Setting a hand on Leon’s shoulder, he added, “I’m sure we don’t want him to know our suspicions. We’ll stay just outside the door, until you call us in.”

Nodding once, Leon stepped over to Andy. “Delarn is our guy,” he breathed. “How do you want to play it?”

Andy chewed at his lip for a moment, watching as the delegates began to settle down in their places around the table. The members of the various entourages either stood or sat behind the person they accompanied. “We need to let him make his move,” Andy breathed. He looked up at Leon. “You stay close to King Thorinn and Rory. I’ll get as close to him as I can without arousing suspicion.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leon said. He sidled around the room, moving in as relaxed a manner as possible. At the same time, he moved over to where King Thorinn was sitting and settled himself against a pole just behind Rory’s seat.

Frowning, just a bit, Rory glanced up at him and arched his brows. When Leon gave him a sunny smile, he heaved a sigh and turned away. Clearly, Rory could sense Leon’s tension. Hopefully, the same would not be true of Delarn.

Almost unconsciously, Leon sought out his partner. He couldn’t help but smile as Andy let Mariya lead him over to where their target was seated with the woman he professed to serve. His complete attention seemed to be on the little dog. He spoke to her softly and coaxingly in Ukrainian, making a great show of attempting to brush her. Anyone who knew her would know it was an act. Fortunately, Delarn didn’t know the little dog or her owner all that well.

Finally, just as the meeting was called to order, Andy managed to wrangle the little dog and began brushing her, kneeling just behind Delarn. Of course, the whole thing was an act, staged to give him an excuse to be near their suspect. Still, Leon thought the performance was masterful from both dog and human.

“We have one matter on the table,” Thorinn said, looking around at those who were gathered. He paused for a moment and then waved at Sereda. “Thus far, Princess Sereda has acted as the representative of the Dwarva to the League of Nations. Are we satisfied with this arrangement? Should we divide our representation, so that she only represents the Dwarva of the Depths? Alternatively, should she remain the representative from the Dwarva and let the other huldrafolk put forth representatives of their own?”

King Velodar, of the elves of the Tree-Decked Mountains cleared his throat politely. “Speaking for my people,” he began, “we don’t feel the need to have specific representation to this… League of Nations, though we would like to be informed of what they are doing.”

Both of the other elven monarchs nodded in agreement with his words. The Elven Elder of the Hidden Valley turned to his dwarven counterpart and added, “Princess Sereda suits our needs quite well as your representative. Does she not?”

“Quite,” Olafur murmured, giving a firm nod.

One of the gremlins left off bouncing in her seat to add, “We’re all fine with things as they stand.” Then her expression turned thoughtful. “Though… maybe we could add some gremlins to your staff?”

“That’s a capitol idea,” a gnomish thane breathed. He sat a little straighter in his chair. In a somewhat louder voice, he said, “That is a capitol idea!”

“It’s certainly a workable solution,” Sereda said, her tone mild. “Other representatives have members of their staff from… states within their nation’s borders. This wouldn’t be so different. If you had concerns, you could communicate them to me through them. I could see that they are informed of what transpires and then pass on word to you.”

“We could certainly try it,” King Merrul said, nodding. He glanced at Thorinn. “A dwarf from each kingdom added to Princess Sereda’s staff would ensure equity in our voice.”

“And keep infighting to a minimum,” Rory murmured.

At that, Thorinn nodded. He glanced around at the assembled kings, nobles and elders. “Each of us shall chose one or two people to send to help staff the offices at the League of Nations,” he said. “Choose wisely, of course, for they must be both trustworthy and knowledgeable of your needs in matters relating to the wider world.”

Edric, representing the Carta chuckled softly. “We’ve already got our representative in your staff, Shirley,” he said, his smile almost teasing.

“Oh, my goodness! Indeed, you have,” Sereda said, her eyes wide.

“That is our decision, then,” King Tindar said. To that, all those assembled replied with words of agreement.

No sooner had that occurred, but Delarn was in motion. Leon acted on instinct as the dwarf flung something at Rory. He threw himself between the dwarf and his target. He felt burning pain in his back, by his shoulder blade. Then, there was a startled cry and a dull thump.

“Barcroft,” Leon called, pushing away from Rory. He grimaced against the pain as he turned to see Andy wrestling with Delarn. The delegates in the room were watching the scene in shock. Agents were rushing into the room and Delarn was struggling to escape from Andy.

The dwarf turned and, in his struggles, cuffed Andy on the cheek. He managed to pull away and almost gained his feet when Andy growled and launched at him. “Andy, no,” Leon cried, knowing that the Conditioned Response had been triggered.

Andy was sitting on the dwarf now, pommeling him with his fists.

“Mir,” Leon cried, knowing that he hadn’t quite gotten the pronunciation correct, but praying that it was close enough.

Caudill echoed him, but got the pronunciation perfect. The affect was both immediate and dramatic. Andy froze in mid-strike and then gave a strangled cry. He scrambled back from Delarn, allowing Barcroft’s people to take him into custody.

Heaving a sigh, Leon went to Andy, who was sitting on the floor with his face buried in both hands, shaking and sobbing. “Andy,” he said, touching him on the arm. “It’s all right. You’re all right, Andy Capp. Just breathe.”

“I killed him,” Andy cried, lapsing into Veligradian. “I didn’t mean it! It was an accident! Oh, my God!”

Frowning, Leon said, “Hey, hey, hey! He’s not dead, just battered.” He forced Andy’s gaze upward and pointed. “See? He’ll be fine!”

Andy gave a shuddering breath and then looked up at Leon, as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Leon?” he breathed. “But… I was just…” he trailed off, then, blinking rapidly. Then, he put a hand to his mouth. “A flashback?”

“What?” Leon asked, blinking in confusion.

Meeting his gaze, Andy said, “I just had a flashback. I – I was in Petrov’s office and… I beat a man to death! And the blood! Oh, my God!” He shook himself and then looked at Leon with wide eyes. “That’s your blood! You’re hurt!” Then, Andy went into what Leon called “paramedic mode” and began tending to the injury.

He batted someone’s hands away, scolding them not to remove the knife, even while he was telling someone else to call for an ambulance. Someone brought a first aid kit and Andy began dressing the wound, binding the knife securely, so that it wouldn’t shift inside the wound and cause more damage.

When the ambulance arrived, Andy handed him off to the paramedics. He heaved a sigh before leaning in to kiss Leon gently. “I’ll come as soon as I can,” he promised. “I need to tend to things here.”

“I know,” Leon said, nodding. He could only smile, however, as the paramedics brought him out of the conference room. Finally, they knew what had happened to trigger Andy’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Killing someone had most certainly been traumatic for the sensitive young man, particularly so hard on the heels of learning that his wife had been killed. Leon was certain there was more to it than Andy had said. However, now that the memories were at the surface, the healing could truly begin. Leon vowed to be with him every step of the way.

The Next Emergency – 3

Andy trailed along behind Leon as they headed into the hotel, where they would be working for the next several days. They were being called upon to help with the security of some dignitaries that were due to speak at an upcoming meeting in the League of Nations. Since there had been threats made, OWL had been called upon to help with security.

Members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also on hand, for the same purpose. Andy was nervous about meeting people from another organization. He’d heard from his cousin how FBI agents could be towards people from Veligrad. Even if their government leaders were shaking hands and smiling at each other now, the war hadn’t been so long ago and people weren’t quick to forget those they’d once called “enemy”.

“All right, Andy Cap?” Leon breathed as he led the way to the front desk.

Andy gave him a weak smile. “I think I might be sick,” he admitted.

Leon stopped to frown at him. He set a hand on Andy’s shoulder as he looked into his eyes. “Take a few deep breaths while I find out where everyone is,” he said, his tone gentle. Even as Andy nodded, Leon pushed him towards a low overstuffed chair that was set off to one side.

Andy watched his partner step up to the desk clerk. Then, he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. Mariya settled herself on his feet, near at hand if he needed the extra comfort that petting her provided. She gave a soft bark and his eyes flew opened.

“Sorry,” an older man with a full dark beard and warm brown eyes said. “I didn’t mean to startle her. I just… you seemed distressed.”

“You didn’t startle her,” Andy said, reaching down to smooth Mariya’s fur. He gave a weak smile. “She’s trained to warn me if anyone approaches me that might catch me unawares. I… was actually trying to not have a panic attack.”

Blinking, the man settled down in a nearby chair. “Are you all right now?”

“I believe so,” Andy said, nodding. He shrugged and then rubbed a hand over his brow. “We’re supposed to be working with a team of FBI agents and… I think I let my cousin’s horror stories about them get to me.”

“You’re one of the agents from the Organization for Worldwide Law-enforcement?” the man said, blinking.

Andy gave a nervous laugh. “You… would be with the FBI,” he said, nodding. That was just the sort of luck he would have, after all. Rubbing a hand over his brow, he released a sigh. Then, he stood and extended his hand. “Andriy Pavlovych Surikov, with the O.W.L.”

“S.S.A. Devin Lorenzi,” he replied, shaking Andy’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Agent Surikov.”

“Likewise,” Andy assured him. He waved towards Mariya and added, “This is my service dog, Mariya. My partner went to see where we were meant to check in with you and with the delegates we’re all meant to be escorting.”

“I was just sent to get the two of you, actually,” Lorenzi said. He smiled when Leon stepped over to them. “You must be Leon Reilly.”

“Nate told you about us?” Leon said, blinking in surprise.

Lorenzi smiled, a ready, easy expression. “Only the basics,” he said. Turning to Andy, he asked, “Ready to get going?”

Andy rubbed a hand over his brow. “Sure,” he breathed. He followed Lorenzi through the hotel lobby and to the doorway of a small room next to the hotel’s dining room. He blinked when he saw two familiar figures among the strangers.

He very nearly stepped into the room, but he froze just at the threshold, unable to move. He heaved a sigh. “Mariya, check,” he said, signaling the dog. She snuffled and headed into the room. She made a circuit, sniffing at all the corners. After giving a soft humphing bark at each of the agents to tell Andy they were armed, she returned to his side.

Secure in the knowledge that the only people in the room were those in plain sight, Andy followed Leon and Lorenzi inside. Then, he smiled faintly at the two surprising familiar figures. “Rory,” he said. “It’s so good to see you again.” He nodded politely and said, “Thorinn.”

“You know each other?” one of the agents said, frowning.

At the same time, Thorinn shook his head. “Andy! Leon! Whatever are you doing here?”

Leon chuckled. “We manage the Kinderhook Manor,” he said, shrugging.

“Where we celebrated our anniversary,” Rory said. He had a speculative look on his face as he added, “These agents said we were waiting for two enforcement agents from the Organization for Worldwide Law-enforcement… Yourselves?”

“Indeed,” Andy agreed. He glanced at Thorinn. “Managing the Manor is… sort of a cover story,” he explained. “Our organization uses it as a secure location for agents to lie low or take holiday.”

“It’s also a great way to raise some capital,” Leon said, nodding. Glancing at Andy, he said, “Like your books.”

After the explanation had been given, introductions were made. If the agents thought it was odd that their organization would keep a bed and breakfast or that they allowed someone like Andy in the field, they were too tactful to say so. Instead, the leader of the team, Agent Aidan Barcroft, simply set out explaining what security measures were already in place.

While he went over the details with Leon, Andy checked the room for listening devices or hidden cameras. He did find one camera, but it was obvious that had been put in place by the hotel itself. Once he’d verified that the room was secure, he returned to Leon’s side. “The notes that Nate gave us mentioned that there had been threats made?”

“We aren’t certain who would have cause to threaten Rory yet,” Thorinn said, nodding. “However, they are attempting to sway the vote on a certain matter by doing so.”

“That was why you were brought in,” Lorenzi said. “Our superiors felt that your organization had more experience in such matters than we did.”

“To what, exactly, is the vote pertaining?” Andy asked, shaking his head.

Thorinn heaved a sigh. “As it stands, there is currently one representative to the League of Nations from all Huldrafolk,” he said. His brows furrowed. “Some would prefer that representation was divided, either based on race or on geographical region.”

Rory spoke up, his voice soft, to add, “Thorinn is perfectly happy with how things currently stand.”

“But someone wants him to vote for more representation,” Leon guessed. When Thorinn nodded, his brows twitched. “Are they asking you to push for the former or the latter?”

For a moment, Thorinn simply frowned at Leon. His tone was curious as he said, “The latter. Do you think that may be significant?”

“If it was a matter of feeling that the current way of doing things failed to take the needs and desires of different races into account,” Leon said, “you might be someone they’d try to influence.”

“Because he’s married to a gnome,” Rory said, nodding. “They aren’t trying to get him to be sympathetic to their cause, however. They mean to force his hand.”

“Ask yourself: who would gain by having the representation divided by region,” Andy said, shrugging. “Whomever that is will, likely, be the one behind the threat.”

Agent Barcroft nodded. “That makes sense,” he agreed. Turning to Thorinn and Rory, he added, “I’ll have Armer begin looking into those parties.” Then, he nodded at Leon and Andy. “Meanwhile, Lorenzi and Authier can show you the meeting chamber. We’d like your opinions on the security measures we’re already taking for the talk.”

“Sounds good,” Leon said.

At that moment, Andy’s comm warbled and he pulled it out. After assembling it, he said, “Surikov here. Is that you Kim?”

“It is,” she said, her voice light and relaxed. “I just wanted to let you know that everything is fine in Brussels at the moment. It’ll be a while before they come back, but they’ll be back as a group.”

“Thank you,” Andy said. He heaved a sigh of relief. “That’s good news, Kim. Thank you for the update.”

“Not a problem, chickee,” she replied. Then, the comm went dead and Andy tucked it away once again.

“Problem?” Agent Barcroft asked, frowning.

Leon shrugged. “We’re not on the list of those fully informed,” he admitted. “However, the agents that were originally to be sent here were called away to deal with a problem in Brussels.”

Andy nodded. “A security team had been dispatched there from the Albany Field Office previously,” he added. He shrugged. “We’re a small field office, Agent Barcroft.”

“It’s nice that you were concerned for your co-workers,” Authier said, his voice low. “I’m glad to hear that they’re all right.”

“Actually,” Andy said, grimacing, “Kim just said they’d be back as a group, not that they were all right.” He looked at Leon. “Careful wording, yes?”

“Definitely,” Leon agreed. He glanced at Authier and shrugged. “No one was killed, but… someone was hurt and she can’t give us details, so… she didn’t say that in so many words.”

“It can’t be easy,” Dr. Caudill murmured, “having to read between the lines all the time.”

“It’s part of the job,” Leon said, shrugging.

Andy smiled. “For us, anyway,” he added. Then, he smiled at Lorenzi and Authier. “However, we have work to do here and, for the moment, our colleagues in Brussels must take a backseat to our current concerns.”

“Right,” Lorenzi said, waving towards the door. “We’ll show you the meeting room.”

The Next Emergency – 2

“Worried about Kolya?”

Andy glanced over at Leon with a faint frown. “I’m worried about all of them,” he said, his voice soft. He heaved a sigh before giving a slight shrug. “Perhaps more about Kolya than the others, because I consider him a friend.”

Leon nodded. He’d noticed that the pair had become close in the last couple years. When they worked in the field with the members of Section three, Kolya kept a close eye on Andy. When Leon had asked, Andy had said something about training, but he’d been vague on the details. Leon trusted Andy, so he pushed any feelings of jealousy to the back of his mind. They were friends, nothing more.

“What kind of training did they give him?” Leon asked, his voice soft.

For a moment, Andy didn’t answer. Then, when he spoke, his voice was soft and Leon knew it was something he shouldn’t mention to others. “He was part of the Program, like my cousin. They trained him as an assassin,” he said. His brows furrowed. “When the Program folded… he was transferred into Vector, where he acted as a security agent.”

“Like he does now, then?”

Andy grimaced and shook his head. “Sort of, but not really,” he said. Glancing at Leon, he said, “I’ve told you that I wasn’t previously trained to protect myself, outside of the Conditioned Response?”

“Right,” Leon said, nodding. “You were meant to do your job without anyone noticing, so they didn’t feel the need to give you firearms training or self-defense training of any kind.”

“On jobs when there might be the need,” Andy said, nodding, “they’d send a security agent with us.” He looked over at Leon and chuckled. “Kolya was called upon to watch my back more than once, Leon. I knew him before we met on this side of the Pond, as they say.”

That was news to Leon. They’d acted like perfect strangers when he’d introduced them. “Does Nate know?”

“Daresay no,” Andy said, chuckling wryly. He shrugged. “With Vector… you didn’t let your superiors know someone was a friend. If you did, they made sure you never saw each other again.”

“It’s not like that here,” Leon said, shaking his head. When Andy frowned at him, his expression one of doubt, Leon scowled. “It’s not.”

“Right,” Andy said, turning his gaze back to the road ahead. “Except when you’ve been trained together. Then, they tell you point blank not to try to contact each other… ever.”

Leon blinked at Andy’s words and then chewed at his thumbnail for a moment. He remembered being told that very same thing at the conclusion of his own training. In fact, he’d never seen any of his fellow trainees again, not even after a decade with OWL. “I wonder why that is,” he mused.

“Friendship can be a liability in our line of work,” Andy said, his voice soft. Then, he shrugged and sent Leon a warm smile. “It can also be an asset.”

Nodding, Leon reached out to pat his knee. “They’ll be all right,” he said, his voice soft.

“From your lips to the Great Father’s ears,” Andy murmured in reply.

The Next Emergency – 1

“Andy,” Kim said, peering into the office. “Leon! I’m so glad that you’re both in.”

Pausing in his typing, Andy tugged his glasses downward to frown at Kim. At the same time, Leon gave her a charming smile. “What’s up there, Kim Bear?” he asked.

“Aren’t you the clever one,” Kim said, rolling her eyes.

Andy smirked. “Truly,” he said. “Homer himself walks among us.”

“I’m a poet and I well know it,” Leon said, winking broadly. “I make a rhyme every time.”

“Enough,” Andy said, shooting him a glare. Turning back to Kim, he said, “Did you need us for something?”

“Nate said she needed to see you in her office,” Kim said, nodding. “She’s got something major that needs looking into and you’re the only qualified agents handy.”

“Not surprising, seeing as we’re the only Section Two agents in the Albany Field Office,” Leon said, as he got to his feet.

Andy grimaced, as he followed his partner’s example. “We can’t have a crisis,” he said, only partly teasing. “My schedule is already full.”

“Good luck with that excuse,” Leon said, fighting back a smile. He sent a jaunty wave in the direction of Angie as they swept past her desk. He rapped on the door to Nate’s office, waiting only a moment before she invited him in.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said, nodding as Leon opened the door. She smiled at Andy. “I’m the only one here, Andy. You can come on in.”

Andy fidgeted a bit before he followed his partner into the room. “Kim said there was some sort of emergency?” he said, as he settled down at the table which dominated the room. Leon sat down beside him, leaning to one side comfortably.

Nate frowned at them for a moment before she joined them at the table. “I’d like the both of you to escort some important dignitaries to a meeting in Washington,” she said. “Emily will run the Manor in your place.”

She met Andy’s gaze when he bit his lip. “She will also keep an eye on Martyn while you are both out of town,” she added. “That way, he won’t miss any school.”

Nodding, Andy asked, “When do we leave?”

“Right now,” she said. When both of them looked at her sharply, she shrugged. “The agents that were going to play escort were called away due to an emergency in Brussels,” she explained. “Right now, you two are the only agents with the proper clearance in the area.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Leon said, nodding.

As he moved to his feet, Andy also stood. “I’m supposed to finish the edits for chapter eighteen,” he said, scowling.

She nodded. “Bring it with you and email it as soon as you can,” she said. “Once you join up with your principals, they are your primary focus.”

“Understood,” Andy said. Then, he followed Leon back out of the office. “What’s going on in Brussels?” he murmured. “Isn’t that where our section three team was sent?”

“Yes and I don’t know,” Leon said, his voice soft. He beckoned to Kim and said, “Can you find out the situation in Brussels? Keep it on the downlow?”

“You got it,” she breathed, nodding. Giving them a wan smile, she held out their go-bags. “Good luck and stay safe,” her voice carrying in the normal way. “Your tickets are in the front pockets of your bags.”

“Thanks, Kim Bear,” Leon said, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “You’re a peach!”

Andy smirked and rolled his eyes. “Come on, Lover,” he said, catching Leon by the shirt sleeve and dragging him towards the door. He knew they could trust Kim to find out if their co-workers were all right. Whatever happened in Brussels, it couldn’t be good – not if it involved members of Section Three and now had Section Two agents being called away to deal with it.

Taking a Moment to Relax

Once they had finished cleaning up from the fight, things became rather dull, so far as Liesel was concerned.  The Stars might consider themselves to be totally different from the Crosses, with their own community and their own rules for governing it, but Liesel couldn’t see any difference.  Both groups wanted to talk everything to death.  The only good thing about the Stars was that they didn’t expect kids to stay in the meeting.  That meant that they were allowed to go out to the playground near the community center.

It turned out to be the same park they’d visited with Konrad, where they’d first met David.  This time, they were allowed to see the whole playground, since they didn’t have to stay where Konrad could see them.  Liesel found the large climber that Markus had played on during their first visit and climbed up to a platform with two slides coming from it.

“Hey, Olivia,” she said, grinning at the other girl.  “I didn’t know you were here.”

Olivia nodded.  “Daddy told Mommy to keep us outside during the meeting,” she said.  Then, she shook her head.  “I didn’t know why, but them Mommy said there was a fight!”

“Everyone’s all right,” Liesel said, nodding.  Her brows furrowed and she shook her head.  “Mr. David mentioned that there was a map of gateways, like the one over in the forest there.”

“It’s in the book that the Elders keep,” Olivia said, nodding.  Her brows furrowed and she shook her head.  “Most of them are gone, though.  They got closed or broken.”

“How do you break a doorway?” Frieda asked, shaking her head.

Olivia shrugged.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I just know they broke somehow.  Mr. Malcolm was telling Daddy about it.  Crosses closed some of them, he said, but a lot more were broken.”

Liesel hummed to herself.  Then, she sat on the slide.  At the bottom, she looked up at Konrad.  “How do you break a doorway?” she asked, shaking her head.  After a moment, she seemed to think better of the question and added, “I mean… the magic doorways, that lead to the Otherworld.  How could one of them get broken?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Konrad said, shrugging.  He ruffled her hair and said, “We’ll work on the problem together, later.  Markus might be able to get a copy of their book.”

“Why Markus?” Frieda asked, as she reached the bottom of the other slide.  “Why not you or Opa?”

Konrad smiled.  “If these Elders are anything like the ones back home, they’ll figure that Staffs are the ones that do research,” he said, nodding.  “Markus is our staff, so they might lend him a copy of the book Olivia mentioned.”

Frieda nodded and then scampered over to where Markus was playing with Johannes.  It was a large ball-shaped climber with webbing strung between the larger points of it.  Johannes was climbing around in the webbing, pretending to be a spider.  Markus was pretending to be a fly that was trying to get free of the webbing.

“Do you want to borrow the portal book from the Eden community Elders?” she asked, frowning up at him.

He climbed up to perch on one of the large green beads at the juncture of several bars.  “Yeah, sure,” he said, nodding.  He looked over at Johannes.  “Do you want for me to borrow it?”

“I think we need to see it,” Johannes said, his expression serious.  Then, he looked at Frieda and said, “Do you want to be a pretty butterfly?  Come into my web!”

“Pass,” Frieda called, as she ran back over to the big climber.  She climbed up the side, using the hand and footholds.  Then, she grinned at Olivia and Liesel.  “Johannes is pretending to be a spiddy spider,” she said.

Olivia shook her head.  “Why’s he wanna be a spider?” she asked.  She made a face and added, “Spiders are icky!”

“I think it’s because that dome has webbing in it and it makes him think he’s a giant spider in a giant nest,” Frieda said.  She hopped onto the platform and then said, “I don’t want to pretend to be stuck, though.”  Then, she went down the slide.  She was just hopping to her feet when she heard Opa calling her and her sister and brothers.

She sprinted over to the entrance of the playground.  Once she was there, she caught Opa by the hand.  “Is the boring stuff over?” she asked.  “Markus wants to borrow book.”

“The one that talks about the doorways,” Markus said, glancing over at David.  He adjusted his glasses and shrugged.  “It might help us know how everyone here became tainted.”

“And more about the doorways,” Frieda said, nodding.

“Not a bad idea,” David said, nodding.  He smiled at Konrad and nodded.  “I’ll clear it with the Elders and then Markus can borrow my copy.”

“Thank you,” Johannes said, grinning.  He looked up at Konrad and spread his hands.  “Why do they keep forgetting?” he asked.

“Because it’s not how they do things,” Konrad replied, lifting one shoulder.  He smiled at David.  “The Cross is in charge of things like this, even if he is only seven years old.”

“Right,” David said.  He chuckled and looked down at Johannes.  “Didn’t keep you from skipping a meeting, though.  Did it?”

“It’s not my fault you didn’t invite me to stay,” Johannes said.  He looked up at Opa and said, “I was a spider, Opa.”  He pretended that his pointer fingers where the spider’s mouth, waving them back and forth and making clicking noises.

“No spiders in the car,” Opa said, as Liesel and Frieda screamed and hid behind Konrad.  He chuckled and then shook David’s hand.  “I’ll get in touch with you about that book,” he said.

“Sure,” David said, nodding.  Then, he called for his own children.  “Time for lunch, kids,” he said, as Josh and Olivia ran up.  “Say goodbye to your friends.”

“We’ll see them again, right?” Olivia said, frowning.

Frieda grinned at Olivia and nodded.  “We visit here every summer,” she said, her tone certain.  “Even if you don’t see us again this summer, we’ll be back next year.”

Olivia grinned and then hugged Frieda.  Turning to Liesel, she hugged her as well.  “I hope you can come to the founders’ festival next month, at least.”

“Yes,” Liesel said.  Then, she giggled and danced back from Olivia.  Waving, she said, “Enjoy your lunch, Livie.  We’ll see you again soon.”  Then, she scampered off towards where Opa had parked the van.

A Plan of Action

The next day, they had a quick breakfast, then Opa took them out to the barn to meet with the others once again.  “This is not how I imagined your summer with me,” Opa said, as they all got out of his car.

Konrad shrugged.  “I’m sure that Tevas never imagined that we’d have to face down a horde of Singers when he took us camping,” he said, his voice soft.  He shook his head.  “Unfortunately, this is the life that we’ve got.”

“At least it’s never boring,” Liesel said, shrugging.  She scampered ahead of them to hold the door for everyone.  Then, she followed them inside.  Malcolm was already there with Ainsley.  David was there, as was Ryan.  There were also several other people that she didn’t know by name, but she recognized them for the previous night.

“You all know why we’re here,” David said, addressing the group.  His brows furrowed.  “I don’t think any of us suspected there was more to this than… just a misunderstanding.”

“We know different now,” someone grumbled.  Liesel looked over as an older man shook his head and glanced over at Ainsley.  “A Hammer, attacking her own Star…” he trailed off for a moment.  “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Never thought I’d see the day one of us dragged outsiders into our disputes,” an elderly woman said.  She looked over at Opa and shook her head.  “They had no business putting a portal in your garden, Richard.”

“Grandson took care of it,” Opa said, ruffling Johannes’s hair.  “I’m more concerned with the here and now.  Do we have an idea how many we’ll be dealing with?”

Malcolm grimaced.  “Are we assuming everyone in the Eden Community aside from those gathered here has been tainted?” he said.  When Opa shrugged, he grimaced.  “With that assumption in place, they’ll outnumber us.”

“Good times,” Liesel said, grinning up at Konrad.

He grimaced.  “Not so much, no,” he countered.  He heaved a sigh and shoved his hands into his pockets.  Turning to David, he frowned thoughtfully.  “How much do you figure we’ll be outnumbered by?” he asked.

“Going by the same assumption as Malcolm, it’ll be something like four to one,” David said, nodding once.  Then, he shrugged.  “It may not be a valid assumption, though.  We might find that, the moment we start purifying them, and the inevitable reaction starts among them, a bunch of them are actually on our side.”

“From your lips to the Great Father’s ears,” Markus murmured.  He looked around at everyone.  “Would someone please tell me that we’ve got some sort of plan in place?”

“Spoken like a proper Staff,” Ryan said.  He shrugged.  “Right now, we know that everyone will be gathering at the community center.  The Elders have called a meeting and, in fact, we’re supposed to be there…” he trailed off to glance at his watch, before he finished the thought.  “In about twenty minutes.”

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Picking up the Pieces

Once they got back to the barn, Frieda and Liesel sat down near Ainsley.  She was still very upset over what had happened.  Frieda knew, from her own experience, that it might help to talk about it with someone.  She gave the girl a faint smile.  Ainsley was about the same age as she was, with brown hair that just brushed her shoulders.  It was pinned back with barrettes on each side, but they were crooked.  Her tee shirt was a bit dirty and there was a bump on one knee that was also dirty.

“Do you want to borrow my brush?” Frieda offered, opening her little handbag.  Handing Ainsley the brush, she added, “So that you can fix your hair?”

“Thanks,” Ainsley said, taking the brush.  She tugged the barrettes out of her hair and then began smoothing her hair, while Malcolm tended to the bump on her knee.  As she reclipped her hair, she shook her head.  “I asked her wear you were and… she got really angry,” she said, looking down at Malcolm.

Heaving a sigh, Malcolm nodded.  “I’m sorry that happened, Ainsley,” he said, his voice soft.

Frieda took the brush and tucked it back into her bag.  “That happened inside the cabin?” she asked.  When Ainsley nodded, she asked, “What were you doing outside?”

Ainsley rubbed at her eyes.  Shrugging, she said, “I wanted to find Malcolm and – and Theresa was scaring me, so I sneaked out.”  She looked down at her knee, which was cleaned up and bandaged now.  “She knocked me down and… she seemed so angry!  I thought she was going to hurt me.  I just… I don’t know what happened.  All of sudden, there was blood.”

“Is your ring activated?” Johannes asked, pointing at her hand.  When she looked at him in surprise, he held up his own hand.  “I have one too, but it’s not awake yet.”

Nodding slowly, Ainsley looked down at the ring on her hand.  “My uncle – Malcolm’s father – activated it,” she said, her voice faint.  She looked at Johannes.  “You mean… my ring did something to Theresa?”

“It’s meant to protect you,” Johannes said, shrugging.  “If Theresa was trying to hurt you… it makes sense that your ring did something.”

“They make arrows,” Konrad said, his voice soft.  When all eyes turned to him, he shrugged.  “Flaming arrows, apparently.  At least, that’s why the Elder Sword back home said.  It’s why they teach the Crosses archery.”

Ainsley closed her eyes for a moment and then shook her head.  “I saw some kind of flash of light,” she said.  “Then, there was blood and… I think that I screamed.  Then, I realized that it was Theresa’s blood.”

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Something Unexpected

It took quite a bit of convincing to get Opa to stay home.  He finally agreed only because Konrad promised that none of his younger siblings would be alone at any time during the operation.  Now that they were creeping through the trees, Liesel was wishing that Opa hadn’t let them go at all.

There was hardly any light from the moon.  Between the tiny sliver that was left of it and the scattered clouds, the forest was dark.  Then, there was the ground cover under the trees.  It was thick with brush and brambles.  Even seeing each other was difficult.  Seeing someone farther away than a few yards would have been impossible.  Any other time, Liesel might have been grateful for the natural cover.  Not tonight, though.  Tonight, it made her uneasy.  If she could hide, so could their enemies.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when Konrad touched her on the arm.  “Quietly,” he said, his voice hardly louder than a breath.  He pointed through the trees.  “I can see the cabin ahead of us.”

Liesel heaved a sigh and nodded.  She should have remembered that Konrad would be able to see.  She was blind without the light.  His vision was exactly the opposite.  In this darkness, he could see far better than he could in the daytime.  “Any activity?” she breathed.

He nodded once before he moved ahead of her, stepping carefully through the thick underbrush.  Liesel followed him as closely as she could manage.  Behind her, she could feel more than see the others.  Malcolm, David and Ryan had come with them.  Malcolm was keeping a close eye on Markus and Frieda, while David looked out for Johannes.

The wind ruffled through Liesel’s hair and she caught the faintest whisper on the breeze.  “Beware the Dark Ones,” the wind warned.  When she silently asked where they were, the wind answered, “All around you.”

She tensed and caught Konrad by the back of his jacket.  Her brother’s eyes seemed to glow as he turned to face her.  “Trouble,” she told her, her voice faint and her tone calm.  “Dark Ones are around us… somewhere.”

Konrad breathed a curse and glanced to the left and then the right.  Finally, he nodded and pointed forward.  “Straight ahead,” he said, speaking into her ear.  “Stop when you reach the edge of the trees.”

At her nod, he slipped away, moving on to the next person in their party and passing on her warning.  Liesel didn’t linger to hear them ask how he knew of the danger.  If they just thought about it for a moment, they already knew the answer.

Liesel slowed to a stop as she came to the edge of the trees.  A moment later, Frieda and Johannes joined her.  David was close behind.  She frowned at Frieda.  “Where’s Markus?” she breathed into her sister’s ear.

“He and Malcolm ran into trouble just as Konrad got to me,” Frieda replied, her tone vaguely annoyed.  “Konrad sent me on ahead.  He said that he’d help them.”

“I don’t like it,” Johannes whispered.

David gave a wry laugh.  “No one asked you to like it, pup,” he said.  He nodded once as Ryan arrived on the scene.  “The others?”

“They’re coming,” Ryan reported.  He heaved a sigh and shook his head.  Touching Johannes on the sleeve, he said, “How are you with healing?  Can you manage one?”

“Depends on how bad it is,” Johannes said, shrugging.  “Markus or Konrad?”

“Konrad,” Ryan said, scowling.

Johannes grimaced.  As the Sword, their brother tended to think of everyone else but himself.  When he got hurt, it was seldom a minor injury.  Johannes was about to speak when they heard a shrill cry from the cabin.

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More from the meeting…

Continuing right where I left off..

**

Johannes nodded and then looked around at the group.  “You aren’t the only group that’s got splitting happening, though,” he said, shaking his head.  “It’s happening in the Haven communities too.”

When Ryan frowned, Konrad said, “He’s right.  Our parents left their home community because they were against marriage between Defenders and Crosses – even other Defenders.  You were expected to marry someone from among the Haven families, but not someone that held their family’s gifts.”

Frieda blinked and then looked at Konrad.  “The elders where we live don’t mind,” she said.

“No, they don’t,” Konrad agreed.  Looking at David, he said, “They even encourage it, since it makes those with the gifts in the next generation that much stronger.”

The Thurman Lance sighed and shook his head.  “When will it end?” he asked.  “Why can’t we have disagreements without it leading to splits that… we’ve considered each other enemies.  My cousins want to kidnap your Cross to punish him for stopping our Sword when… they were in the wrong from the start.”

“Why did they open a portal in Opa’s garden in the first place?” Liesel asked, shaking her head.  Her brows furrowed.  “Were they after us or Opa or Tevas or… was it just something they felt compelled to do?”

It was Ryan who answered.  “Someone found a map that contained the doorways,” he said.  He looked over at Liesel.  “You saw the one that was near the park?  There are others and each one leads to another part or level of the Otherworld, where the spirits dwell.”

“All right,” Markus said, frowning.  “What’s that got to do with opening portals?”

“If they open the right portal,” Ryan said, “they believe it will lead to the level of the Otherworld where the Snow Queen can be found.”  While they stared at him in shock, he nodded. “The problem is that the map only has the portals marked on it.  It doesn’t show any of the physical landmarks.”

“So, they don’t really know which portal to open,” Konrad said, his voice soft.  “They open a portal where the map shows one and try to figure out where it leads… to try to get their bearings.”

“Because the Cross families have closed enough of the doorways on the map that we can’t find enough of them to use as landmarks,” the Thurman Lance murmured.

Johannes frowned at Ryan and said, “I’ve got a question about that song you were singing.”

“The Power Disruption Song,” he said, his voice soft.  “It makes you feel the way it does because it changes the oscillations of your aura and disrupts your magic.”

For a moment, Johannes just stared at Ryan, blinking.  He looked over at Konrad and his brows furrowed.  Frieda knew exactly why, too.  Their Elders were very firm in the fact that they did not work magic.  They barely tolerated the songs being called spells.  They corrected anyone who made the mistake of calling it magic almost obsessively.

As Johannes turned back to Ryan, he said, “It’s magic?”

“What did you think it was?” David asked, frowning.  “Just singing doesn’t do very much, you know?  It’s the specific sequence of notes and tempo that make the spells work.  That’s magic.”

“Our Elders don’t allow us to call it magic,” Konrad said, shrugging.  “It’s an ability and a gift of the Great Father, but… they’re really adamant about it not be magic.”

“That’s because of how the wizards have treated us,” the Thurman Lance murmured.  He looked at Johannes and shook his head.  “What were you going to ask?”

“That’s the language the Singers use,” Johannes said, shaking his head.  “How do you all know it?  Is it related to the reason why our singing bothers you the way that theirs does us?”

“It’s the language of the spirits,” Ryan said, blinking.  His brows furrowed.  “All of our spell songs are in that language.  You mean yours aren’t?”

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