♥ Astrid ♥
“I have to go with the team to the manor. Can you hear me, Astrid? I’m going with the team. You’ll be taken to a safe place, but I have to leave. Do you understand?”
I could hear the voice, filtering through the dense fog that covered my mind as I struggled against unconsciousness. It sounded familiar, a voice from a place long ago…before the fog had taken over me. When I opened my eyes, a wall of wispy grey smoke coat my vision, permeating my eyelids and swamping my mind in confusion. Dimly, I could make out a dark shape looming over me, a shape from which that voice seemed to be coming. Who was it…?
“Astrid, baby, answer me. Please.”
There was a fire in my lungs and throat. My head felt like a bass drum being smashed again and again. Woozily, I managed to drive away enough of the fog to make out a pair of blue-green eyes. A name formed on the edge of my mind, and my tongue fought to make it out.
I heard a load noise, like a heavy sigh, and then felt a hand on my brow but was unable to figure out how long it had been there. Making a large effort, I forced my eyes to remain open long enough for me to make out the face in front of me. Josh’s eyebrows were drawn together in concern, his face pale as he looked at me. He was moving his thumb gently over my temple, somehow knowing exactly where the source of my pain was and helping to numb it.
“You’re going to be okay,” he murmured.
“Charlie,” I whimpered, remembering.
Fresh tears squeezed out of my eyes as I tried to hold them back. Josh placed a hand over my mouth lightly, shaking his head as he inclined it to my left. A little confused, I managed to look around the room I was in – and then my eyes widened in surprise. The room was large but not very bright, with several pieces of furniture and a desk that suggested it was some sort of lobby. I had no memory of entering it – there was nothing but the bridge, swinging across the abyss.
“Where am I?”
Josh lifted an eyebrow. His face looked strange, paler than I remember it, his green-blue eyes burning beneath a mess of blonde-brown curls that looked a little damp. Had it been raining? Something by the bridge…
“You don’t remember?”
Hesitating, I twisted my neck slightly to look around, forcing my aching head to think. The fuzziness was still heavy in my mind, and the room swam before me as my eyes struggled to focus. Slowly, several figures came into view, tall and lithe in their dark clothing, the outlines of guns slung over their shoulders. Frowning, I looked at each one, taking in their slightly puzzled expressions as they in turn looked back at me.
One, at least, looked vaguely familiar. “Wulf?” I asked tentatively, scrutinizing the tall, shorthaired man.
He inclined his head. “You don’t remember barging in here and ordering us all to listen to you?” There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “It was only a few minutes ago. You said something about killing the President?”
“Might not be a bad idea,” one of the men muttered, and Wulf slapped him playfully alongside the head.
Cloying. My mind seemed to clear for a moment. “Yeah,” I managed to say, squinting as I tried to think. “He’s got these nuclear weapons and will blow up the United States – and then his drug thing that he’s going to use on anyone – but I don’t think it’ll work…except on Charlie and me, I guess.”
“What?” Josh interrupted, and I closed my eyes, cursing myself. I had been rambling; I hadn’t meant to mention the purgatorium mali, but it had just slipped out with all the words and now the damage was done. Images of Charlie, screaming and broken on the floor, were flooding back to me with full clarity, causing those tears to well up in the corners of my eyes again.
His last words to me. And I had betrayed him.
The mist was swirling around my head again, causing my breath to come shortly and quickly, my pulse pounding in my temples despite Josh’s touch. I could feel the quaver in my breath as I tried to breathe normally, the trembling of my body as I struggled to stay conscious. I couldn’t leave him. Not again. I had to help him – somehow stop Cloying from pulling that trigger…
“She’s slipping,” I heard someone say, and then I saw a dark shape moving forward, felt arms bracing me as my vision failed. What was happening to me? Why did Charlie make me react like this?
Someone was gripping the lapels of my flying jacket, pulling my head close to that pair of bright eyes. They caught my gaze and refused to let me go under while a voice said, “Listen to me, Astrid. I’m going with Wulf to the manor, okay? Can you hear me? This guy – Reagan – he’s going to take you to the DGSE. You’ll be okay there. But you’ve gotta agree, baby. Are you okay? Say something!”
Making a powerful effort, I managed to access my vocal cords long enough to emit a sort of a “Yeah” before my mouth snapped shut. The hands released my shirt, allowing my head to drop back onto something soft. Still conscious but unable to see anything, I tried to concentrate on breathing. In. Out. In. Out.
“All right, let’s go.”
The words came through a haze. The next few moments were equally blurry as I listened to pounding footsteps and sharp tongues as an argument seemed to ensue. Josh was saying something to me, but I couldn’t understand his words. After a long moment of confusion, I could hear the footsteps receding – and finally, a sort of heavy silence fell upon the room.
“Can you hear me?”
A new voice, young and manly. I placed this agent at about twenty-five, but he didn’t sound familiar. Assuming he was the agent in charge of me – what was his name? Josh had said it – I knew I could trust him. Still, I wished I could see his face through the fog that was covering my eyes. All I could manage was a very unladylike grunt to answer his question.
“I’m Isaac Reagan,” the voice continued in one of those calm, even voices that paramedics use and that bug the crap out of me. “Can you…see?”
Another grunt from the fair lady.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“Listen, you’re okay with me. I realize that you’ve been through sort of a lot right now and what I say isn’t going to help, but I just want you to know that if you need something, I’m right here, okay? We’re going to the DGSE. Do you know what that is?”
Still trying to concentrate on breathing, I could feel my mind slipping, his words fading away as he continued speaking. He was probably just talking to give me a sense of comfort, and I appreciated that. It meant that he really was someone who was looking out for me. My thoughts were falling apart, but I didn’t want to fall unconscious again. I felt that I owed that much to Charlie.
Fiercely telling myself to concentrate on something that would keep my mind working, I dwelt on his words for a moment. The DGSE. I knew what that was – and abbreviation of Direction Générale De La Sécurité Extérieure, or “General Board of External Security.” My mind moved back to my espionage classes several years ago, struggling to remember the spy agencies of different countries. The DGSE was French, naturally, so I assumed that Delta had some connections with it. It was less well-known than our CIA, but nowhere near as secret as Delta. So would I be a CIA agent or a Delta agent when I was there?
CIA wouldn’t be so bad…I had a lot of memories connected to them. Training with them at age thirteen – weren’t they surprised to see a teenager with them? Jay was lucky; he had always looked old for his years…But the rest of us had more trouble…Like when we ran into the MI5 people in London…
My head was lolling back on the thing I was lying on, my thoughts so flyaway that I couldn’t keep up with them. Was it the drug that was making my head spin, or just shock and exposure to all that rain? I could dimly sense myself shaking with cold, although I didn’t feel anything at all. Instead, I was burning, a raging fire sliding up my throat into my head, setting my face up in flames and crashing through my senses until the world turned a smoky black.
“You really think you can create an explosion larger than one I can make?”
The voice. Scornful, mocking, grey eyes dancing as he looks at me. His mouth twists into a contemptuous smile as he watches my face, seeing the hesitation there, because I know that I’m not as good with explosives as he is. Still, twelve-year-old Astrid is hardly docile, and so I lift my chin to stare at him.
He laughs, the sound incredulous. Tossing back dark hair that is getting long now, long enough to become a hassle in the field, he fixes me with one of those looks that tell me he sees straight through me. “Why? Because Jay says you can?” When he says “Jay,” his voice takes on a sing-song tone, mocking me.
I feel my cheeks beginning to flush, my mouth opening to automatically protect my hero. Even as I do, he smirks, and I realize this is exactly what he wants me to do. I shut my mouth with a snap, choosing instead to glare at him. “Because I say I can.”
Shaking his dark head, he gives me another cursory glance. “Good luck.”
He’s already turning away, walking with that swinging step that marks him as a new teenager. Thirteen, barely, and he thinks he can lord it over me. Filled with new determination, I make my way to the explosives wing of the training center, seeking help from the one person I can think of who is more skilled than he is. Maybe, with a lot of assistance, I can beat him at his game.
“Will you help me?”
The fifteen-year-old agent arches an eyebrow, fixating me with a sky blue gaze that makes me catch my breath. “Astrid von Shauff, asking for help? I don’t believe it.”
I’m not sure I quite believe it either, but I stand my ground, holding those brilliant eyes until he nods.
“What is it you need?”
Grinning widely, I outline my plan, trying to make it look like I’m not staring as he flicks back golden hair from his tanned face. Try to make it seem normal that he should be flashing me a white-toothed grin as I attempt to say something quirky. Try to act casual as his hands brush against mine while I fumble with the wires. Try not to be too intoxicated by his proximity.
“I thought this was some sort of holiday. Why didn’t you go home to visit?”
I frown. “Why didn’t you?”
The tiniest of lines appears between his eyebrows; only an agent as trained as he is could keep that blank a mask at the personal question. And only an agent as trained and a friend as close to him as I am could notice.
“I…I don’t know.”
Somehow, I knew he felt as I did – that the pull of the agency was sometimes too private. That going home didn’t seem real at this point. I slip my hand into his, trying to make it a sign of sisterly affection, and to my surprise, he squeezes it.
“Josh went. He can say hello to…everyone.”
He frowns, his blue eyes growing shadowy. “Joel will be mad.”
Joel…of course. Nine-year-old little brother, thinking that we’re all off at some sort of boarding school. I find myself wondering if he looks any more like Jay than he did when I left for the agency. That shock of straw-colored hair, the enormous blue eyes that seemed to hold the sky…How long had it been?
My tone is far too casual: Jay stiffens slightly, pulling his hand out of mine and turning back to the contraption before us. I bite my lip, wishing that I could think before I spoke, like I’m supposed to be training to do. Now I’ve trodden on some forbidden path between us, and I make a mental note for the future – Joel is a taboo topic in the presence of this golden-haired, blue-eyed boy.
Sometimes I feel as though we didn’t grow up together, like I haven’t known him since I could walk. It is times like these that he is so distant, so much older than me, that I feel like I’ve known the boy with the grey eyes longer.
The rest of our work is completed in a near-silence, punctuated briefly by curt instructions. I struggle to keep a straight face, instead thinking of the dark-haired, grey-eyed boy as he taunts me in my mind. “You really think you’re better with explosives than I am?” Maybe not – he did get the highest rating of the class, even with all the adults – but I can try. And so I put in a little more effort, responding to commands with a surprising amount of alacrity.
When we finish, a few days later, we take the device to the field the agency uses for testing explosives. He’s already waiting there, tapping a foot and sweeping dark hair out of his eyes in a familiar gesture as we approach him. In his hands is his own bomb, which he probably built completely solo, and on his face is that perpetual smile, as wide as the Grand Canyon.
“Ready to lose?”
Blue eyes flash mockingly. “I’m glad you are.”
I smile. That battle begins. I knew enrolling golden boy would help. Grey eyes meet the blue, and then his shoulders lift in a shrug. Flourishing a hand and bowing low with a contemptuous look in his grey eyes, he steps back and allows us to pass him.
“Ladies first.” There’s a stress on the plural.
A roll of the blue eyes, and then a gesture to me. Taking a deep breath, I walk away from them and place my contraption on the ground. After a few confused minutes of untangling wires and straightening bits and pieces, I have it ready on the ground. I step back to where they stand, pulling the fuse with me. Grey eyes give the wire a disdainful look and then move up to my face as I prepare to blow the fuse.
A hand lands on my shoulder, and I look up into the blue eyes.
“Don’t make me regret I helped you.”
A smile touches my lips again. “I won’t.”
A deep breath, and the flame from my lighter jumps to the wire. I move back, even though I know the fuse is long enough, gripping both of their arms in excitement as my eyes follow the tiny flicker of fire. A very tense silence ensues as the flame seems to take hours to get to the device in the center of the field. And then –
All three of us jump at the noise, my jaw dropping as I watch the bomb – my bomb – combust, sending a ball of fire thirty feet into the air. Arms move around me in a protective gesture, and when I look, it’s not the dark-haired boy. A thrill runs through me, almost matching the pleasure at my accomplishment.
The noise echoes around us, finally disappearing into the still air. For a moment, it is completely silent. The birds have stopped chirping as they try to discover the source of the catastrophic noise, and the three of us still have ringing ears. After almost a minute of this, there’s a derisive voice.
He smirks, flipping his middle finger at me as his grey eyes laugh. I glower at him, struggling to think of something witty to say. Unfortunately, nothing enters my mind, and so I resign myself to the fact that my amazing comeback will come to me in the wee hours of the morning when I try to sleep.
“And you can do better?”
A flash of white teeth, arch of a dark eyebrow. “Watch me.”
Frowning, I watch as he walks up to the debris of my device, kicking it into one small pile and then disregarding it. He fiddles with something on the ground, taking his sweet time with it. The minutes drag on, and I sink to the ground, propping my arms up behind me and leaning back. Tilting my head towards the sun, I begin to lose my focus as he continues to work with his device.
“Can’t be that good if it takes him this long.”
The blue eyes glance down at me, and I shrug. While he probably knows more about explosives than I do, that’s hardly saying anything. Another minute goes by, and then I see the dark head rise as he turns back towards us. The dynamic smile is still on his face as he jogs in our direction.
“She’s gonna blow! Thirty seconds!”
Lift of an eyebrow over blue eyes. “Time bomb at twelve years old? Not bad.”
“I’m thirteen, idiot.”
I stifle a giggle as I watch them glare at each other for a moment. Neither can admit that the other is better, even though one is two years older. They never get along very well, but both are my friends and I can’t imagine life without them. The dark-haired boy I met in training and the golden-haired one I’ve known since birth. Both as close to my heart as the other.
I count inwardly, my eyes on his bomb. Three…two…one…
This time, the noise is colossal. I actually lean back from the field, my ears vibrating as the explosion rockets up at least seventy feet, sending out bursts of blue and white fire because it’s so hot. It’s hardly an atom bomb, but it outdoes mine by a mile. I can’t help but admire the ingenuity, even though I’ve lost.
A glance from grey eyes. “’Wow’? That’s all you have to say to that magnificence?”
He grins at me. ”I won.” His voice is a sing-song again, and I scowl at him, although I don’t really feel angry. ”Jealous, aren’t you, Ass?”
I wince. I can’t help the fact that my name shortens into such a pleasant word, something he discovered within a day of meeting me. Once again, I am comeback-less, so I am forced to glower some more at him as he convulses with laughter at my expression. I turn to golden boy for help only to see that he’s holding back a smile as well.
“I knew you would beat me.” The words come reluctantly.
A grin, sparkling grey eyes. “See, Ass, I knew you listened to me. You knew you couldn’t make a better bomb than me.” His gaze is intense.“You always listen to me, don’t you? Just something about me…you can’t tell yourself to ignore me…”
No. No, I couldn’t ignore him when he gave me an order. And in the end…it killed him.
I faded in and out of consciousness, in and out of reality. Memories swarmed my mind as I fought for reality. Faces blurred before my eyes as I strived to open them. The paramedics, strapping me onto the bed and lifting me into the helicopter, whose drone carried me back into dreamland. I woke again inside as we were flying to see the agent – Reagan – looking at me with an odd expression that makes me wonder if I had been crying out Charlie’s name. Or Jay’s.
And their memory brought back the pain, and so I forced myself to lose all emotion, staring blankly at the wall as we continued to fly in silence. But my thoughts refused to allow me a moment of rest, skyrocketing from one extreme to another as I imagined what Cloying was doing to Pierre. As I thought about what he did to Charlie. As I thought about how he corrupted Jay. As I thought about how Josh was out there to get him, risking his life.
And me, strapped to a cot, helpless.
A lump rose in my throat, and I closed my eyes, struggling to fight the battle against the fever inside of me. It seemed that the drug had bombs of its own, showering my innards with a fire that mounted into my lungs and my heart, tearing me apart. I tried to breathe normally, to concentrate on something that isn’t painful.
Immediately, I was rewarded with Charlie’s face, the desperation in his eyes as he mouths those words at me. “Don’t tell him anything.” The determined look that said he wasn’t going to let me die for him, even if it meant giving up his own life. The fear for himself replaced by a fear for the rest of us. The pain in his eyes as he tried to help me.
And suddenly I realized that I was angry. Angry at Cloying for what he did. And I made a vow that I would make sure Charlie’s death would haunt Cloying for the rest of his life, which I would end very shortly. That I would make him look for me in every dark alley, around every corner, until he couldn’t sleep at night. That would start the moment I was well enough to stand. But for now, it was I that was haunted, by the memory of those tortured grey eyes as they meet my own.
Slowly, so slowly, the tears began to fall through my closed eyelids, like rain that washed through my body and doused the fire within me, the grief conquering the pain of the drug and replacing it with a pain far deeper.
To be continued…