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Part One: Big Bang Theory
Thiago idly mulled over his most recent assignment as he fiddled restlessly with his napkin. It had all the makings of a disaster waiting to happen, and Thiago could barely keep himself from cringing when he thought over the details.
The Organization ordered him to leave Argentina and meet with five other operatives in America. They were to form a team in order to track down a rogue covert called, simply, the Archer.
What kind of pelotudo name was that, anyway?
Thiago drew in a deep breath and chastised himself almost immediately for thinking that way. If the Organization thought this was a big enough threat to warrant a joint effort of this sort, then Thiago knew he should take it more seriously. He and the men he was supposed to meet were trained to be self-sufficient. They were trained to be loners; solitary warriors with no fallback and no safety net. If their handlers thought the only road to success was a rare joint effort between not two or three, but six highly trained agents, then this was a serious matter indeed.
His blue eyes moved slowly over the other patrons of the café, observing them carefully. He had no idea who he was meeting. He knew they were all male, but he had no other information save for the names of the town and the greasy spoon in which he was to wait. It was standard procedure, but Thiago was far out of his comfort zone here in the heartland of America. It was all he could do to hide his accent, much less blend in to the unfamiliar territory. He would much rather have been on the streets of Catamarca in the north of Argentina. Killing something, preferably. He would rather be doinganything but counter-intelligence. Thiago despised counter-intelligence. He preferred the action-oriented aspects of his job.
He shifted in his seat and glanced around the room for perhaps the hundredth time. Normally he would have been sitting in the corner like a good little spy, protecting his back and watching the room discreetly. But today Thiago sat in the middle of the little dining area with his back to the door, tearing his napkin into strips and sipping at a mug of coffee every so often. Today he didn't want to be spotted first by his fellow spooks, and behaving like a trained agent was the surest way of making that happen.
Thiago didn't like working with others, and he consoled himself with the fact that he'd already spotted two of his soon-to-be associates--they had each chosen to sit at tables in or near the corners--and Thiago could observe them freely.
One of them was a younger man with round spectacles and longish brown hair, streaked with blond highlights. Even sitting down, Thiago could tell he was short, probably a little over five and half feet. He looked harmless enough. There was nothing particularly outstanding about him, except perhaps for his crooked nose that had obviously been broken once upon a time and his rather outlandish way of dressing. He wore ripped jeans and a vintage punk rock T-shirt, complete with wristbands at his forearms and simple silver rings on almost every finger. His fingernails, Thiago noticed, were painted black. Thiago examined him with interest. He didn't look like the type to be in this business. Perhaps that was the point.
Thiago gave the man one last discreet look and then turned his attention to the man in the other corner. He was much larger, probably an inch or three over six feet, and well built. His muscles were clearly defined under the long-sleeved dress shirt he wore. He was handsome too, with short-cropped brown hair and perhaps a day's growth of facial hair. Even though he sat calmly reading a newspaper, one foot resting on his knee and bouncing to some internal tune, he looked entirely unapproachable. There was an air about him that screamed trained killer; dangerous and capable and ice cold.
Thiago thought briefly that if he looked like that, he'd sit with his back to the wall everywhere he went too.
He turned his attention to his own reflection and examined himself critically. He wondered what impressions these other men were forming about him. Pale blue eyes stared back at him appraisingly. For a 40 year-old spook he didn't look so bad. A myriad of scars covered his left arm all the way up to his neck, faded reminders of the time he'd lost a fight with a storefront window in his youth, but his body had remained remarkably unmarred otherwise. His hair had turned blond from all his time in the sun, and his skin was tanned and slightly weathered. The goatee he sported was blond as well, with hints of red and gold amidst the touches of gray. Most of his fellow South Americans thought him a yanqui because of his light coloring. Sometimes it helped with his missions south of the equator. Other times it found him hanging upside down in a warehouse on a dock in Cartagena.
"Anybody know another word for 'bellicose'?" someone asked suddenly, breaking the silence and actually making Thiago jerk slightly. "Ten letters," the kid at the far wall added, looking around the café with his pen held in the air expectantly. "Starts with a P? No? I think this thing is in Russian or something," he muttered as he turned his attention back to his crossword puzzle without receiving any aid.
Thiago stared at the man and found himself smiling slightly as he examined him.
He was a possibility. He was younger, possibly in his early twenties, and his hair and eyes were the same exotic brown that seemed to change from nearly auburn when the right light hit, to raven black in the shadows. The chameleon-like quality of it struck Thiago as something that must be useful to an agent. His most striking feature, though, was his high cheekbones, like his face had been chiseled from marble. They gave him an exotic quality that Thiago found hard to pinpoint. He wore faded jeans and a plain black T-shirt with scuffed cowboy boots and a drab green military surplus jacket that hung loosely from his wiry shoulders.
That made a probable third man, even though this one didn't appear to be observing anything but his crossword, but Thiago wasn't prepared to approach any of them just yet.
As he returned to his cup of coffee, Thiago watched in the mirror along the back wall as a man entered the café. He was old and stooped, and his long gray hair fell well past his shoulders, as did his ridiculous-looking, scraggly beard. As he hobbled up to the counter, Thiago couldn't help but groan inwardly.
It would appear they had a master of disguise in the group. That was all they needed. Thiago pondered the consequences ruefully as he chalked up a fourth man to his list. In his experience, the ones that disguised themselves did so out of vanity. They liked to show off their talent. Show off how clever they were. They were usually dumb as bricks, in the long run. This one was going to be a pain in the ass, Thiago decided. Oh well. You could choose your enemies but not your allies, he reminded himself.
One more ally to go.
He watched the old man order a cup of coffee and point to the wall behind the counter with a long, arthritic finger. Thiago had to give the guy credit; he was good. He looked every bit the fragile old man, and Thiago started trying to picture what the man beneath the disguise must look like. He was probably of average height even though he was stooped over, but he had to be slight of build to pull off that slightly decrepit look. That was as far as Thiago's guesses could go.
The blond man working behind the counter reached up to pull down a pack of cigarettes and Thiago sighed and looked away, observing the entirety of the café in the mirror once more.
The entryway to the café darkened yet again as Thiago pondered the scene, and Thiago's body tensed as he saw another man enter.
"Jesus," Thiago breathed before he could stop himself. He could see his own shocked expression in the mirror just as well as he could see the looks of concern and surprise coming from the two men he'd already positively identified as his future compatriots.
This guy was huge. He was at least six foot five with impressive musculature and a steady, graceful way of moving that belied his size. He reminded Thiago of a large cat, right down to his wavy black hair and full growth of beard. The fact that he was extremely good-looking, as well as a veritable behemoth, didn't help him blend in very well, either. Thiago caught himself gaping at the imposing figure and he looked down quickly, staring at the wiry muscles in his forearms and feeling inexplicably inadequate all of a sudden.
The giant strode easily up to the counter and spoke to the man behind the counter with a friendly grin that seemed out of place attached to such a large person. The blond nodded and went about fixing the order as the big man turned and leaned against the counter, blatantly scanning the room before turning his attention back to his fresh cup of coffee.
Thiago was pretty certain this guy was supposed to be their brawn. Not much finesse, but still effective just because of his size. Thiago pondered the big man for a moment longer before returning his attention to the back wall.
"Anyone know what the hell a 'nebbish' is?" the chameleon with the crossword asked, and Thiago found himself biting his lower lip so as not to smile.
Aside from dreading working with the master of disguise, Thiago felt very good about himself just then. He had all of the five other men pegged, and now all there was to do was decide how best to approach them. Although he was certain of his compatriots now, and apparently helping one of them with a crossword puzzle, it went against all of his training to simply approach another suspected agent and introduce himself.
'Hi, I'm Thiago; I'll be your trained killer for the day.' It didn't sit right.
Finally, Thiago decided on approaching the man with the crossword since he seemed to be trying to make contact, but even as he put his hands on the table to push himself to his feet, the old man stood with difficulty and began to make his way toward the side wall. Thiago eased back into his seat with a curl of his lip and watched. He already disliked this guy and they hadn't even begun to work together yet.
But the old man hobbled past the man in the glasses toward the trash receptacles. He deposited his napkins there, then made his way slowly to the counter to place his used mug on the scratched Formica surface. Thiago observed that everyone in the café now watched him, and he snorted aloud at the uselessness of the ridiculous costume. They'd all pegged the guy. What had been the point?
The big man stood to the side, still leaning on the counter and flicking a silver cigarette lighter open and closed repeatedly as he studied the old guy. The sound was almost deafening in the silence of the café.
"Can I get you anything else?" the blond behind the counter asked the old man politely, his voice suddenly audible and practically echoing in the tense silence. Thiago was slightly shocked to hear a British accent coming from him. It fit him somehow, he had the rough look and stubborn bearing of someone from the north of England, but they were in Bumfuck, U.S.A., and what Thiago thought might have been a Yorkshire accent was a little strange to hear.
The old man shook his head and pulled out a wad of dollar bills to pay for his coffee and cigarettes, then turned around and hobbled toward the exit on precarious legs. Thiago frowned, unsettled by the unexpected departure of a man he'd thought he had pegged. He turned to finally make eye contact with each of the other men. The two in the corners and the big guy at the counter looked just as baffled as Thiago, but the guy with the crossword seemed not to care and the blond behind the counter strode toward the door purposefully.
He reached to lock it with a resounding clink of metal and flipped the 'Open' sign over to read 'Closed.'
"There, now. Thought he'd never leave," he said cheerfully as he turned to look at them all with a large grin. Thiago couldn't help but be slightly flummoxed. The man behind the counter was their sixth man? And the old man was apparently nothing more than an old man after all. How had Thiago misjudged that?
"My name is Shawn Bennett," the blond said to them, "and I'll be your tour guide for the evening." He grinned, either oblivious to their shock or indifferent to it.
The young chameleon on the far side of the café flopped his crossword onto the table disinterestedly and ran his hand over his face.
"I swear, Beignet, if you didn't have your theatrics you'd turn motier foux," he said in a low, surprisingly deep voice that he hadn't used when he'd asked his questions. The accent was different as well, and Thiago couldn't place it. It sounded like slightly mangled French and deep American South that went about a hundred miles a minute. "Half-crazy," the man continued as if translating his own words for himself with a shake of his head.
"Oh, you're one to talk about half-crazy," the man called Bennett retorted with amusement.
The young man responded with a two-fingered salute and winked at Thiago conspiratorially. He had a fluid, graceful way of moving that seemed somehow compact, like he didn't use any more energy in moving than what was absolutely necessary. He reminded Thiago even more of a chameleon, moving in a manner similar to a small lizard.
"You two obviously know each other then," the big man said in a thick Australian accent.
"We've had a few encounters," the chameleon said as his dark eyes slid toward the blond. "I am Remy Bergeron. Class One. And that British salaud is Shawn Bennett, also Class One," he said with a nod toward the blond. Thiago finally placed the accent as being Cajun. He realized he'd only ever heard it in movies.
"Field operatives, eh?" the big Aussie said in response. "The real deal. Nice. Brandt Everett," he introduced himself, "Class Seven."
"Explosives?" Thiago asked in surprise when the man told them his classification. It was the first word he'd uttered to them.
"That's right. Love to blow shit up," Everett responded with a cheeky grin. "And you?"
"Thiago. Class One."
"You got a last name, Thiago?" the Cajun asked him with a drawl that was slightly unsettling.
"No," Thiago answered curtly.
A short silence followed, but Thiago refused to shift under the scrutiny of his new companions.
"Three Class Ones," the intimidating brunette in the corner finally observed neutrally. "They've loaded us down with you bastards, huh?" All eyes turned to him as he stood and walked over to sit back down at Thiago's table. He spoke with an accent similar to that of an Australian, but there were slight differences. New Zealand, if Thiago had to make a guess of it. The way he moved was just as frightening as the way he looked, smooth and alarmingly agile. "Must be one fuck of a snake we're after," he said as he sat down and offered his hand. "Carl Travers. Class Four."
"Ooh, munitions," Remy Bergeron cooed with apparent relish as he also stood up and joined them at the table in the middle of the floor. The others drifted over and crowded around, and Bennett nodded at the shorter man with the blond highlights encouragingly when he strolled up.
"Nikolaus Faust," the shorter man said softly, his accent laced heavily with German, "Class Ten." This brought a low whistle from Thiago and the others looked at Faust apprehensively. Class Tens, given only the most basic of training, were relatively harmless when in the field. Physically speaking. They were communications specialists, usually relegated to the O.R.G. hubs scattered across the globe. His presence here with them was slightly more frightening than he himself was.
Bergeron was the first to offer his hand to the man. "They brought you out of one of the Cellars for this?" he asked in disbelief, referring to the communications hubs that none of them had ever actually seen.
"That's right," Nikolaus responded curtly in the efficient manner all Germans seemed to possess. "You have been given your own comm officer. We are completely off the radar now. Not even Black Ops, yes?"
"Invisible Ops," Brandt Everett suggested, attempting humor as Thiago's mind reeled at the implications of having their own communications specialist on board. They reported to no one now and they had no one to call in for back up or support. They were completely and utterly on their own. Invisible Ops, indeed. As far as Thiago knew, this was unprecedented.
"How did you get behind the counter?" Carl Travers asked Bennett curiously as Thiago stared at the tabletop morosely. Bergeron snickered and the sound drew Thiago's attention to him once more.
"He got the owner tied up in the back office," the Cajun said with a laugh.
"Aye," Bennett said gleefully. "Crabby old bugger. I've half a mind to leave him there."
"He bite like a gator, than one. Shoulda shot him like I told you," Bergeron scolded.
"How do you two know each other?" Thiago asked. Their seemingly friendly relationship bothered Thiago to no end. He didn't like being out of a loop. And he didn't like Class One operatives who knew each other. They weren't supposed to have any contact with their peers.
"We've had a few dealings," Bennett answered cryptically. Bergeron responded with a 'pffft' noise.
"Dealings?" he echoed in a perfect imitation of Bennett's accent, barking a laugh at the end. "We're all on the same side now, Shawn. No harm letting 'em know our dirty little secrets, non?" Bergeron winked at Travers and Thiago found himself growing even more concerned. "We were given the same assignment a few years back, during that whole purging mess, you remember?" the younger man explained, waiting until everyone nodded before continuing.
The purging mess Bergeron referred to had indeed been chaotic, with agents assigned the same targets and some agents targeted by mistake. Eventually, O.R.G., affectionately called the Organization by its agents, discovered it was a computer virus, but not before nine O.R.G. agents lost their lives to friendly fire. Thiago was almost one of them. It was now referred to as the Purge, capitalization implied with the hushed way agents murmured the word.
"Mais, we started catching wind of each other as we tailed our mark, who it turned out was another covert, and finally we both decide that the other, he must be either a rival or a bodyguard."
"In a shocking example of how our training has brainwashed us," Bennett said, taking up the narrative with a smile. "We both hatched the same plan and ended up attempting to kill one another in frighteningly similar ways. Thankfully the virus was uncovered and put right before we could follow through, but barely."
"I had him in my sights when I got the message."
"Bollocks," Bennett responded grumpily. "You were dead to rights."
"How many times have I told you--"
"Yeah yeah yeah," Bergeron said with a dismissive wave. "Anyways," he went on pointedly, "when I came in here to feel the place out last week who do I find but Shawn, sitting in the corner there, looking all canaille and out of place. We had us une petite mêlée. Anyway! We got the safe house all set up already, thanks to that. Nikolaus, you got everything you need?"
"In my car," Faust answered readily.
"Let's get going then, shall we?" Everett suggested as he stood and towered over the rest of them.
"Laissez les bons temps rouler," Bergeron drawled with a grin.
Thiago still wasn't very satisfied with the apparent history of two of his new companions as they gathered their few belongings and headed for their various modes of transportation, but he decided the information they had offered would have to do for now.
Three days after their initial meeting, Carl Travers thought he might like to kill each one of these blokes in their sleep while on watch and slink away into the horizon. He'd be done with this whole disaster waiting to happen and no one would ever be the wiser.
It was an idle thought, though, caused by the fact that they were all going a little stir crazy. The safe house Remy Bergeron mentioned upon their first meeting was simply a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. There were four bedrooms, each roughly the size of a matchbox, each with submarine-style bunks. They had drawn straws for their beds. Carl had wound up sharing a room with Bergeron, the crazy Cajun who talked too fast.
Being cooped up with five other very active trained agents was not helping Carl's sanity. He was pretty sure he wasn't the only one.
That big Australian bastard with the explosives wouldn't stop blowing up the tree stumps behind the cabin--or anything else he could get a hold of, for that matter. Carl was fairly certain it wasn't the captivity driving Brandt Everett insane, though. He seemed generally unstable regardless of the circumstances.
For the past two mornings, Carl awoke to the sounds of small explosions followed by maniacal laughter and whoops of delight. Carl would jump up, gun at the ready, and hit his head on the top bunk without fail. It was a bit disconcerting, to say the least. And painful.
Carl was also slightly befuddled by the general tone of the group. He'd expected an atmosphere of reticence and suspicion, something befitting some of the most highly trained black ops agents in the world. But this had to be the most open, trusting, ridiculously good-natured group of spooks in the history of covert operations. With the possible exception of Thiago, who was still slightly suspicious of everyone and generally grouchy, they seemed to be trying to accept that they were on the same side of this particular fight and become chummy.
Carl had never been chummy with anyone. He hadn't personally given a flying pigmy fuck about any of these blokes at first, either; he hadn't expected this assignment to last long enough to need to care. Now it was three days later, and he found himself not only wanting to kill each of them, but actually enjoying their company at the same time. It was an odd mixture of feelings and Carl wasn't accustomed to the latter, but he didn't really care about that. What he did care about was the fact that not a fucking thing had been done yet, and despite his notorious sniper's patience, he was ready to get started. You couldn't finish something until you got started.
He allowed himself to grumble this particular observation as he prowled back and forth in front of the fireplace, thinking he would simply implode if he didn't start to feel useful soon. The others sat in various stages of relaxation, ranging from Everett leaning forward on the edge of his seat looking ready to set fire to anything that moved, to Bergeron sprawled along the sofa with his eyes closed. Carl glared at the younger man as he made a pass by the stone fireplace and snorted like a bull preparing to charge.
"Calm down, lad," Bennett said in his soothingly gruff voice.
"Don't 'lad' me," Carl grumbled testily. "What are we waiting for?" he demanded
"Weapons. Communications. Mobility. Intelligence--"
Bennett's stern admonition cut off Bergeron's droning monologue. The younger man never even opened his eyes as he spoke, simply ticking off his words with long, slender fingers as he reclined.
Shawn Bennett's piercing green eyes pinned Carl with a hard stare, and Carl stopped his pacing short as Bennett began to speak calmly. "We don't know one another, Mr. Travers," he said in a low, soothing voice, the type usually reserved for small children and irate animals. "We have no idea how we'll operate as a team, or even if we'll operate as a team. We have very little information to go on at the moment regarding our target, and even if we knew exactly where he was or what he was doing, going after him in the state of disarray in which we find ourselves at the moment would be suicidal."
Bennett looked at them each carefully as he spoke, as if he were making sure that his words were sinking in, and Carl's ire began to noticeably ebb. His shoulders slumped and he sat down heavily on the hearth as Bennett continued speaking.
"The next two weeks should be considered a crash course for us all in how to work as a team. I know the other Classes are more accustomed to working in groups, Mr. Travers, but I for one have never done something even remotely similar to this mission."
"Is that why we were told to meet way the fuck out here?" Everett asked curiously.
"If by 'here' you mean in the middle of North Dakota where no one can hear you and your explosives," Bennett drawled with a smirk, "then yes, I would assume so. We're free to train out here without much chance of showing up on anyone's radar."
"How much more do you know about this situation than the rest of us do?" Thiago asked, leaning forward and unconsciously mimicking Everett's stance. Bennett looked at him blankly for several tense moments before responding.
"Well that's difficult to say, isn't it?" he finally answered with infuriating calm.
Thiago harrumphed unhappily and leaned back into his chair. Bennett looked back up at Carl and continued as if he had never been interrupted.
"Now this Archer bloke isn't going anywhere in two weeks, and in all honesty, we all know whatever damage he can do has long since been put under way. And all that's not to mention the fact that our mobile hub isn't even up yet."
All eyes turned to settle on the German, Nikolaus Faust, who shifted uncomfortably under their collective gaze and cleared his throat. "The hub is up, actually," he said in clipped, precise tones. "Prepared for a test run whenever you are all ready."
Bergeron sat up suddenly and looked at the smaller man with interest. Carl watched him curiously and alarm bells began to sound in his head. Why, he wasn't quite sure yet. Something about the meerkat-like way the man moved. "What sort of test?" Bergeron asked with what Carl thought was undue enthusiasm.
Carl had always heard Class One agents were generally fucked in the head. Whether this condition was due to the stress of their job or to a trait with which most of them were born, Carl didn't know, but he hoped the rumors were exaggerated. He'd never had to deal with any of them for any extended period of time. Only one or two hour stints in the past, and then he'd been concentrating on his job, not his companions. If these three turned out to be half as mad as they were rumored to be, Carl could see himself having a hard time of it. Not to mention that Remy Bergeron seemed to be a bit of a livewire and Thiago the mysterious Argentinean was a sulky bastard. He had yet to find a fault with Shawn Bennett, unless you considered the ability to intimidate five men--all of whom were either bigger, younger, or both--a fault.
"Well, the easiest thing to do would be to take the radios out into the woods and, you know, test them," Faust said in response to Bergeron's query with apparent discomfort.
Carl snorted in amusement. Of course it was that simple. Just test them.
"That's it? Like they're fucking walkie talkies or some shit?" Everett asked incredulously.
"High tech doesn't always mean complicated," Faust replied defensively.
"Well, it's something," Carl said in exasperation. "Let's get to it."
"Now?" Faust asked in surprise.
"Why not? Have we got anything better to do?" Carl asked snappishly.
"Well," the German responded uncertainly, looking at Bennett first as if for permission to answer. "No, I suppose not."
"Good," Bergeron said as he unfolded himself gracefully from the couch and stood, stretching his arms to the ceiling. "This couch is chafing my ass end."
He winked at Carl as if to say he understood the need to get up and do something, anything, and Carl found himself reconsidering his opinion of the younger man. Being a livewire wasn't always a bad thing, especially if you could contain it well.
If the young Cajun felt half as antsy as Carl did, then he had an impressive amount of self-control. Perhaps that was why the kid was a field operative and Carl was a weapons specialist. In the field, they had to remain calm under any circumstances. Carl's duties allowed a little more temper to enter the picture. A flash of memory involving beating on a land-to-air missile launcher with an oversized monkey wrench accompanied Carl's thoughts, and he had to bite his lip to keep from grinning as the little group disbanded to gather equipment.
After almost an hour of what Carl thought was entirely too much discussion on the subject, they finally geared up for a little nature hike.
"We'll go in pairs," Bennett said as he tied a knife to his thigh. Carl listened to his orders respectfully, thinking it did the man credit that a group of headstrong warriors such as they were automatically accepted him as their leader. Even Thiago, who seemed a bit reluctant to head blindly into much of anything, hadn't questioned Shawn Bennett's authority.
Carl wanted to question that authority now, though, because Bennett had just told him to partner up with Everett and head off into the wild unknown. Carl gave the Australian a wary glance and a nod. The big man returned Carl's nod with a slightly snaggletoothed grin that made his eyes sparkle mischievously, and Carl wondered if it were too late to become a religious man.
In Carl's experience, some people were crazy, and you weren't aware of it until they opened their mouths to speak or tried to kill you. But some people were crazy and you could tell just by looking in their eyes. Brandt Everett's eyes fairly gleamed. Whether it was madness or something else, Carl wasn't yet certain. He almost hoped that it was madness, plain and simple. Madness he thought he could deal with.
"Nikolaus, you'll go with Remy," Bennett said. The two young men gave each other unreadable glances, and then Bergeron looked back at Bennett with a look that could only be described as familiar. Carl found himself wondering yet again about their relationship. He'd never heard of two Class One operatives being acquaintances, much less friends.
It was obvious just from the sour look on his face that Thiago wondered the same thing and didn't like the situation one bit. But Carl reckoned that it was none of his affair until his life was on the line. Even if these two blokes shagged each other senseless every chance they got, he didn't see how that really affected him.
Carl shrugged into his coat and took the earpiece Faust offered him. "We're on one," the smaller man said as he turned each receiver to the correct frequency and handed them out. "On we go then," he said, placing his own piece in his ear and heading for the door. Carl watched the smaller man with interest. He seemed nervous and a little shifty most of the time, but at other times he seemed cool and confident. It was a strange thing to observe.
Carl didn't know much about the different Classes of agent, but he knew each and every one of them had to pass rigorous tests, both physical and mental, every three months. Nikolaus Faust might be a glorified computer tech in many respects, but he was still a trained agent, Carl reminded himself.
Their plan was simple enough; just a little hike through the woods to make sure the comms worked. Regardless of simplicity, each of them went out armed. Carl and Everett were ordered to go west, Bergeron and Faust were ordered to go east, and Bennett and Thiago set out to the north.
"Go one kilometer," Bennett ordered as they stood in what Carl had come to think of as the courtyard, the area in front of the porch trampled to mere dirt. "Don't shut off unless you give us some forewarning." They all acknowledged the order and set off walking in their various directions.
"If you see dinner, don't be afraid to bring it back with you," Thiago added quietly, speaking through the comm unit.
"Dinner?" Carl heard Faust murmur questioningly.
"This should be interesting," Carl muttered to Everett as he tapped his earpiece and they headed west together.
"I think he means small, innocent, fuzzy creatures," Bergeron's voice supplied gleefully in Carl's ear. "Leave dem bunnies alone, couyon." the Cajun chastised, his accent deepening as he allowed himself to grow comfortable in the outdoors. It was apparently his natural habitat. "Go for them mean critters," Bergeron advised. "My maw maw used to walk into the bayou, whack a caimon with a wooden spoon, and make us skin him for dinner."
"Caimon?" Faust echoed questioningly, his voice tinged with dread as if he thought he didn't want to know the answer.
"Alligator," Bennett voice supplied with amusement. Carl idly wondered why Bennett would know that so readily.
"Gator's mighty tasty, couyon," Bergeron crooned.
"Stick with the bunny, lad, they don't bite as hard. You like bunny, young Nikolaus?" Bennett's gruff voice questioned teasingly.
Carl and Everett shared a look and kept walking, trying to drown out the other two conversations and concentrate on getting to know one another as they walked. They spoke idly about their own specialties for roughly half a kilometer, and Carl began to genuinely worry about Brandt Everett's sanity as the man joyously recounted many of the various things he'd blown up in the past.
At least he enjoyed his work.
As a Class Four operative, Carl Travers's job was to provide and operate the various armaments available, either for a group operation or working on his own. While all operatives were entirely capable of handling weapons of any sort, Carl was more than merely competent. He knew almost everything there was to know about almost every weapon ever created. He could just as easily work a medieval catapult as he could Darth Vader's Death Ray if the occasion called for it.
As a Class Seven operative, Brandt Everett served much the same purpose. But instead of wielding guns or knives or whatnot, Everett blew shit up. Carl knew the basics about explosives. He had limited experience with substances like C4 and nitroglycerine and dynamite, but Everett could probably blow up their cabin with a coffee mug and a pinch of salt if he felt so inclined.
Just the thought of what Everett might or might not be inclined to blow up made Carl shiver as they walked. They came to a stop as the path they followed forked, and they stood in the middle of the path listening to the chatter of the other four men. Bergeron and Faust were arguing over whether the tree they were walking past was an oak, and Thiago seemed to be trying to coax Bennett into telling him more about how he'd met the young Cajun. Carl blinked at the two paths and looked at Everett as the man began to hum slightly.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," Everett murmured to himself. Carl cocked his head at him in concern, and Everett glanced over at him. Carl had to force himself not to retreat under the gleam in the large man's black eyes. He watched Everett's gaze slowly return to the fork in the road with growing concern. "And I," the Australian continued in a theatrical voice. "I took the one less traveled by ... and I blew the other one all to Hell."
Carl heard the other two conversations grind to a halt, and the silence in his ears was tense and expectant as Everett looked at him again. He could just imagine the other four men standing frozen in the middle of the woods, listening intently for an explosion.
"Robert Frost," Everett offered before setting out once more and veering off toward the tree line. He stooped to pick up a pinecone as Carl took a cautious step forward.
"I'm not sure that's exactly how it goes," Carl offered carefully. Everett responded with a joyous laugh.
"It's how it goes in my world," he called over his shoulder. He tossed the pinecone in the air and caught it again. Carl followed him slowly, wondering just how far gone this bloke really was. Everett turned suddenly, and Carl tensed, expecting a blow. "Did you know that pinecones are explosive?"
"What?" Carl asked warily, not sure he'd heard correctly and almost hoping he hadn't.
"Yep," Everett went on, oblivious to the discomfort he was causing his companion. "You have to get them before they seed, of course," he said, holding up the sticky cone as an example. Carl could see that it had yet to open up and was covered in goo. "The pitch is flammable, you see. Add a little flame and bam!" Everett informed him with a delighted flurry of hand movements.
Carl knew he was gaping at the other man, but he simply couldn't help it. In his ear he heard Thiago asking Bennett if he was hearing correctly, as well as an amusing dialogue between Faust and Bergeron.
"Did he say pinecones?" Faust asked.
"I think so," Bergeron answered. "Seems like I heard about that before. Never had need of using it, though. Thank God. Fucking pyromaniac. Crazier'n a male crab, that one."
Carl wondered briefly how long the young man had been in the business and what the hell a male crab had to do with anything, but he didn't have long to ponder the questions before Everett withdrew a silver cigarette lighter from his pocket and flicked it open. Carl's eyes widened and he took a step forward, then retreated again indecisively.
Before Carl could get another sound out of his mouth Everett put flame to pinecone and tossed it into the path on the right of the fork where a smattering of other pinecones littered the way. Carl watched the flaming projectile in morbid fascination as it arced gracefully through the air. Surely it couldn't make that big of an explosion. Could it?
"Cover!" Everett shouted gleefully, and he tackled Carl to the ground. They landed with a pair of grunts and a cloud of dirt and pine needles. Carl was a little surprised to discover that Everett covered his body protectively with his own. His big hands shielded his own head as well as Carl's as he pressed his body down and his face into Carl's neck. Carl squeezed his eyes closed and tensed, waiting for the inevitable 'bam.'
The explosion was by no means earth shattering, but the sound of it both coming through the earpiece and echoing distantly through the forest caused adrenaline to rush through Shawn Bennett's body at warp speed all the same.
"Mierda! What the fuck did he blow up this time?" Thiago questioned in exasperation, not sounding all too concerned but obviously ruffled enough to slip back into his native accent.
"Hope it wasn't Carl," Shawn responded flatly as he unconsciously lifted his chin and sniffed at the air. It smelled like snow. He could hear Remy and Nikolaus Faust jibbering in his ear, and Thiago was saying something about Brandt Everett being mentally unstable. But Shawn was watching the birds fly over the trees and trying to figure out where the explosion had originated. He turned to look in the direction from which the birds flew and pressed the earpiece further into his ear. "Travers? Everett?"
There was an uneasy silence as they waited for an answer, and finally there was a cough and a muffled curse.
More curses and sounds of a scuffle ensued. Shawn exhaled in relief and let his tense muscles relax.
"Hope Travers kicks his ass," Thiago muttered as he shielded his eyes against the setting sun. "Boludo loco."
Shawn gave Thiago a worried glance, telling himself he probably didn't want to know what that meant, but from the tone he had to admit he was probably thinking close to the same thing. That big bastard was going to blow them all to Hell before this assignment was over.
The sounds of struggle died out and Shawn could imagine the two men lying on the ground, staring blankly at the sky and breathing heavily. He could hear them breathing, anyway, and it was enough to feed the visual.
"If these things will stand up to a blast and a tussle in the dirt then they're okay with me," Shawn said happily, tapping his ear to let Thiago know he was talking about the earpieces and not their two companions. Thiago nodded solemnly and watched the squawking flock of birds soar overhead. Shawn thought about reminding him to close his mouth, but then decided the serious Argentinean wouldn't think it was funny. "What do we think then, lads?" he finally asked of the rest of them. "Continue walking or trust that these gadgets work and go home before Brandt sets the whole of North Dakota on fire?"
Shawn expected a chorus of responses, but all he got was silence. He turned to look curiously at Thiago, who simply shrugged in answer.
"You're the boss, right?" the man asked, pulling at his ear in apparent agitation and almost dislodging his earpiece in the process.
"What?" Shawn asked, hoping he'd misunderstood the tone Thiago had used.
Thiago simply raised his eyebrows as if to say 'you heard me.'
Shawn pressed the piece closer to his ear in order to better hear Remy's voice. It seemed that the things weren't working so well after all. He could barely hear the younger man say his name, and now there was nothing.
"Copy," Shawn said after a long silence. He waited for Remy to say more, but when nothing came he looked at Thiago in concern. "Can you hear anything?"
"Nothing," Thiago said in a low voice.
"Problem?" asked Everett's voice nonchalantly.
"Damn, we were hoping Travers had put you out of our misery, Everett," Shawn said with a grin.
"Just cause I'm here doesn't mean he didn't try," came Everett's voice again.
"I did try. He threatened to stick a pinecone up my--"
Shawn barely restrained himself from jumping out of his skin when Remy shouted at him through his earpiece.
"Christ, lad! I copy!"
"Oh. Sorry." There was a short silence during which Shawn swore Remy was groaning and he began to grow a bit more concerned. "Ouch. Dammit. I think Nikki and I have stumbled into a valley. We aren't receiving a fucking thing down here."
Nikki? Shawn smiled wryly to himself. He loved to watch his young associate win others over so quickly. It made him feel like less of a sap for being befriended so easily by the same man who'd repeatedly tried to kill him on their first meeting.
"I think ... triangulate ... then it'll ... oh, for fuck's sake," came Nikolaus Faust's garbled voice, sounding much farther away than Remy's had moments ago.
"Have you two separated?" Shawn demanded almost angrily.
"No. I climbed a tree for high ground," Remy said testily. Thiago snorted before he could stop himself, and Shawn rolled his eyes.
"Watch out for the pinecones," Travers deadpanned.
"It's an evergreen. No pinecones," Remy responded with a little more heat than was strictly necessary, in Shawn's opinion. The attitude was explained though, when Faust's voice filtered through to them all.
"It's ... fucking ... pine ... blödes arschloch!"
"It's an evergreen!" Remy shot back, seemingly unfazed by the use of a language Shawn knew he didn't understand.
"Evergreens have pinecones," Travers supplied, though he didn't sound very certain.
"No, they bloody well don't," Everett responded as Shawn watched Thiago close his eyes and shake his head tiredly. "That's why they're called bloody pinecones. Cause they come from bloody pines!"
"Isn't a pine a type of evergreen?" Shawn asked, unable to keep himself out of the discussion regardless of how much he hated to encourage it.
"Evergreen! Maudit!" came Remy's irritated voice in response to a comment that apparently only he had heard. Shawn loved to hear him get riled; it accentuated his unusual accent and made him sound like he'd just crawled out of the bayou.
Shawn watched Thiago carefully during the exchange of insults between Travers and Everett that followed the pinecone comments. The man didn't seem overjoyed about the prospect of working with them all for an extended period of time, but then who would after listening to this insanity? Shawn sure as fuck hadn't liked the idea at first. But when he'd seen that Remy would be with him to keep him sane, he'd warmed to the idea, actually looked forward to it, and now that he was getting to know the others, he felt even more comfortable. If anything, Shawn appreciated a good sense of invincibility, which was precisely what they all displayed. Thiago, on the other hand, seemed just as uptight and unyielding as he had the first day. Shawn wondered if it was a cultural thing or Thiago's personality.
Either way, he had to loosen Thiago up, and fast. If you couldn't smile while in the middle of the wilderness as you listened to two rather large, frightening men threaten one another with sticking various bits of shrubbery up one another's orifices, then you hadn't been in this business long enough. Shawn idly wondered how long Thiago had been at it. That had to be a question they were all asking themselves, in fact, and Shawn thought it would be a good idea to see to it that they all sat down, tonight preferably, and gathered a little background on each other.
They had to trust each other with their lives. That would start with learning something about each other.
Shawn was rather amused to hear Remy repeatedly insult the heredity of the unfortunate tree he'd chosen to climb as he attempted his descent. His young friend was a unique individual to be sure. Not many people were as secure with their position in life as Remy. Remy bordered on being oblivious to his own mortality.
Perhaps that had something to do with Thiago's discomfort. Perhaps the easygoing attitude of the rest of them made him more uptight rather than less so. Perhaps he read it as unprofessional or even incapable.
"Thiago," Shawn said quietly, getting Thiago's attention and nodding toward the way they'd come. "What do you think? Keep going or head back?"
Thiago stood stock still for a moment, returning Shawn's gaze unerringly. Shawn wondered once more what the Argentinean agent was thinking and why he always seemed to view the situation as a threat.
"Let's head back," Thiago decided finally. "Sounds like the others are getting their fill of the wilderness, and we're losing the light."
"Good man," Shawn said approvingly. "Me feet are killing me," he joked, offering a friendly smile as they turned around and headed back in the direction of the cabin.
Thiago simply nodded and marched along in silence. Shawn eyed him suspiciously. Surely they would have run strenuous screenings on this group. They were a highly specialized, highly covert team formed for a very specific purpose. They were to track down a dangerous operative who'd been recruiting and turning agents for almost six months now. It certainly wouldn't do to have a turncoat in their midst on such a mission. Could that be the cause of Thiago's reticence? Could he be working for the Archer, simply unable to hide his discomfort with the cover 24/7?
Shawn pressed his earpiece closer and listened in on the other two conversations as he and Thiago walked on in silence. Perhaps he'd watch Thiago closer than he'd at first planned.
Shawn shook his head in immediate disagreement with himself. He wouldn't have to watch Thiago. The man was already tense enough as it was, if Shawn went about observing him closely it would cause him even more discomfort and possibly turn him dangerous. Perhaps it was a job more suited to his talented young friend.
If anyone could smoke Thiago out, it would be Remy.
'Yes,' Shawn thought to himself contentedly. Remy would be quite useful in that respect. And knowing the young Cajun as Shawn did, Remy would thoroughly enjoy the psychological warfare.
One potential problem solved, Shawn turned his thoughts to the other most obvious problem they faced. Brandt Everett was certifiably crazy so far as Shawn was concerned, and to keep him under control they had to find something the man liked more than blowing shit up.
Shawn's senses zeroed in on the soft crunching of dry leaves beneath their feet and the vague chatter from the other two groups as he mulled over the problems. It was a pleasant feeling, he realized suddenly, one that was all too unfamiliar. He felt almost at ease here in the middle of nowhere.
Thiago cleared his throat restlessly, and Shawn glanced at him curiously. The Argentinean walked with his head down and his eyes darting from side to side. He positively looked about to spring.
"Remy? Carl?" Shawn queried suddenly, making a decision he hoped he wouldn't regret. "We're going silent," he continued before either man he'd spoken to could respond. Thiago stopped walking and looked at him warily. Shawn could see the beginnings of alarm spreading over the man's face as he turned his own earpiece off. He nodded for Thiago to do the same.
"What are you doing?" Thiago asked suspiciously.
"I want to speak with you privately. Turn your unit off."
Thiago stared at him, obviously weighing his options. Shawn could hear the small voices asking what the hell was going on coming through Thiago's earpiece, and he prayed that Thiago would trust him. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, Thiago raised his hand slowly and clicked the earpiece off. Shawn released a relieved breath and gave his companion a wry smile.
"Well?" Thiago asked impatiently.
"You don't trust us," Shawn said bluntly. The only sign of surprise from Thiago was a quick succession of blinks. "I don't much blame you. I can't say that I trust you entirely, either. And God knows we aren't the most stable bunch of blokes I've ever had dealings with. But we have to start somewhere, Mr. Thiago. We're on the same side of this."
Shawn watched Thiago's reaction closely for any sign that he was getting through, but the man was a rock. His expression never changed, and he didn't even shift his weight. Finally Thiago's piercing blue eyes flicked to the horizon before settling back on Shawn with determination.
"How do you know Bergeron?" he asked challengingly.
It was Shawn's turn to blink in surprise, and he had to force himself not to lose eye contact with the other man. The slightest move could be misconstrued as guilt, and that would ruin any chance of building trust with the suspicious agent. Was that what was causing the problems, the manner of his relationship with Remy? Shawn had thought it was the bigger group issue.
"We've told you," he responded evenly. "We tried to kill one another. Several times, actually."
"What else?" Thiago demanded.
"There's nothing else."
"Bullshit," Thiago spat out angrily. "You talk about trust while you stand there lying to me. What--"
"I'm not lying to you," Shawn interrupted calmly.
"Omitting the truth is the same as lying when my life depends on it," Thiago stated in a low voice. Shawn had to concede that point, but Thiago went on before Shawn could respond. "What is there about any of you to trust? I don't know you. I've never worked with any of you. For all I fucking know you're all working together and--"
"I understand being cautious," Shawn interrupted in a soothing voice. "But I think you're being a bit--"
"Cautious? Ha! What the fuck do you know about caution? I haven't seen an ounce of caution from you! What the fuck kind of a shoddy covert are you anyway? You blindly trust anyone you're thrust into close quarters with just because we're supposedly on the same side?"
"Just a minute," Shawn warned in a low voice. He didn't mind the other man being pissy, but he drew the line at being insulted needlessly.
"Well? Can you honestly tell me that you don't lie awake at night wondering if Everett is going to blow us all to Hell just to see if he can? Travers is a little too eager to get the show on the road, if you ask me, and Faust is a shifty little German bastard. Not to mention how fucking suspicious it is to find two Class One agents who not only know each other, but actually have some sort of ... I don't even know what you call it, relationship? But I've never met another agent I would trust my life with so easily. There has to be something more to you two and I want to know what it is."
"You're right," Shawn said quietly before Thiago could go on with his rant. Thiago's mouth snapped shut and he stared at Shawn, waiting for him to elaborate. "You're right," Shawn repeated, more to himself than to Thiago. Shawn took a deep breath and wondered how much to tell the man. "I trust Remy for many reasons, some of which are professional, and some are personal." He looked at Thiago carefully and saw the man returning the look intensely. "What say we save this conversation so everyone can hear?" he asked.
"Okay," Thiago said with a nod after a few moments of consideration.
"You can call me Thio," Thiago said abruptly, "not Mr. Thiago or whatever." Shawn looked at him curiously and simply nodded. He knew what a concession that must be for the other man.
"In all honesty, Thio, techs are almost always shifty, as are Germans. Travers has got every right to be antsy. And I'm terrified of Everett," Shawn mumbled as he lifted his hand to his ear to switch his earpiece back on. Thiago watched him suspiciously. "We'll have to deal with him. Soon," Shawn added. Thiago nodded and frowned slightly. "Lads," Shawn said as he switched his earpiece back on and began to walk again. "Double time it. I want everyone in before the sun sets."
"What's the problem?" Remy asked as soon as the last word had left Shawn's mouth. Shawn knew him well enough to be able to hear the concern underneath the casual query. He smiled suddenly, overjoyed at the mere thought of working so closely with the man once again after months of going solo.
"No problem here," he responded with a grin. "Not yet, anyway."
"Ah, the promises you make, my little crouton," Remy sighed into all their ears, causing outright laughter from several of them. Shawn looked over at Thiago again to see the man smiling slightly. Feeling eyes on him, Thiago turned to look questioningly at Shawn, the smile fading.
"You speak French, Thiago?" Shawn asked in amusement. Thiago shook his head in answer. "Don't worry. Neither does Remy," Shawn snickered. Thiago actually fully smiled at him then, and Shawn marveled at how much the wide grin changed the man's appearance. He looked almost relaxed.
"I heard that, couyon!" came Remy's voice one last time.
"That was the point, dear."
Nikolaus Faust hadn't been too keen on getting involved in this mission when he'd first been given his orders. But, he hadn't really had much of a say in the matter. When the higher ups said 'jump,' Nikolaus didn't even stop to ask how high.
As a Class Ten operative, Nikolaus didn't often put his actual life on the line. Only in missions like this that required a mobile communications unit did he actually leave the sterile gray room full of expensive equipment that field operatives affectionately referred to as 'the Cellar.' This was only Nikolaus's second mobile mission with the Organization, but true mobile operations were few and far between, and there weren't many Class Ten agents who had more field experience than Nikolaus. He also knew just as well as his handlers that he was the best at what he did.
Still. He didn't like the idea of Invisible Ops, as Brandt Everett called it. The mere thought made him nervous.
Nikolaus didn't mind putting his life in danger; that's what they'd all signed up for. What scared him to no end was that these other five men also appeared to be the best at what they did, and that meant the Archer was a serious threat. A very serious threat. What could the man possibly be up to that would warrant a crack team like this? Nikolaus was almost afraid to find out. He was even more afraid of their mission failing. God only knew what would happen if they weren't able to stop him.
Despite these worries, or perhaps because of them, Nikolaus found himself walking through the forests of North Dakota with five of the most peculiar, unstable men he'd ever encountered. And enjoying himself to no end. He could get used to the mobile life. As long as he didn't get himself killed.
"So, Nikki," Remy Bergeron said as they wove their way uphill through the dense undergrowth of the forest. "Do you mind my calling you that?"
"It's, uh, not a problem," Nikolaus replied as he stumbled over a log and reached out to steady himself. He was a little surprised to find Bergeron beside him and holding his elbow to keep him from falling. Nikolaus had never seen anyone move so quickly over such treacherous ground. He was impressed.
"It's just easier to say than Nikolaus," Bergeron went on almost apologetically, seemingly unaware that he'd ever moved. "That's a lovely name, though. You'd be surprised how many Joe's and Bob's you come across in this business."
"My friends call me Niko sometimes," Nikolaus offered as he looked upward at the fading light and then down at Bergeron's hand still on his arm.
"I even worked with a Joe Bob last year. In Hawaii. Niko, you say? I like that too. D'you mind my using that?"
"Uhh, that's ... yeah, no," Nikolaus responded uncertainly as Bergeron released him and pulled ahead once more, seemingly oblivious to just how unusual his thought processes were. Bergeron seemed genuinely pleased at the concession, though, and Nikolaus wondered how effective a covert the Cajun actually was. He appeared to wear his emotions on his sleeve, and he wasn't half as solemn or reticent as the other field agents seemed to be. Nikolaus wondered how long the man had been doing this. He seemed so open and ingenuous, he couldn't have been in the business for long, Nikolaus decided.
"I've been called so many names during missions I've lost track of them all," Bergeron continued in the same rambling tone. "Lots of 'hey yous' and 'dammits' mostly. Shawn's always called me Remy, though, when he's not calling me an idiot or ... anyway, you're welcome to do the same if you like. Call me Remy, that is."
Despite the cavalier way in which the invitation was extended, with Bergeron losing his train of thought periodically and not even paying attention to what he was saying, Nikolaus found himself touched by the offer. In his world of cold technology and shady colleagues, what Remy said felt like an offer of camaraderie and trust. Nikolaus was more than happy to accept. He also accepted the opportunity Remy's statement gave him to broach a subject he was extremely curious about.
"So what, um, what is the situation with the two of you?" he asked, hoping he sounded nonchalant and glancing at Remy out of the corner of his eye. He heard the other two conversations come to a halt and was comforted by the fact that he wasn't the only one curious about the association between the two men.
"Hmm? Oh. Shawn, you mean? He tried to kill me," Remy answered matter-of-factly. "Several times. In the most unimaginative ways, I might add."
"Yeah, you said," Nikolaus murmured after hearing an irritated snort that he assumed came from Shawn Bennett.
"I mean, using a gun to kill someone. How very unoriginal," Remy said with a little smirk and a wink at Nikolaus.
"Your problem is that you think you're bullet proof," Bennett's voice said caustically in response to Remy's jab. "It was no mere gun, lad. That rifle was a work of art. A classic. A beautiful--"
"Mm hmm," Remy said in a bored voice. "Hey, Brandt. You work much with plastique?"
Nikolaus heard what sounded suspiciously like an affirmative purr coming through his earpiece and he shivered involuntarily.
"I had his rifle rigged. One pull of the trigger and...."
"Bam," Brandt's voice finished in a frighteningly pleasure-laden tone.
"That's right. Heureusement, fortunately, it did not come to that."
"That's when you received the message, then?" Nikolaus asked, trying to get Remy to continue. Remy simply nodded and squinted into the distance. Nikolaus let the offer to continue hang in the air for a few moments, but Remy walked on, oblivious to all but his immediate surroundings as they picked their way through the thick undergrowth. After a while, the other two conversations quietly resumed, and Nikolaus thought they could try to whittle more information from the two cagey men later.
"Do you remember the way being this rough on the way down?" Remy finally asked in concern as he pulled up short and looked around. Nikolaus surveyed his surroundings in alarm as the steady droning in his ear ceased once more.
"You two have a problem?" asked Shawn Bennett's gruff voice.
"Not yet, my little onion," Remy responded in a voice close to irritation.
Nikolaus lifted an eyebrow to express his doubt in the other man's assessment of their situation, but he remained silent. Being in the middle of a dense forest with sketchy communications and unstable companions was bad enough, but not having a clear idea of where you were going in said forest, that was really high on Nikolaus's Oh Shit List. What was even higher, though, was pissing off one of those aforementioned unstable companions by questioning his judgment. So Nikolaus stayed silent.
"Yet?" Bennett asked without much concern.
"God, I hate being lost," Bergeron murmured.
"Lost? I thought you said we didn't have a problem," Nikolaus blurted worriedly.
"Au contraire," Remy said sagely. "Being lost is not always a problem. We have at least a week before we starve." He stopped and sniffed at the air. "Smells like snow, though. That may be a problem. I don't do cold well."
"Believe me, young Nikolaus," Bennett said with amusement. "When Remy gets well and truly lost, you will certainly know it. Watch your back though, he'd just as soon cook and eat you as he would some furry little woodland creature."
"Mind your own business, Beignet," Remy said in what appeared to be an automatic response to Shawn's teasing as he searched the trees for their location. "Don't go forewarning the prey."
"Did he just call you Beignet?" Thiago's voice inquired incredulously.
"It's a type of doughnut," Shawn muttered in answer. "It's a long story," he added. After a brief silence he blurted, "Remy really enjoys food, okay?"
Nikolaus tried not to snort in amusement as he watched Remy warily. He wondered about the man's competency once more and hoped his supposed super-spy skills would kick in or something and turn the homing beacon back on. He chastised himself for not having paid more attention to where they were going and mused about how long it would take Everett and his exploding pinecones to clear the area of all the trees in order to find them.
"Ah! Got it!" Remy exclaimed suddenly, pointing at the trunk of a tree some ten meters away. Nikolaus squinted in the half-light and could just barely see a pale, thin gash across the bark. He sighed in relief. "Just veered off course a bit is all," Remy continued as they walked toward the marker. Nikolaus hadn't even noticed Remy making the marks as they walked, and for the fourth time in ten minutes he found himself re-evaluating his opinion of Remy's abilities.
By the time Nikolaus and Remy made it back to the cabin the sun was beyond setting, and Nikolaus cringed at the thought that Bennett might be angry with them for being late. He really needn't have worried. It seemed that Shawn Bennett wasn't so much the bastard that Nikolaus pictured him to be, a