Pamplona. The Running of the Bulls.
It was hot.
Carmen was glad that she wasn’t down below, drowning in the swarming crowd. She didn’t want to imagine the sweat, the horrendous chanting in her ears that she’d hear for days on end, and the heat. It would be an inferno in there, every degree supplied by every living body.
But maybe worst of all was the chance that she could be in the bloody splash zone of some unlucky runner, impaled by the horns of the erratic bull. Carmen thought that at least she dressed in the traditional red for the occasion, as to be expected.
She swallowed and turned her head, looking out at the empty cobblestone paths that the bulls would eventually stampede down. Carmen tightened her grip on the rail of their rented apartment balcony they were perched on, bending over her abdomen.
She thought she was almost going to fall off when she felt two bodies suddenly rush forward, beside her, with a speed Carmen didn’t think was humanly possible. Her white-knuckle, or rather black-gloved vice grip on the copper railing tensed, and then relaxed when she felt herself stabilize. Carmen could jump off any building, but hell, she was not ending up in that mosh pit of testosterone below.
“Woah!” Zack exclaimed from her side, Carmen pursing her lips and moving back when she felt his ginger hair in her face. “The white shirts go on for miles, huh?” He took a step and this time placed his body in front of Carmen, the latter catching sight of Ivy rolling her pristine eyes and latching a hand on her hip.
“Maybe you could play exaggerated tourist and give Carm some personal space too?” Ivy huffs, and just as Carmen’s about to tell her you know what, it’s fine, Ivy shoots her a wink. Mouths “I got this.”
Ivy reaches over and gives Zack a two-fingered chest shove to the other railing. He scowls and folds his arms, walking up to the two with a significantly bigger space bubble. Carmen flashes Ivy a look of gratitude and pulls out her binoculars.
“Thanks, Ivy, but I’d rather have Zack in my face than to be down below.” Carmen muses, a look like queasiness flashing across her features.
“Don’t blame yah. I can get with the best of them, but being close to having my guts carved out like a pumpkin by a bullhorn ain’t somethin’ on my bucket list.” Ivy shakes her head. Carmen laughs a little bit, hearing the groan of disappointment from the other Bostonian behind her.
“Seriously? But down there is where all the action is, isn’t it?” Zack’s gesturing to the crowd with an outstretched hand, waving it to and fro. “I can handle it! You remember when I rode that mechanical bull at Darryl’s, Ivy?” His voice rises up on its own with excitement.
Ivy snorts and flicks his arm. “That was a mechanical bull at a bar that was barely holdin’ together, dumbass. These, now, you don’t want to mess with.”
“She’s right. Real flesh and bone, and even realer hooves and horns.” Carmen folds her arms, the binoculars dangling at her side, smirk tugging at the corner of her lips. She says it with extra emphasis on the horns and hooves, watching as Zack looks like he’s beginning to soak it in.
“I guess stayin’ up here sounds like a better option.” Zack sighs, and leans his back on the rough stucco wall. His eyes trail up to the Spanish style textures of the surrounding buildings and residences, like he was looking for something.
It hit Carmen harder than a bull. She forgot. Down below. Up above.
She murmured a quiet “shit,” to herself and quickly brought the binoculars up to her eyes. Carmen tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, more out of habit, even though no one’s attention was really diverted to her. She worried at her lip, not exactly knowing who’d she see first. Either El Topo, shaking off dirt as he tried to cover up the hole in the cobblestone and mingle in the crowd. Or, or, she could see Le Chevre bounding from rooftop to rooftop, in plain sight but simultaneously hidden from view.
Goat would be easier to spot, she deduced. While the residents and tourists‘s attention was all concentrated to the historic, literal ground-shaking event, VILE would easily be able to meander into the city and swipe whatever they wanted. It was a plan that was so expected, so commonplace, yet it worked every time.
Carmen’s eyes are suddenly back down to the pathways, as are the twins’, as they all felt a slight shaking. It got a little more intense, and didn’t augment from there, but the cheering did get louder. Carmen saw amber liquid rise in arcs, like some kind of Bellagio, sincerely hoping it was liquor.
Carmen held the brim of her hat and leaned closer, the twins following suit, as four or so bulls began chasing after several men dressed in white. She saw some things at VILE, but couldn’t stop herself from wincing and looking away, even though nothing gory had exactly happened yet. She held the binoculars to her eyes again. Scanning any rooftops. This time Carmen grits her teeth and steps off when she hears the crowd collectively go ooooh.
Several minutes pass. “Any detectable activity, Player?” Carmen chimes, trying to lean her head back into the apartment so she can hear the teen better. It does get harder.
“No, not yet, which is kinda weird. Wouldn’t you think VILE would dispatch one of their operatives right when the bulls were released?” Carmen can hear his fingers fly over the keyboard. “Because it kind of defeats the purpose of using the crowd to make their own distraction.”
“Really does.” Carmen taps her fingers against the glass panes, looking at the tile floor as she tried to think of another way VILE could carry out their mission. Well, there were many, but this tactic was one that they were primarily known for. She doesn’t like being in this kind of limbo. Carmen steps back outside and looks through the binoculars again. She’s ready to stay here all day, all night, because there was no way in hell she was booking a fight back to San Diego with her tail between her legs.
The movement of her arm is like it moved through molasses. She wasn’t about to give up, but Carmen felt like she was standing on the crumbling edge of it. She doesn’t look around as much. Up, down, up, down, but it’s nothing like her early feverish movements. Carmen can hear the twins cheering and roaring from beside her, waving their arms like electrocuted windmills.
Carmen’s breath catches in her throat when her gaze lands on the tiled roof of a building, and she has to stop herself from jumping off the balcony.
It’s Le Chevre, sitting on the arch like he’s got nary a care in the world.
Carmen doesn’t register his foreign sedentary fashion, and her eyes quickly go to the ground. No sinkhole in the bumpy roads like she expected. No human mole, bathed in dirt, shouldering his way through the sea of white. She tries to follow Le Chevre’s blank stare, but she can’t pinpoint exactly where. Carmen never takes her eyes off the lanky man, even though he doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.
She fumbles with the binoculars and stuffs them back into her coat, setting a hand on Ivy’s shoulder as she backs up. The redhead’s hollers of encouragement are cut shorts and turns around to face Carmen. “Yo, any news?”
“We got our goat.” Carmen clears her throat, her vision still not wrenched away from Le Chevre. Ivy follows her locked gaze, and finds the operative. From out of the corner of her eye, Carmen can see Ivy’s face contort to something of confusion.
“He takin’ a goddamn lunch break? What’s he doin’, just sittin’ up there?” Ivy squints and looks up scornfully at Le Chevre, folding her arms. Carmen unsheathes her grappling hook. She’d really like to know too—was it an empty ruse, or was there just simply no ulterior motive? Carmen felt her stomach twist and this time, judging from Le Chevre’s body language and knowing he wasn’t going anywhere, allowed herself to look at Ivy.
“There’s no mole.” As simple as that. Carmen looks at Ivy’s face of disgust melt away to something different, like a softened, kneaded form of surprise. Carmen wouldn’t go to far as to say Ivy looked sorry, but it was definitely a different emotion than she usually conveyed when the conversation was aimed towards Le Chevre.
“No mole, huh?” Ivy echoes, and Carmen deduces that it might be to herself. Ivy places a porcelain-like finger on her chin, and looks the the side. She can almost see the thoughts racing at a million miles a minute.
“There’s never the goat without the mole, so what’s goin’ on here?” Ivy’s hair sweeps to the side as she suddenly jerks her head to set eyes back on Le Chevre, still in the same steadfast position as earlier; maybe the only difference that Carmen could nitpick out was that his arms were wrapped tighter around his knees.
Carmen looks back at Ivy, and for a moment she admires the seldom-seen look of concern on her face. It’s oddly grounding. Maybe she could even go so far as to say gorgeous. The Bostonian turns to meet Carmen’s face and interrupting her lazy thoughts, mouth slightly ajar. “You don’t think…?”
It takes Carmen a little while to figure out what Ivy was implying. Her veins flood with ice water. She shakes her head and waves away the thought, despite something nagging at her that hey, hey, there wasn’t an absolute 0% chance it could happen. She liked El Topo in a way, and despite the two having different allegiances, they somehow went easy on one another. Especially when she worked with him at Hell Creek—Carmen couldn’t forget how jubilant he was to finally be on the same side, even if it was only temporary.
“You mean a Crackle part two?” Carmen sighs and closes her eyes, shaking her head. “Hoping that’s not the case.” She aims her arm towards the roof of the apartment, and before she pulled the trigger, Ivy grabs her opposite wrist that’s dangling by her side. She’s looking up at Carmen with a different worried expression.
“Please, Carm, don’t try anything stupid. This could be a trick.” Even Ivy sounded reluctant, like she didn’t believe herself, but there was nothing wrong with being cautious. Carmen takes notice and nods, her scarlet lips turning up in a miniscule smile.
“I won’t. Just.. stay here and keep watch.” Carmen murmurs and nods to Zack, before she finds herself rappelling up. Even the other onlookers on the balconies don’t seem to take notice of the woman in red.
Carmen jumps and lands on the roof, scrabbling to stabilize her footing for a second. She can see Le Chevre better from where she is, perched high on top of the terra-cotta colored roof. He doesn’t seem to notice her. Carmen can’t find any places where she can hide on the bare roofs, so she decides she would need to use speed to her advantage.
Carmen hesitates for a while, which she usually never does, but regardless gets a running start and leaping to the adjacent roof like a lithe doe. Her heels hit the shingles hard, and she gets into a rhythm, almost matching the stampeding bulls that are way ahead of her, down below. Her steps are loud, and she picks up speed.
This time Le Chevre locks eyes with her.
Carmen skids to a stop unintentionally, taken by surprise, slipping on a loose tile just several yards away from Le Chevre. She lands rather ungracefully on her back with a yell that somehow managed to slip out. She growls and sets her jaw. Carmen’s certain her face is redder than her coat. The shingles hurt like hell, and her back stings, but Carmen forces herself to use her arm as an anchor and prop her upper body up.
She’s beyond stunned to see that Le Chevre is glued to the ground in the same fashion that Carmen was in before. His eyebrows are raised, and she expects him to be stifling a laugh, but he’s not. Le Chevre tries to put on his usual expression of annoyed fury, but like a shirt worn from years past, Carmen notices that it doesn’t fit him. She regains her footing and they both stand, unable to meet each other’s gaze like they had done just a few seconds ago. Hot needles shoot up her leg as she shifts her weight to it, but she ignores the pain. She could take advantage of his surprise and take him down, easy as pie. But a part of Carmen is left wanting to soak up the moment, because she knows it’ll never happen again.
The stalemate is quickly broken when Carmen barely hears the tinny voice of a Faculty member, perhaps Maelstrom, bite in through Le Chevre’s comm. Link. He winces and turns his head slightly, before breaking out back into his sprint. Carmen follows suit, this time, without a moment’s hesitation.
She can tell his head isn’t in the game by the way his normally sure footing is replaced by chary ones. Le Chevre stumbles often, but he quickly catches himself. He doesn’t turn at all to look at Carmen, but she can tell he’s vexatiously aware of her red trail hot on his hooves. There wasn’t anywhere to climb, nothing higher than the rooftops, so mumbling under his breath, Le Chevre jumps off a roof.
Carmen stops herself earlier at the edge of the roof, trying to avoid another mortifying incident like earlier. She peeks over a brick chimney, and find that he’s using the clotheslines below as monkey bars and ziplines. Residents open their blinds and yell at Le Chevre, who’s dropping their garments like flies. She can make out Basque, as well as heavy insults in their lispy Spanish accent. Carmen decides to go around the other side and glide down. The streets were narrow, but it’d have to do.
She lands on the solid, narrow stone pathways that are blessedly empty. Carmen folds her glider back and takes off on foot again, following the cacophony of yells from the path between residences. This wasn’t the Le Chevre that she knew—he never went back on solid ground when there was the option to serpentine through rooftops. Especially when he knew that he was better at that then Carmen, she admitting it herself. Hell, it was his thing.
Carmen peeks over the grapevine-blanketed wall, hiding behind a few potted plants. Out of a mountain of shirts and pants emerges the goat, and she begins the chase again. Carmen can hear Le Chevre’s raspy breath from behind him, just out of reach from her leather grip. Carmen couldn’t believe her eyes and ears; the world-renowned, gold medal-winning rock climber was getting winded.
This was her chance.
Le Chevre took in a big breath and visibly tried to force his legs to go faster, but Carmen noticed it didn’t have much of an effect. She grasped the brim of her hat as they both took a particularly sharp turn, into a street that was completely drained of residents, most certainly taking part in the festivities that were concentrated away from where they were.
He slows down significantly with the turn, and Carmen speeds up, resolve hardened. She jumps, propelled by the momentum of her speed, and lands a clean roundhouse kick to his side that has Le Chevre flying into a neat arrangement of potted plants. Carmen resists the urge to wince as he lands back-first on the clay. It shatters, and he’s bathed with the dark, damp dirt.
A few geraniums are uprooted and land on his uniform. Carmen doesn’t know if it’s just a coincidence, or an eerily foreboding symbol. She hopes it’s the former.
Le Chevre lets himself lie limp on the wreck, although his eyes are open. His hazel eyes bore holes into Carmen’s form as she approaches him slowly. She decided to use him as questioning material for now. Despite being fruitful, it’s boring to deal with an operative who will just give in completely.
He groans and brings himself up, the dirt cascading down his figure. His hand makes its way to his back, rubbing the spot where he was hit the most. A ray of fear flashes across Le Chevre’s face for a moment, before he steels himself.
Carmen narrows her eyes and gets close enough so that her shadow is looming over his form. He doesn’t shrink, however, but looks really damn annoyed. He’s trying, desperately, to play the arrogant part of the one and only Le Chevre, but the fact that he’s just… blank is leading Carmen to theories she didn’t want to conclude on.
But somehow she knows. Carmen is more interested in getting what’s going on, now that the threat has been apparently neutralized. She doesn’t know if there might be other operatives lurking in the other streets. She doubts it.
For once, it doesn’t matter.
Carmen folds her arms and takes a step closer, deciding she’ll find out.
“It’s just you here?”
Her voice is steady, and she tries to add a dash of intimidation. Not the best for someone who’d landed on their ass on a rooftop just a few minutes ago. Though, she has Le Chevre in her minor throes, so she rules them even.
Carmen couldn’t predict the absolute mass effect her words would have on Le Chevre, because he suddenly looks like he’s just been slapped. He’s practically crumbling, knees collapsing and making his legs go straight in the dirt. He narrows his eyes and feels the dirt on either side of him, grabbing it in his fists. He doesn’t answer for a while, but the silence is enough for Carmen to reach a decision. Still, she wants to hear it directly from him.
“Yes. It is just me.” Le Chevre eventually speaks with a thin voice, rubbing his hands on the spilled soil, flecked with white dots. Normally he’d respond with a hah! you wish! which causes Carmen to begin to take notes.
Carmen clears her throat. Still, it was not the answer she was looking for. She lowers her voice a little bit and decides to ask him in a different way. “I saw you on that rooftop. You had to have been waiting for someone, didn’t you?”
Le Chevre lets out a big breath and looks at her with rage halfway pooling up in his eyes, clearly caught off guard, but knowing better to not show it that easily. “I am not allowed to watch the festivities?” His voice wavered and he brought one of his legs up. It left a skid mark through the dirt, exposing the cobblestone below.
Silence reigned between both of them for a while. The only thing that Carmen could hear were the shouts from the crowd that she had left behind, but the intensity was enough to follow her.
“I’m not stupid, Le Chevre.” Carmen suddenly snaps, her lash having little to no effect on the man. Reaction or not, hurt feelings or not, she wanted to know. Carmen wanted to know what the hell was going on. A strange goal that she’d no longer expect to have. She was beyond surprised at her own self for showing iotas of compassion to her former teammate, the same one that she’d swung at with her fists and bruised with her kicks in the heat of battle.
“Why are you alone?”
It’s like she’s interrogating him. Carmen’s glad she doesn’t need to be compassionate anymore. Did she really ever, though?
Le Chevre takes in a shuddery breath and takes in fistfuls of dirt. He lets them slide out of his hand like an hourglass, intently watching the soil fall out in clumps. She finds it odd that he’s not getting out of the dirt, not shaking himself off and climbing away. He has enough flagpoles and window panes to get leverage off of, but he’s just sitting there.
“Because he’s gone.” The slender man whispers in a voice that’s barely audible, but Carmen can hear the weight of despondency dipping it down, rendering it to nothing by the time he utters the last letter. Carmen was half expecting him to say something along the lines of that, but still she blinks and shakes her head.
“El Topo? What happened?” Now it’s her own rich voice that’s dove alongside with his. She finds herself kneeling on one leg, the other one hiked up. She still remains a considerable distance from him. She’s cooled down a little from her previous outbreak. A weight lands in Carmen’s chest.
“He’s gone.” Le Chevre repeats, voice suddenly rising, and he clenches the damp dirt in his right hand. He forms the chunk into a solid, leaving dents from his fingers on it. Carmen’s throat began to tighten a little bit.
She doesn’t blame him for a moment, she doesn’t blame him for not responding. She doesn’t know how to feel about it, and it’s pathetic—Carmen wants to treat him as the natural enemy, the VILE operative he is, or like a grieving being.
She chooses the latter after minutes of see-sawing.
Le Chevre took in several breaths again, as if he stopped, he too would collapse. Carmen somehow finds herself lulled by it. She distantly hears him murmuring il est parti, and she hears the article at the beginning. She doesn’t need to speak fluent French to know what he’s saying.
Carmen sucks in a sharp breath through her teeth and feels the sting in both her teeth and eyes. The news still hurts, somehow. A dull throb in her heart like an injury presumed to be healed. She thought she wouldn’t consider them her family anymore. How Carmen was wrong.
Her arms just move forward without her permission. Carmen’s hands land in her knees and she slightly stands up, enough to shuffle in Le Chevre’s direction, realizing how close she was to him, but it was too late.
His head perks up to look at Carmen, and she freezes in her tracks, his glassy eyes shining. It’s fear. It’s unmistakable fear. She can see it in his face, everywhere—the way Le Chevre clenches the dirt tighter like a lifeline, his shoes scuffling on the ground, his posture shooting up to the point where Carmen’s worried his spine might snap.
Carmen knows what he’s going through. It’s a mirror image of her and Crackle, and it twists her stomach. The pattern and parallels make her sick. She doesn’t want to know how many times it’s happened before them.
He starts to shake, and Carmen can see the skittish goat start to shine. His muscles tense up. He’s going to run, climb away, because God knows what the Faculty could do if he stood in front of VILE’s real black sheep without trying to engage. Regret is smeared all over his expression. He’s scared, too.
Le Chevre draws his leg in closer, a clear sign that he’s planning on making a break for it. Carmen doesn’t want to let him. In a burst of emotion, she suddenly lunges forward, her knee hitting the stone quite painfully and enveloping her arms around his form.
She keeps him down like a ball and chain. Carmen can feel his muscles tighten and then instantly untense, and she swears he’s going to turn into a puddle with how quickly he did so. She’s not even overthinking it at this point—a thought flashed across Carmen’s mind, and there, she didn’t think of it as being merciful. As being supple. She thought of it as being human.
Carmen can’t see his expression, but his face buries into her shoulder. Doesn’t even try to hide it. Hot tears splash onto Carmen’s coat, she can feel them soaking in through her layers. Carmen tries her best to drag out any compassion towards an enemy from some safe inside herself, rubbing soothing circles on his back with the palm of her hand. Le Chevre’s muffled sobs are audible even through the din of the crowd.
He doesn’t reciprocate the hug, but Le Chevre just lets himself go absolutely loose in her grasp. He comes up for a gulp of air, and this time Carmen looks at his eyes. They’re bloodshot, and tears are running fresh down his cheekbones.
He opens his mouth and averts her gaze, deciding to go back to his spot. Carmen can feel the vibrations of his voice when he says something, but can’t quite hear.
“What?” Carmen whispers close to his ear, confused with how tender it is.
“I loved him.” Le Chevre says in a raspy voice, louder and closer to her face this time. He sniffs and sighs, his breath jittery and arrhythmic. “I could have saved him, it’s my fault he’s slipped out of my hands, mon amour, it’s my fault he-“
As if to silence him, Carmen grips the side that she has her arm looped around. He gets the message. Her other hand goes up and down his back reassuringly, running parallel to the sleek material of his stealth suit.
“Don’t. Just don’t.” Her voice is thick. “You know who coordinated this. You know who the higher ups are. This had nothing to do with y-“
The heavy sound of footfalls interrupts Carmen, and she curses under her breath, thinking that perhaps it was backup. She doesn’t loosen her grip though, despite the fact that if they were caught, it was Le Chevre being excommunicated this time.
Except it wasn’t. She sees two redheaded figures skid to a stop on the smooth cobblestone, one slightly losing his balance at one point. Ivy looks at Carmen with wild eyes, one hand outstretched as if to warn her, but she drops it down to her side when she realizes what’s going on. Zack lifts a hand close to his chin, and Carmen can easily see how their rage melted into bewilderment.
They don’t say anything, though, as if any word would snap everything out. As if this was some sort of fever dream, and the slightest utter could wake them up. Carmen is sure that Le Chevre knows they’re there, but he doesn’t lift his head or acknowledge them at all. She’s certain it’s better that way.
Ivy curls her lip at the sight of the goat man, but still says nothing. Her hand clenches into a fist, and Zack shuffles one leg behind his other.
Carmen takes a breath, synchronous with Le Chevre letting one out. They finally draw away. Le Chevre still doesn’t meet her eyes, but he wipes his own with the back of his hand.
“...Thank you, Black Sheep.” His tone isn’t hollow, like she expected. He means every word. Somehow the name at the end still punches Carmen in the gut.
Carmen can’t reply. She looks back at Zack and Ivy, and their faces are scrawled with betrayal. Anger.
It sinks into Carmen harder and harder and it did before—reconciling with the enemy. At least, that’s what it looked like to them. Ivy had been the one to stop Carmen and tell her not to try anything, that one wrong move meant she was dead, and what did Carmen do?
She couldn’t blame them, and Carmen knew she would easily be able to explain. But she can’t. It doesn’t reassure her by an inch. Her tongue is glued to the roof of her mouth. Carmen stands up, her knees aching at the sudden movement. All three pairs of eyes land on her at the same time.
She can’t decipher what emotion is in the twin’s voices, but like a stupid, stupid coward, she suddenly finds herself spinning on her heel and running. Every footstep sounds like a hammer banging on a wall. How incredibly worse it would make the situation—that she was aware of—but it felt good. It felt good. Carmen wanted to get out of there; of Ivy’s hurt look, Zack’s unsteadiness, of Le Chevre’s vicinity.
Carmen sneaks a look back. Le Chevre is gone. Zack and Ivy are still stuck to the ground. She doesn’t know if Player knows what’s going on.
Her eyes blur. Carmen can hear the cheers getting louder as she turned corners everywhere, not caring which one she took, if she led herself right smack-dab into the crowd she so desperately wanted to avoid.
Her breath, raw and agitated in her ears, was the only with her at that moment.