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SUREFIRE.

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FILE 001

 


 

MARCH 2020 – INTERNATIONAL SENTINEL BUREAU – PITTSBURGH FACILITY

 

The Pittsburgh Sentinel Facility’s mess hall is crowded at midday on a Saturday when Sidney arrives. Sentinels, Guides, and other agents are rolling in en-masse from morning trainings. Groups of staff have already posted up around the room, filling their plates before the ravenous sentinels can empty out the best lunch options. It doesn’t look like they have many teams out in the field either, and the older prospects from the youth facility are onsite for their own trainings.

The range of activity varies greatly from table to table. There’s a quiet pair nearby dressed in Vancouver blues who Sid guesses are returning from a mission from the weary way they lean into each other. The sentinel’s hand is closed around the wrist of her guide as she eats with one hand. A table over sits a group of energetically debating ops technicians, including Flower, who sends a jaunty wave in Sid’s direction. The prospects sit along the back wall, all somewhere on a line between simply exhausted from morning drills to a bit overwhelmed at the sight of so many fully fledged sentinels. Where they sit on that line is directly connected to how long each of them has been in the program, Sid knows, though he can’t completely empathize. The program had been so much smaller when he was a prospect, and he honestly can’t remember the first time he came to the main facility. He thinks he was five... somewhere in between summers at the Shattuck training facility.

Forks and knives clatter against plates. The smell of grilled chicken, steamed broccoli, seedy bread, bacteria cultures inside yoghurt, the little bit of cinnamon that the cook uses in the oatmeal – dirt, sweat, hormones – all swirl through the air. Voices rise and fall, hundreds of words bouncing off the walls. The pale yellow accents on the Pittsburgh regulation gear are stark even with the light pouring in from the high windows. Thousands and thousands of stimuli bombard Sid – but at the forefront is the subtle heat of one specific human body behind him, a metronome of a single breathing pattern, the feeling of one finger on his elbow as Sid turns towards the food line.

“What you want, Sid? I get, you find seat.”

Zhenya doesn’t speak loudly, but his guide’s voice easily slides right over all of the commotion and directly to Sid.

“The usual is fine,” Sid says, even though there’s no set menu – Zhenya will know what to get for him.

Sid picks an open table on the far end of the room with clear sight lines to the mess hall doors. He taps out a rhythm on the wood tabletop, matching the pace of Zhenya’s heartbeat, which is still clear to him from across the room. Sid runs over this morning’s drills in his head as he waits. It’s a means to not rudely eavesdrop on any of the conversations around him. He could listen in on the two young prospects whispering to each other across the room if he wanted to, but he doesn’t and it’s easy to filter the stimuli out before processing it. Sid checks back in when he hears Zhenya’s voice through the crowd.

“One cookie for Sid.”

“That still means you have three. Not cool, Geno,” a rookie sentinel named Sheary complains as Zhenya deposits the last four cookies onto his tray.

His guide, also young and recently cleared for active duty, Guentzel, stands behind them, looking equally put out.

“You have last cookies when your field record better than mine,” Zhenya tells the sentinel with a gleeful smile.

Sid snorts. Together he and Zhenya, the Monster, as their field tag denotes, have the best record of any pair in the entirety of the Sentinel Program. By himself, Zhenya’s field record actually ranks him above almost every field agent, and even a few sentinels in the bureau – a fact that he never lets them forget.

“You know,” Guentzel chimes in, “Guides don’t really need to be focusing on their own field stats. It’s their sentinel’s that matter.”

Sid hears Zhenya’s heartbeat speed a little with happiness as he turns to Guentzel.

“Good point, rookie. Ok, then you get last cookies when Sheary’s record better than Sid’s,” Zhenya says, and then turns away, laughing as he goes, leaving the pair groaning in his wake.

Zhenya’s still smiling when he sits down across from Sid, who can’t help but grin back. The plate Zhenya sets down in front of Sid is filled with two chicken breasts, a hearty green salad mixed with quinoa, and a bowl of greek yoghurt with some sort of grain stirred in. One cookie rests on the edge of his plate and Sid usually avoids sweets, but Zhenya knows he has a soft spot for chocolate chip.

“Why do you give them so much shit?” Sid asks as he cuts into the chicken. “They’re showing a ton of promise and had great scores before they went active. Better than most of the prospects that have gone active in the last few years.”

Geno downs his cup of apple juice in one go, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

“I’m know. Just want make sure they don’t get big heads,” Zhenya says which makes Sid huff out a laugh. “Big head, get arrogant. Die in field. Just helping.”

“What a saint,” Sid mocks.

“Yes,” Zhenya agrees, slathering peanut butter on an apple slice.

“You look at the mission file yet?” Sid asks.

They got the message in after training this morning. Zhenya nods, pulling a small tablet out of his pocket and unlocking it. He slides it across to Sid.

“Two team mission,” Zhenya says, which makes Sid raise his brows a bit.

They work with other teams on occasion – but it always means the job is either really big or someone paid a lot of money to have two sentinel teams deployed.

“Ukraine?” Sid says as he skims.

“Data recovery,” Zhenya confirms.

Sid keeps reading and then he frowns. Zhenya catches the change immediately, no doubt knowing exactly what Sid just read.

“They good, Sid. Some of best, even if unguided,” Zhenya says, ripping a piece off his toast.

Sid doesn’t reply, just fights the tightening in his chest as he reads the mission file.

Deploy Teams: The Monster, Tazer+Kaner

 


 

MARCH 2020 – I.S.B. – CHICAGO FACILITY

 

There’s a funny sound in the pipes. The water pressure increases right above the interview room. The irregularity sticks out like a sore thumb, the simple shhhhhhh blacking out everything else.

Shhhhh.

Shhhhhhhhhh.

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh –

“Kaner!”

Patrick blinks. The room around him comes back into focus. A young woman sits in the chair across the table from him. Patrick can see Sharpy in the reflection of what he knows is a two-way mirror. Beyond it he can still hear the quiet sounds of scientists making notes. Patrick cranes his neck back to look back at Sharpy.

“Well, considering I just zoned in the room with her, I doubt we’re particularly compatible,” Patrick says.

It makes the woman laugh at least. She’s an ISB agent in with a team from California. They always run willing agents through this process when they visit the Chicago Facility. He knows that potential guides are used to this process, that they go through it at any Facility with unpaired sentinels, but it’s on another level for Patrick.

He tips his chair back on its legs as the woman gets up.

“Sorry. Good luck,” she says kindly as she goes to the door.

The next one comes in right after her. It’s a man in his mid-thirties with dark hair and a hoodie that reads International Sentinel Bureau. Patrick never understands why they made swag like that when it isn’t allowed off Facility grounds. Not that people don’t know the ISB exists, but you can hardly brag about being part of a global peacekeeping agency that runs secret operations all over the world. The man sits down and opens his mouth, presumably to introduce himself.

“Nope,” Patrick says before he can get it out.

He can feel Sharpy rolling his eyes, but he also dutifully thanks the agent for his time. The man leaves with a chuckle. Patrick might have a reputation.

“You could at least give them more than ten seconds each, Peeks,” Sharp says, making a note on a tablet.

“Talk to me when you’ve been through eight hundred and seventeen of these,” Patrick says, never forgetting the exact number of potential guides they’ve thrown him in a room with. “You’ve only had to endure these for a year.”

“Yeah, and yet you alone make me wish I’d stayed in the field,” Sharpy says.

“You saw a lot of me then, too,” Patrick points out.

Sharpy acted as a field handler for him and Jonny for years, and Patrick’s known him for a lot longer besides.

“Yeah, but you’re much less of a shit in the field.”

Patrick shrugs as Sharpy locks the tablet and puts the stylus away.

“That the last of them?”

“Yeah, you can go, but wait around until Tazer’s out,” Sharpy says – unnecessarily. Patrick always waits. “We’ve got a mission in.”

That raises Patrick’s spirits as he heads through the door and to the observation room across the hall. The techs don’t say much when Patrick enters, instead looking through the glass or staring at monitors into the room where Jonny sits across from the young woman Patrick met only a few minutes ago. His gaze flicks away from her and towards the glass. He doesn’t doubt Jonny knows someone’s entered the room, but wonders if he knows that it’s Patrick. Probably.

Patrick leans against a table and watches as Jonny refocuses on the conversation he’s having with the ISB agent. Jonny always runs through a quick set of questions with them, gives them a solid three minutes each where Patrick can’t even be bothered anymore.

They both used to give each interview their all. Patrick remembers leaning across the table, focusing intently on each new person. Muttering to the observer in the room, ‘I… I think I might feel something? Maybe?’ They’d move on to true compatibility testing, in the hopes of raising it to lab testing – nobody ever made it past the active tests. Ten years later, Kaner’s desperation has long run out. He’s pretty sure there wouldn’t be any kind of maybe if someone with actual bio-imprint potential walked through the door.

Jonny finishes up his line of questioning and then shakes his head minutely, enough for his coordinator to excuse the woman. He thanks her for meeting him and the man comes in.

Rinse. Repeat.

Kaner swipes a tablet off the table and uses his thumbprint to get into his own interface. It’s more colorful than most people’s, less words, more symbols. He flicks over to the message icon and opens up the mission file. It sounds like a good job.

And he can’t help but smirk when he sees who else is assigned.

 

“Fuck, Kaner…”

The words leave Jonny’s lips unbidden. One of his hands is clasped around the headboard and one is twisted into Patrick’s curls as the sentinel tries to suck his soul out through his dick. Jonny’s breath comes rapidly, chest slick from the weight training that Patrick pulled him away from, and from the way they’d wrestled each other into bed. He’s pretty sure he’d have bruises if there wasn’t a superhuman serum running through his veins.

“I’m close,” Jonny gasps – which is of course when Patrick digs his thumbs into the crease where his legs meet his hips.

It hurts, tickles like a bitch, and Kaner is a fucking asshole.

“Shit!” he says, knees snapping up as Patrick pulls off his dick. “Why?”

Patrick laughs, shrugging as if to say why not? He jacks Jonny loosely and sucks a temporary mark into his inner thigh. Jonny releases the headboard so he can grab at Patrick, pulling him up the bed to slam their mouths together and align their hips. The kiss is all teeth and tongues and rough hands that feel like fire on Jonny’s skin. He rolls them over, grinding their hips together.

He plants his knees when Patrick slides a hand between them, taking them both in hand. He bites at Patrick’s neck and groans when he feels a hand tug on the hair at his nape. Jonny’s thrusts get erratic and Patrick’s hand speeds up, palm rolling over the heads of their cocks at the top of his stroke.

“Fuck,” Jonny curses as he seizes up.

He comes over Patrick’s hand and stomach and quickly gets one of his own hands between them. His fingers twine with Patrick’s, quickly bringing him over the edge, too.

Most of their sex isn’t gentle, but it’s satisfying , that’s for damn sure. Jonny flops to the side and Patrick’s smiling wide as he catches his breath.

“Nice one, Tazer,” he says. “Though, after this long, you’d think you’d have better stamina.”

Jonny doesn’t even bother pointing out that Patrick came about thirty seconds after him. He simply flips him off as the smaller sentinel hops off the bed to find something to clean them off. He’ll never understand how Patrick has so much energy after an orgasm.

The smell of the cleaning spray they use in the bathrooms catches Jonny’s attention and he must zone because when he regains awareness he has no come on his stomach, a blanket over his body, and the lights are out. Patrick must have noticed that he zoned, but unless they’re in the middle of something, they don’t really bother trying to jump each other out. It’s never particularly pleasant to be forced out of a zone.

Once again present, Jonny turns to loop an arm over Patrick’s hips, pulling his back to Jonny’s chest. It’s quiet, and warm between them in ways Jonny stopped questioning years ago.

“So,” Patrick murmurs, softer in the dark. “None of them showed any signs today?”

“No,” Jonny says.

He hadn’t even felt a whisper of anything different with any of the eight candidates they brought in for interviews. It’s frustrating. They both were given the serum young, considered sure things from their first years in the program. They passed test after test with flying colors. With a guide you’ll be unstoppable, Q used to say – and still says. No guide came.

Jonny looks across the room, can see clearly in the dark the other bed in the room. Even these quarters are set up for a sentinel and guide. Sentinels sleep better with their guides in the same room – or so Jonny’s been told. Instead Patrick uses the other bed. First they were roommates at the main facility, after they went active and moved from the prospects’ campus. It was supposed to be temporary, until he and Patrick found guides. When years passed and they didn’t find guides, they were offered separate rooms. They declined, and not long after that they stopped being paired with anyone but each other on missions. It isn’t the same as having a guide, but they can cover each other’s weaknesses in the field.

It’s pretty standard for unguided sentinels to be paired up on missions. Nobody has ever been paired in this way as long as Jonny and Patrick, though. They’re good – almost the best. They work phenomenally together, a product of an instant compatibility and fourteen years of training side by side. They’re good at controlling their zoning in the field. They have ironclad grips on their wild-running senses. They have abilities and skills that you just can’t make in a lab. Their field records are breathtaking.

They’re still not reaching their full potential, though. Jonny knows how hobbled they are, always having to reign in their senses to avoid zoning. They could be so much more.

It’s like Patrick’s reading his mind.

“What if we never find guides?”

It’s rasped out and Jonny takes a deep breath.

“Then we’ll find a way to be the best without them,” he says it with absolute conviction.

But then Patrick continues. Jonny thinks he’s looking at the other bed, too. Jonny’s hand rests over Patrick’s heart. He can smell the change in the other sentinel, the anxiety neither of them can ever truly voice.

“What… what happens if we do?”

Jonny’s throat clicks. They don’t talk about this. He wants to reach his potential more than anything in the world and he knows Patrick feels the same. They’re proud to have been chosen for the Sentinel Program and they’re fiercely loyal to their duties – it’s the very fabric of who they are, the truth found at the very core of both of them, and they can do better for the world if they are better . And they can’t be better together than they could be with guides.

So they don’t talk about this.

Because Jonny doesn’t have an answer.  

 


 

MARCH 2020 – UKRAINE

 

The road beneath the truck is rough and Patrick has his legs stretched out in front of him. He’s only half listening to Jonny going over the mission details with Seabrook, the handler they’ve been working with most frequently since Sharpy gave up field work. Instead of listening to all the facts he’s already memorized, Patrick’s seeing if he can get Crosby to snap before Jonny calls him out.

He forces himself not to laugh at the way Crosby’s shoulders are hunched in, giving him the appearance of a sullen teenager. Malkin’s got a calming hand on the back of his neck but it doesn’t seem to be doing much. It lasts until Patrick lets himself zone for the fourth time in half as many hours.

He’s jolted back to the present by a savage pinch to his arm.

“Motherfucker! Damnit, Jonny,” he says, rubbing his palm over the spot.

Jonny doesn’t even look up from the tablet in his hands.

“Quit trying to work Sid up,” he says.

“He already thinks we’re incompetent so I’m completing the picture,” Patrick says.

Crosby rolls his eyes. Next to him, Malkin has his head tipped back and his eyes closed like it’s possible to catch a wink of sleep in this tin shakerbox.

“I don’t think you’re incompetent. Unguided sentinels are just inherently unpredictable. I don’t like unnecessary variables in the field,” he says like the fucking robot he is.

“He’s not wrong,” Jonny adds like the fucking traitor he is.

Patrick just shrugs and then lets out an oof as they presumably drive over another pothole the size of Lake Michigan.

“Well that’s what we’ve got Seabs here for,” Patrick says, jerking his thumb in the direction of the senior ISB agent.

“It’s not the same thing,” Crosby insists, leaning back a bit towards Malkin, who cracks an eye open.

The guide looks down towards Crosby and murmurs something in Russian. Crosby lifts a shoulder and says something back in kind. Patrick knows five languages, but Russian isn’t one of them and he narrows his eyes as he tries to decide if they’re talking about him.

He’s saved from further delightful conversations with the world’s least exciting superhuman as the truck rolls to a stop.

“Finally,” Patrick says, following Jonny and Seabs out through the back doors.

Outside is a small base of operations. Their target is a couple miles out, and the camp is made up of a number of trucks and tents with various personnel milling around. Patrick spies Crawford and a Pittsburgh ops tech that he vaguely recognizes releasing a couple low-profile surveillance drones. The case was kicked to them from Interpol, so he isn’t surprised to see Duncs coordinating with a couple of Interpol agents.

He means to turn towards Jonny to say something about overkill, but his eyes don’t move and a thu-thump… thu-thump… thu-thump… fills his ears. There’s a boy – well, a young man – in an Interpol jacket standing behind a bigger man who’s speaking to Duncs in a heavy Russian accent. He’s got dirty blonde hair that’s curling out just a little at the very ends. He’s got blue eyes and a little scar right over his left eyebrow.

He doesn’t even tear his eyes away when Duncs moves in their direction. The younger man murmurs to the big Russian, who says something back before letting out a laugh. A softer smile hits the younger man’s face, and then he looks over. His eyebrows raise and Patrick can hear his words crystal clear from all the way across the clearing, even if he can’t understand them.

Da , sentinels,” the bigger man says like a confirmation.

Then Duncs is there and Patrick opens his mouth to ask but someone beats him to the punch.

“Who’s that?” Jonny says.

Patrick looks over and sees that Jonny is staring, too. Maybe there’s something wrong with this kid and their heightened senses are picking up on it. Maybe he should go to the doctor if he’s drawing this much attention.

“Who? The Interpol agents?” Duncs says, glancing over his shoulder at them. “They’ve been working the Hordiyenko cases and called us in. The big one’s Ovechkin and the rookie’s Panarin. Why?”

Jonny doesn’t give an answer, just shrugs and continues to stare.

“Panarin’s the one who figured out the Hordiyenkos got some sensitive data with their last weapons take,” Patrick remembers from the file.

“I’m going to go ask him some follow up questions…” Jonny says, and Patrick thinks that’s a good idea – there’s always something left out of a report.

“I’ll come, too,” Patrick says.

He doesn’t see the way it makes Duncs raise a brow, or the way that Crosby tips his head to the side, eyes narrowing.

“Sid and I ones who speak Russian. We should be ones to –”

Crosby puts a hand on Malkin’s arm, and shakes his head. Malkin asks something in Russian but Patrick ignores it as he follows Jonny towards an open tent where the Interpol agents seem to be looking over some blueprints of the compound that he, Tazer, and the Monster will be taking in just a few hours.

Panarin looks up when they get close, eyes going a little wide.

“You’re the one who noticed the drives were missing?” Jonny asks and Patrick rolls his eyes.

“He means hello. This is Tazer, and I’m Kaner,” Patrick says, reaching a hand out to both Russians in turn.

“Ovechkin! You friendly for sentinels. Usually mind own business. Come fight things, go home,” Ovechkin says, but seems delighted by the change of pace.

It’s a fair assessment, as Crosby stands with his eyes closed by their truck, presumably in the middle of one of his many pre-mission rituals. Honestly, Patrick and Jonny usually keep to themselves, too. Not today apparently.

“Panarin,” the younger agent says and then Patrick clasps his hand.

It’s warm, and Patrick can feel the ridges of each of his fingerprints. He has an interesting smell about him that Patrick can’t help but hone in on. Maybe he does have cancer or something and Patrick can smell it like one of those sniffer dogs.

Jonny shakes his hand too, but then seems to forget to let go for a long minute. Ovechkin tips his head to the side and Panarin starts to look a little nervous. Jonny hasn’t zoned but he’s certainly being weird. Patrick raises a brow and waits to speak until Jonny finally lets go – freak.

“You look a little young to be an Interpol agent,” Patrick says, which makes Ovechkin release a startling boom of laughter.

“Tyusha special! I find in Moscow. Has good eyes, so I bring home – like lost puppy,” Ovechkin says and Panarin’s face flames. He mutters something in Russian that Ovechkin ignores. “It pay off! You right; Tyusha notices drives not where they usually are. We realize Hordiyenkos take more than just weapons and call ISB.”

“Is this the layout of the compound?” Jonny asks, looking down at the papers spread across the table, because he has a one track mind like that.

Da. Yes,” Panarin says, pushing them in the sentinels’ direction. He looks to Ovechkin to continue but the older Interpol agent seems to be deliberately ignoring his signals. Clearly he’s not very used to speaking English. Patrick finds it endearing. “Think… weapons here. Data too, maybe. Need catch all Hordiyenko people for info. Other bases. If go… leave…? Tell others, be ready. Most important.”

It’s rough, both in pronunciation and vocabulary, and it makes Patrick smile wide, earning him a grin in return. Jonny seems to understand well enough, too, bobbing his head as he looks at the map between glances at Panarin.

“So we’ve got to capture all of them alive and make sure nobody calls out before we’ve secured the facility,” Jonny sums up.

Patrick’s heart speeds with excitement. It’s a good mission, and Patrick always feels a bit of a rush before an operation like this. This is what everything is about.

“Sounds fun,” Patrick says.

Ovechkin laughs again, slapping Patrick on the shoulder – but the sentinel just focuses on the way that Panarin’s lips curl upward at the corners.

 

Zhenya notices that Sid is onto something pretty quickly. He was a little put out they hadn’t got to speak to the Interpol agents – Zhenya likes any excuse to get a bit of Russian exposure. Even though he came to the USA at age thirteen, he still misses it. Still, the focus in Sid’s eyes was more than enough to convince Zhenya to let things play out.

Sid’s eyes flick across the camp regularly as he pulls gear out of the truck. He hands Zhenya a set of remote stun charges and then straps a set to his own leg. He tips his head to the side as he pulls his tactical vest over his head and slips a 9mm into the holster at the small of his back. Zhenya follows suit, eyes softening at the familiar motions, heart swelling in his chest.

He loves working with Sid. He loves seeing the way a steely calm falls over him. He loves the deadly way he moves and the way that nobody is better than Sid, and that together they are the best.

Really he just loves Sid, too. He knows Sid doesn’t love him in the same way – perhaps doesn’t love that way at all. Sid is special, Zhenya knows. So he’s just happy he gets to be the one who makes Sid the best. Sid notices Zhenya looking at him, eyes crinkling with a little smile in response to the deep grin on Zhenya’s face.

“What?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Zhenya says. “Excited to be in field. Too long since last mission.”

They both get restless when they’re without a mission for a while. Luckily, due to their record, that doesn’t happen very often.

They walk over to Flower to get last minute ops details. They study the images on screen from Flower’s drones, but a few minutes in, Zhenya notices Sid’s attention has wavered again. He follows the sentinel’s eye line to the tent that Interpol’s been using – and where Tazer and Kaner are still hovering. The younger Interpol agent seems to be walking the sentinels through some data and Zhenya can’t hear what they’re saying from here, but he knows that Sid can so he doesn’t interrupt. Flower finishes his report and heads in the direction of one of the trucks to check his electrical connections. Zhenya waits until Sid pulls his comm out of his pocket and begins tapping away at the screen.

“What you doing?” Zhenya asks.

“I’m messaging Mario.”

Zhenya’s brows raise, confused as to what possible reason Sid could have for massaging the head of the North American Sentinel Program right before they’re deployed for a mission.

“Why?”

Sid finishes his message and then looks back up to where Tazer and Kaner are following the Interpol agent over to a set of monitors.

“Because Agent Panarin is guide compatible,” Sid says with absolute certainty.

“Hmm?” Zhenya says, considering, looking back over. “To which one?”

Zhenya is happy for whichever one might get a guide. He knows that they’ve been looking for years and years with no success. It would be a very big deal if Tazer or Kaner were paired. But when Sid speaks, Zhenya’s head snaps back around.

“Both of them,” Sid says and the words ring in the air.

Zhenya looks back up, eyes wide as he watches as the two sentinels move closer to Panarin.

 


 

FEBRUARY 2019 – POLICE STATION – MOSCOW

 

Artemi Panarin’s world ended three times by the time he was twenty years old. The third and most recent time is Vova’s fault. He got caught up in things he had no business getting caught up in – and in one bloody night Artemi lost the very last person in the world who cares about him. Artemi is alone, again .

The interrogation room is cold. Artemi is cold, hollow, even as he recounts the events in excruciating detail. A man with a badge that says International Police, stands across the table, arms across his chest – Agent Ovechkin, he says. He keeps asking questions, and Artemi keeps answering. His eyes ache, completely empty of tears. He has no more to give.

The man tips his head to the side, narrows his eyes to slits. Then he makes Artemi an offer, of all things.

Perhaps the universe hasn’t abandoned him completely. Maybe he still has a chance. At least that’s what he’ll think when his heart stops splitting in two. He hadn’t grown up with Vova. They weren’t brothers, but he showed Artemi how to box, how to not start shit with the wrong people.

He should have taken his own advice.

“Look,” Ovechkin says, palms flat to the metal table, Interpol jacket stretched tight across his shoulders. “I know you have nothing to do with the Hordiyenkos. Your friend got in with the wrong people, and you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, there are two ways this can go. You can walk back into Moscow, a city that clearly hates you, and feel sorry for yourself forever – or you come with Sasha and you catch your friend’s murderer and you make the world a better place.”

He pats Artemi on the cheek roughly, twice, in a gesture that Artemi assumes is supposed to be bracing, but ends up stinging instead.

The choice is simple, though.

“Fuck Moscow,” Artemi says.

Ovechkin lets out a booming laugh, smacking a hand against his chest as if it’s too much.

“Good. Come along, Tyusha,” Ovechkin says. “Maybe we’ll find a place for you.”

It opens a whole new world for Artemi. For the first time since his grandpa died over a decade before, the twenty-year-old feels like he’s on a path leading somewhere – he feels like he’s living for more than the next day, living to be more than a street-rat scrounging around the shittiest neighborhoods in Moscow.

And the whole world is a lot wider than Artemi would have ever thought. He drinks in Sasha’s words like a wanderer in the desert. He consumes everything he comes across with the fervor of a starving man.

He finds Vova’s murderer three months after leaving Moscow.

It feels like the last page of the first book of his life. It’s the goodbye to Artemi, the unwanted, the victim of fate.

It’s a hello to Agent Panarin.

 


 

MARCH 2020 – UKRAINE

 

“Which one is the sentinel and which one is the guide?” Artemi asks Sasha as he watches the ISB’s Kaner and Tazer disappearing into the woods towards the Hordiyenko compound with another agent they called Seabrook. The other two ISB agents were already gone, getting into position.

Artemi heard of sentinels before he joined Interpol. To most of the public, they’re considered a sort of global rumor. They’re the kind of thing that comes up at family dinners and back ally poker games in the same way. Saddam Hussein was killed by sentinels, you know, one person will say. Shut up, sentinels aren’t real, someone else will say with just as much certainty. Then another person, more educated, will add, the ISB exists, but it’s an international secret agent organization. The superhuman thing is just a conspiracy theory.

Even so, Artemi was still a little surprised when he found out that they do exist, and that pretty much everything he’s heard about them is true. He consumed as much material on them as Interpol had to offer – he’s probably gone through fifty percent of their entire record base, on a range of topics, if he’s being honest. There’s just so much out there.

The reports of the sentinels’ feats are nearly unbelievable, even when compared to the rest of Interpol’s records, and Artemi finds it hard to wrap his head around how much can be accomplished by so few of them.

Though oddly, what he finds most interesting, is the existence of their guides.

To fully harness their superhuman abilities, a sentinel must have a human guide. This guide acts as an anchor for the sentinel so that their own enhanced senses don’t overwhelm them.

Artemi and Sasha approach the monitor array that’s being manned by a pair of ISB ops techs that they were introduced to earlier. They’re muttering to each other in French when Sasha stops and leans over one of their shoulders to look closer at the image on one of the screens, where the five tracking pins can be seen flashing across a map.

“I don’t know,” Sasha says and then switches to English. “Which ones sentinels and which ones guides?”

“Hmm?” Fleury says as he types away at a keyboard. “Oh. Well with mine, the smaller weird one is the sentinel, and the big Russian one with him is his guide.”

“The Monster,” Artemi confirms. He’d heard about them specifically in a few records, nothing detailed, but just enough for Artemi to know that they’re a huge deal in the world of underground operations and intelligence. Fleury nods his head in agreement. “Others?”

“Yeah, Kaner and Tazer. They’re both sentinels. Neither of them have guides so they usually work together,” Fleury says, making a few more adjustments to his surveillance drones. Artemi’s eyes strain for the first sign of action. “Seabrook is their handler for now.”

Artemi wants to ask more questions but then the other tech interrupts.

“Kaner and Tazer are approaching in from the south,” Crawford says.

Fleury promptly stops paying attention to Artemi and Sasha. He leans forward and tweaks a few more controls.

“The Monster is inbound from the northeast. I’m triggering the comm jammers. Kessel, cut the landlines. We’ve got blackout in three, two, one…”

“Kaner and Tazer reaching target now.”

And then anything Artemi’s ever read about sentinels is blown right out of the water. Kaner and Tazer breach the facility first, coming over the walls and then opening a side door so their handler can follow.

“Kaner, Tazer, heat signals up on your left,” Crawford says and Artemi’s eyes are glued to the screens.

The surveillance drone has followed them into a small courtyard where a few Hordiyenko men are resting, still armed to the teeth.

It doesn’t matter. The men are not ready. There’s no way they could be ready.

The sentinels move almost too fast for the drone to catch. Seconds later the men are stunned, cuffed, and tossed into a corner. They’re moving on without hesitation. They take down three more men on the way around the perimeter of the stronghold.

Then there’s a little flash of light on Fleury’s monitor.

“Geno, I know the charges are fun but you’re going to draw attention. I’m still seeing a bunch of heat sigs - too many will attack or run,” Fleury says, switching to a different main view. Then he laughs. “I don’t care if this is boring. Sid’s right, stop kicking the anthill.”

Artemi’s brow furrows and he finally realizes the discrepancy.

“Guide alone,” he says, and Fleury glances back. “Where sentinel?”

They should be together, right? That’s how this usually works. But Fleury’s display is only on the guide, whom he called Geno, and the map is only showing one red dot in his zone. Fleury grins wickedly, eyes still stuck to the screen as he switches views again. It’s a huge central room, with at least fifteen men already bound on the ground. Fleury switches again, and there’s a lone sentinel moving fast, across a hall, up a set of stairs. Geno seems to have arrived at the base of the main building, ready to stop anything coming in or out. Artemi’s lips are parted.

Fleury shoots Artemi a side-eyed glance, looking a bit gleeful.

“The Monster’s got two heads.”

Artemi’s overwhelmed, and his attention is diverted again when Crawford starts talking a little louder.

“I’ve got a group that’s come across the Monster’s leavings. They’re spooked and moving,” he says. “Headed southwest. Seabs, get them down there.”

Not a minute later, his mouth goes a little dry as he sees Kaner and Tazer come upon the group of fleeing men. It’s two on eleven, but the Hordiyenkos could be a group of two year olds for all the threat they pose to the pair of sentinels. It’s a different kind of shock to see them work together, even if they don’t have quite the unearthly quality of the Monster’s sentinel; they can keep up with each other and Artemi can’t really think of another word for their actions except beautiful. There’s almost an exuberance in their movements. The men have guns, but it’s like the sentinels are bulletproof, like they know exactly where the men will shoot before they even fire. Weapons hit the ground, men follow.

Artemi swallows hard.

He doesn’t look up when Sasha’s phone rings. He keeps watching, heart in his throat.

He does look up when Sasha begins swearing violently, though. Sasha’s face is thunderous as he listens to someone on the other line. His mentor then chucks his phone onto the dusty ground.

“What’s wrong?” Artemi asks, eyes flashing between Sasha and the screens, afraid of what he might see.

But Sasha doesn’t look worried, just angry. He sighs, heavily , dramatically .

“I’m need new rookie,” he says. “That’s what’s wrong.”

 


 

MARCH 2020 – ABOVE THE ATLANTIC

 

Their departure from the Ukraine is delayed. It’s put off for a few hours while they can set up a series of calls between the ISB and Interpol, between Mario Lemieux and Agent Artemi Panarin.

Who apparently Patrick and Jonny both have some level of compatibility with.  

“How didn’t we notice?” Jonny breathes by his side as a tech sanitizes and bandages a cut along his forearm.

Patrick’s just as shell-shocked. He stands near Jonny, stares at the tent across the camp. They must be talking on an actual phone instead of speakers because Patrick can’t hear any words from the tent. He chews on his bottom lip. He can’t hear Lemieux, but he can hear some soft Russian being spoken – translations from Ovechkin, and he can hear Panarin’s pulse, speeding and slowing at random intervals. He’d give anything to know what it means.

“We were focused on the mission. We weren’t looking for it,” Patrick says – and that’s one excuse, but maybe they’d given up more than he’d realized. “I don’t know. You were acting weird, too. I just thought the kid had a disease or something we were picking up on.”

Jonny just sighed, rubbing his fingers over his jaw.

Maybe some part of them didn’t want to find guides, knowing what it would mean for them as a unit. He’d expect it from himself, but not from Jonny - Mr. We Have to Save the World. Maybe the compatibility is lower for Jonny, the feeling like the center of the camp is wherever Panarin is currently standing – except he sees that Jonny can’t pull his eyes away either.

It’s pretty royally fucked up, Patrick is quickly realizing. He swallows harshly and goes through the motions of closing out a mission, leaning heavily on nearly two decades of training.

Then Artemi Panarin gets on a plane headed to Illinois, and the rest of them follow. They’re sending Crosby and Malkin back to the Chicago Facility, too, on a temporary basis. Due to the… unique circumstances, Mario said it would be best to have a guide and sentinel who could communicate fully with Panarin on site. The Monster agreed without hesitation, but the sour grapes look on Crosby’s face did at least momentarily bring a smile to Patrick’s face.

Normally, he and Jonny would take up residence in the first few rows of any ISB plane they’re on. The fact that Jonny beelines straight for the back is a clear message that he doesn’t want to sit with Patrick. Which probably explains the eyeroll when Patrick plops down in the seat next to him.

Crosby takes a seat somewhere in the middle of the plane and then puts a pair of seriously heavy duty noise cancelling headphones over his ears – just another quirk, Patrick supposes. Panarin and Malkin take seats towards the front, facing each other. Patrick catches the younger Russian’s eye and smiles. He’s following Mario’s request to give the kid space until they’re back in Chicago, but something flutters in his chest when he gets a shy smile in return.

By the time they take off, Patrick has started to shred the safety pamphlet into a million tiny pieces. He starts laughing before he can think better of it.

“Oh my god, this is so fucked up,” Patrick says, and Jonny, who’s tipped his head back and closed his eyes, cracks them open, sighing heavily.

“No reason to think about it,” he says, voice difficult to read. “It’ll all get sorted in Chicago.”

It’s not impossible or even improbable for a human to show compatibility with more than one sentinel. Patrick knows statistically and scientifically it’s sound that two sentinels would show varying amounts of compatibility to a single human at some point.

But them , here, now – after so fucking long.

It’s fucking ridiculous.

Because, even though there are a thousand factors that could disqualify him, Patrick has a sure feeling that if it comes to the question, Panarin is going to say yes to becoming a guide. There’s something in the way his eyes have been following Patrick and Jonny. He can’t put a name to the look, but it certainly isn’t fear or hesitation.

So, it’s almost like the universe is playing some sick joke on them. It was always going to suck for one of them when the first found a guide. Patrick – well he hadn’t made peace with it, but he had at least intellectually known that part.

Patrick runs out of his pamphlet, a pile of confetti left on the floor of the plane. He chews on his lip and Jonny silently passes him his own pamphlet. Patrick can see the individual strands of Artemi’s dirty blonde hair, the back of his head just visible over his seat.

It’s fucked . Because say they are both compatible – it’s not just that one of them left unguided, it’s like they’ll be forced to take Panarin from the other. One of them will get everything, and one of them will lose everything.

His other paper is gone in minutes and he fiddles with the seam of his shirt, feeling restless. Suddenly Jonny’s hand is face up, resting on Patrick’s thigh. Jonny’s chin is resting in his other palm and he’s looking out the window, away from Patrick, but he gets what Jonny is offering.

He’s got a fidget cube on his desk back in Chicago, but Jonny’s hand works.

Patrick begins to feel out each of Jonny’s knuckles, folds and unfolds his fingers. He feels a little less like he wants to jump out of his skin.

Which, once again, just makes this situation that much more fucked up.

 

“You can ask me whatever you want,” Zhenya says in Russian.

They’re seated face to face en-route to O’Hare. The young Interpol agent tips his head back and forth, thinking for a moment.

“How do you and your sentinel work so far apart in the field?” Artemi asks.

It’s certainly not what Zhenya’s expecting him to ask, that’s for sure. He was in the tent with them when Mario explained everything to Artemi, about the scientific function of a guide, about the tests and trials the boy would go through in Chicago to see if he was compatible to become one, to see if he is a fit for both a sentinel and for the ISB as a whole.

“Well,” Zhenya begins. “My Sid and I have been together a very long time. Our bond is very strong. Sid can still feel me, even if he can’t see me.”

Artemi nods, considering.

“How long have you been together?” Artemi asks.

“Almost fifteen years,” Geno says and Artemi’s eyes widen.

“But… how old are you?” Artemi asks, clearly trying to work out some mental math.

Geno laughs, reaching under his seat to retrieve a water bottle. He hands one to Artemi as well.

“Not old - well not very. I’m only twenty seven, Sid’s twenty six. But he’s special. Nobody was ever given the serum younger than Sid was,” Zhenya says - he leaves out the fact that Sid’s the youngest to join the program, too, not wanting to open that can of worms right now. “We met pretty quick after Sid became a sentinel. I became his guide just before I turned thirteen.”

Artemi takes a few sips of his water and then nods, like he’s reviewed it and it all checks out. There’s a curiosity, a spark, in this boy that Zhenya likes.

“Kaner and Tazer are special too by the way,” Zhenya continues and then levels a deadpan look at Kaner, whose head leaned into the aisle when he heard his name. The look on Zhenya’s face has Artemi looking over his shoulder. Instead of looking cowed, Kaner just smiles lopsidedly at being caught eavesdropping on a conversation he can’t even understand. He ducks back into his seat and Artemi is giggling a bit when he turns back around. It softens Zhenya’s heart, but also plucks at a seed of something in his chest. There are things Artemi has to understand, but he’ll get to that in a minute. “Not as young as Sid, but they both got the serum early, too.”

Artemi nods again, but then frowns. He catches his thumbnail against the lip of his water bottle.

“And they haven’t found guides in… however long? Is that normal?”

Zhenya leans back in his seat. He’s not sure if it’s exactly his place to say, but he also thinks Artemi needs as much knowledge as he can gather by the time things start rolling in Chicago. He doesn’t have the advantage of already being immersed in the ISB, of knowing what is and isn’t normal, of knowing what to expect.

“It’s not unusual for some sentinels to remain unguided for a long time. Though… Kaner and Tazer are special like I said. They’re so good that the ISB has tried very, very hard to find them compatible partners. And ten years is a very long time…” Zhenya admits.

“No matches?” Artemi asks.

Zhenya shakes his head. He’s not intimate with the process, especially since he and Sid matched organically and operate out of a different facility. He does know that, within reason, almost every eligible ISB agent in North America has sat down with Kaner and Tazer at some point. He feels like specifically that though, isn’t something Artemi needs to know.

“No. No matches, until you,” Zhenya says.

Artemi bites his bottom lip.

“And now, I’m compatible with both of them,” Artemi reaches the admittedly intimidating conclusion.

“Sid thinks so,” Zhenya says. “We won’t know how much until Chicago, but Sid is rarely wrong about this kind of thing. But don’t worry. Nobody will push you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Artemi raises a skeptical brow and Zhenya gets it. He briefly read over the file on Panarin that was sent over from Interpol. This boy learned a long time ago that people are rarely anything but self-serving. It’s a good segue, because Artemi would be right.

Zhenya takes the opportunity to broach the subject he most wants to get covered before they get off the plane.

“It’s true. They won’t force you or pressure you into being a guide. Do you know why?” Zhenya starts and Artemi shakes his head. Zhenya looks over Artemi’s shoulder to Sid, eyes closed and headphones over his ears. The sentinel always hates the sound of plane engines for some reason. A fond smile spreads over Zhenya’s face. “It’s because the guide and sentinel bond is lopsided.”

“What do you mean?” Artemi asks, concern on his face.

“The bio-imprint is only on the sentinel’s side. It makes you their anchor. You’re the center of their whole world,” Zhenya says, voice taking on an edge of hardness and pride. “There has never been a recorded case of a sentinel leaving their guide - but that’s not true of guides; they can leave. A bio-imprint can fade, and maybe the sentinel could find a new guide, but a second bio-imprint doesn’t stick as well, and most sentinels are never the same. That’s why the ISB won’t push you into being a guide, especially if you weren’t raised in the program. I always knew I might be a guide, so do most ISB agents - but not you. This is why I’m telling you to think very long and very seriously about whether or not this is something you want. A guide doesn’t have anything in them to make them stay. Guides make a choice . They choose every day that they stay.”

Artemi had gone very quiet while Zhenya spoke. The guide finds he can’t read him completely. He feels a little bad about suddenly turning their talk so serious but, even though he’s not particularly close with Kaner or Tazer, he imagines if it was Sid in their place, and he needs Panarin to understand what it means to be a guide.

“Do you ever wish you weren’t a guide?” Artemi asks.

“Never. Not one time,” Zhenya says, harshness leaving his voice. “But like I said. I was raised by the ISB almost as long as I can remember.”

He doesn’t have many memories of the orphanage he was pulled from when he was seven. Almost all his memories are of the ISB - of learning, training, of Sid.

Artemi nods, but his eyes have warmed, too.

“You like being a guide,” Artemi says, and it’s not a question, but Zhenya response anyway.

“I love it. Together Sid and I save the world. He needs me and I’m good at being needed,” Zhenya laughs. “I never want to be anything but his guide. It’s forever, you know. Even when we get pulled from the field one day, I’ll still be Sid’s guide, you understand?”

“Yeah,” Artemi doesn’t hesitate this time, and there’s something fierce that’s come over him. He looks determined. “What was it like, when you met him? Did you know right away?”

“No,” Zhenya says, lazy smile on his face. “I didn’t know right away. We don’t feel anything, on the guide side. I think Sid knew right away, but he didn’t tell me for a few days. He was very nervous with anything not to do with being a sentinel.”

Zhenya looks over at Sid, whose chin has dropped to his chest. A heavy warmth fills his chest and, confirming that Sid definitely can’t hear him, he continues.

“He was very small. Very cute,” Zhenya says. “Couldn’t help but say yes when he said I might be his guide. He had puppy dog eyes. Too sad to leave alone.”

That brings a little laugh out of Artemi, and Zhenya just rolls his eyes as Kaner’s head pops into the aisle again.

“Mind business!” Zhenya barks at him.

Kaner flips him off and ducks back into his seat. Zhenya’s loud order was enough to wake Sid, though. His sentinel pulls one headphone from his ear and raises a brow in question.

“All good, my Sid,” Zhenya says at low volume, knowing the sentinel can hear him clearly even as far apart as they are. He smiles softly. “Go back to sleep.”

It’s enough for Sid, who just smiles back and lets his headphones cover his ears again. His eyes slip closed and Zhenya rests his chin in his palm, leaning against the armrest.

“Yeah. Being a guide is good,” he murmurs warmly, more to himself than Artemi, if he’s being completely honest. “Very good.”

 


 

JUNE 2005 – NORTHERN FRANCE

 

“Can you hear them, Sid?”

Mario asks the question as Sid follows on rapid feet, two paces for every one of Mario’s. The voices are bouncing around in his head and it’s thrilling and chaotic. He’s got better at filtering it out in the past six months since they administered the serum and he transferred permanently to the main Pittsburgh facility. He still zones constantly, but his aptitude tests are off the charts – and unlike the training facility and Shattuck, where his success resulted in some of the other prospects giving him trouble, everyone at the Pittsburgh facility seems to remember the whole point of the sentinel program, the ISB. They don’t care that Sid was given the sentinel serum at age eleven. They seem to think that Sid’s success is all of their success.

Or it will be one day, so Mario says.

“Yeah. I hear lots of them,” Sid says, head tilted sideways.

The interfacility training camp is being held in Northern France this year. It’s the first time Sid has been and the air is warm against his skin, and he can feel the sweat beginning to prickle on his skin. A solid breeze rolls through the June air, carrying the scent of humans en masse.

“Really? Even I can barely hear them yet,” Mario says and Sid flushes.

Mario’s retired, one of the very few sentinels old enough to be. He and his guide, Nathalie, were some of the very first. They changed the world, Sid knows.

“So we’re going to be splitting your time between the prospects in your age bracket and the group of fresh-turns,” Mario says and Sid nods.

He knows the other fresh-turns are all at least three to six years older than him. He’s used to that. It’s the other kids his age that he’s a bit more worried about.

“Anyone gives you trouble, find Dupuis,” Mario says and Sid gives another swift nod. “He’ll be with the rookies.”

They come around a curve in the trail and Sid can’t help the gasp that passes his lips. The Pittsburgh Facility isn’t small, and Shattuck definitely wasn’t anything to scoff at, but each facility only has so many prospects and trainees at a time. His heart races as he sees just how many young people are scattered across the grounds. It’s both exciting and terrifying. They’re all wearing different colors signifying their facility of origin – Washington, Oslo, Los Angeles, Rome, Tokyo, Vancouver, Moscow, Stockholm – and Sid tugs on his own black and yellow shirt.

Determined to not act like the baby everyone thinks he is, Sid quickly makes his way over to the multilingual sign marked U14. The group is about twenty strong, and a pair of coordinators have just arrived and are starting to explain the obstacle they’ll be working their way through in a number of languages. Sid knows a lot of the point of these international trainings is forcing people to use their languages, but Sid certainly doesn’t envy them.

He tries to focus on them, blocking out the rest of the cacophony of the field around him, cutting out the other stimuli one by one, and realizes what he’s doing just before he’d normally zone. He doesn’t, though, and instead his attention wavers. There’s a laugh, a giggle-huffing noise and a snort, and Sid looks over.

There’s a boy standing at the other side of the group. He’s part of a trio in Moscow blue and reds. He’s taller than some of the other kids even though he can’t be more than a year older than Sid. His hands are big at the end of skinny arms and Sid gets the distinct impression of a Great Dane puppy, just waiting to grow into his paws.

The boy looks over and normally Sid would look down, but he doesn’t and the boy smiles at him, gives a little wave. He can hear the boy’s breath coming and going from his lungs and everything else sort of fades out around him – but it’s nothing like zoning. It’s like his mind is quiet for the first time since they gave him the serum, maybe even long before that.

Sid can’t bring himself to push through the crowd and say it though. Everyone here are sentinel prospects, and even though it’s not rare in the slightest for prospects to become guides, it’s hardly the dream of a promising prospect to settle for being a guide – and from the way that the boy runs the course, he’s more than promising.

Sid’s stomach twists for the whole time he waits his turn, trying to decide what to do.

He does his group runs and easily secures the fastest time – but that’s hardly surprising considering he’s the only U14 sentinel and that gives his group a distinct advantage. His team is looking at him with wide eyes as they try to catch their breaths at the end of the course – which is when the Russian boy surprises Sid again.

“Вы Sidney Crosby!” the voice has Sid spinning around and all the other voices disappear. “Самый молодой страж!”

The boy said his name, that he’s sure of, but otherwise Sid’s lost.

“I – I’m sorry,” Sid’s words get all caught up in his throat. “I don’t speak any Russian. Just French and Japanese… and some German… I’m still learning…”

The boy grimaces and gestures to himself.

“Hear some,” he gestures to his ears and then pauses so he can tap his chest. “Talk bad English.”

He looks like he’s genuinely regretful. He looks around and then his face brightens. He gestures for Sid to follow and then jogs towards a group of rookies running sparring drills.

“Seryozha!” the boy shouts and Sid recognizes the man who turns in their direction.

His name is Sergei Gonchar, a young training coordinator that Sid knows splits his time between the Pittsburgh and Moscow Facilities. Sergei replies to the boy in Russian, who then says a few sentences rapidly in return. Sergei rolls his eyes.

“You know half the reason they throw these things is so you can learn how to speak each other’s languages?” he says. The boy frowns, so Sergei repeats it in Russian.

The boy looks a little cowed, but then says something else and gestures towards Sid.

“Zhen—Evgeni wants to tell you that your run was amazing and he’s really excited to meet you. He heard about you from me in Russia,” Sergei dutifully conveys. “He thought it was crazy that there was an eleven year old sentinel but now that he’s seen you he understands.”

Sidney’s face is absolutely burning and he wonders if some of the subtlety was lost in translation, or if this boy is really just free with his praise.

“His run was really good, too. By far the best of anyone I saw,” Sid forces himself to reply, and it’s easier to say if he looks at Sergei and doesn’t look at the boy.

Sid swears he can smell the happiness on Evgeni. He wants to tell him, say it, but this boy is a stranger. So he doesn’t.

 

Well he doesn’t for a while. He holds it through two days of trainings and drills. Through two days of following Evgeni around like a duckling. They get to know each other, through the bridge of gestures and a few English words. Without a bio-imprint, Sid still zones regularly, but it’s less than he ever has before. He holds the realization in, doesn’t tell anyone, until some of the Paris Facility prospects get tired of his outpacing and get nasty.

“Look, just because your dad decided to turn you into a science experiment doesn’t mean you’ll be better than any of us in the long run,” one of them says in rapid French.

Evgeni barely speaks English, and he definitely doesn’t speak French, but the stricken look on Sid’s face must be enough.

Enough for him to clock the Parisian prospect in the face with one bony fist. The boy goes down hard, butt bouncing almost comically on the floor.  

“Ok, Sid?” Zhenya asks, concerned frown on his face.

Coordinators and other prospects swarm around in confusion, which seems like the best time for Sid to look up at the Russian boy and say,

“Evgeni, I think you could be my guide.”

The boy smiles, and out of all responses, just gestures to himself.

“Zhenya,” he says. “For Sid, no Evgeni. Zhenya.

And Sid can’t help but smile.

“Zhenya,” he repeats.

 

Sid can’t bring himself to question anything until he’s sitting side by side with Zhenya on a plane headed for Pittsburgh, a heartbeat louder than the infuriating hum of the plane engines in his ears. Zhenya’s in the window seat, looking down at France shrinking below them.

“You… you don’t have to do this,” Sid says, fingers curled over his armrests. Zhenya looks over at him. “I don’t know what Mario and Sergei said to you but… the won’t make you if you don’t want to. You could be a sentinel yourself.”

Sid doesn’t know how much Zhenya understands of what he’s saying.

“You can go back to Moscow if you want,” Sid insists – and for the first time he doesn’t think about the fact that Mario, sitting a few rows can definitely hear him. “Be a sentinel.”

Finally Zhenya smiles.

“Sid best,” he says.

“What?”

“Lemieux say you want change world – can . Everyone say Sid best. And I almost best,” he says, gesturing to himself. “Together, we be best ever.”

He says it with such fierce excitement that Sid can’t help but believe him.

Zhenya turns towards Sid in the seats that neither of them really fill, and their knobby knees knock together. They’re all missized body parts and potential, but there’s a fire in Zhenya’s gaze, and he can feel it reflected in his own. He can hear the pilots talking to each other in the cockpit and Duper snoring in the back and the engine screaming and vibrating his bones, but, overshadowing all of it, is Zhenya’s heartbeat and a powerful gleam in his eyes.

Sid nods feeling dazed.

“Yeah… yeah. We could.”

And a wild grin spreads over Zhenya’s face.


Chapter Text

 

 


 

FILE 002

 


 

 

SEPTEMBER 2005 – I.S.B. – CHICAGO FACILITY

Jonny doesn’t remember much from before Shattuck. He remembers a few foster homes, a hazy rotation of people coming and going from his life for two years. He remembers throwing himself into classes, into sports. He remembers his caseworker’s words. I think Jonathan is trying to block everything out with school and extracurriculars. I don’t know if it’s considered a good coping mechanism but he shows unusual focus for a seven year old… He remembers men in black suits interviewing him, asking about his interests, asking him if he’d like to be a part of something.

And before any of that, all Jonny remembers is blood. No faces, no voices, just… blood.

It doesn’t matter anymore. Jonathan Toews isn’t an orphan anymore. Jonathan Toews is one of the top five U12 sentinel prospects in North America.

The Chicago Sentinel Facility is a completely different world from Shattuck St. Mary’s Training Academy. The clean lines of the facility come into view slowly, minutes after Martin drove him through two separate security checkpoints, down a wide road lined with towering oak trees.

“I… I thought it would feel more… city?” Jonny murmurs, as great concrete walls and large glass windows deflect falling leaves. “I mean… are we even in Chicago?”

Martin LaPointe, the scouter and coordinator for the central US sentinel program prospects, laughs, loud and open. Jonny likes the man, and has talked to him often in the past three years during his frequent visits to Shattuck, but he doesn’t so much like being laughed at.

“We’re just southwest of the Chicago city limits. You can hardly run drills or training ops in Millennium Park,” Martin says, which Jonny admits is fair.

He twists his fingers into his brand new black and red shirt.

If I’m… well, you say I’m one of the top prospects - so why am I still at Shattuck instead of one of the main facilities? Jonny asked the question on his ninth birthday. Martin brought him a red hoodie with a black lining and told him he’d grow into it.

Based on our assessments, you have a very competitive nature. We thought you’d most benefit from a few years of training with larger groups of prospects closer to your age.

Martin was always honest. Everyone at the ISB seemed to be. Jonny thrived on it. When he was in foster care, he always hated the way people lied constantly to him. They made things up, gave false hope. It’s not like that in the ISB.

Yes, you’re young, the head of Shattuck told him on his first day at the Academy. But no matter if you become a sentinel, a guide, or any other type of agent, you are part of the International Sentinel Bureau now. One day you will have the opportunity to make the world a better place, and that means you have to be better.

Jonny remembers clenching his tiny fists into balls, a fierce pride welling up in his chest for the first time.

Three years later, Jonny got his assignment to a real ISB facility.

“Are you ready?” Martin asks.

“Yes,” Jonny says as they drive under a the sign that reads International Sentinel Bureau: Chicago Facility.

 

It really shouldn’t be a surprise at this point, but the first few days at the Chicago Facility don’t go exactly how Jonny expected them to go. It starts pretty much right away with Stan Bowman, the director of the facility, sitting him down to chat. It begins with introductions, but quickly turns to how his formal education will be run.

“So we have a few small classes for various aged prospects here. Most of them are probably similar to what you’ve experienced at Shattuck. However, we also have a series of classes that are set up a bit differently. We have a prospect your age who is incredibly talented, but learns best in a less traditional environment,” Stan explains.

Jonny’s brow furrows.

“Okay?” he says, unsure what it’s got to do with him.

“Like I said, this prospect’s current statistics are incredibly promising like yours, and every class is benefited by having a few prospects present for collaboration. Plus, I believe that you both could gain a lot from learning in proximity, does that make sense?” Stan continues. “We have a few prospects who have been thriving in the class.”

Jonny keeps his head high, unwilling to show his reservations to a man who will probably decide his entire future in the coming years.

“Yes, sir,” Jonny says, which serves to make Stan smile.

“Look, it doesn’t have to be permanent if it doesn’t work for you. We want every prospect to be able to reach their potential, so we’ll talk in a few weeks, okay?”

That’s how Jonny ends up walking into the cleanest classroom he’s ever been in on a Monday morning. There aren’t posters on the walls, instead they’re a very pale green color, with high windows that let in a lot of natural light, but don’t give a great view of the outdoors. There are a few desks lined up neatly along the back, but the focal point of the classroom seems to be a circle of beanbags and hemispherical chairs that sit low to the ground. There’s a pop-up screen and whiteboard at the front of the circle. The teacher sits in a low chair holding a laptop.

“Hello! Jonathan, correct? We’re excited to have you join us. I’m Abby. That’s Ashley, Amanda, and Brandon” she says gesturing to the two girls and the boy settled at the far side of the circle. “And this is Patrick.”

The fourth child in the room is settled deep into a beanbag, happily rolling a weird-looking cube around in his palms. He lights up when he looks up at Jonny, easy smile taking over his whole face.

“You came from Shattuck, right?” he asks.

Before Jonny can reply, Abby cuts in as she takes a seat with her laptop on the floor.

“Sorry, I want to get straight through the first sets of practice problems, but we’ll take a break in fifteen minutes and play a couple introduction games. Sound good?” Abby says, and all the kids barring Jonny nod. She looks up at Jonny, who’s a little shell shocked by everything after the stricter Shattuck classrooms. “Jonny, do you want to take a seat? We can pull one of the desks up for you if you’d like.”

Not wanting to be the only one at a desk, Jonny takes a seat in the beanbag next to Patrick, which earns him another smile. He pulls his own notebook out and grabs one of the padded boards stacked in the middle of the circle, resting it on his knees. Patrick has his own journal open on the floor in front of him, wide ruled graph paper where Jonny’s just has horizontal lines. Jonny’s eyes are drawn to the cube in one of Patrick’s small hands again, watching the way his thumb rolls back and forth over a silver ball set into one of the sides.

“What’s that?” Jonny asks as Abby hooks her computer up to the screen.

“Hm?” Patrick mumbles and then realizes what Jonny’s talking about. “Oh! It’s a fidget cube. I have trouble sitting still and focusing in classes like this.”

Abby seems to be struggling to get her laptop to connect, so Jonny takes the opportunity to go a bit farther. He’s undeniably curious about this kid. Patrick, who he’s almost completely sure at this point is the prospect the director was talking about.

“It helps?” Jonny asks, deciding it’s rude to ask exactly why the sentinel program is investing in someone who can’t even sit still through a class.

“Yeah,” Patrick says and then pushes the cube into Jonny’s hand. “It was made for people with ADHD and anxiety and stuff. It’s great.”

Jonny looks at it. He rolls it over his hands, takes in the little thumbstick on one side and the switch on another. He spins the wheel on a third side around a few times.  

“Is that what you have?” Jonny asks as he hands the cube back to its owner.

Patrick nods and seems unphased by disclosing the information, so Jonny doesn’t feel bad about asking.

“Well,” Patrick qualifies. “More ADD for me. That’s attention deficit disorder.”

He adds the longer name when he sees the blank look on Jonny’s face. Honestly, the prospect doesn’t really know what that means either, but it gives him enough to fill in the blanks.

Abby starts muttering and cursing lightly at the machine in front of her. Jonny would find it a little funny if he wasn’t so focused on the boy next to him.

“All this helps, too?” he moves on, gesturing around the room

“Yeah. I mean when I was little I guess the schools thought I was stupid. Apparently one teacher figured it out, though. Anyway, all my classes have been more like this since the sentinel program got me,” Patrick explains.

“Hmm,” Jonny hums, still unsure.

“Even if you don’t have ADD, though, it’s pretty cool,” Patrick insists, sensing Jonny’s hesitation. “I mean Amanda is dyslexic, but Brandon and Ashley just like it.”

“Patrick!” Amanda cuts in and punches him in the arm - apparently not everyone is so open as Patrick.

“Ouch! What? It’s not a big deal,” Patrick says, glaring at her but not striking back.

“Hey!” Abby cuts in, perhaps a little sharper than she would have had she not been fighting with an uncooperative machine for five minutes now. “Amanda, no hitting in class. Or - well, no hitting anywhere outside of official practice. Damnit. Alright, everyone, change of plans. We’ll start with some movement. Race to the Red Oak and back while I figure out this damn HDMI cable. First one back gets first pick of chores later.”

Jonny is shocked as the other students are suddenly leaping out of their seats and moving towards the side door.

“Come on!” Patrick says, grabbing Jonny’s arm to pull him up.

The door opens and the other prospects wait - apparently there are rules here. Jonny falls in line.

“Ready?” Abby says absently, still smacking the keys on her laptop with increasing aggression.

On the one hand, Jonny is a bit overwhelmed by the strangeness of - well, everything since he’s arrived at the Chicago Facility - but on the other hand, part of his brain is already trying to remember where the Red Oak is. If he follows someone he can over take them on the return trip he supposes. He looks at his opponents, trying to guess who’s the quickest.

Patrick’s the shortest.

But for some reason... Jonny doesn’t think he’d bet on him losing. They all crouch low, tensed to spring off their makeshift starting line.

“Alright. Three, two, one… go!”

 


 

MARCH 2020 - I.S.B - CHICAGO FACILITY

By the time they reach the Chicago Facility, Artemi is almost too tired to see straight. He keeps himself steady, though, just in case this is part of his tests as well. He makes it into a large office where a white-mustached man introduces himself gruffly as Joel Quenneville. He feels the weight of Kaner, Tazer, and the Monster standing behind him, but he definitely takes a seat when offered. Only Malkin looks anywhere near as worn as Artemi, but then Artemi remembers that the guide took down about a dozen Hordiyenko grunts on his own in the past forty-eight hours.

Artemi gives himself the benefit of the doubt and allows that he’s had to process a significant amount of emotional upheaval since his life suddenly changed course again. It's all been a lot to take in.

Quenneville hands Artemi a thin tablet and explains that it will contain his schedule for the foreseeable future, until they can complete the guide compatibility process to its natural end.

“Unless a mission of very particular need comes up, for now Crosby and Malkin will accompany and serve as a source of information and translation for you while we go through this process,” Quenneville says. “We want you to have access to an actual sentinel and guide pair since we won’t ask for a final decision on whether or not you’re willing to officially join the ISB as a guide until we conclude that you are compatible with Kaner or Tazer. Due to the fact that, unlike most of our guides, you were not raised in the sentinel program--”

“Sir,” Tazer’s voice cuts the man off and Artemi realizes his eyes have gone unfocused. “Can this continue tomorrow morning? It’s late and Panarin is exhausted.”

He snaps himself back to the present and looks over his shoulder at the more stoic of the two sentinels he might be compatible with. Tazer is difficult to read, and hasn’t said much at all since he returned from his mission. He seems more closed off than he’d been before, and Artemi wonders momentarily if Tazer is frustrated that the only person he’s ever shown any compatibility with isn’t even an ISB agent. It makes Artemi square his shoulders and sit up straighter.

“I’m fine,” he says quickly in English, forming his mouth carefully around the words.

It doesn’t seem to matter what he says, though, as Quenneville is already nodding.

“I’ll call the staff and get you access to a couple rooms for Crosby and Malkin, and Panarin,” Quenneville says and then is interrupted again, this time by Kaner.

“Panarin’s staying with us. I mean, he should,” Kaner amends, “Stay with us, I think.”

Artemi blinks at them owlishly, tries to find something to go on in Tazer’s face but finds nothing.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Crosby adds. “It’s a good idea for them to get to know each other and see how Panarin meshes with Kaner and Tazer considering the circumstances.”

It makes Kaner flinch and Artemi frowns. He’s only just begun to comprehend the bittersweetness of the situation for the two guideless sentinels. Malkin told him how long they’d gone without any luck, and on top of that they seem to be partners in their own right.

He doesn’t know what he’d say to them, though, besides apologizing for the fact that there’s only one of him.

“Fine,” Quenneville says. “I’ll have them bring in an extra bed.”

And that’s that.

 

“What’s the craziest mission you went on when you were with Interpol?”

Artemi’s head spins a bit where he’s sitting at a small table adjacent to a sizeable kitchenette. Kaner’s chatting with him as they wait for a bed to be brought in, and Artemi isn’t sure where Tazer has disappeared off to. He’s pleased, though, that at least Kaner seems excited for him to be here.

“Um… oh. One time big, big car chase,” Artemi says. “Crazy.”

The sentinel quarters are good sized, definitely far beyond military barracks. Besides the kitchenette, there’s small seating area and a large bookshelf in the corner. The bedroom is big and there’s a full bathroom attached to the main living area. The only thing separating it from a small apartment beyond the utilitarian vibe throughout the place, is the room next to the bedroom that appears to be a modest private gym.

Kaner looking up is actually Artemi’s first indicator that Tazer’s returned. He comes back through the door carrying a small duffle bag. He sets it next to Artemi, who cocks his head to the side in question.

“I know you didn’t bring a lot to the Ukraine and most of your things are still in Russia,” he says, nodding at the smaller duffle sitting by the bedroom door. “This is a bunch of regulation Chicago stuff that you can use when you’re here. You won’t need to wear formal clothes or anything when we’re on the campus but that should… well, yeah. Let me know if there's anything else you need or don't have.”

Artemi doesn’t miss the way Kaner smirks when Tazer seems to lose the plot on his own train of thought. Tazer turns away, going to the refrigerator and retrieving a fancy looking bottle of water.

“Here,” he says and sets the bottle in front of Artemi. “It’s really easy to get dehydrated when in transit. The staff will be here in a minute but you should try and drink that before sleeping.”

Kaner snorts.

“He’s a regular adult human, Taze. Just because he’s not a sentinel doesn’t mean he’s a fragile baby,” Kaner says but also pushes the water bottle a bit closer to Artemi.

Tazer rolls his eyes and Artemi dutifully opens his water. Back at the refrigerator, Tazer is rooting around.

“Are you hungry?” he asks, and Artemi just shakes his head, which feels heavier than it should.

He wishes he’d been able to get some sleep on the flights, but he’d been too keyed up.

“No… only tired.”

 

The bed finally comes and Artemi goes through the motions of getting ready to sleep in an almost robotic daze. When he hits the mattress, he doesn’t even remember stripping down to his undershirt. Strangely, though, when the lights go out, his eyes don’t close.

He hears the other two men get into their beds. Tazer’s is kitty corner to Artemi’s, and Kaner’s is along the opposite wall. Suddenly, everything hits him all at once. He’s left Russia. Three days ago he was an Interpol agent with nothing much to lose, and today he’s in America, potentially about to bind himself for life to some needy superhumans.

And yet, he doesn’t feel regret, not at all. That’s maybe the strangest thing. He sees Tazer and Kazer fighting their way through a mission in his mind’s eye and his chest throbs with a sort of desperate desire. He doesn't doubt he wants to be a part of this. Still, it’s the craziness of the situation that gets to him.

“I take back,” he says into the darkness.

“What’s that?” Kaner says.

“You ask, craziest mission at Interpol. Not car chase,” Artemi says. “ This craziest.”

It actually makes Tazer laugh. It comes once, huffed out, and then again stronger. Artemi’s never heard him laugh before and it makes something flutter in his chest again. He really likes the sound of it. Artemi’s body shakes with sympathetic giggles.

“Don’t even know names,” Artemi continues.

The room is quiet again but without tension this time, like things have at least momentarily settled.

“My name’s Patrick Kane,” Kaner says and Artemi can hear the smile in his voice. “They didn’t get super original with my solo field tag.”

“Nice to meet,” Artemi chuckles and rolls his head up to look in the direction where he can only assume Tazer is lying.

“I’m Jonny. Jonathan Toews,” Tazer murmurs, and then with an actual twist of humor, “And even if you spoke English perfectly you’d never spell it right.”

Artemi nods, takes it all in. He turns the names over in his head. Forces himself to write them there in pencil for now, wait on the permanent ink, though it’s hard when he already wants so much.

“Ok,” he murmurs, sleep finally creeping back up on him. He sighs, sinks into his pillow. “I’m… Artemi.”

He doesn’t remember anything after that.

 


 

MARCH 2020 - I.S.B - CHICAGO FACILITY

The first rounds of tests occur the next morning. The three of them eat breakfast together and it’s strangely peaceful. They let Jonny feed them instead of going to the mess hall. Patrick honestly wants to avoid almost everyone until the dust has settled on this whole situation. He’s sure there’s gossip flying every direction, but at least Patrick knows no intimate details will really spread - Crawford isn’t much of a talker, and Seabrook and Duncs have known him and Jonny too long to say much.

Patrick asks Artemi more questions, keeping things light, and soaks up every stuttered English word. He can’t look away from this man’s pink lips and his soft-bright eyes, or the way his slight but strong shoulders look under the the black Chicago Facility tee-shirt that he’d put on this morning. It makes something desperate claw up Patrick’s throat. He knows that he should feel like his space is invaded, even if they are compatible. There should be an adjustment period, but it’s terrifyingly easy for Patrick to see Artemi here in the long run.

There’s just something about him.

And he can see that it’s the same for Jonny. Though he’s stayed fairly quiet, he’s been orbiting Artemi like a satellite - or perhaps a very overpowered mother-hen. It be hilarious if it didn’t make Patrick’s gut twist painfully.

Malkin knocks on their door as they’re finishing breakfast to collect Artemi. He has to join the monitor team so they can set up the tests before Patrick or Jonny arrive.

“See ya later, Artemi,” Patrick says, leaning onto the back two legs of his chair.

“Goodbye,” he says with a small wave before following Malkin out the door.

Patrick waits until the door closes before standing up and swinging himself into Jonny’s lap and crushing their lips together. He digs his fingers into the back of Jonny’s neck and his thumbs into the bolts of his jaw. He presses until Jonny’s mouth opens and allows him to slip his tongue inside. He hums as they twist together, Jonny never able to resist pushing back. After a short minute, Jonny’s hand twists into Patrick’s hair and pulls.

“What are you doing?” Jonny says, keeping Patrick a few inches from his lips.

Patrick’s chest is already heaving and he just - he fucking doesn’t want to talk about this. He grinds his hips down and looks down at Jonny through half lidded eyes.

“We’ve got at least a half an hour until they need us for the tests,” Patrick says and tries to lean forward but Jonny doesn’t let him go.

The tug sends a shiver through Patrick’s body so he grinds down on Jonny’s lap until his arms go slack and Patrick can bring their mouths back together. He nips hard and licks deep.

“Look,” he says, pressing their foreheads together and catching his breath. He keeps his eyes shut tight. “Whatever happens is going to happen. It’s everything we’ve always wanted and it’s going to fucking suck - that’s just, it is. So, can we just… enjoy what we can before that?”

He feels Jonny’s breath against his lips.

“No use worrying about things you can’t control,” Jonny says.

“That’s the kind of motivational bullshit I’m looking for,” Patrick replies and closes the distance again.

It’s Jonny who stands up and pushes him back towards the bedroom.

 


GUIDE COMPATIBILITY TEST 02A28A - P. KANE w. A. PANARIN

It’s a joke, is what it is.

“Alright, Kane. When you’re ready you’ll enter the room and find five doors to your left, front, and right for a total of fifteen doors. Behind five of them are controls. Behind one of them is Panarin. There will be low level audio interference broadcasted during the test,” the handler says. “All you have to do is pick which door Panarin is behind.”

“Got it,” Patrick says.

The handler nods and Patrick walks to the door. It clicks open and Patrick hears a stopwatch start. He walks over the threshold.

And then he keeps walking. He goes straight for the fourth door on the back wall and turns the knob.

“Hello, Artemi,” Patrick says.

“Hello, Patrick.”

 


 

GUIDE COMPATIBILITY TEST 02A28B - J. TOEWS w. A. PANARIN

“Now that we’re done with the baseline test, we’ll move on to the No-Scent variation,” the handler says.

Jonny’s lip twitches. He hates the feeling of the gel on his lip, and is disgusted by the overpowering stench of menthol and whatever else they put in the odor neutralizing agent they made Jonny apply below his nose. He definitely prefered round one of this test.

The arbitrary white noise and interference is still playing over the PA system when Jonny enters the room. He goes to the middle of the floor and pauses. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. Last time he thought he could isolate Artemi’s smell - this time, he’s not sure what brings him to the first door on the right hand wall.

But somehow he has no doubts when he pulls it open.

Artemi is leaning against the back wall of what basically amounts to a closet - and he smiles when he sees Jonny.

It’s warm and soft, with just a hit of excitement that makes Jonny’s heart beat slivers into his ribcage.

It’s the same goddamn look he’s seen Patrick giving Artemi since they spotted him across that basecamp in the Ukraine - and Artemi’s been looking right back at Patrick, too. They clearly get along. There’s something there between them, Jonny can tell. Patrick looks younger when he’s around Artemi. In spite of his outward, easygoing demeanor, Jonny knows the missions and the years have worn on Pat. He knows better than anyone that every once in awhile Patrick wakes up in the middle of the night, hyperventilating, fists clutched into the sheets, sweat dripping down his face.

But when Pat sits across from Artemi at their little table, he looks sixteen again - full of light and desperate for his first mission.

For one moment Jonny wonders if he can bow out of this race they’re in. He wonders, if this is going to hurt either way, if he can just give this to Kaner. But then Artemi’s eyes crinkle at the corners.

“You find me!” Artemi says. “First try!”

And Jonny realizes how badly he needs this as well. He didn’t think it was possible to have this much want in his body, for it to fill him up in a way that it could consume two objects in his mind. It isn’t fair.

But he wasn’t ever supposed to want Kaner in the first place. It doesn’t do the world any good for him to want Kaner like he does. That’s just for him, but it’s not something he can keep.

So, against his feeble will, Jonny lets out a little huff of laughter and nods.

 


 

MARCH 2020 - I.S.B. - CHICAGO FACILITY

After the morning’s tests, Panarin is brought in for an in depth interview with Sid and Zhenya present to help translate. It’s thorough in the best of terms, invasive in the least. Sid understands they have to get a complete profile on Artemi before proceeding due to the fact that he has no ISB records, but it still makes him uncomfortable for most of the interview. He’s thankful Zhenya does most of the translating, especially when they get to the part where the psychologist begins the list of questions aimed to draw out Artemi’s entire life story. Artemi doesn’t hesitate to answer the questions, seemingly understanding why the ISB needs to know, but it still makes Sid feel like an interloper.

Especially because it’s not exactly a happy story.

The want Artemi to fill out a few questionnaires at the end of the interview, so Sid and Zhenya are given permission to leave.

“There’s a gym down the hallway to the left. We’ll be there when you get out,” Sid says to Artemi as they stand.

“Thank you,” Artemi says.

He finds them about an half later, looking a little tired but none the worse for wear considering he’s just aired out his entire past in front of virtual strangers.

Zhenya wipes sweat off his forehead and sits up on the pull-down machine he’s been using, and Sid extracts himself from the squat rack.

“How did it go?” Zhenya asks in Russian.

“Good,” Artemi replies in English. He seems to be making a pointed attempt to use more of the language. It’s not a bad idea, Sid thinks. “They say have to review, but no reason to worry.”

Well, that’s a great sign. Sid’s sure there’s at least one or two more psych evals in his future before Artemi is approved to become a sentinel guide, but it’s definitely a mark in his favor that they told him things went well.

Artemi has already dressed down to work-out clothes somewhere between the interview room and the gym, so Sid catches the hint that they’ll be spending a little longer here. Artemi glances around the room quickly.

“Where Patrick? Jonny?” Artemi asks, and Sid doesn’t miss that they’re apparently all on first name terms now.

“They still have Ukraine mission debrief,” Zhenya says, switching to English himself. Sid and Zhenya did their own debriefing interview during the first round of compatibility tests that morning. “Kaner and Tazer will be back at dinner.”

Artemi accepts the answer and makes his way over to a treadmill to warm up and Sid goes back to his own work out. Zhenya follows suit, heading over to the pulley machine across the room.

Twenty minutes later Artemi posts up on the abdominal machine next to the incline bench that Sid’s just racked up with weights. He notices Artemi’s eyes bouncing between him and Zhenya, who’s roped a young Chicago sentinel that Sid doesn’t recognize into spotting for him on the bench press.

“What?” he asks.

Artemi frowns, hair curling with sweat. He looks a bit ridiculous, lying at a decline as he is.

“Weights… not all that different?” he nods towards Zhenya’s two and change plate set-up and then Sid’s, which looks pretty similar. “Thought…”

Sid can’t help but chuckle a little, finishing out his set and sitting up.

“Sentinels would be stronger?” he confirms that’s what Artemi is confused about.

“Saw you throw man across room,” Artemi defends himself, extracting himself from the machine and grabbing a couple dumbbells. “But same weight.”

“Well,” Sid says, scratching the back of his neck. “Actually… um. Zhenya was lifting the iron plates?”

Zhenya has finished up his reps and heads back over to Artemi and Sid, who nods towards the red coated plates he’d been using himself.

“These are made of an alloy that’s about twice as heavy as the ones Zhenya uses,” Sid says and Artemi’s eyes go wide.

“Are you talking shit?” Zhenya says as he wipes his face with a towel.

“He was asking about the plates,” Sid assures Zhenya

“I’m still strong. Also tall,” Zhenya tells Artemi. A fond smile settles onto Sid’s face. “Anyway, I’m go wash up now.”

“Alright. I’ll be in in a few,” Sid says, and looks around for a roller as Zhenya heads towards the locker room.

“You still…” Artemi begins, and then pauses before giving up and switching to Russian. “Zhenya said that he can still guide you even when you’re pretty far apart, even if he’s in another room or farther like on your mission. Is it just because you’ve been together so long?”

Sid wipes his own neck with a towel, tipping his head to the side.

“Well, there’s definitely a part of it that is a natural affinity and the extent of the compatibility. Also, it’s something Zhenya and I have specifically worked on over the years, so by accident and on purpose, time is a factor,” Sid explains, leaving out the fact that a major reason why they’ve practiced over the years is due to the fact that Sid zones almost instantly when Zhenya goes beyond his range.

It benefits them to make that range as wide as possible.

“Zhenya said you’ve been together for fifteen years, since he was thirteen and you were even younger. Also I’ve seen a few children around and everyone is talking about how I didn’t grow up in the program like most prospect guides. This is normal? The ISB has child agents?” Artemi asks, looking a little skeptical.

It’s a fair question.  

“They’re not agents , but prospects and students. Most of them are actually or functionally orphans. The ISB scouts potentially-gifted children in foster care or under state custody all over the world and works to give them opportunities to join the ISB. Most of them end up in the program between ages five and ten,” Sid explains.

It’s a functional timeframe. Kids who enter or are still in the system after they enter school are increasingly likely to stay in the system until they age out, so Sidney will one hundred percent stand by the ISB giving kids a different if non-traditional alternate path. Much older than ten, though, they have trouble adjusting to life in the program. Even so, once a child is in the program, no matter how they test and progress, they’ll always have a place in the ISB in some capacity.

“But not you?” Artemi says, picking up on the way that Sid seems to have excluded himself from that description.

Sid huffs a laugh. It used to be a really sore spot for Sid, but twenty six years has turn it into an old injury that only acts up on the odd rainy day. He pauses, reaching out casually for Zhenya’s presence beyond his sight, a comforting habit. He figures, after everything he’s heard about Artemi’s past today, he can stand to answer this question honestly.

“No. Not me. You’re talking to the ISB’s most most unsanctioned lab test,” Sid says and he’s happy that Zhenya’s in the showers. His guide does not find that joke funny and generally hates this entire topic. “I was basically born to be sentinel.”

Artemi raises a brow. Sid isn’t in the habit of telling this story to any stranger - but it’s an open secret throughout the ISB, basically common knowledge at this point. Not that people talk about it much anymore - there were a lot more whispers when he was younger, before the experiment, ethics aside, was proven to be an undeniable success. Either way, he’s sure that Artemi would find out in some capacity at some point. Sid decides he can the one to tell him, considering the circumstances.

“My biological father was a research scientist at the Washington Facility. His focus of study was on the way some humans are more biologically predisposed to accept the sentinel serum, their bodies did more with it. He isolated a set of genes that were a good indicator of serum receptivity. He actually carried the genes himself which allowed him to go a lot deeper in his research and bypass a lot of regulations and… well, let’s just say it became a habit of his,”  Sid says, ignoring the way that Artemi’s eyes have become large blue saucers. “He wanted to know if he could amplify the gene. He worked behind the backs of the ISB for years, keeping what he considered his magnum opus a secret, eventually finding a woman who carried the same genes and was convinced to participate in his experiment. They used in vitro fertilization methods - I don’t know how many embryos they screened but eventually he got the genetic mix he wanted.”

“You,” Artemi breaths.

Sid presses his lips together and picks at his cuticle.

“Yeah. Me. He brought me to Mario when I was only a few days old. Mario… well, he didn’t know what to do, but he couldn’t leave a baby in my father’s hands. Apparently Mario pretended to be grateful until he signed over custody to the ISB and then had my father quietly arrested,” Sid says.

“But… they kept you. Like he wanted,” Artemi points out, shoulders curled in a little defensively.

“It wasn’t a lightly made decision, that I promise you,” Sid says off the bat.

He hears Mario’s voice echoing in his head, sometimes it still keeps me up, Sid. Sometimes I still think I should have had you adopted by some nice family, given you a chance at a normal life.

I don’t want a normal life, Sid told him, small body full of fire and hunger.

The older Sid got, the more it always felt like there’d been no other choice for him. No matter how he can understand in his brain that what his father did was ethically reprehensible, he can’t fight that he was made for something. This is what he is, for better or for worse.

“In the end it was decided that the potential for good that could be done for the world wasn’t worth throwing away for a purely ethical stand. They tightened regulation and oversight to make sure it wouldn't happen again… and they put me in the program,” Sid says.

“Lemonade from lemons,” Artemi says in English.

Sid laughs.

“Yeah, something like that.”

“You don’t wish you had normal life?” Artemi asks.

Sid thought about it once or twice when he was younger. It wasn’t really a concept he could even wrap his head around, really.

“All I want to be is a sentinel and I’m good at it,” Sid says simply.

He almost expects more questions from Artemi, but the boy just nods.

“You have place,” he says. “Good thing.”

The corner’s of Sid’s lips twitch and then it fades as he remembers Artemi emotionlessly recounting his formative years. Sid swallows and coughs.

“Yeah. Anyway, Artemi, we better go find Zhenya before he uses up all the hot water in Chicago,” Sid says, switching back to Russian.

Artemi laughs and nods pushing himself off the bench to follow Sid towards the locker room.

“Your Russian…” Artemi begins and then seems to struggle for the words even in his own language.

“What about it? Is it bad?” Sid says with a smile.

“No! Surprisingly good. It just… sounds like Zhenya’s Russian. Same words, same order, I guess. Your Russian is the same,” Artemi explains.

“Hmm,” Sid hums, feeling something funny in his stomach. “Well, that would make sense, I suppose…”

 


 

FEBRUARY 2008 - I.S.B. - PITTSBURGH FACILITY

“I’m honestly surprised, Sid. This isn’t like you,” Mario says.

Sid’s sitting next to Zhenya in one of the chairs in Mario’s office. He’s sunk down in his seat and he knows he’s sulking but he can’t bring himself to stop. Zhenya’s got a wad of tissues shoved under his nose that’s already stained red.

“I have it on good authority you threw the first punch,” Mario continues. “I don’t know what Wilson said -”

“He called Sid juiced up lab rat, ” Zhenya says the words so angrily that a few drops of blood splatter to the floor.

His nose is really bleeding. Sid curls in on himself, feeling guilty but still indignant. Mario flinches a little at Zhenya’s report but then settles himself.

“Geno,” Mario says, using the name Zhenya has been introducing himself with since arriving in America over a year ago now. “Go to the medical ward and make sure that’s not broken.”

“It fine. I wait for Sid,” Zhenya says without hesitation.

“You won’t,” Mario says, adding an unusual amount of steel to his voice - at least unusual when turned on Sid or Zhenya. “I’ll have a talk with you later about your continued habit of getting into fights with sentinels.”

“Not pick who to fight based on blood,” Zhenya mutters. “Pick based on who is asshole …”

“It’s okay, Zhenya,” Sid says in Russian.

He’s not fluent yet, but he’s picked up a lot.

“I’ll go to the medical ward and then come back if you’re not already there, okay?” Zhenya replies in his mothertongue.

Sid nods. Mario watches the exchange in silence and doesn’t speak until the door is closed behind Zhenya.

“You gave Wilson a pretty serious black eye. And that’s hard to do to a sentinel, even one as new as him,” Mario says. “And I think you broke one of Oshie’s fingers.”

“Well, Oshie hit Zhenya first,” Sid says - that one he stands by.

“And Wilson?”

Sid shrugs and can’t meet Mario’s eyes. He feels himself losing his pulse on Zhenya. It feels like pulling duct tape slowly off his skin. His shoulders go even tenser.

“It was like Zhenya said,” Sid says.

Mario raises an eyebrow and leans back in his chair. Sid notes the blood still on the ground, ruby red under the lights of Mario’s office. It’s stark against the smooth, dark concrete floor. It holds it’s shape strong against gravity, perfect little pools with curving edges.

Sid’s not sure how long he zones. Mario is patient, waiting when he gasps back into reality. He cocks his head to the side to make sure that Sid’s really present, waiting for him to give a shaky nod before continuing.

“Don’t get me wrong, I will be having some very serious conversations with Wilson about his behavior, but this isn’t the first time that someone said something like that to you and you’ve never hit anyone because of it before - Zhenya? Yeah, I wouldn't be shocked. But you’ve never started a fight over… well, this. Is something else going on?” Mario asks.

For a minute Sidney fights the urge to keep his mouth shut, but honestly he’s just as confused as Mario is about today’s events, so he comes clean.

“This morning Zhenya and I went in for some diagnostics and when we were leaving, I heard some of the technicians talking,” Sid says.

“And what did they say?”

“They said - they said it was a shame I’d bio-imprited with a Russian. They said that his accent would limit our use on certain kinds of missions,” Sid said.

Mario hums, leaning back in his chair. The corner of his lip twitches upwards a little.

“While versatility is good, you know that’s not exactly the type of mission that you and Zhenya’s training is focused on anyway,” Mario says, but there’s something a lot lighter in his face now. “All teams have their strengths and their weaknesses. Even you will Sid. You’ll have to come to terms with that. It’s why we have so many teams in training. It’s better to have a number of  specialty tools that are excellent at one thing than it is to have a multipurpose tool that’s mediocre at many things.”

“I know,” Sid says, a bit petulant. “But they still weren’t wrong . If I was paired with someone from North America we’d draw less attention on covert ops. It would be one less thing we’d have to compensate for, especially if we travel internationally. People will notice and - well -”

“True,” Mario agrees as Sid burns out.

“So I get that there are pros and cons to me bio-imprinting with Zhenya. It’s fair but I… it just made me so - I was so - ”

“Angry?” Mario finishes.

Sid nods.

“But I don’t know why ,” he says, fists balled up on his knees and brows deeply furrowed.

He’s shocked when Mario starts laughing at him. He looks up, affronted.

“What?!”

“Oh, Sid. Sometimes I forget… It’s not that complicated. You’re angry because Zhenya is your friend and you’re offended on his behalf,” Mario says, and Sid’s world rocks a little bit.

Or maybe it’s just the motion of everything flipping upright again. Because -

“Oh.”

“Do you think Zhenya will make a good guide for you?” Mario asks.

“Of course! He could have been a sentinel himself, like - he’s strong, and smart, and can read situations like - ” Sid stops himself but keeps the stony expression.

“I agree. And that’s all that matters, right?”

“Yeah,” Sid agrees.

“Look, Sidney. Your guide will likely be with you for the rest of your life. Whatever form that relationship takes, it will be the most important one in your entire life. Right now, Zhenya is your best friend. That’s a great thing,” Mario says.

The room finally goes quiet for a minute as Mario watches Sid process this new revelation. Sid has never even thought about friends before. It’s always been the program, moving forward, getting better. He supposes he got along with Toews, for the two years they overlapped at Shattuck when Mario sent him there for the summers until he got his serum. He and Toews seemed to have similar levels of focus. Sid also likes the new French-Canadian tech-op in training that got transferred to Pittsburgh a few months ago, even if he’s a few years older.

But a true friend?

“Speaking of that. I didn’t know you’d added Russian to your Ed-Sched,” Mario says, bringing Sid back before he zones on something else.

“I haven’t. Zhenya’s just been teaching me in our down time,” Sid explains.

Mario nods.

“Well let me know if you’d like me to get a formal tutor added for you.”

“Okay,” Sid says, but he knows for a while he won’t.

He likes that it’s something that belongs to just him and Zhenya.

 


 

APRIL 2020 - I.S.B. - CHICAGO FACILITY

A week goes by quickly in the Chicago Facility for Artemi. It’s a whirlwind of tests, exams, and interviews intermixed with training and an ever-increasing exposure to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. He knows that Patrick hates but dutifully drinks the green smoothies that Jonny is incredibly fond of. He knows that both sentinels like to work out after dinner, and that Patrick always showers first while Jonny does a twenty minute yoga routine - Artemi’s started joining him. He hadn’t ever done any yoga before, but he enjoys the new challenge, likes that it’s still hard for him where gym workouts have long been second nature. He knows that Patrick likes to do a lot of reading about the most random topics on his tablet, and he never hesitates to explain what he’s reading to Artemi - even if it takes a long time or multiple attempts to cross the language barrier. He’s got a knack for using words that Artemi already knows or can understand.

Artemi knows what they look like when they’re sleeping. He catches Jonny’s oddly intense face on the pillow every morning when he wakes up, usually to the sound of Patrick digging through his wardrobe. He’s never woken up before Patrick, who he hadn’t expected to be the morning person between the two of them. However, he does catch him passed out on the little couch one evening, slid halfway down the back, one arm hooked over the side, and his tablet abandoned on his belly.

Artemi must make a sound because Jonny looks up from where he’s been making them tea. Artemi is still watching when Jonny crosses the room and leans down. For a moment he thinks that Jonny is reaching out for Patrick’s face, or maybe his curls - but somewhere along the way his hand drops and gently shakes Patrick’s shoulder.

“Hey, Pat, wake up,” Jonny says quietly. “Go to bed.”

Pat. Artemi’s noticed that Jonny doesn’t seem to call Patrick anything but Kaner outside their quarters, but it also seems to end at the door. The first few days it had still been Kaner, but it’s been falling away more and more the longer Artemi is with them.

It reminds him just how long the two have known each other. He wonders what will happen to the sentinel he doesn’t match with - as it’s definitely looking like he’s going to be compatible with at least one of them. He’s not quite sure how normal it is at this point, unfamiliar with the process, but the testing staff says he’s been in the 99.5 percentile range for all their compatibility tests so far, for both sentinels. They told him the other day that they’ve only had one or two cases not go to lab testing after receiving results like that.

“Why don’t just do lab test?” Artemi asked on the third day, after watching Patrick smell fifty separate rags, three of which Artemi had handled.

It felt silly.

The tech just laughed.

“Well. The process costs about one million USD per screening so…” she said and Artemi balked. “So normally we want to be pretty sure there’s a serious chance at bio-compatibility before going through the lab tests. A conglomerate of these tests have a good record of predicting the results those lab tests, and they’re a lot cheaper way to weed out false matches. They’re being even more rigorous with you because, honestly, they were hoping Kaner or Tazer would show significantly higher compatibility markers so they could only proceed with a single lab screening.”

“One higher?” Artemi tried to ask. “More?”

“Is one more compatible? At this point, no. It’s actually blowing the minds of most of the lab and tech teams. Kaner will get up a point or two on one test, but then so will Tazer on the next one. The difference in results are statistically negligible and still put them in the top ranges for compatibility. Neither of them have failed a single…”

The tech had been enthusiastic and of the words that Artemi understood, he managed to pick out his answer: so far Patrick and Jonny were basically equally compatible.

Artemi reaches behind himself, tipping his chair back a little so he can grab his tea from the counter and take a sip as Patrick grumbles and pushes himself off the couch. He squeezes Artemi’s shoulder as he passes.

“Night, ‘rtemi,” he mumbles and a warmth spreads through Artemi’s chest at the way his name sounds collapsed in Patrick’s mouth, at the heat of his hand through Artemi’s tee-shirt.

“You should head to bed soon, too,” Jonny says, taking a seat at the table next to Artemi. “You have more fitness testing tomorrow morning.”

“More worried about intelligence test after,” Artemi admits.

He knows he can get through an obstacle course. He’s confident in his strength, and years of finding solace in building on that strength has made him feel pretty prepared for the fitness tests, even if they’re meant to judge if he can keep up with a superhuman. The paper tests and verbal education interviews - that’s a lot more nerve wracking. He’s not stupid by any stretch, but his education was hardly prestiged and college had been long out of reach for him.

“Don’t worry. It’s less about seeing what you can do currently and more about seeing what you have the potential to do,” Jonny says. “You’re not going to get judged on things like not being able to speak perfect English right now. You didn’t even speak any English when you joined Interpol, right?” Artemi shakes his head. “See, if that’s what you’ve picked up with no formal training, you’ll be fine. That’s the kind of thing they’re looking for.”

Artemi looks down, through the translucent, unsweetened liquid. The walls of the mug are scratched from years of use. Jonny is the one who found the black tea for Artemi. He apparently tends to drink green or mint himself, and Patrick won’t touch any of the stuff.

“Thank you,” Artemi says.

 


 

APRIL 2020 - I.S.B. - CHICAGO FACILITY

“Hey, you’re back!” Patrick says with a big smile. Sharpy looks up from his tablet as Patrick and Jonny enter the testing wing. “How’s Abby? How’s the baby?”

“They’re doing great. I’m trying to pull some strings to get you guys some leave passes to come to dinner and meet her,” Sharpy says. “She’s got to meet my other kids.”

Jonny rolls his eyes but Patrick can’t even be mad, already thinking about tiny feet and chubby hands.

“Awesome,” Patrick says.

“Before that though, you have to tell me all about the poor sucker who’s going to be stuck with one of you for life,” Sharpy says. “What did he do to end up with karma like that?”

“Artemi is great,” Patrick says, skipping over the the repeated jabs. “He was an up and coming Interpol agent. He’s got great field eyes and good instincts too.”

“He’s doing really well in all the ISB tests. We couldn’t have found someone more qualified to be a guide even if they’d already been in the ISB,” Jonny adds.

He’s only known the kid a little over a week, but Patrick can’t help the fierce swell of pride in his chest. He knows he could go on, talk about how funny Artemi is, even through a language barrier, how smart he is, and how he has these lips - but he’s not going to load the gun Sharpy will definitely use to shoot him. He’s sure it’s already blindingly obvious how gone they are for Artemi.

“About damn time. And you’re really both compatible?” Sharpy says.

They nod and Sharpy runs a hand through his hair.

“Fuck,” he laughs, shaking his head.

That about sums it up, and if there’s anyone in the world who might have an inkling of just how ridiculous of a situation they’re in, it’s Sharpy. He doesn’t have to say more. His tablet pings and he swears again.

“Shit, I was supposed to be priming you for the test. Well, they’ll just have to wait a few more minutes. Alright, so, we’ll actually be running both your trails simultaneously as it involves interpreting Panarin’s responses to various images, stimuli, etc. The room is long and separated into three sections. Panarin and some techs will be in the center and you and a handler will be behind screens in the other two sections so you can’t see him. Any questions Panarin gets asked will be played through headphones and his responses will be written. The handler will indicate when each ‘round’ begins. At the end of each round you will be asked to write what you believe Panarin was experiencing. He’ll do the same. The responses will be compared and analyzed afterwards. Make sense?” Sharpy concludes.

“You’re not going to do anything weird to him, are you?” Patrick drawls.

Sharpy just winks in response and pushes the door open.

Which is hardly comforting.

 


 

GUIDE COMPATIBILITY TEST 08E55A - J. TOEWS w. A. PANARIN
& P.KANE w. A. PANARIN

Patrick feels better when it turns out that Sharpy is his handler and so won’t be interacting with Artemi at all. He’s hoping he can keep that going as long as possible. He’d rather Artemi not meet a man who is both evil and saw Patrick go through puberty.

They get settled, Patrick getting in a chair with a tablet in his lap. Sharpy sits across from him, fitting a pair of headphones over his own ears. They’re super thick kind designed not to let sentinels pick up whoever’s on the other side. Patrick can feel Artemi on the other side of the screen.

“How you doing, Artemi?” Patrick calls leaning back in his chair.

“Good!” Artemi calls back. Then, “Not supposed to talk!”

Patrick laughs and ignores the raised brow that Sharpy shoots at him. He hears the faint sound of Artemi typing on a touch screen.

“Ok, ready to go,” Sharpy says. “In…”

He counts down with his fingers and then Patrick closes his eyes and listens. He breathes deep, ready to catch any chemical changes in the air. He hears a tiny huff of breath, a faster heart rate. He waits until Sharpy gives him the signal to write what he thinks happened.

Happy. Reacting to something funny.

The process repeats.

Content. Relaxed .

Then he hears Artemi shift, his heart speed again. He doesn’t get out of his chair but he wants to. He glares at Sharpy.

Stressed.

It’s weird, and a lot of the time Patrick can’t exactly explain what it is that’s telling him that Artemi is feeling one way or another. It’s not any sensory data he can pinpoint. He doesn’t know what makes him write sad down on his tablet. It just makes him want to stand up and go around the curtain. He wants to ask Sharpy if they’re asking personal questions or just showing him one of those Sarah Mclachlan sad puppy commercials. He knows better than to fuck up the test though.

He almost breaks when Artemi gasps. Patrick glares daggers at Sharpy, who raises his hands as if to say we only pinched him . And that better be fucking true. He hears Jonny’s heart thumping hard across the room. He adds a note to his response.

Pain - and you better not let Tazer find out who just did that.

He hits submit.

There are a few more neutral rounds, and then one that starts a pretty aggressive downward spiral. Sharpy indicates the next round has begun and Patrick closes his eyes, leans back. There’s no change for a minute, and then there’s a distinct uptick in Artemi’s heart rate. His breath hitches and he shifts, and suddenly Patrick gets an overwhelming sensation of growing heat .

Patrick swallows hard as he opens his eyes and his face flames. Sharpy has his lips pressed together like he’s trying not to laugh and Patrick wants to fucking kill him. He hears the cough across the room when Jonny figures it out too.

That’s just what Patrick needs, to be able to accurately pick up on these specific signals. He  doesn't need to be thinking about this. As if it weren’t already an issue.

Aroused, he writes with a shaky hand.

He wonders what they’re showing Artemi on screen. He wonders if his cheeks are flushed and if he’s licked those pink-pink lips.

Now Patrick is really happy for the no-talking rule, just so Sharpy can’t even start.

Finally Sharpy indicates the round is over and the next one is about to begin. It’s even worse.

So thrown by the previous round, Patrick actually isn’t paying that close attention for the first minute of this round, so when he suddenly hears Artemi gasp loudly, his heart pound, followed by the stench of fear - he isn’t prepared. He has no idea what he’s doing except suddenly his tablet’s on the ground and he’s pushed the privacy screen half way across the room where it clatters into the wall.

“What the fuck?!” Sharpy says as he drops his own tablet.

Patrick freezes right as Jonny comes out from around his own screen, fists clenched and looking ready to fight - Patrick isn’t sure if it was Artemi or his own scene that’s got him up in arms. It doesn’t matter now, because Artemi is sitting in the center of the room with a pair of large headphones over his ears; Crosby, Malkin, and a tech sit wide-eyed across from him. Artemi is looking up, pulling the headphones off. He blinks at them, confused, and apparently the only one in the room not shocked into paralysis.

“Um,” he says.

“You’re okay,” Patrick says.

It’s not here yet but Patrick knows the crushing embarrassment will be coming. The ISB would never do anything to seriously hurt Artemi, physically or mentally, and Patrick’s a fucking moron. Artemi wrinkles his nose up a bit.

“Not like scary movies,” he says, the words loud in the room. “Sorry?”

Patrick finally looks at the screen in front of Artemi, where some ugly-ass creature is eating a woman. Patrick eyes flash up and finally meet Jonny’s. He seems to be catching up too. The ridiculousness of the situation hits Patrick all at once.

He starts laughing hard, scrubbing a hand through his hair. Artemi smiles too, and Jonny just covers half his face with his hand, the mortification clearly hitting him.

“It’s okay, Artemi,” Patrick assures him.

Sharpy’s got up to join them, slapping a hand down onto Patrick’s shoulder.

“Good one, Peeks. I suppose that concludes this test.”

Patrick can’t bring himself to feel bad about it.

 


 

APRIL 2020 - I.S.B. - CHICAGO FACILITY

“Hey, I’ll catch up to you guys in a bit,” Jonny tells Patrick and Artemi as they leave the testing room. “I want to ask Sharpy something real quick.”

“Okay,” Artemi says, and Patrick raises a brow but doesn’t comment.

Jonny turns back to catch Sharpy as he gets ready to head the other direction.

“Sharpy,” he calls and the man turns.

“What’s up, Tazer?” he asks.

“How’d Kaner do?” he starts by way of avoiding the actual topic of conversation.

“I mean this test takes analytics to generate an actual quantitative score, but it felt like Kaner could see through that screen, you know?” Sharpy says and Jonny nods. “I take it you felt the same?”

Jonny takes a deep breath.

“Yeah.”

“Fucking hell. It would have been you two. This would only happen to you two,” Sharpy sighs.

“Yeah,” is all Jonny feels he can say. “Actually, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. Do you still keep in close contact with the Dallas Facility?”

They sent Sharpy down there for a few months after he decided to come in from field work for trainings and some coordinating education. Knowing Sharpy, Jonny’s pretty sure he made friends and probably kept them.

“Um, yeah. Why?” Sharpy asks.

Jonny rubs his palm against his jaw and bites the inside of his lip, worrying it a bit.

“If one of us bio-imprints with Artemi, I want to put in for a transfer there,” he says, keeping his voice monotone.

Sharpy’s eyes widen and he stands up straighter, then scowls.

“What the fuck - why?”

“We can’t stay at the same facility, Sharps,” Jonny spits. “Do you know what it’ll be like for the other, the one who doesn’t imprint? With compatibility at this high a level, without an imprint, it’s not a help - it’s a huge distraction. Neither of us can go thirty seconds without looking for him.”

The bio-imprint creates a permanent link from the sentinel to the guide. The sentinel doesn’t have to look, to check, they just know . Without the imprint it’s like a sore in the mouth, something you literally can’t stop poking at.

“Look, we won’t be able to train at the same facility, let alone go on missions together after this. Just because one of us is bio-imprinted, it won’t make that compatibility the other one has for Artemi go away. It’s always going to be there. I can’t – we can’t – anyway, the point is that Kaner came to the Chicago Facility when he was five. This is the only home he’s ever known, so I’ll be the one to transfer, with or without Artemi, however it works out.”

There’s real pain in Sharpy’s face, pity and sadness that Jonny doesn’t want to see.

“Fuck, Jonny, this is your home, too.”

The scent of Patrick and Artemi is still present in the air; Jonny could follow it like a bloodhound if he wanted. He wants.

“I know, but it’s what has to be done.”