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Perception

Chapter Text

SEPTEMBER 2002

Joseph Solomon loved his job. He really did. His life had revolved around covert operations for the past decade of his life, swapping covers faster than a stage actor and spending more time on the field than relaxing. However, it was times like these, dressed in an uncomfortable tuxedo and a communication unit, that he wished that he was anywhere but Buckingham Palace.

It wasn't very often that the President of the United States was commissioned for a visit to England to meet the Queen herself. Presidential trips usually called for an entire crew of security details and emergency protocols; more often than not, the leader of the country was protected at every angle by the Secret Service. To say that Joe was surprised would be an understatement, when he received a notice from Langley that he would be needed abroad. While he had a ridiculously high level of clearance, it still wasn't enough to figure out why even the Baxters were called in from MI6 to assist with the royals' safety.

The mission would have been interesting if he knew why some of the world's best were gathered in one place to protect a handful of individuals that rarely required such extreme measures. But he didn't, and Joe had learned to stop asking questions when he was sixteen years old and was entangled in a deadly organization, where speaking his mind would simply pave a one-way road to his grave.

Regardless, surveillance ops were boring, and he despised any sort of assignment that dulled his senses and forced him to travel through rotations for hours on end. He was stationed near one of the Southern entrances into the large ballroom, watching wealth and power converse with one another. His sharp gaze tracked every movement, memorizing faces and following gestures. He passed the palace guards with a wry smile on his face, and eyed their uniforms of red tunics and bearskin hats.

The British had a knack for subtlety. It would explain why they required so many different task forces at their parties.

He was hastily checking the reflection of the door behind him through a waiter's silver platter of snacks when a woman with a flute of champagne came to stand besides him. He raised an eyebrow, absorbing her appearance in a single glance the only way a trained operative would. Her navy dress hugged her figure, fabric clinging to her toned body. Her hair was curled to frame her face, though just enough to reveal the diamond earrings dangling from her ears. There was absolutely nothing interesting about another female searching men to flock around. He scoffed; it was likely that she was the Prince's escort for the evening. While the male in him appreciated her, his priorities overtook those small desires.

"You know, you remind me of a younger version of one of our English actors," she said, her voice carrying the accent of a British native. She hit a palm against her forehead, light bouncing off of a diamond ring around her forefinger. "That handsome man, in those spy movies..." she trailed.

He raised an eyebrow and kept his gaze trained on the flurry of activity ahead, mildly annoyed that someone had chosen to interrupt him. He preferred to observe in silence. "Daniel Craig?" he offered helpfully—he had a sore spot for spy films, as ridiculous as it sounded, considering his profession.

"You're not British," she said in surprise. When he didn't reply, clearly not in the mood for the casual conversation she had been aiming for, she tapped his hip rather intrusively. "That's a nice gun you've got there."

He grabbed her wrist, surprised; an escort definitely wouldn't have noticed his gun. "MI6?" he inquired, releasing her and folding his hands in front of him.

"Interpol," she added. Her accent dropped with her next words and she smiled mischievously, adjusting her hair—more so to show him the comms unit nestled in her ear, hidden strategically by her dark locks. "I also have an affinity for the American agencies."

He narrowed his eyes. "CIA? You must be a visiting agent," he concluded, murmuring as guests swept past them. "I never knew we were conducting a cross-branch exchange."

She simply shrugged, offering no answer in return.

Their comms units, which had been buzzing in the background with the usual chatter, crackled when a loud, booming voice took over. "The subjects will be leaving the premises at precisely T-minus nine. Bond and Duchess are posted at the Southern entrance and will jumpstart the extraction process..." Their executive droned on, but the woman turned to him and laughed incredulously.

"James Bond? Really?"

He bristled. "We both know that we're not the ones to pick our names. Besides, Duchess is just as bad."

"Oh, mine isn't half as bad." She patted a small indentation near her hip, indicating where one of many weapons were stashed. "Better get moving. Catch you later, Bond."

"Same goes for you, Duchess."

She swept out of the room, her heels clicking on the tiled floors as one of the assisting members of the palace—most likely an undercover agent—accompanied her outside. Joe watched her retreating form curiously, and then regarded his new companion.

"Abraham," he nodded.

The man allowed for a small smile of acknowledgement. "Did I hear something about a cross-branch exchange?" he inquired, tilting his head towards the exit.

Joe chuckled. "Apparently so. I'm assuming you know her?" He weighed his friend's concerned expression and pursed his lips. "Is it something to be concerned about?"

"That was an employed assassin, Solomon," Abraham Baxter said gruffly. He fiddled with his cufflinks, most likely rewiring his comms unit. "We haven't commissioned one of those for events like these ever since Blackthorne was asked to stage an overthrow of a Zimbabwean dictator."

He pressed his lips together in a firm line. "Murphy is here, all the way from Taiwan, and he runs in the same business. This doesn't sound good."

"It doesn't," the British man agreed. He glanced at the departing queen and bid him farewell with an inclination of his head. "Whatever you do, Solomon—keep yourself out of the eye of the storm."

 

Matthew Morgan folded and unfolded the napkin in front of him repeatedly, his fingers busy in the nervous habit. Across from him, his best friend raised his eyebrows in question. His friend of over ten years was possibly the most collected human he knew, calm and right-minded, able to tackle any sort of situation with ease. He was the balance that Joe needed in his life to be able to stop his fumbling and finally leave the Circle.

When the while piece of cloth was unfolded for the thirty-fourth time in the last five minutes, Joe snatched it away from his hands.

"What's on your mind?"

With a sigh, Matt rubbed the unshaved shadow on his face. "Someone tried to grab Cammie when we were in Rome last week." He pursed his lips and averted his gaze, hazel eyes focusing out the window instead. "I think we both know who was behind that."

A heavy weight of guilt settled in Joe's stomach and he frowned. "Is she okay? Did you find who it was?"

Matt shook his head. "Thank God, she had the sense to disappear on the streets, but Rachel and I couldn't find her for hours. We thought she was dead, especially after they left their little calling card in my pocket."

"Pavement artist," he said quietly. "She has Morgan in her blood, after all."

His friend chuckled. "Of course, an eight year-old is a bit too small to be able to knock a man out, so we were left without a trail. I hope she grows up to remember that in some circumstances, flight is much more useful than fight." At his younger friend's silence, Matt frowned and studied his troubled expression. "This isn't your fault, Solomon. If anything, they're on my tail for the hunt I'm on—not because of you."

"They know my technique better than anyone else. They're the ones that trained me." Joe glanced away and replaced his guilt with an unreadable mask. "I'm the one that brought this mess to you. All they have to do is track me the same way they have for the past fifteen years, and they'll have Cammie."

Matt was moments away from responding, when a slim woman slid into the booth besides her husband. The smile disappeared off of her face when she noted the grim expressions the two men wore. She furrowed her eyebrows, running her fingers through her chocolate colored hair.

"You're talking about Rome again, aren't you?" Her gaze flickered between them, clearly disapproving. "That wasn't anyone's fault, except for mine. I should have kept her in my sight." Before Matthew could protest, she lifted a hand to silence him. "What we're doing—trying to bring them down—is going to put us on their list of targets. People are going to die, maybe even one of us." The acceptance in her tone was chilling and she moistened her dry lips. "The best you two can do is move the hell on and work to make sure they don't take any other innocents and convert them into mass murderers."

She paused when a waitress came to set food before them. She exhaled at the sudden silence, and fixed Joe with a stern gaze. "Are you sure you don't want to meet her?"

He shook his head adamantly, though his emerald eyes were bright with pain. It had been nearly seven years since the last time he'd met the Morgan's daughter, when she was merely a few months old. As much as it hurt him to deny his friends' constant requests to meet their only child, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Cameron Morgan was the daughter of some of the most talented spies he knew—and some of the only people that he allowed himself to care for. The minute he let his guard down, the Circle would find yet another tool to tear through his heart and bring into the crosshairs of their fight.

After all, relationships were liabilities, and the mistakes he made in his youth would haunt him forever. There were some luxuries that he would never have, a fact that he accepted early in his career.

"I will give my life to your daughter in a heartbeat, but it's best she doesn't know who I am. She's safe in Nebraska, isn't she?"

"Yes, but—" Matt interjected.

Joe clenched his jaw. "No," he insisted, his voice booming, and caught the attention of an adjacent table. He cleared his throat with an apologetic frown and lowered his tone. He rose from his seat, despite Rachel's protests, and dropped bills onto the table next to his untouched sandwich. "I have a tail," he muttered under his breath, realizing that the guests only a few seats away had stares that lingered too long.

Before he departed, he fixed his gaze to the floor, too ashamed to meet the eyes of the people that had thrown themselves into the face of danger to keep him alive. He already knew that the first time he would meet Cameron Morgan would be in dire circumstances, and inadvertently hoped that day would never come.

"All I'm going to bring to your family is destruction," he said. His refusal to listen to any consolations dared them to argue. "You should have found a different godfather."

Chapter Text

Staring at the folded piece of paper he had found in his pocket moments ago, Joe sighed. There really was no such thing as a vacation day. It was the result of a cleverly orchestrated brush pass that he had barely noticed. Despite the fact that he was one of seven people in the Henley's gallery of Renaissance art, the culprit had practically disappeared into thin air before he could identify them. He flipped the crumpled strip over and stared at the narrow text of a reciept. It was the same restaurant he had met the Morgans at, merely twenty-seven hours ago. Certain letters were bolded and he frowned; Matt wouldn't put himself through an overcomplicated maneuver for a simple meeting. A heavy weight settled in the pit of his stomach; someone was following him through London, and it was likely the same tail that forced him to abruptly leave his companions the day before.

Not that he minded. At the time, it had been the perfect excuse to get out of a conversation he did not want to have.

He skimmed over the easy code, the letters and numbers rearranging themselves into an address in his head. He frowned; anyone willing to give him such an effortless lead to follow was confident. The "blueberry" in the mixed berry smoothie was underlined with a light pencil mark, as were the last four letters of "purslane" in the purslane salad. From what he remembered, Rachel was the one that had ordered both... maybe a cashier's replica of their receipt? He pulled out his phone and flicked through a map of London.

Bloomsbury Lane was a match.

As he exited the museum and sped down the streets, he used every counterintelligence maneuver in the books—and those that he created on his own. He flipped directions and backed down alleyways, grabbed a darker coat and pulled on a baseball cap. By the time he reached his hotel room, he was sure that there was no one following him.

He slid into the emergency staircase and endured a six story hike to his room. He preferred to sacrifice the comfort of an elevator for an easier escape route. Besides, the confinement of elevators reminded him too much of the boxy rooms that Blackthorne would brutally lock its students into, all for the sake of creating assassins that performed in all conditions. Though he found it pointless as a teenager, he was surprised at the amount of times he was stuck in a jail cell with the task of executing someone that the public thought dead.

After slipping his access card in, he swept a gaze across his spotless hotel room and slid into the bathroom. He carefully lifted the ceramic cover over the toilet's water tank and pulled out a waterproof satchel.

The Glock felt comforting at his hip.

Four taxi cabs, a bicycle, and a double-decker bus later, he was on Bloomsbury Lane. His lip curled in distaste; there were barely any pedestrians on the streets, and the open environment made him uneasy. All someone had to do was climb up to the rooftops with a rifle to pick him out of the crowds. The streets were lined with small shops and the typical tourist traps, with doorways tucked away next to the glass displays, most likely opening into the apartments on the second and third floors. He gave a cursory glance at the second message on the back of the receipt: "The Ace holds two faces in the Joker's game."

Blackjack. Building number eleven, apartment number one. He picked out the correct address—a quaint little electronics store with movies—before realization dawned on him.

A poster featured Cold War era Soviet spy films. His lips quirked into a smirk and he twisted the knob of the door next to the main entrance. There was one apartment on the level above Cinema Emporium.

"That took you longer than I thought it would." A woman stood in the threshold, her hand on her hip as she examined him with sharp, grey eyes. The way she held herself—poised, lithe, and prepared—reminded him of a cat. "Was my message too difficult?"

He straightened his shoulders, insulted. "I was busy admiring Raphael. You interrupted my break," he said. "Besides, Hutton's cryptography was meant for children."

She waved a hand dismissively and opened the door all the way, allowing him inside. "Or maybe you were trying to figure what went wrong during the Henley heist last year."

Joe thought back to the international art scare that had seized the world when rumors of the infiltration of the safest museum in the world hit the news. He was immensely interested in why a man as clever as Bobby Bishop—someone that even Abigail Cameron had difficulty in tracking down—had attempted to carry out such a broad scale attack in a building with security equivalent to Fort Knox. Motive was key and mistakes were a rarity, which was why he found it so hard to believe that the man wanted to be caught on camera.

"That may have been a factor," he admitted, and scanned the expanse of the small studio. There was no furniture except for a mattress pushed against the wall, and a desk and chair on the other side of the room. Cobwebs were bundled in the corners of the ceiling and dust covered every surface. One glance at the floor told him that the previous owner had raised more than a few animals, as deep scratches marred the hardwood.

She caught him staring at the state of the living space and grimaced. "Charming, isn't it? They don't pay me nearly as much as they should." She grabbed a small backpack amid a bundle of blankets on the mattress and pulled out a laptop and several manila folders.

He strolled across the room to glance out the window, moving a heavy velvet curtain aside, matted with mothballs. A glint of light bounced off a reflective surface outside and flashed him in his eyes; he immediately closed the curtains. "You have a—"

"A sniper. I know," she said, a pen in her mouth as she shuffled through papers. "I want him to know I'm here."

He furrowed his eyebrows, and maintained a cool composure though he was extremely uncomfortable. "Why did you call me here? The last time I saw you, it was for twenty minutes and three weeks ago."

She circled the table, leaned against its edge and held a print out towards him. It was a photograph from when he departed Buckingham in his own private vehicle. Behind him was a man circled in a red marker—he wore a black coat and was dressed formally, emerging from the same event, caught taking a picture on his cellphone of presumably the SUV's license plate.

"Pray tell, why is that I have been commissioned to capture the same person that has been following you for the past three weeks?" she questioned.

He walked forward, taking a stack of prints from her hand. Him, with Rachel and Matt, dining near the same man only three tables away. Then it was the clerk at the hotel, a guard at the Henley.

"How the hell did I miss this?" he muttered under his breath. He gritted his teeth, angered by his sloppiness. He had been so busy looking for threats hiding in crevices that he had missed a glaringly obvious one in the open.

She shrugged. "Let me tell you one thing, Bond. I don't clean up other people's messes. If this is something that concerns you, then..." she trailed, "I suggest you take this one on your own."

Joe looked up at her, narrowing his eyes. "Who put you on this mission?"

She seemed to debate giving him an answer, and paused momentarily. "Max Edwards." When he visibly clenched his jaw, she raised an eyebrow. "Not a fan, I assume."
"That's one way to put it," he snorted. Agent Edwards was hell bent on digging into his past, and his history with the Circle was something that the CIA didn't need to know about, especially after all the trouble he had gone to bury it. "I want in on this." At the flash in her eyes, he corrected himself. "Not as help—this is your mission. I just need to know who this is."

What he didn't tell her, of course, were his plans to silence the man in case he was another one of the Circle's loyal followers, duped into Ioseph's legacy of destruction.
"No interference," she emphasized. "We do this my way."

He nodded in assent. While he enjoyed his work, he wasn't particularly eager to take on a case that wasn't his. He held out his hand for her to shake, and said, "Joe Solomon. But you probably knew that."

She grinned. "Katherine Pierce. But you probably knew that, too."

 

"Edwards."

"Solomon."

Their greeting was ridiculously unsociable, and as Rachel Morgan slid into the elevator behind them, she voiced her disdain.

"Now, children. Forgiveness is key to life." She leaned forward and pressed her thumb against the small biometric scanner, and opened her eyes a little wider for the laser that read her irises.

Maxwell Edwards kept his line of sight fixed in front of him, his posture as stiff as his over-starched suit. "If Joe has done something regrettable that I need to forgive him for, then he should first explain to me what it is."

"How dense do you think his head is, for him not to understand that he should be the one apologizing to me for his assholic behavior?" Joe scoffed, his eyes in Rachel as he refused to recognize the third occupant in the small enclosure.

Rachel sighed dramatically and watched the floor number on a digital screen increase as they descended into the sublevels.

"That's very mature. Talking about me third person."

"You know what's even more mature? Asking an assassin to tail me!"

The woman tore her gaze away from the digital numbers. "You what?" She fixed a glower in his direction. "What warranted that action, Edwards?"

"You were aligned with a possible perpetrator in Her Majesty's palace. He was tailing you before I set her after the two of you to take care of our little problem."

"So you commissioned an assassin," Rachel replied flatly, ignoring Joe's satisfied smile as he substantiated his hatred for the man. "Whoever put you in authority must have a screw loose in their head."

The elevator doors slid open at Sublevel Sixteen, and the intercom announced their presence in a robotic tone. "Agent Rachel Morgan, CIA, clearance level twenty-seven. Mr. Maxwell Edwards, Interpol, special clearance level thirty-two. Agent Joseph Solomon..."

"Interpol, the policeman of international affairs did," Maxwell shot back. "Along with your agency—hence, my presence here, and higher clearance level."
Joe had the inexplicable urge to punch the smug grin off his face.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I must tend to much more pressing matters than an elementary-level argument." His gaze locked with Joe's and his eyes glittered with mirth. "Remember, Solomon. If you've done something regrettable..."

Tight-lipped, Joe roughly brushed pass the man and silently walked down the opposite hallway. He could hear Rachel's heels clicking against the tiles as she rapidly sped forth to catch up to him. She grabbed his arm, forcing him to slow down.

"He doesn't know a thing," she insisted. "Relax, Joe. It's behind you."

He raised an eyebrow and cast a sideways glance, her brown locks slightly mussed from running after him in three-inch heels and a sculpted pencil skirt. "It won't be behind me if you keep talking that loud."

Rachel rolled her eyes upwards. "Stop being dramatic, Solomon. Now, about this assassin..."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"What about Career Day at Gallagher?"

"I don't want to talk about that either."

"Joe—"

"So, where's Cammie?" he interrupted, an obvious attempt to divert their conversation. His green eyes were fixed on the grey linoleum tiles of the endless expanse of hallway.

Accustomed to the moods of the men around her, Rachel went along with it. "She's in the computer lab with the other kids. They're having a Minecraft hacking marathon until four."

"Aren't you supposed to be picking her up soon?" he said, phrasing his words carefully so that it didn't seem as if he was trying to escape her.

Rachel slowed to a halt in front of the glass walls of one of the many computer laboratories in the sublevels. "I am picking her up," she said, tapping on the glass and waving at her daughter. "You're supposed to be two levels below me with Stanford to debrief about last month's Kyoto mission, remember?"

Joe's blood froze as he watched the carbon copy of Matthew Morgan wave back with a toothy grin. She collected her things and emerged from a small group of children her size. He immediately turned around when he saw the girl sprinting to the door, and was already walking away when he heard Rachel call after him.

"Joe! Really?"

"You shouldn't have done that, Rachel," he muttered under his breath, definitely not loud enough for her to hear.

As he was walking away, he heard the girl's childish, high-pitched voice raise in a question. "Mommy, who was that?"

He was already in the elevator when she answered.