Lee Stetson was a fool.
A well-meaning fool, but a fool nevertheless.
His current predicament was completely his own fault, but unlike so many times before, his luck hadn’t won out this time. A sharp ache in his side reminded him jovially of that.
The storage room was cold and damp, a slight breeze slipping through the small slotted window across from him, as pale moonlight trickled through the glass and onto the wall behind him. Lee was slumped on his side on the floor, wrists cuffed behind him to a set of short chains, long enough for him to move his arms a little, but too short for him to bring his arms in front of him or to touch his hands together to even try to fiddle with the cuffs.
In some ways, Lee was grateful Amanda wasn’t here; he wasn’t sure if she’d be able to handle the sight. His ragged clothes were ripped and dirtied, caked with grime and dark red stains. His face seemed to have gotten the worst of it, though. Peppered black and blue with bruising, a shallow laceration lay across his cheeks… but the pièce de résistance was the purplish mass under his right eyebrow. His right eye was swollen shut, surrounded by a horrific amount of dried blood. The nerve endings behind his eye had pulsated pain for so long that Lee had almost dulled himself to it, but any attempt to open his eye was met with a searing fire that quickly thwarted any movement.
All of these things, gifts from the Children of Karbala.
A few weeks prior, the Agency had received intel that the remnants of Karbala that hadn’t been swept up after Adi Birol’s capture had once again reformed under Birol’s prior second-in-command, a woman named Nadira who had aided Birol during Amanda’s capture and had slipped away from the Agency’s grasp when Birol was secured. Nadira was cunning and shrewd, and had already reunited all of Birol’s soldiers under one secret roof. Unlike Birol, however, she did not have the patience for a constantly switching safehouse, and instead made their headquarters a sturdy one, in a warehouse not too far from one of the prior safehouse locations.
Amanda had been visually unnerved by the prospect of Karbala’s resurrection, which Lee understood to be a case of PTSD. There was no way he was going to put her through that trauma, much less danger, of going through all that again, so he had taken Billy aside and apprised him of his plan to infiltrate the headquarters and gather intel for a later strike.
“I… I don’t know, Scarecrow,” Billy hesitated. “You tried it your own way last time and look how that turned out. It could be much worse this time.”
Lee ran his fingers through his hair. “Billy,” he replied hotly, “there is no way I’m going to subject Amanda to a danger like that again! Besides, it’s my fault that--” his voice hitched and he stopped, still haunted by past events.
“Scarecrow, come on, snap out of it.” Billy slapped his shoulder. “Treat this like any other mission we’ve done. Use your head, be logical!”
“Logic has nothing to do with this,” Lee muttered under his breath.
“Nothing, nevermind.” He circled back around, trying a different approach. “Look, I’m not going to engage these targets, it’s simply a recon mission; I want to make sure we’re as informed as we can be about these guys before we commit to a bigger operation.” He paused for effect. “After all, that’s the logical thing to do, right?”
Billy frowned. “Maybe.” Visibly mulling it over, Billy finally spoke up. “Okay Scarecrow, but I want the utmost caution taken with this; no risks. In and out.”
“You got it, Billy. Just in and out.”
“Just in and out,” Lee derisively croaked to himself. Things had gone to shit; without an extra pair of eyes and ears, he had accidentally missed one of the security tripwires that activated a silent alarm and alerted the entire damn facility to his presence. One spy against 5 armed enemies… he at least put up a decent fight, or so his muddled brain thought as he lay there. Lucky for him, he was kept alive. “Lucky” being a relative term; his name was too well known, and rather than kill him, they knew he was more valuable alive… as an (un)willing informant.
Nadira hadn’t the same love of hallucinogens and drugs that Birol had. No, she believed in good old-fashioned torture, though the poisoned corned beef sandwich on day two was a nice touch, weakening Lee’s system enough to keep him from putting up much of a fight... or keeping down solids for the rest of the day. Lee suspected that particular gem was probably pure revenge for Birol.
Lee had been thoroughly trained in interrogation methods, and had steeled himself against whatever the Children of Karbala had to offer. Day one was typical fare; almost as if they were testing the waters. He was beaten soundly as they barked questions at him and punched when he remained silent as a tomb.
“That all…?” he had cockily retorted after the bruisers had tired themselves out working on Lee.
Nadira nodded to one of them and they grabbed Lee by his collar, slamming him against the wall, the back of his skull smacking on the concrete. His vision blackened for a second and his head erupted in a wave of sharp pain. The wind was knocked out of him and he collapsed to the ground, a smirk trickling across Nadira’s face as they left him in the room and locked it behind them. Provoking an interrogator certainly wasn’t one of the recommended tactics in his training, and as he came back around he winced, committing that lesson to memory.
By now, Lee knew that he had missed far too many check-ins at this point for the Agency to just sit idly by. He was on the third day of this hell; he had to do something . Panic gnawed at his stomach as he imagined Amanda completely in the dark about what was happening to him. For all his attempts at keeping Amanda safe, he cursed under his breath as he realized a simple fact: he probably wouldn’t be in this situation if he hadn’t kept her out of the loop.
“We work best as a team,” her voice echoed in his head, “I watch your back and you watch mine.”
Lee smiled slightly, grimacing through the pain. Amanda… Even though it had only been half a week, It felt like it had been months . The physical abuse during the interrogation sessions blurred his sense of time; minutes, hours, days seemed to melt into one another. Sometimes the pain made him black out. During one session he fell into murky blackness, only for them to wait for him to regain consciousness and continue where they left off.
Through it all, he never uttered a word, apart from his involuntary gasps and grunts. He thought his teeth might shatter from how hard he gritted them to try and avoid crying out in pain. Amanda became his mantra, he would shut his eyes and picture her… it helped him through immeasurable agony.
But Nadira had the patience of a saint. “It’s fine, Scarecrow,” she cooed in the shadows. “We have all the time in the world.”
After the last interrogation session, one of the soldiers had made the mistake of leaving a chair a bit too close to Lee’s body. His breath picked up in realization as he numbly waited for them to exit the room.
After he was satisfied that they had completely left, he sat up, ignoring fire rippling up his side, to try and maneuver his leg to the chair. Stretching his foot as far as he could, he just barely made contact with the lower rung of the wooden chair.
If I can just pull one of the nails out of this thing, I might be able to pick my cuffs’ locks.
He licked his lips in concentration. Stretching his leg so far rewarded him with a flourish of pain from other parts of his body, but he pushed past it, scraping the chair ever closer to him.
Until suddenly the door opened with a creak.
One of the soldiers stood there, with a bowl of something, staring at him.
Lee would have a lot of time to mull over why he couldn’t have waited just a half hour more for the soldier delivering his meal to come and go… but right now he’d pay the price for his desperate impatience.
Nadira was called back into the room. The offending soldier had thrust Lee up against the wall and throttled a fist into Lee’s side. A strangled cry escaped his lips as his chest splintered into white hot jolts of pain. A small voice in the back of Lee’s head guessed that his ribs were bruised… or broken. His breathing shuddered into stilted gulps of air; he couldn’t breath deeply without keeling over.
“Ah ah, Scarecrow, how naughty,” Nadira commented, a slick layer of amusement coating her words. “You think to push your luck just because we want your information?”
“I… I… was just… trying… to sit down…” Lee sputtered.
A deadpan gaze from Nadira. “Do you take me for a fool? I know what you were planning to do.” She snapped her fingers and a second soldier stepped out of the shadows, slapping a metal bat against his palm.
Lee paled. “N-now come on... Nadira,” he chuckled half-heartedly, “You need me... alive, r-remember..?
“Oh yes, of course, how could I have forgotten?”
The soldier approached Lee as the other one held him steady. He reared back with the bat… and swung it low and deep… straight into Lee’s right leg. The one that had been reaching for the chair.
Lee heard a muted crack, and a bloodcurdling scream in the distance… only it wasn’t in the distance. He noted absently the sound came from his own lips, as his mind shattered into a flood of overwhelming agony. His nerve endings screamed at him, like daggers racing up his legs stabbing at him viciously. He didn’t dare look down at his leg. It was broken, the severity of which eluded him; that was all his mind could handle right now.
“We need your information,” Nadira droned in the dissipating background. Lee felt faint, his world tumbling away from him as the blackness overtook him.
“...but you don’t need your leg for that.”
The world slowly came back into focus, but Lee had no idea what time it was, or if it was even still the same day. Light had shifted down the wall, and the general hue was cool and blue. Night time, I guess. The room was once again empty. Lee strained to look around from his low angle, his cheek numb from the cold of the cement floor beneath it. His broken leg was folded underneath the rest of his body as he lay on the ground, and he was too afraid to try and move and test how broken it still was.
Sitting there, he came to a dim realization. They knew the kind of person he was. They claimed they were interrogating him, but they must’ve known he wasn’t the type to talk. After the metal bat, Lee wondered if this was less about “interrogation” and more about thinly veiled, unadulterated revenge for losing Birol.
His entire body seemed to pulse with variations of deep aches as he gingerly lifted his head off the floor to lean himself back against the wall. His thoughts turned morose, tainted by the blanket of pain smothering him.
I’m going to die here.
His cuffs taunted him as his wrists remained stuck behind his back.
I’m going to die… and I’ll never see Amanda again.
His good eye stung with angry tears.
I should’ve told her. I should’ve trusted her.
He craned his neck to look up at the small window, wishing foolishly that somehow he could slip through it and fly away.
What a great spy, he bitterly cursed at himself. Here lies Lee Stetson, colossal idiot.
A flicker of a shadow danced past the window. It caught Lee’s eye but he couldn’t make out what it was. There was an unusual amount of soft rustling in the brush outside, but his mind was too locked in despair to investigate it.
It was the gentle scraping of the door’s lock that startled him out of his melancholy reverie. His ears perked up, recognizing the unmistakable sounds of a lockpick doing its work. His heart almost leapt out of his mouth. He tried sitting up and was greeted with a sharp follow-up from his ribs. A gasp forcefully escaped his lips and the lock noises paused. Lee swallowed hard and clenched his teeth.
After a short beat, the lockpick noises resumed, and then a click and a slide of a latch.
The door’s handle rotated ever so slightly, as the door itself creeped open, careful to minimize any squeaks. The figure in the shadows of the doorway peeked out, head straightening up.
The figure froze, taking in the view in front of it, a bruised and battered Lee on the floor and leaned up messily against the wall behind him.
Lee’s eye widened, his pulse quickening, heart ready to burst from his chest. The tone… even as quiet as the whisper was, he instinctively knew.
The figure rushed out of the shadows, kneeling down, and suddenly there were gentle hands all over him, touching, hesitating, embracing. The moonlight from window cascaded off the side of her face, revealing the crinkles of fear and devastation etched there.
“A... Amanda,” he managed to sputter from his dry throat. Relief threatened to overwhelm him; he fought the urge to break down then and there.
Her shaky voice was almost enough to do him in. “Lee… oh gosh Lee … what did they do to you?” He felt fingers caress his bruised face, run down his arms, and come to rest upon his chest.
“Oh... you know,” he tried putting up a brave front, “all in... a day’s work... for a spy.” He coughed, noticing a metallic taste on his lips.
Amanda’s short sob made him instantly regret his joke. “...Why didn’t you tell me?” came the angry, pained whisper. She set about picking the cuff’s locks.
“I’m... sorry, Amanda,” he wheezed, his voice barely audible, “I was… trying to protect you… I…”
The cuffs clicked, reluctantly falling away from Lee’s tender wrists. He subconsciously rubbed them gently.
“I’m getting you out of here Lee, I--”
Lee blinked out of his haze and became fully aware of the scene playing out. Amanda was in this room with him, but there was no side exit, and if those soldiers found her here now--
He summoned his strength and willed himself to focus enough to push his words out quickly.
“Amanda, you have to get out of here, now. If Nadira or her soldiers find you here they will kill you without a second thought.” He licked his lips intensely, his open eye shining with fire. “Get out of here, go tell Billy, get help.”
“But I can’t leave you here--”
“I can’t move, Amanda, and I’ll just slow you down.” His body felt like a bag of wet cement; he wouldn’t be sprinting to escape anytime soon. “Please, just go before--”
Fear tore through him as he heard a faint shuffling of feet outside. No. No God, no!
“Amanda, get out of here now!” he hissed, frenzied.
Amanda froze up. She heard the movement too. She reached down at her side and pulled out a pistol. Lee’s eye widened. “Amanda--”
“I’m not leaving you, Lee,” her voice was steel, determined and hard. It startled him.
No time to close the door. Amanda quietly made her way to the side of the room, out of view of the doorway. She pressed her back to the wall, taking advantage of the blind spot the location provided, and took in a deep breath.
Almost on cue, the shadow of a large man approached the open door and stopped abruptly. He walked in swiftly and saw Lee upright on the floor, hands free of his cuffs and frozen in place. The man angrily motioned the metal bat at him. Oh, Lee thought absently, the bat man.
“How the hell did you get out of those? Why is this door open?” The man snarled and raised his bat.
“Stay away from him! Stop where you are and drop the bat!” came an enraged, scratchy voice from the far end of the room. The man’s eyes widened as he became acutely aware of the wiry, furious woman in the corner, gun raised and trained on him. He menacingly turned to face her.
His bat arm adjusted towards her. “Why you--”
A gunshot roared, louder than intended due to the smallish room. Amanda lowered the smoking pistol, her eyes intense and wide. Lee looked just as shocked.
Her first kill. She certainly was an agent now.
She blinked rapidly, shaking the shock off briskly and bringing her attention to Lee. She knelt back down near him, lifting her collar with a lapel to her lips and speaking.
“I’ve got Lee here, but we’re going to have company real soon. Two floors down, past the first white doorway.” She swallowed hard. “Hurry Billy, please!”
Lee felt a strange twinge of emotion sting his eye. She hadn’t come alone. They planned for this. My Amanda… saving me… His trembling lips tightened.
“I’m sorry Lee, this is going to hurt, but we don’t have a choice,” she murmured apologetically. “It’s not safe to just keep you here anymore. Just try to stay with me, okay?” She braced herself and lifted him by the arm. He sucked in a breath harshly as he tried ignoring the swell of pain as he rose. But before he could fully stand, he started losing his balance, falling dangerously close to leaning on his broken leg.
“Wait, Amanda I--”
He slipped on the wall, his full body weight coming down hard on his leg. Immediate and excruciating shards of pain raced up his thigh, an involuntary yelp ripping itself from his mouth. He toppled helplessly to the ground and his head hit the floor hard.
Everything went black.
Sounds. Distorted and muted, as if swimming through a lake. His head swam with floatiness. Vaguely, in the darkness, he thought he heard his name. He fought to open his eyes and failed.
Again. Try again.
He opened his eyes successfully on the third attempt, but the world was swirling and out of focus, like he was floating haphazardly through a river of gauze. He barely made out Amanda’s form, above him and trying to help him up. It was odd how weightless he felt. Was he standing up? Where was he…?
Another figure worked its way to the door. Lee tried to push Amanda aside in muted alarm, but everything felt like it was going in slow motion. The figure raised a gun.
Let me take the bullet.
He stumbled as Amanda pushed herself in front of him.
A shot rang out.
Amanda fell against Lee as they both crashed to the floor. The dull pain registered remotely on Lee, but his breathing hitched as the sensation of something wet and warm from Amanda streaked across his face as she collapsed beneath him.
“What…?” The word dropped from his lips and was sucked into nothingness. The looming shadow of the figure caught his attention immediately and his instincts kicked into gear, messily grabbing the abandoned pistol from the ground and blasting the man ahead of him. It was too blurry to tell… did he hit him?
A pause… and then the body tilted down and out of view like a cut-down tree.
Lee’s hand shook as he dropped the pistol, now deathly afraid of looking down.
The body laying on him was still. His eyes blurred, his trembling hand forcing itself to touch.
Her face. He couldn’t see it clearly, but… her face was wet and... … and… and so still…
“Amanda…?” His quivering voice sounded even smaller, echoing helplessly in the room that now felt far too big.
“No, please…” his lips quaked as his breathing shuddered violently. “No… please God, No…”
Words from the past returned with a vengeance to haunt him.
“A partner’s a guy who laughs at your jokes and loans you his socks… and one day he takes a bullet through the head for you.”
His brows crumpled as his vision flooded with tears.
“Please…. Please God, No... “ It sounded like someone else was crying. Someone alien and broken, but it was him . “No…. why… WHY… ”
“Amanda, I’m sorry,” he choked. “It’s my fault. Please… please don’t leave me…”
Lee tried stroking her hair, but it was already matted with wetness. He lifted his head as the back of it hit the wall behind him. He opened his mouth to scream, but a deep sobbing emanated instead. A pitiful, repressed wail tore from his lungs as they burned with loss.
I want to die.
He choked on his tears.
Let me die.
I want to die.
His body slid from the wall as he cried, slumping over onto the floor, his arms still cradling Amanda as he wept into the darkness.
He felt black creep into his vision.
Good. Take me.
The smokey twilight engulfed him.
I want to die.
A distant warmth, a soft voice, called out to him in the void.
“Don’t give up, Lee. Please... don’t give up.”
His heart fluttered.
“I was lying that day, you know? I had heard what you said in the ambulance… ‘you might even make a decent agent someday.’ ...You couldn’t have meant without you.”
He was so tired…
“I don’t know if you can hear me, but… I love you, Lee…”
But he fought to stay awake. His lids were so heavy.
“Come back to me, Lee. Please come back.”
He struggled against the darkness. … and then the brightness emerged. Slow at first, it blossomed out, warm and welcoming, until he rushed into it.
The first thing Lee was numbly aware of was a steady low beeping in the background. Digital, mechanical. The feeling of being encased in gauze returned, but different this time. Light beamed through his closed eyelid, his other eye shrouded in darkness. Lee struggled to open his eye; his lids felt like they weighed two tons, but he finally managed it with difficulty.
Straight ahead of his view was the ceiling. From the sterile look of it, he was in a hospital room. The beeping, he realized lazily, was the machine he was hooked up to on his side. A gentle warmth embraced his left hand, and he gingerly tilted his head to look.
His breath trembled fiercely as his eye widened in disbelief.
Amanda was there at his side, leaning over in an uncomfortable hospital chair, half-asleep but holding his hand desperately. Her head rested against his blanketed form, her wavy curls scattered out across the bedspread. She must have sensed his movement, because she stirred lightly and lifted her head, rubbing her sleep-deprived eyes and blinking with a start.
“Lee…?” Her voice was small, peppered with happy incredulity.
Lee’s good eye was glassy with unshed tears. He blinked roughly and they spilled from his eyes. His lips pressed together to keep from quaking apart; his throat was as dry as the desert, but he tried clearing it painfully. It felt like he hadn’t spoken in months.
“A-Amanda…?” came his barely perceptible reply. He managed to weakly squeeze her hand in return, which almost made her break down then and there.
“You’re awake, you’re finally awake,” she smiled through watery eyes. “We almost lost you… I thought…” She cleared her throat, shaking her head. “Doesn’t matter what I thought. You’re here now. I need to tell the others--”
“B-but I thought…” Confusion crinkled Lee’s brows. “What... happened…?”
Amanda leaned forward, tenderly brushing Lee’s hair from his face and around the large bandage covering his right eye.
“You hit your head when you fell. You went unconscious, doctor said it was a really bad concussion. They’re still monitoring the effects of that.” Amanda’s face darkened with concern. “Fortunately, Billy and the others breached the compound and headed off the other guys before they had a chance to find out where the gunshot came from.” She beamed.
“Billy really saved us there. Without them, I might’ve had to…” Her eyes faltered. “Shoot another person.” That kill had affected her deeply. Lee wasn’t surprised; that was Amanda, all right… but he knew he would need to help her come to terms with that later. He was just so unbelievably happy right now, despite the dull aches and pains working through him.
“They killed most of the soldiers, but they managed to get Nadira. She’s in for a rude awakening for her interrogation.”
Interrogation… Lee ruefully grinned to himself, wincing. The Agency’s kind of interrogation was too good for her.
Lee moved to sit up, but Amanda quickly stopped him.
“No Lee, don’t try anything just yet. The doctor said you have a lot of mending to do. Broken ribs, your eye needs some serious healing, and… your leg had to be reset…” Her eyes lingered at the large cast under the sheets. “You’ll need a cane for a little while, Billy said we might need to temporarily re-evaluate--”
“It’s okay, I can deal with that.” His leg could’ve been amputated and that wouldn’t have diminished the relief he was feeling at that moment. “What I couldn’t deal with was… was…”
Images came flooding back as his voice was lost in a set of involuntary shuddering sobs. His frail hand rose up to wipe his eye as he fought a losing battle to keep his voice even.
“I-I’m sorry… it… it was... a nightmare . I… thought I lost you… I… should’ve told you... I’m sorry, Amanda, I--”
Amanda kissed his forehead gently. “It’s all right, you’re here now. I’m here. You’re safe.” The trauma he experienced had crippled him to his core; her heart ached seeing him like this. It was a discussion for another time, but she didn’t want to strain him by talking more about it right now.
She rose slowly and caressed his face one more time. “I’m going to get the others, and the doctor.” She smiled and moved to the doorway. “Just rest, sleep.”
Lee shook his head slowly, smiling in return.
“I’ve done enough sleeping. I’m staying awake for this.”