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The Trapped in Tanzania Caper

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“I have the American girl in my sights.” The stocky redhead, clad in a miner’s uniform that would fool anyone else that hadn’t been thwarted by her team on countless missions, runs across the minefield, looking to be the size of a beetle from where La Chèvre is perched atop a hill with binoculars in hand. Something in her hand glints in the little sunlight remaining from beyond the gathering storm clouds. Their target! “She is carrying the gem!”

There’s a grunt, then a meaty thwack from the other end of his earpiece before his partner in crime replies. “I am-“ another hit, “a bit busy at the moment, mi amigo!” He scours the minefield to find El Topo, binoculars stopping in their tracks as he locates him. On the complete opposite side of the site. 

Fine, then he would get her. Even this high up, he was still technically closer to the girl, who was getting away with their Tanzanite. With disregard for the cheap tool, he drops the binoculars roughly and leaps from his perch, effortless in his descent down the rocky terrain, damp red mud staining his shoes. A light drizzle has made its way down from the sky and into the clearing. The weather was forecasted to be harsh tonight, one of the biggest storms this part of Africa has seen in quite some time, meaning the mining operation normally taking place here has been called off early today. Well- for most people; the ones that were actually miners rather than thieves. 

While El Topo kept Carmen busy, it was now up to La Chèvre to nab their precious gemstone, which was closing in with every long stride he took. In a different timeline where he excelled in land-based activities, perhaps he could have called himself La Gazelle, for his long legs were definitely in resemblance to the brilliant limbs of the speedy animal now as he sprinted without break towards the girl. Her own legs, thick and short in comparison, stood no chance against La Chèvre in a game of chase. Was this how Tigress felt when she closed in on her prey? The thrill of the hunt, the adrenaline of closing in on your target?

But the prey, in her quick thinking, realizes she can’t reach the rendezvous point fast enough, so she makes a sharp turn to her left, straight into the opening cave of a mine. Clever, she must think she is, for seeking safety in his partner’s expertise, but his rational thinking is fogged over by his desire to sink his claws into his prize. He follows her, not a moment of hesitation in his steps, and enters the dark tunnel seconds after. 

In the cover of the darkness, it takes his eyes a moment to adjust, which is all the time the girl needed to set up her ambush. She launches herself at him, his blindness the only reason he fails to evade, and knocks him flat onto his back. Along with the sharp wheeze that leaves his chest, he hears the distinct crack of his phone snapping in his side pocket. Now realizing his mistake in following her into this dark, confined, underground death trap , he raises two fingers to his ear in panic. Just before his fingertips can make contact, the girl grips his wrist and pulls the communicator from his ear, rolling off of him and chucking it into the dark. 

“Oh no you don’t!” She shouts as she throws his one lifeline with all her might. 

Thud.

Crack.

Silence. 

“No callin for your digging buddy now-“ she gloats, until she screams when La Chèvre takes his turn in tackling her to the ground. 

Might as well return the favor, right?

She may have had the upper hand when taking him by surprise, but he has years of training and experience on her, and easily manhandles her onto her stomach. With his foot pressed against her neck and jaw, he yanks her arms behind her back mercilessly, pinning her wrists into her spine with his arm. Like playing a game of twister on a live, squirming victim, he manages to reach one hand into her back pocket, tossing the phone aside a few feet before nabbing her own earpiece and crushing it in his palm. 

“There, now we are almost even,” he says sharply. She grunts in exertion from below him, kicking out helplessly, failing to make contact. He presses down harder on her jaw, grinning wickedly at the whimper he elicits. Carefully, so not as to lose hold of her, he reaches again for the phone. Before this situation can get any messier, he needs to get a hold of Antonio and update him on his position. If Antonio can track him, he’ll feel less anxious about being inside this death trap. 

Since the phone requires a password or fingerprint ID, he lines one of the girl’s thumbs up with the home button, the sound of her phone unlocking music to his ears, even beyond the loud drumming of the rainfall. 

Wait. 

Rainfall?

La Chèvre whips his head around to look back towards the entrance where the sunlight has dimmed completely and instead only heavy rain falls from dark storm clouds. He needed to get out, now , before the cave was flooded or there was a collapse. These mines are ancient and high risk- not a place he wants to be in a massive storm. 

“Where is the gem?” He demands, barely managing to mask the panic seeping into his tone. The girl struggles beneath him, her words muffled under his muddy shoe. 

“I don’t even have it, asshole! Let go a’ me!” 

Lies. He clearly saw the stone in her hand. Unless- unless she handed it off when he looked for Antonio. 

“Agh!” He cries, pocketing the phone and releasing her, jumping several feet away for safety. The mission was a bust, which meant he needed to bail and ensure his partner’s safety immediately. There would be no time to tie up the girl and carry her all the way out without risking capture or interference. Like hell he was returning the phone, though, now that it was unlocked and at his disposal. 

They seem to have the same idea, though, because they both make haste in starting towards the exit. Thunder, loud enough to shake the floor and stagger their steps, claps above the clearing, lightning striking down not a second before and illuminating the cave. The rumbling, however, doesn’t stop with the thunder, it grows and multiplies in its might. Feeling full on panic now, Jean breaks into a full sprint towards the tunnel’s exit. But he’s too late- far too late. 

Rocks, sharp and heavy and uncaring of their audience, break free of the walls and ceiling, smacking into the ground just a yard from the operative’s nose. He wheels back, startled, and slams right into the girl, sending them both sprawling yet again. They lie still for a moment, both in disbelief, not wanting to face the reality of the situation they both know is waiting for them. A cave-in. Trapped in a musty pitch-black mine with the enemy. No communication besides- the phone!

Abruptly, Jean-Paul sits up and pulls the girl’s cell phone from his pocket. Unlike his own, this one is still intact, unlocked and ready for his use. Except… it’s not? He glares at the screen, attempting to make sense of the bright red message before him.

LOCKED: password required

What? But he was so sure he unlocked the phone. 

“I’ll take that back,” the girl says, swiping the phone from him. He allows her to, simply because there’s no point in him holding onto it. If she can get help, surely she won’t leave him here to die- the crowd of pansies her team is. He’s thankful for it, if not just this once. “I cannot believe I’m trapped in a muddy cave with dirt on my face while Zack gets to deliver a stupid crystal to a high-end resort,” she grumbles, more to herself than her company, tapping her password rather aggressively into her digital keyboard. She raises the phone to her ear, all the while glaring daggers at La Chèvre. 

It’s hard to see past three feet of where the phone’s lights emits, so she holds it just far enough from her ear where the screen won’t dim. It rings. And rings. And rings some more. 

“What?!” She gasps, an automated female voice barely audible from the phone’s speakers over the pounding storm above. She tries again, and again, and again, growing more frustrated with each failed attempt. 

“Wadd’ya mean no signal, lady?! Isn’t Player supposed to have reach everywhere?!” She shouts in irritation, her cries echoing off the walls of the cave pathetically. Jean-Paul covers his ears and cringes inwardly, falling to his knees and fighting to stay balanced as the mine trembles yet again. The girl, who’s name he still hasn’t learned but miraculously has given him two other names of her crew, also stumbles, but remains standing. “Shit, fuck. FUCK.” She clicks the phone off, Jean’s breath catching in his throat as soon as the one light source is gone. Thankfully, his terror is short lived, the flashlight beaming not a moment later. 

The girl- he can’t keep calling her that- shines the light around in a circle, confident enough to even turn her back on him. Well, he doesn’t blame her- it’s obvious this kind of situation isn’t his forte.

“What is your name?” He demands moreso than requests, standing to his full height and brushing off his suit. The weight of the broken phone in his pocket mocks him as she shines the flashlight directly into his eyes. At his hiss, she lowers it, just enough light reflecting off the ground to luminate her unimpressed scowl. 

“What’s it to ya, goat boy?”

“It’s nothing of worth to me, but I’d prefer to have a name to call you if we’re going to be stuck together until we escape.”

She crosses her arms, awkwardly managing to still aim the light between them. 

“We wouldn’t be in this mess if you weren’t hellbent on shoving your nasty foot in my face.”

He bristles, throwing his hand out impatiently. 

“We would not be here if you did not turn tail into this death trap!” 

She slouches a bit, frowning. 

“Okay, maybe that’s true. I just- you’re the climbing one! I didn’t think you’d actually follow me, alright?!”

“Just tell me your name!” He exclaims, entirely too stubborn to run in circles like this. It was getting them nowhere near an exit plan, and for all he knew, the clock was ticking. 

“Fine! I’m Ivy. And what’s your name? Lumiere?” 

“What? No, my name is La Chèvre. Did Bla- did Carmen never tell you our names?”

She scratches her chin, lips pulled back into a grimace as she really takes her time thinking of an answer. 

“You know, I don’t think she has. Not that I’d bother remembering your real name anyways. Goat Boy gets the point across just fine.” Insufferable . How Carmen prefers the company of this idiot and her even dumber sibling over her former classmates are beyond him. 

“Hmph. Perfect. Now how are we going to get out of here?” The sooner he can get out of this mine, the better, because his claustrophobia would only be put at bay for as long as that flashlight was on, and the battery life of that phone was not 100% when he caught a glimpse of it.

The entrance is just the same as it was minutes before, closed entirely by compact rocks and boulders, not to mention the wet mud mostly likely caking it all together from the outside. Ivy inspects it closely, the bright white light of her phone not aiding their search of identifying any weak points by much. 

“You ain’t gonna to tell me your name?” She asks distractedly, poking and prodding cautiously at different rocks. Hadn’t she just brushed him off on this topic? 

“No? Why would I?” Did she also not get the memo that he’s a VILE operative? That they’re enemies, and he was this close to possibly killing her just minutes ago?

“Uh, because it’s common decency, duh,” she replies. He is blinded again by her careless aim, raising a gloved hand to shield his eyes when she doesn’t back down like before. Her headstrong attitude reminds him of Tigress, which isn’t exactly a compliment.

“I am a criminal! Common decency is below me.”

“Yeah, I got that when you shoved your shoe in my mouth .” It was her jaw, not her mouth. “But I don’t want my last words to be ‘Save me, Goat Boy! ’ if things end up goin’ south. So what’s your name?” 

He gets the feeling she would dig her finger into his chest were she just a tad dimmer, but she’s aware of his abilities and is smart enough to keep her hands to herself. Should he break protocol and reveal his name? To his enemy, no less? Staring her down, he doesn’t get the impression she’ll actually do anything with the information, especially not if Carmen hasn’t already. This is turning out to be a life or death situation; playing nice might just save his hide if worse comes to worse. 

“Jean-Paul.”

“John, huh? Was expectin’ something fancier.”

He pushes the light down and out of his eyes. 

“It is Jean-Paul, a common name in France. It would serve you well to get it right, Lily.”

My name isn’t- oh. Okay yeah, never mind, I get it.” Sharply, she swivels on her heel, marching towards the darkness with determination. “Welp! That collapse ain’t goin’ nowhere. Better shake our booties down deeper and see if we can find a different exit.”

Deeper?” He parrots, freezing against the wall of the front tunnel. Are they not just going to dig their way out? Or wait until the storm passes? Or keep calling for help? This crazy girl wanted to go deeper into the unstable mine?

Ivy sighs, running her palm over her face. 

“Unless you have a spare drill lying around, those boulders aren’t goin’ anywhere. We have a better chance of getting out of here if we follow the mining path.”

Absolutely not. He shakes his head. There was no force on earth that could make him step one foot lower into the ground. At least, not without Antonio by his side. If his expert burrower partner were here, they’d have gotten out of this mess already, phone intact and communicator still snug in his ear rather than doomed to an eternal fate of collecting dust and being crawled on by rats and bugs. 

Dust. 

Rats. 

Bugs. 

That could be him, if he actually does die down here, alone with his enemy as his only company. Oh god, he could die down here. He could die underground without ever saying goodbye to Antonio. Without Antonio ever even knowing. 

Gripping the slick fabric on his chest, he presses himself further against the wall caked with dirt and grime, desperate to ground himself in light of this horrible realization. Similar to a goat, he locks into place, startled by his own inner thoughts. 

“Woah, hey, goat boy, you alright?” Ivy asks, soft and concerned, a total contrast to the hostile woman she’d been earlier. She beams the ceiling, bathing them both in a light that was easier on the eyes, and returns to him. Gritting his teeth, he shields his face by turning cheek, not wanting her pity on top of everything else. It’s useless, though, because she spurs into action, phone placed delicately on the ground, hands held up in an innocent manner, as if approaching an injured animal. “Listen, we gotta do something. We can’t just wait here and waste energy. I know you don’t wanna hear this, but it’s probably flooded up to tits out there, meaning Carm and your boyfriend won’t be able to help us even if they did know where we were. We have to go deeper.”

“No,” he says around a shaky breath. “Absolutely not.” Tentatively, she rests a hand on his upper arm, genuine care in her striking blue eyes. She’s one of the good guys, of course she’d want to help him. 

“I’m not leaving you here to die, Jean-Paul.” She attempts a humorous smile. “Carm would kill me if I did.”

“I’d rather take my chances up here and die before accepting your pity.” He spits out the words like venom, resorting to anger to hide his vulnerability. Crying for help to his enemy is a fate just as bad as death. At least, from an enemy of this caliber, not someone worthy of respect like Shadowsan or Carmen Sandiego. Even those two are a stretch. 

Ivy rolls her eyes, but steps back and holds out her hand in one more act of goodwill. “Come on, I’m giving you permission to break my hand with your weird rock climber grip. You know how many chicks would kill to hold my hand in a life or death scenario?” 

“Do not flatter yourself,” he growls, slapping her hand down, the clap as sharp as the thunder outside. She winces, pulling her hand back and shaking it nursingly. “I’m waiting here. El Topo will find me, and my pride will be in one piece when he does.”

Ivy shrugs, way too smug and nonchalant for Jean’s liking, and picks up her phone. 

“Fine, see ya never, Goat Boy.” She waves over her shoulder in her departure, the sound of her sneakers against the stone dimming as she gets further, the light with her. 

The light

THE ONLY LIGHT. 

In an instant, he’s by her side, attached to her hip, two hands clutching her arm in a death grip. She startles, an undignified squawk leaving her lips that morphs into full blown laughter as she doubles over, hands on her knees, cheeks split in a large grin. 

“Oh- oh my god! Not even five seconds! I- I really thought you’d last longer! Ha!” As she composes herself, he only tightens his hold, purposefully twisting his hands to irritate her skin, turning her laughter into a short yelp of pain. “Ow! Ouch, I get it! Sorry!” She bats his hands away with her phone, the metal stinging his knuckles on impact. She grabs his right hand before he can retaliate, her grip as strong as she looks. “The less we fight the quicker we get this over with. Let’s go already.”

 

-

 

“I am-“ Carmen kicks his side, “a bit busy at the moment, mi amigo!”   

A mining caper in Tanzania, who could have guessed they’d assign El Topo and La Chèvre? He huffs, blocking yet another swinging leg with his forearms. Honestly, could Jean-Paul not have assisted at all? Yes, his boyfriend is deathly afraid of the underground, but they’re fighting outside of the mines. There’s no reason he can’t be down here helping him. 

Unless, of course, he was going for the Tanzanite- something Carmen didn’t appear to have after all. One of her new friends must have nabbed it while she acted as decoy, the good old bait and switch. It never fails her, sadly. 

His enemy dressed in red delivers one last swinging kick, like an axe raining down from the heavens, her heel nailing him right in the collarbone. He grunts, mirroring her as she steps back a few paces, hand raised to her ear. It’s beginning to rain, meaning there’s little time left before the storm rolls in and makes the mission much more difficult. Unlike Tigress, the goat and mole don’t have x-ray goggles, so fighting through a pelting storm of rain isn’t going to be easy. Knowing Carmen and her ever present readiness, she probably has some high-tech gadget prepared for just this occasion. It’s hard not to be envious, but VILE isn’t exactly in the financial green right now, so spare equipment is limited. 

“Good to hear,” Carmen says into her earring, her red smirk all too telling of her victory. Antonio growls, tapping his own earpiece with a claw. 

“La Chèvre, status?” He keeps a close eye on Carmen, lest she try anything funny at the last minute, but the scarlet thief continues to circle him, copying his movements in listening to her ear piece. It seems there’s more chatter on her end than his, however. He tries again. “Jean-Paul? Hello?”

Just as he starts to worry, Carmen’s smirk falls into a concerned frown as well. The rain’s pressure increases, his hair sliding down slowly onto his forehead and in front of his eyes, Carmen’s own hair only damp under the safety of her hat. She really was prepared for everything. 

Is Jean-Paul not answering because he’s busy fighting? Is he retreating? It’s highly unlikely he’d abandon his post without updating El Topo, so there must be something wrong. It seems VILE wasn’t the only team currently facing trouble, though. 

“She went into a mine?” Carmen suddenly exclaims, exasperation peeking around the seams of her usual cool exterior. “Can you track her?” She looks off in the opposite direction of the clearing, at least an entire stadium’s length away, if not more. At the inaudible answer on her frequency, she nods, grey eyes determined under the shade of her fedora. She addresses Antonio, then, her gaze softening in its former hostility, but not losing its fire. “Your buddy chased my teammate into a mine, and I can’t reach her. Any luck on your end?”

They’re equally drenched now, standing out in the open with water pelting them from every angle, wind throwing Carmen’s coat this way and that. If the storm has rolled in this quickly, there’s no telling how long it takes before disaster strikes. 

And strike it does. 

As he opens his mouth to answer, his words are drowned out by the monster of a thunder clap that roars above them, lightning racing down to strike the middle of the mining sight, blasting debris and mud everywhere in an explosion of brownish red. On instinct, he slides between Carmen and the blast, twisting his body and face away from the spray, shielding the both of them. The point of impact is decently far, but that doesn’t stop a hefty amount of mud and rock shards from barreling their way. 

He’s short but broad, and Carmen had the good instinct to duck down, so most of the debris just hits his back with a light sting. If he weren’t so worried about his boyfriend at the moment, he might have found time to whine over the ugly red stains left behind by splattered clay. 

From below where he hovers over her, Carmen communicates with the teammates she can reach, deciding El Topo is a non-threat now that both of their friends could be in danger. She’s right in putting her trust in him so easily- there isn’t a single mission he would prioritize over Jean-Paul’s wellbeing, as much as VILE may disapprove. If that isn’t enough proof that she can depend on him in a stitch, his instincts to dive in front of her, his enemy, were reason enough for the moment. 

“A cave-in? What? No, Zack- you’re already on route, get the crystal to the resort. There’s nothing you could do here, anyways. Meet me back at the campsite after the mission is complete.” Carmen stands, wiping a speck of mud off her cheek that managed to slip through Antonio’s defenses. As she speaks, she nods, beckoning him to follow her lead. “I’ve got El Topo in tow, he’s going to help. Yes, that’s the digging one.”

He can’t help himself from breaking into a small grin at the clarification, hot on Carmen’s heels as she leads him up a stairway leading out of the clearing. Wait- out? She glares pointedly as he grabs her wrist, stopping her in her tracks. 

“Why are we leaving the clearing? Shouldn’t we be going towards them?” He insists, even as she breaks free of his hold. “I can dig them out if they are in danger!” 

“You know as well as I do that these mines are fragile, Antonio. Any digging we do during a storm like this could put them at further risk” She resumes her leading, urging him to follow. “We have to wait until the storm has passed. I have Ivy’s location, now we just have to stay safe until then.”

“And what of Jean-Paul? How do you know he is with her?” For all he knew, he could be wasting his time right now, sacrificing his friend for the enemy’s. Carmen rolls her eyes, always one step ahead. 

“Unlike your teammate, mine actually communicated with me before this ordeal. Or, before she had her tech broken and lost signal.” Accusatory, but understandable. It wasn’t unlike Jean-Paul at all to cut off his enemy’s ability to communicate, and it certainly wasn’t news to Antonio that the man would get ahead of himself and storm into danger without a second thought. That goat liked ramming his horns way too much for his own good, sometimes. 

With a limited depth of field, it’s hard to tell exactly where his former classmate is leading him, but she persists through the storm and up the slippery stairs, even with obscured vision and heeled boots. The tail of her coat flaps with ferocity in the wind, and they occasionally slip or stumble as lightning shoots into the land, the following thunderous applause deafening to their ears. 

Finally, after a trip that was way longer than it should have been, they reach the top of the clearing where a path into a dense forest awaits. “It’s only a mile out,” Carmen assures him, noticing how anxious he’s become leaving Jean-Paul so far behind. The girl herself looks to be a bit anxious in her own right, though not nearly to the same caliber. Her poker face has come a long way since her days as a black sheep, when even the smallest insult from Tigress could get her eyebrow twitching. 

Under the leaves of the thick forest trees the wind isn’t as bad, but droplets still pelt them with force, every step deeper into the brush sending cold shivers down their spines. What was a warm sunny day just an hour ago has turned into an introvert’s dream come true. On the bright side, if Jean-Paul really was trapped in a cave, at least he wasn’t cold and wet, and he wasn’t alone. 

“Do you think they’re getting along?” He asks between chattering teeth. “Your friend and Jean-Paul?”

Carmen snorts, shooting Antonio an amused glance over her shoulder. “You tell me. Ivy can hold her own just fine against bratty men. It’s La Chèvre who I’m worried for.”

“Bratty?” He echoes, just on principle alone, but she’s right on the money. She did spend a year with him, too- which is more than enough time to gauge Jean-Paul’s personality. “Ah, never mind. He is bratty. But your friend- Ivy? She would not just leave him, would she?” The goat’s fear of the underground was no secret. 

“What? No. Of course not.” She smiles, fond and soft, nothing but appreciation in her eyes. “Ivy’s a good person. She’ll give him a hard time but that’s how she shows she cares.” Tapping her chin thoughtfully, she looks Antonio up and down. “Though I suppose La Chèvre doesn’t respond very well to tough love from a stranger, much less his enemy.”

“Nope.”

It’s almost like talking to Black Sheep with her playful banter and endless witty remarks. Except now she’s grown out of her wool, standing much taller than Antonio, her hair long and lips painted with signature red, a far cry from the young, childish tomboy he grew to care for like a sister. In moments of truce like these, though, he supposed nothing of core has changed at all, really. There was never evil in those righteous grey eyes, even during the academy. Maybe it was they who changed- not Black Sheep. 

“Home sweet home,” the girl sing-songs, pulling back the branches of a tree to reveal a white, muddy RV, pinned down securely to the ground by ropes and stakes. Always prepared, always a step ahead- now it felt like she was just rubbing it in. “Try not to get anything important wet. That would be the bed, the snacks, and the hundreds of dollars worth of equipment someone left uncovered on the counter.” She punctuates that last part with two fingers to her ear. 

He’s honestly amazed she’s letting him into the RV in the first place. If her friend were not buried under layers of rock and rubble requiring a burrower's expertise to be rescued, would she still offer him the same hospitality? Judging by the encouraging nod she gives him as he sits at the table, that would be a confident yes . Though he doubts his other half would be given such kind treatment. The thought makes him chuckle fondly. 

“Keep an eye on him,” she orders to a teammate, then disappears into the small back room, leaving Antonio to sit alone, awkward, wet, and cold, eyes traveling the walls for hidden security cameras. He peels off his gloves, cringing as water pours out of them and onto the tile floor, placing them on the table beside him. Next, he attempts to wring out his hair, pushing it back and out of his eyes. Carmen emerges quickly and in an entirely new outfit; shorts and a black and red t-shirt, towel in hand. She tosses it to him, popping her hip against the counter and crossing her ankles. 

“Sorry, mole boy, no change of clothes your size. Hope the towel is enough.”

“More than,” he confirms, thankful for anything, really. It’s not often you get to share a surreal moment like this with your ex-friend turned enemy. 

“Good.” She opens a bag of chips, something green and healthy looking, and munches on them, pondering silently. Antonio dries off, doing the same. They’re helpless right now, they both know it, and it’s going to catch up to them soon enough. But for now, while they still have a moment before the anxiety beats the adrenaline and settles in: chips and chill. 

 

-

 

Falling off a real spaceship and almost splatting on the pavement like a bug? Yeah, that sucked. 

Watching her boss almost die from frostbite and broken ribs while she was goofing off in the very coat that could have kept her warm? Yeah, maybe that was a little traumatizing, too.

Growing up with Zack? Just plain horrible. 

But this? 

Nothing compared to the hell that was being trapped in a mine with a claustrophobic freak of nature who wanted nothing more than to either shred her guts out or depend on her for his life. Seriously, dude, choose a side. Beyond agitated, and for the fourth time since taking to the dark path, she elbows Jean-Paul out of her space, five seconds away from giving him the sibling treatment. 

“Step on my heel one more time and I’m digging you a grave,” she threatens, pausing just to shine the flashlight into her own menacing glare. “A grave within this grave that your mole buddy will never find.”

Okay, she might have gone a bit too far with that one, but really! For a man belonging to a criminal organization, one would think he’d be able to handle a little darkness- and it wasn’t even that dark! She waves the phone around for emphasis, despite this monologue being entirely internal. He steps away, though, but tightens his grip on her hand. What he forfeits in space, he feeds into his grip. She was joking about the superhuman grip earlier but damn he was not holding back. Makes her wonder at all why he was so willing to dive down after her with such an intense phobia of confined spaces. 

She aims the flashlight at the ceiling, about three feet above her head, meaning it feels even shorter for the beanpole by her side. Yikes! Sucks for him. 

“What are you doing?” He hisses, this entire trip making him a paranoid mess. It’s funny how the man known for his indifference has become walking silly putty in her grip. 

Well, it would be funny, if she was evil like him and not an amazing heroic pure-hearted person with two angels on her shoulders. 

Okay- it was actually hilarious. 

“Just admirin’ the view,” she whistles, flashing her light this way and that. “Real cozy in here, huh? Like you could set up a little pillow fort and chug hot chocolate.”

“What?” Momentarily surprised by the odd declaration, he almost forgets to react to the first part. But, right on cue- “Did your parents never teach you to shut your mouth?”

“What parents?” She laughs. He does the same, but it’s not nearly as light as her own. 

“That makes sense.”

Woah woah woah. 

“Excuse me?” She guffaws, almost offended. Like, it’s true , probably, but only Zack and sometimes Player are allowed to make jokes like that. Definitely not the goat holding onto her hand like he might die the second they’re separated. “You're one to talk, goat boy! I’d start bowing down to me if I were you. Who here has the phone and not the fear of a little wimpy cave?”

He doesn’t respond to that one, but it’s fine, she prefers not talking to the enemy if the opportunity presents itself. Carmen would definitely be on her case right now for bad behavior, but Carmen wasn’t the one trapped in a mine playing follow the leader with a grown man, was she?

Actually, she could be- Ivy had no idea what the others were up to right now. Hopefully getting help? If Shadowsan were here, maybe he could have delivered the crystal instead. With wicked ninja skills there’s no doubt he’d have karate chopped La Chèvre into oblivion, leaving her out of this whole mess. At least it wasn’t Zack; he’s no good in situations like these with high pressure and demanding physical labor. Her little bro is a great- well, decent- actor and all, but he might not have fared as well in hand to hand combat against a trained VILE operative, not like Ivy did (and she got her butt whooped!). 

It’s a futile effort, but always worth a try, so she yet again attempts to call Player, riding out the endless ringing until the polite automated voice interrupts. She’s getting real sick of that lady. Biting back a whine, she grimaces at the battery percentage, displaying a whopping 42%. The one time she wanted to play a game on her phone before a mission, and it had to be this one. Note to self; invest in portable phone chargers. It’s best not to let her temporary companion know of their upcoming doom, so she keeps her mouth shut. 

See? She could do that, no problem. 

Keeping her eyes open might be the real valuable skill here, though, because she does not see the ground magically disappear beneath her feet, nor did she see the several cautionary signs warning of this exact pit. She screams, loud and raw, as she falls to what is definitely her death and oh god her last words still included ‘goat boy’ despite vowing they wouldn't- and, oh. She was back on her feet. 

Trembling, eyes clenched tightly shut, and close to vomiting, but back on her feet. Small victories! With shaking hands and knees, she cracks an eye open up at her savior. Goat boy himself. He glares daggers down at her, brown eyes like molten lava under the bright light of the phone still miraculously in her grip. 

“You had one job,” he growls and- was that his own hand also shaking? “You had one job!” He repeats, snatching the phone from her and shining it at the pit inches away from their feet. She gulps, hesitantly rising back to her normal height, and peers over the edge. There is no bottom, just a black void of death. The light barely manages to reach the other side of the clearing where the remainder of their path awaits. 

“Who-who puts a hole in the middle of a tunnel?” She asks, her voice unsteady. They’re both still shaking, though she’s not sure if Jean-Paul’s tremors are out of anger or fear. 

“Miners,” he spits, “which you would have known if you bothered to take in your surroundings.”

“Hey, I was a bit preoccupied, okay? Go ahead and take the lead if you’re so confident!” 

“Eh…” He trails off, shuffling away from the edge. She follows, still attached to his hand, getting a bit dizzy. 

“It’s just- it’s like an underground height. You like heights, right? There you go.” She definitely deserves the withering look he offers, but she uses humor to cope, okay? Plus, she’s right. One hole inside another hold just made this hole higher, kind of, in a technical sense. Maybe all these holes are driving her crazy. 

“We have to go back,” he says, already pulling on her hand, but she remains planted. This is the only path. They’d be going back to nothing. All they can do is go forward, even if that meant clearing a large gap that meant certain, painful, lonely death if failed. She tugs at the collared hem of her disguise. Okay, she was starting to feel the claustrophobia.

No, Ivy! Stay strong!  She shakes her head, clearing her mind of fear. Their only hope right now was her, everyone was depending on her to pull through, and she couldn’t disappoint or succumb to fear now. Not when they’ve gotten this far. All this for a stupid little purple rock. The things she did for Carmen Sandiego…

Jean-Paul tugs her arm angrily, but she knows he’s just scared. Sure he can bark and bite all he wants, but his eyes give it away clear as day, even in the dark. In order to make it over this obstacle, she needs him to be level-headed, which means engaging her heroic side and not pushy older sister mode. Well- maybe a mix of both. 

“Jean-Paul, listen to me. There’s only one way to go, and you know it. I’ve seen you jump over gaps twice the size of this one, okay? You’re going to need to jump to the other side.” He shakes his head as she talks, quietly whispering a chant of ‘no’s’ to himself, folding into his body, the grip on her hand weakening. She moves to hold him firmly, hands planted on his biceps, channeling her best pep talk spirit. The man before her is nothing like her little brother, but she feels the need to encourage him in the only way she knows how- like a bossy older sister who cares under all those layers of sexy irresistible sarcasm that get the girls swooning.

It’s unfair to use this against him, but it’s her only weapon. 

“Your boyfriend- the mole guy, I don’t know his name-“

“Antonio,” Jean-Paul weakly supplies. 

Antonio. Antonio is probably out there being dragged around by Carmen, waiting for the moment he can pull you into his big gross buff arms and snog on ya ‘til there’s no tomorrow. You want that, don’t you? You want to see him again?”

“Of course…” he doesn’t comment on the other bits. 

“Then you need to make this jump.” She claps his shoulders, taking the phone and stepping away, shining the light at the clearing. “Antonio is depending on it.” Is it cruel to dangle this man’s boyfriend over his head like that? Or is it another stroke of Ivy’s infamous genius? That’s for fate to decide. 

With that dose of motivation injected into his system, Jean-Paul straightens his back, brow furrowed and determined. Taking his position a decent distance from the ledge, he breathes, he lunges, then launches, leaping into the air and across the pit with the grace of a dancer- like one of those fancy girls from that Swan opera thing they swindled the Australian dude into doing that one time. Point being, he lands on the other side, some confidence gained in his successful fight against all odds. 

“Wicked awesome!” She cheers, mindful to keep her voice low. Jean-Paul does not join in the festivities, in fact, he looks- concerned? Mid celebration, she pauses, her grin freezing in place. 

Oh. 

Now it was her turn. 

 

-

 

Of all VILE operatives to be holed up with during a storm, Carmen had to admit El Topo was the best candidate for such an occasion. By no means did she consider him a friend, nor an ally, but his passive nature and outwardly friendly personality was much preferable to the likes of, oh who knows, a certain kitty? The man claiming to hate no one was willing to take lives in the name of evil, so he was still on her chopping block, but at least she knew there was a low chance he’d sabotage her, especially not when his significant other was in danger. 

A meager hour has passed since they relocated to the safety of the RV, dry inside and only shaking slightly when thunder rumbled nearby. Antonio’s suit was still damp, but he didn’t complain, on his best behavior as her humble guest. She had to hand it to the man; he knew how to be docile; hands always in her sight, gloves off, never making any quick or sudden movements. Despite his best attempts at keeping his composure, his restlessness was becoming more apparent as the time passed and the storm didn’t back down, his leg bouncing and fingers drumming the table. She would never admit it, but she was also starting to worry, just a little bit. Of course she had faith in Ivy and her abilities to wrangle a goat by its horns, but there were so many other factors out of their control, like sudden cave ins or flash floods. If El Topo weren’t here, Carmen might be just a bit worse for wear at the moment, having no idea how she would dig through tons of rock on her own. Note to future Ivy- invent a drill maybe?

“Heading back now, Carm. How’s the weather over there?” Zack’s voice buzzes in her coms, a bit fuzzy due to interference. She casts a wistful glance outside through the window shutters, the vivid green forestry barely visible beyond the wall of downpour. 

“Rough,” she replies. “Be careful on your way back. If the weather gets too dangerous to drive in, don’t take any big risks.”

“Ain’t nothin’ that can stop me when I’m behind the wheel,” he boasts. “Especially when my sis is in trouble.” The boy is a fantastic driver, but this storm is a monster of a hurricane if she’s ever seen one, and she’s been to Florida. 

“Just be careful,” she repeats, breaking the professional wall down just for a moment to drill in just how much she means it. There’s no point in endangering both siblings. Her company openly listens to the conversation, more eager for news than he is nosy, frowning when she shakes her head negative. “I know it won’t please you to hear this, but the crystal’s been handed off.” It’s bad news for him, but information is information, and she never turns down an opportunity to vouch for justice in the face of evil. They’ve got plenty of time to kill, so there’s no harm in trying to plant some good into his heart while they’re stuck here with each other. 

El Topo just shrugs, resting his chin on his palm, downcast and distracted, the confirmation of his failure doing naught to change his mood. Carmen slides into the seat across him, opening her laptop. If he wasn’t going to talk, she could at least get some work done and take her mind off of her helplessness. As a small courtesy, she shuffles her Spanish pop music playlist, volume just loud enough to be heard over the sound of rain assaulting metal. Rather than anxious drumming, El Topo’s fingers begin to tap along to the music, his frown relaxing into something neutral. 

“I’m surprised you haven’t touched base with the faculty yet.” She isn’t surprised, not in the least, but it’s an attempt at starting conversation, one she can bend to her favor if she plays her cards right. El Topo’s reaction is a knowing smile, well aware of the game she’s playing. 

“And tell them what?  That I’ve failed the mission and I’m on vacation with Carmen Sandiego?” 

“I’m sure they’d love to hear that.” He chuckles, she smirks. “Haven’t they at least tried to check in? One would think they’d have watchful eyes on the operation.” If she can plant a seed of doubt, there’s a chance it’ll stick and evolve into something favorable down the road. She’s aware of how little regard the faculty truly have for their operatives. One fatal mistake and zap! Back in the streets, clueless, a shell of your former self. If Antonio or Jean-Paul got the Gray treatment, surely the other half would fight tooth and nail to save them? That was her angle- the best shot she had at convincing any operative to amend, especially new or familiar faces that weren’t yet fully loyal at heart. 

El Topo takes the bait, something shifting in his expression, a dark raw coldness she rarely sees in the man, his defenses building. “There are plenty of other operatives on the field right now, all around the globe. We do not need to be coddled.” Unlike you goes unspoken, though a remark like that belongs in his partner’s mouth, or Tigress’s. She would’ve appreciated his politeness in another time, like when he vouched for her that December 1st so long ago, but now she takes advantage of it. 

“It’d be nice if there was a bit more effort put in from their end, don’t you think?” She stretches, faking comfortable and nonchalant, rubbing in just how unthreatened she felt, but actually hyper aware of every movement they both make. “I mean, it’s almost too easy to crash capers nowadays. Who’s to stop me from wrapping you both up all pretty after this and sending you to Interpol?” After seeing what happened to Gray, she’s not sure if she actually would. He’s good now- just a civilian with high-tech instincts- but he’s not Gray. He’s Graham, who looks at her differently than Gray did, with a surface level intrigue and allure, rather than fondness built on memories of growing together. 

Dooming two lovers of their memory of one another, how could she live with herself after doing something so cruel? They’re evil, but they’re not monsters. 

Just as her father- no. Now isn’t the time to make frivolous comparisons.

“Your morality,” he answers. A concept she takes great pride in. “And our abilities. We are not so foolish to be captured like Crackle.” 

“Let’s entertain the thought. What if you did get taken into police custody? You know what VILE protocol dictates in that event.” She closes her laptop, pushing it to the side, leaning forward in her seat. The foundation is there- now to knock it all down. “Would you really let them erase your memories? Why continue working for an organization that would discard you at the drop of a hat?”

Unexpectedly, he glares, not backing down like predicted, and curls his lip. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hostile for such a normally lax man, she thinks of the taser in her pocket just in case things get sticky. “We knew what we signed up for when we graduated. You wouldn’t understand.” At that statement he slumps back into his seat, not open to further discussion. That’s fine- it was bold of her to hope that one conversation could make a huge difference. A planted seed could take time to sprout. 

“Whew boy you were not kiddin’ about the weather!” Zack exclaims over their frequency. Thank goodness for perfectly timed distractions. 

“You almost here?” She asks. Player, sounding sleepy, like he just woke up, answers for him. 

“About three miles from your position, Red.” He yawns, and there’s a faint shuffling in the background, most likely just getting out of bed or readjusting himself in his desk chair- Carmen’s always wondered how untouched his bed goes during a caper. “The storm should start to subside in about another hour, too, according to local radars. At least, enough for you to scout the area.”

“Thank you, Player,” she replies. Investing in a tech guy of their own could do wonders for VILE, not that anyone could stand a chance against her own secret weapon and all five feet of his hacking glory. 

When Zack arrives, signaled by the screeching of tires, Carmen nabs a fresh towel and opens the door for him, putting on her best comforting smile in case he’s caught a case of anxiety. The redhead, soaked to bones just from the small trip from truck to RV, actually just grins and accepts the towel, shaking his head like a dog instead of using it, spraying Carmen and the walls with water. Her brow arches, unimpressed. He winces. 

“Sorry, Carm.” But just before he begins toweling off, he stares at El Topo, eyes wide. “Woah, woah, you let him in the RV?” Almost comically loud, he whispers, “What if he goes berserk in us?”

“I am… not going to hurt you,” El Topo answers, sounding slightly offended at the accusation. That, or he doesn’t know how to respond to the entirety of Zack. In delayed realization, the mole’s eyes widen, finger pointing accusingly. “You! You are the rocket scientist from Australia!” 

“I’m a Duke, actually,” Zack corrects him. It’s his go-to alibi, so caught up in that certain fantasy that Carmen is certain he’s forgotten he’s not actually royalty. She’ll let him have it, though. “But uh- what’s the plan? Why isn’t he digging out my sister right now?” With a casual aloofness said sister lacks, he plops down across from El Topo and kicks his feet up onto the table, caring little that a VILE operative was his current company. “We got any snacks?”

Always had his priorities in check, he did. Carmen huffs, amused. “Tunneling into those fragile mines during a storm is too dangerous, so we’re waiting it out.” She tosses him a bag of kale chips. “And yes, we have snacks.”

He rips open the bag hungrily, eyes sparkling, then immediately gags. “Ugh, Carm! Don’t we have normal chips?” He drops the bag onto the table, pushing it towards El Topo. “Help yourself.” The man hesitantly accepts the food. 

“We did have normal chips,” she says, opening the cupboard to present the lack of unhealthy choices. “Before you ate them all on the drive over.”

Zack slumps, groaning loudly. He’s not a picky eater, but he definitely has an affinity for tasty food over healthy food. If he doesn’t get any food, though, he’ll mope around and whine for the remainder of their time cooped up together. As amusing as it would be to subject El Topo to that torture, she doesn’t want her teammate to suffer, especially when his sister is in peril, so she gathers ingredients for a snack she can whip up to source his stress eating. It’s about dinner time- might as well make the most of this forced benching. 

 

-

 

Her chest hurt. Specifically? Her boobs. 

She made the jump- hurray! Tragically, she barely made the jump, slamming directly into the opposite edge of the clearing chest first, legs dangling and nails sinking into the rock and dirt of the edge. Jean-Paul had pulled her up immediately- surprising for a man who once kicked her off the side of a rocket to die while laughing maniacally all the while. After this, Ivy was going to invent her own jet pack, laws of physics and lack of engineering degree be damned. 

“Owwww” she moans, nursing her girls with one arm over her chest, limping beside the operative, hands still connected, though not as firmly as before. He does not allow her to hold the phone anymore, not after that little trip up, but she doesn’t mind. Less work for her, more energy she gets to conserve. He hasn’t actually opened the phone yet, so the battery life remains a mystery to them both, but the clock said 5:04 PM the last time he checked around five minutes ago. 

“Stop whining,” he says with little bite, too exhausted to be angry. “It was your idea to begin with.”

True, but- “It still hurts! You wouldn’t get it.”

“Mm,” he definitely just rolled his eyes there. “I cannot begin to count all the injuries I’ve accumulated in my lifetime. Have you ever been electrocuted?” 

Oh, so now it was a competition?

“As a matter of fact yes , I have been electrocuted. Some moose guy and otter boy- no, ottoman, tased me in Stockholm.” 

Those two idiots?” He bursts into genuine laughter, something Ivy’s not heard from him or any VILE operative up until this point. She can’t help the crooked grin that paints her cheeks. 

“Oh, you know those two bozos? What’s so funny?” 

“The fact that those incompetent idiots managed to electrocute you.”

“Hey!” She slaps his arm. “They thought I was Carmen, alright? Totally snuck up on me from behind, too.”

“They thought you were Carmen?”

Yah huh, I can pull off the coat pretty well. Don’t sound so surprised, jerk!” 

They laugh in tandem this time, but that’s about the peak of the joy they’re going to feel, because their mood plummets quickly. 

“We have been walking for hours with no exit in sight,” he sighs, shuffling to a stop. Ivy comes to rest beside him, her feet aching, her nails dirty, and her chest sore. Her eyes are beginning to hurt, too, from the amount she’s been straining them squinting at everything. His anger and fear was more preferable to the defeat he’s showing now, which makes Ivy feel dreadful. 

“It’s a big mountain, and we weren’t exactly walkin’ fast.” It’s a lame excuse, but she’s holding onto any shred of hope she can. Picking up the pace would be the smart idea, though, with their limited battery life. Speaking of- “Hey, let me try callin’ Carm again. There might be a signal.” She makes grabby hands for the phone and he obliges. Inconspicuously, she unlocks the phone and turns the screen away from him, choking back a gasp at the battery life display. Only 9%? Why oh why didn’t she bring a separate flashlight? Groaning, she makes the call, resisting the urge to chuck the phone in frustration when the automated lady greets her for the umpteenth time. Instead, she locks the phone again, teeth worrying her bottom lip. La Chèvre holds his hand out expectantly, but she hesitates. “Hey, Goat Boy, Jean-Paul, what do you say we save battery life and turn… off the flashlight?”

What?” Comes the immediate shriek in reply, as well as her cringe at the sharp note. “Absolutely not!” He yells, grabbing the phone, attempting to tug it out of her grip. 

“Let go!” She yelps. “I need the phone to be on for them to track me! We can hug the wall from now on!” She kicks his shin with her heel, he growls and pounces, and they both fall to the ground and roll, punching and tugging in a mess of limbs. She needs that phone- their survival most likely depended on Player being able to track their location, which means they’d have to sacrifice some comfort for the sake of their livelihood! With that in mind, she punches blindly, the light of her phone unavailable as it’s face down on the ground somewhere near them. Her knuckles make contact with his nose, blood immediately gushing from his nostrils along with a cry of pain, and five fingers find her throat and squeeze, the same five fingers that held onto her hand gently just minutes ago. 

La Chèvre snarls, straight up animalistic, and clocks her right in the eye with his free fist. Unable to gasp around the hold on her vocal chords, she chokes, legs kicking wildly and arms swinging desperately into his body. “ Putain de salope! Dégénéré American! ” He spits, blood dripping from his chin to her cheek. She’s not sure what insult that was exactly, but she knows it wasn’t pretty. In a stroke of luck, she manages to plant both feet on his stomach, then shoves hard. He tumbles off of her, hitting the opposite wall, giving her time to roll over and grab her phone. She holds it up, intending to turn off the light, but a movement catches her eye. 

Quicker than she can think, her body reacts, sending her flying, tackling La Chèvre away from the loose rocks plummeting down. Pain. She screams, bloodcurdling like a wounded creature, and clenches her eyes shut. What happens after that is hard to decipher since:

  1. Her eyes are shut. 
  2. She’s in unspeakable pain. 
  3. That odd dizzy spell she felt may have been her passing out briefly.

Ivy. You need to wake up, now. ” So that was a definite yes on her blacking out. But what happened? Opening her eyes does nothing, because everything is dark. Oh no, did the phone lose power? Did it break? “Calm down. I turned the light off to save power.” Oh really? After all that, now he’s fine with turning the light off? She feels around blindly, fingers meeting Jean-Paul’s on the ground in front of her. They clasp hands again, their scuffle put on the back burner for now. There were more important matters to attend to. 

“Where-“ she coughs, her voice raspy and throat raw. “What happened?” Her entire left leg is numb, and her right eye is swollen and barely open so she closes it, not using it anyways. She tries to get up, her back against the wall and legs straight in front of her, but she can hardly move her left leg. Jean-Paul holds her down, firm but gentle, and grimaces. 

“You hurt your ankle- bruised or broken, I couldn’t tell.”

“How?”

He pauses. Without seeing him, she can’t tell what the reason is. This blows. 

“Some rocks- they, ah, fell down.”

“And I totally saved your booty!” She remembers that part, like a lightbulb goin’ off above her head. A lightbulb would be really helpful right now, huh? So would some gauze, disinfectant, and pain killers. Why did she dive in and sacrifice herself like that? This ungrateful bastard didn’t deserve the good-guy treatment she was giving him. “Where’s my ‘thank you,’ huh, asshole?”

Mercí,” he whispers it quickly like it's an afterthought. Better than nothing. He stands, pulling her to her feet. She doesn’t dare attempt to stand on her left ankle, instead balancing poorly between the wall and the operative, hobbling. “We must continue,” he says. “There is no stopping now.”

“What happened to the scaredy-goat who wanted to turn tail and hide back at the entrance?” She grits out between clenched teeth, hissing in pain as she accidentally puts pressure on her left foot. This situation could get worse, but she won’t dare jinx it by being thankful just yet. This sucked so much. 

“You won’t be able to make the jump back.” Pausing in their slow shuffle down the path, he kneels in front of her. “Get on, you’re too slow.”

“Dunno if you haven’t noticed, but you’re a string bean and I’m no feather.” He snorts, But doesn’t move. 

“‘ Dunno if you haven’t noticed’ , but I am a trained thief who can climb mountains with ease. I can carry you just fine. Now get on.”

She’s lost so much today, but she wasn’t expecting to lose her dignity so soon. Maybe in a few weeks, if they had to resort to cannibalism or something, but not hours in! Well, a free ride was a step up from cannibalism in any sense. Goat probably tastes weird, anyways. He carries her on his back, close to the wall, steps very cautious and aware of every single dip and bump in the floor’s surface. So much for speeding up- they’re moving a quarter's pace of what they were before, all because this idiot couldn’t keep his paws to himself. Is this why thwarting VILE plans was so easy? Cause they were all stubborn selfish pricks who didn’t know the magic of friendship and teamwork?

“I don’t get it.” She rests her cheek on her bicep, arms crossed around his shoulders, her neck already complaining about the awkward angle. “You’re a major dickwad, why not leave me behind?” He has the decency to snort. 

“I cannot unlock the phone without you.” Okay, he doesn’t have decency, or a heart, apparently. Or is he joking? It’s so hard to tell when everything is pitch black and she can’t see his face. It’s unlikely, considering he’s almost killed her before. She’ll have to thank Player for the extra layer of privacy on her phone if she makes it out of this alive. 

“Being a good guy is so hard,” she moans. “I want to strangle you so bad right now, but I can’t.” The thought is tempting; if something were to mysteriously happen to Goat boy down here no one but her would be the wiser. Just a girl and her guilty conscience. 

“Try anything and I will drop you,” he threatens. 

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” she mocks him. “You could at least act a little grateful seeing as I saved your sorry life. Several times now!” Jean-Paul scoffs, readjusting her with a bounce, jolts of pain shooting up her left side. 

“And I have spared yours. Do you not think I could have killed you by now if I’d wanted to?”

This jerk was nowhere near as likeable as he was earlier shaking in his boots and holding her hand like a child. If she could rewind time, she’d savor those moments just a little bit more. Maybe pepper in some extra humiliation, too, just for shits and giggles. 

But, despite his bragging and snottyness, she can’t wrap her head around the fact that she was being carried by the hands of a killer. Well- she assumes he’s killed people. Is that a question you can just ask people? Hey buddy, how’s the wife treatin’ ya? By the way, how many innocent lives have you taken? 

Ivy prides herself in being the sensible sibling, but curiosity has a way of sneaking up on everyone once or twice (or in many cases if you’re Zack). “Have you actually killed someone before?” She blurts out before she can bite her tongue. Curse her shared genes with a brainless dork! 

“No,” he answers plainly. Fuck, she knew it , he was totally gonna kill her- wait, what?

No?!” She repeats in shock. “Seriously? Not one person? Ever?”

He snickers, and how is that funny? Wouldn’t anyone assume a vile creature like himself has maimed a few security guards here and there? “Why so shocked? Did you assume I have?”

“Uh, Yeah. You say the word ‘kill’ in every other sentence for Christ’s sake. You may as well be psychotic for all I know.”

“Ha! Psychotic- that would be Paper Star. I am La Chèvre, the nimble mountain goat, not the clinically insane bitch who throws paper at people.”

“Never met her,” Ivy shrugs. “Think Carm mentioned her once or twice. Never had anything good to say, though.”

“She is Professor Maelstrom’s favorite for a reason.”

“The smelly old guy?”

Oui . Just how much do you know of our faculty?”

Ivy clicks her tongue, racking her brain for all the stories Carmen has told them of her time on the island. Their boss preferred to avoid sharing details of her past when possible, but even a master of hiding her emotions had to vent to someone once in a while. 

“Well, Shadowsan is good now.” He grumbles under his breath. “He’s alright, I guess. Wicked ninja skills that my bro- ugh. My brother totally has a crush on him. It’s so gross. Anyways, Coach Brunt is the scary one who can snap people like twigs. Cleo is some fancy chick who likes fish eggs, like, she’s obsessed with ‘em. Also gross. Doctor Bellum is the scientist lady who I think tried to commit mass murder on an entire city in Australia? No- New Zealand? Same difference. That’s all I really know.”

“Black Sheep must have had many years of complaints built up, hm?” He chuckles, and if she had to guess, it was almost fond- wistful? 

“You mean Carmen Sandiego,” she pokes the back of his head scornfully. Gotta defend her main girl’s honor, even when she wasn’t there. 

“Ah, but of course.” Why is it so hard for these VILE goons to let go of Black Sheep? “Carmen Sandiego, the scarlet superthief.”

“The one and only!” She would puff out her chest proudly if possible. Reality didn’t often have time to catch up with her, but when it did, she allowed it to. Who'd have thought a car mechanic from southie would end up as the right hand girl to the world’s most elusive Robin Hood? Definitely not Sharkhead Eddie, who she was totally going to definitely pay off some day, with a wire transfer and a heavily worded apology letter attached to a postcard from Paris. 

Jean-Paul adjusts her once more before quieting, meaning she can close her remaining eye and rest, just for a few minutes. Realistically, it’s not smart to let her guard down on the back of her enemy, and she’s 60% sure she has a concussion from the rockfall earlier, but it’s dark, she’s tired, and her leg is both numb and filled with nonstop rattling daggers at the same time. 

So yeah, maybe she can take a little nap. 




-

 

The rough of the storm lasts for 30 minutes longer than Player’s forecast predicted, marking the clock at 6:23 when it's deemed safe enough to return to the digsite. Zack drives, even though it’s only a mile away, because they’re all way past impatient at this point to save their friends. That El Topo guy sits in the back seat alone, flexing his claws and testing their drills. Zack would keep an eye one him from the rear view mirror, but the rain is still comin’ down somethin’ wicked fierce, and he needs to stay focused on the dirt road ahead. His boss would protect him if anything happened, anyways. 

“Aaand sent; Ivy’s last marked location is on your map now, Red.” Player’s keyboard clacks from his end of the coms, the teen now well awake and in action. “The storm took out all the power onsite, including security cameras, so I couldn’t get a good eye on the situation. Don’t be surprised if it’s flooded.” Carmen holds up her phone, watching as several pictures from the web are sent to her screen. “They do have some pretty decent looking drainage infrastructures, but that storm was way bigger than anticipated.”

“Noted,” she replies cooly. Zack’ll admit it; he’s not nearly as perceptive as his sister, or Carmen, or Shadowsan, or Player- he’s not particularly bright in general, fine, but he can tell that under all that suave confidence, Carmen is running through millions of scenarios in her brain, even the bad ones, meaning she’s definitely not as calm on the inside as she is on the outside. He can count on his fingers how many times she’s lost her cool, him being the reason for one or two of them. If there was anyone who could save his sis, it was Carmen, and their new mole buddy fidgeting in the back seat. 

He wants to say something, voice his concerns or offer help, but there isn’t much he can do. All he’s really good for is driving and playing a part, acting as a distraction or a decoy. It’s not dangerous , his place on the team, he’s no brawn or brains, but he sometimes wishes he were more useful. If Shadowsan would just teach him something already, maybe he wouldn’t feel so pathetic, or like a deadweight. But hey- he was the funniest one, at least he liked to think so. A good laugh could work wonders during a stressful mission, so maybe he wasn’t completely useless. 

It sure feels like he is, though, when the minefield comes into view and they get a look at the terrain. “Oh god,” he croaks, looking at all the debris and ruckus thrown about. It sure wasn’t like this when he was last here. Trees on the outside hills are snapped, bent in half and toppled over, and there are definitely less open holes than before the storm. But it wasn’t flooded, which was a miracle in itself. 

Carmen steps out of the truck, her steel toed boots splashing up mud, hair tied up in a tight bun, tool belt around her waist. Compared to her getup, Zack feels underdressed in his jersey and jeans, only a flashlight and hardhat in his arsenal. El Topo emerges last, his determination not faltering in the wake of the destruction before them- right, this dude could tunnel through anything. VILE trains some real freak of nature super soldiers, huh?

“Good news, Player, you were wrong to doubt the plumbing; the digsite is fine, apart from some puddles and massive cave-ins.” She takes the lead in their descent, waving for the two men to follow. The rain has calmed down to a moderate shower, winds low and lightning retreated. 

“Good to hear! I’ll put more faith in the locals next time. The mine you’re looking for is on the opposite end of the site, on your left, so keep an eye out for any odd rock formations on that side.” The left side, Zack looks, but doesn’t see anything crazy; just rocks and tons of mud. Shouldn’t there be a bunch of signs and stuff saying DO NOT ENTER and tracks for those little metal carts? Normally, he’d voice this question, but without Ivy there to lay it to him flat in that condescending but playful way, he swallows the thought down. This is almost worse than that snowy place with the meatballs. Almost, because this time they have Carmen, and she’s not freezin’ half to death in her torn up glider. 

Rather, she’s shining her flashlight along the walls, dead serious and in full rescue mode. El Topo walks with his back kind of hunched, like he’s expecting a surprise attack from thin air, his dark brown eyes alert, fingers twitching. Zack, not really knowing what to do, walks normally with his flashlight at his side, glancing around at the tall rock walls around him, occasionally wiping rain from his brow. 

Rumbling lightly under his hand, his stomach twists. Carmen had made the three of them a nice meal in their downtime, even letting Zack have some of her ice cream stash, but he was still kind of hungry. Stress made him peckish, and eating made him feel better. Usually. He wasn’t feelin’ too good right now, full stomach or not. It felt wrong to enjoy his food when Ivy was somewhere dark and spooky, probably injured or wrangling that tall intimidating goat guy. Unlike his partner, that French dude was not friendly. Seriously, who steals a soccer ball from little kids?

“Getting close,” Player says. Luckily their ear pieces are waterproof, thanks to his big sis’s innovation. Carmen picks up the pace, water splashing under her feet. “Should be right here.” Carmen repeats the line to El Topo, nodding at the formation. 

‘Right here’ is just a bunch of rocks and mud, same as the rest of the wall. At least, he thought so, but Carmen pulls him back to make room for El Topo, who inspects the scene with his claws, shifting rocks back and forth, testing the waters. The mole inhales deeply, closes his eyes, and begins digging. 

It’s like watching a superhero movie come to life. Zack ogles the sight of the man tearing through pure earth with a slack jaw, his claws shredding rocks apart, his muscles suddenly looking waaaay bigger than they were on the walk here. Was his mind playin’ tricks on him? Because the way El Topo dug past the cave-in in mere seconds was something otherworldly. The rocks above him fill the gap left behind quickly, leaving Zack and Carmen outside the mine, unable to help. He twists his hands around his flashlight, gulping down his nerves. 

“You uh- you think she’ll be fine? What if they tag team her in there?” He chances a small glimpse down at Carmen. She glares at the rocks, grey eyes crystal clear. 

“He knows what I’ll do to them if he betrays us.” It’s all she says, all she needs to say, because the threat is clear. She can get real scary when she’s serious. He barely suppresses a shiver.

 It’s about ten minutes later when the mole dives back out of the cave, eyes wild. 

“They weren’t there,” he pants, the hinges finally coming undone. 

Wait. Weren’t there? 

“What do you mean?” He barks, stepping forward but freezing when Carmen throws an arm in front of him. She stands between them, one hand on her hip and the other pinching the bridge of her nose. 

“They must have gone deeper.” She taps her ear. “Player, I need you to look for any other possible exits or entrances to this dig site that could lead to this one.”

“Already on it, Red.”

“Good.” She turns to El Topo. “Antonio, I know you want to go down there, but we have to find a different way. Cutting off our communication is not an option. We can’t risk losing signal with the outside world. This entire site is a deadzone”

El Topo barely holds back a growl. Zack shuffles a few steps back, eyes locked on the claws clenching into fists. “I do not need to communicate. You two can go the long way, I will find them on my own.”

Carmen does the opposite of Zack and steps forward, a tentative hand resting on the short man’s shoulder. 

“It’s too risky to go in there. We’ve seen firsthand how close these mines are to crumbling entirely. If you go in there and tunnel, or even if you don’t, it could all come collapsing down. Digging is our last resort. Ivy and Jean-Paul have probably made it deep into the mine by now, meaning they’re most likely closer to another opening.” To Player, she adds, “If there is one. Any updates?”

“Great news; there’s another miniature site around ten miles out from here. Looks like it’s a waypoint for drop-off, meaning there’s a good chance it connects to several of the mines where you are.”

Again, Carmen relays Player’s information back to El Topo. “That’s our best bet.” She addresses Zack next, pocketing her flashlight. “Time to get back on the road.”

“Aye-aye,” he salutes. Not that he isn’t bummed his sister wasn’t on the other side of those rocks, but he wasn’t really lookin’ forward to clambering around in a musty cave himself. The promise of an alternate, safer route was a blessing he’d remind himself to be thankful for later. Jingling the truck’s keys around his pointer finger, he skips to the front of the pack, eager to be useful again, even if for only a meager ten miles. 

 

With their arrival at the newer mining facility, the rain finally comes to an end, leaving them only the sunset over the tall hills to dry their damp clothes. 

“Now the real question is: which do we start with?” Carmen asks, twirling slowly in a circle, 

Player had mentioned several openings, and all of them remained wide open and sturdy. This campsite, apparently built fairly recently, elevated and regularly-populated, was altogether unharmed by the storm’s touch. With mines constructed in a recent decade with new technology and resources, there was less chance of danger in exploring them- or tunneling through. Additionally, the higher elevation and updated technology surrounding the location allowed for Player’s communication to better stay intact, even when one half of the call was underground. Carmen made sure to emphasize these facts to El Topo on the drive over. 

“According to this map of the tunnels, there should be two different mines that connect with the old site’s.” The teen behind his desk pauses, either scratching his head or leaning in way too close to his monitors. “But these blueprints don’t go into much detail regarding the connecting paths. I think any layouts of the old site are documented traditionally- nothing I can do about that from here.”

“You’ve done more than enough already. Go ahead and get some breakfast- and no energy drinks this early,” Carmen orders, shooting Zack and cheeky smile. They both remember the last time Player went without food during a caper with only caffeine pumped into his system. Needless to say, it was both hilarious yet concerning. The kid knew way too many geography facts, and a hyper teen with only one outlet meant nonstop trivia for hours on end. Charming, kinda adorable even, but not the best background noise for a high stakes mission. 

“So we’re splitting up, right?” El Topo asks and claps his hands together. By now his patience has run out, and with the confirmation he can dig, there’s nothing realistically holding him back. Nothing except Carmen, maybe. Zack purses his lips, awaiting the exchange between enemies. It never comes though, because both members of Team Red flinch at the sound of glass shattering over their coms, followed by the slamming of hands on a desk and an exclamation of Player. 

Ivy’s back online!”

 

-

 

The girl was not kidding about being ‘no feather,’ Jean-Paul surmises with a fraction of regret, snorting down blood and spitting it out for at least the sixth time since offering to carry her- demanding, really. She must weigh, what, 200 lbs? The amount of muscle on her was no joke, if the weight of her punch was any indicator in itself. Wanting sorely to nurse his broken nose, he settles for yet another red loogie, disgusted by his own actions but unable to do much else. 

In addition to a splitting migraine, his strained arms, and fair share of broken cartilage and bruised bones, he was thirsty and jet-lagged to top it all off. One of his earrings was missing, ripped straight out of his ear at some point he can’t recall, and dried blood is caked in a path traveling down his neck. Ivy- he has to constantly remind himself to call her- was a stubborn, aggressive little thorn in his side, and he’s still surprised he hasn’t ditched her by now. The phone and that damn password are all he needs, but there’s no hope in getting those, so he’s stuck with the attached baggage. 

He’s not in the mood to torture it out of her, anyways- not that he’s ever really in the mood to torture people. Again- more of a Paper Star tactic, not really his style. Every time memories of that crazy bitch bombard him- the skin of his fingers shredded to the bone and intensive healing and stitches for weeks- he shudders.  While he loathes to admit it, which he never will aloud, the American girl had probably saved his life- or his skull from some serious dents and fractures, a premature memory wipe, no VILE interference needed. This would be his payment to her, leaving no debts or reason to spare her in the future; lugging her through a void of nothingness for countless hours on end. Hours, minutes, seconds, days- he couldn’t tell the difference this far gone. He’s vowed not to touch Ivy’s phone again unless absolutely necessary to save power, so he can’t keep track of the time. The girl herself, it appears, fell asleep or passed out again, either from exhaustion or the pain. 

On the bright side, things were looking up- literally. The path had taken to an uphill incline. Although a chore to hike along, it meant they were getting closer to the surface, or at least further away from the suffocating depths of this claustrophobic hell. 

There are no sounds, there are no sights, and there’s no one to talk to, so he walks. Shuffles, more like. Every step could be his last if not careful. Who knows how many more inconveniently placed pits were waiting for them. 

He walks, and walks, and walks and walks. 

He’s getting real sick of walking, and the pounding behind his eyes and the eighteenth clump of blood he’s spit up, and the strain in his triceps that’s got his fingers trembling and a cold sweat gathering on his temple. There’s been a lot of walking, so he stops, and he kneels, and he not-so-carefully deposits the luggage on his back to the ground. Said human luggage startles with a goofy yelp and wince, even though he was sure to dump her in her good side. 

“What? Huh? What happened?” She asks, healthy foot kicking at the dirt floor uselessly. Such clumsy behavior reminds Jean-Paul of a dog, a puppy, paws too big for its body yet. As for himself, he groans as he leans against the wall, not even minding the sharp stones that protrude into his shoulder blades as he rests, head lolling back. 

“Taking a break,” he exhales, shifting his leg so their right ankles touched, not wanting to lose ‘sight’ of his traveling buddy. “You’re heavy.”

“Told ya so,” she snorts. “How long was I out? Ain’t easy to tell with no sun risin’ past the curtains.” Not wanting to open his heavy eyelids, he tosses the phone in her direction, hitting her either in the chest or stomach by the sound of her ‘ Oof!’ She winces back from the light of the phone, eyes having adjusted to the dark, then clicks it off. “God. Not even an hour.”

Not even? It sure felt like that and more . He hacks up some more blood from the back of his sinuses, the noise revolting even to his own ears. Ivy agrees, choking back a gag. 

“You would not happen to have a water bottle in one of your many pockets, would you?” He hears the distinct sound of Ivy patting herself down. 

“Nope. These pockets’re just for show; nothin’ liquid here. Slipped this baby on right before the mission.”

“Mm. Génial.” 

“So how long before we’re back up n’running? Er- walkin.’” She asks, her foot bouncing against his shin. They have been sitting for merely a minute and she wants to get up already? Typical, since she isn’t doing any of the walking anymore. His silence should be answer enough- just a few more minutes to dull the throbbing in his brain and stretch his arms, that’s all he needs. 

24 hours. That’s how long it must have been since he last slept. What was Antonio doing right now? Is it still storming outside? Is his partner safe yet clawing his hair out in stress (something he’s definitely done before)? Or is he also in some perilous danger, unbeknownst to Jean-Paul and facing his own struggles? Maybe he’s stuck with the other redhead. Jack? Mac? What did Tigress call him that one time?

“Zack,” Ivy says. “His name is Zack.”

“Ah.” Was he talking out loud? Must be more loopy than he thought. “Mac sounds better. Mac and Lily.”

“Eh, better than Jack and Daisy.” She must be shrugging. “Was Cat girl really excited to have us as friends, or did she want new nail filers?”

“Is that how you refer to all of us?” A basic formula, but kind of accurate. “Animal girl and creature boy?”

“Yeah, mostly. Sometimes there’s others though; Driver lady, Paper chick, British guy.”

“Roundabout?” He guesses.

“Yeah, that dude! The Penguin lookin’ creep.”

“Penguin?” There’s no resemblance between the man and a penguin, at least not that Jean-Paul can remember from the brief times he’s seen the man. 

“You know, like in Batman? Cane, suit, tophat, big pointy honkah?”

“I have never seen Batman.”

Huh? Never seen Batman? You just lost any respect I gained for you from this entire trip.” He would never understand the American obsession with silly comic book characters in their underwear. First it was Sheena and her love for the clown and plant ladies, now it was Ivy and a flightless bird of all things. “Hey, you VILE goons are all kinda like comic villains, aren’t ya? Fancy code names and silly costumes.”

“My stealth suit is not silly!” He exclaims. Stealth suits were high-end uniforms with slick cloth designed to accommodate for intense stunts and combat. They were far from costumes. Though, there was a stage where he had considered horns and a tail. He’s glad he didn’t follow through with that in the end. “Better than wearing jeans and sneakers.” He points to her red shoes, even if she can’t see. “There is no traction or support in those. At least my outfit is optimized with an athlete's physique in mind!”

“Sure, sure, whatever.” Yawning, she struggles to get onto her knees, then onto her good foot, leaning down with an extended hand. “Come on, stoppin’ll only make it harder to keep going.” As much as he wants to complain, disagree for the sake of resting his aching body for just a few more minutes, she has a point, so he stands and takes her hand. “I’ll hobble for a bit so you can rest your arms, kay? Not like you were beating any snails with me on your back anyways.”

Blessed be, because the thought of having to carry her for another hour straight was enough to send him to the edge. It’s hard, since he’s nearly a foot taller than her, but he wraps her arm around his shoulders, holding her hip and allowing her to use him as a crutch. 

 

-

 

They’re in the middle of a very one-sided conversation about superheroes when the phone rings. Well, it actually vibrates, because Ivy has class and super stealth skills and would never put her phone on audible mode. Without warning outside an alarmed squeak, she leans all her weight into Jean-Paul and frees her phone, holding its lit up screen in disbelief. Player! By the holy gods she’s never been so happy to see that little white hat. Raising the phone to her ear, she answers, unable to resist splitting into a grin. 

“Playah!”

“Ivy!”

“I’m at one percent so make it quick, kiddo!”

Cue the furious typing.

“Carmen is about a mile out from your location! Just keep heading the way you’re going and you guys will meet up with-“

He stops speaking. Or- the call ends. No. The phone is dead. It’s hard to be mad about it, though, when the timing has never been so perfect. A miracle, bestowed upon her, right now? It must be the universe thanking her for showing Goat boy her utmost hospitality and support against all the odds. They were finally going home! And she would never have to ever play nice with a VILE operative again! 

“Well?” Said nuisance nudges her hip demandingly. Yeah, she wasn’t gonna miss this egotistical jerkface one bit. But, for now, may as well indulge in a little celebration, yeah?

“We’re almost free! Help is on the way!” 

He sighs, and with his breath goes all the tension that’s been stockpiling in his body, unwinding and actively coming undone under Ivy’s touch. She watches, interpreting something in the nothingness, and imagines he’s inwardly celebrating the same victory as she is. It’s funny how they’re so similar (it pains her to admit this) yet living completely different lives. Carmen once mentioned VILE likes to vulture fresh operatives off the streets- orphans, the homeless, and those too poor to support themselves. 

That could have been her and Zack, desperate for any escape from the sharks on their tail. 

Was that Jean-Paul?

Could she have faced the same fate as him in another reality? Cold and evil yet not entirely so? The way he softened at mention of his boyfriend, the lack of hesitance when he dove to pull her to her feet, carrying her unconscious body through his worst nightmare blind- is it fair to see him as this one dimensional evil figure she’s seen all of VILE as until now?

She wishes she could pretend he isn’t smiling right now, because then she wouldn’t have to re-evaluate all her feelings from the past two or three years of globe trotting. It’s dark, she’s blinded, yet she can feel the genuine relief in his smile all the same- the humanity in this moment of hope they’re both sharing. 

“Let’s get a move on,” she chokes out, fed up with the rollercoaster that has been this trip to Africa. He voices his agreement. Then, drawing out an undignified yelp she wishes he hadn’t, he scoops her into his arms and breaks into a brisk jog, all past caution thrown out the window. Normally she’d argue over being carried like some dainty little damsel, but she’s not about to reject a free ride to her crew with a possibly broken ankle. It could slide just this once. 

From the sliver of vision left in her one open eye, she realizes she’s actually looking up at Jean-Paul- as in, she can see him now. Only faintly, just barely, but there’s light, and it’s close, and it’s that last bit of confirmation they needed for Jean-Paul to up his game and fall into a steady gallop, like some sort of dear or animal you see in those documentaries- the ones that can actually outrun the big cats. She giggles, giddy at the thought of a good night’s rest in a nice resort hotel and oh the room service, the pool. She’ll gladly soak in the hot tub for hours after rolling around in this mud nonstop. Ah…. after a hospital visit, of course. 

“What are you laughing at?” The man asks, chuckling right along with her. 

“Thinkin’ about how I’m gonna sleep like a log after this.”

“Mm, same here.” With natural light finally gracing their presence, she can finally observe his face, the closest she’s been able to just look at an enemy without trembling in her boots or lashing out her fists.

 He’s goofy looking. His nose is big and he has deep creases under his eyes, not natural like Zack’s but like he’s never slept a day in his life, like he’s tired. He must be tired. He also looks human, and kind of nice. Were she not extremely attracted to women, maybe she’d even call him handsome. Maybe. He’s not too shabby looking. The light reflects in his hazel eyes and glints in the sliver of teeth poking out behind his lips, pulled into the smallest of eager smiles. He must be excited to see his boyfriend again. Ivy sure is excited to see Carmen and her brother, to see anything. Hours of darkness made you miss the little things. Could be why she’s been staring at this man’s face for an entire minute straight, monologuing in her head like a lunatic. 

Jean!” 

“Toni?” 

Her head whips to the right, eyes focusing on the dark silhouette of a man surrounded by the brilliant light of a distant red sunset. It’s the mole dude- Antonio. Toni. She feels the way Jean-Paul tenses up under her, like he’s about to drop her and leap into the arms of his boyfriend. But he doesn’t. He skids to a stop and holds her, just as securely as he had been. Looking between them, she can feel the tension, the desire, and it’s so pure and full of love and disgusssttinnngggg and grooosss that she willingly wiggles free from his hold and hops aside, allowing them to have their reunion without mentally scarring her. 

Granted this permission, Jean-Paul practically slams his entire body into Antonio’s chest and open arms, the shorter man not budging an inch, sweeping the goat into a twirling hug and spinning him around. They exclaim their pet names to each other in their native tongues (not really Ivy’s expertise) and engage in a passionate kiss. Eugh. Men kissing. She rolls her eyes and spares them some privacy. Following her eye roll, she looks around for her own team, hobbling along the wall towards the exit. 

“Carm? Zack?” She calls through a cupped hand, barely able to open her right eye. If her team wasn’t here but the mole guy was, she was going to blow a gasket. 

“Ivy?” Her brother’s desperate voice echoes along the curve. She hates hearing him sound anything but happy, but the mere sound of his voice right now is enough to make her eyes tear up. Running isn’t an option, but she can yell his name again while taking miniature hops towards the exit. 

Zack skirts around the tunnel bend, his hair like fire in this lighting, and books it towards Ivy. Not wanting a second broken angle, she holds out her hands defensively. 

“Woah there, tiger! Slow down!” She exclaims, but doesn’t resist the tight hug he pulls her into, his chin resting on her head, her nose pressed into his collarbone. Okay, maybe she missed him something wicked fierce, which meant she was allowed to drop that tough big sister exterior just this once. Eyes stinging, she sniffles into his jersey, squeezing his body. 

“My ankle fuckin’ hurts!” She cries out. “This entire day was shit! Never let me into a mine again!”

“Fine by me,” he laughs.

“Fine by me, too,” Player says, his voice distinguishable from Zack’s ear. “I dropped my favorite plate trying to get to you! Well, second favorite. My favorite is the one with-“

The siblings separate just in time to see Carmen closing in, meaning Ivy won’t get to hear the rest of Player’s riveting anecdote (he probably had one of those energy drinks for breakfast again, the rascal). Much to Ivy’s disappointment, her boss doesn’t offer a hug, instead patting her shoulder before kneeling down to observe her ankle. All business with this one. 

“Glad to have you back, muscles. What happened to your ankle? Any noteworthy injuries?”

She tries to stand on it, just to gauge the pain level, and grits her teeth. Not soul wrenching, but no walk in the park either. She tries to pull a brave face for Carmen.

“Think it’s bruised. Not broken, though.”

Carmen stands, her smile cool and collected, like it’s just another day on the job. Guess it is, ain’t it? A bruised ankle is probably nothing to the survivor of the world’s worst daycare. 

“And how did your company treat you?” She asks, head tilting to look over Ivy’s shoulder at the two men walking their way. Antonio’s hand rests supportively on Jean-Paul’s waist, the taller man’s arm over his shoulders, the two practically melting into each other. As badly as Ivy wants to sic her own thief against the man for all the trouble he put them through, it’s difficult to feel anything but relief and thankfulness right now, so she shrugs. 

“Fine, I guess, for a farm animal.”

“Tch. Same to you, dégénéré,” he spits back with a small smirk as the two men take their place next to the trio. 

“Woah,” Player says. Carmen’s eyes widen for a split second at the insult, but return to rest quickly. Zack and Ivy watch with curious interest as the ex-classmates interact, the air between them tense but somehow familial. Carmen sizes them both up, also scanning Jean-Paul for injuries or anything worth noting. Besides his broken nose and various small scratches, he looks to be in good health.

“La Chèvre,” she greets, not exactly friendly. Jean-Paul does not greet her back, just glared. Ivy snorts. Carmen continues, “We can give you a ride back to the digsite, but that’s it. Deal?” 

As Jean-Paul begins to snarl, Antonio hushes him with a pinch to his side, turning to offer Carmen an appreciative smile. “That would be great, thank you.” 

 

Zack is the one to carry Ivy back to the truck. He’s nowhere near as strong as Jean-Paul, and his grip keeps slipping now and again, but it’s a short walk to the vehicle. Plus, she’d take a piggyback ride from her little bro over the other options any day. Except of course Carmen- who hadn’t offered. Maybe next time?

 The sun is halfway obscured behind the horizon when they breach the exit, and Ivy stares directly at it, Jean-Paul doing the same. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. It’s red. 

Zack deposits Ivy into the shotgun seat, then starts up the car. Antonio, still holding an exhausted Jean-Paul, eyes Carmen suspiciously, not yet stepping back into the vehicle. His aura, suddenly imposing and defensive, acts as a wall between Carmen and Jean-Paul, who looks half asleep at this point. 

“Try anything suspicious,” he warns, “and I will not hesitate to take out your amigos.”  

Woah! Harsh! 

“Hey!” Zack startles. “I thought we were cool! I gave you food!” He twists his body around to stare back at the man, betrayed. It’s just like her brother to trust others so easily, and to be let down nearly as fast. The mole smiles at him, but it’s not friendly. Kinda scary, honestly. 

“We are enemies,” he states. “You are not my friend.”

“Ouch…” Zack whimpers, then pouts and turns to glare at the steering wheel. Ivy pats his shoulder. He’ll get over it within the hour. But damn, maybe El Topo was the one to be feared, after all. At least Jean-Paul was outright with his coldness. No false sense of camaraderie with that one. 

Carmen isn’t deterred by the claim, taking her seat behind Zack and crossing her legs, buckling her seat belt with an equally unfriendly smile. “You have my word, El Topo.”

And with that, any feelings of allyship go down the drain. One last car ride and they were back to being full fledged enemies. Ivy glances at Jean-Paul and Antonio in the rear-view mirror, chewing the inside of her bottom lip. Her goat buddy was dozing off on Antonio’s shoulder, one earring swaying as they drove over the bumpy road, their hands entwined on Antonio’s thigh. She shares a look with Carmen, but she can’t read her teammate’s stoney expression. 

 

The Tanzania Caper ends with mixed feelings and the setting red sun.