The news came like a shockwave to each and every operative. Carmen Sandiego had been a threat before, of course, but blowing up the island was a grim sign. A sign that, for once, VILE was not guaranteed a win.
Numb, low spirits began to settle among the operatives of VILE. Despite the promise that Carmen Sandiego would be taken down, that did not distract from what it would cost them. It was almost unbelievable that they would not return from missions to their place, their home in that small island. Some were in vehement denial, some took it with quiet resignation, and all of them were devastated.
The day came, and it found El Topo sitting by the shore for what he knew to be the last time, a looming feeling of dread refusing to leave his stomach. Everything seemed to be crumbling, like a cave closing in. He felt himself running out of air, waiting, screaming, unendingly trapped…
“El Topo?” La Chèrve’s concerned voice snapped him out of his thoughts. In his hands were two coffee cups.
“ ¿Sí?” Even his voice sounded strange to him, like it had been roughened or used far too much.
He squatted down next to him, handing him one foam cup.
It was filled with a warm, sweet tea. He took a sip, then spoke. “Thank you, mi amor, I appreciate it,” he said gratefully.
La Chèrve hummed in acknowledgment. “Are you alright, cher?”
The question didn’t surprise him, but the answer did. “I don’t know.”
The Frenchman only nodded, understanding. “It is alright to feel like this, you know. We have all been very stressed recently. No one saw this coming.”
“That is the thing, mi amigo,” he sighed, “I’m...scared. Even the Faculty, they have no idea what is happening. Everything’s falling apart.”
“It’s…only an island.” The reluctance in La Chèrve’s voice betrayed the otherwise confident statement. “A small one at that. Like you always say, mon ami. We are just pawns in a bigger game. And this move? It’s to lure the enemy into checkmate.”
Despite his heavy mood, El Topo couldn’t help smiling a bit when La Chèrve quoted him. “You remember that?” It wasn’t a question, not really.
He grinned back. “How could I not? You’re smart that way.”
They shared a small, meaningful gaze. Then his smile faded, and he looked back to the horizon. “The enemy used to be on our side. Are we just...in-fighting? Is there a larger enemy right in front of our eyes?”
La Chèrve raised an eyebrow. “Carmen Sandiego is our foremost enemy, El Topo. She’s the entire reason we’re doing this.”
“Perhaps…,” El Topo said hesitantly, still uncertain.
The other man could sense his anxiety, it seemed, and slipped an arm around his shoulders. “But there’s something else, isn’t there?”
“It’s just-,” his voice shook, and it was no longer El Topo talking to La Chèrve. It was Antonio talking to Jean-Paul. “I don’t know what’s happening. What is our next move? I’m afraid that with any wrong choice...I lose.”
Jean-Paul only looked on hopelessly, putting comforting arms around his shoulders. There was silence between them, just the rise and ebb of the waves.
“ Mon ami?”
Antonio swallowed the lump in his throat. “Who do you think?”
Jean-Paul had no response to that. A small sigh escaped his lips. “Do you...remember why we come here a lot?”
The distraction was needed. Antonio pursed his lips in thought. Then his eyes lit up in recollection. “How could I forget? We had our first kiss here.”
“Yeah... oui, we did, didn’t we?” Jean-Paul smiled sadly. “So I get it. It is alright to be terrified. This is terrifying! And...I’m scared too.”
“The great La Chèrve is afraid of something?” Antonio said in a half-joking voice. “Aside from that spider the other day, of course.”
“Very funny, mon ami,” he replied dryly. “My point is this isn’t normal. And in unusual circumstances, the usual reaction...is to be afraid.”
“When did you get so cheesy?”
Jean-Paul laughed, providing a small moment of levity into the conversation. “I guess I get it from you. And I believe the word is philosophical.”
“Cheesy,” grumbled an amused Antonio.
He huffed again and pulled Antonio closer. His gloved hands felt warm on Antonio’s back. Steady, stable. They’d held him for nearly two years now. That at least, he hoped, wouldn’t change.
“Gracias, mi amor.”
“For showing me your point of view. I needed that.”
Antonio felt Jean-Paul’s grin spreading above his head. “We’re partners, Topo. Helping each other out, it’s what we do.” Jean-Paul paused for a moment to think. “Plus! I hear our new HQ is a castle.”
“A castle?! Why did you not just start with that?!”
Both of them burst into laughter. Antonio still felt a residual gnawing feeling of anxiety, but that was normal. The cave wasn’t closing in anymore, and he could see that, among the rocks and the rubble and the brokenness, there was a light to be seen. Island or no island, he’d keep his eyes toward it. It was all he could do.
He’d have Jean-Paul only a few steps away, and he had himself. Nothing, not VILE nor Carmen Sandiego, could take that from him.
After all, it was only over when the canary sings.