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Agent A̷n̷y̷a̷ P. Newts

M̷i̷s̷h̷u̷n̷ Mission Report: 17 Septemboor 1963.

Target: A building in Ostania. One with people in it.

Goal: Peanuts, probably.

Lemon-A1D presents

Reality


-I-

Agent P. Newts disembarks her vehicle- with extreme coolness, importantly. As she completes that half of the mission, she finds herself face to face with her latest assignment:

The apartment complex of one Mr. L̷o̷i̷d̷ Floyd Forger, a spy…chiatrist currently operating out in a neighborhood in Ostania cohabiting with his wife, an assass- clerk, Yor… Yorticia Forger.

…and a vile dog. A̷n̷d̷ ̷a̷ ̷d̷a̷u̷g̷h̷t̷e̷r̷

The agent's mission, as she has chosen to accept it, is to…

To…

Why is a spy invading some innocuous citizen's abode? It's entirely possible this part of the mission was not elaborated on, or Agent P. Newts was not paying attention to her briefing.

Or possibly not aware that there was a briefing to begin with-

But that's not important; she's the most celebrated spy of her organization! That organization being… Eden… Eden Organization.

 

 

She has a mishun to accomplish, and that's all that matters. Which means Mr. Forger probably works for the League of Evil! He probably did something to the entire world's peanut supply! Maybe he helped implement a hefty peanut embargo? Definitely.

Probably.

The agent inhales and exhales slowly, remembering the moment as her mother taught her when throwing her first punch:

Always remember to breathe properly! Before action, during action, and after!

"Ok…"

On her last exhale, Agent P. Newts dashes into the building, beginning the infiltration of her target location. Her head swivels around to survey her landscape; sneaking into enemy territory was risky, after all, and could only be successfully done by a patient and watchful operative. The evildoers were ill-fated, for she was the best.

And speaking of evildoers… Agent P. Newts had spotted some t̷r̷a̷s̷h̷ ̷c̷a̷n̷ ̷a̷n̷d̷ ̷a̷s̷h̷t̷r̷a̷y̷ Baddie #1 and #2. Only villains name themselves like that! Or so A̷n̷y̷a̷ the agent had thought.

[How do I get the sneaky on them? Hmmm…]

Racking her brain, she had come up with a brilliant idea. Using some paper that had not at all come from a certain child drawing Spy Wars scenes during her class, the agent decided this was a good opportunity for some misdirection. Agent P. Newts crumpled it up into a ball and aimed carefully.

"Behold my new gadget hehehe, heyah!"

The paper ball gadget was then tossed to the far left of Baddie #1.

 

 

"He's distracted!"

The agent silently congratulated herself and took this opportunity to make a break deeper into enemy lines. Her little footsteps echoed across the halls as she came to the wall perpendicular to the staircase. Though before she was to begin climbing up, she heard footsteps.

 

"The neighbors- I mean the… evil spies!"

 

Unfortunately, the evil spies were participating in their usual patrol, in a particularly dastardly and very evil-y manner, of course.

 

"Ohh, the Forger's little kid!" The ̷m̷a̷l̷e̷ ̷n̷e̷i̷g̷h̷b̷o̷r̷ spy announced to his compatriot, his very evil not-wife spy. "Anya, was it?"

Gah! Agent P Newt's heart thumped intensely, as if witnessing the result of her mother's attempt at cooking.

 

"Ohhh that's her alright;" The wife-spy smiled and lowered her level to meet the agent's eyes. "Did you just come home from school?"

[Spy Rule number 10000000000000: Disguise!]

Thinking quick on her feet, the agent coughed twice into her hand and straightened her back, puffing her chest out and sticking her heels together.

 

"Y-Yes… Evil Spy P. Newts, r-repoorteeng for dooty."
"Eh?"

 

The neighbors cocked their heads to the side, like stray cats observing a territorial dispute.

 

"I am… an evil spy… doing my… evil league job."

 

Ehh… The wife thought. Something tells me she shouldn't be making these kinds of jokes in this climate…

[I can't joke in this klimayte? Is it too cold?]

Also, what kind of spy tells someone they're a spy?

 

[…]

 

[An evil one.]

 

 

"Listen, Anya…" The wife forced a smile onto her strained expression. "Maybe try to pretend to play as a princess from now on."

"Eh?"
"Someone might… someone might get the wrong idea and approach you."

The man tugged at his collar. The Secret Police wouldn't arrest a little girl under suspicions of espionage, right? Right?!

"Anya's getting arrested?!"

 

Anya's eyes widened to a frightening degree as her limbs froze up.

What… Is this what Papa feels everyday?

 

"No no! Not at all, haha! Just… be careful who you say these things around, okay? We wanna keep things peaceful, y'know…"
"Papa and Mama are fine with it though…"
"Okay then… I guess that's fine…"

 

The couple started moving on, evidently looking a little paranoid as their heads swerved left and right.

 

"B-Bye bye, Anya!"
"B-Bye…"

 

 

[Toast- COAST is clear…]

Agent P. Newts then dashed up the stairs, making up for the valuable time she lost blending in. Her legs brought her across one flight of stairs, then two…

Then three…

…four?

 

"Bah! Hah… hah…"

 

Agent P. Newts slowed down as she climbed up the final flight of stairs and bent over, placing her hands on her knees as she began to gather her breath heavily.

[They… they swallowed all the air to make it hard for me to breathe! So evil!]

 

As Agent P. Newts looked up, she spotted a door at the end of the corridor with a number she was familiar with.

But the door… that's the door Agent P. Newts needs; nice!

With a ferocious burst of newfound resolve, the agent walked up to the door and confirmed her approach.

 

[Does the spy-chiatrist have booby traps? Doggies? Pokey Sticks? Pistols? Pistols with Silencers?!]

"I need to be careful!"

 

Agent P. Newts gently opened the doorknob, trying her hardest not to let a single decibel ooze from the creaking metal.

"Closing… the door…click!"

[Infultrashyon… complete. Heh. I am the greatest spy in the world!]

Agent P. Newts pulled out her silenced pistol; the darling of her organization's tech-wizardry. The public's funds have never been put to greater use for this secret war;

 

The finger gun.

 

The agent stealthily pointed the gun across the room, sweeping it for threats like her mentor Bondman would.

 

[Secret camera?!]

"Pew pew pew- lights?!"

 

P. Newts crawled on the ground to avoid the roaming spotlight coming from… the window and its half-parted blinds.

 

"Heh."
"Bork bork!"
"GAH?!"

 

Quicker than she could possibly react, Agent P. Newts was overwhelmed by a massive white ball of fur jumping onto her and knocking her to the ground.

"Be-begone, stinky attack doggy- awwaaw!"

Sadly, the attack doggy's offensive force was too much for the little agent to overpower as it continued to lick her face.

 

"S-Save me… Bondman!"
"Hm? Oh, you're here. Welcome home, Anya."

 

The white doggy relented his assault and retreated to the source of the voice. As Anya wiped her face on her sleeves and spat out any dog drool she felt she might've stored, she looked up and met the gaze of her father.

 

"Would you mind telling me what I was witnessing?"

 

 

"Infultrayshaun."
"Right."

Well, first of all… the front door is an exceptionally suboptimal entrance into this place if we're talking about purely sneaking in undetected without the aid of an alibi or relation to the owner. The front door produces too much risk of noise and it's located in such an area that's easily detectable due to its position in relation to the building. Not to mention the giant window into the balcony poses a risk of being spotted from an external location, especially since the blinds are not in place… but that's probably not important for Anya to-

[Papa's roasting me…]

 

"Oh dear… welcome back, Anya!"

 

As Yor came into the scene, Anya walked over to her with her head held low, to which Mrs. Forger bent down and met her daughter at eye level.

 

"Mama… I failed."
"Eh? You did?"
"Mhmm."
"Failed a test?!"
"I'm getting fired…"
"You're getting fi- huh?"

 

Anya let loose a couple of crocodile tears as she began to explain herself, much to Yor's amusement.

 

"The world is going to explode now… all the peanuts are getting eaten by the League of Evil because I got caught by the doggy."

"Ah." Loid nodded. "I see."

 

Hmm… Yor thought. Someone did throw a can of peanuts at me once… and it did explode.

[Exploding peanuts?!]

It's a good thing I kicked it back at them before it did. Improvised explosive devices are really something…

[Mama made exploding peanuts…]

 

"Well…" Yor broke herself away from her strange intrusive thoughts and returned to earth with her distraught daughter. "The world will be fine, we still have some peanuts here after all!"
"Peanuts…"

Yor smiled, brushing the unkempt parts of Anya's hair.

If only the world were that simple… She thought to herself, looking at her own hands and flexing them, as if staring at the callouses would mean something more. Peanuts bringing world peace…

If only.

[World peace? Mama too?]

 

"…Anya?"
"Eh?"
"Here are your peanuts."
"Peanuts!"

Anya swiped the bag greedily and giggled. Yor must have taken note of the brief period when Anya had spaced out. Her daughter took the bag from her hand and sat at the table with the stinky attack dog, Bond, following her. The presence of both seemed to have taken Anya's attention because kids were simple like that:

No complication, no mind paid to much else aside from the love they ought to receive and the love they express in return. Simply all as it should be.

Though as seems to be the theme for the Forgers, very little was all as it should be.

Hmmm… maybe I'm just imagining things? Yor thought, attempting to placate herself. I've barely known Anya for a couple of months, so maybe this is just how she is at times? I'd rather not ask…


-I-

"How was your day, Anya?" Loid prompted from the kitchen, looking down as he was chopping some vegetables. "Were you nice? Any new friends?"

"It's okay." Anya continued, chewing on her snacks continuously.

Keeping a daily update of her relationship with the Desmond heir is paramount to Operation Strix's success. I can't be there in Eden constantly, so this is probably the best thing I can do everyday unless some free time opens up where I can potentially set up more situations to bring Anya closer to him. Nothing brings more anxiety to me than a situation that is outside of my control, or one that is reliant on civilians.

In comparison to every other endeavor in espionage that I've heard of, Operation Strix truly is an oddity in that its success hinges on non-agents, possibly even ones that do not share the same worldview.

I suppose this just demonstrates the delicate balance that barely manages to hold these two countries from turning this cold war hot; one man and his political party potentially hold the power over destruction and war-

[Papa's thinking scary things again…]

One of the many drawbacks to telepathy aside from difficulties in crowds and a rather rough upbringing from questionable people, was the fact that she could not properly manage to filter any of the thoughts she came across. The television set didn't have any thoughts to read, aside from being the thing that delivers Spy Wars right to her household, and so it was a safe space to attach her attention to.

Anya loved her father, but sometimes it was just hard to be around his head. At first, hearing all the spy jargon and missions reeked of a cool cartoon plotline that she couldn't get enough of. Though she quickly learned that Loid had plenty of other thoughts coexisting on top of the espionage; economies, ambassadors, peace talks, international government collusion, war entrepreneurship, organized crime, corruption, propaganda, paranoia, public relations, and other terms that confused Anya.

All she knew was that these things stood in the way of world peace; Papa's always thinking about it so it must be true, Mama just thought of it earlier so there must be a problem. Anya wasn't allowed to play because the scientists wanted her to use her powers for world peace, she got kidnapped twice already, witnessed and helped thwart a terrorist attack, so clearly there's something wrong going on in the world. Why do people want to even kidnap a child? Why do they want to keep fighting? Why do they say bad things about Westalis? Why are kids the ones fighting for world peace?

[World peace is cool, but… Anya likes playing too…]

"Are you getting along with Damian?"

Loid sat down opposite Anya as he flipped open a newspaper.

"Anya's okay with him too."

"Okay?" Loid excitedly perked up, his eyes displaying a bit more life. "What did you two say?"

"I said he is a shithead-"
"Wha-!"

In what world is that just okay? Also who taught her that?!

 

Both parents' eyes and ears widened. As expected, their lips soon followed their barely-concealed parental instincts. Loid was just this close to feeling like his stomach acid was about to eat through his gut.

 

"He called my legs short first! A-And he made fun of Papa and Mama…"

 

Yor looked at Loid as she walked over from the kitchen with a face that called for sympathy towards their daughter. Loid sighed and put down his newspaper.

I guess it's a different story when he's the one who instigated.

 

"…Did Headmaster Henderson or any teachers hear you two?"
"No."
"I suppose that's fine then… but try not to do that again, okay?"
"But he was making fun of you! Saying we're poor and stuff… and you have dumb jobs."

 

Plenty of those Eden kids seem to be rather vicious, don't they? Yor sighed, but quickly put on her best motherly face.

"Anya, please look at us when you're talking."

She complied, finding some measure of comfort in her mother's gaze, devoid of judgment.

 

"It's fine that you get angry on our behalf, your friends, or yourself, but you can't get swept up in his insults."
"Whaddaya mean?"
"We're not poor, Anya. We live in a nice place, and our jobs are… extremely respectable."

Yor stuttered for a second before realizing playing it straight was better.

As respectable as… killing people can get.

[Mama's thinking about murder again!]

 

"Your Pap- L-Loid is a psychiatrist working in a nice hospital, and I'm doing well for myself too!"

Loid nodded in agreement.

"Damian doesn't understand what we're like; he's never been to our house nor has he met us personally. The things he tells you make no sense and are false. If a person says such things, then you know the things he says are just trying to make you mad and not based on anything substantial-"

"Papa is saying Damian's a shithead?"
"He- okay, who's teaching you these words? Is it Spy Wars?"

The comics definitely weren't like that, at least.

"Um, Loid? I'm fairly sure that's a show aimed at kids."
"This is the same show where someone gets tortured, and that person is shown to shoot others and be a womanizer."

Yor was about to open her mouth once more but found it being closed by her own finger.

That is strange… These are certainly interesting things to be showcasing kids. Why can you present all sorts of horrific crimes and behaviors on air but saying something naughty is where the line is drawn?

"So who taught you those words?"
"Uhh… no one…"

Anya twiddled her fingers and nervously chuckled.

"Was it Becky?"
"M-Maybe…"

I'm glad Anya has a friend who cares for her. Yor smiled hesitantly. I don't know that I vouch for what she's sharing with her, but I doubt she can afford to be picky with company in such a competitive environment.

Loid exhaled sharply, placing his thumb and index to his chin. "Well, just promise to me and your mother to never use that kind of language in front of adults, okay? You don't want the Headmaster to give you another bolt."

"Mmkay."
"Alright."

Perhaps it's preferable to play the long game when it comes to Anya's relationship with Damian. Judging by how he seems to constantly act as the instigator to their conflicts, it's possible he does not have an agreeable home situation; that kind of behavior and family dynamic isn't uncommon.

Regardless, perhaps some time apart can at least settle down their animosity and Anya can try to focus more on academics in the meantime. Becky Blackwell seems to keep Anya company anyway.

The three misfits share a smile as the father picks his newspaper up once more. Right as that happens though, Anya gets off her chair and scuttles over to her father and tugs at his trousers.

"Hmm?"

Perhaps the confusions lingering in Anya's mind would have to stay there for the foreseeable, for such questions would make her seem suspicious and even if she did ask, she might not understand. The world is scary, that much is true, but after talking to her parents, for some reason it didn't seem to matter that much. Was it magic? Why did that happen? Whatever the case, it's not there; irrelevant. It doesn't matter, not now, maybe it will later.

"I want Papa to give me a hug."

But that's the thing. Not in this moment.

"E-Eh?"

Loid returned a stare to Anya, blinking twice.

 

 

Physical affection is just another part of familial relation building, naturally…

"S-Sure."

[Papa's a tsundere.]

 

Loid got off his chair and swiftly opened himself up for Anya to embrace him, much to his light embarrassment.

"Yah!"

Anya collided into his chest and giggled calmly.

 

"Carry me."
"F-Fine…"

 

Loid obliged her daughter's request and effortlessly brought her up into the air, still clutching her while Anya secured herself.

 

So cute! Yor couldn't help but stifle a giggle. What a lovely pair.

 

Finding herself staring at the affection on display, she couldn't help but feel her heart soften as she recalled a similar sight from a time too long ago.

 

 

"Mama should hug us too!"
"Eh? M-Me?"
"Bork bork!"

Yor tensed up and at the same time, Bond tried to bark as he played around at Loid's feet first, seemingly trying to find his space in.

"W-Would that be fine? I don't want to intrude…"
"Mama, pleasseeeee~"

Yor quickly shot a glance over to her fake husband, who seemed as if he were attempting to steel his expression amidst a growing bashful blush, only keeping his peripherals trained on Yor as he unwittingly awaited her response to the situation.

 

'You are the mother of the Forger family.'

Loid's words echoed in her head.

Maybe even a strange woman such as myself is allowed this much; they trust me. As if I was truly the mother.

 

 

"A-Alright, then. I'm coming in…"

Try not to crunch too hard, Yor! We don't want a repeat of what happened to Yuri."

 

 

[Maybe Mama shouldn't hug.]

Yor tentatively approached her family, carefully attempting to find room for herself in this embrace. As she kept trying to figure her positioning out, more trouble began brewing.

This shouldn't be nerve-wracking. Loid thought to himself shamefully. It's just a hug with Anya, and… Yor.

Finally, the mother had given up and settled for the obvious choice and taking the side opposite her husband, against Anya's back. She wrapped her arms around Loid and he had done the same for her. Loid cradled his daughter around his arm and chest as his other arm tactfully reached around to meet Yor's body, ending up on the small of her bare back.

Oh! Yor stifled a gasp. That's… he doesn't need to know that, it's fine!

This is fine.

Loid closed his eyes.

 

"Papa and Mama are flirting."
"W-We're not!"

 

Despite the protesting, the Forgers remained in that embrace, two of whom were nervous to be in there but equally as hesitant to let this moment go. No amount of covert operations, politics or assassination could invade anyone's minds right now, because this was physical; invading their space and their minds.

It was real.

 

 

[Mama and Papa think of weird and scary things sometimes. But when they're like this it's nice.]

 

For a rare moment, Anya couldn't hear a single thought.

 

"Warm…"

-I-


 

Chapter Text

-II-

"Did you hear?
"Ehh? What now? Did someone from another department get caught with someone that wasn't their own spouse in the janitor's closet again?"
"You really think that would happen again so soon?"
"They probably haven't even bothered to clean the stains off of the walls yet, I bet!"

The two coworkers snickered in the safety of the breakroom. Yor found herself at the water dispenser once again, unintentionally eavesdropping on Millie and Camila's daily pick of the rumor mill. As Yor understood it, they were just bored and in dire need of something to talk about.

The days of a clerk end up becoming mundane, after all; answering phone calls, redirecting them, taking the minutes of a vaguely productive meeting, filing records, making appointments, and other activities. It wasn't that uncommon to find a day where even a lethargic wage slave could find themselves short on work before their hours were over, hence it was also common practice to be okay with slacking off provided no eyes fell on your desk and hands.

"What's this now?"

Sharon came in, sounding as if she knew her friends were aware of her general indifference.

"Some guy from the other department… which one was it, again?" Millie tapped her chin and waved over behind her at Camila, touching her arm. "Help me out here!"
"Weren't you the one spilling the tea? How am I supposed to know?"
"Oh, HR! Yeah, Mr. Henson, the head or something close like that. He said he thinks he's being haunted by evil spirits!"
"…what?"

The indifferent one struck again, looking as if she might actually crack a smile in response to the ridiculous statement.

"Really?" Camila questioned, clearly not as doubtful as her coworker but still curious nonetheless. "Why would he say that?"

"So like, he was saying the past few days things were going wrong in his home. Like last Tuesday, when he came home his wife was really cold to him; one word answers, fake smiles, the whole thing! The breakfasts and dinners were awkward, and when he tried to take her out on a date she gave him an excuse! Apparently she wasn't like this at all, or something."
"Do we know the wife?"
"Yeah! She was there at last week's party; the one with the asymmetric bob; black hair, white dress? The one who was walking kinda funny?"
"Oh riight- wait, you noticed it too?!" Camila snickered and placed a hand on Millie's shoulder. "Her husband must be a real marathon man, huh?"
"What, like you wanna get in on that too or something?"

Was she injured? Yor thought to herself. Why would her husband have a part in that? Is he abusive? I don't think they'd laugh at that though

Camila scoffed.

"What do you take me for? Dominic treats me perfectly, thank you very much. Are you projecting or something?"
"Jeez, lemme finish first! Anyway, he also said that for the past couple of days, his home phone was also constantly getting called! Whenever he'd pick it up, no one would answer; just white noise and stuff!"

"Hehhhh…" Sharon commented, sparking her lighter and lighting her cigarette. "Some dumb teenagers prank calling, maybe?"
"But he also said his car suddenly broke down yesterday; that's why he was late then. And just after he brought his car to the shop he also realized some of the stuff he left inside were stolen!"

That poor man; he certainly seems to be having a rough time. Why are some people just so unfortunate?

Yor didn't really feel the need to keep up with the ensuing conversation, though if she was being honest with herself she didn't think she'd be able to match the pace the information was flying at; the sentences from Millie and Camila with Sharon's occasional interjections entering from one ear out the other. At the same time though, Yor felt like maybe she'd have an easier time in the office or just generally in life if she was good at making idle conversation. She looked at the trio, marveling at how spontaneous and retentive someone like Millie was, how sharp Camila could be, and how Sharon could stand out positively just with a few words. Yor felt a slight tinge of longing; being able to be around other women and thrive.

In fact, she felt like she wanted to be a conversationalist if it meant she could also better converse with Loid, a man she thought possessed a great amount of skill socially, aside from his own medical and technical prowess as a licensed psychiatrist. Someone like that must understand people quite well.

'Putting on an act all the time can be tiringThat's why I want you to be as you are.'

'…You're really second to none.'

But she remembered those key moments; just like that, he was able to put her heart at ease, and unburden her soul. How did he manage to do that with just a couple of sentences? When she had lost an entire day sulking, he could quell her worries with the truth of his lips.

She smiled to herself, feeling glad there was no one to bring her out of her own head for the moment.

As she thought more and more about Loid, the memories of Loid interacting with Anya came to mind. The hug that Anya initiated yesterday showed her that Loid still gets embarrassed when his daughter wants affection. Maybe it was because they did it in front of Yor, but the emotion on Loid's face still stuck out to her.

They're so sweet together. And Loid looked so-

"Um… Yor?"

cute?

"…Is something wrong?"

Yor curiously looked back to her coworkers, whose constant stream of conversation had come to a sudden halt as they eyed their fellow colleague.

"I didn't think we'd see you giggle like that." Millie remarked, giving Camilla a brief side-eyed glance. "Did something happen?"

They saw that?! That's embarrassing… Wait, why was I even thinking of something so shameful?! I shouldn't be doing that- wait, what can I say that'd take their minds off of me? Think Yor!

"Umm, I was just t-thinking about my husband, that's all."

Sadly, the Thorn Princess chose quite poorly, not that there was any correct answer to this kind of situation. But it is safe to say that mentioning her spouse was definitely the wrong answer, because the looks on the faces of the other ladies told Yor that this was the beginning of quite an inquisition, one that would put the Secret Police to shame.

"Hehhhh…" Camilla adorned her face with a smug look. "Did he do something nice for you?"
"Did he do you nice?" Millie retorted, appearing proud of her comment.

While Yor was typically oblivious to these kinds of idioms, enough time spent being a bystander to her coworkers was enough to have her at least understand what Millie was referring to at that moment. And the idea made Yor blush profusely.

"Huh?! N-No, nothing like that…"
"What an innocent reaction!" Millie laughed aloud. "I try to, but I really can't imagine you as someone like that, even if you have been married for a while."

How do I exit this conversation peacefully…? I'm awfully out of my element here… And embarrassed.

"I was just… remembering… something he was doing yesterday."

Try as she might, the art of deception was not something that came to Yor easily, or at all.

"Did he give you a massage?"
"N-No…"

That does sound quite appealing, if I'm being honest.

All the lies she was capable of telling others were either ones started by Loid with regards to the faux marriage or something she absolutely knew would be taken seriously, in which case her only viable target would be her unwitting brother, Yuri; he'd believe anything she said unless it was the fact that Loid was an amazing husband.

Regardless, the only thing she thought to do was to be upfront. Maybe a part of the reason behind her ostracization was the fact that her secrecy was not backed up by the ability to deceive, and so her rationale drove into the way of honesty.

"So?" Camilla insisted, verbally prodding her. "C'mon, spill it!"

"The way he hugs his daug- o-our daughter… he looks so adorable when he's affectionate!"

Am I actually saying these things?! I'm so sorry, Loid!

"I guess this is just the way she likes her man." Sharon released a puff of smoke along with a chuckle. "Motherhood brain and all."

"Well like," Millie insisted further, trying to relate. "Aside from the little girl, what's your relationship like?"

"What do you mean?"
"Like… how do you typically show affection to each other?"
"Well…"

"I let him rest his head on my lap after a… long night. I might sing a tune as he rests."

Immediately after kicking him unconsciousness, not that they need to know that.

"So your hubby's the type who likes getting spoiled, eh?" Camilla equipped a knowing smile.

"Isn't that great though?" Millie excitedly raised her closed fists up and did a light hop. "He has this air of being like, super put-together and capable, I mean he's a doctor, and he cooks for you, right?"

Yor nodded succintly.

"Right? So does he ask for it? For you to spoil him?"
"Ehh… no?"

I don't think he asked for that… being… knocked out, and all.

"That's even better!" Millie practically squealed, much to Yor's growing confusion. "That mask falls apart when you apply the tiniest amount of affection to him! And he becomes like a puppy for your attention… gosh, where did you bag this man?"

Is he really like that? Well… when Anya asked for that hug, he let her have her way, even when I joined in.

"Look at you talking like this about someone else's husband!" Camilla interjected, looking at Yor. "You should be careful of girls like Millie, you know? One moment of weakness on your man's end and he might just by this shameless woman a drink!"

That's not… don't say that… I don't want to think about that!

"Oi oi, I never said anything like that-"
"Maybe that's why she's been so talkative about dirty stuff today; she's just pent up!"
"It's not like thaaat! Aren't you wondering too? Doesn't Yor's husband sound like such a catch?"

Sharon tapped her cigarette over the ashtray.

"That's probably why he's taken…"

He already reassured me, didn't he? Why are these words cutting me?

"I'm not the unhappily single one here; I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Yor, I'm not trying to be a homewrecker; b-but your husband's super hot, you know that, right?"

Yor felt the reflex to put on a polite smile, and she did.

"I know you're just saying things, Millie."

But something inside of her being demanded a certain kind of reply. Even if redness threatened to invade her cheeks, her eye contact would fail, or she was aware that this was just banter between coworkers, the words couldn't stay in her throat.

"But still… please d-don't talk about my husband like that;" Yor tentatively looked back and forth between the ground and her colleague. "Don't talk like you're eyeing him in front of me. E-Even if it is just a joke."

I'm really sorry, Loid. I don't know what's coming over me.

The room stood still and fell quiet, as if a typhoon had just swept by. All attention could only be focused on the one thing disrupting the fragile peace.

"He would never do that to me. And he's always reassuring me of that…"

'You should have more faith in yourself.'

"Even when I'm always so insecure…"

And that's why I hope you'll continue to be Anya's mother…'

'And of course… the role of my wife.'

"He's mine."

Yor's coworkers couldn't find an appropriate response. Camilla froze, her form standing straighter than a soldier in formation with only her gaze attempting to find any movements out of Yor and Millie, the latter of who had just a pure staggered look locked onto the former's figure.

Even Sharon, someone so usually calm and collected (or perhaps just permanently disassociated) had a new wide-eyed face, forgetting to even take a puff from her cigarette, letting it burn and ashen.

"I am so sorry for that. I-I'm going to go back to work. "

Yor began to carefully speed her way out of the break room and back to her work station, unaware that her flushed face still held its expression together.

Back in the breakroom, all three looked at each other confused and somewhat astonished at the sight that just unfolded before their eyes.

"Well well." Sharon chuckled once more, relieved the moment was over as she snuffed her cigarette out on the ashtray. "I guess we really don't know her."

"No kidding…"


-II-

In the early hours of the evening in East Berlint, most people would begin their journeys home from work; surrounded by the amber and vague purple of the sunset as their mixed emotions and their own two feet would always bring them home, no matter the day's happenings. Some people may choose to make a stop at their favorite place beforehand; a cafe, restaurant, or a bar for whoever felt like the day was too much. Others may have other tasks on their plate to handle, and the errands would ensure that the sky turned to dusk before they even set foot inside their abodes.

Today was the mark of one such errand for Yor Forger.

Stephen Nielsen
39 years old
Male
Separated

Location: 774 Linden Street, Hauser Homes, East Berlint
Special Instructions: N/A

I can't believe I forgot to bring my spikes along with me… Yor sighed, drooping her shoulders along with the frown on her face. The one thing I need to do my job, and I just… forgot to bring my tools. This is what I get for sounding so stupid earlier during lunch.

Oh well

Contract Status: Completed

Yor looked over at the bathtub where her target lay, still warm, mouth agape, eyes open in frozen shock, and most of all, dead. She walked over and moved to drain the tub to at least prepare and give the nude man some dignity after his life had ended. As the water slowly drifted the waste towards the drain, Yor also took some of the water and splashed it onto some of the shower curtains, rinsing off more evidence of a struggle.

Although her alias implies an affinity for blades, Yor was still a resourceful killer. Even without a weapon at hand, anything could be deadly provided one has the creative instinct to inflict violence. In this case, using shower curtains as a tool of strangulation worked enough for her, and because of her strength the process of asphyxiation was delivered swiftly.

The only thing violent about the assassination was the fact that the target had briefly woken up as he was being choked, and the pressure exerted by Yor along with his brief, yet desperate attempt to claw to life caused his nose to spurt a shocking amount of blood before he drifted off into death. Slumping into the full bathtub ensured that even if the strangulation only managed to make him pass out, he would not be able to begin breathing again. Though with the assassin being Yor, it was unlikely anyone would be able to breathe again under the isometric tension she could exert; woe unto the man's torn carotid arteries and his crushed windpipe.

As the water continued to drain, Yor merely stood there. She had no reason to not just leave the way she came and make her way back home. Back to Bond, Anya… and back to Loid. But she was well aware of the reason why she did not end up stabbing her target to death.

She was still thinking about the event from earlier. Even as she received her hit orders, her job felt so reflexive that she did not think too deeply on it and almost subconsciously marched onto the location after fulfilling her 9 to 5 clerical duties.

Back in the office, she did her best to confront her coworkers antics and establish her boundaries. It was normally easy to not take things too personally; every attack against her character wouldn't matter too much because Yor felt like she could bear with the verbal barbs. Regardless of the veracity of her feelings towards that, this moment was different; this time it was about Loid.

That man doesn't need my defending… such menial comments wouldn't get to his head because he is self-assured.

Socially inept as she is, Yor at least knew what a joke was and when it was being told, but the teasing being served by Millie and Camilla didn't sit well in her heart. That was just a joke, wasn't it? Millie was merely stating the qualities of Loid that she felt were worthy of admiration; Yor knew this, she was his wife after all and so she was much more informed regarding the things, habits, and quirks that make up Loid Forger.

'He's mine.'

"Hngggggghhhh…" A groan exited Yor's mouth as her palms drew themselves to her forehead and eyes. "That was extremely unnecessary."

As her hands left her forehead, lazily dropping down to her sides, she just remembered that she was in the middle of something vital. She collected the towel hanging from a rack and draped it over to cover her target's torso and crotch area. She reached down over to his face and carefully swiped her hands down the man's face, allowing his eyes to finally find rest forever.

It's not appropriate to be so absentminded in front of a corpse

Irrespective of her apparent reverence for victims, she knew it was time to leave. It's not that anyone would be suspecting anything; the man lived alone, but it's generally good practice for any criminal to not be in the crime scene for an extended period of time.

I think Loid said he'd be home-

Suddenly, a loud crash and slam took Yor's attention to the door.

A group of people breached the front door

Immediately after, plenty of footsteps had begun flooding the apartment, some of which sounded as if they were getting closer and closer.

Right to where Yor currently was.

There's no windows to exit out of in this bathroom, the nearest place is in his bedroom. That's no good

Amateurish; storming an apartment complex so brazenly. One, two, three, four, five, six pairs of footsteps. No sounds of boots or leather shoes; these aren't police, if that wasn't already obvious.

"Hey, Nielsen, pay up!"
"Two days overdue, boy! You want us to mail your funny books to the secret police or something? Come outta here! They might even pay us more than you owe right now!"
"Should we ask your ex-wife for a loan or something?"

Carrying weapons? Possibly, maybe some blunt objects; I heard metal clang against a wall; a pipe.

"I got a gift for ya if you're coming out!"

That spinning sound… a revolver. Brandishing it so obviously… I can't let him fire that here.

"You guys check out all the rooms yet?

"This one's locked! Think he's here?"

"Get your ass out here! This'll be easy if you just let us work!"

More and more of the invaders had stopped their sweep of the rest of the apartment. Some of them had just been content lounging about as they felt as if the problem would take care of itself.

"I kinda wanna blast the door handle off. I just got this piece, y'know? I gotta use it!
"Does your dumb ass even know how this thing works?"

"Click that thing at the back; use your thumb to pull it- yeahhh, there we go."

"Nielsen~ count of three, ya ready?"

"3… 2…"

"1- "

Suddenly, a violent bang filled the apartment, the bathroom door had flung outwards and busted its top hinges, leaving it to dangle loosely. The two men in front had fallen to the floor, concussed and on the verge of unconsciousness from having their faces bashed in by a large door. The remaining four men crowded the narrow hallway as they attempted to get information.

"Holy shit! Y-You guys good?!"
"What the hell- HEY HEY HEY!"

A ferocious kick flew across one's jaw, a disgusting crunch sounded out as his limp body crumpled into busted drywall.

At the sight of one of their friends eating the floor and hearing the sound of what could only be his jaw being destroyed, the rest of the apparently green crew staggered and fell backwards, trying desperately to crawl away from the unidentified menace that was marching towards them.

One of them worked up the nerve to draw his knife and posturing up against the unimpressed person. The amount of shivering coming from the man's body would be enough to draw pity out of even the coldest heart.

"G-G-Get back… I ain't holding back with this!"

Without response, the man hastily swung diagonally at his target and threw his body into the swing, making him stumble. As he tried to regain sight of his target, his wrist was suddenly limp.

"AAHHHHH-"

Only then did he realize that his hand wrist had been smash by something… metallic, he looked up and watched as his attacker continued to pummel at him with a long neck faucet.

His ribs, his jaw, and his temple all crumpled, bruised, and continuously bled before he could react, and he fell to the floor, feeling the blood engulfing his cheek.

"G-G-Gang up on her!"

The last lackey in the living room pointed behind the assassin, prompting her to use her peripherals to check for the remaining men; the gunman, one with a metal pipe, another with a knife, and the unarmed man right in front of her. All of them had trouble keeping their eyes on their opponent as their companions were right in view, writhing in pain and possibly dead.

"Outta the way, I'm gonna shoot-"

Before he could even click the hammer of his revolver, his face had been crushed by the assailant's metal faucet and he fell back down, desperately clinging to consciousness.

"AGGHHH, I-I-I-I can't see! Oh god oh god oh god oh god… "

The assassin then rushed the man in the living room, stomping his knee in and hyperextending it, releasing a howl of pain as a hard spinning wheel kick across his head put him out.

The remaining two men, only now gaining the courage to rush their enemy, did so and tried to tackle her simultaneously but they were flanked with amazing footwork, the assassin had now gotten them in a single file.

The man closest to her was met with two alternating uppercuts to the stomach that sent his air out and was immediately sent flying backwards with a spinning side kick to the gut, dropping his knife and crashing into a coffee table. The last one stumbled from barely missing being turned into a collateral bowling pin and as he got up, heard a flash of metal and found his friend's knife imbedded in his liver, forcing his body to shut down as the assassin brought two more forceful stabs down on his head.

The now-blinded gunman in the hallway started fumbling around, huffing and puffing as he crawled into the bathroom. The only other sounds he was hearing were footsteps from the living room.

"Please please please please. I'm begging you, please please I-I just joined! Please don't kill me, please don't kill me-"
"L-L-Leave him alone!"

And the pitiful cries of his dying friends.

Stab.

Stab.

C runch.

Soon enough, the wailing had stopped, but the presence moved towards the bathroom, and he witnessed merely the dark figure of someone looking down on him as if he was just a piece of trash on another sidewalk.

"No no no no no no no no no… I-I-I-I need to get outta here. Please, I-I'm so-shorry… "

The man began to weep, his tears the last remaining bits of life being uttered before losing his breath and finding a knife stuck in his throat, and the last thing he saw before losing himself was the pooling of blood falling from his neck and onto someone's hand; crimson meeting with darkness, an invitation to death.

And just like that, it is finished. Another night for the Thorn Princess finished.

Wait

"Am I supposed to be getting the groceries tonight…?"

-II-


 

Chapter Text

-III-

Newspapers are quite a handy tool for spreading information. Obviously, it is the job of any upstanding news outlet to deliver its findings to its consumers regardless of perspective or political leaning, to the impressionable masses of a country. Through the mass printing and distribution of newspapers, a host of radio stations, and eventually landing into the daily conversations of the populace, information is everything.

It is necessary to sustain society, though it is also useful in deception; how useful can it be to rile up the deceived and unenlightened into bringing international tensions to a boiling point? Information is gunpowder, the people are the bullets, and those with power tease triggers with itchy fingers. With enough of it, one can convince an entire people into waging war, dying for something bigger than themselves; a cause they could never possibly stand behind without priming.

Or, it can peddle simple little, coded lies to WISE's greatest asset:

We have received reports that an alarming number of Ostanians are in possession of books and music records from Westalis and other publicly-backed countries. There is reason to believe that they had been smuggled in via a new syndicate rising up in the crime world.

Aside from their status as such, we lack information to understand what their goals are for smuggling in these items; it's possible they could be sympathizers to Westalis, but it is also possible that this is merely for profit, and they are just middlemen to a rising opposition. Investigate the matter further though do remember that your mission is merely reconnaissance; only intervene when necessary.  Report your findings back to us.

And that is how Twilight found himself in a bar in the afternoon with a young graduate he had been chatting up for the past two weeks.

He was also exceptionally inebriated.

And it had already been one hour.

"D-Dokter… Fphorjer."
"Mhmm?"

This was hardly the first time Twilight had chosen to coax some answers out of someone via alcohol and a nice little conversation. Nothing was off the table when it came to gathering intel and being a honeypot trap was one of the simplest techniques to dedicate oneself to. Twilight was relieved that the only instrument necessary for this occasion was a few sponsored drinks, and plenty of patience.

A lot of patience.

The bartender worryingly shot the pair some peripheral glances, subtly eyeing them as he kept his eyes on the rest of the empty bar. Loid shrugged his shoulders noncommittally. Of course, the bartender understood, after all, he knew he was looking at Twilight in action.

No one's here to judgeLoid thought. Only those strange enough to want a drink before the sun even started setting. Is this man's bloodstream just pure alcohol? How many shots has this been?

"Dew you tink za…za Polishe will arrest me?"
"Why would you say such a thing? I mean, you aren't doing something that'd make them arrest you, right?"
"Don't t-they arressht enywon deez daysz?"
"No comment…"
"Like… I c-could, I could sneeze funnnyyy aand that'd shendd their noszey noszessz on me. Who hasshh the time, hawnestly…"

They do, surely.

"Wasthiing… our damn t-taxpayer money. Go b-build a schoool or sumting… or help your suffering sholdiers; give em' a new pair o' legssz."

"Proshhthethicc legssszz… coulda helped dat homelessh man down the alley back zher."
"So do you find yourself sneezing funny? What makes you so wary of them?"
"Can't… I jushht shhtill be erritayted? Why do dey hafta put der facesz in innoshent citizhensh busyness…"

"Itsh not liek… I hab anysing to hide…"

He nervously scratched the back of his head.

Are you sure about that?

"Well, itsh like, I hab dis friendsz."

He went back on that quick… Does he go in out of sobriety?

Loid nodded, actually showing real curiosity for these next few words. The first sober minutes were spent talking about his position in the hospital, and as more booze had been ingested, something regarding licking big toes had been the subject, much to Twilight's confusion. But now, it's possible that the lead he had on this man could've been worth something.

"I ken trusht you, r-right? Dokthor… "
"Confidentiality between patient and practitioner is an essential to anything in the medical field, so rest assured."
"Huh? I'm a pashent… ? You handin' out a presh-presz-prescribe-prescri-
"Prescript-"
"Le-Le-Lemme finish…"

The drunkard raised a hand to Twilight's face and burped.

Then burped again.

Following that, and a few sideways glances from the public, he coughed twice and straightened his posture, now making eye contact with Loid. In an attempt to appear sober, he put on a smile.

"Prescription."

Am I supposed to be amazed?

"That's exactly it. Good job!"

And just like that, the drunk's head fell forward and barely touched the counter before he brought himself back up.

"I'm good… yeah… "

This man could knock himself out with just another sniff of alcohol… I have to get him back on track.

Loid gestured to the bartender, asking for a glass of water as the next drink for his poor friend. As the glass slid his way, he handed it to his drunkard companion and let him drink a little.

"So what was this about your friend?"
"R-Right… I get bewks… "
"You get books?"
"Yeah."
"Limithed addition books."
"… Limited edition from… ?"

"Y-Yer… pffftt… "
"Your… ?"
"From yerr mom."

Sigh… maybe playing it straight works better?

Loid chuckled and pretended to acknowledge his joke, shrugging his shoulders and taking a sip of his drink.

"Really though, where do you get them?"
"I k-ken trusht you, r-right?"

Twilight smiled and gave him a little nod. And to that, the youngster gained a little more consciousness back in his eyes. He coughed a bit into his closed fist and tried to recompose himself but still being interrupted by the occasional hiccup. Through that, Twilight seemed to recognize this man more as someone capable of intelligent conversation. Though at the same time, something in his posture and eyes could somehow rein in the mood constricting, as if the air of drunkenness escaped his system.

"Y-You… you seem like a decent man; capable of critical thought, most importantly. S-Sometimes it feels like me and… my peers are the only ones who seem to care more about… national pride and dumb jingoistic crap like that."
"You really think so?"

Another tangent? Fine

"What's the… p-point in wanting to be hostile? Why do interests change the deeper your pockets go? Ish it… is it too much to give up… the will to make an enemy out of neighbors? Why would you wanna… pick up a gun and shoot someone who's never done anything to you?"

"M-Maybe they should… have like, student exchange programs between us two countries… have tours, have social events together, work in the same space; anything that puts us in the same boat. I dunno… I've never shot a gun, let alone at… another person, so what do I know? Just another rich brat to everyone's granduncles…"

Richard Lennon
21 years old
Male
Single

"Not that they've shot a gun either; they p-probably pull muscles e'rry time they stand up to slap their kids, stupid geezers…"

He shook his head and slowly ran his hand through his forehead, letting out an exhale as to regain control of his expression.

Recent cum laude graduate of Berlint University via a scholarship , spent three months working as a medical technician near my office with no registered sign of employment previously. Recently moved to a new apartment complex with his mother, a cafe owner named Corrine.

Lost his father, Jamison, in the war approximately seventeen years prior. High level of literacy, neurotic, outspoken but introverted, irritable, limited social circle, sheltered upbringing, affinity for caffeine, possible alcohol dependency; whiskey mainly.

Far too trusting for how loud his mouth is.

The Secret Police has also noted him down as a possible POI, and for good reason.  If anyone has connections to socio-cultural movements, it must be him. Perhaps it is someone he met in university? A disillusioned relative who survived the war?

"My history professor back in university helped me think about… the current state of things here. Got me reading things that no curriculum in Ostania would ever dare introduce."

It checks out; universities are home to all kinds of people who like to think… most of the time. No matter how policed the country or the institution, people always find ways to communicate their ideals amongst others, even amidst a powerful surveillance state.

"Were you the only one he was mentoring?"
"There were others… not that I knew who they were. I wasn't a social guy."

With how loose-lipped he is, I think I can just go for it right here.

"Could I get a name? Sounds like an interesting guy."
"Professor Stephen Nielsen."

Do I know that name? Franky might have a database handy.

"Hmmm… thank you, Richard."
"Dr. Forger."

He placed a hand on Loid's bicep, clutching it firmly but with a soft look betraying the strength he was exerting.

"I'm not crazy, right? To think like this?"

"Your heart's in the right place, but I don't think you've lived enough life to express that. No one's believing you when you talk like you do."

To him, there's always an 'us' or a 'them'. If you see others as different then that is what they are; simple as that.

Too many times have good intentions killed the intention of a kind-hearted people. How It's too easy to get wrapped up in our points of view; love, friendship, companions, dogma, religion, government… standing in the way of the truth. How many people have suffered because they were told to hate? Something so personal and fundamental can only be decided by you.

Espionage exists devoid of the things that tie us together, but that's just it; lies and truth existing in the same space, working in the dark to serve the light.

So that people can flourish.

So that people like me don't have to exist.


-III-

"That'll be 10 dalc."
"Thank you."

Loid handed the coins out to the cashier, trading them out for a brown paper bag of assorted groceries as he walked out the doors and-

"Oof!"
"Oo-, oh Loid, it's you!"
"Yor?"

Yor's face was still barely an inch away from Loid's chest, and the angle she looked at Loid up from made him look… different.

I can really get a sense of how different his body is from mine

"W-What are you doing here, L-Loid?" She took a few steps back, eyeing the thing being cradled by his right arm. "I thought it was my turn to buy the groceries today, so I stopped by the store."

"Well, I know, but I was in the area, and you did say you'd be home a bit later than usual."
"Umm, why do you smell like cigarettes and… alcohol?"
"Oh?"

Right

"I-I realize it's none of my business, but I j-just noticed is all…"
"Oh, don't worry; I just dropped Richard off. He lives nearby."
"The new technician?"

That doesn't explain the smell… was he meeting with that coworker- No! Stop that!

"He uh… he wanted to hang out; get a drink and all."
"This early in the evening?"
"He's a bit odd."
"Okay, I see."

I should really stop worrying… Loid's been so patient in explaining things to me.

"So…" Yor smiled awkwardly, trying her best to maintain eye contact with Loid amidst her growing self-consciousness. "Shall we walk home together?"

"Definitely."

The spouses then begun their walk on home at the beginning of twilight, the sun just finishing its hiding itself from the city of Berlint, light still casting itself on their area for the moment. Other people had also chosen this time of day to begin their little journeys back to respite, away from the clamor and pace of their jobs, school and all where the only noises were the occasional car zooming past, the turning of a bicycle chain, or the footsteps and whispers of other Berlint natives.

Though one thing was disturbing the relative peace of an otherwise peaceful evening stroll, a commotion of police gathering at a nearby apartment complex, a street perpendicular to the grocery store. Murmurs increased in volume as more passersby decided to stop and stare at the novelty. Most of them were trying to eavesdrop on the citizens bold enough to converse with the police, nothing conclusive or productive was gained, but the fact that the police were putting up barriers and tape meant enough to be speculating.

"Did someone apprehended for something?"
"Is the Secret Police coming?"
"I can smell the blood from here…"
"They're still trying to hide this? It's so obvious!"
"Mommy, what's happening there?"

It's too late to begin snooping in myself; I'm with Yor right now. Maybe I ought to get on that tomorrow; maybe Franky has something for me. From the sounds of it though… murder? Did someone get busted by the police?

"I wonder what's going on over there…" Loid craned his head calmly but removed his attention.

"I wonder as well…"

I think that was convincing

"Anyway, do you wanna try it now, Yor?"
"E-Eh? try what?"

Loid leant in to whisper, causing Yor to freeze up a little.

"Practice holdings hands…? Like you requested last week. For… appearances' sake?"

Does he look hopeful? Am I just imagining that?

"O-Oh, I suppose I did request for such a thing… alright."

Yor stopped in her tracks, prompting a confused sound out of Loid, who turned around halfway and looked at his wife with a mild amount of confusion.

"Is something wrong, Yor?"
"I'm j-just, preparing myself…"

She really hasn't been with someone in all her years, huh

Yor closed her eyes and began focusing on making deep breaths; in… out… in… out, until she was ready. She offered her hand up to Loid as steadily as she could manage. Thankfully, it seemed the only difficult part of the process was Yor trying to look past the fact that she was blushing but this was better than threatening to reflexively attack Loid in her shame.

"T-Take my hand, please."
"Okay."

Loid promptly took Yor's hand into his.

I think I'm okay. No knockouts tonight!

"Phew… okay."

The sidewalk that they now treaded on was rather bare, but some pedestrians still found themselves going down the same path. And the rare few people that did walk here immediately took notice of the Forgers trying their hand at physical intimacy. In particular, two high school girls crossed paths with the two misfits and couldn't help but publicize their thoughts as silently as they could.

"Oh wow…"
"Their staring so intensely at each other!"

Unfortunately for Yor and Loid, not quiet enough.

"A-Anyway," Loid stated, breaking the silence. "Let's go, dear."

"Right, d-darling."

And so resumed their stride of questionable romantic quality. To an outsider, it looked as if they were two students forced to participate in a punishment game. Loid looked worried while Yor could not make herself look any less panicked.

"Yor, if you don't mind me asking…"
"…Hmm?"
"You really haven't been with someone before?"
"U-Umm, no."
"I see."
"I know… Camilla made it sound like I was experienced, but I swear that wasn't what it sounded like!"

She's really sensitive about that rumor, isn't she?

"What brought this on?"
"You've been rather forward when it comes to physical affection, o-or pretending with it, at least. All I've been doing is recoiling when you try to complete the act. Maybe you were confident in it because you thought I had already done more serious things…"

Loid noted, taking care to open his ears and mind to Yor. It was a bit difficult trying to level with her, as the perception they have of Yor's character seems to focus on different things. But he had been spending his time trying his best to play the husband role to the best of his ability; an open heart and an honest voice.

"I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression, or frustrated you with how much I behave like a teenager."

Loid noticed the way in which Yor tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear. There was an odd amount of grace in such a mundane habit, or so Loid perceived.

Now's not the time! Your wife is distressed, Twilight!

"I really do want to get better at this; for us… a-and for Anya."

"I know, Yor."
"And you're always reassuring me too… the way you dote on me is a bit embarrassing; I feel like you're always taking care of me. And I am thankful, but… you know…"

Loid was about to open his mouth, but held himself back; she needs to say this every time she feels it.

"…This wasn't the ideal conversation you'd expect to have on the way back from work, isn't it?"
"Maybe not, but that's fine."
"You really think so?"
"I meant what I said then, and after that night in the park. You're great as you are."

Yor's eyes widened and her mouth tempted itself to follow through with a smile and a knowing gaze, but all that was possible was a look of surprise.

"And even if that rumor about massages was true, I wouldn't care."
"You wouldn't?"
"No."

He's surprisingly open-minded, isn't he

"We… we all have the things we'd rather leave behind us, but we do what we have to do, don't we?"

"The past is there, but it's the reason we stand here right now."

"Whenever I hear you talk about yourself, it tends to the negative; about the ways you fail to live up to things. But… when I think about you, I think of how much effort you put into us- a-and this arrangement, ehem. Running errands, doing chores, helping me raise Anya- you didn't have to do that as good as you do, but you do."

"I'll say it again for you: Yor Forger is the woman that holds up the household."

"…and I can't allow myself to imagine anyone else being my wife."

Loid looked over to the side to Yor, who had suddenly been a lot closer and comfortable by his side than she had been or had implied previously. But painted on her face was an expression that could only be described as a ferociously beating heart. As he spent a second to discern, he took note of something Yor had been doing, possibly- definitely subconsciously.

"Yor?"
"Y-Yes?"

He gestured to the absence of distance between their shoulders, to which Yor slowly observed as if she was witnessing a minor miracle. She looked at their entwined hands, the brushing of their shoulders, and the way her husband looked in this golden hour; the contours of his face, the gentle pull of his gaze, and the warmth that didn't hesitate to take her in.

The sight and the sensation didn't make sense to Yor because every time something like this happened in the past, Yor would only feel unnatural discomfort and a total failure basic human function, self-defense aside. But now, they were more intimate than they'd ever been; both body and mind only acknowledging that which stood in the presence of their senses. A wonderful new reality.

"We're doing it…"
"We are."

Yor looked up once more at her husband, eyes completely taking each other in. Somehow, things clicked, and everything worked out smoothly.

"W-Well, it is as I said; I really wished to get better at this."
"And you are."

"Thank you, Loid."

-III-

Chapter Text


-IV-

"You did great, Yor."
"Ehehe, I'm glad you think so."

Ascending the stairs, the Forgers contently walked side by side, shoulder to shoulder. If anyone were looking in, they wouldn't question the sight. Merely another young couple enjoying the privilege of time and company with their lifelong beloved. The assurance that Loid brought Yor, even as a fake husband would bring no shortage of comfort to the oddball assassin, and she was glad that she was finally able to display that just a bit more to him, and to the public.

"But again, I have you to thank for that."
"And in time, you won't have to thank me anymore. I'm sure you'll get the hang of other things quickly without my help."
"You think quite positively of me, don't you?"

Yor shyly smiled, unconsciously dragging her cupped hand across loose strands of her hair, a gesture which Loid had not failed to notice.

Not once.

"I do."

In response, Yor consciously made the effort to quash the reflex to downplay her husband's words. It has been tough having the parental role forced upon her at an age where she should've been socializing with schoolmates or studying for all manner of tests. Yor always knew that there was something she missed out on for at least a dozen years; the proof was written in her inability to keep up socially with peers, especially other women. Though as she spent more time as Mrs. Forger, she realized that she had only scratched the surface of missed experiences, or at least a feeling she thought she had long forgotten since she and her brother were left to fend for themselves.

"I'm glad."

Loid's eyes widened for a second, feeling quite a bit surprised, seeing as past interactions would usually mean another deflected compliment. Twilight felt good in that Operation Strix's unwitting operative would be allowing proceedings to go smoother, but Loid just felt relieved that he could inflict a positive, personal change for his spouse. Looking past all the superficial details of her life, the idea that she was quite insecure was not lost on him. Though if he was to think on it harder, that would mean the inevitable end of the operation meant either he'd never see the fruits of his labor, at least within this pretend family, or that he'd leave knowing there was yet another woman left scorned and confused amidst the trail of smoke and mirrors left behind his perpetually clandestine life.

Get a grip on yourself, Twilight.

In the momentary silence after her reply, Yor realized that she had another hang-up, one she'd only realized having after a couple of minutes spent thinking.

"But… may I speak freely?"
"Definitely."

Not paying complete attention to her query, Loid instead looked forward past the door to their abode and twisted the handle open, revealing a mass of white fur waiting on the other side.

"Bork bork!"
"Oh, right. You must be hungry, Bond."

The furry behemoth spun in place, his nails lightly tapping the floors and creating a distinctive sound. Loid and Yor smiled, exhaling contently as they took in the comfort of witnessing an animal simply act as their instincts direct them to, free of higher thought and completely liberated to scratch themselves with their feet and sniff in otherwise dirty areas. And yet, they seem to be just intelligent enough to understand a person's intent.

Or when they're about to receive food.

"Alright, I'll break his fast."

Bond jumped up, touching Loid's chest momentarily with his front paws before going back down and walking to the kitchen entrance, anticipating the satisfaction of a full belly upon seeing Loid trod to the cabinets full of treats.

Yor attempts to open her mouth once more, raising out one hand in the hopes of reaching out to Loid. Upon more deliberation, she releases the tension in her arm and drops it along with whatever was about to escape her thoughts. Perhaps it wasn't her place to be saying such things; something fake could never hope to be real, and neither should it. Transactions are transactions, deals are deals, and everything is reliant on that agreement standing as it serves both as a pillar to her everyday life and the wall that separates them.

Or maybe just a little part of her heart couldn't bear the thought of receiving an answer she didn't want. Old habits die hard, after all.

We stopped holdings hands too

That aside, Yor had realized something off about the apartment. She looked down to where Bond spun in place; were they scratches on the floor? She swiped her fingers across to check and the scratches stuck to her fingers.

"Bond seems to be shedding quite a bit."

From the kitchen and fiddling with the cabinets and a doggy bowl, Loid poked his head out to see Yor crouching on the foyer.

"This dog…"

He shook his head, much to Bond's pouting as if saying 'I'm sorry I was born like this…'. He wasn't one for attitude, in fact his mild manner allowed him to stay in the house alone for at least a little while. Loid knew of this little personality trait and felt a bit regretful upon hearing the canine's whine.

Even a dog is getting on your good side

"Sorry boy. I guess we have to check other corners of the house if there's any more hair?"
"He might be due to get brushed as well."

Bond paused for a moment, not understanding the word but his premonition predicted the Forgers patting him and combing through his fur with a nice brush.

And so he barked.

Sometimes I wonder if he can actually understand us

Yor took off her shoes and made her way to the storage area to find the vacuum cleaner.

"You don't want to dress down first, Yor?"

Wait.

Why did I ask that? That wasn't necessary

Mrs. Forger paused for a moment before crossing her arms in front of her, disengaging from eye contact.

"I-I prefer to get work down first before um, relaxing…"
"I see…"

The two of them nodded before Yor continued her search, leaving Loid and Bond staring at each other.

"Bork!"
"Alright alright, here's your lunch."

Loid set down the bowl of dog food and Bond swarmed it with delight. Though as he was looking down at the pet, he noticed something caught onto his clothes, his coat specifically. A few white hairs clung to his jacket and his vest under that.

"Alright then…"

As he was lightly brushing himself of Bond's constantly shedding hide, the door of the house opened and so entered a blob of pink hair.

"Anya is home!"
"Not too loud; you haven't closed the doors so the neighbors will complain."
"Papa is scolding me…"
"Do you have homework."
"Mmm…"
"We also have to groom Bond."
"Mmm…"

"Oh, and welcome home, Anya."


-IV-

The life of a spy was full of distortions and busy mind games. One thing that most people would probably have never thought of was the fact that he was also in charge of his own schedule, most of the time. Based on the information he harvested earlier, Stephen Nielsen was the next person of interest, the next link in the puzzle to get to the bottom of this rising problem plaguing Ostania's internal opposition. Something like this, fresh and dangerous, was to be a part of his workload alongside Operation Strix because it could spell more immediate trouble for East-West relations. So naturally, this was going to be on his mind as he sat on the couch.

Reading Spy Wars comics.

I already made my report to Handler before getting to the grocery; we'll see what comes of the information tomorrow. Now, what shall I cook tonight? Or should I teach Yor now? She seemed to be in rather high spirits today, perhaps this can help her stay positive if- when she fails to keep up.

Anya came back from her room, now dressed out of her uniform.

[Mama cooking again]

In another room, Yor sneezed.

We should try something simple; I know she learned the one stew so maybe it's a good idea to work around that; get her very confident in one type of meal first before moving on. We can do scrambled eggs and toast with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes on the weekend. What kind of bread will we use though? Sourdough? Should I bother with the smoked salmon as well? That sounds good-

As Anya scanned her father's mind, she begun to reconsider, maybe it'd be different this time, she thought. There was only one way to be sure.

The little Forger grabbed a passing Bond by the snout. The pooch was quite used to it at this point and didn't offer any resistance.

"Do the thingy, Bond!"

Bond proceeded to do the thingy, and the image appeared in his head while Anya was reading tonight's fortune.

Mama is screaming… Papa looks a bit scared… Bond is in the corner.

[Where is Anya? Why am I not here, Bond?]

Papa is patting Mama on the back and they're going to try again. But Anya falls asleep?! Why?! No dinner and I'm sleeping?

[But that means they're going to be cooking a long time… Anya is going to starve to death! And then world peace will fail because Anya will die.]

"Papa!"
"Hmm?"
"I wanna eat your cooking."
"Hmm? I was going to help your mother, though."
"Please, Papa…"

A deathly look overtook Anya's expression.

Children really don't hold back, do they?

"She wants to get better, so I have to help her."

For the mission; it'd be best if both of us can do this for the household. I need more free time to plan.

[Papa's a liar.]

"B-But… burning, ashes, rubble, destruction!"
"Who taught you these words?"

Why is she describing a battlefield?

Loid exhaled, running a hand through his hair as he set the Spy Wars comics down.

"Anya, you're bad at studying, right?"
"Gah!"
"But I still ask you to do it."
"Mhmm."
"Do you know why?"
"Papa wants me to be better."
"Mama is the same. We stay bad at things if we don't study. Mama will feel bad if she's always like that, so I want to help her learn."

[Heh. Papa called her Mama.]

"Okay."
"So please be patient with her, like we are with you."

Anya nodded, still feeling a bit stung that her own father directly shot her down. Loid smiled in response and also took notice of something in Anya's hand.

"What's that you're holding, Anya?"
"Eh?"

Anya looked at her hands and her eyes widened along with a mouth that voiced a silent 'Oh!' She handed her father the item. "Here, Papa!"

"Hmm…"

Loid promptly took the letter. As his fingers made contact with it, he took note of the rather fine material that made up the letter.

Why do I feel like I'm being handed a letter from the bank? Loid allowed the strange thought to pass.

[Why do banks send letters? Do they want friends?]

Though he and his family were hardly any stranger to Eden Academy's adherence to an image, it was still something outside of the ordinary for him. People outside of espionage still trying to make themselves appear a certain way, as if to play a role.

"What does it say, Papa?" Anya impatiently shook her enclosed fists.

"They gave this to you and you didn't know why?"
"Uhh… the teacher was giving it to my classmates, so it's probably important."

Probably important? Loid frowned slightly but didn't drag it out any further.

[Stupid Second Son Boy kept thinking about me in class… he was looking at me funny]

"Mmm, well try to listen next time, okay?"
"Mmkay."

Putting that aside, Loid carefully opened the letter and took out the folded piece of paper and began to read it to himself; it was an invitation, to be succinct, one to a semi-annual affair held on Eden Academy grounds. A gathering for mingling amongst those of similar social status, to form connections in a complex and ambiguous world only exacerbated by the frigid tensions of the current age. In other words, this was an oasis of information; a perfect storm of ammunition.

Unfortunately, Twilight already knew that this was not going to be something directly beneficial to Operation Strix. Apparently, it was rare that Donovan Desmond would appear at such events and if he were to present himself, it'd only be at one of the two gatherings in the year. His presence was a scarce and valuable resource, one that the attendees of this function would no doubt attempt to make use of to get within Desmond's inner circle, futile as it generally seems but it wasn't for a lack of trying; it's the only way parasites get to exist.

His own children can't get that close to him, what of everyone else?

Twilight stroked his chin in thought. September 24. A night of music, alliances, deception, wealth, and dance.

Right. We will have to dance.

[Dance?! Why are they making parents perform? Are they clowns?]

Loid looked over at Yor, just about wrapping up from vacuuming the other rooms of Bond's snowy fur.

As she calmly walked back into the living room, she untangled her loose bun in a single motion, waving her hair out with a simple, effortless shake of her head. The raven hair smoothly cascaded down and fell to the small of her back, still looking as fresh and smooth as it did before they left this morning.

"Papa is staring at Mama!"
"I-I'm not!"
"He is?!"


[Are they going to kiss?]

Loid coughed into his closed fist and Yor approached the couch, sitting beside Loid.

With a little bit of distance, naturally.

"A-Anyway, Yor, it seems that we have a special event to attend to next week."
"What would that be?"

Anya excitedly jumped up.

"A fancy party!"
"Eh?"
"You're not going."
"EH?!"

Yor looked over at Loid to confirm this, to which he nodded briefly while Anya had began to sulk and Bond soothed her weary heart with his cuddly form.

"Typically, these kinds of parties would involve some kind of social dancing; do you know any?"
"I um… I don't, I'm sorry."

Yor looked down, hands on her thighs as she once again lamented her lack of supposedly normal skillset. But perhaps it was because of earlier today when she and her husband went home together, but something compelled her to do act aside from silently fuss over it.

"Do… Do you know how, Loid?"
"I do, so I can tea-"
"Do you mind teaching me?"

Oh.

Anya grabbed Bond's face.

[Are they going to kiss?!]

No… but wait… is that?! Oh no!

"I can teach you. These types of gatherings don't call for something extremely sophisticated because everyone has to know them."
"Though… considering the scrutiny the school places on its associates, I'd rather not stand out in such a manner."

Loid stood up, working out the creases in his clothes and stretching his neck and arms. He then confidently stuck his open palm out to his wife, who looked back with a cocked head and inquisitive eyes.

"Then we better begin practicing."

A twinkle broke between their joint gaze, not that they were wise to it. Yor stood up without a word leaving her lips and reached out to meet her husband's hand. The only thing she offered him in response was a nod and a smile.

"When is dinner?" Anya complained, shaking her arms. "Mama and Papa can't flirt while Anya starves!"

"We're not flirting!"
"We are not flirting!"

Anya doesn't even feel the need to think of the truth to herself.

"B-But fine," Loid scratched the back of his head, taking his eyes off his supposed dance partner. "Dinner first, then…"

"Right, right."
"I wanted you to help me, if that's okay with you."

Yor's expression spoke the words on her behalf. Still, she found a reply.

"If you'll have me, then."

Mama will feel bad if she's always like that, so I want to help her learn.

[Maybe Anya can't watch this flirting]


-IV-

When they had first… found him, the Forgers underestimated the scale of everything Bond does. His size makes everything about housing him a bit of an issue; bigger piles of fur turning into tumbleweed along the apartment floors, the amount he eats, the amount of time it takes to bathe him… the amount of waste he leaves and subsequently the amount by which he stinks up the living space.

Hence why for now, at least until they could come up with a better solution (mainly a bigger toilet area for Bond) they thought it was a better idea to allow Bond the opportunity to be let outside to the nearby park for a while after every meal in order to do his business in a containable manner, though obviously not without a chaperone. Normally, Loid or Yor would be the ones to handle this furry tank's daily ordeal as they would not be tugged along in the air if he decided to run off somewhere.

However, today was not normal. Because Mama and Papa needed to flirt for world peace to happen. Somewhat.

Oh, and Anya witnessed Bond's premonition; Yuri was going to visit and throw a fit because Loid and Yor were going to hold hands and dance. That too.

Upon finishing her dinner, she had announced to her parents that she would take responsibility for allowing Bond to relieve himself. That did not go over well for Anya, no matter how much she tried to convince them, Anya was just too small to ensure Bond would not get lost the moment he spots anything shaped like a squirrel.

The best solution came when they least expected it; a knock on the door and plenty of time to set up lovey-dovey defense pictures and bed.

"How long does it take for your dog to relieve himself?"
"Unkie is impatient…"

Yuri came over just as they were discussing Anya's guidance of Bond. Naturally, that meant that Yuri was the new scapegoat. He had to be the one to accompany Anya and Bond on their little walk.

That handsome bastard… putting his hands all over my sister! I bet he sent me out with his little child so that he could get a piece of her in peace-

[Unkie has dirty thoughts.]

And I even have to scrape up this furball's poop!

Anya tugged on Bond's leash.

And then she flew like tailwind trailing behind as the giant dog began running off into the distance at breakneck speeds.

"Ahhh! Anya's getting kidnapped!"
"Wha-?!"


-IV-

"We'll start with a tune in 4/4; it's quite a common time signature for plenty of music across cultures."
"Uhuh."

Four four? Time signature?

Loid had just finished fiddling with the phonograph, inserting the vinyl record under the needle and fitting the turntable. Within a few seconds, and under his experimental measuring of the volume knob, the light hum of a classical, orchestral theme had begun to permeate throughout the Forger's household. The music seemed a tad intimidating to Yor considering the wall of complex, layered sound that seemed to comprise this tune; a host of stringed instruments, some wind-based ones, and a couple of other things that went well over her head.

"We can move on to practice a 3/4 if we get through this well enough."
"Right, right."

Three four- hmm? He's speaking like I'm supposed to know this! Wait, am I?

She wasn't especially well-versed in music. People in her age range typically would go out for a night on the town with favorable company into places with all kinds of dance-oriented music playing, not that she knew of any. What more a genre of music that is rather niche itself?

Yor tried her best to get a feel for the music, to understand how people moved to this music. Loid began snapping his finger at a measured pace."

"Get used to the feel of it first; follow my snap and try to understand the rhythm."

"1…"
"1…"
"2…"
"2…"

Yor began to tap her foot every time Loid snapped his finger.

"Alright, do you have it down?"
"I think I'm okay with this much, at least."
"Let's begin dancing then"

Unsure of how to start, Yor simply held her hands together and tapped her foot on the ground.

"So where do my hands go?"
"Right… here."

Loid took Yor's wrist and placed them on his shoulder of the same side. Upon taking her hand, Yor almost relented to her instinct to launch a kick straight up the middle and remembered the last few hours.

This is normal now! No more accidental injuries and concussions

Yor's leg twitched, and Loid's adrenaline pumped instantly, taking a step back from the situation for a moment.

"Sorry, was that too fast?"
"No no! I can control myself, please don't mind."

You say that, but I just saw telegraph your hip for a split second there… I almost threw myself backwards on instinct

Shaking his head as if to switch from Twilight to Loid mode, he resumed the lesson.

"Now, please don't be alarmed, I have to place my free hand on your hip to complete the posture."
"Right… it's okay, Loid. As long as you warn me, it should be fine."

Of all the women he had to spend time in an intimate distance with, this was definitely the most stressful period. The period where Loid and Yor had walked home together hand-in-hand almost seemed like an outlier, an anomaly of a curious moment where they were both comfortable in such an alien position.

Maybe she has to be in the mood for it. Or she explicitly has to know it to be safe for her.

"Perhaps you should hold my hand first."
"Alright."

Yor nodded, taking the instruction into action.

"Great, now you can place it on your waist; wherever you feel most comfortable with me being."

I suppose least uncomfortable is the phrase I ought to be using here.

She took a moment to deliberate; would it be too immodest if she placed it around her waist? Considering the public factor, would it be strange or overly showy to see an arm around the waist like she witnessed in the odd soap opera? Should she take the more conservative approach and just leave it chastely on the hip? Is it too much to ask in order to personalize the pose?

Well, Loid is giving me the choice, so I'm assuming the exact placement doesn't matter too much in the overall scheme of things.

Yor settled for placing his hand on her waist; no more, and no less than that.

"And now, look at me."

She raised her chin, a bit less tentatively than she was with her hands, and met Loid's poised gaze. It was a wonder to her that he seemed so unflappable. Somehow, witnessing this confidence made her feel more at ease despite the gap in ability. He was confident in his actions and words but he always led with a question to ensure her comfort and put the power to move forward in her hands; he seemed to be okay with any pace she set, intentional or otherwise. Yor didn't know why, but the thought of such a man as her husband plastered a smile onto her now renewed face.

"So we'll start with the box step; it's a fundamental movement for these sorts of social gatherings."

Loid stepped forward lightly, not encroaching her space too much as a demonstration.

"Now, you want to think of a mirror whenever your partner moves; I moved my left foot forward, so you move your right foot back; creates a straight line."

"There we go, now keep that same mirror concept going; follow me to the left…"

"Then you move forward… right…"

It's like combat… there's a rhythm to it. I just have to attune myself to this preexisting one instead of setting it.

Getting into the groove of things, Loid was pleased to see that Yor had taken to the instructions very easily. Clearly, she possessed great proprioception and was already not at all too shabby with keeping time alongside her graceful movements.

"1…2…3…4… you're doing great! Let's repeat that a few more times, then we'll add movement to it."
"You flatter me almost too much!"
"Almost?"
"I haven't kicked you once, so…"

"I'm sorry! Did you not like that joke?"

She… She made a joke?

As the routine of their dance set in, even minor interruptions couldn't throw off the pace they set. Unfortunately, Yor had now gotten her hands a touch too clammy, and begun to crease Loid's sweater. More than that, her diffidence averted her eyes off course. Loid, however, was just a bit thrown off by the apparently out-of-character moment just showcased to him.

"Huh? No, not at all! I was just surprised to hear you make a joke, let alone at your expense."
"Well, I suppose I'm partially at fault for that perception… No part of me that I've ever shown you has anything close to resembling a clever wit or a skilled way with conversation."
"Yor… it's-"
"But you're okay with someone like that, right?"

Her gaze returned to meet his. And still, they were moving in unison. This conversation had repeatedly been confirmed ever since they stepped foot into the apartment complex. Loid only had to smile to confirm his answer.

"You were about to ask me something when we got home, weren't you? What was it?"
"I did- oh, r-right."
"Would you care to elaborate?"

Maybe… Maybe it's okay to be forward this instant.

It almost feels foolish to have to ask when we're this far already, no? Still.

"You mentioned that I wouldn't need your help soon; that I'd be sufficient on my own. And you might be correct; I am an adult after all… but I um, I was going to ask you if you could… k-keep things this way?"
"This way?"
"I-I don't want you to stop helping me."

Loid picked up the choice of language she used: 'I don't want you to stop'. He had never heard her make such a direct request. Yor's intentions had always been covered underneath unassuming and polite conduct; 'perhaps we should', 'I think''how about'?

And now here she was making herself known. Every straightforward appeal was a declaration of self; a reveal of another facet of your personhood. What does this say if not the truth and the way you want to see your life?

Twilight and Loid only had one answer. Simply put, both men had the same mission.

"Alright."

Perhaps I am just being presumptuous, but somehow, I knew he would say that.

"S-Shall we begin adding more movements to the dance? We can study the other variations if we get through this quickly."
"R-Right!"

The music continued to play, the dancing ensued, continued to help and construct a new deformity in their strange reality. Their hands never left, brushing each other repeatedly and familiarizing each other with newfound company; new, intimidating, warm, terrifying, and honest. This would become more and more comfortable as the night went on, and as embarrassed glances were exchanged. Every touch of their hands was a new thing to learn, as if the day leading up to this wasn't proof enough of that.

His hands are

Her hands are

Surprisingly rough.

"Oi, Loidy! What are you doing to my sister?!"

What followed suit was nothing short of normal; a crazed Yuri, and Anya and Bond covered head to toe in dirt. Unfortunately, this was more than enough to dismantle the moment entirely.

"Papa, Mama; I'm sorry!"
"Bork!"


-IV-

The next morning came, washing away the night with a brand new sight of the rising sun. Loid was the first up, naturally, as he prepared breakfast for the family. Spending time by himself in the room had him remembering the night before; he looked in the direction of the phonograph he had only then set up. It was turned off, but the sleeve of the record remained seated atop the inactive device. Despite that, the mere sight of it put his mind to the tune that was still clear in his mind; 1…2…3…4

He remembered her clumsy, but quickly adjusted footwork. The giggle she'd release when she was praised for a correct move. The look of concentration as she attempted to familiarize herself with a movement.

The words she spoke. The proximity of her breath to him.

Another purpose of this morning ritual was to collect the morning paper from the man at the lobby.

"Ribbit."

And back up the to the apartment to wake up the family to get ready for their respective responsibilities; browse through the paper at breakfast.

Nielsen
dead

yesterday

his apartment

signs of struggle
six dead

-IV-


 

Chapter Text


-V-

"Is Richard out?"
"If he isn't, then he's not gonna get that overtime."

Twilight walked by, passing on by as if he belonged to this department and hadn't been paying attention. Truthfully, he didn't need to be around in the hospital; no one was taking up appointments with him and no research papers were due to be submitted or reviewed. However, the pressing matter at hand revealed itself just this morning.

The death of Stephen Nielsen raised a few flags, and unwittingly tipped WISE off to the fact that the SSS were long on this man's trail for innocuous reasons; those with a large amount of control and influence over information dissemination were always under scrutiny; news outlets, authors, artists, musicians, politicians, and of course, educators.

However it was only upon Nielsen's death that the Secret Police were made aware of the extent of his activities, now they were definitely on the trail of this racket he was involved in. Even worse, not even the actual police are getting much presence in this case; very few people within the same living area even know what is going on in that apartment.

It isn't a trifling matter to get information from a crime scene that the SSS were locked in on but it should come eventually considering Agent Nightfall's involvement. Though even then it may not be conclusive evidence to get a lead on. This operation became much more complicated, by an order of magnitude even. Just for the sheer fact that the name I had immediately died and we were now explicitly contending with an entire clandestine organization in their home country.

If Richard is in possession of such books, then maybe there is something on them that could identify their point of origin in Ostania based on publishing details. It's also likely they were pre-war items; sourced by someone, likely Nielsen himself, and distributed very carefully.

Hmmm… I've heard of book smuggling stories from 19th century Lietania; perhaps Nielsen was a financer as well? Then in that case, we can investigate if he has any liquid funds he liked to keep hidden or if he had any suspiciously-timed withdrawals if he made the purchases with cash. WISE has people in banks too; all it takes is just a passing along of condensed information.

Time to make a deposit, then.

Twilight arrived at his office, and immediately opened the radio that sat on his desk; obviously for the odd lull in the work day. It was impossible that the office would find itself filled, or at all.

Loid tuned the knobs to the preferred frequency; a music station for light, calming music on a relaxed day, and he snuck a peripheral glance at the slightly affixed hospital seal sitting on his desk, turning it slightly to the left as it was a bit off-center. And with his room in order, he tapped his fingernail to his heart's content.

-. .. . .-.. ... . -. .-.-.- / -... .- -. -.- / .- -.-. -.-. - ..- -. - .-.-.- / ... .. -.. -.. . -. ..-.. / .- .. - ... -.. .-. .- .- .- .-.. ... ..-.. / -.-. ... . -.-. -.- .-.-.-

If anyone, for whatever reason, questioned his sense of rhythm, he could always say his father was an unorthodox musician.


-V-

"Good afternoon, Twilight."
"Good afternoon."

Another day passed, and lest he forget, Operation Strix was still Twilight's most important assignment. It was imperative that Sylvia was constantly updated on its progress by the man responsible for it in one of the various covert bunkers WISE had access to. This information influenced everything about the operation; the expenditure, the pace, and the entire political situation of this cold war hinged on how this went. No one understated its importance.

"I'm afraid to report this right as I seat myself here, but Anya's progress isn't the most stellar."

The Handler waved it off with an effortless gesture, much to the immediate confusion of Twilight.

"I'm well aware, but I understand progress has been made regarding this little book club that the East has been up to."
"Huh? Well, that is true."

Sensing where her focus was being placed, he decided to relent on anything regarding Operation Strix. For a reason that she deemed worthy, this must take precedence. Though if he was being honest, he was quite relieved he did not have to expound further on anything regarding the operation lest he divulge details such as Anya making him and Yor join in group hugs or teaching his wife how to dance.

He didn't feel it was time to be embarrassed as if he were a boy on the schoolyard accused of yanking a girl's ponytail for her attention.

"I understand the confusion but we've been eagerly awaiting for some sort of progress on these undertakings related to illegal media. Things have gotten more interesting."
"And all after a single man was killed."

She nodded slowly, crossing her legs in a languid motion.

"Do we know who did it?"
"Nothing solid. The SSS are out; assassination is not their MO. I hate to admit it, but the idea of Garden is starting to make more sense after each passing hour."

I suppose it's in her nature to be doubtful. Franky did say he lost someone to them at one point, but again, there's very little that ties them to anything permanent.

From the little we do know of them, we here at WISE figure that it is extremely unlikely that they will actively choose to disrupt anyone's operations; not us or the SSS. So it's best we take our minds off of them and just focus on what we are doing right now.

"In simpler terms, it does not really matter. With that said- I have a gift from Agent Nightfall."

Handler moved forward, placing a folder onto the table and passing it over to Twilight, who promptly opened it and poured through the contents: Various details ranging the details of the crime scene from what the actual police could gather, and the contents of the victim's abode. Plenty of this was made from the preliminary report that allowed him to learn of the murder (well, murders) in the first place; it was Nightfall herself that was responsible for it, after all.

"Our supposed POI, Stephen Nielsen, was choked to death in his bathtub. However the other six men found dead in his home were made that way after he died but within the same hour, at the very least; the real window is much tighter. Nightfall believes the same person who killed Nielsen was also responsible for the other men, but those extra casualties weren't supposed to be there."

Sound assessment.

"Within a couple of minutes after the crime, the Secret Police were the first on scene, but calls to the police didn't come until the first SSS officer stepped foot into the apartment complex, supposedly."

Twilight read the next line of the report simultaneously as the Handler said it.

"Nielsen's apartment had long been bugged."

That must mean the SSS were already inside while the regular police kept the people out; that explains their presence so soon after when Yor and I started our walk back from the grocery.

"I'm assuming anything resembling a witness has long been silenced?"
"Agent Nightfall managed to squeeze something out of one neighbor."

Twilight's ears perked up as he detached his attention from the report and onto the Handler as she commanded with her voice alone.

"The door to Nielsen's apartment was broken into, and there was shouting; the witness claimed the only phrase they understood was something regarding paying up, so I'm certain you know what that means."
"Debt collectors; Nielsen was sourcing from them."
"On top of that, she managed to get her eyes on some of the details of the books she found."

Considering no books were present with the report, it meant that Agent Nightfall couldn't afford to bring them back; probably a smart move on her end.

"Oddly enough, only two of the books in his home were published outside of Ostania, the rest were local. Though regarding the books that were locally made, plenty of them were copies of the two foreign books with fake covers, and they were published under the name Jakob House, a name that doesn't exist in Ostania."

Handler sat up straight, prompting the attention back to her. With a small smile, she placed her hands together and leaned on the table, propping herself up with her elbows.

"What do you think this means, Agent Twilight?"

Even now she's testing me.

"Did we get anything on his fiscal history like I suggested?"
"To keep it brief; his history of big withdrawals started from at least a year ago. The years before that were fairly consistent until then."
"He was separated from his wife, correct?"
"The timeline matches the transactions; after they separated, the spending went up. The ex-wife likely doesn't know anything, not even that he's been struggling with money."

So the books were a recent venture, then. What caused him to start? When and where did it start?

"It doesn't make sense to just escalate into illegal means right away, especially considering he has no prior connection to any sort of crime; it's unlikely he had the character for it, at least starting out."

"First, Nielsen began to search for books already in Ostania that have eluded the government bans and purges in the past years; I'm sure some managed to keep them hidden. He was a professor at a university, it's likely he had connections to the publisher he's used since he began there. In order to find books, it makes sense that he could turn to them for help, if he wasn't in charge himself. Maybe he even put some extra money in that venture."

"Something happened; the search for books reached a dead end, possibly because of the scarcity and of the mutilated state of most older books. Maybe now he thought he was in too deep; he felt as if he accomplished too much to stop there. He had to resort to smuggling goods and reproducing them here."

That eliminates the possibility of a foreign party involved; his funds were too tight to think he could manage that kind of operation without assistance. Richard never mentioned any help Nielsen had, but he wouldn't know that.

"And that leads us here."
"Right."

A dead end.

Handler sighed with a light smile, leaning back into her chair as she tipped her hat and readjusting her posture.

"In the meantime, see what you can get out of dear Lennon; we've received intel that he somehow had gotten word of Nielsen's death."

How did that happen when the crime scene was so tightly locked down? All the witnesses were neighbors who were too afraid to open their front doors until the Secret Police came.

"Strange…"
"Regardless, he must be in a vulnerable state after finding out the news of his mentor's passing, so take from that what you will. WISE and Franklin can get on to diving deeper in smuggling operations and publishing companies, and other agents can begin to look into other of Nielsen's close family or friends."

"Roger."

And just like that, Twilight's briefing on this new operation had finished. Handler and him could communicate very easily and exchange data very efficiently, as was expected when every second of their job was quite valuable.

With that said, the agent stood up, preparing to take his leave.

"Where are you going, Agent Twilight?"

Huh?

He turned around, looking more confused than one would expect of him. Handler herself was genuinely surprised to see how blindsided he seemed, and witnessing this reaction twisted Twilight's thoughts even more.

Is he okay?

"You haven't briefed me on Operation Strix. I never said we weren't going to discuss it."

Oh.


-V-

Taking up on his immediate instruction, Twilight decided it was a good a time as any to try and converse with Richard. As long as he could make it quick, preferably without the need for any alcohol, he might be able to get something out of him.

Compounding the fact that he was a bit more unstable (than usual), Handler was correct in that this could be ideal. It could also turn out very badly, but Twilight has never seen Richard turn to violence.

Not that it can be ruled out; I wouldn't be surprised if he was capable of it. He doesn't interact with enough people outside of where I usually see him for me to accurately judge. Though people like him are used to giving in to emotion, even ones that aren't socially acceptable.

Having closely monitored him for the past couple of weeks, it didn't seem like Richard Lennon could accurately be described with the word stable. If he weren't Dr. Forger, he'd have a significantly harder time getting in his good graces, or at least whatever constitutes as such for Richard.

Though with that in mind, Twilight also kept in mind that someone unseen for any long periods of time, even a day, became an unknown. This was the kind of world he was embroiled in, after all.

Peering into the apartment with binoculars from a tight space, he could discern that either no one was there, as the mother Corinne was currently running the café nearby, or someone was there yet the lights were off; it wouldn't be too out of character to assume Richard would prefer the lights off.

And the café seemed to have a severe absence of Richard, so that could only leave the apartment, as he was absent from work and he wasn't one to go out very much.

But a distortion has made itself known in his life, what could that change of him in the short term? I ought to give him a visit now-

The door to the complex opened and Richard emerged, sluggishly closing the door behind him. Twilight carefully retreated into the corner he was concealing himself in, peering out through his periphery: Richard had begun walking, hands in his pocket with an oddly defensive air about him. He was quite jittery, and displayed it with his tense shoulders, and his constant attempts to survey the area around him.

Could he get any more suspicious? It's not like he's socially anxious.

The man increased his pace, hastily walking over to the end of the opposite street towards his mother's café. Twilight kept an appropriate distance; not too far that he couldn't hear anything he might say but not too near that someone could accuse him of stalking.

Richard walked in, and the door chimed, clueing his mother to turn around to the source of the noise.

Twilight walked close to the door, beside where it opens, pretending as if he was merely passing by.

"Mom?"
"Hmm? Hi, honey. How are you holding up?"
"Um… I guess I'm okay."

Corinne looked at a loss, her sad eyes betrayed the smile curling itself onto her lips. As she continued to prepare her equipment, Richard scratched the back of his head.

"Listen, in a couple of hours, I'm gonna go out for a while; be back in the evening, maybe."
"Oh, again? Who are you… going out with?"

"Y-Yeah, yeah; some of my other schoolmates who knew Mr. Nielsen, along with the one you met the other day."
"Oh, uh, the one who lives in Blume Heights?"
"Huh? How'd you know that?"
"Funny story, actually; his older sister is a friend I met earlier in the year, she's my new coffee bean supplier!"

Strange set of coincidences…

"Huh… small world. How uh, how does that relate?"
"We met up quite a bit for business related stuff, but we got along really well! Eventually, she invited me back to their apartment; nice place, yeah?"
"Oh yeah, it's got that clear view of the setting sun, right?"
"Riiiight, right, below the penthouse suites! Imagine my surprise when I found out her younger brother graduated in the same batch as you."
"Yeah…"
"I never saw him since he stayed in the school dorms, so it was a surprise to see him walking up on stage that day, you know?"
"Mhmm."

Corinne nervously tucked her hair behind her ears and suddenly changed her mind and started making a ponytail, as if she just remembered seeing her hair tie on the counter in front of her.

"Well, um, anyway. Take care, okay? If you're back before I close up, I could sneak you a snack; free of charge."
"Sure. Thanks, mom."

Taking that farewell as his cue, Twilight walked through the door, holding one hand up in front of his collar area, and-

"Oof!"
"Agh!"

As they made their collision, Twilight snuck his fingers under Richard's collared shirt and swiped backwards. With no one any the wiser to his sneaky move, all that apparently took place was an accidental bump.

"D-Dr. Forger…?"
"Oh, Richard! I haven't seen you in a bit. Everything okay?"

Suddenly going wide-eyed, Richard shook his head with slightly exaggerated gusto, his clammy hands also came up and shook in tandem as his airy breath pushed out his excuse.

"Y-Yeah, I just needed a break; felt a bit sick."

Subtly eyeing his features; his eye bags, dry lips, and somewhat jittery tendencies, Twilight figured that Richard could've been slightly sleep deprived, aided by a bit of caffeine.

He's not wrong, I suppose.

"Hmm, alright then. Take care of yourself until you feel good enough to come back."

Richard's face morphed into one of confusion, tilting his head sideways a little bit and chuckling in disbelief. His mother still eyed them both, but was otherwise trying to occupy herself with the café's preparations.

"You're not at work, Dr. Forger?"
"Oh, well I don't have any commitments at the moment; and besides, I was curious about your mother's café the moment you mentioned it. Just don't tell anyone you saw me playing hooky, okay?"
"Right."

Loid smiled at him, patting him on the shoulder with a friendly air, to which Richard smiled sadly.

He looked back to the doctor and spoke in quieter tones, not really a whisper.

"Are you… you really not gonna ask?"

"You don't look like you want to talk about it; I'm sure you have your reasons. What kind of mental health professional would I be if I could not practice what I preach?"

Forgetting the fact that I let you drink copious amounts of alcohol and feed your possible dependencies, of course.

In truth, there's no mistaking the fact that something inside him wants to cry out and break down. Something down there knows he's about to do something wrong.

Twilight looked back at Corinne through the sides of his eyes, who had just moved to the backroom.

"Anyway, I won't bother you any longer so go on now."

Richard turned around a bit more hastily than usual and begun to walk, sending a furtive glance back and hesitating before doubling down on his decision to walk away. Even if he knew what he wanted.

The door closed gently, the chimes slowly stopping their melody, drowning out as they lost their momentum.

Blume Heights, floor below the penthouses, oriented towards the sunset; eastward. Good alibi.

With that information, perhaps I could stay here and build a rapport with Ms. Lennon instead of tailing Richard, at least not right away; maybe I can glean something from this interaction.

While Corinne still wasn't available, Twilight walked out the door pulled out a pen and snuck into the alley, clicking it rapidly.

-. .. -. ... - ..-. .- .-.. .-.. / ... ... .- -.. - .- / .-. .. -.-. ... .- .-. -.. .-.-.- / - .- .. .-.. .. -. ... - / -.-. - .-.. .-.. . -.-. - .. -. -. .-.-.-

He tipped his hat upwards, and a tiny pebble fell beside the spy.

Upon receiving that, he walked back into the café, the chimes alerting his presence. A worried sigh soon followed, coming from the mother who had just come back out the back. Though upon eyeing her new customer, she forced herself out of her slump and put on a more pleasant expression with her hands in front of her.

"Oh, good day! Welcome to the Corrine-ary Café!"

Corrine-ary? Ah, I see; a comedian.

"I see your sense of humor shows in your naming convention."
"A-Ah… does it sound corny to you?"
"Even if it did, the opinions of a stranger shouldn't make you back down from what you feel is right."
"Well, I do really like the name."

I'm sure you do.

"That aside, anyone who's friendly with my son is no stranger to me; I suppose you could've guessed but anyway, my name is Corinne Lennon."

She extended her hand and Loid reached out to meet it, shaking it with a firm grip.

"Loid Forger, I work in the same hospital as your son."
"Aren't you being quite modest? You're a doctor, er, a psychiatrist, aren't you?"
"People who lead with that introduction outside of career-related events seem rather uptight, no?"
"Aha, sounds like you know a certain uptight individual."
"Individuals even."
"Oh?"

She's quite chatty, isn't she? She's quite the opposite of unpleasant company, though.

"Before that, I'm sure you didn't just come here to chat me up… unless?"

Corinne smirked jokingly with a hand on her hip, barely managing to contain the fact that she was trying to joke around.

"I'm flattered, but I'm afraid I'm spoken for."
"S-Spoken for- oh!"
"With a certificate, too."

Loid almost smugly proclaimed to which Corinne raised her hands to her face and tried to cover her reddening shame.

"I… I didn't realize you were married! I'm so sorry! Oh my goodness, that was horrible, even for a joke! Please forget about that!"

…I didn't have to put her down that hard. I could've just said simply stated I was married. It's not like I'm proud of that fact…

"Ahaha, I hope you can forgive me, Mr. Forger."
"Oh, don't you worry. It's no trouble at all, but if you talk to customers this way, I think I understand why this venture has gotten some attention."
"Please, I'm not normally this unprofessional. But I suppose you're somewhat correct; I do enjoy small talk with customers; makes it feel less tiring for us both."
"No offense to your enterprise, but I'm sure that's easy to do when you have a café that's modestly sized like this."
"None taken; that's precisely why I aimed for this spot when starting out."
"May I assume it's working out?"
"As well as it can, I believe! The familiar faces never fail to-"

Upon realizing her upcoming tangent, she had realized that her customer did not have anything at hand and scoffed at herself.

"Oh, wait! Let me do my job! Please give me your order!"
"I won't be long, but how about just some… is that apple pie?"
"Indeed it is, would you like a slice or two of that?"
"Sure."

Corinne began to take the pie from the display and went back to cut out two slices for her lonesome customer. To keep things going, she talked as she worked, efficiently as if she was an experienced bartender.

"You seemed to light up upon seeing apple pie; is it a favorite?"
"Well, my wife is a big fan of apples; I suppose it just rubbed off on me as time went on."
"Is that right?"

Corinne went off to open the blinds but insisted the conversation keep going as she kept herself busy.


-V-

The conversation went on, maintaining its lively pace as the subjects never left the topic of food, their preferences, strange stances on them (apparently, Corinne dislikes condiments of any kind) and eventually Loid ended up talking about recipes he loved to make for his family for dinner when they were all awake and available to partake of it.

"Well, my little Richard loves lemons; odd thing for a child to pick up so early. My husb- Richard's father loved it when I cooked schnitzels and had lemon slices on the side. When he was old enough to eat food by himself, he would just drench the cutlet in lemon juice. His father would always joke that he might as well have just chucked the slices into his mouth."

Behind the laughter in her anecdotes, the slip in Corinne's speech tipped Twilight off to her perception of her late husband.

I think this rapport is well enough to mention him.

"I guess he takes after his father, then?"
"No. They're very different men; I'm only just beginning to realize that myself, but I like to think Richard still very much respects his father even now. In spite of… everything."

Somewhat wistfully, Corinne smiles and glances out the window for a moment.

"He's only been in Richard's life for… about a quarter of it but it's like he's still here, somewhat. I just hope it's for good reasons; I can't tell a lot of the time. There was a lot we argued on when it came to raising our son."

She's open about the fact that he isn't there, so perhaps it's safe?

"May I ask what happened to his father?"
"Oh, he enlisted as a soldier all those years ago."
"Ah… I see."
"Such an idiot… he was a flat-footed asthmatic too, but he was so adamant on joining for unity and national security, or some such."

Rather bold declaration of opinions, even indirectly. But I suppose Richard was open about me to her.

"I'm no political scientist, but all that this country got in return for that… thing is a generation of broken families. And I couldn't answer a single question my son asked."

"Something changed in him after that. I wish I knew what to say, or what it was, really."

"But, university seemed to be a good place for him to grow; Mr. Nielsen was really important for the brief period they knew each other."
"He must've been like a father."
"Yeah."

"And well, can I assume you know what happened to him?"

Again, how did they know this?

"No, but please elaborate."
"He was found dead in his apartment two days ago; police ruled it a suicide, apparently."

In other words, a crime to be hidden.

"Ah. I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yeah… one of Richard's batchmates; the one whose place he's about to visit, was the one who reached out to him and others. That was the start of when Richard became… like you saw him earlier."

He was the one who broke the news? How…? I should scope him out soon. Richard is already somewhat taken care of. I suppose I really was supposed to go to Blume.

"I don't really know what Mr. Nielsen and my son would get up to, but it seems like he's quite well beloved among many of Richard's batchmates. My son's not the… most social, but he was at least not lonely when he was with them."

"Would you say they're friends?"

"I doubt it. Knowing my son, it might not even be a few months until he loses contact with them forever… But even if it's just a moment in your life, I think it's wonderful to know that there's someone out there who understands you, who has lived a life like yours."

"Someone who doesn't question you but recognizes the parts of themselves they see in you, and says nothing more because they know what it's like to be isolated by the shape their life has taken."

Corrine smiled, shaking her head and offering a self-deprecating chuckle.

"I sincerely hope my ramblings didn't make me lose a potential return customer."
"Haha, I wouldn't say that, Ms. Lennon."

Suddenly, the door opened, and an elderly couple walked in, announcing their presence with soft-spoken authority.

"Pardon me, Dr. Forger."

Corinne waved to and attended to them, welcoming them into this little abode with warmth and coffee abound. With the passing of a few minutes, a few more groups or pairs of people walked in and made themselves at home. Twilight sensed that the time for information gathering was gone, and now it was time to move on; resume his actual objective.

Before he walked outside the door and put in his earpiece, he walked up to Corinne, who was working hard behind the counter. He took his hat to his chest and politely greeted her.

"It's been a pleasure, Ms. Lennon, but my work awaits."

"Oh? Has everything up till now been to your liking?"
"Definitely."
"Sweet talker, save that language for your wife!"
"Already do."

…Did I have to say that? Get a grip!

"Young couples, I swear- Oh, and before you go-"

Corinne took a closed cup of coffee and handed it over to Loid.

"It's on the house. Thank you for looking out for my son, and for the nice talk."

"Thank you."

With a nod and a raise of his cup, he turned on his heel and walked out the door, reaching into his suit jacket for the earpiece and turning the corner into the nearby alley.

Hmm, I've got to remember to buy some apple pies to bring home.


-V-

Luckily, coming prepared from the last mission he had here in Blume Heights, sneaking in was easy; exits were memorized, hiding spots were secured, couples of sets of disguises had been hidden away for future use. It wasn't unusual to stuff certain important places with the tools necessary to carry out a job should the need arise.

In this case, the disguise for this occasion was a janitor; a type of person who typically goes unnoticed and discreet despite always being in sight. Though in this establishment, even the janitors had quite the uniforms. One might think they almost looked like room service for a hotel.

He took a service elevator all the way up the posh complex. and stopped directly before the supposed floor with the penthouses, and turned right into the side of the building that faced the sunset. Now all he needed to do was deduce which room number held the unnamed person of interest shared by Corinne.

The one witness to the crime scene at Stephen Nielsen's apartment. If he was there, then he must've been questioned by the SSS for his relationship to Mr. Nielsen. If he admitted he knew him, that was grounds for suspicion. If he didn't, then that was also still suspicious to be there at the wrong place and time. Especially considering the fact that he was also a known close pupil of Nielsen's.

So which one could it be Well, there's only three to choose from-

Standing in front of him were two other janitors, however, they were crowding over one door on the far end of the hallway, knelt in front of the door.

They were picking at the lock with tools.

Twilight quickly hid behind the corner, and assessed the situation.

I suppose that was simple enough.

The spy started to think of his next move. Simply walking up to them would be a horrible idea; they know they'd get caught fiddling with a door like that and would definitely raise the heat in a public spot. There was a bathroom on the same floor, and the janitor's closet was quite spacious too. Both were secluded, and the two did not look especially big.

All that was needed was some sort of commotion.

The two janitors immediately stood straight up from where they were crouched. Hearing the noise of metal clashing against the floor and buckets tumbling over was definitely something startling, but not enough that the residents would move out of their cozy homes and check for the ruckus.

Footsteps, on the other hand, were very telling for these janitors.

A hunched man walked around them, one with a brown mustache that sat atop his soul patch on his chin. It seemed as if was limping on his left leg. He leaned against the wall and began panting.

"P-Please, you gotta help me. Ahhhnnnn, I t-think I twisted my ankle!"

The two janitors, slightly confused and started, looked at each other for a moment. With one nod, both of them came to an agreement, and one of them stepped forward.

"Alright, I gotcha, I gotcha. We gotta bring you down to the lobby; there's a first aid kit there, right?"
"I… l-left one in the janitor's closet, p-please bring me there and help me apply it."

The man nodded, taking his arm over his shoulder and supporting the other's growing dead weight.

"What happened to you, man?"
"I… I shoulda turned on the lights; the bathroom was slippery so I tripped. Twisted my ankle on the way down, agghh~"

The injured man groaned, looking down to his ankle in seemingly increasingly severe distress. At that moment, they had reached the janitor's closet, and the injured man posted himself against the door while the other janitor walked in and turned on the lights.

"Alright, we're here, we're here. Where's the first aid kit?"
"Top shelf in the far corner, lemme sit down on that bench nearby…"

The injured man hobbled over to the bench in the oddly sizeable room. The other janitor looked up, but stood still staring at the shelf.

Two sets of eyes; one peripheral, one direct.

Directly behind!

In that split second, Twilight sprung from the ground, grabbing for the legs of the nearest janitor. Rapid footsteps came in towards his location and slammed the door shut before resuming.

Twilight's current target defended his attempt to grab the back of his knees so to compensate, he shot up from a squat position with explosive power and drove his head upwards, smashing his dense forehead against his target's chin.

"Gauugh!"

The man recoiled back in surprise as Twilight's arms now found themselves tied to the lapel's of the janitor's jacket. At that moment, he had barely remembered that there was still someone else behind him, and so he pushed his current target over as he was left to recover from his pain.

Twilight engaged the man who was charging him and attempted to tackle him with his shoulder and arm out as a frame, however the target blocked the attempt and tried to throw knees in an awkward clinch situation, but Twilight was still somewhat out of range, leaving his knee attacks falling short. In between one of those attacks, Twilight caught him by the knee with both hands and used his feet to sweep the standing leg, causing him to stumble a momentarily and lose balance. The spy switched his method of attack and went back to striking, taking his grip on the knee, violently yanking it towards him as he met the opponent's chin with an upward elbow strike, staggering him. With that stunning moment, Twilight unleashed a barrage of fast punches to his torso to draw his guard there, and quickly dropped low with a vicious left kick to the leg, forcing the man to the ground. He finished his opponent with a short but powerful flying knee to his face.

Hearing commotion coming from the corner, he saw that the other man had stood back up. Without hesitation, Twilight charged at him, and that reaction provoked the target to do the same. Now, the janitor tried to dive for control of his hips, to which Twilight responded by sprawling, throwing his hips backwards and pushing the man's head to the floor. But with surprising amounts of strength, the man shot straight up, forcing himself out of Twilight's attempt to control him on the ground. The grips were broken and now the fight was back standing up. The janitor led with a few jabs to attempt to provoke a reaction out of Twilight, who was still composed enough to let those punches go. Feeling a bit more frustrated, the man decided to throw a jab followed by his right hand. However, Twilight anticipated this move and held his elbow vertically in front of his face, causing the fist to crash directly onto the sharp tip of the bone.

"Gahhh!"

The resulting impact squished some of his delicate fingers, and in this slight moment of hesitation, Twilight launched a swift kick to the groin, further distressing him and causing him debilitating pain. The spy then grabbed the sleeve of his enemy, yanked it towards him and swiftly readjusted his grips to fit around his sleeve and on his triceps. He turned his back, then Twilight pulled the arm and straightened out his legs to lift his opponent over his back and followed through to send the janitor hurtling towards the ground with ruthless efficiency, landing on his lower back and hitting the back of his head through the whiplash, causing him to go out of commission.

Twilight breathed in and out, stabilizing his breathing and analyzing the situation. Obviously, it was no surprise that these janitors were not working here, just as he wasn't. They weren't wearing masks, unlike him; still secure there for the sake of the mission.

If they were here, how far have they gone? Is that apartment bugged now? I'm surprised they didn't get here earlier

Still, if they're here… we have to pick up the pace. Who knows where else they could be?

The door to the janitor's closet opened but Twilight did not panic, because he a familiar face had shown up.

"Round up these men; I think this can help our plan."

Nightfall nodded.

Their target wasn't home, seeing as how they were trying to sneak in. But now that these men are here, I think we have to stop for tonightit's about to get too risky.

But I think we might have a trick up our sleeve with these men.

"What did you learn, Agent Nightfall?"
"Where do I start?"


-V-

I wonder when Loid is coming home…

Yor pondered, slightly pouting on the couch room as she awaited the fabled dance practice.

[Mama is desperate. But that's fine, because Bond says Papa is right there!]

"Bork bork!"

Bond spun around in place and made for the door with great haste. Even before he could begin to hear footsteps up the stairs, he was barking at the door and jumping back and forth.

Anya jumped down from her chair on the table and went for the door, which had just opened.

"I'm home…"

Loid walked further into the threshold to be swarmed by Anya and Bond.

"Bork!"
"Papa!"

Yor stood up from the couch and made a light job for the door. Upon realizing her unconscious excitement, she lightly blushed. Still, she wanted to welcome him back personally.

"Welcome home, Loid!"
"Hi, sorry I'm late."

What an overload of information… first Nightfall tells me her findings on Richard, then we coordinated those SSS officers secret custody into WISE hands, then I had to consolidate and report data back to HQ, talk to Handler- we really need more agents into the field, otherwise I'd be forced to file for a long vacation-

[Papa is getting stressed.]

Anya looked and noticed that Loid was carrying something aside from the things he usually left the house with, curiously, she tried to peer into his mind, but he spoke before that could bear fruit.

"Yor, I found some apple pie on the way home from work. Would you like to share some?"
"Really? Where did you find it?"

It's a good thing I remembered to come by Corinne's on the way home… Having Yor in good spirits is good. For Operation Strix to succeed-

[Oh. Papa just wanted to flirt with Mama.]

-V-


 

Chapter Text


-VI-

September 22, 1963

Tuesday

Day ? of Biodegradation

A man slowly emerges from a sweaty bundle of sheets in a dark room. Looking out, he recognizes the darkness and checks a nearby clock; 5:49.

Without any change in the sky's light, no time past 21:30 felt any different; separated only by the slipping passage of time.

The only thing quantifiable is the ticking of an unending clock, counting the days until the sun would bare itself to the world.

23,459 seconds

25,200, 7 hours since sunset.

Shaking hands.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Heart rate elevated.

Sweaty palms.

Breathing is off.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Scratch.

His forearms were losing their hair at this point; it was a miracle the skin stayed intact. Must have been because all the nails that could damage it were chewed.

How did no one at work notice?

Long-sleeved shirts. No one looks at hands when conversing.

The clockwork could not provide him comfort, for it did not stop the incessant calls to his house; eleven in total, eight that he heard in total from both morning and evening.

His own wife could not warm the growing frigidity of his mind, because she herself was devoid of any warmth. This marks the second week, starting from Tuesday of the other week; 17:42, his arrival from work.

What did I do? Did she… did someone tell her about it?

His car had still been in the repair shop; no word back. Even now, he could've sworn he had not misplaced anything. The stick shift, the handbrake, the wheel, clutch, gas, reverse, tachometer, everything was there; where was the necktie he left in the car? The picture he was supposed to bring home?

Did I leave my coat there?

Did I even go to the grocery earlier? Earlier was… yesterday, right right right; that's right.

My shoes are in the same place. Still in the same cubby, right? Yes, yeah it is.

That shadow… that was there before. The angle is off though- movement of the moonlight, probably. Probably? Definitely.

The flower vase at the entrance moved an inch off- was that just my wife? No no, I don't know. I don't think so, I mean- yes, it was my wife. She cleans it every so often.

I closed all the windows, didn't I? Definitely yeah yeah. Where's that breeze coming from?

A creak on the wooden floor.  What was that?

Groggy, languid but hardly in the mental space to sleep; brain won't let it. Sweat is just a part of my back, armpits and forehead; just a permanent part of me. My eyes can't close, not for long.

Wife didn't wake up yet; gotta be nothing, right? Right, yeah mhmm.

I submitted that report on time, I answered all those questions from Diana, from… what's his- Jonah, from… from… dammit, what? Come on you know the names- it was Hayden! Hayden Hayden… yeah. I'm not behind on work; but but… what am I worried about? I think someone misplaced my mug.

On the way to work, the same two men; trench coats, trilby hats? Brown leather shoes… belt buckle was… was it faded? They always look at me, right? Right? Yeah yeah, gotta be sure

No insignias, right? Right; no way.

I spaced out during the meeting that time; what was it about?

I think, I think- I think, dammit wait, no no no I think it was about-

"Honey?"

The man turned over with clumsy desperation, a loud exhale forcing itself from his mouth. The woman didn't know how to respond. Acting surprised with his reaction would've been foolish for it has been days since this has begun. This has gotten easier- no, more normal to deal with; what else could she do? It was becoming more and more dangerous to be in this space, not that he's taken it out on her or the house.

How long until then, though? Where can she stay in the meantime? If there even is a meantime.

There was something wrong… with him. Does he know?

"My brother's still okay, right? I haven't called him in a week… gotta give him back the stuff…"
"I'm sure he's fine-"
"Hmm… that incident last week, that was a different b-building, right? Other street? Right? Yeah yeah…"

He might, soon enough.


-VI-

"Hmmm~ Hmmm~ Hmmmm…~"

Amidst the expanse of fingers meeting typewriters in a simmering of clicks and clacks, one woman has the muscle memory to decide to hum. A lovely tune, one fit for a fanciful night out dancing with your beloved. The cadences of the melody carrying accompanying legs across a clear dance floor, and the timbre enticing them closer together, joint in an invisible embrace, locked eyes that tell a story deeper than any amount of words could elucidate.

Will we get to practice again later, I wonder? I still feel like there's something about the technique I need to get down properly.

Truthfully, Yor was oblivious, even to her own intentions. Nothing about the dance was complicated to her. As a matter of fact, she knew for a fact that it was more difficult learning how to get the hang of more complex aspects of close combat. This kind of dancing was merely just timing footsteps with someone else in proper posture, nothing close to engaging her bodyweight with hooks and crosses, efficiently managing two weapons, developing a dynamic arsenal of kicks, grappling, passing guard, or forging a killer instinct.

If anything was truly difficult, it would be working up the courage to initiate the practice with Loid, but even she could overcome that these past days; it was on the itinerary for both of them considering its importance for such a formal event. Even since his work life had apparently caught up to him recently, Loid would never fail to make time for those little moments.

Partly due to this little routine, Yor stood out, even in an increasingly more hectic work week. Even as papers had begun to pass around and take up more cabinet and folder space, or less people could afford to idle around with chitchat, it almost looked as if she could take it on and then some while everyone else felt as if they had pulled their brain lobes back or felt a kink in their lower backs.

Yor was smiling, in fact it was almost like she was smiling for a week straight, and people had begun to notice. Some coworkers would peek over into Yor's work area and took note of the usually quiet and almost gloomy woman lighting up as their perception of her elegance caught up to her expression. Of course, no one would walk up to her and take a penny for their thoughts, though that wasn't always the case. The usual suspects consisting of Camilla, Millie, and Sharon were hard-pressed to take this into the news cycle; how could they not? Considering how possessive she had seemed during that one encounter in the breakroom, and now she seemed brighter than she had ever been in about a year of her marriage. They merely chalked it up to a sort of rejuvenation period of the relationship; these kinds of things go through highs and lows, after all.

Not that they could have gotten into the nitty-gritty details recently, even Camilla has been seen attending to her duties, prompting a select others to take on their workload.

"Yor, could I ask for a favor?" Camilla announced, eyes still on her work.

"Hmm? What do you need?"

Camilla gathered a bunch of papers, stacked them and lightly tapped them on the table before handing it over to Yor who was busy looking puzzled but nonetheless took what was handed out to her.

"The chief told me that something doesn't check out here on this report and wanted it sent back from where it came, so could you check it up with whoever sent it? I think it's someone from HR. Maybe help them set up an appointment if it comes to that."

Yor observed Camilla's work station, it was a bit crowded and she had a feeling plenty of these works were overdue, much like everyone else. She overheard a conversation earlier from her colleagues, something regarding the woman in question having something like a hot date waiting at home once work is done. If that was indeed true, then Yor felt like she could at least do that much on her behalf seeing as it wasn't that much of a big deal.

"HR… alright, I'll get it done."
"Thanksss~"

With a wave of her hand, Yor was sent off her little journey, walking up a flight of stairs to enter the other department, one she rarely walked into. The awkwardness of being unfamiliar made her feel a touch unwelcome, though she supposed this was mostly just her self-conscious mind talking to herself; they probably didn't care too much or they thought she was just another member of the department making rounds or doing something passably important. And regardless, the office space hardly looked any different from her own station. All she had to do was find the person the mistaken report belonged to. On the left-hand portion of the first page, Yor read the name printed upon it:

'Joseph Henson, Chief Human Resources Officer'

Weren't the other ladies talking about this man the other day?

Of course, not knowing what this man looked like, and not knowing where people would be located, she walked over to the nearest cubicle and inquired.

"Excuse me, could you direct me to… Mr. Joseph Henson?"
"Oh, sure! Just uh, go down that corridor and turn left; it's the first door on the right after that."
"Thank you kindly."

Yor nodded, leaving the worker behind with a curt smile, as she headed off in the direction instructed to her. Upon reaching her supposed destination, she let out an almost silent hum, verbalizing her perplexity; the man was not there, in fact no one was in the office space.

Break time ended less than twenty or so minutes ago… where could he be? Did he perhaps have a bad lunch?

Not knowing what more to do, but hardly finding the mind to give up, she returned from where she came down the corridor only to encounter another worker, presumably from this same department on her way to Mr. Henson's office.

"Has Mr. Henson returned?"
"Oh, he hasn't. I was just about to deliver these papers back to him."
"This is a bit odd… well, thank you, Miss."

The worker quickly trotted back, the frequency of her heels clicking against the ground giving Yor an idea of her apparent urgency. As she followed back at a more moderate pace, she took a few moments looking around at the different- well, relatively different office space, but was only now witnessing something odd in the overall vibe of the area; why was everyone so fast-paced and high-strung? The soles of leather shoes and other footwear clacking against the floors accompanied the growing noise of distant murmurs becoming more and more like anxious words taking a life of their own. Though amidst the noise, Yor noticed a common pattern.

'Where…'

'…is he?'

'…not back yet?'

'…late'

'Mr. Henson…'

They're all looking for him too?

Being the only immobile figure on this entire floor made her stand out, not that anyone else was was paying mind to it on account of being preoccupied with pressing matters. Even if Yor was still staying on the task given to her, she was unsure of how to proceed, especially seeing as how there is now a minor investigation and queue to being able to talk to the man she was seeking.

"Mr. Henson?"

She turned around at the sound of his name only to feel a man's presence swiftly pass by her like a breeze down the corridor. Following that, she witnessed a man of a lanky figure with baggy clothes quickly pacing back to the office she was just about to enter.

That must be him.

As she stepped forward, it felt like at least five more people whizzed past her repeating his name as if he were awaiting autographs. At the sight of seemingly a bit more people coming from behind her, she started to pursue her goal in spite of that and continued, moving slightly behind the crowd that waded ahead of her almost looking like a single entity of movement.

Fiddling with the door, it looked like he was trying to unlock the door with keys but with a closer look it was obvious that his hands were clammy, almost violently shaking as if he had just seen a ghost. In the split second he looked at the gathering crowd of people, he shook his head and threw a layer of sweat off his forehead.

"No no no, sorry, not now; please not now…! I have to…"

His words were becoming more and more incomprehensible as his panic seemed to tighten its vise grip around his tongue and the clamor of his subordinates overpowered his senses. He opened his door wildly, almost causing it to slam against the opposite wall as he stumbled into his office looking around like a man possessed as the pile up of workers lined up outside still muttering and mumbling a host of conflicting words, making a small crowd.

I definitely cannot reach him; he doesn't look right. Not to mention the absolute horde of people here. What is going on in this department?

Yor took steps backward to clear herself of the crowd and gave herself a view of the corridor and the entrance.

Only to notice that someone at the entrance was backing up very swiftly, almost tripping over his own feet like he was being chased into a corner by an eager predator.

"…t-t-there. He's there…"

The man stuttered out, and what entered Yor's vision was a trio of men dressed in notorious fashion; olive green military fatigues, black gloves and boots. The man in the middle had his shoulders streaked with gold almost like that of an aiguillette. But the telling sign of the approaching storm was the symbol emblazoned on their officer hats.

Two black Kalashnikov assault rifles crossed over each other, carrying a golden-winged eye with its initials spelled out and its organization:

State Security Service.

The uniform was enough to constrict the hearts of Ostanian citizens, but identifying the insignia confirmed that which was only feared like a bedtime story for the average citizen in the East:

Someone was going to disappear. And they will only watch.

The workers were no strangers to the phenomena. In fact, most of them had barely met it for the first time a mere couple of months ago when another department was invaded by the Secret Police for Jim Hayward, a man supposedly guilty of espionage. Yor had only heard it from Millie then, but now she and a handful of this section of city hall got to watch, not that anyone felt particularly blessed by the sight. Nothing was auspicious about the crowd splitting in half at the unyielding advance of the SSS, giving them perfect entry to Mr. Henson's office.

"Joseph Henson, I presume?"

The officer in the middle announced, silencing and freezing his surroundings. Joseph turned around, covering his eye line as if he didn't want to be blinded by the sight encroaching his space.

"W-Wh-What do you want? D-D-Do you have a warrant?!"
"You assume we're already here to arrest you? Do you have something to confess, Mr. Henson?"
"D-D-DON'T MESS WITH ME!"

Joseph shakily backed himself up, trying desperately to keep his quivering legs under his body. The nigh-delirious look in his eyes looked at everyone and no one, yet the crowd only grew more in their unease; clamming hands, hushed whispers, crumpled sleeves.

"You already know why the hell you're here! Don't play dumb now, you power tripping assholes! All you ever do is spy! Spy on your own damn citizens, bash their noses in, threaten us, and act like you're protecting us, and then get mad when the West does it, stupid hypocrites; like sore losers in a playground, spy spy spy spy. What the hell do you really want? Huh? Gonna break my car again? B-Blackmail me? Nick my freakin' groceries? Take my wife? Spread rumors? Huh?!"

The other office workers still could not move, all of them feeling a weighty blanket of confusion and fear enveloping them as the words of a supposed madman entered their ears. The only semblance of movement was the swiveling of heads, taking care not to attract attention for fear of being a target, both by the uniformed men and the purported suspect.

The officer in the middle took a card from his pocket, holding it out in front of him and letting it open.

"Joseph Henson, we have reason to believe you have been involved in the circulation of seditious media in Ostania. Come with us peacefully, or-"
"O-Or what? Who told you that?"
"Stephen Nielsen."

Wait

"N-No way, he wouldn't do that! Stop lying for once-"
"He was found dead along with six others; the early evening of September 18."

"… 774 Linden Street, Hauser Homes, East Berlint."

Yor's eyes widened.

The officer stepped forward into the room and his subordinates followed, moving into position to restrain his arms. Joseph's crazed look disappeared for a moment, replaced by one less unsettling, something familiar. A tear streamed down his cheek.

As he was frozen by the news, and as his arms were being locked up, the officer placed his lips into whisper range.

"You were always in contact with him; his living space is littered in suspicious activity. You couldn't have ignored such things, right?"

No response.

"There's nothing more to see here; you should all go back to work now-"
"Stephen… "

Joseph's body had become dead weight, only being held up by his arms and the physics of his legs. No additional resistance was offered because it felt like something left his soul; what was even the point of trying to break free?

"…please excuse us. Nothing more needs to be done here."

The once tight crowd had thinned slightly, some had left the moment the SSS came, and others waited until experiencing the novel discomfort of a public arrest. Only Yor and a handful of others remained to witness the dying breaths of this encounter. The city hall workers watched as the officers started to move, taking their hostage in hand as they began to march out as quickly as they came in. Like a storm leaving only debris in its wake, a thief in the night.

A killer in the shadows.

Yor blinked, and blinked once more. She held onto the cuff of her long-sleeved uniform and kept watching. As the broken husk of Joseph was being dragged past her, their eyes met, or rather, his eyes saw nothing in front of him, but the same could not be said for the opposite end of things; Yor had seen everything because of them.

Perhaps some fresh air will do me well.

Yor began to walk, the only figure in the floor moving amidst a sea of staring eyes and bated breaths. And in that sea, the aura of fear persisted, yet Yor had moved onward as if this was another quiet work day.

One floor. The same story; people watching, fearing.

Next floor. The pace of the work day was only mildly disrupted as the officers passed.

'Your half-brother.'

'He was found dead along with six others; the early evening of September 18.'

'774 Linden Street, Hauser Homes, East Berlint'

This was hardly the first mark and hardly the last time her blood would paint a room crimson with the presence of death.

The screams, the terror, the submission of will, the tearing of flesh, the shattering of bones. Death was swift and coated the air in an invasive and pungent metallic smell; one wouldn't be mistaken if they claimed they could taste it. This was the ungodly activity the Thorn Princess had made into her livelihood.

And yet.

'Stephen…'

The tears of whose soul she had not severed from reality. A body spared from her judgement. A heart caught in the crossfire.

The taste was bitter.


-VI-

Yor had only remembered she was still gripping onto the papers Camilla had handed off to her. The sides had been creased a bit, inflicting her state of mind into a physical space.

Did last week even happen?

Rubbing her hands together, it felt strange to acknowledge that she was who she was; Yor Forger and the Thorn Princess, a layered secret between two sides of the same coin. These hands that carried those papers in a mundane office job, the ones that entwined and danced with her husband's, the ones that attempted to cook dinner. The same ones responsible for the man's tears.

'Stephen'

What are the chances that I'd end up knowing someone close to a target?

Dozens of other people were treading down the sidewalks, a lesser number passed by on their bicycles or cars. Other establishments remained open, people laughed and conversed. The birds still flew overhead and perched on branches. The afternoon sun still graced the sky with its presence.

And no one knew. No one else knew what had just occurred in Berlint City Hall, they were still happy. No heavy atmosphere, nothing threatening to invade their peace of mind. A land of indifference.

Camilla's papers wouldn't find their home, they didn't need to. By this point, everyone knew what had happened; word travels fast, after all. Productivity wasn't a concern anymore; the name of the game for City Hall was control. This was the second incident within months that someone had been arrested by the Secret Police on this specific piece of government property; public relations must be upheld.

And besides, Yor didn't move from her seat on the bench. She felt as if she could not. The look on Joseph Henson's face stuck to her the moment his heart was shaken. The name of his brother left his lips in disbelief.

His brother. That man was his brother. The man who couldn't even gasp for dear life, who broke his fingernails trying to claw at the porcelain tub. The man whose nose popped as he choked to death on his own blood. Nothing about that affair was remotely disturbing to the Thorn Princess.

But that man… he was not bleeding. No broken bones, not even a hairline fracture. No severed arteries, no hyperextended joints, no dripping blood, not even the tiniest hair of a cut on his body. He was in fear; screaming, shouting, but what was different?

Save for the dozens of raw scratch marks on his arms, the almost nonexistent fingernails, the eyes that did not rest, the labored breaths, the broken posture, the erratic behavior, the hoarse, borderline unhinged voice.

Disturbed, but living, and watching something crumble. Why was this different?

Someone is staring at me.

Yor carefully tilted her head to the source, to her left from the corner of a wall.

A woman; brown hair, bob cut, long skirt, similar in stature to Millie but with a different air to her. She turned her head around and moved away; carefully, as it she went back to talk to someone.

Yor stood up, walking silently and ensuring her heels did not click too audibly as she approached the corner of the wall and begun overhearing a murmur that slowly morphed into something intelligible.

"…going to be okay?"
"We'll offer him a deal. He should accept it and he'll be fine."
"Then… Stephen…?"
"We're looking into it."

The expression on the woman's face looked unconvinced, but what could she say in return? To them of all people?

"Why?"
"Hmm?"
"Why did you ask me to report you those things? Why bother with his habits and his… favorite products?"
"It's a necessity; that's all you need to know."

"Was it true then? That… rumor you mentioned about him… with another man-"
"We can't confirm that, nor can we deny it."
"But you promised-"

The officers began to walk away, the woman kept her head down as if a lead chain was placed upon her neck to bear. The look in her eyes bordered on tears, and her knees quaked, giving out under the weight she bore.

"…why would you… make me do such… a t-thing."

She wept, and the droplets fell, only caught by the ground. They could meet no shoulder or chest or shirt. And because of her, they never will.

"No one made you do anything, Mrs. Henson."

A look of shock subsequently turned into the realization of the truth.

"Goodbye."

And a long list of unanswered questions.


-VI-

Yor finished the rest of her hours, and made her way straight home; no time taken to take in the air, or appreciate any tiny detail of the path that she took. All that poured into her mind were unfamiliar thoughts; unpleasant. She was no stranger to dealing with such emotions; they are what they are, that was the business she signed herself up for.

But to be aware of the consequences of your actions and to pay its dues, no matter how insignificant, it is strange. To see that you really are accountable, even if no one is there to pin the blame on you.

You already know who the guilty party is.

She ascended the floors and opened the door into her apartment; empty, save for the giant mass of white that walked over to greet her home.

"Ruff."
"Hi, Bond. I hope you've been good while we were gone."

He wagged his tail and allowed his chin to be open to Yor's fingers.

Anya hasn't returned home yet. It won't be long until then, I suppose. But, I can at least take a moment.

Her weary mind brought her all the way to her room, where she opted to just lie down on the bed. She took off her shoes and sunk herself in as deep as she could, not knowing what else she felt like doing. Not very much was present in her mind, not even the thought of sharing dinner with her family, no matter how fake; it wasn't this… thing.

Her role as a wife was at least somewhat familiar, fail as often as she does, it was still something she had gotten familiar with. Every cooked meal, every word of encouragement to her husband or child, every display of affection was an action she knew she could reliably take with enough repetitions, just like any punch, kick, stab, slash, or takedown; anyone could be proficient at anything provided the time, talent, and dedication.

But how does one get better at… experiencing? She's done it before; one can't amass the amount of bodies in her wake without turning a few eyes to certain human norms, so logically she can certainly do it again. But again, this was a different thing.

It's not a wound, abrasion, contusion, or a compound fracture. Lifeless eyes on a dead man was simply another day, lifeless eyes on a walking man is strange. Though for the cause of the latter to be your causing someone else's suffering? Foreign. But it's just another facet of the life that only she knows; she'll be fine in that regard. However, perhaps that isn't something that she'll agonize over too much.

I will get used to this. In fact, it's a miracle that this hasn't happened to me before. Berlint is a rather sizeable place, but with this many years in, I suppose it was merely a matter of time until I witnessed the repercussions of what I do for a living, even if it is secondhand. Again, perhaps it is not as bad as it feels in the moment; it was the same when I took my first life.

I am a murderer.

But I knew that already. I should've anticipated this sooner.

With every issue that I face in this new daily life, the idea of violence is never far behind. Whether it was someone standing in the way of Loid and Anya's goal to enroll in Eden Academy, someone who was giving me a hard time socially, or police officers stopping me for questions.

I've slashed arteries, sliced throats, bashed skulls, broken ribs, legs, and severed hands. I know what it looks like when the life leaves someone's body, when they choke on gargled blood, or die of hypovolemic shock. That is just a reality in my life. And now, I know what it looks like when someone is merely victimized by the news of my occupation; the color that drains from their face, the absence of any life in the body, the loss of drive, and the dry eyes that continue to weep.

And still I walk beside people every day, talk to them, and work with them like I am completely normal. At the same time, with my hands, I've also managed to protect people; Anya, myself. I've provided myself and Yuri for the longest time. But again, who does that? Other members of Garden? Who are they? We are not coworkers; we don't meet each other in office spaces or hallways. I don't even come across them casually. Nothing about them feels real, and neither do I; I don't feel real. I exist but at the same time, I am nothing more than a ghost stuck in the twilight; living half of a life at any given time.

I'm tired.

Normal people don't have these thoughts. And they would not want anyone to hear them in the first place. Even if they did, what could they say?

Loid and Anya would never have the opportunity to entertain them; nor should they ever. Yuri could never.

No amount of time spent here with anyone will absolve me of the fact that I am… me, and that there is no one else like that. Perhaps its better that no one knows these things. No one will have to live knowing there is an entire portion of their lives that they can never share with anyone, no matter how close. A world where people understand those feelings without a second thought because they already know it in their hearts to be a normal thing. Such a thing is just a dream.

But still… Would it be so bad if I knew another stranger like me?

Yor rose up once more after a vague amount of time spent in her state. She considered stepping into the bathroom for a cold shower, but nothing felt like it was right moving forward. Maybe it was better to start by unpacking the items in her bag first. Though the moment she picked up her handbag to unzip it, something stood out.

A letter. A familiar one.

Another assignment for you, Thorn Princess.

A series of them, in fact. We hope your schedule is light for the next week.

The details of the targets absorbed themselves into her mind, as naturally as water in the desert evaporates and condenses into the sky. Although it was quite a lot; a bit more than just one location, but a series of specific people and places. One or two assignments was common in one evening, but this was bordering almost a dozen; truly a task best spread out over the week (time constraints were not much of an issue as they were not specified).

And yet… she moved out of her bed and moved to the apartment door, not noticing Bond had walked up to her leg and whined slightly. The eyes of the canine reached her's, pleading for a little more time.

She moved away from the door, mentally leaving a bookmark there.

Well, perhaps I ought to wait until Anya gets home. For now, Loid also gave me Franky's number for emergency babysitting. Yuri is also an option. Perhaps I shall call Yuri for today, and Franky tomorrow; I don't want to cause too much trouble.

I could also cook the stew that I learned of. Anya and Franky can eat some. Loid has been coming home rather late these past few nights, so I can set some aside for him. All he has to do is reheat some when he has the chance.

And then… wait, the water and electricity bill. When were those due? I think it was Friday, and that's the event at Eden, in the evening at least… then I ought to either get off work early or do it during break time.

My assignments though… I'm slightly ahead of work at least, can I afford to make time? There's also the matter of helping Anya study, and walking Bond, and that one visit to the vet clinic.

Yor sighed, remembering the past few hours in condensed, heavy snippets as she palmed her face with two, heavy hands and dragged them down slowly.

It can't be helped; I suppose I shall have to make quick work of them.

-VI-


 

Chapter Text


-VII-

The young man looked blankly as the one opposite him had begun reviewing the transaction; all things he and his compatriots had ordered were presented in front of him, all accounted for, free to be passed on and copied by an entity that hidden itself in shadows and facades. Such was the state of things now that events had unfolded this way.

Nothing about this exchange was pleasant. Caught in a state of grieving for his beloved mentor, he still tasked himself with retrieving the next shipment. The debt left behind had also been paid, as begrudging as it was to clear up such a loose end with third party, wannabe gangsters.

But realizing just how skilled this shady organization was when it came to uncovering information and sneaking things into the country, he could not help himself. Something in him itched to now; he had the opportunity to answer a question he had long thought needed to be buried for the sake of his deep-seated sorrow.

The man greedily handed a folder with pictures and papers locked into it.

"Oh, and uh, here's that little extra you wanted."

Now that the option was open to him, why shouldn't he? It was harmless, and he only wanted resolution.

He only wanted resolution. Nothing more, nothing less than that. For a question that ached for almost two decades, it wasn't a bad thing. Who knew it only cost a little under a month's work in the hospital?


Mission Report: Operation Editorial, Updated to match data covered as of 23 September 1963

Agent Twilight
Agent Nightfall

Regarding Blume Heights, Approx. 21:23 (Twilight)

- Two suspects apprehended by Agent Twilight in Blume Heights attempting to infiltrate residence of unconfirmed person of interest.  [Edit: Confirmed - residence belonged to spouses Mason Bellamy (48) and Reina Bellamy (45). Currently living with children Samantha (29) and Jackson (22).

- Perpetrators confirmed to be working for the State Security Service (NOTE: they are not members of the SSS; merely working for them). They were commissioned to assist them for wider reach in Ostania as resources had been rather thin. Currently detained under WISE supervision.
- Additional Note by Twilight: "Legitimate SSS officers would not be so brazen as to openly pick a lock in that manner. Regardless, something needs to be done regarding their return to limit suspicions."

- New data regarding the progress of Operation Editorial is continuing to unfold as Agent Twilight and Agent Nightfall conduct extensive interrogation over 13 hours. SSS Officers were in possession of lockpicking tools and bugging implementations.
- SSS presence regarding this operation is dangerous; they are also conducting investigations on publishing companies and smuggling rings. Caution and discretion is absolutely necessary moving forward.
- Currently investigating Jackson Bellamy background further.

Regarding Richard Lennon, Approx. 19:23 (Nightfall)

- Upon shadowing Lennon for an hour and twelve minutes, he had arrived at the Meer Docks. No known connection to the place; no acquaintances or family working in the area.
- Begun conversation with unidentified individual (Male, est. 42) regarding shipment of additional literature and other multimedia including: Copies of screenplays, scripts, vinyl records, tape recordings of an 'Avonite band touring in Hammaburg', poetry, and manuscripts.
- Unidentified male had mentioned "the little extra you wanted". He was handed papers and a folder. Lennon remained silent.
- Smuggled goods came in a specially marked container (sketch + mock-up of mark attached).
- Transaction ended with smuggled goods being placed in two boxes. The target decided to take a taxi back home.
- Bug placed by Twilight was retrieved and disposed of before he entered taxi.
- Smuggler currently operates in the Meer Docks, Docking Bay D24. Unknown affiliation. Will defer to additional information.

Verdict (Handler)

- Jackson Bellamy is now considered a person of interest. He possesses ties to Stephen Nielsen, Richard Lennon and possibly other conspirators. Further investigation is needed.
- Jakob House still an unknown. Local informant Franklin is being employed for this matter.
- [CONFIRMED as per interactions with Franklin] - Smugglers interacting with Lennon have been identified as belonging to the Bahner crime family; covered by a legitimate shipping business known as Bahner Co.
- Richard Lennon must be investigated further. Possibly possesses knowledge of Jakob House and is now suspected of harboring additional information (possibly unrelated to the current operation)
- Continued SSS interference is noted. If any pieces of illegal media is encountered by any agents working on the operation, they are to be safely disposed of. However if the means present themselves, then confiscation is an option.
- Objective: Due to the risk-filled nature of this operation (as exacerbated by the SSS), the objective is to stop the flow and circulation of illegal media coming into and within Ostanian territory. Confiscation is preferred however the circumstances force us to destroy evidence; discretion is necessary. Assignments for following operations will be formulated and discussed immediately.
- Additionally: Franklin requested a payment of "500 dalc, and two tickets to that fancy cruise dinner thing near the wharf". He also stated the following: "The 500 is upfront, and the tickets are for when I find that publisher; just to be fair." So please deal out his payment as such and find the means to source them.


-VII-

"This new invention oughta help you on your next mission; portable, untraceable incendiary bombs. Just drop these little babies where you need them and at the push of a button, it'll all go up in flames and won't leave any trace. Like C-4 but with the explosives replaced by a super hot wildfire!"
"Thank you, Franky."

In the usual bar, two partners meet. As with most business partners, backgrounds are given, groundwork is laid out, information is exchanged, plans are executed, and sometimes even money changes hands. In an enclosed space teeming with the smell of booze and nicotine, it was perfect for a conversation no one would overhear.

Mostly due to the fact that the establishment was still closed in the early hours of the evening. The bartender was courteous and had tight lips. A steady payroll (and a dose of blackmail material) does well for such desirable attributes.

"By the way, I think I got that publisher you were after."
"Spill."
"Was pretty tricky, but apparently, a former professor at Berlint University decided to publish books about two years ago. He was submitting some tax forms, but he was forced to redo them because the name he placed was wrong; he labelled his company as Jakob House before he sent them back."
"What was it supposed to be originally?"
"Vulf Pack Press."

Franky handed him a folder. Upon opening it, Twilight sifted through papers containing various material such as addresses, secret pictures, and names.

All this tied to the fact that one man made such a small mistake on an old tax form. If this situation didn't blow up, he probably would've been fine for the remainder of his days. But that is really all that it takes to lose here; one small mistake will cost you your life. And in this case, so many more.

"James Bishop."

We may not even need to look further into the clique of Stephen Nielsen considering we have the ticket to the source already. All that's left is to keep the Secret Police off of their tails.

"That's your man along with all necessary locations and such; he used to be a field medic in the army, then he became a professor at Berlint University. Now he's into this business. Your motive is probably lying somewhere there. Now pay up!"

Twilight tentatively handed over Franky's supposed prize; two tickets to a cruise dinner.

"Here's hoping your little escapade goes well."
"You're talking like this one's gonna go bad!"
"Pattern recognition."
"…"

"…she's single; that's one thing."

Already starting with low standards, aren't we?

"…she's into technology."
"Is she into you, though?"

"…a-anyway, what is WISE planning to do with all this info?"
"Scorched earth."

Franky glanced at Twilight for a brief moment, gauging his reaction. Though with the brim of his hat in the way, possibly intentional, he could not get a good conclusion out of it.

We're really doing censorship, huh?

"That's a heavy hand you're playing."
"We don't have much of a choice when our windows of opportunity are getting this thin."
"Mhmm."

WISE's stability and secrecy are paramount, along with the Ostanian public's perception of Westalis. Something like this attracting explicit government and media attention will just further enforce the propaganda machine, and tighten the Secret Police's influence; it's better for the long term.

The burden of protecting the peace is being able to dismantle efforts even if they mean well, or align with yours. However, they don't align, nothing will.

WISE is an organization for peacekeeping, but that is not an ideal. Censorship maims freedom of expression, especially in a country that already struggles with it. Exposing government secrets and corruption and releasing them for justice is not peace, it is aggression. Smuggling people out of Ostania isn't a chance for a better life, but a mockery of the country. No amount of interrupted arms deals, safeguarded individuals, or halted terrorist attacks takes away the fact that we do absolutely anything to maintain peace and guard the truth, even if it means guarding lies, obfuscating the truth, or silencing the idealistic.

Everything out of line is an act of war. We cannot afford that. Even if it means people will be denied the liberties they are deserving of. It's just not the right time.

"So what's the move now, then?"
"Now that we have this, I think we can set the plan in motion."
"In motion? You mean you haven't already? You're looking mighty sleep deprived already!"
"Let's hope I get used to it then."

Twilight stood up. Feeling slightly worse for wear due to eating and sleeping at strange times the previous night and still offering to continue the dance lessons with Yor and enforce Anya's studying routine. Such was the nature of the game, unfortunately. Some assignments merely just take inordinate amounts of time, especially if there was an obvious roadblock. Mere fatigue wouldn't stop Twilight; he's had worse calls before. If he could survive that day at the aquarium, this would just be another version of that.

Right now, the more concerning issue was the fact that Franky did bring up a valid point; this was a harsh method to execute. To the Ostanian government, this would merely be doing their jobs for them; never mind the opinions of the people. However as outsiders interfering, this was nothing less than an erosion of the freedom of expression, aggressive censorship against people who only wish to speak their minds regardless of their ideals' fidelity; it is but natural law to allow citizens this much.

But Twilight already knew that; he was thinking about this moment the day he was given the assignment to Operation Editorial.

WISE was no stranger to dealing in shades of grey; no organization plying espionage, information, and subterfuge as its trade could ever be fully defined in morality. Without a doubt, if any court of law were to get a hand on us, there was no doubt any jury would find them guilty; what more an international court of justice? There was no consideration for breaking the law unless one was secretly deemed above it, and one could make the argument we at WISE do; it allows us to operate as we do.

Though that just makes the burden that much heavier. To firmly stand above the law, yet within the shadows and webs of deception. A job that is thankless at the very least, while socio-politically volatile at the worst. Where regularly bending the law, threats, blackmail, assassination, infringement on rights, liberties, and the like are commonplace, and deemed necessary to further the organization's version of peace, or as others may say: national interest. But it is what it is; this is something we have to do. If not for morals or the law, then anything that assuages tensions. Nothing is more valuable than the ability to exist normally outside of hardship; outside of famine, faltering economies, political unrest, of war.

How long does one operate under this banner before they begin to question their actions? How long until one is tempted to believe that ideals and virtue are important and exist in spite of disaster and adversity, in spite of the end of the world? What would that mean for human lives who wish nothing more than to find a place where they can just live without worry that they may lose it all tomorrow?

This world was not ready for that.

Which is precisely why I have to do this.

This is the path to a world where children won't cry.


-VII-

"20, 21… 30. Alright. All volumes of Crossroad Milestones accounted for. Not that they were complete in the first place…"

Just another day spent rechecking inventory after printing them nearby; convenience was a happy commodity for someone who distributes and produces books. Perhaps it had now become just another formality as recounting them seemed to take the place of stress relief. Creating a routine through the sheer veracity of numbers. Stability, order, and familiarity. James Bishop was a man who could use more of that, especially considering the recent news he received from Jackson.

As he stood up from his squatting position, a brief but intense flash of pain seared throughout his left leg, particularly his knee.

"Aggh!"

The sensation staggered him, causing him to buckle and fall over into a nearby bookshelf, almost knocking it over. The only thing preventing the entire thing from toppling over was the placement of Bishop's hand gripping two distant cubbies down. The pain in his leg had not subsided though, in fact, it almost felt like his back was starting to get into a familiar feeling. He tried to seat himself on the floor, using mainly his hands to transfer his weight as he attempted to get a hold of his breathing.

"In… out… In…"

I still need help… this isn't just a cramp!

As he was stabilizing himself, two shadowed figures loomed outside the door and had begun to knock.

"Mr. James Bishop? Are you in?"

Not paying attention to identity, he called out.

"Help! I'm… I've injured my leg! I-I'll crawl to the door."

With great efforts, Bishop ascended onto his strong leg and used the nearby shelves to stabilize himself. He kept his gaze down to focus on moving his feet in an orderly fashion. Only when he got to the counter and opened the doorknob did he realize who was awaiting him.

"We're from the State Security Service. And we have questions for you."

Shit.

"Please come with us peacefully; this doesn't have to be forceful."

My leg's all but stiff; no way resistance is doing me any good here… Dammit.

"Fine."

All that's there to do is not give up any information. And well… here's hoping.

Bishop was escorted by the two officers into a car. As he was seated in, a bag was placed over his head and tightened just enough to discourage any attempts to peak. With the suspect secured, the car drove off.

And another vehicle pulled up to the store; a van of three people dressed in overalls. The driver, a woman of a steely-eyed composure dropped off and opened the back door. The two met her frosty purple eyes and awaited a word.

"I hope you remember what we're all looking for."
"Yes ma'am!"


-VII-

"Jakob House secure, ma'am. Agent Nightfall has begun clearing the area."

The Handler kept her arms crossed, her posture unfaltering as she remained standing and eyeing the tasks for the current operation.

"Any news on Secret Police presence?"
"None."
"Not yet, at least."

We won't know if Bishop's store has been bugged or not until Nightfall and her troupe have finished clearing off the necessary items and swept the location. This gambit relies on us moving fast before anyone is any the wiser. First we take care of the sources, and then once we have more agents, get to the customers

"How is Agent Twilight?"


"Hope ya know your job by now, newbie."
"Ahaha, o'course I do!"

The bigger man slapped the red-haired newbie on the back, getting the air to exit his lungs slightly, as he walked on by towards the next warehouse. As he rubbed his shoulder in mock discomfort, a resolute air came over him as he looked at the rising moon.

Nightfall took note of the containers that these smuggled goods came in. The Bahner crime family ostensibly runs a legitimate business in the guise of a shipping business, giving them control of docks and warehouses. Why they run this kind of illegal hustle carelessly beside a legitimate one is beyond me, but that is not important; I know what I'm looking for.

I'm taking the place of one grunt who is currently indisposed for physical labor. All I have to do is play my part on this graveyard shift, and locate all of the crates of the target goods. Then when the time is right, I can put Franky's new toys to good use.

With a clipboard and extra paper, Twilight made his rounds around the warehouse and immediate areas to keep his cover while simultaneously marking locations of the mission-related goods. As he spent almost an entire shift, he covered basically the entirety of the storage area dozens of times, and planted what he needed to as he organized and lifted items into position without arousing suspicion. The fatigue never caught up to him; he was determined even as he had to wait half hours for people to keep their attention off of certain spots.

Upon laying his sharp eyes on a certain corner near the electrical grid, he noticed something fortuitous.

Are those exposed wires? This surely violates some sort of work convention and standard. So close to the staging area as well… I ought to do something about the sprinkler system before my shift ends; maybe we can make things look like an accident instead of sabotage, not that it would backfire if it were; they might just blame it on one of the workers. But it helps to always make things look accidental.

"Hey, who's that rollin' up here?"

What?

The other workers in the warehouse rose up from their activities, jogging up to the source of the sound with confusion and tension in their minds. Clearly, this was unexpected.

Multiple cars' tires skidded and burned on the concrete of the docks. Shouting was heard, dock workers were now running to the site of apparent provocations. But suddenly-

The cocking of a gun. The pump of shotguns, the clicking of revolvers, a charging handle being pulled.

Wide eyes. Bated breaths. Tense muscles. Realizations. And then screams.

Gunfire. Hails of bullets, muzzle flashes, and tortured eardrums paraded themselves onto the formerly desolate warehouse to now create a cacophony of hot lead. Twilight immediately took cover behind the metal shelves as unidentified men started laying down a barrage of metal into the warehouse. As the shouting continued, and the warehouse had now turned into a firing range, Twilight racked his mind for solutions.

Who the hell?! I've got my handgun here, but I'm absolutely outgunned and pinned. I cannot risk further exposing my position while I'm here so I have to get out of here!

Exits… Exits…

Thinking quickly, Twilight detonated the firebombs, and the stack of fire immediately went up in a plume of fiery chaos, looking terrifyingly similar to an uncontrollable wildfire raging through a forest. With all the wood being used as containers, this was surely going to end horribly.

"Holy shit! This place's goin' up!"
"What the hell?!"
"Who did this?!"

Franky never said they would be this powerful! Are these thermite?!

Such intense fires also ensured Twilight and other occupants of the warehouse could feel the heat a good five or so meters away. However, the ensuing blaze had also ticked off the exposed wiring he had found and now the fire was now doomed to spread and consume the area.

With the amount of flammable and combustible materials here… I have to make my escape quick!

The inevitable would come sooner than he thought; Franky's firebombs were a little too effective for the mission. Some flaming debris already landed onto his shoulder, which he patted out quickly. The process of being swallowed by flames was exacerbated, and now his vision was filling with more and more violent shades of yellow, red and orange. The heat was making respiration all too difficult, the sweat wouldn't stop falling down his face.

He had to move. Now.


-VII-

In another part of Berlint, the thunderous raucous of discharging automatic fire was laid down a path among the upper floors of the fanciful hotel, tearing through varnished wood, antiques, vases, and other pricey implements.

That lobby was too open. There was no way I was going to get out of there without attracting attention. If I took a bit more time to plan it out- no, there's no point in worrying. For some reason, a huge portion of their manpower exited the hotel and started mobilizing elsewhere, so that at least takes some of the attention away from me.

I had overheard some of the men discussing some sort of passage that ran under this building; I would be lucky to come across such a thing however I doubt I have the time to find it.

A bullet barely grazed the Thorn Princess' hair, instead penetrating a painting behind her.

I really do not have time.

She continued to dash through the floor, jumping over furniture, diving through windows, and generally attempting to move confusingly to lose her trail and came to a door. Kicking it down directed her into a tight hallway. One with multiple armed men.

Gunman in front; none in the back. That's all that matters.

As the first man clicked his revolver and opened fire, she dove and rolled diagonally, opening her up in position to deliver a swift sweep kick to the man's legs. As he fell, the Thorn Princess dug a spike into his heaving solar plexus while pulling herself forward using his stomach as grip point, intuitively putting her next spike onto the chest and alternating the other one into his face, smashing it inwards.

She stood up, and now three people charged her with knives out, restricting themselves into an unfortunate formation akin to a warped line with the space they had. Another man was lagging behind them, a considerable distance taking them apart. Noting the tight corridor, she quickly employed her deadly creativity.

As the first man came forward with a stab, she dodged inward stabbed him upwards to lock herself into his shoulder, digging deeply as the man begun to lose control of his arm and his screams. She then threw her free spike through the air. The weapon buried itself into the far-off henchman's neck, making him fall over and panic over the discharging blood covering his neck and hands as he hysterically grabbed his throat.

The next man came to the right trying to cut the Thorn Princess off, to which she responded swiftly by using her current placeholder as stability before launching her body into a penetrating side kick to the man's ribs with a sickening crack and embedding him into a splintering door.

The assassin then held tightly onto the lodged spike and hooked her arm over the man's shoulder and skillfully ran across the side of the wall at a high angle, creating an elaborate shoulder throw as she twisted and tore the man's rotator cuff and landed with hunched posture and her arms in front of her, leading the body soaring a few meters across the hall with incredible torque and into another man who immediately felt the wind escape his lungs. And to make short work, the killer stabbed his head twice to remove the witness.

She ran down the hallway and quickly picked up her spike from the now-dead henchman. Another man came in through the door at the far end and ran to her, to which she was about to meet him but heard footsteps from another direction.

"She's here!"

The assassin spotted her would-be assailant at the door from where she came. He was armed with a submachine gun.

I can't reliably evade that level of automatic fire!

Trapped between two men, one armed and one closing in on her, she calculated her next move:

The Thorn Princess ran at the closer man assaulting her, she quickly jammed her spike into his clavicle and stuck it there, yanking him toward her while she rammed her shoulder forward and slamming his chin, rattling him. As the far gunner started to shoot, his rapid-fire bullets missed the mark but they were coming close onto her. The assassin then used her grip and used a free arm to wrap around her victim's knee, and picked him up onto her shoulder in a loose fireman carry and instead flexed her body to hold him up to directly face her shooter. The bullets quickly found their way into flesh, making bloody squib sounds as the Princess' improvised bullet shield took the brunt of impacts as she jogged backwards and outside the door she had in her sights.

The gunner's weapon ran out of ammunition, and he dumped the empty magazine, fiddling his jacket for another set as he chased his target who just disappeared around the door. The assassin knew this, and dropped the body in view of the man and then closed the door, making it appear as if she escaped to the left. In reality, she waited on the opposite side of the door and waited for him to cross.

And as the man burst through the door, the Thorn Princess swiftly executed her moves; she stabbed through his hand, and kicked the gun away while taking care to stay away from the muzzle. With her other hand, she used the handle end of her weapon to bash him on the side of his head, dazing him instantaneously with brutal efficiency.

"Gaah…"

With her opponent now barely conscious, it was a matter of time until he came to, and so she dragged him with her into a nearby room and locked it, careful to ensure no one saw her path.

I hope this works

As she kept her ear to the door, an uncertain amount of footsteps rapidly adorned the soundscape with the clamor of their confusion and imperatives. The sounds then escaped elsewhere, going through the corridor and fading there. Feeling the coast was clear, she exhaled.

And then suddenly felt a wetness on the side of her stomach. Her hand touched it and it was warm. She looked to it and saw that it was red.

Oh no… this one must have landed a shot me as I retreated. Well, there doesn't seem to be any bullets lodged in, so it must have gone through or grazed me. That still isn't good; I have to escape before the pain catches up to me.

"Wha- where… where am I-"

She quickly turned to the man and threw a nearby blanket over him, shocking him and causing the newly-awoken man to panic, shrill fear taking his voice over.

"Be quiet. You'll do as I say or I'll end you."
"H-How, whe-where, wha-what."
"Hush."

"There's a passage under this building that leads elsewhere, isn't there?"
"Y-Y-Yes."

I was lucky. This man knows something.

"Take me through it."
"Wha-Wha-What are you going to do t-to me?"

He's seen my face, surely

"Please take me to this passage and tell me how to navigate it."


-VII-

"There's a shootout happening in the docks right now!"
"What?"
"We don't know who are the belligerents, b-but there's also a huge fire coming up too!"

Sylvia's grip on her arms tightened momentarily. With rationality as swift as the wind, she began walking out of the door.

"H-Handler?! Where are you going?"
"To extract Agent Twilight. Stay here."
"Handler!"

This cannot be a sudden raid; we don't know enough of the direction of attack for us to be sure that even Twilight can escape safely.

She broke into a sprint. No one was going to stop her; everyone knew they couldn't. Even if one were to question her judgement by placing herself in the limelight, no one could question her resolve. Sylvia immediately went for her car and turned it on, and began ripping through the midnight of empty Berlint streets. As swift as she was, she was still accurate and successfully navigated a night path that would trouble most normal drivers.

Reaching the dock are at the speed of her focused desperation, she took a split second to gauge the disaster unfolding in front of her own eyes.

What a hellhole.

The irregular spread of submachine guns, pistols, and shotguns decorated the aural landscape with invasive booms that would give anyone within a close area tinnitus. The growing, imposing column of fire that now threatened to engulf the warehouse was no doubt the source of her objective. Between the flashing lights, she could make out the paint on the side of the warehouse; Docking Bay D24.

Twilight mentioned where he would escape should things go awry; I hate how right he is.

Handler revved her car and charged straight down to the door on the far backside of the warehouse, near the parking of some trucks. As she drove she noticed the door being broken down and someone stumbling through the fire; a man ripping something rubbery and wax-like off of his face as he was coughing violently.

There- wait!

Suddenly a car came running onto the scene perpendicular to Handler's location, lights flashing and blinding Twilight as he instinctively began to run and jump for cover behind a parked truck as bullets whizzed past him.

Intercepting the car, Handler took the handgun from her glove compartment and opened her door. She postured out to aim for the tires with quick and unnatural precision; three shots caused the front left tire to burst and threw the car off its trajectory and making it crash into the burning warehouse.

"Twilight! Get in!"

Surprised, but unquestioning, Twilight swiftly hopped into the Handler's car and she began to floor the gas pedal to begin the escape. His short, pained breaths slowly turned better and oxygen could finally find a home in his lungs after being threatened to keep inhaling smoke.

"Ensure we aren't being followed while we get away."

Handler passed her firearm over to Twilight who didn't miss a beat and took it, and begun his guard duty.

We have to lose them first before we can think to even return to HQ. This might be a while.

She intentionally took winding roads, and ones normally untraveled with the goal of eventually slowing down once a sufficient distance was achieved from the point of action. For now though, her pace was absolutely fierce, and as she turned a road, she noticed a weary, black-haired woman standing idly on a crossing and quickly swerved on and off the road to save herself a traffic accident, much to the pedestrian's shock.

What a massive fire over the- Reinforcements?!

Twilight bunkered down for the sharp turn, and noticed the figure with almost immediate shock as the car sped further and further into the distance.

Is that- why is she out so late?

The woman completed her evasion skillfully but managed to spot a figure in the backseat.

And it felt like she was getting a stare back.

Was that Loid? I can't be mistaken, can I? That was… Am I just that tired?

Or am I really just so… eager to see him that I can't stop thinking of it- why am I even thinking of dancing with him now?

Choosing to attempt to file that brief memory back into her mind, Yor sighed, burying her face in her palms with a loud sigh.

Perhaps I shouldn't bother. There were times when he's had to stay at the hospital overnight, right? That must be it. With that big fire from the docks I caught a good look at just before that car passed, I'm assuming it was perhaps someone escaping it.

With someone in the backseat that looked like Loi- no. Please, that's enough.

Upon calming down, she exhaled and attempted to resume her walk home, choosing to resume and entertain her original thoughts.

Futile as they were.

That was too close earlier… That mission was too dangerous for how haphazardly I accomplished them. It was only because I had overheard something regarding a passage under the hotel that I was able to escape quietly. No one has seen my face either, or at least everyone who has seen it is not a problem anymore.

These last assignments need at least a couple of more hours; the targets won't be where they are at this time I have no choice but to finish them off tomorrow when they return; right before the gala at Eden

She was still running through her remaining chores and tasks in her head, obviously placing the gala as the end of her work week. Though try as she might and occupy herself with her work, it was still difficult.

"Aghhnn…"

Yor clutched her side, realizing that her body was now returning to normal after hours of a heightened state.

I had to use that man's dress shirt as a tourniquet after I killed him. The bullet grazed me, but it still took a painful amount of skin off… I need to disinfect when I get home.

The lull after the rush of her job hit. Normally, this would just be the side effects of running low on adrenaline and lowering her heart rate back to normal levels; feeling her muscles ache, her arms and hands weaken, and her legs feeling the buildup of lactic acid. One could think of it as merely like her finishing a session working out at the gym.

However, the novel event was only yesterday. Truthfully, it only stayed in the back of her mind, and as she was still busy with other things on her mind along with the stress of trying to make time for Friday's event and hiding the fact that she was late home for now two nights in a row. The past night (including this one) was the same; come home from work, prepare dinner in advance, take Bond out, call Franky, and run chores before taking assignments. Everything else took priority. But now that there was a grace period, she was ambushed by her own head.

The fact that you're alone is always so painfully clear… especially at ungodly hours such as this one.

Maybe this has always been a thought that stayed with me. I've only gotten complacent in this life, and almost forgot I wasn't who I am. Recent events are simply a reminder of my place as a person; as an assassin.

I want to go home.

Soon enough, Yor staggered through the door of the apartment, still trying to carefully mask her footsteps as she entered. It seemed that Franky was slumped over on the couch watching TV with lazy intent.

"F-Franky? Are you awake?"
"E-Eh…? Oh… you're home…"

The curly haired man stood up haggardly, blinking multiple times as he stretched out.

"Thank you so much again for taking care of the house."
"It's no problem… I'll just head home now…"
"Oh, shall I accompany you?"
"There's no need…"
"Your payment-"

Franky yawned as he went for the door and put his coat on.

"I'll just make your husband buy me a round of drinks. It's okay."

Without a word, the informant walked out the door, waving behind wordlessly.

"Thank you so much! Goodnight, Franky!"

Yor shut the door slowly and turned around. Observing the darkness save for the TV that was still active, she exhaled.

Loid really still isn't home? Was that really him back- How hard are they working him?

I should save this excitement for the gala tomorrow.

Normally, the thought would be too embarrassing for her to even conceive of, but she was tired; obviously, her bullet wound was nothing to scoff at despite being superficial, her arms were heavy, she felt as if her palms couldn't close into a fist or her fingers couldn't make fine movements, the soles of her feet were killing her and so was her back. She was confused and stressed out.

Above all, it was lonely.

So she decided to end the day there; first aid, a cold shower and a colder bed.


"Are you certain you don't want to stop for medical attention?"
"No, it's alright; no second or third degree burns."

Twilight remarked as he flexed his shoulder, feeling surprised at the dryness of the spot as he let out a light hiss.

"But a first degree one instead?"
"It isn't serious."

What a pain

Handler shook her head, realizing she wouldn't get anywhere further despite being in the right.

"Get some rest, Twilight. At least the little that you can muster."
"Thank you, Handler."

Loid walked the rest of the way home, about three blocks to remove as much suspicions as possible. When he got to the door, he silently manipulated the door's momentum and metallic click so as to make himself as scarce as possible.

Who could've expected that? A firefight breaking out at a warehouse? I suppose new info will come soon, but I can't be bothered. At least the supply in that area is gone… I still have another location to clear

He made a mental note to thank Handler more formally for saving his burnt hide before feeling a barrage of coughs assaulting his chest and out to his mouth, which he covered with a closed fist. He also realized that his breathing felt extremely short and uncomfortable, and he felt irritated with more attempts to deep heavily. Yet still, he was focused. Attempting to focus, at least.

If that's the case, then maybe new information can tell me who was attacking, and if they aren't one-off raids, then perhaps my point of entry is there instead of as another worker; I believe I possess more options that way.

He observed his empty, dark home. No doubt Anya and Bond were asleep, and Yor has definitely turned in at this point.

Late again for another night in a row… I can't keep neglecting Operation Strix like this, but it really cannot be helped. Any more shortages on staff can't go over well, not while we're this close to going through with this operation. There's still the matter of questioning Bishop, who's only in custody; they haven't begun questioning him yet. Jackson Bellamy and Richard Lennon; they still have secrets that need elucidation, not to mention we have to keep the Secret Police off of them-

I wasn't able to help Anya study!

And I still needed to help Yor dance

No, slow down, it's only been two days. Yuri could at least cover Anya's studies, and while Franky isn't the best, I'm positive he could assist in tutoring a six-year old's education

Yor and myself have practiced dancing enough, and I'm sure she's been busy; she would have wanted to begin resting as soon as she came home. She's had to call over Yuri and Franky to babysit while we were gone, after all so it must be rather serious. Perhaps I can explain this to them tomorrow. Stability and understanding in this household is paramount, and I should at least strive to do that much while I have the chance.

Loid kept thinking as he tentatively crept silently through a dreary apartment, made only more depressing by his current physical state. Merely thinking of running or any strenuous activity made him shake his head and feel even heavier than he already did. It was as if his body was a growing ball of fatigue, muscle and joint pain. His shoulder might've been burned, his lower back in particular was not doing him any favors as the amount of evasive action from the crossfire he needed to take along with all the lifting for the undercover job.

His head threatened to throb itself into an overburdened mess despite being so drained at this point. As if the constant work wasn't enough, he had just narrowly escaped a sketchy situation filled with gunfire, and well, actual fire. He had to keep checking his face if he had singed any of his eyebrows. His legs were doing their best to get to his desired goal before his feet decided to burst through his shoes.

As he entered the hallway, he put an ear up to Anya's room:

"Psshhh… they kweep… flirting… in frawnt… of Anya and Bond."

Asleep as charged.

He then passed by Yor's door. An urge to excuse himself through to speak with her slipped past his mind and suggested itself onto the tip of his tongue.

But his hands refrained.

I shouldn't feel so guilty for flaking when even she was busy; I'm sure she understands.

I hope she does, at least.

One more night, Twilight. One more night and you can request to take at least the weekend off.

Bishop, Lennon, Bellamy, the Secret Police… one more location to clear of any smuggled goods. It has to go well. For safety, to throw suspicion away… for peace.

I know how this ends, but that's all the more reason I have to see this through.

-VII-


 

Chapter Text


-VIII-

Crap crap crap… does Richard know already?

Jackson's rapid footsteps echoed throughout the stairwell as he ascended them, as if the top was an important goal he had to summit to achieve a goal. The light at the top indicated his presence on the top floor and he prepared himself to turn left.

Mr. Bishop is gone; I can't get a hold of him anymore. Where is he?!

It's only a matter of time until-

"Oof!"

Jackson bumped into a man in a grey overcoat and trilby hat, surprising him and knocking him to the floor and landing on his hands and hip.

"Ouch…"
"My bad, let me help you up."

The stranger put his hand out and Jackson latched onto it.

"I'm really sorry about that, sir. I was just in a rush to get to my friend's place."
"Oh, it's no problem; I'm sure you have your reasons. But lemme just-"
"Huh?"

The man reached out and patted his left sleeve down to straighten it out, putting his hands all over his sleeve.

"Your sleeve is crumpled and- got a bit of dirt."
"O-Oh, thanks."

That was really weird…

"Anyway, thank you!"

Jackson bolted down his original pathway with a light, more cautious jog. Running into anymore people was ideal, especially if they all wanted to touch your sleeves.

He reached Lennon's apartment and buzzed them, followed by three knocks on the door. Not even two seconds after, it was answered with a quick swing at the entrance.

"Hi, Ms. Lennon!"
"Oh! Jackson?"

As Corinne fully swung open the door inwards, she caught the view of a young man smiling politely, offering his hand out to shake. She obliged his deference and offered a big smile of her own in return.

"What brings you here so early? Do you want to talk to Richard?"

As she spoke, she was fixing her hair up in a bun and putting her coat on, suggesting her departure to Jackson.

Good timing.

"Well, that's one part of it; my sister also told me to pass a message to you: she wants to meet with you for lunch."
"Really?"

Jackson nodded.

"Yes, at that new place down 99 Luft."
"Hm, alright then. Come on in! I can at least fix you some snacks before I leave for my shift."
"Uh, there's no need for that; had a nice breakfast of… coffee and bread."
"That's breakfast to you?"
"Coffee and croissants probably sounded better…"

Corinne rolled her eyes and made way for Jackson to pass as she gestured her arm inwards into her abode.

"Anyway, stay as long as you want. Take care, Jackson!"
"Thank you! Please take care, Miss."

Jackson walked in and shut the door, locking it as he heard Corinne's footsteps weaken into the distance. He walked in, already familiar with the general appearance and found Richard also dressing up to leave, now looking slightly puzzled.

"Bellamy? What's the matter? I'm about to leave for work."

Purposely and consciously preparing to lower his voice, he spoke in hushed tones.

"Mr. Nielsen's contact is gone."


-VIII-

Very few hours of the day were as serene as the break of day. The precious few hours before the sun completely bares itself to the world and signals people to begin their toil. The activities of the night before fade into memory, a passing thought as dozy people go about their morning routines.

The household of the Forgers was in such a period; it had seemed that both matriarch and patriarch had had a tiresome work life these past few days but this was one of the few moments of respite in between the unique chaos their lives presented.

Or at least, that was the case considering the sights they were met with late in the evening: Loid in the backseat of a car speeding away from a raging fire meeting eyes with the weary silhouette of Yor wandering awfully late on shady streets.

Yor emerged from the bathroom in full work attire, stretching her arms up and almost instantly regretting it upon feeling the right side of her torso pinch with a sharp pain.

That wound will be tender for a while… I can't let it affect my work. Did he see that?

She checked his room to see if it was occupied; it wasn't, and the door was left slightly ajar. Loid, however, was still working in the kitchen. The sounds of him fiddling with the stove and taking plates and utensils out of the cupboards and cabinets tipped her off to his usual activities. However, among the familiar was something unusual; Loid was coughing, and quite frequently. More than that, he was trying his best to muffle the noise, sticking his mouth into his bicep.

Those coughs are rather dry as well…

Yor approached the kitchen, still very much conscious of her wound.

"G-Good morning, Loid."

Loid turned around almost too quickly; like he didn't just hear the bathroom door open earlier.

"Oh… good morning."

He's already dressed for work?

"Um, so… are you okay, Loid?"
"Hmm? I'm fine. Is something the matter?"
"Well, I noticed you were coughing quite a bit."

She noticed that?

"Ah, well it's just been a bit tiresome at work lately; lots of things came up and we're a bit understaffed as of late, so I end up having to take in more work to compensate."

The best lies were ones that sounded like the truth, or were the truth minus the necessary context.

"I'm also working on a big project with some of my other colleagues, so it's been uh, taking a bit of a toll on me lately."
"I see…"

If he says so, then there's no reason to doubt him. That couldn't have been him in that car… right?

"Not that I should pry but… please keep well. There's the gala later tonight…"
"Right. I haven't forgotten."

"I apologize for missing yesterday, or for not saying I'd be late ahead of time. I don't have an excuse for not contacting you."
"Don't worry! I was also home late, and I was a bit tired as well-"

Yor's eyes widened momentarily as she realized she was still trying to hide any traces of the fact that she was where she was previously.

"A-Anyway, it's okay- I think you've taught me well enough not to let you down when we dance later."

That really was her last night, wasn't it? I've already cleared her quite a while back, well, at least from connections to the SSS. There's no saying what else she could be involved in, but nothing else really pops up when we dig into her past.

I don't want to pressure her this early in the day with probing questions. If she was up to anything unusual, then I can't say it's my business to know of it. Maybe she was out with her coworkers for once? Yuri asked her for company? Whatever it is, I shouldn't pry more than I already do.

"Good. If our schedules line up, we can even pick up our outfits together at the boutique."
"I-I, well… if they do, but I'm not sure about that; it's also been quite uh, hectic at work lately, but I will do my best to make it on time."

Truthfully, there's no saying I won't be late too; if I get another assignment after my initial job then I might get caught up even more in the web of tasks. Whatever it is, I will just have to get them over with. We've been preparing for this for quite a while. Yor is eager to go as well, it seems. Her happiness is important to me- to Operation Strix.

As of late. It hasn't gone past me that something about her is a bit off. Anya did mention that she's been rather down, aside from being late the past few days; that girl is rather perceptive, so I might have to take her word for it. Something is wrong, but I shouldn't know what it is. Regardless, maybe some time away from it all can get her in a better mood.

The gala will also be a trove of information to handle; I also have that to contend with. I still have my work cut out for me, it seems.

"I have to enter work early, Yor. I'll have to leave right now, so could you help Anya prepare for school?"
"You haven't even eaten yet-"
"It's fine. I'll manage."

Loid turned his back, and through a compelling force, Yor followed his movement and her hand landed on his shoulder, getting a reaction of stinging pain from him.

"S-Sorry! Did I hit you too hard?"
"No… not your fault. My shoulder is a bit tender from all my work, so please be careful."

Before Yor could get another word in, Loid had picked up his belongings and left out the door hastily.

Is he really okay?

With nothing but a sigh left to give, Yor stood up and walked over to Anya's door to knock and awaken her for another day. Surprisingly, Anya's footsteps could be heard going around her room, so Yor backed off and let her continue that by herself. While in the hallway, her eyes fell once more on Loid's room, the door still open but a bit more now.

He's never that forgetful; he always has this door closed.

She approached the door carefully and reached out to the doorknob to close it, averting her eyes in the process so as to not peek into the room even accidentally. But her nose did not betray her, something exceptionally foreign stood out among the usual scent of their home. And as soon as the scent filled her senses, so did the doubts of last night.

Is that…

Burnt clothing?


-VIII-

"To make a long story short, one of the lieutenants of an Hrvatskan crime syndicate was killed while on Bahner family territory, along with a dozen or so other men. Said group is also heavily affiliated with other nationalities from their part of the continent, so it seems it is not going to be a pretty affair for the Bahner family."

Handler took another sip of her coffee and sat the mug down back onto the table as Twilight eyed it, thinking he too should have drank more before leaving home, and not even two hours after he came back home the night before. This was an exhausting game now made more tricky due to the interference of two well-stocked gangs overflowing with itchy fingers and excess manpower.

There was a part of that story where Handler skipped mentioning the fact that the disputing parties' share a common unfortunate issue; real estate and a contested fancy hotel. An unclear line traced the difference between either syndicates' territories within one building. Any untoward behavior towards each other in the wrong millimeter was a declaration of war, without question. Though this detail was superfluous in Twilight's understanding of his objective.

"You look terrible, Twilight, though I'm sure you knew that already."
"I'm well aware."

The few hours of sleep he did get may have alleviated some of the aches and pains (and burns), but it was still nothing one could never try to enter to work with.

"But I've come up with a plan to get myself into the last storage area; I'll be under no significant risk and I'll be able to get the job done, though it may take a bit more time than if I were to just sneak in directly."

If there really is such a gang war going on, perhaps it would be wise to get within the ranks of this Hrvatskan group and take part in their operations against the Bohner; I believe the language training from all those years will pay off well. If not, I can always pass as a second-generation immigrant with a flimsy accent.

"Proceed as you wish, Agent."

She waved her hand, almost dismissively to which Twilight nodded and began to walk away. On the way out, he passed by Nightfall who offered a light nod of the head before approaching Handler.

"I assume you've finished talking to Mr. Bishop, Nightfall?"
"Yes. We have the conversation recorded and summarized as a written report for you to consume as you wish."
"Good."

Nightfall's eyes appeared tired, even more so than her default state. Her heavy eyebags and posture told a story along with the cup of coffee she was leisurely sipping.

"What are your next orders for me, Handler?"
"Now that you've gotten everything out of Bishop, we have to do something of Nielsen's circle of graduates; the Secret Police are still on them. Learn more of their members, and protect them from the SSS."

Through her trademark cold, somewhat empty gaze, a tinge of disapproval wished to be released, dancing at the tip of her tongue. This wasn't lost on the Handler, as she was aware of how much of a strong personality she had from the days when Twilight was in charge of training her. Her poker face was of a top-tier standard, but there was still a certain amount of turbulence deep inside her that would have been exposed if she were not educated to be a spy. For as much as the training of a spy is being taught to separate oneself from attachments, the best that most could do was appear as if material and personal needs didn't faze them.

Handler shelved the idea of bringing the thoughts out of Nightfall, thinking it would just be a futile butting of heads that would lead to the same destination regardless. At the end of the day, the Handler was a commanding officer and Nightfall would have to obey regardless for the sake of the operation. In light of this unspoken understanding, the agent decided to get a move on with her job.

"Then I shall begin shadowing Bellamy; I was informed he went to meet up with Lennon earlier this morning, so perhaps they may be onto something."
"Then there's nothing more to say. Dismissed, Nightfall."

Little did anyone know, this was only the start of an unusually busy day for Sylvia Sherwood.


-VIII-

Finally…

He found himself thinking while walking down the side of the road on the way back to headquarters. Even if it was tough, even while undergoing infiltration while speaking a language he hadn't practiced in a while, under the lengthy firefight he had to go through, and finding all his marks and sabotaging them, it was still over.

Twilight rubbed his sore torso. He'd likely have been in a much more dangerous spot had he not been wearing soft body armor under his disguise. Having started the day in less than top shape, engaging in combat was a major concern of his, and those were absolutely founded. He counted himself lucky that the enemy only possessed firearms that couldn't reliably destroy this kind of body armor at a distance. Be that as it may, it still hurt and left notable bruises behind the points of impact.

Now that he was clear of any would-be hostiles, he could afford to relax just a little bit. But that little allowance was also his undoing; he was efficient with everything, after all.

Twilight's head was constantly full of thoughts. And everything was put into the context of a mission, so it's no surprise that each thought was made that much more exhausting to consider when made into a project, anything from Anya's grades, to Bond relieving himself in the right place, or Yor being made confident in herself. His mind could naturally keep up with these racing ideas, however as his fatigue extends further than usual, so do unusual thoughts. Thoughts that he normally couldn't, or rather wouldn't, find the time to entertain.

During the mission, he destroyed more smuggled items; no different from the day before. Except this time he came across the actual contents of them, a product of having to engage in a gunfight with limited cover. Before he erased it all, he caught a glimpse.

I've seen those books before; plenty of times, in fact. My father owned all kinds of literature. It was only later on when I realized their content. He was anything but unpatriotic. Fellow soldiers I'd known from before were also reading similar things in their free time, or if there were lulls in the trenches. Anything to keep them going.

This revelation did not change my job. For stability in these cities, to not throw fuel onto the fire of invasive surveillance. No one in this country is ready to know that there's a growing population of youth displeased with the establishment, not even said youth are ready for those consequences. Will they ever be ready? Not if no one is alive to bring those sentiments forward.

It's still a shame. And what kind of faces would those young men make when they learn of what we're going to have them to do? How much more will those hearts break? It is cruel to force the young into maturity, to deny them the rights that I had the pleasures to enjoy as a boy. The only thing that keeps me from questioning our tactics is our motives; denial of others is not our goal; just an unfortunate by-product. It has to be this way. For them and this country to be able to live in peace.

In between the absolute lethargy of the past few days, and the current onslaught of intrusive thoughts, Twilight had not even realized that he stepped foot into WISE headquarters.

Handler always did say that the weary and idle mind was a dangerous thing for a spy deep undercover. The solution of taking a few days off is seeming more and more attractive because of that.

The mere reflex of ending up within headquarters was already a bit refreshing. Being able to recognize an area that was a safe space took a huge load off Twilight's shoulders, even if he knew it may only be for a brief moment. That was at least one active task that could take a backseat, but he was still technically on a job; it was time to make his report to Handler. He could've done so in the field, but with the operation coming to its end, it was best to finish where things began and allow everyone working to be on the same page.

Twilight headed to where he would usually find Handler, but she was absent. The agent sighed, doing an excellent job in keeping his irritation to a minimum.

The end of this is within reach, and she just had to be late-

"Oh… Agent Twilight?"

One of Handler's assistants popped through the doorway with a relieved look, sticking his head out curiously.

"Is the Handler busy right now?"
"Well, she is currently preoccupied. Would you like to check?"
"Check?"

Confused, Twilight scrunched his eyes before the obvious answer came to him.

"Was it an emergency?"
"I suppose that's one way to say it… come and follow me."

Following a short walk downstairs, Twilight found himself now within the confines of WISE's interrogation rooms. The doors leading into spaces with one-way mirrors were empty, save for three; one at the end was occupied by James Bishop and another was unknown to Twilight. Twilight was being led to one other close to the entrance of the bottom floor.

There were plenty of occasions where he and other agents at WISE had to make use of these facilities. The extraction of information never stopped on the field, and in fact was an avenue in which spies of all sorts had to excel if they wished their organization to prosper. The war's theaters merely relegating themselves to one of information never downplayed its importance.

Twilight let himself stand in front of the mirror, staring at a figure slumped over on the table with his hands tied behind his back in firm handcuffs. A sudden shake of his entrapped hands and a grunt identified him immediately to the spy.

Richard…?

He tried to not let himself get too surprised; this had always been a possibility ever since he had given up the name of Stephen Nielsen. Agent Nightfall's findings even indicated that he was involved with the shadier aspects of the smuggling ring, and that he was possibly in possession of a 'something little extra'.

I suppose Handler needed an excuse for hands-on work?

Another look at Richard already set off some warning flags in Twilight's mind; this man was a bit different from the man he'd been interacting with for the past few weeks; more reserved? More quiet? No, those words were too polite; he disturbed, as if he'd seen a ghost.

Just what happened on the way here?

"Oh, good. You're here already, Agent Twilight."

Turning his shoulder slightly, his eyes landed on that familiar woman's voice.

"Handler. You wanted to undergo this interrogation?"
"Of course."

She says as if it was the most obvious happening in the world.

"I captured him, so naturally I have the most questions."
"…You captured him?

Handler's footsteps closed in on Twilight's ears, now finding them side by side as her eyes lay directly on the prize ahead. Alongside her entrance, a couple of other staff made themselves comfortable in this side of the room to keep the minutes of this encounter and to begin recording as the agent carries out this operation.

"It was a long story; Agent Nightfall was onto the other fresh graduates and needed more manpower to follow them; the Secret Police were hot on their trails. I was just heading outside to get coffee and spotted the young man, who was on his way somewhere, unaware that he was being tailed. So I shadowed him and the stalker; I ended up following them to a rundown apartment building south of Berlint, where he broke into someone's home."
"He… broke in?"

"The door was unlocked, not that that makes it more innocent; I managed to throw off the SSS agent on his trail and confronted him, but he stumbled upon a week-old corpse."

"I'll talk to him right now. Watch as you please. Maybe you'll pick something up from this as well."

I suppose I need something to do that resembles a break.

Handler walked confidently into the interrogation room, leaving Twilight behind to oversee the event as it unfolded.

The sudden opening of the door and the entering presence alerted Richard, gathering his attention to focus on Handler's intimidating presence. His lips quivered; even through the speaker his fear was palpable.

"I-It's you again. W-Why am I being arrested?"
"Would you believe me if I said it was to protect you from the Secret Police?"
"The Secret…"

The disbelief already began to prod at his mind. In fact, the moment he was aware that he was inside an interrogation room, he had already begun doubting the current state of things.

"Not many people end up noticing, but the SSS do have tabs on almost everyone in the country. Especially people like you, Mr. Lennon."
"How do you- are you the police? If that's the case I'm allowed to keep quiet, aren't I?"
"Not when we've caught you breaking and entering into someone's home; that's quite a clear indiscretion."

"You are now also someone who has stumbled upon a dead body without reporting it. If anyone knows you did so, then it may be held against you."

"…I just came across him… like that."
"I know. However you do have to admit; from an outside perspective, it is strange to see you walking into a stranger's home only to find them dead."
"I guess…"

Handler sighed, walking over to behind Richard's seat and removing his handcuffs, to which he reacted with confusion and rubbed his tender wrists lightly.

"Umm… why?"
"Because I'm building trust. Unless you're planning on being a nuisance?"
"N-No, ma'am."
"Good."

The act of removing someone's handcuffs already seems inherently trustworthy, even if he is still being interrogated it might just help him relax a bit more. He doesn't know how to perceive Handler yet, but this puts the relationship in a more positive light. It might not work later on, so doing it fresh into their conversation would smoothen things initially.

"…Can I ask you something, Ms…?"
"Sylvia will do."
"Then, Ms. Sylvia, why was the Secret Police onto me?"
"Your connection to Stephen Nielsen."
"Oh…"
"Among other things; I can't say you've been discreet thus far."

His eyes strained momentarily. Before completely losing eye contact with Sylvia, he coughed into his free hands in an attempt to put together some sort of excuse, futile as it was.

"I haven't hurt anyone; I promise you that much."
"You do realize you don't have to incriminate yourself there. There's no need to say anything unless we're already keenly aware of it."

Truth be told, we know everything, but we're trying to look like a normal police force.

"S-Sorry, just ask me what I need to talk about in that case."
"Then could you tell me why you barged into a stranger's home earlier today?"

He remained silent. If he wasn't guilty at all, he was doing a poor job showing it.

"I was told he knew my father."

His father? I suppose Corinne did allude that his relationship with his father wasn't ideal most of the time… She never gave him much in the way of answers so he sought them out, maybe?

"How so?"
"He was my father's commanding officer back during the war, or so I heard."

"I just needed resolution for my father, I guess. What better than to ask the man he spent most of his time with?"

It really is easy to get the man talking…

"Someone in my workplace, a friend I guess, told me something. He said that my heart was in the right place, but that no one would believe me if I kept talking like I did. Within the same timeframe, I was told where the man was, so I figured it would be a nice idea to talk to him. To broaden my horizons or something."

Richard rubbed his hands together, as befitting someone who was still obviously nervous. Movements that seem superfluous can be chalked up to the fact that someone is both jittery by nature and already in a stressful situation.

That was almost convincing.

The Handler nodded, but with a matter-of-fact voice, she spoke up.

"So why did we find a paring knife in your coat?"
"Wha-"
"Do you peel fruits as a part time job?"

Richard placed a hand to his empty breast pocket. At that point, there was no more playing dumb because they called him out on it before he ever called attention to it; there was no denial anymore.

"I-It was for self-defense! I swear. I knew I was getting into a shady area of town."
"And? Merely saying such a thing won't protect you from going up behind bars should you use them. What was the real reason?"
"…I heard some stories about veterans. About how violent they can get; just wanted to be sure."

Handler squinted, crossing her arms and legs with a sigh.

"You cannot arm yourself in preparation for a conversation."
"It was just in case-"
"So you say, but how can you expect to speak freely if you're also focused on the possibility that you were just as likely to be assaulted? You can't have it both ways."

Especially not for a civilian.

Handler looked at him with mild disappointment, however that emotion quickly dissipated as time passed on.

"I suppose I can't expect you to feel that way, and I can't exactly fault you when nothing happened by the end of the encounter."
"Right…"

It seemed as if that reminded Richard of the sight he was beheld. In particular, the memory seemed to invade him by the nostrils first. He shook his head as a resounding shudder passed through his entire body at the mere recall of the event. The mere experience of encountering a dead body was already something known to be tough for a first-timer.

"H-How did that happen to him?."

A look of concern donned his face, as if the answer would somehow calm him and help him move past the sight.

"We can confirm he has no history of violence, so there's no way he could've made enemies after the war that way. The fact that he lost an entire leg to an artillery shell notwithstanding."
"Oh…"

"They didn't tell you that?"
"T-They?"
"Don't play dumb; we know where you got your information."

"N-No; I wasn't aware of much."
"Were you at least aware that he had been dead for at least a week by the time you saw him?"

"I-It definitely smelled like he was dead for a while…"

"It's apparent that barely anyone had been in contact with him for months leading up to his death. Did you also notice something odd about his possessions?"

Richard scoured the back of his mind for anything odd that he noticed when he stepped into the man's living space. Anything that wasn't the gruesome sight of a decaying, bloated body, or rotting flesh and maggots was under scrutiny by his memory.

"There were crutches near the exit of the house. But on his dining table… only people I see in the hospital have that amount of prescriptions for one thing; it was all opioids."

The discomfort traveled through his system swiftly, only abetted by the piercing stare being sent his way from across the table. No amount of attempts to muster his courage could ever make him look Handler in the eye properly.

"His hospital records are complete and consistent; he's been going back and forth all that time for the same reasons. It might've been that way until he lost all his money; no government aid even as a veteran. How he survived this long is a miracle, but regardless he was bound to die soon."

Examining the pieces in his mind, Richard's eyes widened as he came to a fitting conclusion.

"So he died… by accident; either by overdose or he fell down the stairs and broke his neck."

"Can you see the picture now?"
"W-Why are you making me think of this?"

"To broaden your horizons."
"Huh?"

"To ensure that you're aware his suffering has lived as long as you have."

"I understand you're upset about what the war took from you; everyone you've met has known loss because of it and everyone you will meet will have been molded by that in some way, shape or form. How you feel is only natural, but it is not exclusive to you or others who have lived a life like yours."

"This suffering is an illness; both communicable and hereditary for the people of Ostania and Westalis. No one is a stranger to it. But maybe that brings more of us together, no?"


-VIII-

The conversation existed past that point; Richard was still questioned for his connections to James Bishop, Stephen Nielsen, Jakob House, Jackson Bellamy, and other affiliated parties. Data and alibi were corroborated between all the events of the past few weeks and all that was left to do was put an ending to this chapter.

Regardless of what they found out between all the people of interest, the end result was to be the same; their activities could not continue for the foreseeable future. Bishop knew this before the graduates, and was merely awaiting his release as he stewed in his lonely negativity. In another nearby interrogation room inhabited by Nightfall and her charge, Jackson Bellamy, his fists tightened, and he thought of all the ways in which he could plead, as if that would change the outcome.

Richard could not say much. Perhaps the conversation he had with the Handler was still affecting his psyche. No amount of buts or what-ifwould have changed the outcome; everyone's tune had changed at the moment the Secret Police was mentioned to be hot on their trails. No amount of righteous emotion could overcome the reality of their situation; the only saving grace was the fact that someone else had gotten a hold of them first. They were powerless save for happenstance that would never bat its eyes towards them ever again.

Agent Twilight slowly paced through interrogation rooms and observed the faces of these once-passionate men, and recognized the pain that a few people knew now being passed on and living on in others; the pain of being overcome with a new grip on reality.

With heavy hearts, they were let out discreetly. One by one they were expected to carry out this news to all concerned parties with the intention of returning to a normal life free of invasive perusal by an overly inquisitive government.

But at least they were safe.

Safety… Freedom… do we get to decide how these things are valued? Possibly; if it weren't for us, all the dirty laundry would suffocate these two countries.

This is an old issue; I'll never arrive to an answer for this. Or rather, the answer I have is not the one that is convenient, but it is the reason I live my life as I do; because this is the only way others get to live in some sort of peace. The people I call my comrades live this life, but it is safe to say we are all equally stumped in this conundrum; equally alone. No answers lie there. If they did, I wouldn't be asking myself these questions.

Us; people like me. There are a few times where unique experiences aren't a privilege; war, death, destruction, murder, lies, silencing the free

All of the novelty in my life is nothing short of questionable for a cause that may not even succeed yet is nonetheless necessary. A life that no normal person could possibly live, let alone fathom.

How many more are there? How many could possibly live a life like this?

Chapter Text


-IX-

Eden Academy looked different tonight. Of course, this was merely within the realm of predictions. Prior research from WISE intelligence had turned up pictures that Twilight had glanced over during the preparation for the event. This was hardly the first time he had attended some sort of high society gathering, and based on the requirements of Operation Strix, it is safe to assume that this would hardly be the last occasion.

But still, the sights were something to behold, even by his standards. Perhaps it's partially because one does not typically stay in school grounds past supposed school hours that the said area revealed itself to be tastefully decorated in orange lights in the form of present lampposts or sparse, temporary fixtures that had never been there before. Another reason for the differing atmosphere also be because indoor lighting had been expertly revealed through pulled curtains that illuminated the outside sparsely, but in a way that ensured a soft aura when paired with all the other lights shining. The familiar lane that he walked alongside Anya and Yor during their initial test and interview looked like a few decorations short of a runway. Courtyards looked like they were fit for soirees, and every other corner became intensely photogenic.

This did not look like a school. Objectively, the only thing to change had been the amount of lights open and the time of day. But it appears that even a few additions to a clever design lent itself to success; a site of learning had become a spectacle of a venue fit for socializing royalty. To affect one's perceptions in such a way using the bare minimum was truly something elegant, as expected of Eden Academy.

The netizens also did not fail to appear to the scene underdressed. While everyone understood it was a formal event, there was no specific dress codes to tie anyone to a certain bubble; everyone attending knew the outfits that resulted in approval or isolation.

All styles of suits whether three piece, two, tailcoats, hats, Albert chains, prestigious Schwyz watches, oxfords, wing tips, pumps. Cocktail dresses, strapless, A-lines, Wraps, Empire waists, and more. Varieties of high-heeled shoes ensured a constant clicking against solid flooring and necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings containing all manner of gems and metals; enough to make royalty blush.

Among the intimidating air of fiscal extravagance, Twilight still kept his cool, as he felt dressed to the nines.

At least I prepared an extra three piece suit. Gray is a good color, especially with a polyester-like shine. A crimson red tie and pocket square that catches the eye just enough to entice attention and offset by a white shirt. I'm also grateful WISE headquarters had shoes to spare after last night; I would've preferred mahogany oxfords, but dark brown ones suit my purposes just fine.

Gold cufflinks on the coat stand out as well when tied to the entire outfit. And a stellar watch of the same shade puts me in the same league as these people, and maybe even puts me out there. Compounded little things eventually make a considerable impression, after all.

To Twilight though, this was just an objective reality. Aesthetic decorations did not change the reason for his presence here; the gala was a treasure trove of information. However, to cover the entirety of the event would be nothing short of impossible. In light of this, Twilight thought it best to focus his efforts on high-priority data. Donovan Desmond would not be present tonight, so what defined high-priority was now mostly up to him. Short of bugging everyone possible (and considering that logistical nightmare), perhaps simply easing himself into certain conversations could benefit him and the mission.

Anya has a good relationship with Becky Blackbell. She's been to their home more than a few times, so I'm certain the parents have caught wind of this. Now would be a good time to get close to them. Who knows what Ostania's most prominent military manufacturer is up to these days? If Desmond were to rub elbows with anyone, I can at least start with something probable aside from bankers other would-be war profiteers. From there, we can narrow down his possible motives for the future.

Amongst the seemingly endless ocean of people present, it was hard to track down a single person. Not to mention the brief moments of silence in between his activities reminded him of the status of his fatigued body, and everything leading up to the point of his current physical status; the exhausting previous hours included.

Through his labored breaths, his dry and scratchy throat, and a barely contained desire to cough every so often, he still managed to recall the faces of Lennon, Bellamy, and Bishop as they were urged by WISE to keep their silence and distance from each other. The combined looks of loss, disbelief, and depressed understanding ticked something in his brain. In particular, overhearing Handler interrogating Lennon reminded him of a more naïve era that had long been swept into the recesses of his mind.

The work of a spy was more than gunfire, explosions, and adrenaline-pumping moments of unsung heroism. Oftentimes, one would be responsible for the decimation of the principles they claim to fight for. One would never be far from questioning why they bother trying when the work of an affluent, loud, and foolish politician could undo their life's work in one evening. Who could live such a life? Who could understand?

Even so, there was always a job to do.

Minutes passed, and nothing of note was happening, and no one important had entered the spy's eyeline. Supposedly, the hour for the formal dance was not too far off and the realization of this reminded Loid of something else entirely.

Is Yor alright?

Loid looked around once more, feeling as if he missed out on looking for her.

He had recalled those nights spent dancing, flowing to the rhythm and cadences of refined music while intertwining his space with his wife. Exchanging quips, warm laughs and learning experiences for what seemed like the first time for her. A handful of moments resembling enjoyment and a memories of a distant life; moments all shared with her. Each perfectly recalled instant in Loid's head felt as if he was witnessing something private; had anyone seen Yor like this? Was anyone aware of the existence of this expression?

Why did she seem so strange earlier this morning-

Suddenly, commotion began to stir up. As if a wave had passed over the mingling crowds, keywords stuck out as Twilight kept his senses open to anything interesting.

[…starting… hall]
[…time to go.]
[…dance.]

Yor hasn't made it yet. Where could she be at this hour?

Tugging on the inside of his lapels, he readjusted his coat and merely moved on to merge with the crowd. In truth, her appearance would not change his reasons for being here. In fact, her absence would definitely give him an easier time moving around and about for his duties.

And yet, he still turned his head around. He checked behind him to see if she was straggling behind him, jogging up to him with a slightly panicked look on her face saying 'I'm so sorry!'. Peering to the side, he kept picturing her form walking side by side with him, eagerly anticipating the moment they would get to display the practice they've put into their dancing. Even as he returned his gaze forward, he thought maybe she would come from there; maybe she had been lost trying to find Loid in the sea of socialites.

Every second spent observing truly was spent awaiting that woman. Every possibility ended the same way; she'd be right there with him. Basking in the warmth of her calming presence was always a reality he would end up with. She was always right there. Now she wasn't.

It felt strange.

Coming home late without getting to spend time with anyone there was strange. Nights without Yor were strange now.

Am I just tired?

The hall was lively with the murmurs among Eden Academy's parents and other similar, high-status figures. There was nary a lonely person struggling to find conversation; everyone knew someone, at least. Twilight knew these people as well; people undoubtedly involved in moving the pieces of Ostania's past, present, and future. Everyone was there among the cocktail tables.

Judging by their presence alone, it would seem that this event would feature movement between rooms and halls among the entire school as venues, ostensibly with seats along the way considering it would be improper to assume everyone could survive an entire evening standing, especially with the amount of women in painful heels. The places for students were unattended and completely dark; the expectation was that everyone would remain within. For now however, it was time to be amongst people. The middle of the hall was left rather bare to make space for social dancing endeavors.

Currently, it wouldn't be wise for Twilight to begin conversing. It wouldn't be long until the introductory event begins. He was quite late already (not yet fashionably late), and thus lost out the opportunity to enter a circle to be a part of for at least this portion of the night. It would be too invasive and unbecoming of a person in this space to act out of line.

So he waited, that is until the crowd's mind began to swarm the center of the hall. And a large gathering of musicians moved into position with their instruments to an audibly efficient location. These events worked on mutual understanding; you could only fit in if you'd dwelt in these parts naturally. Twilight knew, but was now growing even more anxious with the absence of Yor; his eyes darted even more.

The bows of the musicians rested atop their violins and cellos.

The upright bassists fretted their large instruments.

The wind instruments prepared their first chords, and others prepared their sheet music on stands in front of them.

The clock was ticking.

The crowd was growing silent as they entered their positions. Hands were finding their marks on shoulders and hips.

The large double door from which everyone came in closed, supposedly to signal the beginning of the formalities.

However, instead of a couple of seconds of silence to prepare, the clicking of a woman's heels tested the floors of the marble hall, echoing when there shouldn't be any disturbances.

People naturally let their eyes follow the noise. Naturally, some let their lips do the looking as they clutched their pearls indignantly.

Regardless, the heels kept their noise, and they came closer to where Loid was. As soon as the sight was clearer, the sight was clear.

A black halter dress of satin presented itself to the crowd's curious eyes. Backless, with individual straps crossed over each other diagonally, making an X to connect and meet around the base of her neck, leaving a safe area of skin under her sternum exposed by her size, creating a unique aesthetic only she could pull off.

A seamless sash around her waist emphasized her shape and drew attention to the area, right to where her left leg was exposed by a slit from the middle of the thigh downward with generous volume and defined shape allowing it to flow at a slight outward angle, giving the impression of a bigger presence. For this, her shoes needed to be a bit simple but effective nonetheless; black heels with red soles, and strapped delicately around her ankles.

She had kept her usual hairstyle from the first night they went out as a couple; the same headband and rose-like ornament, same earrings and jewelry, but it didn't matter.

Yor looked amazing.

Loid's eyes widened. But before he could say anything, Yor quickly walked in front of Loid right as festivities began.

"I'm so sorry I'm late! I had to pay for the water and electricity, and I forgot to do it during lunch break…"
"No, don't worry about that."

Loid swiftly took Yor's hand and placed a hand on her waist, getting a slight reaction out of her, but unlike the previous times, this wasn't an invasion or surprise.

Yor almost panicked, remembering the delicate, wounded nature of that area but did her best to keep attention away; his hands did not land on it, after all. She reminded herself to quickly return the position.

"I'm just glad you made it on time."

The two began to move naturally, their practice and physical ability carrying them through the musicians' opening parts. The box step came quickly back to them even after missing yesterday's session. It was no more than a walk in the park, and so the focus of their encounter was more about this conversation. Both had felt a need to talk to each other for one reason or another.

We're here.

Whiplash. That was one way to describe the flowing of emotions within this evening. From a world so foreign and dangerous and immediately stepping into another; threatening and alien in its own way but alongside a trusted partner.

The woman who pulled his wits together.

The man of endless patience and respect.

Husband and wife. Fake, but an indispensable portion of this aberration in a manufactured reality. A reality where they belong to a semblance of normality. A family.

A family in a strange, but ever-growingly familiar existence. One that will continue to grow in its indelibility to their very being.

The smiles. The staring. Their barely contained admiration. All pieces of evidence to prove the existence of something no one imagined could bloom in a desert of lies.

The gazing did not stop. Who had the audacity to attempt a spectacle in the hall of the wealthy? They had to see. Whether it was the ridicule of their misunderstanding, the envy of her beauty, or even plain confusion, innumerable murmurs reached Yor's ears and threatened an interruption in her mind.

"It seems I might've attracted some attention on the way in. I hope you're not too bothered."

Right when I feel particularly against the attention as well…

"Fashionably late, as this crowd says."
"Huh?"

"There's a small window of time where it is acceptable to be late to formal events. It's uh, a sort of proof of your social status if you can get away with that sort of thing and look good while doing it."

Look good…?

"Then… did I succeed?"

The surprising boldness of Yor's rhetorical question made Loid grin. This side of Yor only came out in rare moments, including ones like this. Slowly but surely, an ember of energy replaced his drawn-out lethargy with this interaction.

"You did."

She smiled quite bashfully, but maintained eye contact. She knew she longed for times like this. The past few days felt like a week or more taken from her. These few seconds were already a godsend; she already almost forgot about the fact that she was tardy. What would hours together look like then?

"Wonderful. I could only dream my cooking could progress at this level."

As the comment registered in Loid's head, he chuckled and Yor's conspiratorial laughter followed silently. People still offered their sideways glances and snarky comments, no doubt because of the events leading up to this moment between them.

As if an unconscious desire moved them, Loid carefully spun Yor with their joint grip. The dress' hemline reacted accordingly, puffing out like an unflappable peacock establishing its control and attention firmly. And just like so, Yor's slight startle turned into a poised smile seen by everyone that only focused as it returned to Loid. His frame and charming demeanor only offered but a clear message; this was their domain.

"Well… I'm a patient man."
"You really are."

We didn't even practice that move much! That went better than expected.

All the memories of their practice came to the forefront of their minds. All the way from Loid offering to teach her how to cook, to holding hands in public, and right here with the dancing. The effort paid itself back tenfold tonight. Loid wore his pride and respect on his sleeve, and continued to hold another part of it between his caring hands, swaying with tactfully measured grace. Yor's confidence took on a powerful form, and it showed in the way she remembered the subtle movements and angles of her body that turned an otherwise mundane dance into something visually striking. It showed in the way they moved with each other; seamlessly, beautifully. Perfect, intuitive understanding spoken only through the flow of their physical expression.

I'm glad we decided to do this.

For a moment, the crowd disappeared. The hormones pumped, and all they could see was what was readily available to them. An ephemeral period that both of them had pictured in their minds. Who knew it could be better than what they had initially thought out?

A sudden shift in tones from hours before suddenly exposed them to a positively atypical bond. Somehow, even as the idea of performing like this in front of a crowd was embarrassing, this was quite the opposite; this couldn't turn out any better.

"Loid, I…"

Her eyes fluttered, and her lips remained agape to prepare the words. He expectantly waited for her answer. Whatever it could be? It must be something to look forward to.

A young husband and wife, hand in hand, conversing like it was a regular day between them. Was this all because of the surprise of Yor turning up late and starting the interaction off on a high note?

"Hmm?"

Perhaps. But even then, the highs only last for a moment. Even certain words and feelings couldn't leave certain kinds of people.

As their dancing continued, Yor had felt her dress had swiped past someone else's feet, barely avoiding getting trounced on but causing her to stumble nonetheless. Loid's quick response was to grip onto Yor a bit tighter for a moment to stabilize her. Again though, Yor winced the moment her waist was held. She instinctively bit the noise back. Loid took notice though.

The nearby person offered a temporary glare but returned his attention to his partner, and Yor took notice, her grip on his shoulder tightening in mere response. At the same time, Loid grimaced at the moment his tender shoulder was gripped harder than usual.

"S-Sorry! Did that hurt?"
"N-No worries. Are you okay? I think I might've hurt you as well."
"I'm fine. Please don't mind."

"Anyway… what were you going to say?"

"Umm… I… never mind. It was nothing."

This wound…

What? Wait…

Right… we're here at the gala.

Normally, light pain was not a deterrent. Their jobs always required them to power through some sort of physical obstacle. However, the idea of pain during a time like this, a time thought to be peaceful, was slightly jarring.

But jarring enough to make them remember their current physical states in totality as well; those were not the only fresh wounds, the series of events that led up to this moment. The reasons behind pain they otherwise would not have felt while dancing like they did.

Loid bit back his urge to cough in spite of his severely irritated throat, eyeing his surroundings for any nearby source of hydration.

Yor gritted her teeth and groaned at the soreness of her feet in heels after such rigorous activity, and grew conscious of the callus of her palms that now began perspiring.

All reminders of a long-pondered question left unanswered by them.

Of course. That is reality.

We're just here. For the gala; as the Forgers.

I was just at work a few hours ago.

The simmering, passionate sentiment of their dance was out of reach. Where had it gone? Naturally, something easily obtained could just as easily be lost to an unforeseen circumstance.

The pull of recent events never truly resolved. Distractions they remained even as their work as truthfully concluded; no assassinations, no more opinionated youth in Ostania that needed silencing. Their work was done for the night. But whatever came to their hearts as a result of it never left. Or perhaps, they were always there. And in soaking in their novel reality, made them doubt the parts of their lives that brought them together.

And still.

They did not feel that kind of elation before. How did that happen? Could it even happen again? A brief look back at each other's eyes asked the same, wordless questions.

The answer was clear to them.

But why?

They had just experienced it mere moments prior. Why not again now?

This isn't normal.

This isn't real.

I'm not real.

Once their minds reached such a conclusion, their thoughts turned to work, to curiosity. Their idle minds bred excess thoughts.

Last night… didn't I see…

The night had only begun. It was merely time to work once more.


-IX-

The dances ended. Conversations were made. Laughs were had.

Contact information exchanged. Connections made.

Rooms changed, or opened, rather.

The venues had opened up; various courtyards and other similarly-sized halls in the Academy had allowed for an influx and continued migration of guests to and from. Without any specific itinerary, various talking heads took off in all directions with the purpose of intermingling and consolidating future plans. Aged alcohol flowed through systems, exquisite entrée pleased palates, and smaller treats kept the night from growing too stale from a lack of energy. On top of all this, music played by only the most skilled and refined pervaded the soundscape. Wherever there was illumination, so was there wonderful music.

The night was in full swing now, and within these gracious halls, countless facades vied for greater leverage and conversed.

Masks that sought profit, prestige, power.

A peace of mind.

Current events dug up even more without the filter of good physical and mental well-being present.

Yor could not bear to raise her glass to her lips, even with a cushion of food to suppress her intolerance.

Loid's conversation with nearby bourgeois merely entered straight to the back of his mind, as he was taught to. Yet the thoughts in the forefront of his mind were not ideal.

Between the apparent activity, they could not stop peeking at each other through furtive glances, ones that they knew were catching each other staring. Not once, not twice. Regularly, as if by an invisible force, curiosity and suspicion drew their eyelines to meet on the same plane. Both as strangers.

Twilight's brain worked itself in the middle of his data gathering.

That side of her waist has been tender for a while, hasn't it? I thought she was stiff earlier, and I chalked that up to morning fatigue, especially after being late out the night before. But to offer such a pained reaction when I only lightly grazed her waist…

She was fine the last time I came home to see her. In that case, the pain came after that night; so that leaves the night before.

When I saw her on the street past a reasonable hour.

On the other side of things, Yor swished her glass passively and stared at the cascading liquid. But she became more and more bothered as the connections she was making began to consolidate into a worrying conclusion.

I know I smelt burnt clothing from his room; I would know that scent anywhere. Last night, that car he was in came speeding out from the direction of the fire.

It… It has to be, right? If I saw what part of the clothes were burnt- was it the shoulder?

He was short of breath; and he still is. He was coughing rather dryly, and his eyes were also dry with all that blinking; he's never that jittery…

Even if I asked… it is none of my business. Maybe it's just another group of unruly patients-

No; the timing was too convenient from when I escaped the hotel. As soon as I was spotted, a contingent of armed men in vehicles sped away. And as soon as I escaped, a massive fire had erupted in their rival's territory near the docks.

It-

Yor suddenly felt something peeling off her waist, loosening and dropping underneath the built-in sash.

The dressing and gauze! I should've redid it after putting on this outfit… I can't let it fall out now considering all that I've done reaggravate it.

Moving quickly, she held a closed fist to her lips and bit down on the side of her cheek. Her eyes deliberated which stranger to select in order to get what she needed. Landing on one far enough from Loid, she swiftly and quietly moved over, preparing to reduce her volume.

"Excuse me, would you happen to know where the ladies' restroom is?"

The directions came back after a little Oh from the woman she inquired. Registering it, she nodded, offered her brief thanks and went on her way, not before leaving her wine glass on a passing waiter's tray.

Yor kept her movement swift and her steps light, consciously focusing on what she felt might be lurking behind her.

Within the walls of this academy, she felt a different kind of pressure. Not one of physical danger, but possibly more threatening nonetheless. Those sharp eyes told her enough to worry.

No one was tailing her.

Yor found the restroom in the prescribed location. No one was loitering or conversing near the area; this was not high school, after all but the lights in this hall were on and therefore indicated the implicit consent allowing guests to be present in the area.

She entered, and found a woman merely finished touching up her makeup at the sink. The guest had just closed her handbag and turned her face in all directions at the mirror to check herself before turning around and making eye contact with Yor. The two merely offered a polite smile and slight nod of the head before they went on their way.

As the footsteps shrank, Yor went over to one of the women's stalls and locked herself in. She began to undress her top and investigate the wraps, but not without the intrusive thoughts bothering her.

What if he's waiting outside to talk to me? I know he's been looking at me; he's quite skilled at secret glances, but I'm sure that means he knows that I've been doing the same.

Have I been that careless ever since moving in?

Just what is he?

Does she know what he's up to?

The wound was fine, though it was still clearly sensitive. Considering her lack of rest, it looked a bit more fresh than she would have liked.

No flowing blood, thankfully, at least not right now. These bandages are a bit soaked, but that's from another superficial injury near the stomach. I still need to change it…

But where do I get fresh bandages? At an infirmary? But where is it here…?

No one hung out near the bathroom, and all turns to the left and right of the hallway she was in had lights off, but were unbarred. She figured she could slip away easily enough and just stay out of sight long enough while searching the grounds for an infirmary.


-IX-

The sign hanging atop the door could not have been more clear to her night-acclimated eyes; infirmary. Yor merely wandered a bit, carefully covering her bases as she moved through and searched. All it took was a look at a directory nearby to send her two flights of stairs up into a dark corridor devoid of anyone. If anyone was nearby, she would know immediately.

Unfortunately for her, the door was obviously locked. Between smashing the knob, breaking the small pane of glass on the door and shooting her arm through, or finding a way to those windows she could see on the other side, no option was ideal.

Luckily, she always had tools ready for a rainy day. Around her covered thigh, a garter secured her two spikes securely so as to not poke her or restrict her range of motion. She took them out and made due, kneeling down in front of the door and carefully inserting both sharp ends into the lock. With deft hands and light clicks of clanging metal over a dozen or so seconds, she managed to bypass the simple lock and give way to the infirmary.

To whoever the nurse is, I'm really sorry for doing this, but it's an emergency…

Shined on by the soft light of the moon, about less than half of the room had been illuminated. Empty beds, and the absence of noise and bustle within the cold darkness made her feel like she was sneaking around for another target. At the thought of this, she silently hoped there were going to be no surprises as she sheathed her weapons once more.

One of the parts that was indeed lit up was a cabinet at the far end of the floor, alongside a three-tier metallic trolley cart full of various basic medical tools.

I ought to start here.

Rummaging quietly through various cabinets and cubbies, she eventually came upon a surplus of gauze and dressing and took them out promptly. Working with the materials, and ensuring she was actually alone by hiding behind one of the curtains on top of a bed.

Yor removed her shoes, giving herself a sigh of relief, and began to work. She slightly undressed once more and began the process; disinfecting, disposing of old wraps, replacing gauze on the wound, and wrapping her waist in dressing.

As the deed continued, she still was feeling exceptionally bothered; each moment she wasn't doing something requiring focus was a moment spent examining her racing thoughts.

If he knows… does that mean I should- no! I can't do that to them…

Leave? It'd be too suspicious to him and to the public; I might get arrested…

This is not a misunderstanding anymore…

I wish this were something I was too stupid to figure out.

Why can't things be normal?

She stood up and dressed back up, checking with her hands and feel to ensure that her first-aid was secure enough to last the rest of the evening. Before she wore her shoes, she decided to double-check the door and walked up to it.

Upon reaching for the door from an angle unseen through the window, a surprising twist of the knob jump started her heart into fight mode, and the Thorn Princess came out to play.

I didn't lock it-

Too soon to think of grabbing her weapons from her thigh, she decided to beat the assailant to the punch and pulled the doorknob forcefully to her and whipped the door violently, causing the assailant to stumble into the infirmary with destructed balance as their hands touched the floor and almost immediately recognized the danger they were in.

The Thorn Princess charged forward, jumping into a spinning side kick which was barely blocked by raised arms, causing them to fall backwards in reaction to her thunderous power.

With unexpected poise, the suspect broke their fall and regained their footing, instead launching out a swift jab at her face which barely missed, followed by an explosive stepping knee attack, threatening to drive into the assassin's gut.

Swiftly, she stepped to the side, barely missing the sharp knee, and launched a counter roundhouse kick to the side of his head, barely blocked once more with a hastily-raised two-handed block as the assailant was once more staggered and on dangerously unsteady feet from sheer concussive force.

The assassin rushed the opportunity with a hungry pace, and leapt forward with an uppercut to his side, and a right cross to his face, the first strike landing quite well, and causing him to wince, and the second missed by a manner of mere millimeters thanks to the target's quick dodge of the head. They returned with an attempt at a kick to her calf but she raised her leg just in time to evade the low kick.

They don't guard their body.

She then threw out a jab-hook combo up to his guard and attempted a ducking right hook, but was met with a swift push kick to her stomach which landed accurately, driving a painful breath out of her and making her take a step back.

The target had failed to retract their leg though, and the assassin instantaneously wrapped two hands with a death grip around the target's ankle. She swiftly yanked it towards her to throw her enemy off and launched a roundhouse kick to the side of his body. The intercepting impact landed with terrifying power, the assassin's shin imbedding itself deep into sensitive muscle and tissue which caused the assailant to visibly falter and recoil under her blow.

This one is a skilled fighter…

Utilizing the opportunity, the assassin decided to throw off her shocked opponent by ducking and throwing up her right hand to signal a punch coming from above. As the opponent prepared to back up, she instead dropped her knee, stepped around the man with her other leg and slid around while gripping the opponent's coat. The misleading engagement ended up with the assassin with locked arms tight around the opponent's waist.

The opponent attempted to fight the Thorn Princess' grip by widening and dropping his stance, threading one arm through her body lock and attempting to turn around to face her, but his busy hands opened up an opportunity to the assassin.

While his hands were low, she swiftly let go and jumped up, throwing her legs over his stomach and locking it. Her arms soon followed with her left forearm pushing the back of his head forward and her right arm snaking itself around his throat and applying all the isometric tension she could.

The resulting action forced the assailant to begin struggling, attempting to crash into walls to shake the assassin off his back but to no avail; she was there for the long run and no amount of impact would remove her iron grips. With that, the target had begun weakening, feeling something akin to a python crushing his throat and core.

The angle was slightly off though, the assassin knew she had to ensure her elbow was pointing out the direction of the throat for the chokehold to complete and cover his carotids. The target attempted to fight her hands, first by pulling down the hand behind his head, to which he almost succeeded but she merely replaced the hand and hid it under her chin. She retightened her legs over his body, using her left leg to hook horizontally across the surface of his diaphragm and the right to secure itself over it by tucking her right knee over her left ankle.

Soon enough through the struggle of a few seconds, the assassin managed to angle her choking arm properly and gripped her left bicep with it; sinking the attack deeper, going under the chin completely and forcing the air out of his system while cutting off blood supply to his head. The lights were going out for him, and the Thorn Princess knew. It was only a matter of a few seconds now.

His legs were wobbling and lost their strength as the target began stumbling to the left.

Right into the moonlight.

And Yor recognized her opponent, groaning and struggling. Short blonde hair, male, a similar age as her.

She recognized him instantly.

"Loid?!"

Immediately, she let go of the choke, and scrambled out underneath him, who was stuck between hyperventilating, coughing horrendously and rapidly blinking in a daze.

"C-Calm down! Oh dear, oh dear, oh no no no no-"

She fumbled in a state of complete panic, her arms tensed up and shook as her shoulders moved her to touch his cheeks, his chest and his arms in an attempt to figure something out. Yor was aware that she did not have that choke on nearly long enough to kill him, let alone knock him out completely, but to have such a harsh reveal happen in such a manner was rough.

And completely by accident.

If we hadn't coincidentally fallen into the moonlight…

Yor shook her head violently and returned her gaze to Loid, who had now entered a stabilized, fully conscious condition.

"Loid? Please talk to me!"
"Ngghh… Y-Yor?!"

Loid shot straight up onto his feet, tense and unstable as someone who was on the verge of completely passing out was. Yor held her hands out and continued to move forward in an attempt to calm him down.

"Don't be so sudden! You just woke back up!"
"What do… you mean… just…?"

Breathing in and out rapidly, Loid initially wore a confused look, tilting his head and simply leaving himself up to Yor's care. She held onto his back and shoulders and looked around, settling for the bed behind the curtains in another corner of the room. She seated Loid down carefully and ran over to the door to lock it once more and went back to her husband and stood in front of him, unsure of what to do as he was now calming down and collecting his thoughts and memories. And as it happened, he stopped. And so did she.

Their eyes met.

Their hands tightened.

And they forgot how to breathe.

"…Yor?"
"…Y-Yes?"

"Could you sit down beside me?"


-IX-

"Do you think we're safe here?"
"I doubt anyone will come here; the gala was in full swing the last time I checked."
"Right…"

He had asked her to take a seat beside him. But he was absolutely stumped for words, and so was she. Even after both of them were fully conscious and stable, no meaningful words left their lips. No communicative muscles in their brains moved the conversation.

No eye contact was successfully made. Their eyes kept locked on to the windows and therefore the moonlight plastered itself across their uncertain expressions. The faint noises of festivities continued on in another space unseen to them in this room; murmurs, laughter, clangs of utensils against plates. The heavy air could only mean that this was a liminal space. Limbo, purgatory, a place completely separated from everything else.

"A-Are you badly hurt, Loid? We have access to treatment."
"Not… Not really."

Even if his throat felt sore, and the sides of his head and torso were throbbing with pain, nothing felt right leaving his lips, what more hers? It was painful to exist in this place. But no one could muster the direction nor the courage to wander onto the first step of an undefined path.

"Perhaps we need some fresh air for a moment…"

Loid nodded, and Yor stood up to open up the sliding windows, at least the few ones in front of them.

I know what this means. But what I don't know is what I need to do.

Where do I even begin?

The dots that had been forming in both of their heads had finally reached their proper verdicts. As if the time they spent pondering wasn't enough, now they had met with a visceral piece of proof to their suspicions.

Yor held her hands together stiffly, and sat back down beside Loid. But this time, she looked at him, prompting him to do the same.

Both of their eyes spoke the same feelings to each other. Both confused. Both tentative.

Both completely aware of every single moment of their meeting this evening.

Meeting. Dancing. Dissociating. And now fighting.

They were on the same page. So all it took was the first move.

"Loid-"
"Yor-"

Loid nodded, signaling her to go first.

"…Can I treat your injuries?"
"It's fine-"
"We can talk."

"This is the least I can do for… for everything."

Yor's gaze was nervous, but firm nonetheless. The kind of look that was stubborn and would be difficult to budge. Loid realized what complying to her wish would mean, but even then it wouldn't change the path they had inadvertently set themselves on. A half-undone secret was no less than a major liability.

Having no other ideas, he merely nodded and began removing his top layers.

With a couple of uncomfortable moments of uncertain looks, his torso was now bare to Yor, revealing a myriad of tales scattered across his body.

Bruises decorated his upper body, most of them due to their recent engagement. Though other places told a different story. He had older scars; deep slashes, impacts, burns, and abrasions. Some of them were more superficial, others forming skin-colored clusters of irregular tissue. The sight was historical; a canvas of tales, a haven of experiences from a time long-past anything she knew.

There were even a few bullet impacts leftover; irregularly colored patches of somewhat bumpy skin. Yor had tried not to think more on it, and merely take the sight in for what it was.

Yor came across his shoulder and her eyes widened; a fresh first-degree burn.

It was clear now that she was not the only one with secrets. As if the way he fought just now wasn't any indication.

But she didn't want to ask.

Because this was a sight that was all too familiar.

"There's a cut and bruise on the side of your head, so perhaps something to clean and cover. That aside, I'll get a cold compress for you. And your shoulder looks like it needs some petroleum jelly."

There was nothing else that she could ascertain from his body. Every other impact that was not old and had already left its mark, not to bother him ever again.

Yor went and came back with supplies carried on a tray.

"Hold this ice pack to your side."

He complied and allowed the coolness to invade the bruised side of his body, automatically looking past the initial shock of the sensation as he was used to this treatment. Yor then took some disinfectant and began with the cut on his temple.

"Yor, aren't you hurt as well?"
"Huh?"
"I landed a kick on you, but that aside, your side has been injured for a while now, hasn't it?"

"I… I already treated it. That's why I came here in the first place."
"I see."

"H-How about you? What brought you here?"
"You slipped away. I figured it was just a restroom break, but you were gone a while, so I was worried. I searched the grounds and came across an unlocked door."

Worried…?

Yor sighed and shook her head, now hanging low without any vigor. She had just finished applying a bandage to the side of his head and moved onto his shoulder with petroleum jelly and a prepared safe wrapping to use post-treatment.

"I'm sorry for attacking you so violently. I could have used my words, but… I didn't want to risk anything."

Loid turned his head slightly, eyeing her working through his peripheral vision before returning his eyeline forward against the open night sky.

"Clearly, I'm no different. I won't hold it against you."
"Loid…"

Or rather, I can't. I'm not a hypocrite.

Between all the evidence and concluded hypotheses on both ends. The exceptional martial arts prowess, the injuries of the past and present, the alibis, the fact that Yor had bypassed a locked door, Loid lasting that long in an encounter with Yor.

And the night before when their eyes had met. The look they gave each other was the same one they met each other with right now. Except now it had all the time in the world to settle in.

Loid Forger and Yor Briar are an enigma.

And still, their thoughts were shared in the moment.

"Do you have more to ask, Yor?"
"…No."
"I see."

The looks in their eyes were the same. They knew that much.

They possess unusual skills for civilians. They experienced it firsthand.

They involved themselves in a nefarious line of work. They witnessed it. Looked it straight in the eye to see someone peering back.

"…Do you want to ask me as well, Loid?"
"I don't."
"You d-don't?"

Loid rolled his raw shoulder, getting used to the feeling of a soft wrap around the burn as he clung onto his cold compress. With his free hand, he propped his legs onto the bed and faced Yor who had also sat informally with bare feet draping across the bed. Across from each other, they felt secure. Even after such a high-octane encounter, they knew intuitively there was nothing to fear.

Because they were married. They had watched each other for so long that their presence was just a given part of their everyday.

"You could've asked hundreds of questions when you recognized me. When I removed my shirt earlier, you could've asked a hundred more. You didn't."

"And I think we both know why."

All the necessary words had been spoken in this peculiar encounter. Words shared with subtext; the awareness of experiences between them that no one should have had the misfortune to be witness to.

Even as more had become unclear to them, it wasn't cold and lonely to be left in the dark.

Because now, they knew someone else had been there all along.

Someone who knew what it was like to witness the things that they had, to contend with all the suffering and isolation, to inflict measures only a handful of people are capable of. Creating pain, dealing in lies, regularly flirting with death. To forsake common privileges and jump into the fire.

To do the impossible for the sake of something they cherish. Someone who knew what it was like to live a cold, tiring life that no one would ever experience.

That was comforting to know.

"We both know it; we're both tired; in more than one way. But… it's just another bad day at work, isn't it?"
"Mhmm."

"So I won't ask you anything, Yor."

Her parted lips and widened eyes relaxed, offering a more gentle look in return. An unknown laugh stifled its way out of her throat so she merely nodded her head.

"…And neither will I."

And they found it once more. That same, warm look from earlier in the hall. Each second spent exchanging glances these past few days was a second spent realizing that there was a different person hiding under a reality they agreed to forge.

By living their existence as the unknowns of the country, they fell prey to their fatigue and longing through a bout of self-examination.

"I'm glad I married you."

And realized that when they spent time together, crossed paths and fists, laughed, cooked, danced, and worried over their place in the world.

That they could finally see themselves in another.

That they truly existed.


-IX-

The walk back home was a relief. The moody cloud they both brought over to Eden was the last straw in their hectic week, and decided they'd had enough of the place. It was high time for some sort of rest as their beaten up bodies finally decided to cease performing optimally; tired eyes, languid movement, and an equally worn mind.

That aside, people would be suspicious seeing the two obviously showing signs of being in a brawl. Especially considering they were there as a couple. It wasn't worth the extra gossip.

"Are you sure you want to keep walking back home in your heels?"
"Well… I forgot to bring extra shoes."
"In that case, I could simply carry you."
"E-Eh?"

Upon realizing the absurdity of his words, Loid held a hand over his mouth and let slip a small blush.

"I didn't consider that we were in public. I'm sorry."

More than that; what kind of suggestion did I just make?!

"It's fine, Loid. I-I also wouldn't want to let you do anything physically taxing for now."

"Instead of that…"

Yor inched closer to Loid, eventually feeling the heat of his body and his confused gaze.

"Would you mind if we held hands?"

The two met eyes, both already very much familiar with the situation. And so Loid smiled back, allowing Yor to initiate contact. Their fingers intertwined comfortably, as if their body had been well adjusted to this behavior for a long time.

Aside from the request, nothing more needed to be said. All that was necessary was that they stayed close to each other.

"Loid, I think I actually do have a question. I-If you'll indulge me, of course."
"Ask away."

She looked up at him, carefully observing his reactions.

"…Did you look forward to the dance?"

He scratched the side of his head, and then his chin.

I suppose I was waiting for her to ask that.

"…I've been looking forward to it ever since we were invited."

Although slightly embarrassing to admit, more damaging things had already been put to question, and so what was this but an innocent talking point?

They shared their smiles, baring a slight nudge of the shoulder from the wife onto her husband. Almost seamlessly, she had changed her grip. Her arms now found themselves wrapping around one of his. Though embarrassed, she was familiar with how he would respond to these things.

The suddenness was not lost on him, but he didn't bother clarifying. He was just glad she had trusted him enough to initiate.

"May I throw you back a question?"
"Of course."
"How did you like our dance?"
"I really loved it."
"I see. I'm quite glad I'm not the only one."

"You aren't."

 

-Reality END-