Time flies. Just under ten years after I wrote chapter 3 of this mini-series (if you're confused by this comment, it was posted over at gatchfanfic long before I put it on here), there was a challenge over at Writer's Anonymous along the lines of "never in a million years". And the obvious conclusion to the series was, of course, what Jason is facing at the end of chapter 3.

I started writing it, but I couldn't make it fit the challenge rules. It wasn't standalone enough because it's so dependent on previous chapters, and even if I'd made it work, subsections of a longer story have to be chapter 1 and this was always going to be chapter 4. So it sat on the backburner for another couple of years.

This is the end of it, though. I promise.


Extraction OAV

Jason stared at the screen without seeing it. He should never have agreed to this.

He never would have agreed to this. Except that Mark had expected him to say no, and not just expected, but casually assumed. Mark was infuriating when he was right, and in any case it would have made no difference. Jason had to follow orders, and while an outsider might have thought it was a request for a volunteer - just about - it really hadn't been.

So this afternoon he was going on an infiltration mission. He disliked those intensely even when they involved something he was good at.

Male model was so far outside the parameters of things he was good at that it wasn't even funny.

The video he was supposed to be watching had finished and autoplay had picked some stupid thing with a cat. He'd rather have watched that. Except that walking like a cat wasn't on the list of requirements. Walking like... that... whatever you called that stupid, impractical mincing thing which models did for some unfathomable reason, that was now on his list of job-related skills.

Compartmentalise. Focus. He had to do this, however stupid or embarrassing it felt. The consequences of failure wouldn't be stupid or embarrassing, they would be potentially fatal for one of their more senior intelligence operatives. Jason pushed his sense of screaming wrongness to the very back of his mind and started the video again. If he stopped wailing and started concentrating, properly, actually using that photographic memory which everyone else envied and he took for granted, he'd have it down in a couple of runthroughs. An at least he could practice in private. He'd made very sure that the door to his room was locked before he'd even sat down at the desk.

But even in complete privacy he struggled to make himself do something which felt so completely wrong. Not him. Not anyone he wanted to be, or even to associate with. Except that he had no choice, and that meant he needed to be capable and competent and get it right.


He ran though his instructions again as he drove to the location: a large and extremely fancy out-of-town hotel which was apparently well-known for hosting fashion shows. Not that he'd been aware of it.

Your name is Joe Andrews. You are an aspiring model, just signed by Catwalk Models Inc. You had a phonecall an hour or so ago telling you to drop everything and get over to the Sophia Hotel. Noted fashion designer Danquana has a major show this evening and one of his regulars has been taken ill. He needs a replacement with the same measurements. Congratulations, it's you. Your first big break. Actually, your first real job. You shouldn't advertise that, though you might need it as an excuse.

'Noted fashion designer' indeed. Jason snorted to himself. Danquana was in fact Colonel James of ISO Intelligence, the author of his instructions, who had spent a while undercover working for the Spectran ruler himself. They'd thought that G-Force had extracted him without making the Spectrans suspect that anything of the sort had been going on, but apparently not. James suspected there was a Spectran mole in his organisation, and given that the man had nerves of steel and ice water in his veins, it was unlikely to be paranoia.

You will not, I'm afraid, be able to carry or wear anything of your own.

No weapons, no comms, no ability to transmute. Which would be fine just as long as any bad guys were in the same boat. He was entirely unworried about facing anyone hand-to-hand, but he'd be in trouble if anyone brought a gun to a fistfight. The rest of the team would be "nearby", but quite what that meant wasn't defined, or definable. He was, as Mark had pointed out to an unhappy Princess, much safer if the mole didn't see a whole lot of unusual activity and start drawing conclusions about the new guy.

Since Joe won't know exactly what to expect from Danquana when he arrives, it's probably best if you don't either. Thank you, Condor, and good luck.

Jason mentally rolled his eyes as he pulled into the hotel's parking lot.

Be aware, you should park round the back. The front is reserved for important hotel guests. Who, to a man, or woman, or Spectran mole, had super-trendy expensive toy fashion cars in what he suspected were this year's twee colour combinations. What was he doing here? He really did have nothing at all in common with these people.


"Hi, I'm Joe Andrews. I'm looking for Mr Danquana?"

The receptionist looked him up and down. Jason, far more used to intimidating people than ingratiating himself with them, thought about the expressions male models wore in the videos he'd been watching and did his best impression. She didn't run screaming, at least. He'd call that a success.

"Through there." She leaned forward, indicating a set of double doors. "I'll warn you, he's not in a very good mood."

Jason grimaced, not entirely for show. "Thanks."

The doors opened onto a large room, laid out according to the plan he'd been given: stage with doorways at the back, catwalk, seats either side. Someone was hanging black drapes around the stage - better for photos, he presumed. Two men were erecting what looked like a light tower.

"Can I help you?" That was a middle-aged woman, with the strong air of being harassed, approaching from a side door. Behind her, the man himself (he must not think of him as Colonel James) rushed up.

"I'm Joe Andrews - the agency sent me? I'm supposed to report to Mr Danquana."

"Mr? Mister?" Danquana's voice rose in an affronted squeak, and Jason had to resist the urge to laugh. "I am an artist! I do not use a title!"

"I'm sorry." He wasn't sure what else to say, or indeed could say without losing control. How on earth did Mark do this sort of thing?

Practice, his subconscious told him.

Since it was a bit late for that now, he looked at the floor and waited for something else he could respond to.

"Measurements?" Danquana snapped.

"Um..."

"I have them here," the woman put in. "He's a perfect match for Adam. Maybe the hair...?"

"No, no, the hair, that's exactly what I want! Don't touch it! Exactly as it is, Marianne!"

Clearly she hadn't expected that, though she nodded in acknowledgement. Jason breathed a mental sigh of relief. He hadn't considered it until five seconds ago, but random people poking round the nape of his neck and wondering what the scarring might be from would not have been good.

Danquana huffed, spun on one sequin-covered heel, and stalked off, leaving Jason staring at the woman in very real bemusement. Colonel James had been right - he wouldn't have wanted to have to act that interaction.

"Joe, is it? Come with me. We're glad to have you, really we are. Adam is Danquana's muse - the perfect build for his designs - and of all days he picks this morning to come down with food poisoning? Most inconvenient."

"Oh dear," said Jason noncommittally as he followed her across the hall. James might have brought Adam in on it, told him to pretend to be sick... but he doubted it.

.

He spent the next hour being poked and prodded, mostly from the shoulders down. Danquana's edict that his hair should not be touched was passed on religiously and taken very seriously, to the point where he was starting to feel as if his name was "Joe don't touch his hair."

"Lucky you," said another of the models as they sat waiting backstage, a young man with a mass of blond curls down to his shoulders and eyes almost as blue as Mark's. "I have to have the whole left side of my head braided. It takes ages and hurts like hell. You're new, aren't you?"

"They brought me in because someone called Adam's ill. Hi, I'm Joe."

"Elliot. Yeah, I heard he was puking his guts up. Weird nobody else is affected, we all had dinner together yesterday. I'm hoping it's not just that he came down with it sooner than everyone else."

I suspect it's that Colonel James was very careful who he slipped whatever it was to. Jason just shrugged, and then saw an opening.

"So you know everyone else then? I mean, you haven't all been brought in just for this show?"

Elliot waved an expansive hand at the room of models, male and female, in various states of undress. "Danquana mostly works with the same models all the time. He's obsessed with certain measurements - hates having to adjust anything. Throws a complete fit if anyone loses or gains any weight. Let me guess, Adam's outfits fit you like a glove."

"They sure do." A very close-fitting glove, one which he was reasonably sure he'd split at the seams if he tried to do anything remotely muscle-engaging. He'd been warned about that in his briefing, too. Male models weren't supposed to have visible muscles, and he was having to be very careful to stay relaxed and look slight and lean. Not normally something he worried about, but, fortunately, something it was possible to combine with the stupid walk.

"Joe? We need some photos."

He stood up carefully and followed the assistant (Tracy, this one) into a back room just large enough for a bunch of photographic equipment, the photographer, and a backdrop which he could only describe as lurid.

"Hi, I'm Joe," he said for about the hundredth time.

"Hey, Anna, Joe's new too," Tracy said. "That set you did with Adam yesterday? We need the exact same set again with Joe." She twitched as her phone buzzed, and left in a hurry.

"Sorry," Jason said, getting a strong vibe of frustration from the young blonde woman, and adding Anna-the-photographer to his mental list of names. "Adam's sick, apparently. I got called in to replace him."

Anna sighed. "Not your fault. Just... it would be that set. A million different angles, all lit differently. Let's get on with it, pictures don't take themselves."

Jason presented himself for the camera.

It took about ten seconds for Anna to lower the camera, grimace, and say, "How much experience do you have?"

Oh heck... well, one thing he did know was that telling as much of the truth as possible helped make a lie more plausible.

"Don't tell Danquana? This is my first pro job - I couldn't believe my luck when the agency called me, but it turns out I only got it because I'm the same shape as this Adam guy. I'm well out of my depth."

"No kidding." Anna thought briefly, fiddling with the camera lens. "Come here. These are Adam's pictures from yesterday. Any chance you can copy that first one? We'll take it one picture at a time."

Jason considered the sultry pout on her laptop screen and wondered what the chances were of the rest of the team not seeing the results. Zero, he suspected - he knew they'd be 'around' for the show this evening, and he'd already seen the boards in the foyer with pictures just like these on. Including these very pictures, in fact. He guessed his would be replacing them. He imagined Keyop's reaction. He tried to stop imagining Keyop's reaction.

You can do this. It's just a pose. One picture at a time.

"Sure," he said, compartmentalised with everything he had, and did it. In silver frills with lime green edging.

.

"Fast learner," said Anna, lowering her camera from, thankfully, the last photo. "So what did you do before modelling?"

Jason shrugged. "Not much."

"Enough to get you into the US, though. Don't tell me that accent's local."

"Melbourne. But my dad was born here, so I don't need a visa or anything." Jason smiled helpfully. "Lucky for me."

"Lucky for you. Planning to stay?"

"That kinda depends on how much work I can get. Thanks for helping me out with those photos. I really appreciate it." He smiled at her, and she blushed, just a little, and turned her attention back to her equipment.

"You'd best go," she said. "You can't afford to skip the rehearsal. But coffee later, maybe?"

"That sounds good." She was new too, Tracy had said, probably wouldn't have much useful information, but -

"Joe? Are you still in there?"

"Coming!" he called, just barely remembered not to jump to his feet too vigorously, and headed out to see what form of torture came next.

It was the rehearsal. Assistants running around frantically, models running around frantically (the difference appeared to be who was wearing black and who was wearing neon). His name rapidly became "Joe not like that!" and Tracy was assigned to "help him personally". He'd have called it babysitting, but had to admit that he needed it. Not making a complete fool of himself, at least not more than wearing this set of truly ridiculous outfits did, was taking all his concentration, and he rather suspected that if Danquana's team had been infiltrated by an entire squad of Spectran moles he probably wouldn't have noticed. The first runthrough was an unmitigated disaster. It wasn't even all his fault - he didn't think. Probably Saint Adam of the Perfect Body would have kept going without hesitation when the model ahead of him fell off her platform clogs or turned the wrong way at the end of the catwalk, but his only hope was for the person he was following to do the right thing. Should Joe the actual aspiring model have done better? He honestly didn't know.

The second, fortunately, involved doing things again. Photographic memory. Muscle memory. He managed to be in the right place at the right time wearing the right outfit, to the extent that when Danquana threw a tantrum about incompetence, he wasn't the target. That was Emilina of the impractical platform shoes, who seemed surprisingly laid-back about being screamed at by a pompous little man in a sparkly tartan suit and a floral shirt. Jason had had the impression that fashion designers didn't tend to wear their own outfits, from the few videos he'd taken a quick look at last night. Danquana... well, Jason presumed he'd designed it himself.

Or, at least, that the real Danquana had designed it, and James had to wear it as part of the persona.

The third, he'd reached the point where he could run on autopilot at least some of the time, and try to see if anyone except him looked odd or out of place. Danquana was standing at the foot of the catwalk wearing a forbidding scowl to go with his ridiculous outfit, and Colonel James was surely more than competent to spot anything dubious in what he could see, which out here amounted to the models in front of him, a couple of interns straightening rows of chairs, and Anna the photographer wandering around, looking through her viewfinder periodically and taking notes. So, things which the fashion designer wouldn't see. Behaviour in the dressing room - well, nobody was insisting on wearing sludge green, or announcing to the world that they thought Zoltar might have a point. He couldn't see anything which looked remotely like a weapon -

"Joe! Stand still!"

Tracy sounded overworked and exasperated. She probably didn't have to do this for Adam.

Who wasn't here. Who was built exactly like Jason - who'd used the fact that he had an extremely common Spectran body type to impersonate one on more than one occasion. Who, based on those photos Anna had shown him, had the same hair colour, too -

"Joe! You're on next!"

He did remember not to try to run. The lurid orange flares were particularly close-fitting from the knees up. He only missed his cue by about a second.

By the time they got through the fourth walkthrough (he had no idea what it was for, Danquana was entirely nonspecific as to what improvements he wanted, and Jason did wonder if it was simply to keep everyone occupied and within sight) it was within fifteen minutes of the start of the show proper. He could hear the babble of voices in the foyer.

"Joe! Get in here!"

Don't be seen front stage by the audience, he'd been told, and the doors were opening. He got in there.

"I take it we don't get to eat," he muttered to Elliot as the two of them had a last minute high speed makeup touch-up.

"Not a chance, we never do. Sorry, I should maybe have mentioned that earlier. We mostly go out for a snack after it's all over."

"Everyone?"

"Everyone who wants." He grimaced. "I'm not convinced some of the girls ever eat at all. And Danquana practically had to order Adam to come yesterday."

Jason must have looked as confused as he felt, because the other continued. "Danquana decided we needed a motivational speech. And a trip to a fancy restaurant, to be fair. Adam still looked down his perfect nose at it. Tonight's more likely to be a coffee bar and you'll be paying your own way."

"It doesn't sound like Adam's your favourite person."

"Adam's a stuck up snob who thinks he's too good for the rest of us. I've already talked more to you this afternoon than I have to him in six months."

Jason carefully didn't smile (not least because Marina the makeup artist was painting mauve and turquoise stars on his left cheek at warp speed, and was prodding him disapprovingly every time he spoke) but yeah, Adam was sounding like a more plausible mole candidate by the minute. He'd keep an open mind, of course, but not seeing anything odd going on today was no longer worrying him.

"Five minutes to start!"

"Keep still!"

"Where's my left stiletto?"

"Hey! Use your own hairbrush!"

"Joe, I need you now! Your frills are crooked!"

He was never doing this again. Ever.

.

Outside in the hall, there was music (Danquana's musical tastes were a match for his fashion sense, unfortunately), and chatter, and an announcer doing what at the racetrack he'd have called warming up the crowd. Did fashion show crowds get warmed up? Was there going to be any reaction to him going out there? Shock? Laughter? Or did everyone who came to a Danquana fashion show think that the ridiculous outfits on display were normal?

Too late to worry about that now. Outside, the chatter had settled to an expectant murmur, while the announcer sounded like, well, like someone he'd expect Danquana to employ as an announcer, which wasn't a compliment. The music swelled to a climax, died away. At the front of the line, Elliot gave him an encouraging grin, flicked beaded braids back over his shoulder, and headed out onto the catwalk. A tall dark-haired girl - Ama, something like that, she'd been sufficiently competent that he'd barely heard her name - followed Elliot. Then Emilina, who he suspected had taped the clogs to her feet. The squawk of music which was his cue, and he stepped through the curtain.

It was much darker out there than it had been for the rehearsals, with only the catwalk lit at all, a strip of interconnected pools of light in between rows of barely visible faces. Ahead of him, Emilina sashayed confidently, as if this afternoon's wobbles had never happened. Don't move too soon, he remembered. Don't smile. Don't walk too fast. Keep the spacing perfect. Watch where she turns and use the same spot.

Well, he didn't need the last one. Four runthroughs was at least two and possibly three more than he needed to have the stepcount and cadence set in his mind, like some bizarre kata. Just as long as nothing unexpected happened, he'd got this. Hated it, but got it.

One down, he thought as he stepped back through the curtain into the brightness of backstage. Three to go. Lime green with silver frills next, and he didn't even need to worry about getting changed - Tracy would do everything needed and all he had to do was stand there like an animate clothes-horse, moving limbs to order. Yup, Emilina had definitely taped those clogs on - she was making a mess of getting into the giant fishing net skirt she had to wear next without taking them off. Tracy glanced at him, then the clock, and turned to help her, leaving Jason to deal with his own armwarmers.

It wasn't until he was on the verge of stepping through the curtain that he realised he'd got them on the wrong arms. Hopefully nobody would notice.

Two down.

If anyone had noticed, at least nobody said anything, including Tracy.

Three down.

One more, he thought to himself as Tracy tweaked the orange flares into perfect symmetry, and you never have to do this again. At most, he might have to go chat to Adam. Play the starstruck newbie, maybe. Maybe not even that. If he acquired something that Adam would have worn, maybe those ridiculous armwarmers, surely they'd be able to pull Spectran DNA from them? Yes, he'd do that.

"Joe!" Tracy hissed, and he jolted back to reality. Ten seconds to his cue. One more time.

The last walk was almost dream-like, as if he was watching himself from above. He wasn't doing a bad job, either, and for the first time there was a ripple of applause as he turned at the far end of the catwalk. Someone liked the awful flares, then. Turn, with that look-at-me swagger that made him so uncomfortable. Back to the stage, hating every unfamiliar swish of fabric around his ankles, but knowing that it meant he was doing it right. Through the curtain and done. He stood and let himself observe, taking in what everyone was doing. Maybe it would be important, Probably not.

"Joe!"

Now what had he done wrong?

"Over here!" That was Elliot at full stage whisper. "Line up for curtain call!"

Curtain call? They hadn't practiced this. He'd seen a couple of brief clips on the videos he'd watched last night - it had to be simple, right? He'd follow Elliot, do what he did, and if it was wrong it was wrong.

"Joe, you will be next to me!" That was Danquana, high-pitched and demanding. Jason resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Colonel James knew full well that he didn't know what he was doing, was there for another reason entirely, and that outing him as an imposter would be a monumentally bad idea.

He slipped into the line next to Danquana, careful not to step on the trailing luminous yellow robe? cape? drapes? that the man had replaced his awful suit with. Now, if it was anything like the videos, everyone filed out, there was some more or less coordinated bowing, the man himself would step forward and wave to the appreciative crowd, and then they 'd be done.

The front end of the line was moving through the curtain, sounds of cheering and applause rippled through to the back room. People really did like strange things. Jason plastered a smile he didn't feel onto his face and stepped out onto the stage in turn.

The main lights were up, now, the bright circles from the spotlights barely visible. The clouds of carbon dioxide were dissipating. A sea of apparently happy faces stared from the rows of seats on either side of the catwalk. The other models were waving cheerfully, so Jason joined in. Almost failed to stop when Danquana reached the centre of the stage and turned to face down the catwalk.

Danquana stepped forward, hands in the air. A dozen giant camera lenses swivelled to point directly at him. Press photographers, Jason presumed, though Anna was there, at the very end of the catwalk, the red dot of her laser sight -

...cameras don't have laser sights...

Jason took one long stride forward and exploded to his left, aiming to take both himself and Danquana behind the stage. He felt the seams give in those ridiculous flares, heard the crack of a gun go off, felt something skim the back of his head.

Right call.

That was a bullet to the head I just nearly took.

They hit the ground hard and a bone snapped. He waited for the pain, and only then realised that it hadn't been one of his.

More gunshots. Screams. Panic. A gasp from the man under him. Jason stayed where he was, wishing for his bracelet, hoping that the rest of G-Force were really, really close, and unsure what he'd do if they weren't. Devil Star assassin, she must be. He didn't fancy his chances of closing to melee range fast and direct without taking a bullet for real and he couldn't leave Danquana here unprotected while he flanked her.

"Everyone down!"

That was, unmistakably, Mark. Jason guessed what was coming next and clamped his hands over his ears. The screaming whistle of the sonic boomerang was bad enough when filtered by a helmet designed to do so. Out of birdstyle it was awful. He shut his eyes, tried not to puke, counted seconds while imagining the throw Mark would have made - a single loop round the hall just above head height. It must stop soon, surely... he needed it to stop right now...

It stopped, and he wondered if his head was going to explode. His ears rang, the world span, and no wonder goons stopped fighting when that happened to them. Would it stop a Devil Star? Or two? Or six? The gunshots had stopped, but the screaming hadn't, though now it was mixed with sobs and whimpers, and an aborted groan from the man he'd hurled off the stage and then landed on. He'd have liked to join in.

Someone's coming.

Jason got his feet under him somehow, still crouching below the level of the stage, trying to make it look as if he was incapacitated rather than ready to attack. It didn't take a whole lot of pretending. At least it was only one set of steps approaching, and they didn't sound like a light-on-her-feet Devil Star...

It was the Owl. Jason sighed with relief and dropped back onto his knees, and abruptly Tiny was alongside him, murmuring "Talk to me," at a volume inaudible to anyone unimplanted.

"I'll be fine. Danquana broke something. Collarbone, I think."

"G-1 says it's time you were in uniform."

"I don't have -"

His bracelet was put in his hand. "Out of sight."

"Understood." Jason blinked, his vision starting to clear as his implant dealt with the aftereffects of the sonics. A transmutation flash in here would be very obvious, even if he was under the stage, even if most people were still incapacitated. There was a low level hatch through the back wall just a few feet away, though, leading backstage. Had everyone come out before the shooting started? Well, if they hadn't, they'd see Joe Andrews running away. Staying low, he made his way to the hatch, opened it, slipped through, and stood up to a deserted changing room. Finally, some luck.

Now, what would Joe the terrified novice model do? Probably not run out in shiny orange spandex, not when his own clothes were right here. Plus, if his clothes had gone, it would be obvious that he was the one who'd taken them, right? Jason did his fastest change of the day, leaving a pile of frilly fashion on the floor. He'd split both legs pretty much from knee to groin, which made extracting himself a lot quicker. Maybe whoever picked them up would presume that he'd torn them in his haste to get away.

Jeans, shirt and jacket on just enough to count, and he transmuted with a vast sense of relief. No more Joe. Just the Condor: scary, competent, bulletproof. Jason squared his shoulders and stalked out onto the stage to survey the scene.

Tiny was below him and over to his left, where he'd last seen him. Colonel James must be feeling somewhat better, because Danquana's voice rose in querulous complaint about the inconsiderate young man who'd assaulted him so violently.

Princess was at the foot of the catwalk, trussing a prone figure who had to be Anna. Mark stood on the end of the catwalk above her, hefting his boomerang thoughtfully, in an 'I can throw this again any time I like' way designed to make people very, very careful not to make him react - and everyone else in the room was either in a whimpering heap on the floor or sitting extremely still. Keyop was nowhere to be seen.

"Clear," he said to Mark, and frowned. That wasn't a good noise. Who was breathing like that? "Quiet!" he snapped.

There was quiet. Even from Danquana. Except for the bubbling gasps from the young blond man at his feet, sitting on the edge of the stage with his arms wrapped round his chest and a spreading red stain covering most of his shirt.

Shit.

He jumped off the stage to get a better look at what was going on.

Elliot opened his eyes, blearily. "I think I got shot." He coughed, and a trickle of blood ran down his chin.

"You did. Stay quiet." He tore Elliot's shirt away from his right shoulder, and promptly wished he hadn't. That was a lot of blood pumping out, and a definite whistle of air. Sucking chest wound. Great. Well, he'd at least been taught how to deal with this - you sealed it and hoped not to have to deal with a collapsed lung. Jason clamped a gloved hand over the mess and another on his back, putting as much pressure on as he dared. Things were definitely broken in there, and he rather thought that much blood came from an artery, and he wasn't at all sure whether he was making things better or worse. Elliot was sheet-white, his breathing was getting faster and more desperate, and even a small amount of blood might look like a lot but there was a full-blown pool of it on the stage now, just starting to run over the edge.

He wished he could swap places with Tiny, who was a far more experienced medic and was dealing with a couple of ribs and a collarbone, easy stuff, but there was no time for that.

"Lie back," he said, pushing Elliot down flat. "Calm. Slow breaths." If it had been one of the team, he'd have been telling them to use the implant to slow their heartrate, reduce the amount of blood pumping out, while the implant also got on with healing the damage. Elliot didn't have any of that, and he really did not have much time at this rate of bloodloss, and Jason wasn't at all sure that just being flat was going to help enough.

And there were sirens outside. At least one was an ambulance.

"Hang in there," he said, though he wasn't at all sure Elliot was hearing him any more.

There was cold outside air, and the sounds from outdoors were much louder, and there was a man at his shoulder. Dark green paramedic uniform, not young, acting like he knew what he was doing.

"Bullet in his lung," Jason said. No need to add 'he's bleeding out' - nobody could have missed it with that much blood around.

Another younger paramedic, this one female, pushed a trolley close.

"Scoop and run," said the senior one, and Jason didn't wait for further instructions. That meant get Elliot on the trolley right now. He did it, fast and not especially gentle, and then they were moving out of the fire door. An ambulance was right there, others nearby. Another male paramedic was alongside him, hands replacing Jason's, and somehow he was no longer directly involved. He stepped back, and back again, leaned against the wall. The trolley was inside in maybe a minute and the ambulance was moving almost before the doors shut, siren wailing. It accelerated towards the main road, turned left, sounds and lights merging with the traffic on the highway until he could no longer identify it. How far was it to the hospital?

It doesn't matter, he told himself. It's out of your control. Compartmentalise, dammit! What should you be doing?

There were plenty of medics here now - the parking lot was half full of ambulances. And police, and five of the unmarked black vans used by ISO Security. He should be leaving triage and cleanup to them, while making sure that Anna hadn't had friends.

He almost wished she had had friends. Right now he wanted nothing more than to hit someone and make them pay. Instead, he folded his arms and kept watch. Devil Stars, assuming that was what she was, worked in sixes. Except when they didn't, and worked alone. This one had probably been working alone, simply because otherwise it would have been a synchronised attack. Maybe a handler, though? If so, they'd be out here somewhere, watching. He activated the scanner in his bracelet, basic infra-red mode. It wasn't sophisticated, but it would tell him if anyone was in the bushes.

There wasn't anyone, not that he could see. A few tiny heat signatures scuttling around, all far too small to be a person. No unexpected transmissions, either.

Report, said Mark's voice over the bracelet.

"G-2, just outside. Zero hostile activity."

Nothing from Princess, but then she'd been standing right next to her commander and probably still was.

"G-4, round the back. Dead quiet here."

"G-5, extracting casualty." For a moment Jason wasn't sure why that last one came across in stereo, and then Tiny walked out of the door, supporting a loudly grumbling Danquana who couldn't understand what all this fuss was about and how dare that appalling young man have assaulted him, he'd never work again. From what he could see of Tiny's jawline, the Owl was struggling not to laugh.

If Anna did have backup, this was when they'd strike. Jason drew the cablegun and stepped forward ostentatiously in a way that the psychologists had assured them would make the person doing it - in this case, the person in bulletproof birdstyle - the default target. Nothing happened. Danquana was helped into the back of an ambulance, and then, before the paramedics could react, two of the ISO security guys followed them in and shut the doors while a third slid into the front. Jason smiled to himself as the ambulance pulled away. He had a strong suspicion that that particular ambulance wasn't going anywhere near a civilian hospital.

"Anything else to do?" Tiny asked, his own gun in hand.

"Deal with the Devil Star?"

"Security teams are doing that." Mark had come out, followed by Princess. "We're done here, unless there's something I don't know."

Jason shrugged. "I haven't figured out who her five best friends who decided not to break cover are, if that's what you mean." He surveyed a parking lot with several frantically working paramedic teams, a number of security officers, and an increasing crowd of interested bystanders, none too impressed that they were being kept at a distance by the pair of cops who'd showed up. "How do we get out of this?"

"Whirlwind pyramid over the roof."

Okay, that's not a bad idea. It would put them up into the dark, out of the range of cameras, and then they could drop down to the deserted parking lot on the other side, detransmute, and drive off.

"G-4, we're coming over the top," Mark said, and flicked his fingers in the cadence to form whirlwind pyramid.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd, and Jason smiled to himself as the pyramid picked up speed. He suspected that the videos would be all over the news channels before they even got back to ISO, good free publicity, and anyone trying to learn anything useful would be wasting their time because a four-man pyramid was a barely stable structure that G-Force never used in combat anyway.

Was it normally this unstable, though? He gritted his teeth and held on, letting muscle memory and implant energy substitute for the calories he hadn't eaten in the past ten hours to get them up to speed. It wasn't great but it was good enough. They rose into the dark, above the headlights, above the parking lot lighting, above the hotel windows. Higher than he'd have thought necessary, before Mark called for them to break and they circled down over the roof. Tiny's van was parked next to the civilian G-2, and his choice of the furthest parking spot from the building, tucked behind several really quite thick bushes, was looking like a real good one.

A real good blurry, swimming one. He felt shaky, and unsteady, in a way that went far beyond low blood sugar, and suddenly he was getting all sorts of warnings from his implant, none of them made any sense, and he needed to be on the ground right now, whatever their normal landing protocol called for.

He hit the ground, just about feet first, as his vision dimmed even further, and ended up on one knee.

"Jase?"

That was Mark. Or maybe Tiny. His hearing was going the same way as his eyesight, but whoever it was, using names in birdstyle - they shouldn't be doing that.

What the hell is wrong with me? He leant on the implant, and got nothing back. And he was in birdstyle, and out of time to explain that he was in trouble.

He tried to detransmute, couldn't find the coordination, fumbled for his bracelet's emergency release. Wasn't the detransmutation flare normally a lot brighter than that?

"Oh shit!" Definitely Tiny, a long way away, and getting further away. There was pressure on his neck, which hurt a lot, and someone was calling for a first aid kit, and...


"Jason, can you hear me?"

I'm not dead. He was more surprised than he'd have admitted.

"Jason?"

He opened his eyes to daylight, black section medical's sideroom, and team doctor Chris Johnson.

"How are you feeling?"

Hungry, thirsty, need to pee, stiff neck. "What happened?" he asked instead.

"I'll take that as 'not too bad'. What's the last thing you remember?"

He thought about it briefly. No, nothing else in his memory at all after it had all gone black. "Landing in the parking lot after whirlwind pyramid feeling like crap."

"That makes sense."

"It does?"

Chris continued. "You took a tangential hit to the back of your neck - the bullet was deflected back off your implant or it could have been a lot worse. You're lucky there aren't any major blood vessels in the back of your neck. As it was, your implant was coping with the shock right up to the point where you went into whirlwind pyramid. That put a load of additional pressure on it."

"Oh." There wasn't much else to be said.

"Detransmuting meant Tiny could see where you were hit. Good call."

"Oh," he said again.

"Any questions?"

"Can I get out of here?"

He didn't expect Chris to say yes - didn't want him to say yes, truth be told - but seeing him hide a smile was reassuring.


Two days and multiple implant retunes later, the answer was finally yes. In the meantime, and before he was even allowed out of bed, he'd talked to Anderson, admitting that he'd only figured out that Anna was the infiltrator about a tenth of a second before she pulled the trigger (which was the lesser of two evils, given that the alternative was that he'd left a known Devil Star free to take potshots at a pair of unarmoured ISO operatives). He'd shared his concerns about Adam, since there was no reason there would have only been one infiltrator, but it turned out that the man was just an arrogant twit who happened to share his body type. He'd persuaded Chris to find out what had happened to Elliot ("serious but stable", which apparently was medic for he'd be okay eventually). He'd managed to talk Mark out of a monumental guilt trip based on having called for whirlwind pyramid (honestly, what else would they have done, walked to the cars in front of fifty pairs of curious security clearance-less eyes?) He'd thanked Tiny for keeping him alive long enough to get him back to ISO, and been left rather relieved that he hadn't been awake to experience Mark's version of emergency driving. He'd managed to dissuade Princess from discussing the finer details of his outfits with him. He'd intimidated Keyop into at least keeping jokes about those photos within the team.

And he'd talked to Colonel James. The man was a lot more uncomfortable than he was - broken collarbones sucked even when you were implanted and young, and James was neither - but glad to be dealing with a broken bone rather than a bullet to the head, and grateful to the man who'd taken that bullet for him. It still didn't seem real. No matter how many times he replayed it in his mind, he didn't feel the bullet hit. His brain was convinced it had been a near-miss. He supposed it had been, by some definitions. About a millimetre, Chris said. Just enough for the bullet to skid off the cover of his implant rather than destroying it completely.

He'd learned that it was over, no question. No more Danquana. James said he was done with undercover work, and Jason couldn't blame him.

Now if he could just stop dreaming in orange and lime green.


With apologies to anyone who knows about the fashion industry. Jason really doesn't. What Jason should have figured out by now is that if they seem to be falling for him they are always the bad girl. (This is canon and officially Not My Fault.)

In memory of Jaimi-Sam: fellow writer, beta, friend.