Whaaaat? 2 chapters in the same week? What madness is this?
Don't start expecting consistent uploads (I'm "essential" and my ADD brain says no very often) but Merry Christmas everybody.
(Hmm? ...It's not Christmas? Eh, whatever; it was snowing earlier) Enjoy!


Grant Simmons blew out his cheeks. "You already know what I'm going to say."

Beside him, the director of the Phoenix Foundation graced him with a small smile. "It's a bad idea."

"Understatement," he replied. "Granted, it's not a fortress or a military installation level bad idea, but it's pretty far from ideal." He crossed the room in a few strides, gesturing to the image. "The mix of retail and residential will work against us. This block? This has been gentrified, and recently. Better utilities, decent security systems, but still not upscale. This block?" He indicated the block to the east—incidentally the address that Riley had texted to her boss just a few minutes ago.

"This block is officially the demarcation point for the less gentrified area. You've got barely legal businesses on the ground floor and residences above. Those people ain't gonna see nothin', if you get my drift."

They were going to mind their own damn business even if you were dragging a woman into your apartment by her hair. He could see why this 'R34mer22' had chosen it; redundant utilities for power and telecom services, iffy but not downright shady. The parking garage—apparently built for when the renovations to the older strip mall across the street were finished, which clearly hadn't happened yet—made it easy to hide a swanky car while you transacted business.

The hacker's building was three stories, as was the parking garage, and they were the two tallest buildings. No good place to put a sniper's nest, not even billboards on top of the other buildings. And if the parking garage was meant for the hacker's customers, they couldn't use it as a staging area without tipping him off. They'd have to be at least a block off in every direction.

A lot of things could happen to an agent when their backup was a block away.

The door clicked softly open, and Simmons glanced over his shoulder to find that Davis has just come in. She was smirking.

"Well, I didn't do quite as good a job as Mac would have, but they'll work." She held up what looked a lot like a pair of iPhone earbuds, and Simmons wondered if he was supposed to be impressed.

Or know what the hell she was talking about.

"I connected them to our mini coms, so when whichever agent and I head in there, we pluck out the earbuds, leave the mini coms in our ears. As you know, they've only got a thirty minute battery—that's how we were able to manufacture them so small—and they charge wirelessly. I've completely discharged them, and put a charging pad in the earbuds." She held them up in her hand. "So as long as the earbuds aren't in our ears, the mini coms have zero power."

It took him a second to put all that together; fortunately, Webber was all over it. "And then after you've passed the scans, you put one of the earbuds back in"

"And we're back in business," Riley confirmed. "There's also a mic in the actual earbuds, which will be physically connected to our smartphones, but will actually be transmitting disguised as your normal everyday Uber app traffic."

Simmons held up a hand. "Let me get this straight. We'll be able to hear you one hundred percent of the time, and you'll be able to hear us only when you have one of those earbuds in your ears."

"Correct," she affirmed.

Which left a glaring problem. "Isn't this—Reformer22—going to get suspicious if you pop an earbud in while he's talking to you?"

"Probably," she admitted. "Chances are I won't be able to put one in. But the agent accompanying me can tune out of the convo. It's not like anyone on tac is going to understand what we're saying anyway—sorry," she added quickly, and Simmons just shook his head.

"No, you're right about that." He never would have been able to turn R34mer22 into an English word without Riley translating. "And how does this prevent good old-fashioned signal jamming?"

In answer, the young woman displayed the actual wires with a Vanna White-esque flourish. "This is the part I couldn't figure out how to miniaturize. It's just a super-long antenna. I'll be transmitting on ultra-low and ultra-high frequencies, and the signal will actually be split between them, so even if he's got something running that can detect those signals, they're both encrypted and scrambled. They'll look like some kind of interference—like I'm running some anti-surveillance jamming of my own."

Making a bad guy ignore your safety precautions because you were busy trying to nullify his was usually a pretty good method for getting away with something—temporarily. And in this case, temporary is all they needed.

"So what's the play here?"

Riley then focused on Webber, deferring to her, and after an appropriate amount of time, Matty replied.

"Riley's going to chat up our friendly neighborhood hacker and see if she can get any information on Murdoc and what he may have purchased or ordered. He's more likely to brag to her than he is to me." She made a sour face. "As soon as Riley is certain she's got the right guy, she'll call it, and we'll take him in."

"And I can only put one agent on her?" Simmons didn't even try to sound apologetic. They were talking about literally handing Riley Davis to someone who at the very least had a working relationship with the psychopath who wanted to kidnap her for his fucked up torture games. She was going to be more exposed than she had been since this entire thing had started. And with Dalton and the rest of the team only just now getting discharged for their flight home—another bad idea, considering they had zero new intelligence on Murdoc's current whereabouts—Grant didn't even want to contemplate what would happen if this went sideways.

"You can have as many agents as it takes," Matty informed him, in a tone that brooked no argument. "But only one agent is going in with her. We still don't know what he looks like, and while I don't think he can pull Murdoc's little disappearing trick from earlier, I don't want to have to explain to the local police precinct why we've temporarily arrested an entire block's worth of citizens."

Not that he was above doing that if that was what it took. "Can they at least go in armed?"

Matty glanced at Riley, who nodded. "Yeah, that wouldn't be too weird. We'll probably have to give them up, though, when we walk in. He won't wanna get robbed at gunpoint any more than you would."

So whoever he sent in to watch her back, they'd have to go in with a fiberglass or plastic gun, and a ceramic knife. "And as soon as you tag him and get what you want out of him—"

"Then we call in the cavalry," Riley agreed. "Whatever codeword you want."

Simmons looked back at the six city blocks on the screen, eyeing the buildings and the text bubbles with their vital characteristics. "He's probably got redundant power, but we can cut it from both neighborhoods here and here." He gestured. "If I put a pair in both places, that gives us coverage of both these streets. Three mobile units can cover north, west, and south. East gets you into narrow streets and residences, if he's as smart as Davis is he'll never let himself get boxed in there." Simmons stepped up to the map and flared his fingers, zooming out into the larger suburb.

"Police helicopters wouldn't be out of place in this neighborhood, so we'll have an air unit in the area." He turned to look at the young analyst. "Anyone do any subterranean mapping of this area?"

Riley nodded. "Normal utility tunnels, nothing else." Which meant the sewers were definitely large enough to crawl through—but it would be pretty hard to take a hostage with you.

Which just left someone actually straight up shooting her to worry about.

"You're wearing a vest."

Riley didn't even flinch. "No argument here. Boze made me that top for the casino op, that'll work. It's a little early to head out for the clubs, but I can say we're gonna grab dinner first."

The director took a deep breath, turning to study the map. Her expression was hard to decipher. "Grant, you are certain you can keep this contained?"

"No," he admitted. "Any op can go bad. I don't want her off Phoenix property unless this is the only way to get a lead on Murdoc." He turned back to Riley. "You are certain that I can't send in Jada or another agent and you can't talk them through this conversation?"

Davis was already shaking her head. "No. That requires a consistent transmission over coms, and there's no way to mask that. Whoever goes in there needs to be able to talk the talk."

"What about—" Matty snapped her fingers. "—the mousy analyst—Patrick."

Not the best descriptor, Simmons thought to himself. Riley looked similarly unimpressed. "He wouldn't know the difference between a hacker and a script kiddie, and no one of this guy's caliber would take him seriously. Or believe that someone like B4ndzz would refer him." She hesitated. "Jill can talk the talk, but...I don't know that anyone would believe she was buying this kinda hardware. She's sorta—" Riley hesitated, looking for the right word.

"Jill," Matty supplied. "She's not trained for this kind of operation."

"Fine, no decoys. What about isotope tracking?"

Another headshake. "Someone like this is going to be running radiation detection—probably for his own gear." Matty turned on Davis in alarm, and she just shrugged. "The isotope tracking trick's been on the books for a while now. Feds use it to mark merchandise that comes through the ports. He's gonna scan what he buys before he accepts it if he doesn't wanna get caught. I would."

"I hear you offering a lot of obstacles and not a lot of solutions." The young analyst focused on him, and Simmons turned, folding his arms. "Tell me this isn't about revenge." Another hacker—a good one, maybe better than she was—getting Murdoc into their network. Into her own damn bedroom. That kind of territorial invasion would piss anyone off, and with Davis' prison record, and general disregard for federal law and jurisdiction—

And Riley gave him a little smirk. "Oh, it's about revenge all right. This guy should have known better than to deal with someone like Murdoc, and he sure as hell should have known better than to try to infiltrate the Phoenix." Then she sobered a little. "Look, for all we know Murdoc is literally driving back, since he still hasn't shown up on a single passenger manifest and it's been close to seven hours. I've got facial rec running on the US/Canadian border but..." She trailed off, looking much less cocky than she usually did, and Simmons could see the underlying tension, even as she tried to play it off.

"This is our last lead on Murdoc. The evidence from the warehouse and the hotel is dried up. Clayton's dead. I...I don't see any other options here."

And either way it was her ass in a sling. Murdoc was coming for her, and they all knew it. His teams were doing well on their adjusted details, but they couldn't keep this up forever. Mac was temporarily laid up, so he'd be no fun in one of Murdoc's fucked up games at the moment—

Davis was right. It was their last lead, and at the very least they knew—definitively—that Murdoc was not in LA.

"We will keep her as safe as we possibly can," Grant said carefully. "Who do you want on your six, Riley?"

She was pretty well versed with the tactical agents by now, and the way she took a breath to immediately answer, he knew she'd already picked one.

"Agent Ramirez," she said, and then seemed to unconsciously glance at Matty, as if seeking approval. "He's close to my age, good looking, matching skin tones."

Simmons hesitated a moment, not quite sure if he should speak or not. Luckily, Webber beat him to it. She had an eyebrow cocked. "Riley, you are aware that Ricardo Ramirez—"

"Isn't interested in women?" she finished, with a small smile. "Yeah, I picked up on that. But he's a great dancer, and if Artemis is about to hit the clubs, she's gonna bring her hot Hispanic boy toy, not a bodyguard."

Matty glanced at him, and Simmons fought to keep his expression neutral. "That may be the first time anyone has referred to one of my agents as a 'boy toy,'"—and Riley looked utterly unrepentant—"but he's solid, and they know each other pretty well." Ramirez wasn't as bulky as some of the other tac agents, and there was very little about him that screamed 'law enforcement.' Honestly, there was very little about Ramirez that screamed anything. He'd been in the Army during "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and it had taken Grant a good year to come to that conclusion on his own. There was no doubt Ramirez could play at being her arm candy.

And no doubt that he would do everything in his power to keep Riley Davis safe.

Webber seemed comfortable with the choice, and Simmons dipped his chin in a nod. "Alright, I'll brief the teams, and get Ramirez to meet you down in wardrobe. If he hands you a weapon for concealment purposes, you take it and you keep it on you unless there is literally no choice but to surrender it. You copy me, Davis?"

"Got it," she confirmed, her tone still plenty serious, and after one more look at the director—just to communicate, silently and one more time, that he wasn't a fan of this plan—he headed out of the War Room to gather the troops.


"So this is definitely gonna wash off, right?" Ricardo asked, holding the handheld mirror he'd been given as he studied the design that started about three inches below the top of his back, snaked up the back of his neck, slipped around his right side, and curved to a stop under his jaw. It was a tribal design inspired by ancient Mexican civilizations.

"Yes," Lena, the talented woman who'd just airbrushed the design promised with a chuckle, cleaning and putting away her equipment. "You'll have it for a few days, tops. Why, you don't like it?"

"I love it," Ricardo assured her honestly. "But my family would throw a fit if they saw me with it."

"Why?" Riley asked as she looked through the outfits she had available to her, holding them in front of herself in the mirror to her left.

"Because my family came from the mountains of central Mexico," Ricardo explained with a shrug. "We're Aztec, not Mayan, and this design is definitely more Mayan than Aztec."

"You can actually trace yourselves back to the Aztecs?" Riley looked over in surprise.

"Honey, some of my relatives still in Mexico are fluent in Nahuatl," he confirmed with a chuckle. "I'm hardly fluent, but I know a bit."

"That's awesome," Lena admitted, then closed up the case for her airbrush. "Try not to move your neck too much for the next ten minutes, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed with a grin. Then, as she left, he stood up from the chair he'd been sitting in for the past twenty minutes, moving to the rack of clothes that the lovely folks in wardrobe had pulled for him, starting to peruse.

"You nervous?" he asked the young woman beside him after a few minutes of silence. She blinked at him.

"No, why?"

"Because you've been going through that rack the whole time I was getting inked up and there are, like, maybe thirty items on it," Ramirez replied, raising an eyebrow at her in the mirror across from him so that he didn't turn his head. "You've held nearly every combination up in front of the mirror, so unless you're just super indecisive about what you're gonna wear for our date..."

Riley didn't say anything for a few seconds, looking back at him, and then she shrugged, deciding not to comment as she went for her twelfth pass through the rack.

"Look, Riley, I'm not gonna tell you not to be nervous, because that's just the dumbest thing, like 'oh, wow, thanks a lot, you have magically cured me of all anxiety,'" she laughed slightly when he spoke in a comical voice to further express the stupidity of the idea, "but I do want you to know that I've got your back. And besides, we're going up against a nerd who I'm willing to bet is not nearly as badass as you are; between the two of us, I think we got this."

"You're probably right," Riley nodded, relaxing just a bit, but not completely. Ricardo plucked a pair of black denim jeans from his rack and draped them over his arm.

"And, y'know, if we strike out tonight," he shrugged, "I mean...Murdoc needed some hella lucky circumstances to get his hands on Bozer, so what we're doing to lock you guys down has to be working. We might not get the bastard tonight, but he can't get to you, either."

That seemed to actually resonate with her, and some of the tension released from her shoulders. She flashed him a smile.

"Thanks, Ricardo."

"Anytime, mamita," he chuckled with a wicked grin. They were quiet for a few more minutes before Ricardo had gathered the rest of his outfit. He was heading for the curtain behind which he could change when he saw that Riley was holding up a corset top with lace sleeves, and he rolled his eyes.

"Alright, that's it," he sighed, dumping his haul in the little stall and quickly going over to her side. "You would look gorgeous in all of this, but please, let me."

Riley raised her eyebrows at him, then put the top back on the rack and held her hands up. Ricardo smiled and started flicking through the clothes. He plucked out a pair of short black jean shorts; a bullet-resistant black t-shirt with a blue, heart-shaped Anonymous mask smoking a cigarette on it and a rip in the neckline; and a burgundy, faux leather moto jacket. Then he turned to the array of shoes and selected a pair of thigh-high black boots.

"You're on your own for jewelry," he told her, handing her the boots. "Thank me later. Go on."

Ricardo shooed her towards the changing area next to his, and she shot him an amused and slightly apprehensive look before they both ducked behind their respective curtains. Ricardo emerged first, sporting boots; the tight, stretchy, black jeans; a plain forest-green muscle shirt; and a distressed, faded black denim jacket. He looked at himself in the mirror, fixed a stray piece of his dark hair, and turned his attention to the available accessories. He'd selected a very nice silver watch and was putting it on when Riley emerged from behind the curtain.

"Yes!" he approved with a grin, causing Riley to laugh. "See? Am I good, or am I good?"

"Well, I can't say you're wrong," Riley admitted, studying herself in the mirror before she, too, went to look at accessories. Ramirez finished his look off with a small black hoop in his left nostril, and Riley went with dangling silver earrings and a black choker.

"Final verdict?" Riley asked, adjusting her earring and then turning to face him. Ricardo looked her up and down, then clapped quickly.

"Marvelous," he approved. "Or, as a white boy with one year of Spanish under his belt would say," he cleared his throat and spoke with an almost offensively-terrible accent, "muy caliente, señorita."

Riley laughed genuinely, prompting Ricardo to dissolve into giggles as well, and he took a deep breath to calm himself.

"Alright, we've got you looking gorgeous," he said with a grin, motioning for her to follow him across the room to the array of weapons waiting for them. "Now let's get you armed."

The first thing he handed her was a gun, without even looking at her, and she took it from him without hesitation. They both knew she wouldn't be able to keep it, but it was better, in Ricardo's opinion, to be over-armed than under-armed. Unless, of course, you were pitching in a game of softball.

"So, Riley, say you're our hacker, and I'm going in for this meet with you," he said slowly, studying their options. "What are you going to do to make sure I'm not going to kill you?"

"Run you through a metal and electronics detector the second you come through the door—and not tell you, of course," Riley began instantly, and Ricardo kept his eyes on the table in front of him, slowly reaching out and starting to move items around. "If I'm super paranoid, it'll be a backscatter scan, but that takes serious juice, and we'd know if he had one of those by now. Then I'm going to presume you're armed and ask you nicely to surrender your weapons after I demonstrate that the area is safe."

"And if I don't give it up?"

"I'll be armed, too, obviously," Riley scoffed. "Our business would be over before it started and you'd walk away with nothing but your life."

"Okay," Ricardo nodded, still rearranging the display. "Would you have backup with you? Would you do a pat down?"

"Pat down maybe," Riley admitted. "But I'm more likely to depend on my tech. And hackers tend to be fairly solitary. Besides, we would have seen evidence of another person there by now."

"Gotcha," he sounded thoughtful. "So, you're satisfied I don't have any weapons. Then what?"

"Then I'll probably take you to a second room, which will either be a Faraday cage—but unlikely, since that would kill all my tech, too—or a room full of jammers to make your electronics useless without destroying them."

Ricardo finally looked at her, raising an eyebrow. "You know, this is sounding more and more like the worst idea ever."

"Seems to be the general consensus, yeah," Riley smiled sheepishly. Ricardo sighed and shook his head, turning back to the table. Most of the weapons, he'd moved off to the left hand side. Only a select few remained on the right: The ones that they might be able to smuggle in. Ricardo rubbed the back of his neck.

"I'm gonna be honest, Riley," he sighed. "I don't like it."

"Nobody does," Riley shrugged. "But it's our best bet."

"I know that," Ricardo nodded. "Believe me, I know that. But I just want it on record that I don't like it."

"Noted," Riley chuckled, and Ricardo shot her a small smile. Then he surveyed their options: a handful of ceramic knives and two small plastic pistols. He let out a sigh.

"Alright. Here we go." He began distributing the weapons, passing one pistol to Riley, followed by two small ceramic knives. They were in unspoken agreement that that was all she could manage to hide. Ramirez was left with three ceramic knives and the other plastic pistol. The pistol he tucked behind the small of his back beside a metal gun that he'd all but accepted he was going to have to relinquish. Then he attached one knife to his left forearm and affixed another to the inside of his right boot. The last knife he concealed in a silver belt buckle with a cross design on it.

"I think that should do it," Ricardo smiled, making sure his belt buckle was in place. "You all set?"

Riley nodded at the same time Simmons walked in. He was dressed in full tac gear, and he looked them over appraisingly.

"Well, don't you two just look like the cutest couple," he teased slightly. Then he sobered a bit. "You guys ready for this?"

"As we'll ever be," Ricardo replied with an easy shrug and a goofy grin. Simmons looked down at the weapons table.

"How many did you two manage to get?" he asked.

"I've got five including the gun that will definitely be taken from me," Ricardo replied. "Managed to get Riley four."

"Suppose it'll have to do," Simmons grumbled. "I've got tac moving into position. If you leave now, they should only get there a few minutes before you. I'd still prefer if we could get closer..."

"Yeah, I get it, Grant; you don't like it," Riley rolled her eyes. Ricardo scoffed with a mischievous smirk and settled his arm around Riley's waist.

"C'mon, babe," he gave his team lead a faux dirty look as Riley tried to hold back a laugh. "We don't need this kind of unrelenting negativity in our lives. Let's get out of here."

"Great idea," Riley agreed. The pair strolled past the team lead with their heads held high, and Simmons let out a breathy chuckle.

"You're a pain in my ass, Ramirez," the team lead called after him.

"But you love me anyway," Ricardo shouted back, throwing up a peace sign with his free hand and never once looking back.

They kept up the act until they were out of sight, at which point they both burst out laughing.

"C'mon," Ramirez jerked his head and led them to their ride. Cassidy Todd was headed home after a long shift with her own tac team, and she had so graciously agreed to give them a ride to the bar from which they would be taken to their meeting. They spent the ride engaged in pleasant conversation, getting into character, and then they stepped out onto the sidewalk outside Anton's Bar as Todd drove away. The bar was just starting to fill up, but they didn't have time to head inside; according to Riley's phone, their ride was going to be there in just a few minutes.

"Hey," the analyst got his attention and pulled out her phone. "Let's document the occasion."

The tac agent chuckled, crouching a bit to get into frame with her and making first a goofy face and then a genuine smile, holding her close as she took their picture twice, making sure to get the bar's sign in there.

"Perfect!" she laughed, looking at the two images. Then she turned to him. "Here," she handed him a pair of the ingenious mini coms devices she'd created.

"Sick," Ricardo grinned, quickly putting them in his ears and plugging them into his phone. Once he was sure they were working, he spoke up. "Alright, check one-two; everyone's favorite tac agent checking in!"

"Really?" His teammate, Aaron Dixon, replied quickly. "Jada, what happened to your voice?"

He heard laughter over coms, and beside him, Riley stifled a chuckle.

"That's cold, Aaron," Ricardo chastised with a mock-hurt expression. "I'm gonna remember that."

"I'm shaking in my boots," Dixon teased.

"Let's stay on task, people," Matty broke in, but there was a smile in her voice. "Riley, you hear us?"

"Loud and clear," the analyst confirmed.

"Both of you keep your guard up in there," Webber ordered, her discomfort with the whole situation well-masked to all but the most attentive ears.

"Don't worry, boss," Ricardo grinned. "I'll have her back by eleven."

"Ten," Simmons countered as Jada chuckled quietly.

"10:30," Ricardo compromised.

"Fine. Now both of you, wear your seatbelts."

Both agents laughed quietly and promised to do so, and at that moment, their Uber pulled up to the curb and called over to them. The pair slid into the backseat, and then they were off.

They arrived in about forty-five minutes, and their driver pulled off to the side to let them out.

"Thanks for the ride, man," Ricardo grinned, handing over a tip as he followed Riley out.

"No problem."

Ricardo stepped out onto the sidewalk and closed the door, removing his earbuds and slipping his arm around Riley as the car drove away.

"Ready?" He asked, dropping his eyes down to meet hers. Riley took a breath, smiled, and nodded.

"Well, alright then," he chuckled, squeezing her to his side and kissing the top of her head before he stage-whispered, "Now, try to act like you're into me."

Riley laughed at that one, shoving him playfully, and then she put her arm around his back and settled her hand in his back pocket. Ricardo smirked, and then, at last, the two of them strolled into the building.

They'd had enough time to do basic recon of the building, and the first thing Ramirez noticed was that two of the doors had been moved. The second thing he noticed was that the cardboard cutouts of a Stormtrooper and a Cylon that were flanking the front door were at least twice as thick as normal cardboard cutouts.

But most of the other things jived with what he'd been expecting. A Radio Shack had unprotected sex with a pawn shop. Waist-high counters lined the two interior walls, poorly lit and filled with every possible kind of electronic device. The shelves in the middle of the floor were five feet, the typical steel and where the much less expensive crap was displayed. They were also lined up diagonally with the counters, a typical security move so that the employees could remain behind the counter but still easily spot shoplifting.

It also gave said employees a significant advantage in a gunfight, if it came to that. Ricardo didn't like it one bit.

Riley, too, was surveying the store, and the turn of her upper lip expressed her distaste. She used the hand in his pocket to steer him towards the only visible employee, a pimply-faced teen who was watching his phone far too intently to notice them. Riley parked them directly across the counter from him, gave it a two-count, then removed her hand from his person and casually pulled out her phone. Ramirez didn't see what she did, but after about five seconds the teen was suddenly jolted out of his trance, scowling at his phone while he tried to get the picture to rotate from landscape to portrait.

"The fuck?" he demanded, apparently rhetorically, and Ramirez didn't bother to hide his smirk when Riley simply tucked her phone back into her jacket pocket. Only then did he seem to notice he had customers, and the annoyance on his pockmarked face instantly fell away to stunned surprise, followed by a cocky smile.

"And how may I be of service to you?" He put unnecessary inflection on the word 'service' and Ramirez put together what he'd been watching on the phone.

Ricardo was about to take him to task for it when Riley's hand crept back into his pocket. "You can't, little dude. I have an appointment with your boss."

"What makes you think I'm not the boss?" the teen leaned on the counter and smirked at her, and Ricardo couldn't help but choke on his own laughter, causing the employee's eyes to flick to him with a scowl.

"Do you want me to answer that honestly?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow.

The teen just glared, then straightened up, stalked over to a door marked 'Employees Only', and vanished through it. A few seconds later, he came back out—still glaring—followed by a man of about thirty. He was a bit shorter than Ramirez, maybe just a hair under six feet tall, with light brown hair and brown eyes. His skin was slightly tanned, as if he did in fact manage to get outside every once in a while, but he was barely a step above pasty. The man smiled widely at Riley, but his smile faltered a bit when he saw Ricardo, and the tac agent thought he saw the tiniest spark of anger when he saw that Riley had her hand settled in his back pocket. Instantly, he was on high alert.

Still, the man managed to keep his smile as he approached them and his employee resumed his previous position, pointedly tuning them out.

"I take it you must be Artemis," the man said quietly, his eyes locked on Riley. She neither confirmed nor denied his assertion, simply offering a half-smile. The man grinned again, staring at her just a bit too long for Ricardo's liking before he tore his attention away and addressed the tac agent.

"And that would make you...?"

"Not the person you should be paying attention to," Riley pointed out tartly, before Ramirez had time to say a word. "We're here to talk shop with an artist, and..." She trailed off, glancing distastefully at the counter. "This isn't art."

He refocused on her instantly, and the charm was back in place as though it had never slipped. "What, you think this one of B4ndzz's elaborate pranks?"

Riley hadn't said anything to Ricardo about a secret codeword or anything else, really, but she relaxed slightly against him, as if this guy had passed some sort of test. "Wouldn't be the first."

The other hacker inclined his head. "I assure you, you're in the right place. Now, is this gentleman someone I should recognize?" His tone trailed off into something faintly condescending, and Ramirez had the distinct impression he was standing beside two pureblood wizards and being called out as a Muggle.

That was fine. The more he was underestimated, the better. "Her boyfriend," Ricardo replied with an edge in his tone, a tension in his normally easygoing smile. "We came from dinner, so I'm just along for the ride."

He wrapped his arm just a bit tighter around Riley's waist, and the two men stared at each other for a couple seconds, sizing each other up, before finally, their host broke first, chuckling softly.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, boyfriend," he said, as though conceding, and extended a hand towards him. Ricardo hesitated, having no desire to shake his hand, but Riley bumped his hip and shot him a look that said 'play nice.' The tac agent sighed through his nose, then forced a smile and grasped the other man's hand firmly. Admittedly, a little more firmly than necessary, and he smirked when the other man flinched just slightly. When their host—R34mer22, presumably—released him, he once again focused in on Riley.

"If you'll both follow me," he gestured towards the Employees Only door he'd emerged from and led the way inside. Ricardo made sure to keep himself between him and Riley at all times.

The room they found themselves in was quite small, and appeared to be some sort of break room. It had a few open mesh lockers on one side—though with sophisticated locks—a sink, a small round table with a couple of chairs, a fridge, and a microwave. On their right looked like the employee bathroom, and along the back wall, through a doorway, was a set of enclosed stairs leading up. There was a small hallway under the stairs that led to the emergency exit. Ramirez clocked two cameras. Their host stopped and turned to them.

"Before we go any further, I think it's best if you both drop your weapons in an empty locker for safe keeping," he said with a charming smile at Riley and a strained one directed at Ricardo.

Riley raised an eyebrow. "Do you now."

The other hacker gestured to one of the cameras. "You're welcome to scope out the system, but I assure you, you're in the safest room in LA."

Davis had previously warned him about this, so Ricardo was expecting it, yet Riley huffed an impatient sigh and pulled out her phone, rather than her gun. She scrolled through a few options, then cocked her head and withdrew her arm from his so she could use both hands. After about twenty seconds of whatever she was doing, she pursed her lips.

"Not bad," she conceded, and re-pocketed her phone, using the same motion to free the metal gun from behind her back. She strode over to the bank of lockers, placing it wordlessly in an empty one. Then she turned and looked at Ricardo expectantly. The tac agent frowned at her, and she raised an eyebrow at him. After a couple seconds, he pouted and sighed, fishing out his own metal gun and placing it beside hers. Then, Riley closed the locker and turned back to R34mer22, who was smiling at her. Ricardo was sure, at that point, that he did not like this guy.

"Excellent," he purred, seeming pleased. "Right this way."

He led the way through the doorway to the stairs, and Ricardo followed first, still very much on high alert even as he kept his posture relatively relaxed. There was a door at the top of the stairs that was secured by a keypad. Their host blocked the pad with his body and typed in a code, causing the door to obediently open. He motioned for them to head inside, standing on the landing and holding the door for them. Ricardo narrowed his eyes slightly at the man; this just felt like an easy way to separate them. The stairwell was too narrow for them to walk up side-by-side, so it would be all too easy to lock one of them—namely him—in while keeping the other—Riley—out. Was he giving the nerd more credit than he deserved? Maybe. But pretty much the only thing they knew about this guy was that he either had previously worked with or was still currently working with Murdoc. Best not to take chances.

Without looking away, Ramirez reached his hand back for Riley. She didn't say a word, but quickly slipped her hand into his, interlocking their fingers, and the tac agent held on tight. He smirked at the slight falter in their host's smile, then climbed up the last couple stairs and stepped into the room.

Where the rest of the building seemed like a rundown late-90's nightmare, this room looked like an immaculate technological utopia. Clean, contemporary lines on all the furniture and displays, sitting atop a beautiful hickory wood floor not at all out of place with the brushed aluminum and nickel. The tech was neatly organized and tastefully displayed in a near cousin to some of their flashiest Phoenix labs. He half expected some slick Sparky knock-off to float forward and take his drink order. Ricardo honestly had no idea what most of it was, and didn't bother to try to riddle it out. Instead, he assessed the room itself.

It was larger than the break room below, and had museum-quality lighting. There were several workstations around the perimeter with unfinished gadgets, and a rolling standing desk in the middle with several monitors—all brushed nickel. A short, more dimly-lit hallway branched off from the room, and at the end of that hallway, he saw a glowing exit sign. It probably went out to the fire escape, if he recalled the building plans correctly.

No cameras up here, though, at least none that were readily obvious—not even on the laptops. No tactically arranged tables, no indication of any kind of hidden compartments or any other defensive or offensive capability. It legitimately looked like a cross between a show-room and a workshop. If he was being honest, Ricardo wasn't entirely sure what he was looking at, but Riley seemed impressed.

"Nice digs," she commented, and then both agents whipped around when they heard the stairwell door bolt shut behind them. Their host seemed startled for a second. Then he laughed softly.

"Sorry," he apologized, holding up his hands. "Automatic locks. I don't want just anyone walking in here, obviously."

Or anyone walking out, Ricardo thought, his heart pounding even though he made a point to relax his body. Riley's hand was still in his; he'd probably almost crushed her fingers, and he squeezed her back gently, once, in apology. She did the same, then reluctantly straightened hers, giving him no choice but to let her go.

However, she stepped around him only to lay that same hand lightly on his chest, tracing a little design over his still-pounding heart. "Bae, he and I need to talk shop. Why don't you work on that high score of yours? Shouldn't take us more than," and she glanced over her shoulder with an evaluative look, "ten minutes?"

The man gave a theatrical wince. "Ouch," he added, his voice full of humor. "Let's see if I can surprise you."

"Yeah, not a fan of those," she told him, but she did turn to face him, her nails trailing lightly across Ricardo's chest. Then she was crossing the room to the table that seemed to contain small, common bric-a-brac. Still loathe to take his eyes off her, Ramirez reluctantly fished his normal-looking earphones out of his pocket and stuck one in his right ear, triggering the hidden com.

For a moment, he wasn't sure it had worked, and he idly flicked through his phone, settling on Shadowgun Legends. It was supposed to be a signal, but he could see that he had zero bars, and Ramirez forced himself to take a deep breath and relax.

Just mindlessly shooting robots, nothing to see here.

The other hacker was definitely laying on the charm, seeing as she'd given him a ten minute time limit to woo her with his amazing technology, and Ramirez let his eyes wander the room again, taking another deep, slow breath to try to get that remaining tightness in his chest to settle out. He felt at least thirty percent better when a voice came through his earpod, exactly the way Riley said it would.

"Ramirez, audio on you and Riley is still coming through five by five."

"Fuck yeah!" he muttered, thumbs mashing viciously on his phone, and he saw Riley glance back at him with a fond little smirk. Her hacker friend immediately redirected her gaze to something apparently quite small, and Simmons stayed quiet in his ear, apparently listening.

As soon as Davis had what she wanted, she was going to declare that she wanted some pie—apparently a raspberry pie was actually slang for some kind of relatively small technology—so Ricardo kept his free ear tuned to the pitch of her voice. The dude was trying to get her to laugh but she wasn't biting, and several times the other hacker's head came up, as if she'd surprised him. However, his answers were always prompt, he never tried to touch her, and Ramirez never heard the distress word.

Tapas. If she wanted to go for tapas, that was their cue that it had all gone belly up and tac would be on them in forty seconds, given the solid thunk that door had made when it locked. Cutting power would cut the electromagnet, and the deadbolt would give with sheer old-fashioned force. Ramirez leaned casually on one of the displays, turning back more towards the door, and for a split second, he couldn't seem to focus on it.

Ricardo took another deep breath, but this time the tightness in his chest didn't release. He blinked a couple of times, staring hard at the door, and he was able to force it back into focus.

Something was wrong.

Whatever it was, it wasn't affecting Riley. She was on chunk heels, not stilettos, but her balance was absolutely fine, her hand was perfectly steady when she reached into a display case mounted on the wall and selected a man's watch. Beside her, their target's laugh and breath were easy.

Not gas.

Ramirez started cataloging everything they'd touched since they'd entered the shop, even as he began making his way across the room. Riley touched the locker. This guy got the door, and the door before that. Ricardo had kept a hand on Riley, he'd—

He'd shaken the target's hand, but hadn't noticed anything slick or painful, and even as he tucked his phone into his pocket, as an excuse to free up the plastic gun, he realized the pads of his fingers were burning.

So was his chest, where Riley had touched him. He could feel the muscle shirt shifting and the fabric felt hot and rough. The band around his lungs tightened further.

Nerve agent, fast acting. He was going down. Imminently.

"Babe, I could go for some tapas," he announced clearly. Or at least he thought he did. Riley's head whipped towards him, but her eyes were on the hacker beside her, and he shot her an apologetic look just as she stiffened in shock. In literal shock; Ricardo had seen the results of getting tazed too many times not to recognize it happening right in front of him.

The goddamned watch.

Ramirez felt his fingers close around his gun but somehow he couldn't grasp it, and he realized that he was only going to be conscious for a few more seconds. He used those to lurch towards the hacker empty-handed, which it seemed he hadn't expected. The guy backpedaled, but Ricardo was able to bridge the distance and close his numb right hand around the guy's face like a basketball. He tried to force them both against one of the brushed nickel displays, tried to crack the guy's head open, but the display was on wheels and he missed the corner by inches. Once they were down on the hardwood floor, Ricardo was unable to do anything more coordinated than use his own dead weight and heavy limbs as an obstacle that bought Phoenix tac another precious few seconds.

Beside them, Riley crashed to the hardwood. For a split second, their eyes met, but he wasn't certain she was still conscious; he couldn't focus on her face. Couldn't focus on anything. His skin was on fire, and he was trying to gasp through a waterlogged pillowcase. The hacker squirmed out from beneath him, shoving him off, and then Riley's boneless body was pulled upwards by her arms, and the agonizing burn blurred out everything else.


"If you'll both follow me."

Grant Simmons was seated in the driver's seat of the heavily tinted SUV, staring at nothing as he strained to hear even the faintest background sound, and beside him, Dixon shifted restlessly. If anything was going to happen to their coms, it was going to be now. Riley had said, once they went through that second door, bugs and weapons would have to go.

Moment of truth.

There was the hiss of cloth moving, then a door closed. Then just quiet hissing.

Habit, long groomed from tense ops, kept his breathing slow and even, kept his the muscles in his jaw relaxed. If they didn't get back sound in five seconds, he was calling it and both Davis and Ramirez knew it.

And while the quiet hiss didn't dissipate, they clearly heard a voice over it. "Before we go any further, I think it's best if you both drop your weapons in an empty locker for safe keeping."

Dixon stared at him expectantly, and Grant shook his head. "All teams, hold position." Unless he made them cough up the plastics and the ceramics, they were going to wait for Davis to signal.

"Do you now?" Davis sounded like her normal sarcastic self.

"You're welcome to scope out the system, but I assure you, you're in the safest room in LA."

That was total bullshit, and Phoenix had more than proven that over the past few months.

They heard someone sigh—probably Riley—and some kind of repetitive sound. Almost half a minute went by. "Not bad," Davis conceded, and there was some rustling and a few solid thuds—probably guns. Then the whine of metal on metal, and the sound of a locker closing. So the weapons they'd turned over were off limits, at least temporarily.

"Excellent." It was almost a purr, and it put Simmons' teeth on edge. Putting this guy in cuffs was going to be a real pleasure. "Right this way."

Tac—and the director, back at Phoenix—all listened silently as three people climbed a flight of stairs. Behind Dixon, Jada Navarro was keeping the building schematics up on a tablet, and she brought up the second floor and pinched it bigger, so they knew what they were looking at. Grant eyed the floorplan that he'd already memorized hours ago, and they listened to a faint, high-pitched beeping.

"Number pad." The voice belonged to Agent Keeler. He was stationed at one of the power mains, and Cook on the other, ready to kill both main and redundant power to the building the second Riley gave the word. "Might be battery powered."

"Doesn't matter, an electromagnet lock takes a lot of juice, if he's got a backup battery on it it'll be drained in minutes." Reeves was an ex-Marine and, outside of Dixon, one of the largest men in Phoenix tac. "We'll take it off at the hinges if we have to."

While they all gave MacGyver a hard time about it, he was hardly the only Phoenix agent that blew things up. He just did it more regularly than the rest of them. And typically he didn't use C4 and detonators like normal people.

A door opened, and there was a pregnant pause before the party continued climbing the stairs. The underlying hiss grew louder, almost like they'd walked into a room with a white noise machine, but then they all heard solid footsteps, probably a hard floor, wood or concrete, and a quiet snort.

"Nice digs," Riley complimented, and her voice was still easy to understand over the background noise. It was followed almost immediately by a sudden, deep thwack, and Simmons couldn't help a little twitch.

"Automatic locks, nothing to worry about," the hacker's smooth voice came back. "Your friend can entertain himself with the pinball machine for a few minutes while we talk about your needs."

Navarro made a very unladylike sound. "Riley's gonna scroat this guy before we ever get a chance."

Apparently Davis had given him one hell of a look, because Ramirez remarkably let that comment pass, and after a few minutes they heard a pinball machine start up. It was a little distracting, but Riley's voice was still easily heard. "So tell me about these little beauties."

Still no hint of tension or fear in her voice, and Simmons knew Ricardo would never have walked over to a game without using it as an excuse to pop in his earbuds. "Ramirez, audio on you and Riley is still coming through five by five."

"Well, these little guys are good for all sorts of things. For example," and then the hacker's voice seemed to get louder, as if he was closer, "I can place one in a beaded necklace, and hear the entire evening conversation from a sixty-inch table."

"So they're omnis." Riley made an appreciative noise. "What's the bit rate?"

Their host hummed. "Basically whatever you need it to be. You can daisy chain the batteries, and it'll power through however—and wherever—you want it to."

Dixon's lips turned up. "Christ," he muttered, "is this guy for real?"

"Guess he doesn't get out much," Navarro agreed. "Though between Davis and Murdoc, she's the much better looking customer."

Even though both of them had muted their coms, Grant gave his teammates a look, and they cut out the excess chatter. If Riley wanted to let their little Cassanova sing to her, that was a solid choice. He was more likely to reveal something boasting than he was if she played it standoffish. Besides, the pinball machine was dinging and clicking away in the background, and there was no way in hell Ricardo wouldn't have stepped in if Davis had shown even the slightest hesitation or fear.

And while Simmons didn't know gigahertz from ghosting, he didn't hear either of the words they were listening for. When Riley said she wanted a slice of pie, they were to move in and make the arrest. If she said she wanted tapas, they were to move in and shoot anything that moved.

"Let's say I wanted an order of a hundred," Riley finally offered. "What kinda coin would that run me?"

"A hundred?" Their hacker gave a surprised little laugh. "What's a nice thing like you gonna do with a hundred of these?"

Which was a good question. Murdoc's purchase had been only a few dozen. And while Simmons appreciated Ramirez letting Riley run it her way, they were wasting time.

Webber clearly felt the same. "Tell Riley to stop flirting and get to the point!"

"The usual," Riley said, at almost the exact same moment. "Dig up a little dirt, make a few bucks."

"Well." Simmons remained perfectly still, listening. Now they were getting somewhere. "I can tell you they have a lot of very sexy features." There was the sound of fabric rustling, but Simmons couldn't make out exactly what it was. "The compression rate on recordings is damn near criminal. They'll store hours of data before transmitting back, either on a pre-programmed schedule or when momma pings them. Because the audio's so compressed, you can store entire libraries—if you have the companion software, of course." He laughed at his own joke.

"Yeah, we already know they can do that," Dixon growled, and Grant listened closely to the pinball machine. Libraries of recordings are what had allowed Murdoc to fake Mark Kyser's voice, and lure MacGyver to what had turned out to be damn near his own death. Ramirez hadn't taken the implied threat on his partner so well.

But the gameplay remained steady. Either Ramirez couldn't hear them, or he was keeping a tight lid on it.

"Of course," Riley agreed readily, and just a bit breathily. "What else can they do?"

"Each one contains a kinetic charger. They can power themselves, if you place them on something in motion." More fabric rustling—it almost sounded like someone was running their hand up Riley's jacketed arm. "Give them a little friction now and then, and they'll keep going indefinitely."

With a line like that, there was no way Ramirez would be letting the hacker touch Davis, but the pinball came kept going like nothing was happening.

"Ramirez, if you copy, clear your throat," Simmons ordered, over coms, even as Riley gave an amused hum.

"Nice line, but do they really work? You got any...satisfied customers leaving five star reviews?"

There was a low chuckle, but it wasn't Ramirez, and the agent didn't make a sound. Simmons gave him a five count.

"Ramirez, that's an order," Matty snapped.

"Yeah, of course," their target bragged. "Plenty of them. Well, I shouldn't say plenty, this tech isn't just available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that comes along. Wouldn't want the wrong people getting wind of my little setup, now would I?"

"Webber, something's off," Reeves growled, over coms. "They can't hear us."

But it was more than that. Ramirez would not be idly playing pinball. And that last line about the wrong people—

"We need to pull them out right now," Simmons growled, locking eyes with Dixon and Jada. Both agents gave him an immediate nod.

"Do it." It was Webber, and it was clipped.

"All units, all units, move in." Simmons was already halfway out of the car. "Cook, Keeler, cut power on my mark." Grant and his team were very obvious in the street in their tac gear, but it was after dark and the streets were, as predicted, pretty empty. Simmons sprinted for the building—his team was lucky enough to have the front door—and when he was within about five strides he counted it down.

"Two, one, mark."

Right about the time he got his fingers on the door lever, power died for a ten block radius. The door opened easily, and Simmons held it open as Dixon and Navarro stormed the shop.

Matty didn't need a cue from him to try to re-establish coms with her agents. "Riley, Ramirez, do you copy?"

There was only one target visible, the shop's teenaged employee, who took one look at the tacked-up agents with flashlights and guns and disappeared behind the counter. Navarro nimbly leapt it and pounced on him before he could do more than squeak, and Grant left her to it, signaling at the door Davis and Ramirez had gone through with two fingers. Dixon tried the handle, but apparently it didn't give, and the ex-SEAL wasted no time in kicking it down.

In that time, neither Riley nor Ramirez responded. Simmons didn't hear anything from them at all.

The room they found themselves in looked like an employee breakroom, quite small, and the tactical light on his rifle quickly found a grated locker with two firearms inside. There was a bathroom, quickly cleared, and then he and Dixon had their choice between the first floor emergency exit, and a flight of stairs. Dixon took them two at a time, knowing that kicking the door down had destroyed any element of surprise.

On coms, Simmons became aware of a rhythmic clicking sound.

It turned out the magnetic lock at the top of the door was still completely operational, and the ex-SEAL slapped two shaped charges where the hinges ought to be. Simmons hustled down about half the stairs, covering the ear closest to the blast, and then Dixon was on his shoulder, and the explosives detonated. The pop was loud in the small, enclosed stairwell, and the door didn't fall in, not until Dixon shouldered it out of the way.

Their tac lights picked up a shiny showroom, filled with reflective metal and glass. That ticking sound he heard on coms was more pronounced, and they'd fanned out into the room before Simmons spotted the source.

Ricardo Ramirez was face down near one of the displays. The clicking sound was coming from him. The room was otherwise empty of other humans.

Dixon headed immediately down a short hallway where a red emergency exit sign was lit, which would lead him to the fire escape and Bravo team. Simmons went to their downed agent.

"Ricardo—" he started, and the grabbed the man's tense shoulder and turned him over.

Ramirez stared blankly up at him, white foam coming from both his mouth and nose. The clicking sound was him, he was making it in his throat, and Grant realized it was a seizure.

"Agent down, second floor, send paramedics and hazmat!"

His pulse was present but racing, and his pupils were blown, even with a tac light shining right into them. It was a nerve agent, whatever it was he and Dixon were already exposed, and Simmons looked up sharply when he heard the fire exit door slam open, and the other agent made it out onto the fire escape.

"...clear!"

"This is Bravo team, alley and parking garage are clear!"

"Charlie team, north side is clear!"

Which was impossible. They had to be somewhere.

"Navarro, is your suspect in custody?!"

Coms were only quiet a moment. "Yessir—"

"Check for a basement entrance, crawlspace, anything." It wasn't on any of the plans, but if they didn't go up they had to have gone down. Simmons rolled his muscle-locked agent onto his side, recovery position, and tried to clear the foam cone from his nose and mouth. "Ramirez, buddy, if you can hear me, just relax. EMTs are on the way. Breathe, man. Keep tryin'a breathe."

Dixon sprinted back into the room, out of breath. "No sign of 'em," he reported, dropping to a knee beside his stricken teammate. "Is he—" But then realization set in, and Dixon pulled back his hand.

Grant fixed him with a grim look. "I don't know," he replied. "But there must be an antidote in here, he would have given one to Riley. Find it. Fast."


Waking up took a while.

She first figured out she was asleep when something tickled her nose and she clumsily rubbed her face against the pillow in annoyance until it went away. A few hours slipped blissfully by before it happened again, and she rolled her head in the other direction in the hopes of escaping whatever hair had gotten loose.

She discovered she was on her back, arms thrown carelessly over her head, and she was the absolute perfect temperature, so she decided to grab another hour. No alarm meant no reason to get up.

No alarms. No work. No tac team knocking on her door with coffee.

...usually they brought her coffee.

Riley groaned and squeezed her eyes shut more tightly. No. She deserved the day off, they had that lead, they had—

Riley's eyes slowly opened.

She was actually lying in a bed. A very comfortable bed, with bright white sheets and a light comforter. They smelled like lavender. She picked up her head, totally confused, taking in the upscale hotel room, the blackout curtain pulled back but the blinds letting in just the glow of late morning sun. Riley pulled her right arm toward herself, intending to sit up, and found it tangled in something.

That something turned out to be soft, thick white leather bondage cuffs, attached to straps that disappeared behind the headboard of the California king. Which, she saw after a moment, was a good seven inches off the wall.

Still, even seeing it didn't seem to shock her. Her heartbeat was absolutely steady; she didn't feel the cold rush of adrenaline, didn't start hyperventilating. She shifted her legs under the sheets, finding them similarly bound, and noticed that she was wearing one of her grey convention tees, with the neck ripped out.

It was one of her favorite sleeping shirts.

She was wearing her own pajamas. In a mystery hotel room, right after—

They'd been talking about the bugs, she'd picked up a watch he recommended for her 'boyfriend.' Ramirez had suggested they get tapas, that was the distress word and he should've—

But she couldn't remember what happened next.

Or how she ended up tied to a hotel bed.

Riley swallowed, and found that outside of a dry mouth, she could. No gag.

That was about all the exploring she managed before the double doors, opposite the foot of the bed, swept open and revealed none other than R34mer22. He was also dressed down, cotton pajama pants and a satirical tee, and he was carrying a tray containing, at minimum, a glass of orange juice and a vase holding a red rose.

"You're awake." His voice was hushed and calm, but he sounded pleased.

Riley swallowed and spoke. "What. The fuck. Is this."

The man grinned at her. "This, Artemis, is the first day of the rest of your life." He kicked one of the doors shut with the heel of his bare foot, and brought the tray over to one of the two nightstands flanking the enormous bed. There was no way in hell she could reach either one. When he set it down she saw that it did also contain a breakfast, and there were two crystal champagne flutes, lying sideways on the tray.

He followed her gaze. "I figure you're starving, you probably didn't eat dinner last night—"

"We did," she said automatically, and her voice was eerily calm. "Before we—"

He waved her off. "It's okay, Artemis. I know everything." He tapped the right side of his skull, just in front of his ear. "Been listening to you guys for months."

She stared at him, not quite understanding, and his grin grew warmer as he sat down on the edge of the bed, getting comfortable. "Especially you," he confessed, blushing. "God, Riley—do you mind if I call you that?—they don't value you at all. Not the way you should be. They have no idea what you're capable of, do they."

She shook off the flattery like it was a fly. "What do you mean, you've been listening?" He sold the hardware to Murdoc, but—maybe he'd also been the one to put together those voice composites, the ones Murdoc had used to lure Mac out of hiding—

He gave her a playful smirk. "I mean I've been listening. Listening to every word all of you say. And what you don't," he added, dropping his eyes to the comforter. He picked at the edge, as if waiting for her response.

And she had no response to that. So he was listening. He was the one who'd put together the audio, he was the one listening to the bugs. It wasn't just the tech, it wasn't just the thing with Kyser.

He was working with Murdoc. He was still working for Murdoc. He'd just kidnapped her for Murdoc's next little test. They were partners.

Riley slowly shook her head. It made so much sense. Murdoc would need this kind of tech to track down his Collective, he'd need the same kinda intel they had to even know where Clayton had been—

"You still have us bugged." And the moment she said it, she knew it was true.

His smirk broadened once again. "Yeah, I still got you bugged," he confirmed proudly. "I did my homework. That op you pulled on Bedlam74, that was sheer fuckin' genius. That bug that only activated when you pointed microwaves at it." He turned to her, genuinely excited. "It took a second to miniaturize the design, but I did it. Beiber's had it on him this whole time."

And somehow, Riley still didn't feel anything. No terror. No anger. She understood everything that was happening, and had virtually no emotional response.

"You drugged me," she accused, and then he stood and busied himself with the breakfast tray.

"I did, but it should be wearing off soon," he finally admitted, shuffling the flatware around on a plate of scrambled eggs. "I just...I wanted you calm. He's gotten you so anxious, so off your game, I just...I wanted our first meeting to be...just us. Natural, you know?"

First meeting. Like there was going to be another. "Where is he?" Because that was the only other thing that mattered. When was Murdoc going to arrive and pick her up. When was he going to strap her down and—

Finally, finally she felt a little lurch in her stomach. He'd said he liked the way she looked, all twisted up in the sheets. What if—

What if this was already it. What if she was just waiting for Mac to show up to kick things off. What if—

What if, like Bozer, Murdoc was going to start long before Mac had a chance to do anything at all. It was morning, Mac might be back in LA by now but after that poison smoke there was no way he could—he could come for her, he could stand up to whatever Murdoc had set up—

There was a clatter as the other hacker slammed the fork down on the plate. "You mean Murdoc?" he asked, his voice stilted. "He's not coming."

And drugs or no, she just couldn't quite make sense of that statement. "Not...coming..."

The other hacker swarmed onto the bed, on his knees, right beside her, and his expression was a weird cross between livid and compassionate. "He's—not—coming," he enunciated each word with a hiss. "He doesn't care about you. You're nothing to him—a means to an end. He doesn't care how unique you are—he only cares that Beiber cares." The hacker reached out a hand, as if to touch her face, and Riley slowly drew back, parallel with his fingers, until he stopped. His expression shifted, and the anger was gone. "He doesn't care about you, Artemis," he repeated softly. "but I do. I do."

She stared at him a moment, still not sure she understood. "You kidnapped me and tied me to a bed." Sticking with the facts seemed safe.

"No, no—I saved you, Artemis. I've saved you," he repeated earnestly, and shifted again, so that he was leaning more on his hip, more beside her instead of looming over her. "He had to leave, as soon as he realized you'd found that bitch Clayton—and the dumbass left all the planning to me. I flagged all his aliases, I made sure he'd get picked up at Customs, made sure facial rec would search for him at bus terminals, train stations, even the border crossings. He had to fuckin' drive, unless he broke land speed records he's probably not even to LA yet." The hacker laughed, like it had only just then occurred to him. "God, I bet he's pissed. But he's not going to find us. The luddite can't."

Riley stared at him, suddenly glad of the drugs. She would definitely have been panicking without them. "You—you turned on him?"

The man chuckled, then reached out a finger and traced a lock of her hair, and Riley had already backed as far from him as she could, and had no choice but to permit it. Honestly, she barely felt it, and it didn't bother her half as much as her racing thoughts.

He'd turned on Murdoc. Betrayed him. Kidnapped her and hidden them away in the—the damn honeymoon suite in a five-star hotel. "And you thought...what?" she demanded, finally shaking off his hand. "That I was going to be the grateful damsel and you were going to get laid?"

His eyebrows shot up, but he seemed more amused than upset. "Well, when you say it like that," he murmured suggestively, and reached out to stroke her face again. This time Riley turned away completely, staring at the window. The light was high, it was late morning if not early afternoon, if they were still in LA—

A new thought occurred to her. "What did you do with him? My boyfriend?"

The mention of Ramirez caused the other hacker's hopeful look to sour. "You mean Agent Ramirez?" and he added a sarcastic little head-wiggle when he said it. "Forget about those bugs already, Artemis? And the earbuds were genius, by the way. If you'd added just a little more length to the antenna, you might have actually been able to overpower the jammer."

"My name is Riley," she growled, and this time his look of surprise seemed genuine.

"And I'm Brandon. Yates," he added as an afterthought. "It's a real pleasure to finally meet you face to face, Riley." And then he leaned in and kissed her.

She jerked her face away, but the kiss was relatively chaste, and on the cheek. He didn't seem put off by her rejection. "Don't touch me," she snapped. "What did you do to Ramirez?"

Brandon's look turned annoyed, but his sigh was patient. "He's dead," he told her shortly. "Don't worry, it was quick. Two minutes tops. Clayton wasn't Murdoc's favorite, but she left him with a veritable pharmacy."

Dead. Ramirez was dead.

"And the rest of them?" she asked, a little stiltedly. Brandon's annoyance grew.

"Who cares? They couldn't keep you safe anyway. If you hadn't accepted the meet, he was just going to get you during transit. You go to work in the same place, like, every other day, Artemis—Riley," he corrected himself, with a quick headshake. "Even if your destination changes, we know where you're leaving from, and there are only so many routes. Trust me, they weren't keeping you safe. But this?" He waved a hand at the luxurious suite. "Way better than a safehouse, am I right?"

She stared at him. "Well, they don't tie me to a bed," she snapped. "You say you care? Prove it. Let me outta these."

Brandon pressed his lips together, then slowly shook his head. "Now, Riley, I don't know that you fully trust me yet, and even if you do, it's probably the drugs talking. Why don't we—" and he rolled onto his back, reaching for the breakfast plate before pulling himself back up Indian-style beside her, "—eat something and see how it goes."

Riley sarcastically turned one of her wrists—still in restraints. "Kinda hard to use a fork." That she would use to stab this pervert and get the hell out of the room if she could.

He gave her a wide grin. "When was the last time someone treated you to breakfast in bed?" And she realized, belatedly, that he intended to feed her.

"...you used those same drugs on me, didn't you." Whether it was the waning drugs or her own fear, her stomach was starting to tighten up again, and the thought of eggs—fed to her by a creepy rapist or not—was utterly unappealing. And Brandon balked, his head drawing back and the egg-laden fork sagging back towards the plate.

"No! No, of course I haven't poisoned you! This is just...something to take the edge off. Why?" he asked suddenly, his tone sharp. "What do you mean? Do you feel sick?"

"Um...yes," she told him, and she was reasonably sure it was true. "Dude, not that I don't appreciate the save, but there's no way Murdoc's just gonna throw up his hands and say 'oh well, fuck it'." She was starting to regret the use of the phrase 'throw up' there, and she tried to shift up towards the head of the bed. Brandon tossed the plate onto the foot of the bed, closing the distance between them.

"Why," he demanded, but under the annoyance was a real thread of anger, "are you so worried about him?"

Riley just stared at him, almost dumbstruck, and he frowned at her. "Every time it's he's going to find us, or you're underestimating him. How does a piece of shit like Murdoc get so deep under your skin? You're a goddess, Riley. You can crush him with twenty keystrokes. He is nothing. Murdoc is not going to find us, he couldn't find his way out of a cardboard box with two hands and a flashlight." The hacker gestured at the room. "You think I used a real credit card for this? You think I didn't use one of three dozen aliases he has no idea exist? Murdoc's an assassin, Riley, he's not a hacker. He's analog. We're fiber."

She stared up at him a long moment. "...what do you mean, every time...?" When Brandon rolled his eyes, she became surer. "How many times have we had this conversation...?"

He shook his head, with a smile that had no humor, and for the first time, she actually felt a pang of fear—for him. "And every time you ask that," he growled, and then flung out his hand, and knocked the plate completely off the bed. "That's the third breakfast I've ordered. Hell, by now we've probably moved on to lunch, I wonder how many of those I can fucking order before they start to catch on." He stood on his knees, this time very intentionally using his size and proximity in an attempt to intimidate.

"How can you fucking remember?" he demanded. "You're not supposed to be able to remember!"

She glared up at him, refusing to show a shred of her fear. "I guess your drugs aren't what they're cracked up to be." Part of her wanted to wince at the unintentional pun. "How long have I been here? Have we been here?" she corrected herself, as a flash of anger crossed his face.

"And still him! You just can't get Murdoc out of your head, can you." Now it was a snarl, he wasn't even attempting to be charming. "Let me spell this out for you, Artemis. He's—not—coming. He can't find us. He won't find us. Your team isn't going to find us, Angus fucking MacGyver isn't going to find us. You're not going to end up in that hospital—and by the way, Beiber was never going to be able to get you out alive. Me, now, that setup would be child's play. You are safe with me and it's about time you stopped doubting that and started trusting me!"

Riley slowly pulled her head back, trying vainly to get on the same level with him. "I would trust you a lot more if I wasn't tied up!" she snapped at him. "Dude, do you hear yourself right now?!"

Brandon gave a shout of frustration, and she was certain he was going to hit her. But he didn't; his hands fisted in the comforter. "This is not how I want this to go!" He sucked in a deep breath through his nose. "And now we've come to the part where you start yelling, and I remind you that the honeymoon suites are soundproofed. So the only people who are going to hear me are me and you."

That piece of information sent shards of ice into her gut. She was tied to a bed with a psycho who was trying to hide her from a bigger psycho so he could Stockholm her into some kind of fucked up relationship.

He took several deep breaths through his nose, eyes tightly closed, and Riley glanced around the room for anything she could use to get away. There was nothing. She was bound wrist and ankle in a bed full of pillows and blankets, and the buckles for the restraints were too far up the straps for her to reach.

He could do this as many times as he wanted. Drug her to sleep, make her forget—

Like the drug Murdoc had left for Bozer. To let him forget.

Riley licked her lips, which suddenly seemed dry. "Okay. Let's just—calm down and figure this out."

A humorless chuckle. "Aaand now we're to the negotiating part. So you know what? Let's negotiate." His eyes popped open, brown and shrewd. "For every favor you want, you're going to give me what I want." He shifted forward, for a second Riley thought he was going to pin her, but instead he shoved himself off the bed, then threw back the covers he'd been sitting on, and slipped under them. Riley squirmed but she had zero leverage, and in seconds he was straddling her hips Once he got himself situated, he took a deep breath. His exhale blew a few strands of hair from her suddenly hot face, and then he leaned in close, with a hand on either side of her body.

"So," he said, in what he probably thought was a sultry voice, "if you want out of those, you're going to have to do something for me." He pressed himself against her, making it quite clear what that something was, and Riley somehow found the courage to give him a bitter smile.

"Just what do you think you're going to accomplish with that?" she asked tartly, tilting her head to the side. He sneered at her, moving in just close enough, and while her wrists and ankles were bound, her head was not. She head-butted him, just like Jack taught her, aiming the hairline of her forehead at his nose, and she hit him dead on.

Brandon howled and fell back onto his butt, crushing down on her upper thighs, but Riley was still able to angle one where she needed it, and sacrificed some of the ground she'd won sitting up to make sure she could bend her knee. The howl quickly turned into retching, and she was able to tip him off herself. Of course, she had nowhere to go, and Riley pushed herself as close to the headboard as she could get.

"Help! Help!" she screamed, even as Brandon tried to uncurl himself, tried to reach for her. She got a few good cries in before his hand groped its way up her chest to her throat, and then he cut off her air.

Hackers were in general pretty scrawny and not terribly physically capable—but the one place that stereotype broke down was their hands. That many hours of typing and gaming gave them powerful and nimble fingers and wrists. He might have been green and shaking, blood dripping from his nose, but his hand was still plenty strong, and then he dragged himself back up her body, and his other hand joined the first.

"You—can't tell the difference—between him and—salvation, can you," Brandon snarled, tightening his grip even as she struggled beneath him. "Maybe if you—wake up in a little—pain next time—your head'll be—in a better place—"

He was going to choke her unconscious, and then drug her. Make her forget. She was going to wake up again, still tied to this bed, but the next time—

Riley opened her mouth but she couldn't form words, and he was past reason. Her peripheral vision was already gone, and she had just enough of the calming drugs left in her system to watch almost detachedly as spots of nothingness danced across what remained of her field of vision.

"—and then—you'll feel a little—more gratitude for what—I'm trying to do—what I've risked—"

His hands tightened further as he curled in on himself, another wave of the pain she'd caused, and Riley realized that he wasn't paying attention to her anymore. He was so consumed with his own discomfort that he wasn't going to realize she'd already passed out, that she couldn't breathe—

The hands around her throat tightened spasmodically, then loosened, and he threw himself down on top of her.

Riley didn't care at first; all that mattered was breathing, sucking down welcome cold air through her bruised trachea. She coughed a couple times, it was hard with his weight laying atop her, but he didn't move. Didn't cop a feel, didn't so much as pick up his head from where it had fallen, face-first onto the pillow beside her. Riley tried to pull away from him, but the side of his face was sweaty and sticky against hers.

She gulped down a few more breaths, still not sure what was going on, and then she realized that a figure was standing in the half of the bedroom doorway that he hadn't closed.

A figure in black, head to toe, including the all-black pistol in his hand, with an elongated barrel.

Murdoc gave her a whoops look. "Sorry to have ruined what looks like a wonderful breakfast in bed."

Riley just stared at him. I am already unconscious and dreaming. This is a nightmare. This is a nightmare, this is the drugs, this isn't happening.

The killer cocked his head to the side. "What's the matter, cat got your tongue?" He tutted as he entered the room, his black boots soundless on the thick carpeting. "It's not the first dead man you've had between your legs, and I daresay it won't be the last."

She tore her eyes off the approaching assassin to try to get a look at Brandon, but Murdoc was right. He was dead weight. His face was beside her right ear, but she couldn't hear him breathing.

Murdoc had shot him.

And the killer wasted no time in grabbing him by the collor of his teeshirt and dragging him off her, so that his face dragged over her chest, smearing her ex-favorite sleeping shirt with blood from his broken nose and the bullethole she carefully didn't look for. His body tumbled to the ground and Murdoc kicked it over, as if looking for something. Without blinking, his dark eyes cut back to her.

"What did he tell you?"

Riley swallowed down her stomach's weak attempt to puke, and Murdoc gave her a slight frown.

"What did he do...?" The assassin trailed off and threw back what was left of the comforter and sheets, that hadn't already been dragged half off the bed with Brandon's body. Riley didn't even bother to look down at herself—she didn't want to know—but luckily the oversized tee hadn't ridden too far up, and then the mattress sank as Murdoc took a seat, right where Brandon had, and leaned in, intently focused on her face.

His eyes flickered with surprised, and then he let loose with a belly-deep laugh. It was so loud and unexpected that she flinched. The assassin shook his head in apology, trying to get a handle on the laughter, and then carelessly set his gun on the nightstand, with a sharp clatter that had her jumping again.

"I'm sorry, I just—oh ho ho, what an asshole," he concluded, actually wiping his eyes, and Riley was completely unable to find her voice. She was tied down to a bed, covered in blood, with Murdoc sitting beside her. This was the worst case scenario. This was what she'd always known was going to happen.

She'd just thought it would be her blood.

And then she realized that none of this could possibly have been part of Murdoc's plan. He didn't know Brandon was going to stab him in the back. He didn't know he was going to be pulled away to silence Clayton. He didn't know he was going to have to track them down, kill his hacker—

None of this was his design.

Which meant she still had a chance.

"He drugged you, didn't he?" Murdoc seemed unaware of her mental epiphany, still shaking his head. "That little shit. You're lucky to still be alive, Riley." And as he said it, some of the humor and relief drained away. Then he reached a gloved hand for her face.

Every instinct in her said to pull away from him, to struggle, but she realized that he had no idea how lucid she really was. She hadn't said anything to him, he'd come in seeing her being strangled, but had no idea what had happened before. How heavily drugged she was.

And so she let him touch her. Once the leather hit her skin, neither roughly nor gently, she couldn't help but flinch, and Murdoc gave her what almost looked like a sad smile. He held her jaw in his hand, turning her face so that he could see both of her eyes.

Riley tried to pull her chin out of his grasp, but not hard. Not like she meant it. And the sad smile didn't falter.

"This wasn't your fault," he assured her, his voice creepily soothing. "He was going to die anyway, Riley. I've learned my lesson, you see. You can't count on partners, can't count on teams. I've been lucky enough to survive that lesson, and I'll tell you honestly," and he gusted out a little sigh, his tone regretful, "I don't think you're going to be as fortunate."

She stared at him, too frightened to act, too stunned to give herself away. His thumb traced a line along her jaw.

"And not that you'll remember any of this," he continued, his voice eerily gentle, like he truly wanted her to understand, "but I always liked you, Riley. Such fire, such chutzpah. You really could have been a force of nature." He turned and glanced at the floor, not releasing her face, and Riley fought to remain still, to keep breathing.

"I hadn't planned on firing him quite so soon, but no matter. He's already set up everything he needed to. It's astonishing how much you can learn simply by watching someone, you know?" He turned back to her suddenly, as if expecting her to agree, and Riley tried to pull her chin away unconsciously at the expectant, hungry look in his eyes. "I'm sure you've learned so much from watching Angus."

He'd always intended to kill Brandon. He might not have been expecting him to turn, but he'd always intended to drop the body.

"Now, let's get you settled into your new home." He released her face, focusing on the leather strap, and she lay there quietly and let him. And she noticed that he kept hold of the leather even after he'd nimbly released the buckle, expecting her to jerk away. So she didn't.

It wouldn't get her anything. Until she could get her hands on the breakfast tray, or the gun, she wasn't going to win a physical fight. So she lay there, placidly, while he shot her another surprised look, and trailed a gloved hand down her knee, to her ankle, and started to work on the strap there.

"Don't tell me you're happy to see me," he joked, releasing that strap as well, and still, Riley held herself as still as she could, only daring to draw her leg away from him when he actually let go, and stood to cross to the other side of the bed. The right side of the bed. The side of the bed opposite the gun on the nightstand.

As soon as she had either her right ankle or right wrist free, she could grab it. Grab it and end this, here and now.

Unbidden, the walls of the Phoenix data center rose up, she was struggling with the Organization man for the gun, knowing Jack and Mac were never going to get there in time, that if she gave up, she was going to die—

This was that. If she didn't win this fight here and now, she was going to die. There was nothing Jack or Mac could do—they didn't know where she was. Phoenix didn't know where she was, they would have gotten to her by now, they would've broken down the door. She was truly on her own.

That thought, more than any of the others, rocked her to her core, and threw off any remaining calming tendrils of the drugs. She was on her own. Brandon had already told her that Mac wasn't going to pass the test, wasn't going to get her out alive. Riley took a shaky breath, and Murdoc looked up from her right ankle.

"Relax, Riley," he chastised her, and even after he released the buckle she didn't take her ankle away. He was ready, he was waiting for her, she needed him at the head of the bed, where he couldn't grab her body, couldn't yank her towards him. "He can't hurt you anymore." He flashed her a cheerful smile. "That's my job."

And then he dragged her towards him anyway, without her ever making a move. He yanked her across the California king, far from the nightstand with his gun, far from the breakfast tray. From any weapon she could use. Riley yelped and then instinct kicked in. She bent her right knee, dragging herself even closer to the assassin, and she struck out with her left foot.

And she hit him. She nailed him across the jaw, and pain radiated through her foot as her toes crumpled against his face. She ignored it, shoving off using his face and chest and hurling herself across the bed. Her right wrist was still in restraints, she knew she couldn't reach the other nightstand, couldn't reach the gun, but she went for where the breakfast tray had been, before Brandon had knocked it to the floor. There was still a fork, a fork and an empty champagne flute—

On her right, Murdoc growled something, and her still-bound right wrist was yanked over her head. He pulled her up short, just inches from the fork, and Riley clawed wildly against the sheets, dragging it to her. The assassin didn't let her; he hooked an arm over her chest with bruising force, dragging her by her ribcage towards him, and then it was over.

Riley curled up, trying to get her legs between them, but he didn't let her. He pressed her right hip to his, half-sitting on the bed, and his right arm blocked any ability she had to kick him. She struck out anyway with her left hand, but he caught her fist, pinning her left wrist over her chest to the bed.

Folded up like she was, there was nothing she could do, and Murdoc took a quick breath, twitching his face where she'd struck it.

"Well color me surprised," he murmured, though it sounded anything but amused. "I think you and I are going to have some fun after all." He used his body weight to pin her hips, and then his right hand closed around her throat, just like Brandon's had. Just as strongly.

"Better get used to choking," he snarled, his tone menacing, and Riley fought him until the nothingness blotted out everything.


WHOO! And now it's exam time! It's gonna be wild, believe me (but, like...not as graphic as Bozer's, for those who are worried). I hope you all enjoyed! As always, special thanks to Haven126 for her continued support.

Don't forget to review, and I'll see you guys next time!