Chapter Five: Must Be the Truth
It hurt, it hurt, oh, gawd, it hurt. She could feel Sarge's magic running through her, gripping her, tethering her to life, refusing to let her give up. Fierce, protective, and gentle all at once, just like him. In the background, an alarm went off; time running out with each breath. With each fresh spurt of blood from between her weakening fingers. A whimper fought its way free and she looked up, vision blurring.
From outside, she heard Sam call to her again. "Jules, slow your breath, okay? Count it out. Keep your heart rate real low."
She nodded as best she could, listening to Logan crying in her boss's arms. He soothed her, fear vibrating in his own voice.
She couldn't give up, she was the on-scene negotiator, her team needed her to keep trying. "Xavier," she managed to gasp out, "we're running out of time." But even as she spoke, her strength faded, body giving up and collapsing sideways. She hardly registered Sam's frantic cries, reality narrowing to the world around her and the fresh surge of scarlet magic racing through her core.
Someone was above her, leaning over her and checking her. Why hadn't they done it sooner? "Okay," the someone said.
"Is she okay?" another male voice asked.
"She's lost a lot of blood," the first someone explained before leaning closer to her. "You've gotta apply constant pressure, okay."
How? Somehow, she gasped out, "Okay. Okay." Her free hand found her arm again, but she could hardly grip any more.
"All right, keep your head down."
More power ran through her and her grip tightened. How was Sarge doing this? He was just a Squib-born, not a wizard.
Hearing sharpened enough to hear Sam's plea on her behalf. "Xavier, she needs medical attention, okay? You all do. You need to let everybody out now. Xavier, how can this possibly help you?"
The moment hung, but finally the second male voice announced, "Okay, okay, okay. They can go but he stays."
The first protested, "They can't walk, Xavier. They need our help."
"You're staying," the second hissed.
"Jules, we're on our way."
"Are you hearing what I'm hearing? A civilian's at risk."
Mentally, Greg shook his head at Toth. He knew the plan and it was a good plan, even if it meant another one of his constables would be at risk. "They know what they're doing," he replied.
Over the conference phone, Gilvrey pointed out, "The decontamination chamber's effective for only two people at a time."
Not to be deterred, Ed asked, "Rose, can they take an oxygen tank in there with them for the others?"
"Too risky," Gilvrey countered. "The air's thick with hydrogen peroxide vapors. Introduce enriched oxygen and the whole thing could blow up."
On the screen, Greg watched as Lou and Sam made entry, both constables clad in hazmat suits. To Parker's surprise – and Toth's visible fury – Sam headed for Jules, kneeling down next to her and grasping her free arm. Lou moved so the other occupants of the room couldn't see what was happening, but the camera caught it. A golden armlet, mounted with five crystals, slipped around Jules' wrist and was gently pushed up to make room for a second bracelet, this one silver. As soon as the silver bracelet closed around Jules' arm, green raced along its surface, shimmering defiance.
Lou knelt at Jules' back, applying pressure on her injury, and Sam rose back to his feet, turning towards Logan. With help from Applewhite, Logan was hefted up into Sam's arms and he carried her towards the exit, stride even and unhurried.
Wordy had…Sam had… A lump made itself known in Greg's throat, tears stinging his eyes; his team was fighting just as hard as he was to keep Jules alive. Soft, but firm, the Sergeant remarked, "Did you see that? You might wanna write that down, and put it in your file. Priority of life is observed."
In a subdued voice, Toth replied, "Noted."
"Sarge, is that you?"
Jules. Dismissing Toth, Greg reached out, snatching up the conference phone even as he poured every last scrap of magic he could find into the 'team sense', sending it straight to her. "Hey, Jules, you stay with me. Yeah, you hang in there, okay?"
"I couldn't get through to him." Broken, plaintive, pleading for him to tell her what she'd done wrong, what she could have done better.
Pride and reassurance flowed through the link, emphasizing each word he spoke. "No, you did everything you could, you hear me?" No one could've done any better than you did today, Jules. "You did everything you could. You do me proud." Don't you quit on me. "You just hang on. Jules, you just hang on."
Don't you dare die on me, Julianna Callaghan. You do not have permission to die.
More screens flew past him, a jumbled blur as his phone let out a soft hum. Whatever was going on, he hoped it meant the system would restart that much faster, 'cause they were almost outta time. "Come on, come on," he hissed under his breath. The phone's hum grew louder, the screens flying even faster.
"Word, come on, buddy. Anything?"
"Working as fast as I can, Ed."
Yeah…more like his phone was working as fast as it could. As if in response, the screen in front of him froze and he punched in the next part of the startup sequence before his phone let out a whirr and the primary screen went all blurry again.
"Let's do this."
Yes, let's, Ed thought, fury and satisfaction burning through him. A glance sideways made him tense. 2245 ppm. "Come on, come on," he whispered, an unspoken plea racing through the 'team sense'. Angry at Jules and Sam he might be, but he didn't want her to die.
Gilvrey's cell rang, the sound somehow ominous in the deathly quiet makeshift command room. She pulled it out and announced, "It's my boss, I need to take this." Out of the corner of his eye, Ed watched her move to the far corner, flicking a glance back at them before she turned away and answered the phone. "Yes?"
So. Very. Useless. Over the comm, Ed heard Dr. Bergan's voice as clearly as if the man was standing in the same room. "Rose. I was just questioned by the police."
"The less you know, the better."
A grim smile emerged. Not what you heard from someone who had nothing to hide.
"I appreciate that," Bergan replied. "But just so it's clear moving forward, the safety team you replaced…"
"They found irregularities in the tank cleaning system," Gilvrey explained. "And the presence of squalene in a large batch of VVA-50."
Fury raced through him, tempered only by the knowledge that they had her. They had her and she was going down. And Jules was going to be just fine and Xavier would get his lawsuit, even if he couldn't have Wordy's miracle. And then he could stop comparing Wordy to a subject and Toth would leave Greg alone and they could all go back to normal.
"We disagreed about the risk, and I gave them a generous incentive to move on and then I cleared up."
Bergan's voice remained level, calm. Not bad for a civilian playing informant on the fly. "I see. And that batch wasn't destroyed?"
"Henry, you know how much a batch that size is worth," Gilvrey pleaded. "It's our entire margin for the year. I couldn't just throw it away."
Money. Profit and margin and never mind the lives ruined along the way. As far as Ed was concerned, companies had every right to earn a living and make a profit, same as everyone else. But that right stopped when it meant people got hurt. If you couldn't make a profit without doing it honestly, you didn't deserve to be in business any more.
"I didn't realize," Bergan murmured, his tone still unconcerned. "So we've distributed a tainted vaccine and Xavier was one of a number of people who received it?"
"We've had no customer complaints and there's no actual proof that our vaccine made him sick." As Ed fumed in the background, Gilvrey drew in a breath and said, "It was my call, Henry."
"Your call pulled us out of the red," the CEO observed.
"Yes, it did."
"It earned you a bonus."
"Yes, it did," she confirmed quietly.
"Thank you for your honesty, Rose."
As Dr. Bergan hung up, Ed stormed towards the woman, rage roiling in his gut. Sarcasm rang, tinged with disgust. "Yeah," he spat, "Thank you for your honesty." Dismissing the woman, he strode past, adding, "Jules, you get that?"
Spike resisted the urge to smirk as the stunned CFO glanced after his teammate, then looked to him in confusion. Leaning over his computer, the bomb tech explained, "Your boss was calling from our station. The miracle of the modern headset. The whole team's connected to one set of ears."
On the constable's belt, opposite of Gilvrey, blue light intensified, coding racing faster and faster across the screen. Almost. Almost.
System restart in 42.679 seconds. Pathogen threshold in 41.783 seconds.
The phone let out a very faint whine.
Lou crouched over Jules, gripping her arm as tightly as he dared, determination a comfortable burn in his veins. He was never giving up and he didn't even care that he'd essentially placed himself at Xavier's mercy by coming in and staying by his teammate.
Over the comm, he heard the conversation between Gilvrey and Bergan, but kept his mouth shut. Despite her injuries, Jules was the negotiator for this call. Beneath him, she drew breath and yelled, "Xavier, it's done." Softer, she pleaded, "Help me up."
Sam was going to kill him, but Jules was the negotiator. Glancing over at Applewhite, he tilted his chin. The doctor moved over, helping him get Jules upright without taking any pressure off her arm. Lou stayed in position, grip tightening in an effort to keep the blood inside his teammate; Applewhite braced her on her good side, keeping the brunette from falling over again.
"Xavier! Xavier, Rose confessed. She confessed! She confessed." Confusion shone in Xavier's dark eyes, but Jules kept going. "There were safety issues. RDA gave you a tainted vaccine, okay? Gave you a tainted vaccine." Pausing long enough to gather up another lungful of air, Jules said, "She admitted. She admitted to the cover-up. She did." Exhausted, the negotiator leaned against her teammate. In a softer, yet still intense tone, she whispered, "Now you have to go. The decontamination chamber only works for two so I want you to go now. We have to get out of here. We have to go. You go first."
Lou didn't have to look up to know that whoever got in the decontamination chamber next would be the last survivors; the horror churning in the 'team sense' told him that all on its own. More, even with his presence and the Boss's magic, Jules didn't have any time left. It was wrong, she was wrong; Xavier was a subject. Officers before subjects.
Before he could voice any of that, Xavier countered, "You go first. I'm already sick. Come on. Come on."
The tan-skinned officer didn't wait for anything more; with Applewhite's help, he hauled Jules upright and supported her towards the decontamination chamber. A glance communicated to the doctor that he and Jules would go next while Lou and Xavier remained for the final round. Lou refused to think about the possibility of his hazmat suit's air giving out before the chamber could be used again; he'd known he was taking a chance before he'd stepped through the door. Jules was worth that chance.
Hovering over their shoulders, Xavier murmured, "Gawd, I'm so sorry."
Through the windows, Lou saw Ed and Xavier's wife Valerie arrive, but kept his eyes forward, focusing on the decontamination chamber. Almost, almost. Once Jules was out, she was safe, but he had to get her that far. Xavier darted ahead, pulling the door open, and Lou surrendered Jules to Applewhite, helping the doctor heave her that last step into the decontamination chamber.
"Jules is in the decontamination chamber," he reported, tone steady with no hint of the fear flicking in his gut.
"Word, Xavier and Lou still aren't out," Ed barked.
"Almost there," Wordy called.
Soft, but still audible, Lou heard his team leader mutter, "Oh, come on, come on."
Behind him, Xavier had moved up to the glass, gazing at his wife. Lou turned his head, watching as the pair reached out, their palms flat against the glass, 'touching' through the protective barrier. Each of them whispering to the other about how much they loved each other. Anguish churned and Lou looked away, grateful Lisa would never know how he'd gone down.
Dark eyes lifted to the pathogen meter. 2458 ppm. Dang. So this was how it ended.
Could've been worse, Lou mused, Could've been a land mine.
The whirr rose to a whine, the screens flying so fast that the screen in front of him turned blue with not even a hint of the white lines he'd been seeing thus far.
Threshold in 4.658 seconds.
In between one breath and the next, the screen froze. Wordy scanned it, then slammed his fist against the screen, restarting the vent system. Behind him, air whooshed as the turbines that powered the vents ground into motion, already pulling the deadly pathogen out of the lab. "Got it!" he yelled.
System restarted. Threshold scenario averted. Mission complete.
On two phones, computer code winked out, replaced by a single word.
Then the word and the glow faded, leaving the magical smartphones much as they had ever been.
EMS descended on Jules, getting her onto a stretcher to begin the journey to the hospital. Sam hovered next to her, then blue eyes widened in surprise as a familiar figure arrived, toting a small bag and a bundle of paperwork.
"Good work, boys," Senior Auror Nathanial Simmons' gravelly voice remarked. Passing over the paperwork, he added, "I'll take it from here; you're not cleared for the hospital she's heading to."
The paramedics were none too happy, but couldn't argue with the paperwork they'd been given. Sam watched as they headed for the decontamination chamber again, ready for next pair, then turned back, one blond brow arching. His hand snapped up to catch a nut-like object that looked like some kind of overgrown fruit core.
At the confused blink, Simmons chuckled. "Bezoar, Braddock. Should take care of all that junk she inhaled." The Auror drew his wand, casting a quick spell on Jules' arm. He examined his handiwork, then grunted approval. "Should hold till we get you to St. Mungo's, Callaghan. Get that bezoar in you while I take care of the other three, then we'll go."
"Copy," Jules whispered, gratitude shimmering in spite of the weakness.
Greg finally let the 'team sense' go once his magic wearily reported that Jules had reached the hospital. His core throbbed at him, a migraine threatening, reminding him that despite his ability to seemingly snatch life from the jaws of death, he was still a Squib-born with all the attendant limitations thereof. At least he'd done it; Jules would live and he had a feeling Toth would leave his team alone going forward. Wordy was free and clear, Sam and Jules hopefully likewise.
And now…now he needed to accept his punishment. Regardless of what Anne Locksley or Eddie thought. Resignation and a tinge of relief shone in tired hazel as he shut down the conference phone and let Ben turn off the visual. Then he returned to Toth, sitting down and waiting for the psychologist to speak.
Shrewd blue-gray regarded him for several moments. "You know I can only take one of your badges, Greg."
"I won't play that game, Larry," Greg replied firmly. He didn't have much honor left to speak of, but he had that much at least.
A flash of surprise, then Toth inclined his head respectfully. A moment later, he leaned forward, demeanor turning intense, almost fierce. "I confronted you with your suspension, you agreed to it. But when you saw your people out there were at risk, what'd you do?" Without waiting for a response, Toth gestured up at the screen and answered his own question. "You went High Noon on me, at great risk to your chances of getting your job back. Now, why is that?"
"You saw what happened out there. Priority of life was observed."
Eddie… Slumping in his seat, Greg resisted the urge to groan. Couldn't Eddie let it go? Couldn't Eddie let him go? He'd accepted the consequences of his decisions, why couldn't Eddie?
Toth's counter was predictable – and right. "Today it was. We don't know about tomorrow."
That was true. As he himself had said to the pair, it only took once. One time and they'd spend the rest of their lives wondering if it could've been different. As it was, they'd nearly traded Lou's life for Jules'; given RDA's less than stellar track record regarding safety, Greg wasn't placing any bets on Lou's hazmat suit being any protection against weaponized anthrax.
"You gotta be kidding me." Oh…goodie… While he'd been woolgathering, Eddie had found the suspension papers.
The silver psychologist was unphased. "Your Sergeant's suspension orders."
"You don't get it," Ed hissed, sitting down, glare almost lethal.
"I've seen this team, I've read the reports-"
"You don't see what this team does, you don't live the job," Ed fairly spat. "If it wasn't for him-"
If it wasn't for me, you'd be free. "Eddie," Greg interceded.
But Eddie wouldn't stop. Meeting his boss's eyes, he snapped, "Sam and Jules? That was the right call."
"You can't say that."
Thump. Ed's fist slammed the table, his faith and trust in his Sergeant blazing. "It was the right call because it was your call."
It hadn't been, not entirely; he'd known, but Eddie had been the one to make the call. Just as Gilvrey had hidden the contamination from her boss, so Eddie had hidden Sam and Jules' relationship from him. Plausible deniability.
And yet…Eddie had made that call for him, to protect him. Not Sam and Jules, him. His team's decisions were ultimately his own and so, Eddie was right. In a very real way, it had been his call – not just because the buck stopped with him, but because it was possible, no, probable, that his team's thinking had been influenced by the 'team sense' long before Fletcher Stadium.
In the background, Ed was still speaking, even as the rest of his team, sans Jules, arrived. "And that's why we're here, and that's why we're Team One. So don't come in here and tell me otherwise."
Even as Toth rose, fresh horror swamped the Sergeant. His call, his magic, his fault. His magic wanted what he wanted and that was to not be alone. To not lose any one else, to never again go through the anguish of losing family. But this wasn't a family, it was a SWAT team. A team he'd failed and betrayed and oh, dear Aslan, what had he done? What had he done? Bad enough that he'd compromised himself in more ways than he could count, but now he'd compromised Eddie?
"Okay." Greg's eyes swept up, following Toth as the psychologist rose to face his teammates, speaking to them directly. "So here's the thing. I like this team. I like your Sergeant. I trust him. The problem is, he doesn't trust himself."
How he kept his flinch internal, he didn't know, but he managed. Trust. How he hated that word. Trust could be manipulated, trust could be tainted, trust could force his team to act against their own free will. To trust himself was anathema now – it risked his team and he could not, would not, do that to them. Bad enough that his magic had enslaved them, bad enough that they'd chosen to keep that bond – he would not compound that by taking advantage of their tainted, manipulated trust in him.
"Team One is off probation as of today," Toth announced. Glancing at Sam, he added, "Regarding Callaghan and Braddock, based on what I've seen today, I will make a personal appeal to the chief to reverse his decision to split them up." Turning back towards Parker, he concluded, "Until that time, they will remain on Team One."
"Thank you," Greg murmured.
The psychologist's attention returned to Sam. "How is she?"
Sam blinked in surprised, but answered. "She's stable, sir. She'll be all right."
"I'm glad to hear it." Having said that, Toth returned to the table, gathering up his briefcase, but leaving the suspension orders. "Sergeant Parker, you have some thinking to do."
Parker's heart sank; Toth was really going to do it. Toth was going to leave it up to him. Why, why, why? Why did it have to be his call, why couldn't Toth just make it for him? Why couldn't Toth protect his team from their treacherous, untrustworthy Sergeant?
"I'm gonna give you one week to decide if you want to continue to lead this team," Toth informed him. "Your team trusts your judgment. So do I."
He shouldn't, they shouldn't. He was nothing but a traitor. A dishonorable rat who didn't even have enough honor left to stand down and let them go.
Dismay and relief warred as Toth strode past his team towards the door, calling, "One week," over his shoulder.
Slowly, feeling like he'd just aged a decade, Sergeant Greg Parker stood up, the weight of his own actions once more bearing down on him. The weight of his team's tainted trust, the weight of what his magic had done to them. He didn't look at his teammates, he couldn't. Not after what he'd done to them.
Smug, triumphant, and still flush with victory, Eddie's drawl reached his ears. "So…" He glanced over, seeing Eddie holding up the folder with his suspension orders. "Go to the gun range, use this for target practice? What do you think?"
In one swift stride, he reached his team leader and pulled the folder away, though he never met Ed's gaze. "No, Eddie. Not just yet."
Without another word, Sergeant Parker left the room, acutely aware of his team's stunned silence as they watched him depart. The folder burned in his hands, taunting him with every single one of his failures. But maybe…if he signed the papers within, accepted his fate, maybe they could still be free. As free as possible while they were still bound to him. He couldn't break the bonds, but maybe…maybe there was another way. He just had to find it.
Grimly, he reached inwards; the 'team sense' was already shut down and it was the work of moments to barricade it. The less they got of his magic, the better. It had already influenced them far too much. Loneliness jabbed, but far, far less than usual. Against the loneliness he set the fact, the truth that while his team had been given a choice, he had not. No, he'd just been told he had to accept their choice and never mind that he'd never wanted this. Never wanted to be their 'king'. Nor had he been allowed to plead his own case with his teammates – no, that blasted Lion had just given them a blanket choice…and refused to give him one. The injustice of that still rankled deep, a knife twisting in his soul each time he thought of it.
Within him, the gryphon let out a plaintive whine, hardening his resolve. He would wait a week, then sign the papers. Let them go, once and for all. Let himself go. It was the least he could do, after betraying them so thoroughly. Once he was suspended, he could devote his full time and attention to really, truly giving them their freedom back. Regaining his own freedom.
No matter what the cost.
Author note: *cue closing Flashpoint music* I'm sure everyone knows what comes next, but one item of business first. As always, I treasure each and every review left on any of my stories, so I very much appreciate those willing to take the time to leave one.
So...having said that, we will be starting "Greatest of These" on Tuesday, September 22nd 2020, right here in the main Flashpoint archive.
For anyone wondering when they should backup their computer - if you haven't done it in the past month, do it now! Hard drives can crash without any warning whatsoever (and if you hear it clicking, take it directly to data recovery. Don't even attempt to power it on).
As far as my data drive, I'm mostly waiting for the declaration of DOA (Dead On Arrival) at this point. The middle platter has rotational scoring and as of this writing, they've gone through two sets of data heads attempting to read information off the platters that are still intact. But what really sends a death knell through my hopes and prayers of getting my data back are the following two lines: This recovery isn't looking good. The damage might be too severe to recover any data.
I've begun the process of attempting to rebuild my files, notes, and so on, but the mountain of reconstructing what I've lost... There are no words right now. I am also looking into a possible second opinion for if (when) they declare the drive non-recoverable and send it back to me.
I knew better and I've seen other author's notes from authors who had their computers crash on them and take stories with that crash. I got sloppy and arrogant and now I'm paying the price for that. There is no question that I will reconstruct my notes and those stories, but I fear the quality of the recreation will be far, far less than the originals.
Thank you for your prayers on behalf of my lost data; I know that each and every one of them were heard, but sometimes, the answer is no. Accepting that is very hard for me, but I'm doing my best. Can't change the past, though I dearly wish I could right now.
Keep the Peace.