Oh dear lord, I am so sorry it's taken me such a ridiculous amount of time to update this! This is partly because this is a kind of prequel, and I was trying to keep in consistent with later stories in the arc. And those later stories got stalled because of lots and lots of RL wading in (and the need to actually earn some money, gulp).
Anyway – sorry (again) for the long, long hiatus, and thanks so much for the reviews, follows and favourites since the last chapter. Extra thanks to my lovely guest reviewers, who I haven't been able to thank or acknowledge through PM.
Because it's been an aeon, I thought a re-cap might be helpful…
Nick and Jan brought a successful conclusion to the human trafficking case in Portland, built on a combination of Nick's instincts and Jan's knowledge and contacts. One of their arrestees, a vindictive old Hexenbiest, declares curse war on Nick and pretty much dooms him to continuous misfortune (especially where it comes to his love life). So, in a wild act of over-protection, Jan cuffs Nick to his desk just before he's about to set out for a date with Juliette…
… and then gets snatched by some of the people who weren't arrested during the final case raid. Even under immense physical duress, Jan spends the night refusing to tell the ringleader (Duncan Salt, a Siegbarste) how they managed to bring his trafficking ring down, or where they can find Nick. Meanwhile, Nick has a bad feeling about Jan's lack of response to his calls and isn't surprised when Wu calls in the morning, reporting Jan's blood-spattered car abandoned in the Gresham PD carpark.
Between Jan's refusal to give Nick away, and Nick's detective abilities, an escape and rescue are achieved, and we left Jan in a bush with Nick, in bad shape, asking him why he wasn't wearing his Kevlar…
X x X
The paramedics hadn't allowed Nick to travel into hospital in the bus, so he went over to PPD to update Wu and share the details of Jan's notes about the human-trafficking operation with the vice teams. He had a coffee with them while they sat ticking off names common between Jan's 'list' and their stake-out points. For a while it was like a happy game of pimp bingo as case after vice case of 'suspicious activity' moved to 'probable cause', and thus into arrest warrant territory. Every few minutes, Benji Orson called up for a health update about Jan and eventually Nick took his personal cell number so he could call back after he actually had seen Jan and had something to report. As he was hanging up, Officer Durrant handed Jan's original notes back with a grin.
"You tell your partner that I take back everything I said about him being a humourless ass, right?"
"I think I'll just tell him 'thanks'." Nick went off to cells to have a crack at that creepy old woman who'd 'cursed him' for maybe holding her arm a little tighter than she wanted it held during an arrest. He couldn't get a damn thing out of her. She just sat and smirked at him, and he left feeling both unsettled and a little mad that it was twenty minutes of his life he wasn't getting back.
He nearly just stalked straight down to the carpark but De Marcos' voice rose loud and and nasal from Renard's office as he joined in battle with someone on the other end of the phone.
"… spent the night being wet-fried and kicked, then mysteriously has the strength to pull not one but two wooden posts out of their bolts and take Salt out with them. We now have a very dead big guy lying in the morgue, put there by someone also super-big with some weird kind of stamina super-power. Is there something about your intelligence officer you want to tell me about?"
Nick paused, pretending to lean against the doorjamb under the light and tweeze a splinter out of his hand. He'd wondered about that too, more than a little.
"…you're seriously going with adrenaline?" De Marcos snorted. He had one loud snort. "Well I'll keep that in mind, but I'm kinda suspending my disbelief from a crane, here… No… I'm not going to discuss it with him, just yet. I want to wait till he's in better shape. And we have a job offer for him, too. In the Mayor's office. He'd be first choice for it, so don't assume he's just gonna waltz back to Utrecht just 'cause you're yanking the 'procedure' chain…"
Unnerved, Nick jogged out of PPD and headed for the hospital. He needed to give Jan the heads up that he might be heading for some kind of unwanted transfer. He didn't like the idea of doing the job without Jan; he was wise, protective, and good company. And more than anything else, Jan trusted him. He let his instincts and hunches run their length. Nick couldn't imagine having to work with someone who boxed in all his thinking with 'what's the evidence' before he'd even had time to think his way around a problem and figure out where to find the evidence. That would drive him insane.
Nick jolted at the doorway as he reached Jan's room. All those sayings 'that it looks worse the next day' seemed horribly true, except that Jan hadn't waited the requisite 24 hours to start looking like a wreck. His partner was sleeping uneasily, shivering under a fan and fully wired up. Nick lowered himself into the hard plastic chair and tried not to get freaked out by the number of tubes and ECG leads turning the top of his buddy into a robot mess.
Purely to look away from the wet-burns and bruises, Nick gazed over to Jan's roommate, a really small man in his seventies with a ratty little moustache, an automated blood-pressure monitor and a leg cast. The guy had a bad case of the fidgets and couldn't quit fiddling with the personal speaker he'd plugged into the sound socket on the headboard behind him. The hospital radio DJ seemed to be having an REM day and Nick sat back, tapping his foot through 'losing my religion' while waiting for Jan to wake up.
Religion segued into Shiny Happy People, which Nick wasn't in the mood for, and then a weirdly high-pitched version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Jan's roommate chuckled gleefully and turned the sound right up.
Jan turned his head on the pillow and groaned distantly.
Nick was about to tell the old guy to turn it down when a text made his pocket buzz. He checked his cell at rapid-fire speed. It was from Juliette, and he found himself grinning giddily.
Did your partner show up? Is he ok?
God, it was just last night he'd been out with her and they'd… kissed? It seemed like a lifetime away. He re-read the one line four times, getting happier each time. Then figured it would be nice to reply.
Bad guys grabbed him for information. He's in bad shape but will be ok. He smiled at his phone. Really nice that she'd asked. He needed someone he could discuss work with, like Jan had Cleo. He thumbed a rapid addition. How is tortoise? Galvanised? ;)
A reply buzzed back in. Tortoise now eating. Thanks for asking :) Glad your partner's going to be ok. You're going to have to introduce us at some point. Awesome that you knew something was wrong, at least I know to trust your gut! J xxx
Three kisses. Three! It made him feel disloyal to Marie to wish she hadn't chosen today for a fly-by-visit, but he wanted to try that kiss with Juliette again just to make sure it wasn't all a dream. He pinged out one last line. If you want to entrust my gut with pizza, I'm free tomorrow night.
Nick glanced over at Jan, who still had his eyes closed, but was pulling a heavy hand off the blanket to attract his attention. He grinned and damn near leapt out of his chair. "Hey, how're you doing?"
Jan murmured something that was completely obscured by the WIM-EH-WEEEEEH ululating in the background and Nick found himself having to pull down the gurney rail and reach right across his partner to be able to hear him. It was an awkward angle, too, forcing him to prop himself up on the heels of his hands, right by Jan's waist and shoulder. He held the position of the world's most awkward press up while straining to listen over the sudden, urgent BING BING BING of the ECG.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Jan cleared his throat and tried to raise his voice. "Nick, would you be… so kind… as to tell the gentleman in the next bed that I strongly suspect him of deliberately trying to irritate me, and remind him that I will be up on my feet before he will?"
Nick very much doubted that, since Jan looked like he'd pass right out if he put one foot on the floor, but decided to humour his buddy by at least being polite. "He'd be really grateful if you could turn the music down or off, Sir."
The old guy smirked at the formality, showing a significant brown overbite. "Please convey to my um… esteemed roommate that music is good for my nerves, and I trust he would not impede my recovery."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Come on, don't be a jerk about this."
"My compliments to the gentleman with the musical soul," Jan managed, pulling himself a few inches upright, "but he may wish to consider whether the sudden arrival of my knee in his groin might be more of an impediment to his recov—"
"Alright, alright! Stop that." Nick confiscated the old guy's speaker with a hasty snatch and took it down to the nurse's bank, having a word with her about the older guy's childish behaviour. She agreed to do something about it, and a moment later, a couple of porters arrived to find the twitchy, skinny little asshole a new room. Then a young girl brought Jan some dinner and left it on a side table.
Then they were left in peace. Jan's eyes had closed again and as he was shivering violently, Nick reached over and pulled up the blanket, easing down the fan which seemed to have been set to 'tornado'. He bit his lip uncertainly. On one hand, he'd feel a shitty friend if he didn't give Jan the heads up about what he'd over-heard. On the other hand, he seemed sick enough that De Marcos would probably hold off the questions for a few days. For now, he should maybe just let Jan sleep. He put a light hand on the enormous wrist.
"Look, you're pretty tired. Uh… understatement. I'll come back when—" he jumped as the ECG released a rapid, arhythmic set of BINGS and Jan winced. Nick tightened his grip on his wrist even as the flutter slowed. "Jeez… You ok? Should I get someone?"
Jan shook his head. "I'm told that's to be expected for a couple of days. Thanks for getting rid of the pest in the other bed, by the way."
"Yeah, he reminded me of a rat, actually." BING BING BING BING BING! Nick flinched as Jan winced again – palpitations didn't look. He struggled to keep the tone light through his worry. "Had that little asshole been annoying you for hours?"
"Only two." Jan eventually got his eyes open again and they locked gazes for a long moment. "Thanks, Nick."
"And thank you." Nick sat back down and stared at the vinyl flooring between his feet. Could he have stuck out a beating that went on that long? He hoped so — if someone else's life depended on it. He just wished that his last conversation with Jan before the abduction hadn't been such an argument. He was about to ask when Jan was allowed home, and if he needed any company for a few days when he got there, when he heard a rueful chuckle.
"I owe you an apology, by the way."
Nick hurt his brain trying to figure out why. "Huh?"
"I was a little ungracious about your lack of Kevlar. I could've chosen a better moment for that particular observation."
Nick remembered the gently reproving prod in the gut and laughed out loud. "Don't sweat it, you were right. Wilkes read me the same riot act. Wrote it, even. On his laptop, in 50-point red font. Did you know Wilkes could touch-type?"
"I did. He's alarmingly fast. I'm still waiting for him to pitch up with his big-screened interrogation tool and ask me what happened in the basement."
Shit, they were at that point in the conversation, already. Nick felt a little cold. The opportunity to warn Jan about De Marcos' conversation with some far-off Interpol honcho was pretty much handed to him on a plate, but he wasn't sure he could take a bite from it. He wiped his hand across his face, cursing himself for wanting to chicken out, not give Jan the bad news, and just be there when he needed to explain he was leaving. But that wasn't fair. That put pressure on Jan to tell him he was leaving, and since his buddy suffered other people's hurts so keenly—
"What's up, Nick?"
The gentle tone made it worse. "Why do you have to be so observant?"
"I'm caught out sometimes." Jan indicated the cut in his temple from where he'd been surprised at his car by the scaffold pole. "Pass my food, would you?"
Nick helped him to arrange the over-bed rest and the tray, then took the cover off to reveal a roast dinner with over-cooked vegetables, and dessert. It smelt horrible, apart from the cheesecake. "Want me to get you a burger instead?"
"Later, if you wouldn't mind. I'm surprisingly hungry." Jan took a bite of soggy roast potato. "But for now, stop changing the subject."
"Alright. So, I heard De Marcos talking on the phone. It sounded like Interpol are determined to get you to go 'home'." Nick held back from talking about De Marcos' disbelief about what had happened in the basement. He figured his buddy should be limited to one thing to worry about at a time. He tried for some good news. "He also mentioned a job in the Mayor's office that you'd be good for. You'd take that, right? If it meant you didn't have to leave Portland?"
"I don't want to leave Portland," Jan said. But didn't look up from his plate. "But it's complicated."
"Complicated how? You like your job, you have a girlfriend here, you have an awesome partner." Nick beamed at him.
"All true, Nick. But I was on a fast-track scheme, which I'd be a fool to leave. I'm supposed to be substantive Lieutenant already, not an acting one, I think I could achieve more, and… I've been in the same job for a long time."
"Oh." Nick couldn't get mad, not really. It wasn't reasonable to expect Jan just to stick around just because he didn't want him to leave, but it stuck in his throat a little that Jan had clearly been aware of the threat of being moved on for a while, and hadn't mentioned it. But then… maybe he didn't want a heavy conversation until he actually had to make a decision about it.
"If I could wrap you up and take you to Utrecht with me—"
BING BING BING BING BING
"Whoa!" Nick laughed as Jan glowed like a beet, the flush spreading from face to neck to chest in seconds. "I'm sure that sounded way less romantic in your head!"
"I just meant that you've been a perfect partner, that's all. That counts for a lot in our line of work." Jan went even pinker.
"I'm just ribbing you. Hey, I'm just going to the head. Back in a sec." Nick took a moment away from the room to breathe relief that he'd given his warning as best he could, but also to contain the sheer level of his disappointment that Jan might be going. And soon. When he got back, Jan's cell was ringing on his bedside cupboard and he was trying to get out of bed to pick up the call. Nick pushed him back gently with one hand, fumbling for the cell with the other. "Are you nuts? Stay still. I'll get that."
"It's Cleo," Nick reported.
"Well in that case, could you pass—"
Nick tried to use the voice that said he had no idea that she and Jan were a 'thing'. "Hey Cleo, it's Nick—"
"Where the hell is Jan? He was supposed to meet me ten minutes ago!"
Nick blinked. Cleo ought to know by now that if Jan blew anyone out, there was a really good reason. "He's got a good excuse!"
"The phone please, Nick." Jan's hand reached painfully for the cell and Nick leant back with it, determined to do things his way. Cleo needed to value her guy better.
"Jan's in hospital, in ICU. He got pretty badly beat up last night."
She squeaked, then shouted down the line. "WHAT!?"
"Nick! Give it to me!"
"Oh God, no. Is he going to be ok? What happened? Can I come see him?"
Nick pulled an apologetic face at Jan and dipped his voice. "Sorry. I think I worried her a little."
Ok, enough was enough. Time to put this right. "He'll be here long enough for you to visit, but he'll be fine, don't worry. Jan's just resting. Sorry, Cleo… was he meant to have helped you out with something? Can I help?"
"He was supposed to be looking after Susie so that Dave could get to this foster place's summer party!"
Nick checked his watch — it was a little before five. Marie probably wouldn't even pitch up till nine. "I can do that."
"Nick! I know my voice can register on your hearing spectrum! Now give me the bloody phone!"
Nick reached a hand out and grabbed the little plastic dessert spoon on the side of the plate, cutting off a big slice of cheesecake, keeping the rest of his attention firmly on Cleo. "I'd like to help out. How old is Susie?"
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Six weeks."
"Well that's a little …. young, but that's ok. Just tell me when and where—" Just as Jan hauled himself upright, looking like he really meant business about grabbing the cell, Nick silenced him with a well-aimed spoon delivering a great big mouthful of dessert.
The background noise resolved, Nick jotted down the address Cleo gave him, which appeared to be at the zoo. "So is Susie the keeper's baby, or something?"
"She is," Cleo said. And then giggled. "No matter how big Susie gets, she'll always be Dave's baby."
Nick shrugged at the weird response, then hung up, seeing Jan wiping his mouth and glaring while still trying to swallow. "What? I was trying to do you a favour and you kept butting in."
"Did Cleo tell you that Susie's a baby elephant?"
He stared. "Wh-What!? No!"
"There's a reason Cleo asked me to help her out, as opposed to you, or Wu, say. Susie's heavy. And not very well behaved."
Nick slapped his forehead with his hand. Next time Jan's cell rang, he was definitely handing it over.
"You can still back out."
No. Because for all her lack of honesty, Cleo sounded pretty stressed, and he said he'd help out, so he would. Otherwise Jan would lie there, stressing out about letting Cleo down even though events were beyond his control. "Nope, said I'd do it, so I'll do it." Nonetheless, he stood a little shakily. "I guess I'd better get some casual clothes on. Like, super-casual-will-never-wear-them-again clothes."
"Give me a call when you're finished, would you? So I know you're ok?"
"Sure." Nick gave Jan a puzzled smile as he turned to go. Jan usually delivered his health warnings with a half-smile, but he just looked exhausted. "Sure you're alright?"
"Apart from the non-consensual cheesecake moment? Yes, I'm fine. Thank you. It was good to see you."
Nick chuckled and headed out the door. He probably couldn't get away with that kind of stunt with anyone else without getting hit in the face. The big-brother protectionism, he decided, he could live with. Even if it did occasionally get him cuffed to a desk. If Jan had to go, he'd have to just keep reminding himself of what he'd learned from the big guy.
Nick stopped in his tracks as he reached his car, and pulled his cell-phone out. If there was one thing he really had learned from Jan, it was that things tended to get done faster if you worked with someone… which was the polar opposite of Aunt Marie's philosophy when he was growing up, which was that you got nowhere if you risked sharing jobs with an idiot.
He dialled Benji's number and gave him the promised update on Jan's improvement, to the guy's huge relief. And then he gave a grin which he hoped translated down the phone line. "Actually Benji, I have this big job on that I can't handle on my own. Do you feel like being a hero, again…?"
X x X
The basement was all wrong. Too cold. Too small. Jan lifted his face off the gritty floor and felt Freebie shaking him. He was sore, confused... still had his hands tied behind his back. He looked up at Freebie, who kept saying the same thing over and over again, but he couldn't quite make it out.
Salt's guys burst down the steps and they fought; he lost, feeling his arms being pulled out to either side again as they restrained him for questioning. Then he got hit by the wire. Too early... they didn't move to the ice tank and wire that soon...
"Alright," Salt said, waving the live-wire. "Let's try something else. This'll make you talk."
Jan frowned. That hadn't happened. They were supposed to slug it out while Salt tried to kill him. There was a bang, swearing and struggling behind and Jan craned round to see someone being hauled down the steps and hit repeatedly to make him pipe down.
No... no, they couldn't have found Nick. That's not what happened…. He'd kept Nick out of it all… Jan kicked at the guys hauling Nick over to the ice tub but may as well have been kicking marshmallows. He had no force at all behind his blows even though he made them faster and more furious as Nick's head was plunged into the ice tub, held in.
Still held in...
Nick struggled wildly, trying to straighten up and being thumped down. Jan hauled at the stanchions keeping him still and couldn't move them. It was like trying to haul on a goddamn mountain. Jan roared at them that Nick didn't know anything, but it was like his voice was dissolving into silence the moment it came out of his mouth.
Nick's struggles grew weaker. He was pushed into the ice water until his shoulders and chest submerged, his legs sliding helplessly and now slowly across the floor.
"No, no, NO!"
The shock of seeing Nick no longer moving, his head hanging down into the ice water, wrenched Jan clean out of sleep. Feeling his wrists free, he lunged forward, to find himself in a brighter room. No tubs, no generators… no murdered partner. His eyes focussed on a small person grabbing his shoulders, yelling above the sound of the rampant ECG trace.
"Easy, son! You're alright!" De Marcos, yelling. "Your partner's safe. You're safe. Ease back… c'mon, before the Nazi nurse shows up…"
He wasn't in the basement…
Jan dropped back, feeling his pulse thump behind his eyes, behind his teeth, behind his knees, even… It was hard seizing his breath and controlling it to a less hectic rate. He shook, feeling intense cold flow through him as the panic took its sweet f'ing time draining away. He lay there obediently while people ran in and checked his obs, then filtered out slowly with loud threats of an extra night's stay to get the fibrillation under control. Jan groaned. He needed to be out. For one thing, they kept trying to freeze him by reducing his natural body temp down to human 37 degrees. For another, that witch needed a visit. He planned to discourage her from fastening that curse on Nick before it was more than a few days old.
He definitely had to be out of hospital, or at least off the damn ECG. The stupid machine was a like a lie detector. The moment Nick had leant over him, swamping his senses, he felt his whole body going berserk. There was no point any longer in pretending to himself that he didn't have feelings for Nick. Who was very much male… like him… and Christ, he was thirty-four! He should've been aware of being attracted to other guys before now, surely? The shock of realisation caused another pulse spike, and while his head was hurriedly lowered and his legs raised, someone returned the oxygen supply to his face.
It helped. He lay completely still for a while, forcing himself into a breathing rhythm that helped him to calm down. He felt a light hand in his hair, smoothing it. Then heard Wilson's voice, subdued but annoyed.
"Do we have to go through this now?"
"Soon as he's awake." De Marcos' voice, this time. But low. Apologetic. "Better now than awkward o'clock, right?"
Jan was super sweaty after the nightmare. He could feel strands of hair sticking to his forehead and temples, and trickles running down the side of his neck. It was dabbed away gently, for which he was hugely grateful. After a few moments the light-headedness passed and he looked around, struggling to focus. Wilson was standing over him on soothing duty, De Marcos and Wilkes lurking at the end of the bed.
For no real good reason, Jan suddenly felt lost and naked and pulled the blanket up, feeling moisture prick his eyes.
De Marcos cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, son, but that kind of dream might repeat itself on you for a little while. Least till your brain registers that you got out. And, more to the point, that Burkhardt's fine, too."
There was furious tapping, and Wilkes turned the laptop to face him. The screen read, "Tony knows what he's talking about."
Jan allowed himself a tiny smile of understanding after years of not being sure how Wilkes and De Marcos were actually friends off-shift, given their war-like relationship in the office. So… Tony had gone to bat for Wilkes, sometime back in their day. He exhaled slowly. "I won't expect miracles, then. But have you come to tell me that I killed Salt?"
As a threesome they exchanged glances, and Wilson answered. "You did, yes. Since it's blatant self-defence, we're not investigating. But we do have a few people under arrest and need to know whether you had a friend down there. Apart from the working girl."
Jan didn't quite know what she meant. "What, as in… did one of Salt's guys turn on him? No."
They nodded like they believed him, but still looked rightfully confused. He cleared his throat and tried to sit up a little more. "Freebie was very helpful."
"Did she kick the posts out?" De Marcos raised a brow. "I'm glad you got away of course, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how you did it."
"I'm larger than the average bear." Jan gave a chuckle that sounded fake even in his own ears, and which fell flat in the inquisitive quiet. He exhaled sharply, preparing himself physically to bullshit. "Salt was about to kill me and I found… reserves. I don't know whether that was panic, or adrenaline, or—"
BING BING BING BING!
"OR SOMETHING ELSE," he half-shouted over the infuriating ECG, fighting a woge in frustration at the effect that lying had on him, "but I wouldn't have killed him if I had any conscious control over the situation. Everything got away from me." That was true enough. His pulse started dropping again. God, this was almost as stressful as being in that basement; these were people whose opinions mattered to him. He couldn't have them thinking he was some kind of maverick, abusing superior strength.
Wilkes turned the laptop back round to face him. This isn't about you failing to control the situation. This is about safe-guarding your health. Burkhardt had glucose tablets ready in case you needed them, indicating that he was aware of a condition that you haven't disclosed to us. Interpol want you back and have intelligence and diplomatic roles on offer that don't put you at risk. If you want to stay here and remain operational, you'll need to demonstrate that you've got your condition under control, and that it's not a danger to you or your squad.
"What? I went through all that trying to protect my squad!"
"You were in a serious condition," Wilson smoothed. "It's incredible that you got yourself out of there, but if Nick didn't have supplies on him, you'd be dead right now. We know you went through a lot. And, more to the point, we know you're not the type of person who's going to stand back and let other people do the physical side of the job for you in future. Being repeatedly told to stand down would drive you insane." She sighed. "For what it's worth, I really want you to stay. There are some management posts in Portland that you would excel at."
He felt like he'd been punched in the gut. Yes, he got their reasoning, but it stank to all hell like being pushed out. He glanced between the Captains and saw them all pensive, all sorry for what they had to tell him, all looking at him with the hangdog expressions of people with their hands tied. He bunched his hands into fists under the blanket. "What would I have to do to prove I could remain operational?"
Wilkes tapped rapidly. "A full med check-up. Bloods, fitness test renewal and a supervised oversight on your reaction to fasting tests. If you come through all that ok, then we'll talk through your options."
Jan felt sick. And trapped. He hated the idea of getting trapped behind a desk and looked at like someone who couldn't handle the pace of field work. Doing the full check-up was out of the question; he might get through the fasting tests ok, but he couldn't let them have the bloods... unless he found a friendly wesen pathologist to swap the sample out. But dragging someone else into that duplicity would probably choke him, and to refuse the tests would be suspicious.
"Jan?" Wilson prompted gently.
"Can I think about it?"
"Of course." She stepped back up to the bed and pulled the blankets back up to his shoulders, perhaps as an apology at having to dump on him; perhaps as a gentle hint that it was time to rest.
A nurse barged her way in and with an incomprehensible mumble of explanation, plunged a syringe of... something… into the canula on the back of his hand, took readings, scribbled them on his board, turned the icy fan on again, and then stalked out.
Jan reached over and rebelliously snapped the fan off again, straight away. He lay back, feeling a little spongy-headed, and noted his captain glaring after the uncommunicative nurse.
"Do they do that to you a lot?"
"They're trying to get me to… schplee… schlee.. " Good god, that stuff worked fast, whatever it was. It had barely taken ten seconds for his brain to start shutting down. He forced his lips around the words. "Sl-eep off the shock."
"I'm sorry we had to do all this today, Jan. Tony felt it was important that we let you know how the land lies before the Interpol Director gets hold of you with a nasty surprise."
"Hey! You 'felt' that, too! Blaming it all on me, Christ…."
Jan nodded, not particularly relishing a call from the overly-abrupt van Hulzen. "Thanks. She's a lady I don't like to be surprised by."
"Guy," De Marcos said.
His head felt heavy. "Huh?"
"It's a Dutch office – probably full of van-somethings, but this one was definitely male. Reevus van Mah—"
"Remus van Maarten!" Jan cheered slightly. Things weren't all black then, if Remus had taken over the Utrecht field office. And at least Remus knew he was a Koninglowen. He could do with a little less secrecy in his life. "No van Hulzen. That's….. that's really good news."
Wilson chuckled. "Not fond of her?"
"She's a… groin-grabber." Wow, he felt sleepy. "Lots of groins grabbed. Not just mine. And frankly, she can be a bit of a B-I-T…C… H."
Wilson and De Marcos gave a unified mock-gasp and left, chuckling among themselves. Jan settled into his pillow, guiltlessly indulging uncharitable thoughts about his now ex Interpol boss, and peacefully let heavy-headedness overcome him when he could no longer force his eyes open.
He knew before he dropped out completely that he was going to dream about Nick again, and not necessarily in the context of them being trapped in the basement…
X x X
"I can't lie to you… this is NOT what I had in mind for hero work!" Benji yelled through the viewing glass of the elephant enclosure, as he was backed into a corner by Susie.
Nick adjusted his jock-strap inside his all-in-one blue plastic suit and waited for Juliette to pick up. Which she did, after seven rings. He forced cheeriness into his voice to drown out the sounds of Benji yelling for help in the background. "Hey, how are you doing?"
"Just as well as three hours ago…" she chuckled on the other end of the line. "But I love that you called already. What's up?"
"What does a baby elephant weigh?"
A pause. "Sorry?"
Nick felt a tiny bit guilty as Benji, who was not wearing a jock strap, got flicked by a very little trunk with a huge amount of power. His new friend folded up and groaned his way down the wall, his eyes crossed. Nick swallowed anxiously: it was his turn up next in a moment. In Jan's absence, the keepers suggested they alternate duties in keeping Susie contained in the corner while they mucked out a different section of it. 'If you take in turns, you get recovery time,' Dave had advised, ominously. 'And it doesn't spook her so much, having only one unfamiliar person in the enclosure,' And then he'd sprinted off to go to his barbecue, leaving his deputy in charge. Apparently the 'recovery time' was required after being leant on. Susie was big on cuddles.
"If it's a serious question, how old is the elephant?"
"She's six weeks."
"Okay… so we're talking somewhere between two hundred and fifty and three hundred pounds."
"Really?" Nick peered down at the cheery little face which was now trying to snuffle his fingers through the enclosure glass. Susie was waist-height, had a trunk the length of his elbow-to-knuckles, and a tuft of hair between dangling ears. He couldn't figure out where she was packing all that weight but, point taken, he was NOT going to be caught between her and a wall. At any point.
"Do I need to know why you need to know this?"
"Uh… I'm herding a baby elephant," he admitted. "I promise to shower like twenty times before I next see you."
"Right!" Juliette said brightly. "Of course you are. I'm sure you'll explain later…. Just… Nick?"
"Yeah?" He felt his gut shrivel a little as the deputy keeper gave him a sign to get off the phone and in through the enclosure door.
"Don't stand behind her."
Nick managed to mutter "Thanks," instead of "Love you" at the last minute (he didn't want to spook Juliette as well as Susie), and locked his cell up. Then he went into the enclosure, holding the door so Benji could limp through to safety, glaring indignantly at him as he did so.
The door shut behind Nick with a resounding thud and he felt a sharp crack on the side of his thigh that made him jump several inches. "OW! GOD…" He gripped his leg and hobbled into the play area, bending down to grab one of her basket balls. A second crack, this one across his ass, gave him huge sympathy with the kids who'd gone to school in the days of corporal punishment.
Protecting his rear, he hunkered down gingerly and tried to keep an even voice. He was usually pretty good with animals. "If you want to play, you need to play nice. Or I'm going."
She stared at him.
"I'm happy to play." He rolled the ball towards her and reached out his other free hand. "See? Good ball-rolling hand."
After a long moment of consideration, she nuzzled his fingertips and palm with her trunk. It was dry and tickly, and only a little moist when hot breath snuffled out. He grinned, reached out a little further, and very gently ruffled the tuft of hair between her ears.
She stuck her trunk out stiff as a stick and trumpeted cheerfully into his face, making him cough at the breath, and his eyes water at the smell. Ok, maybe he wouldn't do that again. But at least she wasn't squishing him. He caught Benji's eye through the enclosure glass; the guy was slumping on a seat with a hot-water bottle over his groin, eyeing him either jealously or furiously, Nick couldn't quite work out.
Behind Susie, he got a big thumbs-up from the Deputy keeper and his two helpers, who were straw-and-shit-shovelling for their lives while their infant charge was distracted. Nick picked up three of the tennis balls and, trying not to think about the stains on them, started juggling. The baby elephant stared at him like he was a conjurer at a kid's party, making the occasional happy blasting noise, so he kept going until his arms felt numb and the keepers were on the last half-metre of crap to clear.
Cramp set into his wrists and he winced through it, determined to see this out. The balls weren't going so high now, though, and Susie was circling restively.
"You nearly done, guys?" he called out between gritted teeth.
"Ayuh… 'bout another two minutes."
Crap. No way could he do this for another five minutes. A spasm ran along his arm from elbow to little finger and he let a ball drop.
Susie ran forward into him and he flung the rest of the balls pretty much right in the air as he dodged out of the way. There was a wall a few feet behind him. Walls were bad, bad things to get trapped against. She galloped past him then came to a sharp halt before she hit the wall, thank god, looking around in confusion, whirling around in a 360 a couple of times but moving too fast to register where his legs were. She stopped, staring at the wall, trumpeting unhappily.
Nick kept his voice loud but soothing as he approached, bending a little to scritch her back. "Hey it's alright. I'm still here. I just thought you were going to trample me over, you know?"
"Uh, Mr Burkhardt? You might wanna get out, now…"
"No, but you've made her nervous. So maybe…"
Nick heeded the nervousness in one of the keepers' voices and backed up from Susie before his fingers made contact with her back, now remembering Juliette's words of warning about never standing behind. He did not want to be subjected to the smelly output of an elephant with the crap quite literally scared out of her. Susie was stamping her feet now, still whirling on the spot, not seeing him properly and getting outraged.
"Easy!" he called, while she was facing him, but she didn't place the sound, getting upset instead by the loss of her playmate and the probably-increasing vertigo of spinning like a top. Nick backed up slowly and carefully, staying silent now, knowing that his voice wasn't having such a good effect on her anymore. She trumpeted furiously, the sound tiny compared to an adult, but still intimidating in the echoey, shut-up pen.
He'd made it almost to the door when she fixed his position, blasted angrily, and charged.
X x X
The next part is coming up a damn sight sooner than this one did, I promise…. I hope you enjoyed!