Nita Kerys slumped in her chair in the Department of Internal Operations' Response Centre. She had been in intensive training for the past few days, and now had the route in and out of the department fully memorised. She was glad of that, and even gladder than they'd trained her on a mock-up of the corridor, one painted in normal grey rather than the violent mess that was the real thing.
She shifted slightly where she sat, trying to get comfortable. While the chairs in the DIO were far better than those in the rest of HQ – they even had cushions – some awkward gravity changes in the corridor had caused a variety of bruises before she got the timing right. Sighing, the agent reached for her book – the rule book of the DIO, boring reading, but necessary. She still wasn't sure about this new job – sure, as an Assassin she was well trained for it, but the idea of possibly killing people she knew made her queasy. At least, she thought, I probably won't have to do anything for a while.
At that moment, the console let out a piercing [BEEEEEEEEEEP!]. Nita started to get up to see what was the matter, and then remembered the meaning of that tone. As missions for the DIO were so rare, the ear-splitting noise had been programmed to sound whenever someone approached the outer door of the RC. It was a warning to all inside to close their eyes or risk being blinded. Nita didn't want to be blinded. She'd heard it was a bad idea.
When she heard the door hiss closed, she opened her eyes to see a dwarf glowering at her. He was short, as were all his race, with grey hair and beard. There weren't many dwarves in the PPC – Nita didn't recall seeing any outside the DIO – and the uniform wasn't designed for them, but he'd made an effort. The axe in his belt made it look less odd, but nevertheless, it was a strange sight.
Fortunately, it was one Nita had seen before. "Hello, Justin," she said, smiling.
Agent Justin Agent, head of the DIO's Control Centre, grinned. "Hi, Nita. Is Pete around?"
"I've asked you over and again not to call me that," said Agent Peter Piper, stepping into the RC from the cafeteria. "When are you going to listen to me?"
Justin gave Peter an exaggeratedly thoughtful look. "Perhaps when you give me a decent reason?"
Peter nodded. "How about if I start calling you by your original name?"
Nita had never seen a dwarf go pale before. "You wouldn't," said Justin nervously.
Peter gave him a predatorial smile. "No?"
Justin sighed gruffly. "I'm sorry, Peter. Now, are you going to listen to what I have to say?"
"Certainly," replied Peter amiably, sitting down in the chair next to Nita. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Hmph." The dwarf looked at the floor for a moment, thinking, and then pulled a piece of paper out of a pocket on his uniform. Nita noted that he seemed to have a great many more pockets than the average agent. "You've got a mission."
Nita sat bolt upright, eyes wide. "A mission?" she squeaked. "So soon?"
"Yes, a mission," repeated Justin. "We've been watching a couple of agents in the Disturbing Acts of Violence Department for some time now. It seems they have been taking missions outside their jurisdiction without adequate justification, and failing to complete charge lists when on assassination missions. They have also had an adverse effect on the Big Thorn – he's speaking in normal speech almost all the time now – and several other teams in their department have reported a lack of efficiency in their performance. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of failed missions, and the latest mission report from our targets calls them 'the best DAVDers ever'."
Peter nodded. "It sounds bad enough, especially that last. I'm not sure whether my partner is ready for this, though." He looked at Nita, who blushed, and then nodded.
"I think I can do it. It's DAVD, and I, well, I don't know anyone in DAVD, so it should be okay. Um."
Peter nodded. "Excellent. Justin, do we have names and RC number?"
Justin frowned, patted several pockets, and finally produced a second sheet of paper. "Yep, right here. Torin Elyset and Narnia Soletat, RC #1962."
Nita raised an eyebrow. "Narnia? Isn't that like being named 'Middle-earth'?"
Justin nodded. "Another indication that they need getting, eh? Well, anyway, that's all you need to know. I'll head back to Control and channel the full report through to your console. See you around, team." With that, he walked over to the main door and opened it, barely giving Nita and Peter time to close their eyes. When they looked again, he was gone.
"Well," said Peter to his partner, "your first mission is about to begin. We should probably get you armed up."
Nita nodded, still a little nervous. Was this really a good idea? She didn't know. She knew it needed doing, but was she really the one to do it?
"Do you have a preferred weapon?" asked Peter, getting up and walking over to the rack in the corner. "We have almost everything, so you can pick."
Nita blinked, and nodded. "Er, what do you recommend?"
Peter sighed, and looked at her. "Are you any good with a bow?"
"Um. Not too bad," Nita admitted. "I mean, I'm no elf, but..."
"Bow it is, then," he said, reaching up and grabbing one. "The advantage of this," he said, walking back and handing it to her, "is that it's hard for our targets to defend themselves. Agents don't wear armour, but they're often skilled with the sword. So we work from range, leaving them no chance to get away. It's not exactly fair, but..." He shrugged. "We aren't fair."
Nita nodded, wide-eyed. At that moment, the console let out a [bing] and Peter turned to it. Pressing the button, he scanned the report on the screen and nodded. "They've just come back from a mission," he said, "and are reporting to the Big Thorn. That should give us an opportunity to observe, just in case Control have got it wrong again."
Nita blinked. "Wrong? What do you mean?"
Peter frowned, looking back at her over his shoulder. "It happened quite often in the early days, I'm told. We were using equipment left over from the DIS, to whom accuracy didn't count as much as fear. So there were some false reports, and a few agents died needlessly. Now, therefore, we check ourselves on each mission. I've only encountered a mistake once – and that was when a 'Sue had possessed one of the agents involved – but it's still necessary to check. Can't go killing the good guys, can we?"
Nita shook her head hurriedly. She hadn't realised that could happen, although of course she should have. Even in the DMS they got incorrect reports from time to time, or 'fics which got corrected part-way through the mission. "So, er, do we use a portal? Disguises?"
Peter nodded. "Portal, yes. It saves time. Disguises, not really. The only difference between us and most agents is the flashpatch, and we need that so that the Flowers don't set the DIA on us. So we go as we are. Come on." So saying, he picked up a Remote Activator and Character Analysis Device, opened a portal, and stepped through. Nita followed as quickly as she could.
The DIO agents emerged in a standard grey PPC HQ office. More precisely, they appeared underneath the desk in that office. Above them, a voice was talking. Presumably, it belonged to an agent.
"... so we, like, had to kill him to get rid of him, and then Legolas came in, and he wasn't even supposed to be there, and we tried to get him to leave, but he wouldn't."
"So you killed him?" asked a weary voice from the other side of the deck. Nita frowned, and pulled out a notepad. Who's that? she wrote, and tapped Peter on the shoulder. He glanced down at the pad, and gestured for the pen.
The Big Thorn, he scribbled, then added, Need to do charge list. Nita nodded, and her partner took the pad and pen and started writing.
"We didn't mean to," said a third voice. "Narnia told him to leave, but he wouldn't."
"So you killed him?" said the Big Thorn, as if asking again would get a different answer.
"Well, yeah," said the first voice – Narnia, Nita assumed. "A bit."
"It's nothing Medical can't fix," said the third – Torin, by a process of elimination.
"You know Medical isn't supposed to deal with Canons," said the Thorn. "Normally, this would be grounds for dismissal."
"You can't dismiss us," said Torin. "You need us."
"Sadly," replied the Thorn, "you are correct. What with the staffing shortages..."
"And the fact that we're your best agents," said Narnia.
"And the fact that you're my best agents," repeated the Big Thorn. Nita frowned. Although she couldn't see the Plant, she was willing to bet that his eyes had just glazed over – or would have, if he'd had eyes. "Of course I could never get rid of my precious Torin and Narnia," the Plant went on, "they are the only thing that keeps my department running."
Nita could almost hear the dazzling grin Narnia gave the Thorn. "We promise we won't do it again, tho," the 'Sue-agent said, somehow making the difference between 'though' and 'tho' audible. "Can we go now?"
"Yes, you can go now," replied the Thorn. "Have a nice rest before your next mission."
"Thank you so much!" squealed Torin, and Nita ducked back a bit further under the table as four feet dropped down in front of her. To her disgust, she noted that both 'agents' were wearing pink socks. They turned and walked away from the desk, leaving the Big Thorn's office and slamming the door loudly. There was a rustling noise from the desk, and the Big Thorn said, in a far more normal voice – well, normal for a Flower - Ow.
"Ow indeed," said Peter, closing the notebook and crawling out from under the desk. Nita followed, and stood up to see the Thorn leaning back away from Peter as if scared. "Looks like you've got a problem," the agent added.
Who are you? asked the Big Thorn. Why shouldn't I call the DIA right now and have them take you away?
"Two reasons," said Peter. "Firstly, you've got a pair of agents in your department who are acting more like 'Sues than PPCers, as I'm sure you've noticed."
Elyset and Soletat, said the Thorn, yes. But that doesn't explain what you two were doing under my desk.
"Observing," said Peter. "It's our job."
The Big Thorn rocked back on its chair. You are...?
"Department of Internal Operations, yes," Peter said, nodding. "You've not met us before, I assume?"
No, no I have not, replied the Thorn. Not personally. I suppose you were behind the disappearance of Agents Melyr and Gomet?
Peter thought for a moment, and then nodded again. "That was my predecessor. I read the report once. They were bad."
Indeed they were, said the Thorn dryly. So are you going to stand around talking all day, or could you perhaps deal with these impostors who have taken over my department?
"Getting right on it, sir," replied Peter, walking towards the door. "Come along, Nita."
Nita scuttled after her overbearing partner as he strode along the gloomy corridors of DAVD – apparently, this department had a better concept of 'atmosphere' than most – in the wake of the two 'Sue-agents, towards what she presumed was Response Centre #1962. "Peter," she hissed, "shouldn't there be more agents around? I mean, usually I'd've bumped into two or three in this distance."
"You're correct," Peter confirmed. "It's another effect of our targets. They don't tend to have the imagination to give HQ any background colour. We're fortunate they don't move around very much, else we'd end up with half of HQ missing."
Nita bit her lip. "Could that ever happen to, you know, us? I mean, if our reports make it out into general circulation..."
Peter stopped abruptly, turning on the spot to face Nita and almost making her fall over. "Understand this, Agent Kerys," he snapped. "If anyone were to learn of our existence, the Sunflower Official and the Board of Flowers would be forced to admit our presence. If that were to occur, there would be public outcry against them, and quite likely a massive, top-down restructuring of the PPC. Such a thing has only occurred once before in our history, and, Agent Kerys, I will not have another Reorganisation taking place on my watch. Is that clear?" Nita stared at him, eyes wide. "I said, is that clear?"
Nita nodded timidly. "Yes, Agent Piper," she squeaked. "Perfectly clear. I won't tell anyone."
"Good." Peter shook his head. "Nita, you were chosen in part because we knew that your reaction to this would not be too severe. Most agents are not like you. Especially among the older members, there's too much of the DIS about us. We would be dead if they knew about us, defences or no."
"I understand." Nita fell silent for a moment, and then said, "But if a 'Sue-Agent came too close to DIO-HQ, might they... affect us, somehow?"
"No, we're shielded against that," said Peter vaguely. "I gather Justin got Makes-Things to build something before wiping his memory, you'd need to ask him about it. But that's for later. For now, we have a mission to complete."
Nita looked around and found that, by a quirk of the Laws of Narrative Comedy, they had stopped directly outside their target doorway. "Are they... in there?" she whispered.
"Only one way to find out," Peter replied, but made no move towards the door. "Do you remember the procedure?" he asked.
Nita thought for a moment, and then nodded. "As soon as the door opens and I'm sure it's the target, I shoot. I don't have to worry about-" she made quote marks with her fingers "- 'that silly charge-before-killing thing the DMS has', because Agents are too dangerous. Then, once they're down, we charge them. Uh..."
"You'll do fine, Nita," Peter said. "At least, you'd better. If you screw up, I'm the one who'll pay for it."
Nita gulped. "O-okay." She closed her eyes for a moment, breathing deeply to calm herself down, then strung her bow as quickly as she could and notched an arrow. "I'm ready."
"Then here we go," Peter muttered, and knocked at the door. When there was no answer, he knocked again. "Well," he said, a few moments later, "it looks like-"
The door swung open to reveal a purple-haired woman wrapped in a pink towel. "Like, what do you-"
An arrow through the throat is an effective method of stopping someone in mid-sentence. As the body crumpled to the floor, Nita tried to look through to the Response Centre beyond. "Where's the other one?"
"Not in the main room. Shavit!" Peter jumped over the false agent's corpse and into the room. "Come on, Kerys," he snarled. Nita gulped, then stepped over the body herself. Once inside the RC, she stared around her in amazement.
"I suspect these particular agents didn't want a 'boring' room," Peter said, anticipating her question. Nita could only nod in dumbfounded agreement. The usual grey-box-with-console arrangement had been replaced with a large, nicely wallpapered room, a single screen built into the wall apparently replacing the complicated computers of the PPC. There was also an open door, through which steam was floating. "Ah. I think I know what's going on here," Peter muttered.
Nita frowned. "She was having a wash?" she asked, feeling a bit stupid. Peter shook his head kindly.
"I doubt cleanliness had much to do with this," he said. "Unfortunately for us, many 'Suethors cannot bear to think of two people working together without being romantically involved. The phenomenon becomes particularly significant around PPC agents, presumably due to the way we work primarily in pairs. That's why we encounter such entities as 'Jaycacia Thornbyrd' – the DIO wasn't a part of that, we left it up to the offended agents themselves – and why I suspect that Agent -" he glanced behind him at the body on the floor "- yes, that Agent Soletat will be waiting for her partner in there, right in the middle of whatever is causing that steam."
Nita looked vaguely ill. "That's... ugh."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "There are a significant number of teams in HQ who are in genuine relationships," he pointed out.
Nita nodded hastily. "I know, but... two 'Sues? And, we have to see a 'Sue naked?"
"Ah. I see your point." Peter looked thoughtful for a moment, and then shrugged. "Nothing to be done, sadly. Come on, the sooner it's over with, the sooner we're out of here."
Nita nodded, took another few calming breaths, and then walked over to the door. Glancing over once more at Peter – who seemed quite content to wait outside for her to do the job herself – she stepped inside.
Unfortunately, the small room with shower she was expecting simply didn't exist. The steam filled the air, but she still got a sense of a very large room. She took a step forward, and then stopped. "I should have brought a fan," she muttered.
"Torin?" called out the semi-familiar voice of 'Agent' Narnia Soletat. "Where are you, lover? The water's getting cold."
"Oh, don't worry," Nita murmured, "that won't concern you for much longer." She notched another arrow to her bow and aimed in the general direction of Soletat's voice.
There was a splashing noise, and Nita took more careful aim. "Torrie...?" the voice called again, sounding curious but not concerned. Her answer came whistling through the mist in the form of a short shaft of wood, metal and feather. Simple it may be, but it fulfilled its purpose adequately. Nita heard a gasp, then a loud splash, and then silence.
"Got her," she called back to Peter, still outside.
"Are you sure she's dead?" her partner called back. "The room still looks like there's a living 'Sue around."
Nita sighed. "I'll go and make sure," she said, and made her way through the mist towards the location of Narnia Soletat. A shape loomed up ahead of her, and she came to a halt in front of what seemed to be a large bath. A pair of legs – far smoother and more graceful than any human's legs had the right to be, in Nita's opinion – were hooked over the side, as if, well, someone had been standing in front of the bath when they were hit by an arrow and knocked backwards into it.
Nita leaned over the side of the bath to check the 'Sue-Agent was actually dead, but her view was blocked by large drifts of bubbles that covered the water. She waved a hand through them, but they refused to clear, floating back to cover up every space she managed to make. With a sinking feeling, Nita realised she was going to have to pull the body out of the water herself. She'd killed her fair share of 'Sues, yes, and dragged their corpses around without a second thought, but none of them had been Agents, and all of them had been clothed.
Nita grimaced and reached out for an ankle, but stopped just short of touching it. That's what I'm expected to do, she realised. I know how this goes. I think she's dead, I pull her up to check, she jumps on me and kills me. Not this time, Suey. Pulling out a third arrow, she aimed the bow straight down into the water, about two feet back from where the legs entered the foam, drew the string back, and loosed.
The legs jerked upwards, almost kicking Nita over, and the 'Sue-Agent's head and torso burst out of the water. She was screaming, and as Nita could now see that she had an arrow in her shoulder as well as one in her chest, that was hardly surprising. What was surprising was that, despite the rapid flow of glitter from both wounds, Narnia Soletat still tried to lunge for Nita.
She was hampered in her efforts by the fact that her legs were still draped over the side of the bath, making any movement in that direction difficult. A few moments later, she was hampered much more by the way Nita shot an arrow straight into her left eye-socket. She collapsed, mouth still open, and her legs slipped mercifully into the water after her.
Nita stood there gasping, trying to keep from hyperventilating. Her efforts came to naught when a hand tapped her shoulder. She screamed and span around, almost falling into the bath herself before she saw that it was only her partner, only Peter. "I heard screaming," he said, his voice sounding concerned. "Did she get away?"
Nita closed her eyes tightly, wishing the world would just go away and let her calm down. When she felt she could open her mouth without screaming again, she said, "Dead. In there."
"Good job, then," Peter said. "Now, come on. This place is going to vanish if we aren't careful."
"Charge list?" Nita asked. She wanted nothing more than a nice long bath... no, strike that, she would never want a bath again. But a warm blanket, a nest of cushions to curl up in, that she could do with. Despite that, though, she didn't want to mess up the mission.
"There's no need," Peter said gently. "This isn't going on record except at DIO-HQ, so we can forget it. Now come on. There's a room back at HQ set aside for things like this, we'll take you there and get you settled down, okay?"
"'kay," Nita mumbled, nodding vaguely. She knew full well that he was talking to her as if she were a child, but at that moment she really didn't care. She took her partner's arm, clinging to it for both support and security, and didn't let go until they were both through the portal and back home.