"For what?" the Wing replied, kindly.
"For helping me out," Jill finished, as she reached the landing. She forced herself to look at Larkspur in the eye. There wasn't the fear that had been there before, but the Wing still evoked... Jill wasn't sure what the name was. Anxiety? No. Definitely not fear. Wary awe? That came close.
Larkspur smiled, and did a curious thing; she reached over and placed her hand on the top of Jill's head. "You're part of the team now," she said, obviously happy about it. "We all help each other out." She cocked her head to one side. "What is that saying Ellis has? Something about teams. And eyes."
Jill smiled, not as uncomfortable as she first was with having Larkspur's hand resting on her head. "I think it's 'there's no I in team'."
"Oh." Larkspur began to say something, but she was interrupted. It was Grayson, appearing from one of the three doorways.
"'There's no I in team, but there's no we, either'. That's one of Keller's pet phrases," he explained, to Jill. He was leaning against the doorjamb and she had the distinct impression he was mad at her, but she couldn't figure out why.
"Hello," Larkspur said. She looked down towards Jill fondly, as she withdrew her hand. "Melville's joined the team."
"So I heard." Grayson forced a smile, looking from one to the other. "I'm going to be heading off to bed. Wake me up if Ellis decides to hold the meeting at three am."
"Does he do that?" Jill asked, surprised.
"On occasion. If he thinks we need to know now, then he does. Anyway, I'll see you in the morning." He gave a final look to Larkspur and headed back into his room.
Jill waited until he closed the door, counted to ten, and then looked over at Larkspur. "What was that all about?"
"Nothing," the Wing answered, somewhat sadly, her wings drooping slightly as she sighed. "Are you going to go to sleep too, Melville?"
Jill nodded. "I think so. Where do you sleep?" She added quickly: "Just out of curiosity."
"In the attic. That's our... roost," Larkspur said with a hint of a smile. "That's where Tanager, Indigo Bunting and I stay. You're always welcome to visit. The trap door is in Grayson's and Keller's room."
Jill nodded, remembering the information. She pointed to the third door on the second floor. "Then what's that door lead to?"
"That's Ellis' room," Larkspur replied, with a tilt to her head. She was obviously wondering why Jill wanted to know.
Jill looked surprised. "How come--" She stopped herself. "Never mind." She shook her head. "So many questions, so little time."
"And there will be a new crop in the morning, with the meeting," Larkspur added. "Maybe it's best to get some sleep. Tanager and I will help you with anything we can." She leaned in, to whisper: "Try not to ask Indigo Bunting, she gets a little too excitable." Larkspur leaned back up, sharply, her feathers ruffled. "Well, it's true! Anyway, I don't want to argue about it, now."
Jill backed up, somewhat nervous. She held up her hands. "I wasn't going to argue it with you--"
Larkspur blinked, looking confused, then she laughed. "I wasn't talking to you, I'm so sorry! I was talking to Indigo Bunting."
Jill suddenly felt a slight chill run down her spine. "Oh, I see," she said, slowly.
Larkspur nodded. "Well, anyway, I'll see you in the morning."
"Right." Jill nodded in return, and then backed up to the door, opening it behind her back. She waited until Larkspur made her usual jump up towards the ceiling, sailing through as though there was nothing at all in her way.
Jill sighed, and continued into her room. It was the same drab, shabby one that she had first woken in. Just looking at the bed made her feel a sharp pain in her shoulder. She rubbed it, absentmindedly, and wondered what she was going to do for pyjamas.
Keller raised an eyebrow. "You look like you've had a lovely night's sleep."
Jill scowled, tugging down her rumpled shirt. "Don't start with me."
"Or what?" He looked amused as he glanced around the kitchen. "There isn't a teapot within reach."
She just glared at him for a moment. Then she stretched, and shook herself all over, trying to get the cramps, cricks and kinks out of her joints.
"Did you sleep in your clothes?" he continued, picking the paper he had been reading back up.
"Yes," she replied, as though it was plainly obvious. "What else was I supposed to sleep in?"
He lowered the paper to look at her with a raised eyebrow.
She felt the heat from the blush start to radiate from her cheeks. "Anyway," she said, hurriedly, "when's the meeting supposed to start?"
Keller shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Ellis is talking to Vireo."
"Really? Since last night?"
"No, no. He was getting the full report out of Indigo Bunting last night. Then he went to sleep, got up early, and then started getting harassed by Vireo." He snorted. "She gives harpies a bad name."
Something about that struck Jill as odd, but she was too tired to comment. "Is there any coffee?"
Keller shrugged, deeply absorbed in the newspaper. "Probably."
"Did you make any?"
"Do you see or smell any?"
"I was just asking," she snapped.
"And I was just answering. You didn't seem the java-kick-start sort of person, but I guess you are," he replied, amiably, flipping the page. "Dammit, you think they'd be in here somewhere."
"What would be?" she asked.
"The reports on the Station," he said, closing the newspaper and picking up another section. "They ruled that it was arson, officially, of course. But then they would--the Fire Chief is a vamp. I think the Chief of Police is, too, but I'm not sure. I haven't seen him in a while."
"Huh?" was Jill's most articulate response.
Keller sighed, and scratched the back of his head. "Never mind. I'll just bring it up at the meeting."
"Huh?" she repeated.
He rolled his eyes. "Come on, Sleeping Beauty. There's a cafe a few blocks from here--we'll walk down and get you your caffeine."
The sun was trying its hardest to peek out from behind the clouds. The alternation of light and dark, sun and shadow, especially in the peaceful, tree laden neighbourhood, was beautiful to look at. Especially with a steaming cup of coffee to wrap chilled fingers around.
Jill walked along, slightly behind Keller, and admired the view. Keller, like Ellis, was taller than her and walked faster; he, unlike Ellis, did not bother to adjust his gait.
He started to whistle, his hands in his pockets, as he strolled along. He was hopelessly off-key, but seemed to be enjoying the moment, just like she was.
"This part of town reminds me of home," she said, stopping to smell a rose that was curling its way over the fence. Keller stopped walking and whistling to look over his shoulder.
"Birchen, you mean?"
She hesitated. How had he known where she was from? "Yes... and no. Birchen does have a neighbourhood like this, but I didn't grow up in it."
"Then what do you mean, exactly?" he asked, stepping over to stand by her as she sniffed the rose.
She straightened, and then shrugged. "I'm not sure, exactly. I can... I could always just see myself living in a house like one of these, tending my garden in the evenings, strolling along the sidewalks..." She shook her head. "I'm not making any sense, am I."
"Perfectly," Keller agreed, quietly, looking around him. He nodded down the street. "Come on. We ought to be heading back."
"I know," she replied, with a sigh, starting to walk again. He gave her a head start, but within moments was shoulder to shoulder.
"You walk slow," he commented.
"You walk fast," she corrected, taking a sip of her coffee. "Thanks for taking me to the cafe."
He shrugged, his hands still in his pockets. "Not a problem. I felt like taking a walk anyway. It's always nice to have company."
Jill smiled, a little, at that.
"So what are you going to do?" he said, suddenly, a few houses further along the street.
"Do? With what?"
"With..." he spread his arms out. "Everything."
She furrowed her eyebrows. "Which everything in particular?"
Keller paused, his shoulders hunching very, very slightly, but she caught the gesture and realised what he was dancing around.
"Greg," she surmised.
He glanced over his shoulder, but didn't say anything.
She took another sip of her coffee. "I don't know yet. I suppose... I suppose I will have to go back to the apartment at some point, and get my stuff. I don't have much, just clothes, books, cds, stuff like that--most of the furniture is Greg's, or bought by us together, and I was never very fond of it anyway." She found her hands were shaking but forced them to be still as she took another sip, enjoying the bitter taste and comfortable smell of the coffee.
"I'll come with you," Keller announced. "Grayson and me will take care of everything."
"I don't think that's necessary," Jill said, a little shocked by the suggestion.
"Of course it is. We'll just be back-up. You can say we're the moving guys. And if Greg tries to pull anything--"
"Hold it," Jill snapped, coming to a halt. "Greg is not going to try to 'pull anything'."
"He did last night," Keller countered, turning around to face her.
"How did you know about that?" she demanded.
"Larkspur. She told Tanager, and Tanager told Grayson and me."
"Oh great, a grape-vine." Jill rolled her eyes. "Look. I can take care of myself."
"We'll be the moving crew," Keller repeated, starting to walk again, apparently believing the discussion was over.
"Now, just a moment--" Jill stopped, shaking her head. "Fine. Moving crew. Whatever."
"And that way, if he tries to pull anything--" Keller punctuated the end of the sentence by smacking his fist into the opposite palm.
Jill sighed. "Great, just great."
"Hey, Jill, come on. You're part of the team, now."
"That means you get to intimidate my fiancee?"
"And what does 'not quite' mean, exactly?" she asked, primly, eyebrows raised, not that he could see her; he was still walking in front. She assumed that her tone would carry the gesture.
Keller shrugged. "It's kinda cool out. I think autumn's just around the corner."
Jill rolled her eyes. "It would be, since we're in the middle of September. You know, you're terrible at avoiding topics."
He shrugged again. "No, you're just really stubborn."
"So I've been told. Now, what does 'not quite' mean? How do you 'not quite' intimidate my fiancee?"
"That's not what I meant," he snapped, growing irritated. "I meant... I meant he's not quite your fiancee any more, is he?"
Jill stopped in her tracks, feeling as though someone had just knocked the wind out of her. That was true. Greg and she... they had... sort of... kinda... broken up. "Omigod," she said, as it suddenly started to hit her what that really meant. She had been treating last night as she did all their other rare fights: they would yell, she would leave, or he would leave, and then the next day they'd make up and everything would be fine.
But this was different.
She looked down at her coffee, trying to think of something articulate to say, waiting for her heart to stop pounding. Her mouth opened, but didn't seem to working properly; nothing came out. Keller had stopped a few feet away, realising she wasn't walking behind him any more.
"It'll be okay," he said, gently.
She looked up, tears in her eyes.
"Maybe not for a while, but eventually, it will be," he continued, as he started to walk again. "Trust me on that one."
"Oh, there you two are," Larkspur said as they walked in through the front door. "We were just about to send a search party after you."
"Coffee," Jill said, holding the cup up, as explanation.
The Wing wrinkled her nose slightly. "If you say so. Ellis has been looking for you, to start the meeting."
Grayson emerged from the kitchen, bearing a cup of something steaming; he looked at the pair, then at Larkspur, then headed down the corridor.
"Don't be like that!" Larkspur yelled after him. There was a pause, and then: "No, I don't think you're being rational at all!"
Jill looked to Keller, hoping he could explain what was going on. He just leaned against the wall with a completely disinterested expression on his face. She sighed and shook her head. "There is a lot that I'm going to have to get used to," she remarked.
He shrugged, slightly, still leaning against the wall. "You will. Just give it a couple days." He pulled his sleeve back to look at his watch.
"Should we get going?" Jill asked him. He gazed down at her as though she had suddenly materialised from nowhere.
"The meeting?" she prompted, eyebrows raised.
"Oh. That. I always go late." This seemed to be the entirety of the explanation that he was going to give her. She sighed again, finishing up the last of her coffee. She stepped into the kitchen and tossed it into the small garbage can that sat, sullenly, in the corner. The styrofoam cup hit the wall and then bounced in. She smiled to herself and brushed her hands together.
"I'm going in now," she said, walking past Keller.
"But the meeting hasn't started yet," he protested.
"I know," she replied. They both stared at each other for a moment in bewilderment. How is it that two people could say the exact same thing and have two completely different meanings? Jill thought to herself as she shook her head slightly and headed down the corridor to Ellis' office.
She opened the door a crack and peeked through. She caught Ellis's eye and he waved at her to enter, so she stepped in and quietly closed the door behind her. It was just her and Ellis. He was cleaning up some files that were scattered across his desk. The room was cluttered with bookcases and computer equipment and she didn't see how he could fit himself into it, never mind half a dozen people.
"I thought--I mean, where's the meeting?" she asked, confused. He looked up at her, then looked up again to the ceiling. "Upstairs?"
He nodded, stuffing the papers into a paper envelope. "In the aerie. We always have the meetings up there, it's bigger. This office is too--" he spread his arms to indicate the tiny area.
"--cosy," he finished. "Especially if some of the people involved have ten-foot wing spans."
"I can imagine." Jill backed up in a hurry as he stepped towards her, to fish some computer disks from a shelf to her right; she smacked up against the closed door. She would have liked more space between them--so that he didn't get any of the wrong ideas--but there simply wasn't any room to manoeuvre. He noticed her discomfort as his arm brushed hers and he smiled.
"Relax, Jill. If I had wanted to take advantage of my position, I wouldn't do it like this."
"Is that supposed to reassure me?" she replied, trying to sound non-plussed and prim, but sounding (at least to her own ears) squeaky and surprised.
He laughed, out loud, as he pulled out the disks he needed and stepped back to his desk. "I wouldn't worry about me. I've got too much on mind as it is, to get wrapped up in an affair with one of my operatives."
"That's good." She tugged down on the hem of her shirt, feeling very uncomfortable and anxious to leave. Especially when she caught herself staring at him, he had his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbow, showing lightly tanned skin and blondish arm hair, there was just something about--bad thoughts! Just don't go there! her brain yelped at her, a bit belatedly. She tried to say something that would get her mind off its track, but found that no words were forthcoming.
He picked another couple of disks from a shelf across the room from her, although they, too, were only a step away from him. "Where's Keller?"
"He's outside. Outside the office, I mean, not outside as in outside the house. He's inside the house. At least he was. When I left him, out there. In the corridor." She smacked her forehead. What on Earth was she babbling for? She felt like a teenager.
Ellis grinned again, and she could see that he was definitely trying to keep from laughing. He held up his hand, the plain golden ring glinting on his fourth finger. "Jill. Don't worry about it. Honestly."
"You're bright red."
She could feel her blush, radiating off her cheeks. "Am not."
He went back to rifling through his files and disks. "If you say so."
"I do say so."
"Then it's clear. And anyway, if there was anybody to worry about--" Ellis broke off his sentence as there was a sudden knock at the door. Jill leapt a foot into the air, scrambling away as the door opened and Keller poked his head around. "--it wouldn't be me," he finished.
"What wouldn't be?" Keller asked. "Where's the meeting?"
"We're having it upstairs, the Wings and Vireo want to be there," Ellis explained. "Looks like you're going to be on time for once."
"Rats," Keller replied, starting to duck out, closing the door behind him.
"Hey," Ellis said, quickly, to stop him. Keller paused, and waited; Ellis nodded towards Jill. "Take Agent Melville up and show her the aerie, would you?"
Jill looked at him and then at Keller. She didn't move.
"Come on." Keller held the door open for her. "We haven't got all day."
"He doesn't bite," Ellis added, innocently. Jill stared at him with wide eyes, and then, very cautiously, slid through the door, past Keller, careful not to touch or make eye-contact with him.
He waited until she was heading up the stairs before he said to Ellis in a whisper: "What have you been saying to her?"
"Only the truth," Ellis answered, with a grin.
Keller sighed, shaking his head. "Thanks. Thanks a lot."
"Just being a friend."
"To me, or to her?"
"I like to think that I can be a friend to both," Ellis replied as he exited the office and Keller pulled the door shut behind him. Jill was waiting at the landing on the second floor, unsure where to go from there. "It's the door on your left," he called up to her. She started to go in but hesitated, her hand over the handle.
"Isn't this their--?" she trailed off. Keller headed up the stairs two at a time, and opened the door for her.
"Yep. Come on in." He walked through. Jill waited until Ellis joined her, and then they headed in together.
There was a short corridor, lined with an open closet that was filled with clothes, and shoes, and the like; and then the hallway opened out into a small room, smaller than Jill's, with two beds, two night-tables, and a single overhead lamp. Just a few feet from the lamp was a trap-door, in the ceiling, with a piece of rope hanging down.
Jill looked around, feeling confused. The layout of the house didn't seem to make sense--according to the floor plan of the downstairs, this room should have been outside the main wall--and yet it wasn't. "I don't understand."
Keller stopped, his hand reaching up to tug on the rope. "Don't understand what?"
"How this room can be here," she replied. There were no windows, she couldn't look out to see where she was in relation to the street, and it seemed unreal.
"She's confused about the layout of the building," said a voice. Jill whirled, startled, to see Vireo standing behind them, framed by the door they had just come through. The woman had her arms cross over her chest and a scowl on her face. "You're late, Ellis."
Ellis shrugged. Keller glared. Jill closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
"It's simple, really," Vireo explained to her, in a voice usually reserved for talking to infants and small animals, "this house is disguised."
"Disguised?" Jill repeated. Keller had lowered his hand, realising they might be there a while, and sat down on the bed closest to him, pulling out a pack of cigarettes from the inside of his jacket that he still wore.
"Yes. Disguised. We had to make modifications and we didn't want the neighbours poking around." Vireo walked forward briskly, her shoes making sharp snapping sounds on the bare floor of the room. She scowled down at Keller. "I hope you aren't planning on smoking those."
He looked up at her with a withering glare, a cigarette between his lips. "I had hoped you weren't going to be here, but oh well. We can't all get what we want." He smiled, tightly, then fished a lighter out from another pocket. Vireo looked as though she was ready to explode; her shoulders hunched and her fists balled up, but then she decided against it and relaxed. She disappeared.
Jill gasped, a hand going to her mouth in shock. Keller and Ellis didn't even blink. "You could try being nicer," Ellis chided his partner. Neither of them noticed Jill's astonishment. "Melville, can you get the door, please?"
Jill stared at him, still thinking about Vireo's sudden departure. "Huh? Who?"
"Melville. That's you. Can you get the door, please?" He lifted his arms to indicate the load he carried.
"I'll get it." Keller got to his feet, wearily, and pulled on the rope, causing a set of stairs to unfold downwards. He took the cigarette out to exhale a slow breath of smoke. Jill wrinkled her nose at him. "What's your problem?"
"The same as everyone else's," Ellis replied with a heavy sigh as he started up the stairs. He stopped and looked down at his partner. "You."
Keller rolled his eyes, and reluctantly stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray that was on the night-table closest to him. Jill watched him, warily, and then started up the stairs after Ellis.
It was dark, at first; then her eyes began to adjust, and she realised she wasn't in the attic. She couldn't be. The ceilings were flat, they didn't slope the way they should in the top floor of an older house. Of any house, really. It didn't look like it should, at all. It looked more like a main floor.
There were a couple of windows, covered in dusty blinds that matched the rest of the room; it was done entirely in a soft gray-blue, the floor, walls, ceiling, everything except the two pieces of furniture. There was a desk in one corner, with a lap-top set up in the middle, and a single chair. The room was a lot smaller than she had assumed it would have been--if it really was the attic, that is--the layout of the house was playing tricks on her again.
"Keep going," Keller snapped, from behind her, and she realised that she was still on the stairs, caught up in her thoughts. She hurried up to the floor.
"This isn't the aerie, if that's what you're thinking," Ellis said, walking up to the far wall, the one farthest from the desk. "This is another office."
"Oh." Jill followed closely behind him. There seemed to be only the one door; the one that Keller was closing behind him, drawing on another string. "What is going on, here?"
"Precautions," Ellis explained. "In case we're investigated, you see. In case anybody finds us."
"Anybody in the sense of...?"
"In the sense of the police," Keller supplied, easily, sauntering over. "Vamps wouldn't be distracted for long, but humans would be. It would take them days just to figure out how this isn't the attic, and that would give us time, if we needed it. Vireo only told you half the reason the house is the way it is."
"It's to confuse people," Jill replied, slowly, nodding. "I think I'm starting to see it."
Ellis and Keller caught each other's gaze and grinned. "We're just getting started. Follow me." Ellis walked towards the wall, and then stepped through.
Jill seemed to freeze. "He--he--"
"You'd think by now that you'd be used to this," Keller remarked, as he walked up to the wall, and then through. Jill gulped. Her head was starting to hurt. Every time she thought that she had this place pinned down, another surprise leapt at her. She shook her head, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and walked towards the wall.
She hit her nose on it. "Ouch!" She stepped back, rubbing her injured nose furiously. Why hadn't she walked through it? This wasn't some sort of test, was it? People in adventure movies and books and things were always getting tested. Hadn't she been through enough? Now she had to decipher how to walk through a stupid door? She stepped back again, and noticed that a slight discolouration of the paint just to her right. It was a patch of paint that was just, ever so slightly, darker. The patch was taller than she was, extending from the floor past her head, and it was about as wide as--
"Oh my god," she groaned. "I missed it. I missed the door." She shook her head, and walked through the wall.
"We were wondering if we were going to have to send out a search party," Keller remarked, as she stepped into the room. It seemed a larger version of Ellis' office downstairs, crammed with shelves and books, dusky blinds and the warm smell of old paper. There was only one window, through which bright sunlight streamed, dust motes dancing. Jill felt like coughing just by looking at it. Arranged in a ring around the wooden desk that Ellis sat behind there were more chairs, and several large floor pillows. Tanager, Larkspur and Indigo Bunting were seated on these; Vireo was perched on the lip of the desk; Grayson sat in an old armchair, between Vireo and the Wings, and Keller was sitting in a wooden chair by the door, leaning back against the wall. Another chair sat empty a few feet from him, obviously her own.
"I got lost," Jill explained, quietly, eyes downcast for effect. Ellis and Keller chuckled, Grayson smiled wanly, and the Wings looked confused. Vireo simply remained scowling. "Sorry for holding everybody up."
"You're not holding anybody up," Ellis said, waving her towards her chair. She scooted over and sat down, feeling very self-conscious. "Now. Before we get started--"
"Do I get to talk about my mission yet?" Indigo Bunting blurted, clapping her hands together. Keller suppressed a smile, and Grayson had to turn his head so that she couldn't see his grin. "What? What did I say?"
"Indigo Bunting," Vireo said with a sigh, "there is a strict protocol to these meetings and I would appreciate it if no one spoke out of turn."
"Sorry," Indigo Bunting replied, shrinking back. Larkspur patted her on the head and she seemed to relax a little.
"Now. As I was saying," Ellis began again, "Before we get started, I just wanted to see if there was anything else I should know about, that should be brought up today."
"What do you mean?" Grayson asked, before Jill had a chance to.
"Is there anything that you would like to be addressed, outside of--" here Ellis sighed and held up his fingers, folding them down one by one as he counted off the topics. "--Indigo Bunting's mission, the encounter on the roof-top, the latest news from Head Office, or what our next mission is."
There was silence for a moment. "I have one," Keller said, suddenly. "It's about Station Five."
"Okay." Ellis leaned back, settling himself in. Keller cleared his throat.
"I was just wondering why it was that we weren't picked for that job."
There was another moment of silence. Ellis leaned forward again, to reply, but Vireo beat him to it.
"Because another cell was chosen, not you."
Keller glared at her.
"She's right," Ellis said, quietly, before Keller could snap off a reply. "She's right. But there's more to it than that." He sighed, rubbing his eyes for a moment. "I don't even know where to begin."
"My mission?" Indigo Bunting piped up. Vireo turned to look at her and she squirmed. "That wasn't out of turn, was it?"
"No," Grayson assured her. "What about it, Ellis? Why not start with her mission, and go from there?"
"Her mission is the least of our worries," Vireo snapped, suddenly, unfolding and then re-folding her arms. Indigo Bunting shrank back again, and Tanager and Larkspur both glared at Vireo.
"What's the matter with you?" Keller retorted, fiercely. "More than usual I mean."
"Can we please stop arguing?" Grayson demanded. It seemed an innocuous thing to say, but it turned out to be a catalyst. Suddenly everyone was speaking at once.
"--trivial matters to discuss, and I think that--"
"Indigo Bunting's mission was important and--"
"I didn't realise this was going to be such a big deal!"
"--snapping at everyone like that--"
"Please? Just calm down?"
Jill and Ellis seemed to be the only two not yelling. They both sat, still and quiet, while everyone raged around them. The Wings, coming to Indigo Bunting's defense, were furious and their feathers ruffled, the soft dense rustle providing a frantic and disconcerting background noise to the argument. Grayson seemed to be trying to calm everyone down. Keller seemed intent on pushing all of Vireo's buttons at once and she seemed ready to throttle him.
Jill curled up in her chair, wrapping her arms around her legs. She was starting to feel claustrophobic, trapped in a small dusty room that shouldn't exist with people who looked ready to kill each other. She wasn't sure how much more of this she would be able to take.
She looked at Ellis with pleading eyes. He shrugged, slightly. "People, calm down." No one took any notice of him. He sighed, and shuffled papers. "I think there's something you should know."
Again, no one heard him, or cared. He cleared his throat, and said, in a clear, loud, firm tone:
"There's an informant among us."
Suddenly, there was complete silence in the room. Everyone was staring at him, opening, except for Vireo, who remained perched on her desk, staring at her feet. She seemed embarrassed.
"We have a what?" Grayson asked, in a breathless, shocked tone.
"An informant? A spy?" Keller, like everyone else, didn't seem to believe it. "Someone here?"
"In this room?" Tanager asked, her voice quiet and unsure. Her simple question silenced everyone once more, as all the occupants in the room gave each other an uneasy look. Except Ellis. He remained, motionless behind the desk, the picture of authority.
"No, not in this room. Some where in the organisation." He sighed, and stood up. "I was hoping not have to spring it like this, but..." He trailed off, and perched on the lip of the desk, on the opposite side from Vireo. He sighed again.
"When did you hear about this?" Keller asked, sitting on the edge of his seat, ready to leap up at any moment. What he would be leaping up for, nobody knew. "I mean, that vamp said something about an informant, but I thought he was just trying to psych us out... when did you--?"
"Last night." Ellis gave a nod in her direction. "Vireo told me, last night."
"And how long have you known?" Keller narrowed his eyes, his voice growing colder and harder. She didn't answer. "How long?"
Vireo refused to lift her gaze from the floor. Her reply, when it came, was not in the sharp tone she usually reserved for remarks made to Keller. "Five months."
"Five months!" Grayson blurted out. Keller just looked horrified and furious at the same time. "You knew for five months and you didn't bother to tell us?"
"I had my reasons." Vireo stood up and went to stand behind the desk, behind Ellis. "There is a rhyme and a reason to all of this. It's not just me. I take my orders, just like you do."
"Very convenient response," Keller responded with a growl. "What a nice idea to hide behind."
"Keller!" Ellis snapped, suddenly, his face growing red. "Calm down for just a moment and for God's sake grow up. You're not the only person who's angry at being left in the dark. I didn't find out until last night myself. There are more important things here than your ego."
Keller, now doubly furious at having been told off like an errant child, settled back in his chair, silently fuming.
Ellis rubbed a hand through his hair. "It's all tied together. Everything. Indy's mission, the informant, Station Five--it's all tied together. If you just give me some time I'll tell you all that I know, and it will start to make sense. Just give me the time."
"I will listen," Larkspur said, suddenly speaking up. She was holding Indigo Bunting's hands, the young Hawk having become unnerved. Tanager, on the other side of Indigo Bunting, patted her shoulders and smoothed some of her ruffled feathers. "We will listen."
"Me too," Grayson agreed, quietly. Jill nodded, just once. Ellis sighed, and looked to Keller.
He was still sitting, hunched over, and red in the face with anger, but he didn't say anything, which everyone took as an affirmative.
"Let me start at the beginning," Ellis said, settling in for the long haul. "Several months ago, a few of the Wings at the higher levels started noticing things. Things that didn't quite add up. There were far too many missions that were being intercepted by the Others, and often at just precisely the right moment to be too coincidental. So they started watching, and noticed that most of the... coincidental activity was happening here in Forreton. They put a tighter rein on what they let be known among the cells. Security is usually pretty tight, but a lot of agents know each other and people talk. Things can travel, especially between Wings. So they started transferring people, shaking up the system, cracking down on gossip and they noticed a substantial drop in 'coincidences'."
"Was this around January?" Grayson asked, curiously. "That's when Red's and Jensen's cell was moved, remember?" Tanager and Larkspur nodded.
Ellis looked blank, and then recalled. "Right. Yeah, it was around that time. They were part of the shaking up. Anyway, there was a drop in the activity level of the Others overall--until a little while ago."
"How little?" Tanager asked.
"Two months," Ellis supplied.
Everyone in the room turned to look at Jill.
"What?" she asked, startled.
"Two months ago is when we first found Jill," Grayson said out loud.
She shook her head. "It was only a month ago, not even."
"Since we met you," Keller corrected, speaking up for the first time since the explanations had begun. "That wasn't when we first found you."
A chill went down Jill's spine. How long had they been watching her? While she was unaware, going about her daily life, unconcerned? She started to regain a little of her earlier trapped feeling.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up. It was Vireo, oddly enough. "Melville."
"Yes?" Jill asked, in a squeak.
"Are you coping all right, with this information? You seem to be reacting badly." Vireo had lost the earlier, arrogant tone, although her eyes still seemed hard. Hard, but concerned.
"I'm fine," Jill replied, taking a deep breath. "It's just that--some of it still takes some getting used to."
"I can understand that," Vireo replied, dropping her hand and moving away, to stand at the back of the room. They all turned to face her. "It is a lot to take in, all at once, and I'm sure we're all feeling the same way. The sense of security we had is gone. There is a spy, somewhere in the cells, and we must find that person."
"How?" Grayson asked. "By scanning them?"
"That has been tried," Vireo replied. "That's why the Head Office has moved onto a different approach." She nodded towards Ellis and they turned around again.
"After we found Jill," he picked up the conversation where he had left it off, "they noticed a substantial increase in activity among the Others. Specifically, to do with her."
"The cafe," Tanager said suddenly, looking over at Keller. He, too, looked surprised. "That's how they knew she would be there."
Ellis nodded. "The cafe, the bar--when she was just out for a walk--"
"When I was in Birchen," Jill supplied.
"--when she was in Birchen, when she returned--they knew every move she was making. Because someone in the chain of command told them."
"How many cells knew about her, at that point?" Grayson asked.
Ellis shrugged. "Quite a few. At least half the ones in Forreton. But no one could know that she would become such a target. We all thought she was simply another operative." He paused. "This is where Station Five comes in, Keller. Head Office decided that, since it couldn't trust everyone, it would start by trusting only a few at a time."
"And it didn't trust us," Keller remarked, sourly.
Jill sat upright, suddenly, as something clicked into place. "No. No, Keller, that's not true, that's the opposite--they did trust you."
Ellis looked bemused. "Figured it out already, Jill?"
She shook her head. "No. There's still something missing. But--"
"I know what you mean," Grayson interjected. "I've almost got it, too."
"I haven't," Larkspur groaned.
"My head hurts," Indigo Bunting concurred. "When do I get to talk about my mission?"
Grayson and Jill exchanged glances. "The mission!" they both exclaimed.
"What?" Keller blurted.
Ellis grinned. "The missing piece--Indigo Bunting's mission. Take it away, Indy."
Indigo Bunting stared at him in confusion. "What?"
"I said take it away."
"Take what where?"
The group laughed, a reaction that did not help Indigo Bunting's considerable confusion. "I don't understand!"
Grinning, Tanager leaned in to whisper: "He wants you to talk about your mission now."
"Oh. Oh!" Indigo Bunting got to her feet, her wings fluffed in anticipation. They all waited, patiently. She looked down at Larkspur. "Where should I start?"
Grayson and Keller groaned. Jill smothered her grin against the back of her hand.
"Start at the beginning, Indy," Ellis said, gently. "Tell them what your mission was supposed to be."
"I was," the Wing said, taking a deep breath, "supposed to find Base Ten."
"Base Ten?" Jill asked, addressing the question to Ellis.
"The Others number their bases in order of construction. The one in Forreton was the fifth one established..."
"Ah. Station Five." Jill paused, her eyebrows furrowed. "Not very imaginative."
Keller was the only one who laughed at the remark. Everyone else just looked to Indigo Bunting to continue.
"Um. So I was supposed to find Base Ten, which I was told," she continued, "was in Arbour Ridge. So I left, to find something that had a lot of them in it. And I found it. And then I came back." She nodded to herself, and then sat down. Larkspur and Tanager stared at her. "What?"
"What else did you find?" Ellis prompted.
"Um. Oh! That's right. I heard two of the Others talking. They said something about a human female--I think that was you, Melville--and then they said something about an informant, and then they made some sort of joke that I didn't understand, and then they said..." Here she scrunched her face up while trying hard to remember, "they said something about 'him' wanting to know personally. That's all I remember. But when I told Vireo, she got all excited and told me not to tell any one else."
As if on cue, the room's inhabitants turned to look at Vireo again. She was leaning against one of the bookshelves. "Don't bother looking at me like that. I still can't tell you, I haven't been cleared yet."
"Can't tell us about what?" Keller asked innocently. She cast him a withering glare.
He shrugged and shifted back around. They all did, hoping that Ellis could fill them in. From the look on his face, however, it was clear that he couldn't.
"I haven't been cleared on that either, sorry," he said with a shrug. "But there is plenty still that I have been cleared on."
"Like?" Grayson asked with a raised eyebrow.
Ellis stood up, stretching his arms. "Indy found out about the informant on her mission. Definite proof that such a spy existed. Yes, Head Office had been fairly sure, but it could have--just possibly--turned out to be coincidences and paranoia. But now they had proof. Somewhere, in and around the area of Station Five, there was an informant. At least one, maybe more. Obviously, Station Five had to go. So, Spinelli's cell was given the mission to take it out."
"That I still don't understand," Keller interrupted. "Why them? We're closer. We haven't had a job in months. They were constantly working. They could have--"
Jill put out a hand and touched him on the arm. He stopped, abruptly, staring at her and then down at her hand. She shifted it back. "Keller, that's why they gave it to--to Spinelli. The Others knew about that cell. But they didn't know about us. You. This cell." She shook her head. "Don't you see? We're the ace in the hole."
Across from her, Grayson had a sudden intake of air, a reverse hiss, as he too started to see the big picture. Ellis leaned back, smiling.
"I see it too," Larkspur and Tanager both said at once, realising it as Grayson did.
"The ace in the hole, I couldn't have put it better myself," Ellis remarked.
"I could have," Vireo replied. "You, this cell, is our secret weapon against the Others. They know very little of your existence. We have been 'leaking' information to say that your cell was part of the movement, that you were transferred to Coniburgh several months ago. They should have no idea of your whereabouts, and, unless our Intelligence is gravely mistaken, they should not even be aware of your presence, save as a couple of agents protecting Jill. They know nothing of this base. And we were hoping, Jill, that once you came here that they would know nothing more of you."
Everyone in the room was staring at her. Jill scrunched her eyes together. All this fuss--over her. Rearranging cells, sifting through the operatives--because of her? It didn't seem right. She started to feel stifled again, but forced herself to concentrate at the task at hand. "They know about you though," she found herself saying. "They know about Keller and Grayson and Tanager and Larkspur. They know that you work together."
"That's true. The point is, they don't know about this cell. As far as they know, we could be random agents from separate cells. Not a complete unit. Not a base of operations." Ellis looked to Keller. "Is this starting to come together yet?"
He nodded, slowly, solemnly. "They were saving the best for last." The statement confused the Wings, particularly, until they saw his sly grin.
"Are you being sarcastic?" Tanager asked, suspiciously.
"No," Keller replied, honestly.
"You were making a joke, though, right?"
"Keller, stop teasing them," Grayson chided. He looked to the three Wings, and then they all nodded simultaneously.
"Oh, I see," Tanager said, pleasantly. "Amusing."
Jill held her head in her hands. "I wish you would stop doing that," she groaned.
"Stop doing what?" Larkspur asked, with a tilt to her head. "I don't understand what--"
"Nevermind, Larkspur," Ellis interrupted. "We've got to get this all sorted out."
"There's something that I don't understand," Grayson said, suddenly, looking puzzled. "If we're the ace in the hole--" he noted Vireo's displeased look, "--and it is the best way to describe it, the point is: what are we supposed to be doing with this information now? What's happened that we need to know about?"
"Base Five," began Vireo, settling in, leaning against the bookcase, "has been destroyed. The Others are still trying to reorganise their defenses and chain of command. As such, there are openings, and information leaks, that they have not yet realised. One reason why Indigo Bunting's mission was timed the way it was: if all their attention was focused on Forreton, they would not notice a stray Wing in Arbour Ridge. As such, she was able to sneak in and out with relative ease. Now, in the aftermath, it would not be so easy. They are on their guard. They are watching more closely. That is why we need--"
"An ace in the hole," Jill, Ellis, Keller and Grayson chorused.
Vireo wrinkled her nose. "Again, that is not the term that I would use, however--"
Grayson turned back to face Ellis. "So we're on this mission?"
Keller grinned, and cracked his knuckles. "Finally. Something to do around here!"
"Just tell us what to do," added Tanager, eagerly.
Ellis shook his head and held up his hands. "It's not that easy, people, calm down for a moment."
"We should leave as soon as possible," Grayson interrupted, "while the vamps are still confused--"
"That time has, unfortunately, passed," Vireo replied. "Now we must wait for their guard to lessen just enough that we can verify a few facts."
"Wait?" Keller asked with a groan. "Nobody said anything about waiting!"
"You'll live," Ellis replied with rolled eyes.
"You sound so sure."
"You've made it through worse," Ellis reminded him. "Now, obviously, this is got to be top secret. Plus, with Jill--Melville--a part of the team, we're going to have to reorganise a few things."
"Like what?" Grayson and Keller both asked at the same time. Grayson sounded curious and Keller sounded upset.
"I'm not entirely sure yet. Don't forget, I only got this information last night--" Ellis began, but abruptly Keller switched his attention from the leader to the woman in the back.
"That reminds me, Vireo," he said, his voice cold, "why all the secrecy? Why weren't we told until now?"
"Keller--" Grayson warned, but Keller shook his head very slightly, his attention focused completely on Vireo.
She grumbled. "It was not cleared--"
"Why was it not cleared?" Keller persisted. "Why weren't we told anything--anything at all--during these past months? During the shake-up? Why were we kept in the dark for so long?"
"So that nothing would slip out," Vireo replied, easily. She clearly thought that it was an obvious answer; the outcome was not what she expected.
"What?" Keller snapped, rising out of chair. Grayson, too, looked very upset and the Wings, too, began to flutter in indignation. "Are you saying that they suspect us?"
"There is no one that is not under suspicion," Vireo corrected, hastily. "No one was told the reasons for what was going on--"
"You don't trust us," Keller continued, belligerently. "I'm sure all the Wings know--Nuthatch and company--I'm sure you've known for months and just haven't bothered to tell us!"
Vireo didn't reply.
"Vireo, is that true?" Indigo Bunting asked, confused.
"Did you know and not tell us?" Tanager continued.
Everyone was waiting for her answer. She didn't reply, but avoided looking at any of them in the eyes.
"You knew," Keller breathed. Even he seemed slightly shocked and he expected the worst from her. "I can't believe that even--"
"Keller," Ellis barked, having enough. "You can't expect that everything the organisation knows will be told to you personally!"
"We should have known!" Keller yelled, furious. "We should have been told, hey, look, we don't trust any of you any more, so we're just going to let you sit and rot until we feel we can use you. If I had wanted to sit around and wait for orders, I would have joined the goddamn Army!"
"Keller!" Ellis roared. Everyone in the room flinched, especially Jill and the Wings. "Sit down and shut up! This is slightly more important than you, than the cell, than the whole organisation put together! Don't you get it? Can you honestly not see beyond the end of your nose? We have a group of beings that are capable of instantaneous communication, of being able to scan for honest intentions, we have people capable of literally spotting a liar from a hundred feet away and we still have spies giving information to our enemy!" He got to his feet, running a hand through his hair. "Do you get it, yet? This is bigger than all of us, and we have to treat it very, very seriously."
"Thank you, Ellis--"
"And you, Vireo," Ellis snapped, as he sat down, "if I find out that you're keeping secrets from me again--" He trailed off and shook his head. "We have to be able to trust each other, at least. Without trust, this group can't function. And we're needed. We're important. That's all there is to it."
"Actually," Vireo began, quietly, and everyone turned to look at her, "actually, that's not all there is to it. You're making it sound simple, and it's not." She began pacing, slowly, between Ellis' desk and the back of the room, her arms folded and a severe expression on her face. "It's not any thing like simple. Or easy. Or straightforward. Yes, trust is important. Yes, we have to find the spy or spies. But what do you don't realise is that it isn't a case of someone phoning up the Others after everyone else in their cell has gone to sleep. There may be several individuals involved. And what's making it harder to track them down is the fact that cells routinely contact each other." She paused, and her expression softened as she looked up, towards Ellis. "And that members talk to people outside the organisation."
Ellis stared at her in shock. Everyone else in the room looked from him to Vireo, to each other, and then back to him. "You think that Phoebe is involved in this? You think that I'm telling Phoebe secrets and she's selling them to the Others?"
"No--" Vireo began, holding her hands up in surrender. "No, Ellis--"
"That is what you mean!" Ellis started to raise his voice as he stood up, resting his palms on the desk. "Admit it, Vireo. Either accuse me and Phoebe or drop the maybes and what-ifs."
Jill watched Vireo intently, feeling very nervous and uneasy, as though something was going to explode any moment. Vireo, she knew, followed every rule to the letter, and yet clearly believed in Ellis' leadership and did not want to alienate him from the group. The tension was growing unbelievable.
Vireo seemed to sag, to droop, and she closed her eyes. "I have orders," she said, resigned. "I was going to bring them up at the end of the meeting, but..." she trailed off to take a deep breath before plunging back in. "You are hereby forbidden to talk with anyone outside of the cell until further notice. That includes members of other cells and...." she cleared her throat, "and other people who are not in the organisation."
The four humans stared in horror. The three Wings were bewildered.
"What about...?" Grayson began.
"Any Wings are exempt from the ban, so if help is required, you are still able to request it," Vireo explained. "Phoebe and Nuthatch are still available as back-up."
"And my Phoebe?" Ellis asked, quietly. He was still standing, resting his palms flat on the desk, as though he was unsure where else to put them. "What about my wife, Vireo?"
"I'm sorry," Vireo replied, her voice low, her gaze on the floor. "She is not exempt."
Ellis sat down, closing his eyes for a minute and then opening them, regarding the Wing with a cold expression. "How long is this going to last?"
She shrugged, nearly imperceptibly. "I don't know. It could be weeks." She paused again. "And I must point out that if you insist on disobeying the order, I will have bring in a replacement leader, and you will no longer have a place in this cell until the spy is found. The choice is yours." Her expression was apologetic, as was her body language, but her voice was stern. She meant what she said, and Ellis knew it. They all knew it.
Keller sat, frozen, with no emotion on his face. Grayson was trying to look unreadable as well, but a concerned and confused expression kept slipping through. Jill felt as though she was in another room, watching everything from a distance.
What is Ellis going to do? she thought. Could she go without talking to Greg--what about Greg? If she couldn't talk to him, how would she work it through with him? Could she even work it out? Was there anything left to salvage? She had been avoiding the question, she realised, she had been concentrating on the mysteries at hand but now, if she chose not to do anything, she would be forbidden to talk to him for who-knows-how-long. And then what would happen?
She looked to Ellis. He was still having his staring match with Vireo, as though expecting her to go back on her announcement. She didn't. She folded her arms over her chest, straightening her back.
He stared at her for a moment longer and then he closed his eyes and dropped his head, slightly. He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head, his eyes closed.
"I can't do this," Jill blurted, standing up so suddenly the room whirled around her for a moment. "I can't do this any more, I can't live like this."
"Live like what?" Grayson blurted.
"Jill, what are you talking about?" Keller asked.
"Melville, sit down," Vireo barked.
"I can't do that. I don't know how you expect Ellis to do it, or how he expects to do it, but I can't. I can't live without Greg. I know what I said before, but--" She threw her hands up, helpless. "I can't do this."
"Yes you can," Larkspur urged, getting to her feet. "Melville, I saw how he looked at you. That isn't where you belong. You belong here, with us."
Jill looked at the creature that had stood up, that was talking to her, and the familiarity that had been growing on her vanished. The feeling of panic increased. "No, it's not," she blurted. She turned and tried to get to the door--to the section of the wall that was the door. Keller grabbed her arm.
"Jill, you can't go back to him," he said, his voice low and determined. She looked down at him and it almost seemed as though he was saying something else; but she couldn't tell. She wrenched her arm free and threw herself through the doorway.
She stumbled as she emerged on the other side, finding herself in the attic office, the bare walls and dusty blinds. How did I end up here? she asked herself, making her way down the wooden steps, into the room that could not exist. It's my own fault for going back to the bar. For going to the police. For ever trying to figure out what was going on. I should have just left it well enough alone.
"Jill!" It was Keller, he was right behind her.
"Leave me alone!" she yelled, over her shoulder, as she jogged down the corridor towards the doorway. She pushed the door open and found herself on the landing. Her shoulder began to hurt, it hadn't hurt in ages but it was starting throb now, and she began to remember all the fear and panic that had brought her to this house, the pain--those teeth--
Something grabbed her arm and she shrieked, whirling with her other hand to hit it. It was Keller. He grabbed her other hand and held her immobile.
He was looking at her in sympathy. "It's the vamp bite," he said, quietly. "Come on, I'll make you something warm to drink and it will pass."
"No, it won't." Jill struggled against his grip but he wasn't letting her go. The skin around her wrists was turning white. "No, it won't, I have to get out of here!"
"Come down to the kitchen, sit for a bit, and I'll explain it," he soothed. Grayson, followed by Tanager, appeared in the doorway, concerned and curious.
"It's the bite, isn't it." Grayson nodded, sadly. "I thought we'd taken care of that."
"It's okay," Keller repeated. He was starting to lead her down the stairs. He had released one hand, but kept a firm grip on the other. "Everything is going to be okay, Jill, just one step at a time."
She looked at him askew. "Do you mean my life or the stairs?"
He smiled at her. "Both."
He was making her a cup of chamomile tea, to help calm her down. She sat in the chair in the kitchen, facing the doorway, trying to keep from running from the room. It seemed as though any moment something--something horrid--was going to come after her. She was in danger if she stayed here. She was going to--she forced the thought back.
Jill hated these feelings, she could separate herself slightly from it and she knew that it didn't make sense, it wasn't rational and yet she could do nothing to hold it back. She forced herself to watch Keller intently, to distract herself from her panic.
He was getting her cup down from the cupboard. She thought he winced when he stretched his arms but that may have been her imagination playing tricks with her.
"I know what you're going through," Keller said, as he poured the cup of tea.
She didn't say anything, but forced herself to concentrate on the cup, on the stream of water from the steaming kettle.
"We all do," he continued, as he brought the cup over, setting it down on the table in front of her. She stared at it, at the bobbing tea-bag, at the discolouration spreading through the water, like--
She looked up at him, tearing herself away. "How?" she blurted. "How do you know? Do you know what's wrong with me?"
Keller nodded, and brought his hand up to his collar, pulling the fabric away from his neck. There, traced down his shoulder and to his collarbone, was a silvery scar. "I got bitten; Grayson got bitten. Pretty much everyone who joined the group. Pretty much everyone who gets attacked by a vamp on the first time."
"Ellis?" Jill asked, anxiously.
Keller shook his head, with a slight smile. "Nope, Ellis is one of the few who managed to get away that first time, on his own. But that's a different story." He cleared his throat. "What you're feeling, Jill, is panic that's caused by the bite. How they do it, we don't know; but they use our own fears against us."
"I don't understand," she said, immediately, but that wasn't quite true; an inkling of what he was saying was starting to form. She looked down at her cup, at the steaming tea, and picked the tea-bag up by the wet thread. She dunked it a couple of times, no longer repulsed by the colouring of the liquid. Had she been? Why?
Keller was looking at her with curiosity. "Been having nightmares, Jill?"
"No," she said, instantly, then frowned. "Well, no, not really, but I wake up--"
"--in a cold sweat? Upset?" he finished for her. She nodded. "And it comes and goes? But whenever you start to feel anxious it just blows itself out of proportion?"
She nodded again.
He nodded back, serious. "It's vampbite."
"You said that already--"
"No, I mean, that's what we call it, vampbite, it's sort of a... a slang word for panic. The bite induces it. It just sort of feeds on your normal fears until you can't function. You can't sleep, you lose objectivity and rationality--that's why they do it. You can't be a very good soldier if you're not sleeping and you panic at small details, see?"
She nodded. He must be right; as she was sitting there, focusing on his voice, on the tea, on anything but the fear, it was diminishing. She had stopped shaking. The pain in her shoulder was lessening, but it was still there; she rubbed it. "Why the shoulder, in particular? Why not just bite me anywhere? I mean, they went after my neck," she pointed out, wincing from the memory.
Keller shrugged. "Nobody knows that for sure. The pet theory is that they're... tapping into primal fears."
Jill thought for a moment. "You mean--" her eyes grew wide. "You mean being eaten?"
"It's convenient, right? Even without whatever they use to bring on the panic, being bitten on the neck would freak most people out, probably enough to bail out on us. And it's such an ingrown fear, and so buried--how many people have to think about being eaten on a regular basis?--that it seems irrational at best." He shrugged again. "Then they just add a pinch of magic to that fear, and boom--a case of vampbite. You can't sleep, you can't function--"
"Because they'll come back," Jill whispered, feeling cold. Her hands had clamped over her neck without her realising them. She tried to take them away, but found she wanted them to remain where they were. She was focused on the doorway, darkened and empty. "They'll come back when you're not expecting it and finish what they started--"
"Jill, snap out of it." Keller touched her shoulder and she jumped. She nearly leapt to her feet but seemed to catch herself half way and lowered back into her chair.
"I'm sorry," she said, running a hand through her hair. "I can't deal with this, being like this, any more."
"I know," he replied, gently. "Grayson and Tanager thought they had gotten it out of your system, we have ways of wiping your mind clean of the effect, but they must have given you a larger dose than normal. Grayson can do it again, don't worry."
She nodded, trying to smile, but she didn't feel like it. She stared down at the tea and resolved to drink it. For some reason, she felt as though she couldn't, but that only strengthened her resolve. If she could just drink it, she would have them beaten...
She lifted the cup, enjoying the warmth, wrapping her fingers around it, enjoying the herby-sweet smell of the chamomile. It was just tea. Nothing more than tea. She brought it to her lips. It's just tea.
She set the cup down, her heart hammering. She pushed it away from her. Keller pushed it back.
"Don't let it make your choices for you," he said, quietly. "I know how you're feeling, I had it too, and it caused some of the worst decisions of my life. We can get rid of it, but you have to take the first step and break your own bonds."
"I can't do it," Jill said in a whisper, near tears. "I can't do any of this. I know I should be fine, that I ought to be okay, but I'm not, I can't--"
Keller got up, abruptly, and walked to one of the drawers. He opened one, and then another. He came back to the table bearing a spoon. She gulped, nervously.
He spooned a small amount of tea onto the spoon. He held it near her and she flinched. "It's just tea."
"It's just tea," Jill repeated.
"It's a little hot, so you might need to blow on it," he continued, as though he was talking to a toddler. She dutifully blew on it, careful not to ripple it out of the spoon. "There. Just one spoonful, Jill, just one."
She opened her mouth, closing her eyes. She could feel the panic starting to rise up again, but this time it was accompanied by fierce anger. Why was she letting them do this to her? Make her crazy, deranged? It's tea, for crying out loud. Chamomile tea. It's nothing that can hurt me--it doesn't even have caffeine in it! She leaned forward and sipped up the tea.
She opened up her eyes to see Keller smiling at her. It wasn't a large grin, he wasn't beaming at her; he just had a small, smug smile, as if saying: I knew you could do it.
"That's the spirit," he said, taking another spoonful of tea. "Feeling better?"
"I feel like I want to be sick," Jill corrected, drinking the spoonful.
"But in a good way, right?" Keller asked. She laughed, and stopped him from getting another spoonful. Instead she picked up the cup herself.
"Yeah, in a good way."
"Melville?" They both looked up and over to the doorway to see Indigo Bunting and Tanager peeking their heads around the jamb. "Melville, are you okay now?"
She didn't reply, but stared at the cup. Keller looked from her back to the Wing.
"Should I get Grayson?" Tanager asked, concerned.
"Later," Keller answered. "We're taking it one step at a time."
Indigo Bunting eased her way into the kitchen. "They're saying you're like this because of the Others--that's why you're not staying with us. Is it true?"
"Indigo Bunting!" Tanager snapped, pulling the younger Wing back. "It's not our business!"
"It's okay," Jill answered. She was staring at the tea, concentrating on it. "You can come in, Indigo Bunting."
Tanager let her go and the Hawk slipped into the seat across from Jill and next to Keller, her wings dishevelled by the back of the chair. Tanager fussed for a moment, then dashed out into the hall.
"I hope you don't leave," Indigo Bunting said, earnestly. "I like you."
Jill smiled and laughed, despite her mood. "Thank you, Indigo Bunting."
"You can call me Indy," she replied, grinning at Keller, who smiled back. "You're not supposed to, but Keller does, and you're like Keller." Keller and Jill both looked at her askance, and then at each other, and then back at her. Her feathers ruffled. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No, just confusing," Keller corrected her gently. He raised an eyebrow at Jill. "I don't think we're anything alike."
"But you are," Indigo Bunting replied, seriously. "I mean, I haven't met very many humans yet, but you seem the same to me. Different, but the same." She frowned and started wringing her hands. "I don't know how to explain!"
"It's okay, Indy, it's okay. We're different but the same." Keller repeated, soothingly. "It's all right."
Indigo Bunting wasn't taken in. "What I mean is, you both do what you want to, all the time," she said, thinking hard. Again, Keller and Jill exchanged glances. "Only Keller can be mean with it, sometimes."
"Stubborn is the word you're looking for, Indigo Bunting," said Ellis, appearing in the doorway. "Melville, are you all right? Tanager says it's the vampbite--"
"I'm going to be okay," Jill replied, quietly. "I may not be right now, but I will be."
"That's the spirit." Ellis leaned against the doorframe. "Have you decided what you're going to do?"
She shook her head, avoiding his gaze.
"Whatever you decide, we'll accept, but I think you should talk to Keller or Grayson before you leave." He sighed, and rubbed his eyes. "We need to know before we start planning, so... I don't want to pressure you, but--"
"Time is of the essence, I know." Jill nodded, and hunched over the cup. She seemed to be thinking; then she lifted it and drank a couple sips. She set the cup down just as quickly. "I'll be gone by nightfall."
Ellis and Keller exchanged a long, knowing glance, and Indigo Bunting wrung her hands more forcefully, her feathers fluffing out. There was a flurry of noise from the corridor, and Larkspur and Tanager appeared, nearly shoving Ellis aside in the their hurry to poke their heads into the kitchen.
"I can't believe this, I don't understand--"
"--but what are you going to do about--"
Ellis threw his hands up for quiet. The Wings stopped, suddenly, and both stared at Jill with round, unblinking cat's eyes. "It's Melville's decision," Ellis repeated. "But I still think that she needs to talk to Keller, alone, before she leaves. Come on, Indigo Bunting, Larkspur, Tanager, let's get going."
"It's not my fault!" Indigo Bunting wailed. "I didn't mean to tell them!"
"Now, Indigo Bunting," Ellis said, jabbing a thumb in the direction behind him. "Move it."
She got up from her seat, reluctantly, her feathers still fluffed in indignation. She started to say something to Jill but then stopped and walked out of the kitchen, dejectedly. Ellis was the last to leave.
"We'll miss you, Melville. Just remember that if you go through with this, and ever need help, we'll be here for you." He turned and disappeared into the darkened hallway.
Jill pushed her cup away, staring at Keller. "What is going on here? What's the big secret?"
Keller didn't say anything; he was staring at a spot on the table that only he could see.
"Obviously it's something that everyone thinks will influence my decision," Jill continued, thinking out loud, "but besides Greg's reaction--"
Keller had flinched, slightly, when she said the word Greg.
"That's it, then," she finished, grimly. "You think I'm wrong to go back to him. Not to want to leave, but to go back to him."
"Jill, it's not that simple," Keller said, finally. "We saw--"
"I know, Larkspur saw him over-react, but that's what it was. Over-reaction. He loves me, I know he does, he just has a hard time coping with surprise, that's all." Jill said it firmly, although her voice was quavering slightly. "I know it, I know it was just over-reaction, that's all--"
"Jill--" Keller began to say, but she shook her head.
"I won't hear you say anything about him," she continued, blithely.
"Jill!" Keller snapped, finally. She stopped and stared at him with wide eyes.
"I won't," she repeated.
He took a deep breath. "He's cheating on you."
She was in the midst of saying something else and she stopped, confused. She opened her mouth, and then closed it.
Keller returned his gaze to the table. "Grayson and I--"
"Made it up!" she blurted, suddenly, getting to her feet. "Of all the petty, horrid things to say--"
"We're not making it up, Jill!" he protested, standing up as well, to block her from leaving. "When the Wings first learned about you, Grayson and I were sent to trail you. Well, not you, specifically, we didn't know whether it was you or Greg so we watched you both. And that's when we found out that he was cheating on you--originally we thought that she was his girlfriend or wife or whatever, and you were the--" he trailed off and then plunged back into his narrative, "--you were his mistress, and then it turned out to be the other way around."
"This isn't true!" Jill repeated, her voice starting to rise. "You're making it up to keep me here!"
"I'm not making it up at all, Jill, believe me--"
"It's a lie!" She was becoming hysterical, and tried to push past him. Greg wouldn't cheat on her, Greg loved her, and she loved him, and that was all that mattered and he wouldn't cheat on her, he wouldn't do something so horrible as to--
--the late nights--
No, it wasn't true.
--his constant defensiveness--
No, it couldn't be true, she couldn't believe that he was capable of doing something like that to her. "Get out of my way!" she yelled at Keller, shoving him. He was pushed back, slightly, but he was still bigger and stronger than her, taller. She shoved at him again, and this time he didn't move. He caught her by the arms.
"Jill, listen to me--"
"I'm tired of listening you!" she yelled, wrenching out of his grip. "I'm tired of listening to your explanations and your lies! I'm not giving up everything that's ever mattered to me just because you say so!"
She slipped past him and into the hallway. He was right behind her. "Jill, you need to calm down--"
"I need to go home, is what I need," she retorted, getting her shoes on. "And you can't stop me!"
He leaned against the doorframe to the kitchen, looking resigned and a bit disgusted. "You're right, I can't. Go home, then, go talk to Greg and live a happy, blissful existence with him, but don't talk to me about lies." He turned and went back into the kitchen, disappearing from view.
For a moment she had an attack of doubt. Her hand rested on the door handle, and she wondered. For a brief moment. Then she turned the handle and stepped outside.
Jill stared at the number on the door in front of her. The bus ride home had been terrible, she hadn't had the proper change, the diver was rude, she missed a connection--it seemed as though everything was lining up to keep her from coming back here. But she made it, despite the odds, she was back home. Back where she belonged.
So why wasn't she going in?
This is ridiculous, she thought indignantly. This is my home, this is where I belong, this is where I ought to be. She fumbled through her pockets looking for her keys. A business card fluttered to the ground. She picked it up. "You are not alone," she read out loud, softly. She debated throwing the card out, or ripping it up; instead it was tucked back into her pocket, her arm apparently not under direct control of her brain any more.
She took a deep breath and unlocked the door. "Greg, honey, I'm home--"
Grayson was leaning against the door to the balcony. "Came out for some fresh air, I see."
Keller scowled, breathing out a wreath of smoke. "She's terrible."
"Indigo Bunting was right, you two alike," Grayson said with a grin. He had his hands in his pockets, staring out at the view of residential Forreton. Keller just scowled some more.
"I don't think--" He stopped mid-sentence. Grayson wasn't listening; his head was tilted slightly and his eyes were glassy. Correction, Keller thought. He's listening, just not to me.
Grayson snapped out of it as easily as he had snapped in. "Duty calls," he said, simply.
"Oh joy." Keller stabbed the cigarette down on the painted metal of the railing. "More message delivering?"
"Something like that," Grayson answered, already in the house.
Apparently, she had gotten up to answer the door, not realising that Jill had a key.
The strange woman wearing one of Greg's sweatshirts stared at Jill. Jill stared right back. The stranger stepped backwards, looking nervous. She kept looking towards the bedroom. "Greg, honey--"
"Coming, Marcy--" Greg emerged from the bedroom, tightening his tie. Jill remembered the tie quite clearly; she had bought it for him for Christmas one year. She felt dizzy. He looked up and saw his fiancee. "Oh, shit."
"I think that's a bit of an understatement, Greg," Jill answered, the room still spinning. Her own voice sounded far away. "Who is she, exactly?"
"Marcy?" Greg answered, his voice rising in pitch on the last syllable.
"I think I caught that already, try again," Jill snapped, feeling sick. Marcy was sliding towards the couch, to a jacket. "Oh no you don't." Jill stepped backwards to shut the door with her back. "Oh no. You're not going anywhere until we sort this out."
"Greg?" Marcy asked, nervously eyeing Jill, "she's not, you know, dangerous, is she?"
Greg paled, still frozen with his hands around his tie.
Jill glared at him. "Dangerous? What did you tell her?" He opened his mouth to say something and she stopped him with raised hands. "No, don't. I don't think I want to know." She rubbed her temples. "I don't think I wanted to know about any of this, Greg. How long was I gone? A day? A day and you moved her in here already? Is she wearing my clothes already or were you planning to hold that off until next week?" She was trying to keep herself from sounding hysterical but she wasn't succeeding.
"I thought you'd gone to stay with relatives, or something," Greg said, still nervous, and obviously lying; she could always tell when he was lying to her--she thought she could. Marcy was inching towards the bathroom, the only door with a lock.
Jill thought she was going to throw up. She had been so worried about him, so torn up and guilty, so... so... she was so furious! "How could you do this?" she screamed at him. "How could you treat me like this, for so long?"
"Jill, calm down--"
"Calm down? I come back to tell you that I want to work things out, that I'm ready to devote my life to you, I find you with your convenient girlfriend and you want me to calm down?" She forced herself to take a deep breath, trying to regain some control, some composure. A flash of memory: meeting Greg for the first time, that look from across the room. She wanted to cry, she wanted to smash a vase over his head, and she wanted to be sick. She wasn't sure in what order.
"Jill, please, calm down, I love you and I can explain--"
She glared at him, incredulous. "I loved you too, Greg, I really did and I thought you loved me. But loving someone does not mean having Marcys stashed in closets waiting for an opportunity!"
"Hey, I wasn't in a closet, I had a nice apartment--" Marcy began, until a glare from Jill silenced her and caused to her to start inching towards the bathroom again.
Jill leaned against the door, her eyes tearing against her will. "This isn't happening to me," she groaned. "This is all a bad dream, this can't get any worse--"
There was a knock on the door.
"Who the hell--" Greg began, taking a step towards the door but Jill glared at him and he stepped back again.
She turned, slightly, so that she could speak in the direction of the hallway. "Who's there?" she asked, trying to sound calm. Why was she trying to sound calm? Automatic reaction?
"The mover's, ma'am," replied a familiar voice. She jumped back and threw open the door. Grayson and Keller were standing there, in nondescript blue work uniforms, wearing caps. Grayson touched his fingers to his brim. "Sorry we were late."
"Who the hell?" Greg repeated, incredulous. "What are you people doing here?"
"Angel Movers," Keller replied, innocently, a blank look on his face. "We work by divine mandate. Ma'am, what would you like us to take?"
"Take?" blurted Marcy.
"Now wait just a second--" Greg began, but Jill walked up to him, her arms crossed.
She was very startled at seeing Grayson and Keller, but reassured and glad they were here just the same; she wasn't sure if she could spend another moment in the same room with her former love and his current piece-on-the-side. She looked up at him, expecting nostalgia or regret but all she felt was an intense loathing. She had a similar reaction to cockroaches. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way, Greg."
"Any large pieces of furniture, ma'am?" Grayson asked, as he and Keller walked slowly around the living room, sizing it up.
Jill had a look as well. If there was any regret that she felt in this situation, it was in leaving her home; but most of the piece of furniture had been picked out by Greg and she didn't really care for them. "My clothes, mostly," she said, "toiletries, my sheets that I brought from Birchen--" She crossed the room to a cabinet that held CDs, videos and books, and on the top shelf, a china swan. She had to stand on her tip-toes to reach it. It had been given to her mother when she was a child. She picked it up and cradled it against her chest. "CDs, movies, books--that sort of stuff."
"Any china, cutlery, that sort of thing?" Keller asked.
"No," she replied. "I don't really like any of it."
"Then just point it out and we'll be on our way," Grayson said amiably. He glanced over to Greg. "We won't be long." He headed out into the hallway and came back with a cardboard box. Jill wondered who else was in the corridor to 'assist' with the move.
"How long is long?" Greg snapped. He seemed to be regaining his composure now that there were other people to focus on besides Jill. He put himself between Keller and the bedroom doorway.
Keller glared at Greg. "We won't be any longer than we need to be, Mr., uh, Melville."
"Beresford," Greg snapped, starting to turn red. Jill was directing Grayson in packing the books and CDs; a slammed door indicated that Marcy had succeeded in barricading herself into the bathroom. "Melville is Jill's name--Jill, what is going on here?"
"I'm moving out," Jill replied, feeling a lump in her throat. She looked down and Grayson caught her eye, and held the gaze for a moment. She straightened up. "I'm leaving, what does it look like I'm doing?"
"But I don't understand--how did you people know--" Greg continued, wisely letting Keller access into the bedroom. "I don't understand how you got here so fast--she didn't know--"
"Angel Movers," Keller called back, nonchalantly. His expression hadn't altered one iota save a disgusted look at Greg while Greg couldn't see him. "We work in mysterious ways."
Grayson picked up the box and headed out into the corridor. Jill ducked past Greg--very careful not to touch him--and slipped into the bedroom. She crossed the floor, almost jogging, to the closet. "I'll need my clothes," she told Keller.
"I know," he replied, with a slight smile. "I'm not that clueless."
She shook her head, unable to say what she was thinking, what she felt, in case she burst out crying. Grayson popped his head around the corner. "Mind if we take a shortcut?" he asked. He was looking more at Keller. "Can you...?" He trailed off, and nodded over his shoulder, towards the living room.
"Right," Keller replied. He jogged to the door and slipped past Grayson. Grayson smiled at her, a "be brave" smile, and then ducked back out.
Jill stood, for a moment, feeling very lost and confused, when there was a sudden tickling of the hair along her neck, and two slender arms appeared through the wall, followed by Indigo Bunting, followed by Indigo Bunting's wings, which were ruffled.
"Melville!" she cried, throwing her arms around the woman and hugging her tightly. "Grayson told us what happened--how dreadful!"
"Indigo Bunting," called Larkspur as she emerged through the wall, "we've got a job to do."
"Right," the younger Wing replied. She looked at Jill. "Just tell me what you want to keep."
Jill smiled, and pointed out the shelves and rack that held her clothing. Indigo Bunting nodded and started gathering them up in her arms, then disappeared back through the wall.
Larkspur took Jill's hands. "Don't worry, Melville, we'll be quick."
"I'm not worried, honestly," she replied, smiling. It was true; she wasn't worried. At the moment, she couldn't feel anything at all.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Beresford, we have to get in there," Keller insisted. Greg was standing with his back to the bathroom door, his arms crossed.
"This is an invasion of privacy," Greg barked. "You can't just waltz in and--"
"They can't," Jill snapped, emerging from the bedroom, avoiding Grayson who was still moving boxes to the corridor, "but I can. Get out of the way, Greg. I want my stuff."
"Jill--" Greg began, but she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Keller and together they glared at him. "Fine," Greg replied darkly. He turned and knocked on the door. "Marcy, open up."
"Are they gone?" came Marcy's watery voice.
"No," Keller replied for Greg. "Open up, Marcy, or I'm kicking the door down."
"You can't--!" Greg was growing redder by the moment, and turned to Jill, automatically, for support in the argument. He realised his mistake when she stepped past him and pounded on the door.
"Open up, Marcy, or we're breaking it down!" Jill yelled. "And it's still my goddamned bathroom door, so you'd better believe that we'd do it!"
The door opened with a hesitant creak and Marcy peeped through the crack. She tried to close it again but Jill got her foot wedged, and deftly Keller pushed past her. Marcy came fleeing out, to Greg's arms.
"Can they do this?" she squeaked, terrified. Greg didn't reply.
Grayson appeared with yet another box, of which he seemed to have an endless supply; he held it out while Keller piled stuff in it, on Jill's directions.
"That's it?" Keller asked her. She nodded. He looked at Grayson, who nodded, and then they both left, not wasting even a glance at Greg on their way out.
Jill wasn't so hardened, not yet. She stopped in the middle of the room, and looked around her, taking a picture with her mind. She had many happy memories here, with Greg, but that's all they were, memories; and memories are best left in the past.
She looked at her ex-fiancee and his new--or possibly old--current--girlfriend, and she shook her head, sadly. She wished he was worth a goodbye, but he wasn't. She tossed the keys at him, and walked out of her old life, closing the door tightly behind her.
Grayson was waiting in the hallway; the boxes, Keller, and the Wings were gone.
"Are you okay?" Grayson asked, quietly, a hand on her shoulder. She started to say that yes, she was, she was fine; but something stopped her and she just started to cry instead. He pulled her into a hug. "It will be okay, though, Jill, it really will be. Just give it time."
She nodded, sniffling. "I know. I know, it's just--" she trailed off, looking at the door and then shaking her head. "It's too sudden."
Grayson shrugged a little, and stroked her head. "The world would be a much better place if everyone could just get a little warning."
She laughed, a little, shakily, still resting against his shoulder.
"Come on, they're waiting outside," he said, taking her by the hand and leading her down the corridor. "Tomorrow's a new day."
"True," she replied. She tried to smile again, but found she couldn't. Not yet.
"That was scary," Marcy said, sniffling. "Those men were horrible--especially that one with the beard, he looked like a psycho--"
"It's okay, they're gone," Greg said, as he bolted the door. "I mean, having them prowling around your apartment," Marcy continued, flopping down on the couch, "going through all your things, it's so disgusting! And she took the towels!"
"What?" Greg said, not really listening to her. Something didn't seem right. He shook his head. "And anyway, Marce, they were only here for a few minutes--"
That's what was bothering him. How did they manage to clear out that much stuff in so little time? And they hadn't even moved anything from the bedroom. He jogged over, and looked around the doorframe. The closet door was open; it was half empty. The chest of drawers--Jill's chest of drawers--was empty too, the drawers half open.
He leaned back out to look at the living room--the books and CDs were gone--and hey, the TV was gone too, and that wasn't hers--!
"Greg, honey?" Marcy asked, confused. "What's the matter?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. I guess nothing."
"Well," Marcy continued, with a sigh, "at least we can get on with us, now, we don't have to worry about her."
"Yeah," he agreed, half-heartedly, closing the door behind him. He paused for a moment and then shook his head for a third time.
Jill sat up in her bed, listening to the rain on the window pane. She didn't feel like crying any more; she felt that the weather was doing it for her, to give her a rest, and she felt that she deserved one.
She had her fingers wrapped around a warm cup of tea, and she had pulled her comforter all around her, so that she was warm and snug.
The room was still a little dreary. The wallpaper still needed attending to, and the bed needed a new mattress. But now, with curtains on the window, her pictures on the wall, her pillows and blankets on the bed and her swan on a shelf, it seemed more like...
"Home," she whispered, to herself, taking a sip, closing her eyes and listening to the rain.
End of Part Three