|Source:||"Subjugation" by Ravenkiss. NSFW; must be 18 or older to access Adult FanFiction.org.|
|Timeline:||June 18, 2016—ten years since the original, failed mission.|
|Rating:||M - I've tried to keep the mission as un-explicit as possible, but nonetheless, trigger warnings for rape and abuse of all stripes.|
|Betas:||Phobos and JulyFlame.|
There is a sound that traditionally comes at the beginning of every PPC mission. While one of the most annoying, hated, violence-provoking sounds in the multiverse, it is also one of the most thrilling, because everyone who has heard it knows that what follows will be an Adventure: the protagonists, with the barest sense of what's happening to them, will be faced with breathtaking scenery, unspeakable horror, and the epic struggle between Good and Evil in which they will eventually triumph.
Even if it takes ten years. And a lot of convincing.
Ilraen didn't even try to reach the console. After nearly losing an eye the last time, he was quite happy to indulge whatever was going on with his partner and let him have the first look. He didn't so much as turn around until Nume collapsed into his chair with a hard thump and a brief squeal of wood on Generic Surface.
"Oh my god. This is finally it."
Now both front hooves left the floor in a ninety-degree pirouette. <What is?> Ilraen was startled by his partner's sagging, ashen face. He realized he had never seen Nume truly afraid, not once, until now.
<You must tell me,> Ilraen pressed when Nume didn't answer him. <You have been acting strangely for months. What is this about?>
Nume glanced at him, grimaced, and resorted to pointing at the screen.
Ilraen leaned down for a closer look. Right away, he noticed that it was not a standard assignment format. There was no Intelligence report, just a brief note signed by the Lichen and the fic coordinates, titled "Subjugation."
Ilraen drew back in shock. <They can't!>
"They can. They are. I am." Nume took off his glasses and rubbed a hand across his face, then gave a dry chuckle. "In a way, I'm relieved. I don't have to wait for it anymore."
It took a moment for the full import of this to sink in. When it did, Ilraen felt as though his brain had come unmoored from his skull. <You knew! You have known since . . . since we got back from 'A Journey Across Two Lands'! And you never told me.> His knees wobbled. How could his partner have kept something like this from him for so long?
"Well, you've been a bit preoccupied. Even if I'd wanted to tell you—which I didn't—it would have been a bit difficult to get a word in edgewise around Farilan this and Farilan that."
Ilraen's ears flattened back against his skull. <That is not fair. But, why, Nume? Why are they sending you back there? Why you? Why now, after all this time, and so soon after 'Agony in Pink'?>
"Because I volunteered."
Ilraen stared, agog with disbelief.
"I have to finish it," Nume went on. "There are a few things I have to do, and then I'm going to put it down once and for all." He replaced his glasses, got to his feet, and began gathering items into their messenger bag.
<But I still don't understand—> He had been about to say that he didn't understand the secrecy. Surely, if they were going into a Legendary Badfic and his partner knew about it, Ilraen should have been told! But then the penny dropped, and so did Ilraen's heart into his stomach. <Nume, wait. You cannot mean you are thinking of going alone. I'm going with you!>
Nume rounded fiercely and shook a forbidding finger under his chin. "No, you are not!"
Startled, Ilraen leaned back. <But—!>
"No! I'm serious, Ilraen, I don't want you involved with this thing. It's my bête noire, my beast to slay. I know what I'm getting into. You don't. You're staying." Nume pushed past him. The door swished open.
Ilraen felt himself getting hot with anger, hurt, and fear. <But—> he started again; <but what about Suicide and Diocletian? They were there, too! Couldn't you ask them, at least?>
Nume paused in the doorway and gave him a look that killed any further argument. "I already did; they're not coming. I'll be back soon," he said. "Don't try to pull anything." He strode off into the corridor.
Ilraen frowned after him. <Do or do not,> he said to himself. <There is no try.> Then he got to work.
When Nume got back, carrying rather more than he'd had with him when he left, he dropped the entire bundle on the RC floor in exasperation at the scene awaiting him, already in progress. "God dammit, Ilraen. Do you have any idea how clichéd this is?"
Ilraen, standing with his arms crossed defiantly at the back of the room, said nothing. He let the cliché speak for itself.
"About as much as you vowing to face the Dread Gazebo alone," said a certain silver-haired Scythian leaning up against a post of the bunk bed. "The way the fuzzy centaur here tells it, you were practically begging for it. Ow. What?" He massaged his rib cage where his partner had just elbowed him.
"Behave, Su," said Diocletian. "We don't need any innuendos where we're going."
"It was a perfectly innocent comment! Would I innuendoize in front of my gir—my fre—Jenni here?" He threw an arm over the nurse's shoulders, conveniently hauling her between himself and his partner in the process.
"Yes," said Jenni, folding her arms and rolling her eyes in a good-humored way. "Also behind me, and on top of me, and—"
"Please shut up immediately!" Nume pressed his fingers against his temples. "This is not happening."
<It is happening,> Ilraen said firmly, stepping forward into line with the other three. <We will not let you do this without help, Nume.>
"Well, that's new!" He glared at the black-clad assassins. "Last I heard, you lot were planning to be too busy washing your hair or something."
Diocletian shrugged. "I keep trying to make him, now that he's got a girlfriend and all, but he continues to resist every effort at civilization. Such a barbarian." Though her words were light, there was ice in them.
"And I keep telling you, Dio, that much bathing is unhealthy." Suicide appeared to be completely ignoring the subtext in favor of rehashing a favorite text.
"For the record," Jenni said, "I like a little musk on a guy."
"There, you see? I don't have BO, I have manly musk."
"Sweet baby Christ on a cracker!" Nume started low and wound up to a shout, getting everyone's attention again. "If we can leave the nauseating details of your personal habits aside, have any of you considered that I might have given this a lot of thought and decided I'm better off by myself?" he demanded. "The big team was too conspicuous last time. One agent can hide better than several. I can make decisions and act on them faster on my own. If I'm spotted, I can run faster; if I'm caught—"
"We'll make sure to get good and high at your funeral," said Suicide. "Assuming there's anything left to bury."
"The point is," Jenni added with a conciliating gesture, "agents go in pairs for a good reason. If something does go wrong, Powers forbid, you need someone—or several someones—at your back."
"Well, I don't need you," Nume snapped at her. "You wouldn't get past the third chapter without going to pieces."
"Anyway, what about your kid? This thing goes on for months! You really gonna leave him for that long? And what if something happens to you? Then what, huh?"
"Henry," Jenni said in a tightly controlled voice, "is a very smart seven-year-old boy who knows that portals let agents skip long passages of time in which nothing charge-worthy happens. I reckon we'll be gone a week at most. Besides which, I am quite capable of taking care of myself, and if anything could have saved the first expedition, it was having a FicPsych nurse around to look after everyone between shifts." She tightened her arm around Suicide's waist.
Nume looked from her to him. "Would you care to contest your girlfriend's blatant idiocy?"
The Scythian grinned and idly flexed his free arm. "Can't say I know what you mean by that, citizen."
His jaw visibly clenched. "I mean," he addressed Jenni again, "that you have no idea what you're talking about. You don't know what you're getting into, and neither do you." He pointed at Ilraen.
"But we do," Diocletian spoke up. "And we've got as much right to a rematch as you. This shit's gone on long enough, thank you very much. You were right about that. So we're going." Very quietly, she added, "God help us."
Nume glared at her, his face red. Abruptly, he said, "Fine. I'll take you two—but not you." He indicated Ilraen and Jenni. "Three's plenty, and I will not have a rookie and a damn Snape-luster—"
Their angry protests buried the rest of his words.
<I am not a rookie anymore! I am your partner!> Ilraen shouted, his mental voice easily carrying over Jenni and Suicide. The Andalite pressed forward until his face was no more than a hand's length from his partner's and jabbed him in the shoulder with two slim fingers to emphasize his points. <I have been by your side for ten years. I have learned from you. I have learned in spite of you. I have saved your life, and you have saved mine, more times than I can count. I will not leave you now. Do you understand me?>
By this point, Nume was leaning backward so far that he overextended. He staggered a step and caught himself on the edge of Ilraen's worktable. "Ow." He glowered resentfully at Ilraen and the others.
Their faces were hard, unmoved.
Nume straightened and pressed a knuckle into his back with a ragged sigh. "All right, all right. I can tell when Legal is not on my side. Who am I to argue with the Laws of Narrative Drama?"
"D'you wanna borrow my lampshade?" Suicide offered. "Dio, get the lampshade."
Nume scowled at him. "If you actually packed one, I'm going to punch you again."
"Dio, ditch the lampshade."
Diocletian rolled her eyes. "So, now that that's settled, what's the plan, boss?"
"Sure, now I'm the boss," Nume grumbled.
"I don't suppose there's any chance we can skip the parts we've already suffered through?" Dio went on. "I mean, it's bad enough sitting through awful squick without it being redundant, too."
"I don't know," Nume said. "I didn't have any plans that involved more than one person." He rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at the floor. "I don't suppose you two still have your original charge list somewhere?"
Suicide shook his head. "Nah. Chucked it in a lava channel sometime in the first week we were in Azeroth."
"Then we have to start over from the beginning. But we don't all have to watch everything. You two can go straight to Hogwarts and establish a base camp. And—" Inspiration had struck. He squeezed past the other agents to get to the equipment closet. After a minute of rummaging inside, he reemerged and handed a beetle-shaped charm each to Suicide, Diocletian, and Ilraen. The fourth, he held up between thumb and forefinger.
"These are Information Insects," he explained. "Ilraen and I picked them up from a Harry Potter crossover years ago. They're non-canon, but they'll let us communicate easily. Just stick it somewhere it's not likely to get knocked off." He demonstrated by holding his against the collar of his shirt, where its six little legs clamped down.
"How come I don't get one?" Jenni said.
"Because I've only got four and you're the fifth wheel," Nume answered. "Anyway, if push comes to shove, you don't need one. You're the psychic."
She grimaced. "You know I only got the Sue-tracker removed a few months ago. I don't want it back. No offense, Dio."
"None taken. Wearing matching jewelry is tacky, anyway." The ex-Sue smiled reassuringly.
"Whatever." Nume waved a dismissive hand. "Just stick with one of us at all times." He looked around at the agents. "Did you at least come prepared? Got sleeping bags, rations, everything for an extended mission?"
Jenni pulled a wand out of her waistband. "Got everything we need right here. Aren't you taking yours?"
"Of course I am, but I prefer magic as a backup to actual preparation."
Meanwhile, Suicide and Diocletian had shouldered their gear, which looked reassuringly bulky.
"Don't worry," said Suicide. "Dio made me pack everything but the kitchen sink."
"Hey, I happen to agree that preparation is a good thing," she replied. "And you have to admit the Air of Isildur is better than a stone floor."
"True. On that note, did everyone remember to turn off the oven, shut the windows, unplug the electronics, lock the back door, and leave the porch light on?"
This attempt at humor was met with blank stares all around.
Finally, Nume said, "We are never going on a road trip together. Let's just get that straight right now."
"Fair enough," Suicide agreed easily.
"Right." Nume nodded. "That's it, then? No last-minute thoughts? Nothing you desperately need to do? ... No? Good." He gave Ilraen the messenger bag and picked up his new gear: a shapeless yet oddly massive backpack that had been dyed black, but still stubbornly showed the texture and floral pattern of a carpet bag. "You two"—he gestured to Ilraen and Jenni—"come with me. If you make it through the first night, you can stay. If there's even a hint that either of you can't control yourselves, though, I'm sending you straight back to Headquarters. I will not let this go wrong again. Got it?"
The two exchanged a dark look.
"And what about you?" Jenni said. "You're the one with the legendary intolerance for anything sex-related."
"That may be true," Nume growled, "but my issues have never sent me into fits that blew my cover or led me to execute the wrong target."
<You did hit Agent Suicide that time,> Ilraen couldn't resist pointing out.
"I was asking for it." Suicide grinned. "Come on, that hatchet's buried, right, Nume? I don't want to go into battle holding grudges." He stuck a hand out.
Nume looked as though he wanted to refuse it (god only knew where Suicide's hand had been), but in the end he sucked it up and shook with the other man. "It was a misunderstanding," he allowed. "It won't happen again."
"As heartwarming as this is," Dio said, "I think Su gave me the heavy pack. Not that I'm particularly eager, but can we go if we're going?"
"Yeah." Nume quickly dialed up a portal. "There you go. Meet you in the Great Hall after the wedding night?"
Suicide couldn't quite hide his shudder at the mention of it. "Right. At least there's Hogwarts food to look forward to?"
Dio patted her partner on the shoulder. "That's the spirit. Catch you later," she said to the others, and the assassins were on their way.
"Our turn." Nume reset the portal. "Once more unto the breach . . . ."
And he stepped back into "Subjugation."