The Next Meeting

((From => A cheap hotel already forgotten (by way of shopping)))

Rogan focused on the road as he drove, not letting his thoughts drift. In the corner of his eye, he was aware of Lyntael's shape watching him with concern from the dash alcove. They didn't generally talk while he was driving anyway – just before and after, but in the short conversations before and after she'd spoken, and he'd answered, and he couldn't really recall what had even been said now.

He took his normal precautions, finally stopping his vehicle several blocks from his destination and taking the remaining journey on foot. Evening gloom cloaked the city as a thick fog rolled in and made each of the intermittent lights a glowing sphere of diffused light, rather than clear points. Rogan strode through it until he came to the stairs down but hesitated at the top. The fog was clinging to his clothes, beginning to settle in a cold damp that chilled him; he carefully set it aside. His head ached; dehydration, stress, or both. He set it aside as well. One by one, the various injuries and other pains he was dealing with were shut out and Rogan closed his eyes, taking a long, slow breath as he pulled the mask back into place. He let the breath out and straightened his shoulders, flicking the lapels of his coat as he let the small, confident smile curl at one corner of his lips. Time to work.

The folk music was playing in the lounge again as Rogan stepped inside, casting a small nod and glance to the door-keeper and moving through to an unoccupied table to one side of the room. The place was the same as it ever was, half full of innocuous-seeming patrons who all bore the subtle readiness of men and women on duty, and all aware of him as an outsider. Most people probably wouldn't have even noticed the change in the room, but for Rogan it was always like walking into the den of a watching pack. He took a seat, unshouldered his bag, and gave every sign of relaxing.

Bare moments later, he was joined by a familiar figure. Varda must have rushed out the moment word of his arrival came through. She was dressed in simple blacks today – a tailored feminine suit rather than a dress this time, with far less cleavage than she usually tried to distract him with. As she took the place opposite him, Rogan smiled and nodded his head.

“Evening Varda, it's a foggy one tonight. Nice to have warm company, don't you think?” She wasn't smiling, and she wouldn't be by the end of it either, but Rogan intended to change her reasons.

“You have that which you were paid to retrieve?” Her voice was clipped and serious, and there was a hint of dissatisfaction there too; she was intending to chew him out for being caught, he imagined. Let her. He nodded and flipped open his bag, retrieving the requested sheaf of hard copies and placing it on the table in front of him.

“I have... though I might correct you; Contracted to retrieve, Varda... but only partially paid, so far. Everything you asked for, Varda, and it is quite the fascinating read, I think you'll find.” He put one hand on the folder and raised an eyebrow towards her. She fell into the trap without hesitating, and raised her chin, scoffing at him.

“You overstep, Nightwisp. You were not to be detected. My little whispers tell me much of your doings, you know. Your excursion... it was more disaster than success, no?” Her words were terse and dismissive. “I am not so sure that you should be given any further reward for this mess.” Rogan feigned indifference and shrugged, moving his hand forward across the folder to curl his finger tips around the edge of it. Varda tensed.

“You will not be leaving here with that, mister O'Conaill. Do not think to bargain around your failure.” Rogan didn't relax his hand but tilted his head towards her.

“Oh I think I will if I want to, Varda. And I think you know that. Don't threaten me today, Varda, I am not in the mood for it.” The playfulness drained out of his voice as he spoke and his grin dropped to a serious expression and a hard stare. Across from him, his contact glared back.

“And what position of strength do you imagine you speak from, little man. Do not forget; you have failed, and you have cost my family in the process. You are lucky to still draw breath.”
“I don't deal in luck, Varda. I got your information, and your family's interference was known about before you even contracted me.” Her lip drew back briefly before she controlled it and waved a hand.

“You say this, but what failure would say otherwise, no? The whispers, they tell me you were caught. They tell me of much violence and carnage and death.” Rogan let the small spike of anger show on his features at that particular accusation; he'd been careful.

“Your intel was wrong, Varda. Fitzpatrick was there, at the facility, when your little whispers said he wouldn't be. They were expecting an infiltrator, and not just anyone. They were expecting your family to be sending someone, Varda; waiting for it. They were disappointed when it was...” here it was his turn to make a dismissive gesture. “Just a mercenary.” Despite himself, he added an extra phrase, and a small extra growl came through in it. “And I didn't kill anyone. I don't do that.” Across from him, the mafia woman had locked down her expression, controlling her composure.

“And you can prove this, can you? This accusation, it is a dangerous one. We do not take kindly to blame-shifting, you know. Because, mister O'Conaill, when you say you did not kill anyone, it seems to me that you may be lying, no?” His mask hid the urge to wince at her words. He hadn't killed anyone... but underneath, the image of Lyntael dying on his screen was there. Had she picked up some flash of guilt? Varda knew he couldn't prove his claim, of course, but she was pragmatic and the firm accusation had at least made her cautious. Her pause only lasted another second when he gave no reaction. “They tell me, you know, that you failed also, to escape cleanly. That you were shot... that you left behind much blood, yes? Very easy to trace, these things.”

“Do I look like I was shot, Varda? You had eyes all over me from the moment I reached the bottom of the stairs. Did I walk in here like someone who was shot up less than two days ago? Or is it possible, perhaps, that your little whisper is... fudging.” He was aware that his voice was hard now, almost harsh, but it suited his purpose. Varda eyed him, then shrugged.

“These things, they can be concealed easily enough. You are a man skilled at deception, no? They also tell me you lost something more personal. The little navigator, so often hiding in your pocket, yes? Where is she now, mister O'Conaill?” When the interrogation had started, Rogan had been expecting this, and as loathe as he was to expose Lyntael directly to the situation now, he hadn't been able to devise any way around it. He shrugged and reached down. Varda's eyes followed, and her eyebrows quirked, just slightly, when he lifted not a PET, but just the navi herself, moving his hand to let her climb onto the table top while the device remained in his pocket. He took a brief moment to enjoy the way Varda's eyes flickered about quickly to find the terminal and coming up empty. Lyntael looked towards him and he nodded. She turned and waved to Varda.

“Hey miss! Nice to meet you properly! I'm–” She paused, then turned to check with Rogan again. Once more he nodded. Why was now the hardest part of keeping his mask in place? He knew why, really, but acknowledging it was far too difficult. The little girl grinned and turned back, wandering forward until she was part way across the table. “I'm Lyntael! I always listen in, but Rogan doesn't like me to interrupt. He thinks I'll say something I shouldn't, but I–”
“That's enough, Lyntael.” Rogan stopped her before it could go any further. Varda was examining the little program with a dissatisfied eye.
“This, also, it is easy enough to replace quickly. A moment.” Rogan had moved his hand, gesturing for Lyntael to return so he could get her off the table again, but now Varda stalled him, fishing her own PET from a pocket in her suit and pressing a button as she set it on the table. A second navigator appeared a moment later. This one was also female, dressed in a deep red body suit and a matching shoulder cloak. Her boots had elements of clockwork worked through them, as did her gloves, and the left side of her face was covered in a silver mask that seemed focused around lenses and reticles that could slide over one eye. Short cropped blond hair peeked out from the other side of the mask, above pale skin and blue eyes. She glanced across to Lyntael then up to Varda without speaking.

“Forty-one, twenty-seven, thirty-six, nine.” When Vadra spoke the series of numbers, the navi nodded and refocused on Lyntael. Several reticles and lenses slipped in front of her left eye from the mask. Lyntael waved. After only a second, the navi turned back to Varda.

“It's a generic normal navi, with a custom appearance override. Serial is good. Production date last year, but probably sat on a shelf for eight months. It's–”
“I am not! Oh, right, the thing... I'm not though!” Lyntael interjected with a pouting expression and the other navi looked back at her. Varda's initially satisfied expression dropped back to uncertainty before it could properly establish itself on her face. The other navi's expression mirrored her confusion.

“No, you aren't... are you? How's that...?” the formal business formation of her words slipped into something less refined as the oddity drew her attention. “I can't tell proper, through the hologram and all. If I had her in a proper data space, I could.... Wait, no wait...” The navi looked about suddenly. “Where's your PET? How're you projecting? How are you... Wait, no... You've got... Hang on, how is that even...?” She had crept forward several steps, with a growing air of fascination in words, but before she could reach Lyntael, Rogan scooped his navi up in one hand. The action itself made the other navigator frown.

“Don't bother. Lyntael is unique and quite irreplaceable.” It still hurt to say. “And beyond the capabilities of your navi to assess quickly, I'm afraid.” In his hand, Lyntael poked her tongue out at the other navi and winked, grinning. The red-clad navi seemed like she wanted to object, but instead glanced at Varda and frowned, folding her arms. “But suffice to say, she is quite unharmed. That's enough, away you go, Lyntael.” He slipped Lyntael back into his pocket before any further discussions about her could be pursued, then fixed Varda with another hard stare. “So again, perhaps you want to collar your whispers, Varda, because they seem intent on making you look like a fool.” On the table between them, the red clad navi took a few more steps forward, almost like she wanted to chase after Lyntael. Varda broke gaze to glance down at her navi.

“Four.” The navi turned back to her, shoulders hunched and a wince on her features.
“But can I just... I don't understand–”
“Now, Lupua.” Varda snapped, then immediately bit off the words too late. Her irritation only seemed to grow after the slip and the navi relented swiftly.
“Alright, alright, sorry miss.” Her hologram faded a moment later and Varda tucked her PET away again. Before she could regain control of the conversation Rogan leaned forward, putting his hand more firmly on the sheaf of documents between them.

“I could walk out of here with this now, Varda, and you know I could. You don't have the authority to stop me here and now, and we both know it. There are only seven other people in the world currently who have the skill set I have and can do the work I can do, and you know your family can't get to any of them. The romantic age of spy-craft and espionage is dead; people don't learn these skills any more. That why you came to me in the first place. Your family wants me, and whatever pressures you may apply, you know that if you push me, I won't play. It doesn't matter what you do after that – kiss, marry or kill, you still lose me.” He paused briefly, enough to let the statement settle, but continued before Varda could make a proper response.

“You are my 'handler', Varda, so who is your family going to look to, if they lose access to this valuable asset? Are they a forgiving family? Don't bother answering. Just know that you don't want to push me today, Varda. You have a leak; a rat; a mole; whatever you like to call it. Someone in your close-knit, tight little family is telling stories to many ears, and not all of them are true. This time, it inconvenienced me, so here is what's going to happen: You know I could walk away from this deal if I wanted to. I don't want to. I want to give you this, and I want you to pay me. After that, I'll still be available for your tasks, with appropriate compensation, but I expect the first time you contact me after this it will be to let me know that your infestation has been eliminated, because I'm not going to clean up your messes for you, and I'm not going to work in your squalor.” He gripped the document folder, spun it sideways on the table then thrust it across the polished surface to her. It was a hard play, but he wasn't in the mood to dance, particularly, and he had enough other securities in place to keep himself safe long enough to at least disappear for a while, if he needed to. It was still dangerous, to push his importance this far, but he knew that it wasn't by chance that he'd been approached for that first job offer.

Across from him, Varda had bristled during his response, but it had been a tempered agitation; he wasn't mistaken, and she wasn't going to risk her own skin to call him out on it. She straightened the folder and flipped it open, taking several long seconds to skim the top sheets of each section. She was angry – he could feel it radiating from her across the table, but she nodded and closed the folder, then produced pulled up her PET to show him the agreed transfer.

“I believe this meeting is over. Have a good evening, mister O'Conaill.” Her tone was subdued and cold. Rogan nodded, shouldered his bag and stood. He felt her eyes on his back as he left the establishment, but he didn't slow in his long, calm strides until he was a block away.


By the time he arrived back at his own vehicle, the ache from his injuries had grown to a pronounced pain. He slipped into the driver seat and dropped his other things beside him. Lyntael took her place in the dash alcove quickly, though she was focused on Rogan. He sighed and scrubbed at his face, relaxing briefly and putting one hand to his side.

“That was really dangerous. How did you know she wouldn't just... you know... take it from you. I think some of the people at the other tables were armed.” Rogan chuckled.
“Oh, you noticed that? Everyone there is part of Varda's Family, Lyntael. Every one of them was there for no other reason that to watch me, or whoever else comes in to meet with their handlers.” He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. “I was fairly sure she wouldn't risk it. Acting without instructions is dangerous, with that lot, and she wouldn't put her own life or position at risk if she didn't have to... and she was permitted to accept the information for payment, despite the 'mistakes', or we wouldn't have been meeting in the normal place. It was a calculation.” He paused for a few longer seconds, then cleared his throat. “At any rate, they can't deny that the information they gave me wasn't accurate. I doubt they knew it before hand. Right now Varda is caught between wondering whether they have a disloyal traitor in their midst... or whether she's been left out of a loop. For someone like Varda, both of those options are bad news, but the second one is more terrifying.. so she's going to make absolutely sure she finds the source of the bad intel, and the traitor it came from. She has to.” Lyntael let her legs swing off the edge of the dash, crossed at the ankles, and looked at him with her head turned to one side.

“But... you did get shot, like she said, and leave blood behind, and...” her voice trailed away quietly and Rogan jumped to fill the gap before she could overthink it.

“Perhaps, Lyntael... but the information they gave me to begin with was still wrong, so she's going to have to look into it regardless.” He shook his head, then looked back to her with a small shrug. Lyntael was quiet for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her features, considering him. Her feet still swung slowly; whenever she sat on the edges of things now, she crossed her ankles. She hadn't used to do that. He'd never noticed, before, but now it was the first thing he saw. The little differences.

“You're telling me more about all of this than you did before.” It wasn't a question exactly, but he could hear the tentative punctuation mark in her voice all the same. Rogan blinked and focused again, looking at her properly.

“Lyntael...” He stopped himself and corrected sharply as he felt his eyes slide past her into the space beyond. “You said, back before all this, that you were involved, whether you wanted to be or not. I agreed to tell you everything I could then. I made that promise, Lyntael, and I'm going to keep it as best I can... you're right; you need to know what's going on. You might even see something I don't think about.” Opposite him, she shrugged.

“I don't know about that. But thanks.” She was smiling softly again and with a small nod, Rogan sat up properly and started the car, pulling away from the curb.

Lyntael's heart was still beating quickly by the time Rogan reached his car. She'd been excited, if a bit nervous, about the meeting with Varda. The woman's navi had been so confused and curious and a small part of her had felt just a little bit smug at the reactions she attracted, but afterwards... She'd never heard him speak that harshly to anyone, that she could think of, and it had been to a very dangerous woman, if she understood everything properly.

By the time she had slipped out of the PET and made her way up to the usual spot on the dash, Rogan had settled himself and stopped holding back all the things that were bothering him. Well, most of them. His injuries were hurting; she could tell that much, and looking at him, he was still exhausted, and hurting, and sad. He'd dropped right back into his 'working' face when he'd needed to, for Varda, but it had been an effort for him, even if he wouldn't want to admit it... and now he was taking dangerous risks with someone who could... hurt him. She fought the urge to sigh and focused on perking herself up instead.

“That was really dangerous, Rogan!” She wasn't really scolding him, as she spoke, and they both knew it. It was enough to get a small laugh from him, though, so it was worthwhile. As Rogan explained his reasoning to her, Lyntael watched him relaxing piece by piece, or trying to. Putting the mask back on, as Eric would call it, had taken effort for him... but now, taking it off again was difficult for him as tell, in a different way. He was so tired She wondered about how wise it was to try putting Varda onto another track, especially it seemed like she knew more about what had happened in the last mission then... than she did, a side thought supplied.

“But... you did get shot, like she said, and leave blood behind, and...” unconsciously, her mind skittered away from the other point, and the void in her memory. After another moment or two she realised she hadn't finished her sentence, but Rogan was already talking again, watching her. He sounded like he was looking for things to say in the moment, volunteering explanations he wouldn't have a month ago. He was doing it again; looking at her with that expression. Looking through her, past her for some reason. Like he was seeing someone else, and not her. Why? Why was he doing that? Why wouldn't he talk about it? She focused on him, pushing the frustration down.

“You're telling me more about all of this than you did before.” At the last moment, she turned the thought into to more of a question than the accusation it had felt like in her mind. It seemed to catch him off guard and when he answered she felt his eyes pass through her again. He said her name, but... it was like... Like he'd been about to talk about her, not to her. She shoved the thought away harder. He might have been just addressing her; he was distracted and exhausted still, and he could barely function at the moment, when he wasn't rigidly trying to fake it.

She smiled for him anyway, and he nodded before they set off, but Lyntael watched him. A month ago, before all of this, he'd have noticed her frustration. He'd deny that it was a real feeling, of course, but he'd have noticed! He was hurt, and he was grieving, but... But they were brothers and they'd only had a fight, and it had been over her, and she was fine, so why was he grieving!?

Her eyes traced the features of his face as he drove, watching him like she normally did and letting the moment of frustration subside. She watched each tiny, involuntary reaction as he paid attention to the road. She liked trying to guess what was happening with the traffic, just by watching his eyes. They were headed to the airport, she thought, at least judging from the turns he was taking. Rogan hadn't mentioned yet where they were heading, but she hoped it might be somewhere new.

Later, she paced. They were waiting for their plane, but it was late already and Lyntael had retired to her own space while Rogan worked more documents. She had struggled to rest, though, and made circuits about her living area and kitchen with a restless energy. Something wasn't right, she just couldn't put her finger on what. With a small shake of her head Lyntael moved back to her room and threw herself out on her bed with a sigh, staring up at the ceiling. She should have insisted that he rest. Rogan was still so tired, but he wasn't resting properly, or eating properly, or anything, no matter what he insisted. She could see it in him, just how worn out he was, but he still couldn't seem to let go entirely, even for a day or two. She had to think of something to make him stop and take care of himself.

As her eyes traced the patterns on the ceiling, she drew another long breath and let it out, then reached up with on hand and twisted her fingers. A gust of a breeze swirled delicately through the room and the closed her eyes feeling it shift and weave through her home, in and out of other rooms and spaces before coming back to her fingertips. She remembered designing her home. Everything had just flowed so neatly, perfectly, and it had all come together just so, and it had been perfect, just so perfect in every way. She remembered feeling that, and being so happy and satisfied... So why was she feeling like little things weren't right now. Details she would have done differently, or design choices she was reconsidering, that didn't feel quite... right. And why did it feel so frustrating? Any time she thought about changing it, her thoughts got distracted, or drifted away, and it wasn't like she could pin down exactly what it was that was wrong anyway.

She got up again, and looked at herself in the mirror. At least she was still sure that her pyjamas were absolutely perfectly adorable. That was beyond question. A grin crested her lips and she stretched, then shook her head, letting the difficult frustrations fade away. Without really thinking too much about it, she put both hands out to either side, low down, then widened her stance a little and focused. The warm glow of her inner charge rose from the slow steady beat of her heart to a warming thrum that felt like a glow suffusing her whole body. She focused the feeling until her strikers began to glow, and then, over the course of a few long breaths, let it fade down to resting again. Somewhere to train, the thought hit her. That's what her home was missing. She needed to build in somewhere where she could train properly and practice her control without damaging anything. That had to be what was nagging at her. A broader, happy smile took over her features and her mind started to race with thoughts of new designs as she wandered through to the kitchen to make one more hot drink before sleep.
It was a couple of days later that saw Lyntael stand back from her working terminal and nod to herself. That would do it. That felt right. She shut the terminal down again and stretched, arms high above her head and fingers laced as she rose up onto her toes before relaxing. A quiet, content sigh became a faint breeze that curled around her body and ruffled her skirt and vest before Lyntael stepped out of her room and moved to put the kettle on again in the kitchen. As she crossed the living area, she let her eyes drift over the wall space on the other side of the main view screen. Where previously it had been a short, blank stretch of wall, the base structure of a new door frame had already formed, while behind it the new space was being properly built and checked. It shouldn't take too long, all told. She felt vaguely excited to check the space, and make sure that everything she'd designed for it would work correctly.

First thing first, though. She refilled the kettle and looked out at the soft rain falling beyond the window. This would make her home feel right again, it had to, surely. The combination of the falling rain and the running tap reminded Lyntael that she'd been working at her designs for several hours and several large cups of tea, and that a bathroom break was overdue. By the time she returned to the living area, the new construction was finished and she heard the soft confirmation chime of its completion just as the kettle boiled. Instead of making the tea right away, though, Lyntael lingered by the new door, looking at it with a contemplative eye. It matched the rest of the decor, and fit right in, even though she knew the space behind it was set up to be quite different. She reached out and let her hand rest above the handle, tracing it with delicate fingertips. She had time... but... A sense of agitation flickered in the back of her awareness. Her home felt... stuffy. No, no it didn't, not really... but she needed to be out, away, just for a bit.

She stepped back, then fell into a slow pacing loop around her living area, winding up back at the archway that led into her kitchen. She made the tea and looked out the window again. She had to get out and do something... Rogan wouldn't approve if he knew she was slipping out again. Before, he wouldn't have minded as long as it didn't inconvenience him, but now... now that he seemed more willing to see her as an actual person, suddenly he seemed hesitant to jack her into networks at all, let alone allow her to go out on her own. It was nice, to know that he actually seemed to have finally accepted that he cared, and admitted it... it was! She was happy! ...But she didn't want to be stifled either. If she had no freedom because she was being treated like an object and a tool, and it changed to giving her no freedom because he didn't want her hurt, then what was the difference, in the end? She sipped her tea, wrapping fingers around her mug and leaning on the counter. Maybe that wasn't entirely fair. But she did need to get out of here for a little while at least.

Halfway through the mug and deep in her own thoughts, Lyntael eventually shook her head and stood, emptying the rest of her drink out and washing the mug. If Rogan would be upset about her going out alone, maybe she could fix that. She wandered back to her own room and sat to record a message. A few minutes later, smiling anew, she darted from her room to begin setting up the PET's emulation controls from her side. Rogan had meetings until evening, he'd never notice. A few moments later, she stepped up to the transit pad, braced herself, and disappeared from the room in a flickering beam of light.

((To => Catching up with friends))