krisomniac: (Default)
[personal profile] krisomniac
title: Beginning of a… Friendship, Anyway
fandom: Intelligence
rating: G, gen
Authors note: So, I finished this the day the show was officially cancelled. Written from the tantalizing bits and hints dropped about the early days of the Clockwork project. Wondering how otherwise ethical people could sign on to it... and this is what I came up with.
~5000 words

On AO3 here



1.
The tall glass door shuts behind her with the familiar pressurized click and hiss, whirring sensors discretely test for explosive material. She places her hand on the touchscreen to her left and is rewarded with a green light. The security guards smile self-consciously and wave her through. She walks the halls listening to the hum of hundreds of workstations and the click of her heels on the concrete floors, the murmur of low voices as she passes. Lillian Strand is in her element here. Just being back at Cyber Command HQ brings her a sense of comfort despite recent setbacks. Losses on important fronts.

"How was it?" Jameson asks carefully, as she reaches R&D main hall. He falls into step beside her.

"Fine," she says. "Sad."

He follows her into the conference room and closes the door behind them.
Lillian smooths her black skirt and sits at the end of the table, glances quickly over the set of familiar, expectant faces. "Okay, people. What have you got?"

They start thumbing through the papers and electronic files they’d brought. Nelson Cassidy is nervous. His father, Dr. Cassidy Sr., moves slowly as though already defeated, eyes still puffy from the eulogy four hours ago. Jameson is quiet, waiting. None of the others will look her in the eye. She has to find a way to bolster their confidence, pick the Clockwork program up, dust it off, and get it moving. Not just the program, the people.

She clears her throat.

"I know this has been difficult for all of you, but I also know the science is sound and the potential is… beyond anything that's ever been done before. Agent Blackburn gave his life in the service of his country. He did so with full knowledge of the possible consequences. He did it to give us the most powerful intelligence tool of any nation, but more importantly, to put it in the hands of people who care about that knowledge and its consequences. It's no accident that this team is where it is, that you are who you are. It's no accident that you're here and that we've made it this far. We can make this work—you can make this work—not only for our country and ourselves, but for those who've given their lives to it. In honor of their memories." Her voice cracks, and she clears her throat, afraid the words sound hollow now that it's their third time here, looking for another candidate to—if recent history is any judge—follow the others in sacrifice. "So what've we got?"

Chris Jameson puts the file he's been holding face-up on the table and swallows hard. A photo of a boy in a uniform that looks too big on his wide-eyed face stares back. "Airman Cruz, 19, never deployed, heterozygous at the Athens markers."

Lillian looks away and says quickly, "Too young."

Nelson Cassidy lays his file out slowly, glancing at his father. Shenandoah shrugs. "Major Holmes--"

"Rank," Lillian interrupts him. "And while we're at it, no recruiting civilians, retirees, or single parents. Agents of the NSA and FBI are available but suboptimal, and I've already vetoed all options with the CIA. Okay, people, we need more. We need the right candidate."

Dr. Cassidy looks up. "Vaughn?"

"I thought we passed him—" Jameson starts.

"Red flagged by security." Dr. Cassidy looks unimpressed, whether by the flag or security, Lillian can't tell.

"Has he been cleared?" she asks.

Nelson looks up from his pile. "Who's Vaughn?"

"He's a candidate we were looking at last time around. Impeccable service record. High I.Q. Multiple tours. Multi-lingual. Special-ops trained."

"Sounds perf—"

"Wife was rogue CIA, missing and presumed dead after participating in a terrorist attack in Mumbai," Jameson adds. "She helped blow the bombs at the Taj Mahal last year."

"Oh."

Cassidy pipes up. "Psych evaluations were perfectly—"

"I know." Lillian tries to hide her frustration. "Within parameters for a grieving widower. No evidence of collusion with or knowledge of her plans. Has he been cleared?"

"Yes, but Lillian, we can't risk it. You know this program has to be above question, above… everything. Unassailable." Jameson can be a stickler for the rules, but he also keeps the rest of the team on point.

"I know."

"Lillian," Cassidy says, looking more engaged than he has all week, "we have to. At least speak to him. I've been looking at the other accessory genes and—he's one in a billion; he's got them all. This can work. If we can get him on board."

Automatically, she thinks back to her days recruiting assets for clandestine ops; she also has an angle she can work on him. She closes her eyes slowly. "I know."

~

They're walking past the barracks and offices, out into the sand and scrub. It's hot and bright under the summer sun, but she notes that he's barely squinting through the glare. Apparently California has nothing on Kandahar Province. Her shoes are entirely inappropriate for this meeting, but it's the first place she thought to bring him – away from any recording devices or cameras, though they're talking about nothing in particular at the moment.

"Are you happy?" she asks.

Gabriel Vaughn pauses. "Happy? Ma'am"

"Yes."

"Don't have much to complain about."

"Mmm. I'm not sure that's what I asked."

"Pretty sure it's what I meant to tell you."

"Do you speak this way to all your officers?"

"All due respect, ma'am, but you're not my C.O." He smiles then, and the tension evaporates. She figures he gets away with that attitude more than occasionally. Either because he's he has the seniority and experience or, she thinks, because he has the dimples to back it up.

"But I am here to offer you a job, an opportunity to play a unique role in this country's defense. And you don't have to 'ma'am' me. Director Strand is fine." She hands him a business card. "Now, let's get out of this sun."

~

The jet is blissfully air-conditioned, and Lillian sips an ice water, only briefly wishing it was scotch. A gentle alert noise sounds and she touches the screen in front of her seat. Cassidy's face takes up most of the viewing window, but she can see the others behind him.

"How'd it go?"

"About as expected."

"So he's coming?"

"He doesn't know it yet."

They look a little disappointed.

"You've planted the stories?" she asks.

"Yep." Nelson looks pleased with himself. "All on reputable sources, all easy to find—even Google can do it—about Cybercom's mission and capabilities, about you, about several decoy projects we're not really working on. And a few more carefully hidden op-eds; watchdog organization, righting wrongs, that sort of thing."

"Only the declassified ones?"

"Only the ones you declassified for this assignment."

She smiles. "Give him 48 hours. He'll call." She isn't entirely sure whether she's trying to reassure herself or them.

~

He doesn't call for a week. When he does, it's patched through to Lillian's direct line, the one no one is supposed to ring for the next thirty-six and a half minutes unless terrorists have threatened some major urban hub. She's alone in the Cybercomm gym and catches her breath for approximately two seconds before picking up. She hopes the breathless voice comes across as busy and professional rather than I-just-shut-off-the-treadmill as she answers.

"Sergeant Vaughn."

"Director Strand." He sounds confident, voice ringing with the Southern drawl he hasn't learned to hide in years of traveling the globe.

She wipes her face with a fresh towel. "Have you considered my offer?"

"No 'Hello, how are you?' or 'How've you been?'"

"You presume I haven't been keeping track." Of course she knows how he's been. Since they selected him for the program, she's known what he eats at every meal, who he talks to, about what. Hell, she even knows how often he sneaks off base to work from anonymous stations, and that he's convinced no one's the wiser.

"I presume you make polite small talk like the rest of the world."

"I'm a very busy woman."

"So I read. Saving the country from cyber attacks and dangerous hackers, but you still have time to hit the gym."

"I—" she takes a deep breath, not entirely sure when the conversation became about her, or how he knew where she was. "Have you considered my offer?"

He pauses. "I've considered listening to your offer."

"Excellent. I'll have a car waiting at National. You'll receive the flight details shortly."

Now he's the one taken aback. She smiles secretly. She can almost hear him composing himself on the other end of the line. "I'll see you then," he says. "Enjoy your run."

~

The unmarked SUV pulls up, and security takes the driver's and passenger's IDs. They must check out, because they're waved through. The vehicle pulls up to the lower levels and disappears from Lillian's view. She steps away from the window.

"Nervous?" Chris asks.

"No," she replies too quickly. She uncrosses her arms and unclenches her jaw. It hasn't been so long since she recruited an asset, even one as stubborn as she expects Vaughn to be.

It wasn't hard with the first Clockwork subject, already a member of Cybercomm. Already a friend. By the second, she was still confident, convinced they'd seen their share of bad luck. The third was all Cassidy's work. Now Vaughn…

"Well I am."

She raises an eyebrow. "That he will be interested or that he won't?"

Chris takes a moment to answer. "Both."

"Mmm." She forces herself to stop pacing, window to door and back, and stands behind her desk absently rearranging the few papers on its surface. She misses tidying her office now everything is digital, her comfortable clutter relegated to pixels on sleek, aluminum-backed screens. Her laptop chimes pleasantly and a virtual secretary announces Vaughn. She nods to Jameson who leaves wordlessly.

Too soon he's back, opening her door, grinning despite himself and making introductions. Lillian raises an eyebrow and he quickly sobers up; apparently her newest recruit won over her most stoic advisor in the fifty feet from elevator to office. Vaughn steps in front of the desk and stands at attention. They're going to have to break him of that habit if he stays around here.

"Director Strand," he says.

"At ease. Have a seat." She waves him over. "Jameson." She nods and he clears out. Presumably to prep the others in the lab. "Did you have a comfortable flight?" she asks.

He smiles, acknowledging the small talk. "Well it's a sight above military transport," he says, "but you didn’t bring me here to show off your fancy jet."

"No. I wanted to discuss an opportunity."

He raises an eyebrow skeptically. "Security, I presume." He waves a hand around the five-foot concrete walls and bulletproof glass that surround them, at the uniformed guards in the hallway outside. "Though I wouldn't guess you'd need much more around here."

She inclines her head. "In a matter of speaking. You sound like you've heard this pitch before."

"A lot of private contractors out there, and when you're Delta Force, navigating the parasites is a hazard of the job." He leans back and looks more comfortable in the Spartan office than she does most days.

"Turned down many offers?"

"A few."

"US Cyber Command is not a private contractor. And this job is not… routine. It's something only you and Cybercomm can do. It's going to change your life."

"So you want me for my computer skills?" He smiles, "Because you know I only just figured out my email."

"Not exactly. And don't worry," She finds herself warming up to this government-trained killer. "We provide on the job training."

~

Over the course of the next few days he interviews with the rest of the Clockwork team.

Cassidy starts by making him solve puzzles, describe images and sounds in painstaking detail, memorize numeric sequences, and play word games. By the end of the interview, they're discussing philosophy and the Grateful Dead like old friends at a steakhouse in Alexandria.

Nelson and Amos have him after breakfast. They start talking shop, and Gabriel seems overwhelmed with questions about data breaches and computer modeling. They get along though, and that's really the point. He meets the rest of the techs in the lab, and Lillian has to commend his easy way with all of them.

Jameson has him after lunch. They talk about past missions, black ops, bunkers and rations. They go down to the gym and spar with a few of the ex-army guys. Gabriel doesn't quite fit in with the high testosterone crowd—she notes with interest—but he fakes it well, his skills are evident, and they can see the kind of asset he'd be in the field.

~

At the end of the day she takes him outside.

"Why are we up here?"

"Don't you like it?"

The roof is one of Lillian's favorite places at Cybercomm. They're standing in the orange glow of the sunset reflected in the thousands of polished panels of the orbital dishes. They're still shielded from outside ears, but up here they're protected from inside ears as well. She shivers in the evening breeze.

"Somehow I don't think you're talking about the view."

She smiles.

"I think you've got good people working here. They seem to believe in what they're doing."

"It's a prerequisite for the job."

"Which you're finally going to tell me about?"

"First, I want you to know that we know about Amelia." She studies him for a reaction, notes the way he flinches when she says his wife's name. "It almost eliminated you from receiving clearance to know about project Clockwork, much less participate in it. Wait—" she doesn't want him interrupting or defending Amelia's actions. Not now. "Whatever she did and whatever happened is in the past. We know you've been looking for her, for anything about the attacks at the Taj. Nelson even thought some of your attempts were on the right track. He called them cute."

Gabriel nods tersely, all his easy manner vanished.

"We already know that you are uniquely fit to be a new kind of field agent here, and it can't have escaped your notice that this department is uniquely equipped to continue your search. The role you'd play would be even moreso. But before I tell you any more about it, I need you to take the night and decide whether Amelia is going to get in the way of you doing the job. If she is, take these. No harm done." She hands him boarding passes back to California.

Quietly, they return to the main lobby where an unmarked SUV is waiting to bring him back to the hotel.

"I'll send a car around for you in the morning. Let the driver know where you want to go. And Gabriel—" She takes his hand. He hasn't said a word since the roof. "It's been a pleasure."

~

2

~

They've been back and forth about it for the last hour, how to explain the project.

How to ask a man to give up his life for it.

Lillian has no illusions that that's what she's asking for. If she ever did, they were gone two test subjects ago. Whether the surgery is successful or not, Vaughn won't be the same once they're done with it. Cassidy wants to show him everything at once. He's excited about the science again, in a way that he hasn't been since they lost Blackburn. Jameson thinks they should show him the possibilities before the logistics.

Pretty soon, they're out of time to decide. Gabriel meets them in the lobby.

"So," Lillian says.

"So." Gabriel nods. He still looks a little shaken, eyes shadowed like he didn't sleep well last night.

She takes it as a good sign that despite the soul searching, he ended up back here. "It's time to show you Clockwork."

~

They enter the conference room first. She primes a video, one they used to pitch the idea to the President. Gabriel takes a seat at the table. The rest of the team except Cassidy clears out, but she's pretty sure they're hovering nearby.

"Clockwork is a project meant to advance US intelligence, using science that's never been attempted on this level before. We've been working for years. Hell, Dr. Cassidy here has been working on it for most of his life. You’ve heard of ‘big data’. The problem is how to process massive amounts of information—more than a person or even a whole agency can handle—but in ways more holistically than a machine could ever manage. And though it's still in its infancy we live in a world where solving these problems is becoming both urgent and necessary.

"While most of the high tech programs our government sponsors are concentrating on adding more and more complexity to their microchips and AI- trying to use robots to approximate something like the capacity of the human brain- they've been pretty much unsuccessful. We can't even write the kinds of algorithms necessary to have a robot play the game of catch much less anticipate a terrorist's motivations. Clockwork aims to succeed where these programs have failed. Instead of creating a more intuitive computer, we're trying to use a microchip to augment the intuition of the human brain."

She lets that digest for a minute, taking Gabriel's lack of witty response as evidence she's surprised him. She turns on the video, showing iterations of the history of Cassidy's work.

He takes over the explanation. "It started with EEG and transcutaneous conductors connected to computers." There's pictures of people and chimps sitting in front of banks of computers, wired with electrodes until they can hardly move. "With recent breakthroughs in DNA mapping and protein engineering, we can bypass these external systems and wet-wire the chip directly to a cellular array."

"What he means," Lillian adds, "is that we can implant the computer directly into the person using it."

Gabriel is looking at them like they've just stepped off the reservation.

"It's not as crazy as it sounds," she says lamely.

~

"It's insane," Gabriel states after Cassidy has finished his spiel.

Lillian rests her hands on the table and meets his eye. "It's important."

Gabriel shakes his head. "Even accepting that it was possible, why me? I know it's not my cute computer skill."

"The silicon arrays," Cassidy says.

"The what?"

"We've designed a chip with cutting edge adaptive interface technology—"

"English," Lillian reminds him for the sixth or seventh time.

"It's really good at figuring out what you're asking it to do and finding the answers. How's that?"

"Better."

"But it still has to communicate with the person running it -- ideally at both an intellectual and instinctive level. That communication takes place over a network of bio-silicate arrays placed in specific areas of the brain. Neurons speak to each other in a language of protein and small transmitter molecules. The last piece of the puzzle was to find a way to have our machine tap into that vocabulary.

"We finally figured it out two years ago—we can send electric impulses down the wires to alter proteins called Athens 4U7, bound to their surfaces. Of tens of thousands of candidate neurotransmitter molecules, it's the only one we've got to work. It's an old gene, evolutionarily speaking, and the catch is, there's only a small percentage of the population that possess the receptor gene, Athens 4U7R. And of that small percentage," he looks significantly at Lillian while he speaks, "There's even fewer who are… appropriate candidates to volunteer for this kind of work."

"You have the gene," she tells Vaughn, "And you are."

"Woah, hang on a sec; You read my DNA?" he asks. "Is that even legal?"

"It's a gray area," Lillian answers quickly.

"And, ‘volunteer?’ I thought this was the world's most insane job interview?"

"It's both. This is all very experimental." She's pacing again, and stops across the office from them "All candidates have to want to sign up. We can only ask."

He digests this for a minute. "How many of us are there?"

Cassidy defers to Lillian, his eyes cast down. She clears her throat. "You're the fourth."

"And the others?"

She opens the door. "Why don't you let Dr. Cassidy show you around the lab."

~

The door shuts silently behind them, and Lillian exhales slowly. It's cowardly, she knows, but she isn't ready to tell him everything just yet. Enough that he sat and listened to their proposition; she's become so used to Cybercomm, to being surrounded by this high-tech sounding box, she forgets how crazy their ideas sound to outsiders. Her father had, of course, warned her it would happen. Bastard.

She resists the urge to call home and checks her email instead. Only a few issues need her input, but it's still early in the day. She answers them as quickly as she can.

Alone in her office, she flips on her screen and scans his file again. There's a young soldier smiling up at her, wearing his first private's uniform. There are commendations, field reports, notes and promotions as that young soldier took on larger more dangerous roles, applied for Delta Force, advanced through the ranks. There's a picture from his wedding, one of his unit toasting the happy couple. His digital record is minimal enough they'll be able to scrub it without too much trouble.

She opens Amelia's file on the tablet beside her.

Amelia Vaughn stares back at her with nothing but secrets in those dark eyes. Lillian thumbs through the scanned pages of redacted documents. She finds the form outlining Amelia's request to have her fiancée read in on her status at the agency. It's dated three months before the wedding.

She's lost in her musings and doesn't look up when someone—Jameson, she assumes—comes back in.

"That file is incomplete," Gabriel says, and Lillian starts. Glancing up, she reads a mixture of hurt and hope in his expression.

"We've, um, finished the tour," Cassidy adds behind him.

Lillian clears her throat. "Excellent. Shen, why don't you head back down. I have a little more to talk to Sgt. Vaughn about."

Cassidy leaves.

Gabriel looks anywhere but at the tablet on her desk. "Impressive labs, I guess."

At this moment, she's about as interested in the nuts and bolts of the machines down there as he apparently is and says absently, "Everything is state-of-the-art or hand built by the Cassidy's and their team."

"Permission to speak freely?"

She nods.

"You worked for the CIA, right? Under DCS Strand?"

"I did, for a while." Vaughn, unlike so many other agents she's worked with over the years, has the tact not to mention the stain of nepotism across her career any more explicitly than that.

"Followed my father into the army. I guess it was partly for him, but mostly it was for me. Can't say my mother was pleased."

She smiles at a memory. "Mine either."

Not for the first time, she thanks the stars that Rebecca takes after her father, as difficult as it is sometimes.

He's suddenly serious again. "And given your time there, what do you think about her file?"

Lillian tries not to hear the hope in his voice. She considers before answering. "You don't get to talk about it with a lot of people, do you?"

He shrugs. "No one in my circles pulls that kind of clearance. We're the guns, not the ones picking the targets."

Lillian looks back down at the image of Amelia Vaughn, taken from an old i.d. badge. She's not quite smiling, but she's beautiful all the same. "I think she was a good agent. I'd have been proud to have her on my team. I think she let her assignments in—it's what made her so good and so dangerous. I think she was sent out to Mumbai prematurely by handlers who needed the intel but didn't completely understand her. That's why they lost her."

He nods.

"What did you say, when she told you what she did?"

Gabriel rubs a hand over his eyes. "Not much. I guess I wasn't that surprised."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, given the way we met, the way she talked about her work. I'd seen enough of spy games in the places I'd been to have my suspicions. I think she thought I'd be upset she lied to me all the time we'd been together, but really, it just felt like everything finally clicked into place." He stops and pauses to collect himself before going on. "She loves this country, whatever they say she did. She loves her work."

Lillian doesn't correct his shifting tense. "Don't do it," she says instead.

The words are out before Lillian really realizes what she's said, but there they are, hovering in the reconditioned air of her silent office, and it's too late to take them back.

Gabriel looks confused. "You mean Clockwork?"

She sighs and nods. "Look, Sgt Vaughn, we haven't told you everything yet."

~

3

~

Her intercom buzzes. She swallows an exasperated sigh and opens the line.

"Lillian," comes Dave's voice, down at C-dock. "We need you here."

"Coming." She clicks off. "Well," she says standing and leading Vaughn ahead of her. "Since you're still covered under your nondisclosure agreement, why don't you come see Cybercomm in action."

~

They reach the command center just as it's gearing up for an active mission. Agents and hackers are filing in, powering on their stations. Several live feeds take up the monitors overhead.

"What've we got?"

"They're moving on Project Pegasus."

"That's earlier than we expected. Is our team in place?"

"Project Pegasus?" Vaughn asks.

"Special teams extraction of several Iranian computer technicians hoping to defect. They're meeting in Sri Lanka. We're on board to confirm and secure their technology."

She checks in with her team members via earbud. They had to scramble a bit but are ready for the meet. It's a few more minutes before they get satellite images of the rest of the area. The meeting starts. They've got it on audio.

The Iranian handler clears his throat and makes the introductions.

She can tell Gabriel thinks something doesn't sound right, something in his pauses and the things he doesn't say. At the same time one of the techs points out an unmarked vehicle moving away from the meet. Lillian says, "Pull out!"

The team starts moving over the protests of the handlers. There's the sound of a blast and three seconds later they can see it on the satellite view, clouds of smoke billowing out of the windows.

"Christian, report."

One of the techs reconfigures the picture. "Survivors leaving the scene. GPS shows one is Agent Christian."

Lillian exhales. "And the assets?"

"Unsure yet."

They wait for the team to regroup, take stock of its losses, and get the Iranians out of there. Lillian has a second chopper standing by to pull them out.

It feels like hours, but it's more like twenty-three minutes before Cybercomm has two new hackers and a stock of invaluable enemy intel. Lillian stands and doesn't even try to hide her smile.

~

Vaughn has been silent through the rest of the exchange, silent as she congratulates her team. As they head out of C-dock, he finally speaks up, "So that's what it's like?"

"Not all the time. That mission's been in the works for several weeks. Hurry up and wait, as they say."

"But you're actually doing things." He looks surprised.

"What did you think, that we sit around crunching numbers and playing Angry Birds all day?"

"I—"

"That's only part of it." She's walking quickly, but he keeps up with ease. "Yes, we do things, and if I have my way, we'll be doing more. I want this agency to play a bigger role in defending the country." He's hit a topic she cares deeply about, and she speaks more openly, perhaps, than she should.

"Why?"

"Honestly?" They step onto the elevator. "Because I don't trust the spooks at the CIA or the incompetent twits at the NSA to wash my dishes let alone fight on our mot important fronts ."

"You're going to be different?" Gabriel sounds skeptical. "Cybercomm is going to be different?"

She smiles. "We already are."

"And when you said I shouldn't join up? You don't think I'm the right man for the job?" He seems deflated, maybe a little bit insecure.

"I do. It's just that… I think you're a good man."

"And that's not what you're looking for."

"I am, but—" she's suddenly glad of the claustrophobic silence in the elevator. "I'd rather not watch another good person die."

~

She doesn't explain why or answer any more questions until they're back in the office. Inside, she secures the room and turns to face him. "The procedure is promising. We've had it work in animal models – in cats and rats and monkeys – not that the chip is designed to figure out what animals are thinking. Those tests were enough to know that it's possible, but we don't know much more than that. The program has been through review and fully approved for experimental use in people. The thing is that it's a complicated set of surgeries, working in very delicate parts of the brain and none," she takes a deep breath. "Not one of the other volunteers has actually survived."

He's silent for a minute. "But you keep trying?"

"I believe in it," she says simply. And it's true. She couldn't do it otherwise. She can hardly do it even fueled by that belief. She looks at the walls, at the floor, anywhere but those probing eyes. "Are you upset I didn't tell you sooner?"

Vaughn shrugs and runs his hand through his hair. "I kinda figured."

"Really?" In some ways this simple soldier is more insightful than most of the brilliant minds in this building. He'd be perfect.

"Had to be a reason you didn't introduce me to the others; dead, disfigured..."

"Crazy and hiding up in the attic?"

They laugh, but it's halfhearted. Three days after Blackburn's funeral, it isn't really funny at all.

"So you really believe it can work?"

"We were so close. Blackburn was the last volunteer's name. He was a graduate student, back in school after his first tour. Cassidy found him and told him about the project. He was so excited to sign up, and he was the first to make it as far as he did. He woke up from the procedure and the chip worked. It was a champagne day. But something shorted out, and he was paralyzed from the neck down. He died of secondary complications two months later. The whole time, he never stopped learning what the chip could do or helping the team modify it to be safer and more effective. It sounds perverse, but he's the reason I was willing to try once more."

Gabriel nods. "Past tense?"

"Past tense. Call it cold feet, but the closer we get the more I wonder if we should be doing this at all." She leans back against her desk. "Call it a moment of soul-searching."

"That's a shame."

"It's the nature of the beast. This isn't the sort of power you give to anyone who isn't a good person. And as I said, a good person is exactly who I can't allow to give himself to the cause."

"And if he asks?"

"Are you?"

"Asking? I think so." It's Gabriel's turn to look anywhere but at her. She thinks of all the times he's slipped away to search for his wife, thinking no one would notice, probably thinking he was crazy to believe she was still alive. When he does turn back, there's something lost and a little desperate in his expression. There's also resolve, and that's what comes through when he speaks. "I am."

"I don't--" She quashes the guilt that tightens her chest.

He puts up a hand for her to speak, ever the gentleman. "Why don't I give you the night to think about it."

"Alright."

He shows himself out the door.

~

As it clicks neatly into place behind him, Lillian isn't entirely sure whether she wants to laugh or cry. A small part of her does want to call her father to gloat; no matter what it costs her soul, she knows how good she is at her job.

Instead she buzzes the intercom down at the lab. Cassidy Sr. picks up. "Shen," she says, "He's on board."

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