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Riot Force Reports:

Field Medicine

a Dark Reflections story

I dropped to the ground, panting, and tried to remember the tricks they'd taught us in Basic to get your breathing back under control quickly. Sometimes
they worked, usually they didn't.

This proved to be one of the latter.

I glared up at Sword, whose face -- as usual! -- was invisible behind that mask of his. He stood easily, pack over his shoulder, weapon hanging ready across
his chest. It's infuriating how he does that.

"Why are we out here again?" I said. It sounded like a question, but I knew the answer.

"If you can talk, you can walk," he replied, and twitched his chin at my pack. I sighed and got to my feet, shouldering the pack again and falling
in behind as he resumed the march.

Yeah, I knew why we were out here. Out here in the blazing sun and the dry air and the scorpions and the sand and the dirt and the incoming weapons fire --

"Down!" I cried, instincts and training taking over. Sword was already prone by the time I landed face-first behind a boulder. The whistle of
incoming artillery brought back unpleasant memories, and I shoved them aside with a scowl. No time for that now.

"Can you deflect them?" he inquired calmly over the noise as the first shell of the barrage landed and detonated about twenty yards away, rattling
our teeth and showering us with small pebbles and dirt.

"For the thousandth time," I yelled back, "I need to -see- it to grab it!"

He ignored me as he rolled to his back, having shed his pack, and brought his rifle up. Another shell landed, closer this time. He raised his weapon over the
rocks which, for now, protected us, and I could see the faint flicker of images from the sight camera playing across the inside of his facebowl.

"It's a mortar," I said, ignoring the gut-wrenching sensation the sound of the falling pipe-bombs brought. "Look for smoke puffs.
They'll be firing from behind cover of some sort." Another round landed and exploded, and I heard a shrill whine as a fragment of rock spalled off
the top edge of my cover and flew past my ear. I didn't feel the secondary impact, but I saw the puff of dust as the rock chip bounced off my gravity
field and into the dirt. Rock chips and bullets were one thing -- they'd be deflected or at least slowed down by my field -- but mortars were another.

"I know," he replied, calm as always. Damn him!

The incoming mortar fire didn't slacken, though thankfully they weren't very good shots -- or, they didn't quite know where we were, I wasn't
sure. The whistles and explosions were joined by the pop-pop-pop of gunfire; I grimaced as I recognized the all-too-familiar sound of an AK-47. Not
surprising. It was the weapon of choice for a lot of people on both sides of the law, and was legendary for its durability and ease of maintenance. Perfect
for the on-the-go insurrectionist living in a desert.

"Got it," Sword said suddenly. "Three hundred meters out, directly under the gendarme on the southwest profile." He turned his head as
another explosion showered us with debris, and I could feel his eyes meet mine through his mask. "You're on in one minute. Try not to kill them this
time," he said flatly, and I heard the whine of his cloaking field engage. The contours of his Army uniform grew hazy and distorted before vanishing

"Join the Army, they said," I muttered to myself as I started the countdown timer on the big, heavy watch Sword had given me. "This shit is why
I got OUT!"

I heard another gun open up with a single round, from a different angle, and grinned. Sword's rifle was as familiar to me by now as my own clothes. I
recognized the shot as one of his sniper rounds; specially balanced and accurate as all hell, he'd be using it mostly to clear a route for me and draw
attention away from my position.

Another wave of gunfire lashed out, and sure enough, the changed pitch told me they AK-47's were pointed a different direction. The mortar thumped again,
and the round impacted in my area. Then my watch beeped.

I pushed off the ground and let my gravity field come to full strength, lifting me effortlessly into the air. Sure, it surrounded me with a glowing aura of
excited particles as the gravity bands holding me up bent and shattered air molecules, but that was fine by me. I rather liked the rainbow-hued 'vapor
trail' that I left behind.

Directly ahead loomed the landmark Sword had described, and I saw a puff of smoke rise from behind a large boulder as another mortar shell was lobbed my way.
I flashed upwards to avoid any shrapnel and arced over the top, dropping down on the surprised mortar crew from above.

"Morning, boys!" I chirped brightly, and -grabbed-.

Suddenly they were floating, held helpless and terrified in my grasp. Two men in early middle age, neither very clean.

A bullet bounced off my field, the cushioned impact still hitting hard enough to raise a nasty bruise on my shoulder, and I left Tweedledum and Tweedledee
hanging there while I turned to face the new threat. I heard frantic cursing from behind a nearby rock, and the panicked scrabblings of a man whose weapon has
just jammed at the worst possible time. It happens. Murphy's a bastard, but he's a fair one, at least: it's not always you he screws over.

I twitched the stone out of the way with a casual flick of my wrist and more importantly, a little push with the magic I held inside. The man behind it turned
to flee; I broke his legs with a surge of gravity, flung his weapon out into the wastes, and left him lying there moaning.

The sporadic gunfire had slowed, and after another shot from Sword, ceased entirely. I refreshed the gravity field holding the Mortar Brothers and grinned at
them as their eyes bulged and faces turned purple. It had to be getting hard to breathe in there, what with the field trapping air as easily as it did
everything else, and of course the crushing pressure.

Sword came around the boulder, dragging another insurrectionist with the unmistakeable imprint of a rifle butt on his forehead. He took in the tableau with a
swift glance, then shot me a look.

"A bit gentle for you," he remarked.

"You -said- you wanted them alive," I pointed out.

"True. I just wasn't expecting you to listen."

I raised an eyebrow at that. "I -do- follow orders, you know."

Sword ignored me as he opened a communications link with the outside world and called in a heli. I helped restrain the captives -- gravity is wonderful, but
plastic zip-ties are much cheaper and don't exhaust me in the process -- and flew back out to retrieve our packs. By the time the heli arrived to collect
our trash, we were once more trudging through the wasteland.

Yeah, I knew why we were out here. That didn't mean I had to like it one little bit. I glared at Sword's back and hoped for another insurgent attack,
just to forestall our arrival that little bit longer.

The night was cool, rapidly edging towards downright cold, and I scowled out over the nightscape while I listened to Sword's steady, even breathing behind
me. We were holed up in a cave -- though that, I thought, was a rather generous description of a scooped-out hollow in the rock -- and operating under
blackout conditions.

Oh, it made sense. A light of any sort would give away our position -- and you have to be out here, away from even the semblance of civilization, where
electricity was still quite the novel concept, to really understand just how bright even the smallest light really is. The night was the sort of black that
leaves you wondering if you're the only living thing left alive. And then a loose rock or a skittering bug reminds you that you're not alone and
scares the shit out of you, to boot.

I rubbed thoughtfully at the sleeve of the almost-uniform I was wearing, and scowled again. From any distance at all -- anything over ten feet, really -- they
would appear to be genuine United States Army uniforms. Save for the lack of infrared patches and a few other tiny details, even other grunts might be fooled.
Sword was wearing the twin bars of a captain; I was impersonating a specialist. Which was at least somewhat appropriate, I thought. That was the rank
I'd held before the world turned upside down and they claimed I'd been discharged for being crazy.

I'd pointed out to Sword that wearing these into a war zone was stupid, suicidal, and could be considered treason, especially considering my background.
That impersonating an officer was a big no-no. That it meant both sides would shoot on sight: the one because we looked like The Enemy, the other because we
didn't have proper recognition signals and they were jumpy. He'd responded in the usual manner. That is to say, by choosing not to respond.

He's a frustrating sonofabitch that way. The only saving grace is that the damn fool hasn't been wrong yet. I sometimes think that's the only
reason I stick with him. Because someday he WILL be wrong, and I want to be there to see it.

I didn't hold out much hope that this little excursion would be it, honestly, but just in case... just in case....

The distant rumble of thunder could have been mistaken for an approaching storm by someone who has never been on the wrong side of gunfire. It had been
happening for, oh, the past half-hour or so. I hadn't bothered waking Sword for it. It wasn't pointed our way, and wasn't the direction we were
headed. But it reinforced the blackout rule, because I could hear the muffled sound of helicopters breezing high overhead. It was amazing how quiet they
could be when they wanted to be, and as with so much else, if you had never experienced it yourself you'd never realize what the sound really was. I knew
what they were doing. The Army was beating the tar out of someone, and the helis were sweeping the area with infrared and nightvision sensors, looking for
stragglers, or -- best case scenario -- the base camp the insurgents had launched the attack from.

We were protected by a thick overhang of rock, so unless I stepped out there and waved at the circling recon chopper I was reasonably certain we wouldn't
be targeted. I checked my watch. Two hours to go on my watch, then I'd wake Sword and get some sleep myself.

Two more hours of nothing to do except keep an eye out and think.

When Sword had decided that we had a job to do, my initial reaction was relief. He'd been ... tense, I suppose. A job -- more accurately, finishing a job
-- would be like a release to the coiled spring that he'd become. I like to think I know him pretty well at this point, even though I still don't know
his real name.

I don't even know if he -has- a real name, come to think of it. I've seen his face several times now, when he takes off the mask. His eyes creep me
out. I'm a trained medic, I've been on the battlefield, no matter what the US Army has to say about it, and I know a case of shell-shock,
post-traumatic stress disorder, the thousand-yard stare, or whatever the hell else you want to call it when I see it.

It's not quite that, on Sword... but it's close. His eyes aren't dead... but the life in them has some indescribable other-ness to it. If I
hadn't met more emotional machines since coming to Paragon City, I'd call him one.

Most people -- even some in the supergroup -- have never seen his face. I sometimes wonder if they'd freak if I told them that all the while he was
chatting pleasantly with them, behind the mask his eyes were taking note of every detail and tallying sixteen different ways to kill them with their own coffee
mug should they prove to be a threat.

Scratch that, he'd probably use a nearby pencil. Less noisy.

But that, see, is the difference. Sword doesn't -want- to kill everyone he meets; he's not a monster. It's just an automatic response, something
he does that he doesn't even think about. I've caught him doing it to me, and I like to think I'm the closest thing to a friend he has.

I'm not his friend... I know that. He doesn't have any. I'm more like... his pet. Or, to use the vernacular, his sidekick.

I turned my head and glowered at his sleeping form, in the shadows behind me. Yeah, that's what I was, when you came right down to it. But I didn't
have a choice, either. If it weren't for him, I'd've seen the inside of Ziggursky first hand. And after being hit by the sleepers once, I was in
no hurry to experience it again. Being normal didn't scare me -- I'd grown up that way, after all, and damned if I know how I wound up with magic
burning in my gut -- but it wasn't something I was eager to return to, either. Especially not in jail.

At Sword's slightest whim, I could be right back in that hell. I didn't think he'd do it, but... if anybody would, it would be him. And he'd
have the most logical and correct of reasons.

I needed to make sure he never had that reason, because the more I find out about what this man is capable of, the less I want to cross him. Ever.

Which made no sense, really, but there it was. I could pick him up and crush him like a bug... except, somehow, he'd have an angle. He always did. I
don't know what -- he'd admitted to being nothing more than a squishy in a hard shell, once -- but he'd have something that left him with the upper

And really, I told myself, you're not -unhappy- following his lead. I frowned and faced the desert again.

Face it, girl, I told myself. You're on a leash and you don't even -want- to yank it out of his hand.

The night wore on. The gunfire died out, to be replaced by the whispering of the breeze and the faint growl of an engine somewhere far away; diesel, and it
didn't seem to be moving, so I assumed it was either a parked Army hummer or a generator. I didn't see any lights, but sounds bounced in weird ways
through canyons like this. They could be ten miles away, or behind the rocks further down the slope, and I might not know the difference.

For the first time in a long while, I found myself suddenly thinking of the Crazy One. That's how I think of her; that's what she is. She's the
one who came out first, so of course everyone thinks she's the 'real' Rheabeth Samuels. I'm just some poor deluded alternate-dimension

Rrriiight. Never mind that I remembered everything exactly the same as she did. Never mind that we were identical, down to the scar on the inside of the
elbow where Danny had accidentally nicked me (us?) with a box knife once. Never mind that we had the same exact -powers-, for Christ's sake; sure, she
focused them other directions, but they were the same, anyone with a lick of sense could see it.

I've given up arguing the point, though. See, thing is? She's -nuts-. She really is. I know it, she knows it (but won't admit it to anyone),
and hell, everyone who spends more than five minutes around her knows it. But she's -nice-, and friendly, and cheerful, and everyone likes that. They
don't -want- her to become sane, because they LIKE her the way she is. The way I was.

Especially Terrence and Lisa.

GodDAMN but that drives me nuts sometimes. I -had- that. Them. That... connection, that wonderful togetherness, the feelings and the passion and the heat
and the fun and the laughs and the sorrows and every other thing that makes people want to be with other people rather than living their lives alone and dead
inside... and then, nothing. Step into the portal to stop your ex-boyfriend from destroying your entire existence, step back out to find that the universe has
slipped you a mickey while you weren't looking.

And now everyone you thought you knew thinks you're some sort of duplicate from another world. That you're a clone, a doppelganger, a bad copy, a mere
reflection of the original.

And since the original was -right there-, of course it couldn't be -you- that was the original.

It didn't help that my nerves were shot when I came back out. I knew that. It didn't help that that damn imp was there, taking potshots at me every
chance he got. It certainly didn't help that the over-zealous goons at Portal Corp. hit me with sleepers and stuffed me in a cell; I don't know if it
was to turn me into a lab subject or because they were trying to cover up the malfunctioning equipment that we'd inadvertently tied into when making the
jump back.

I admit, turning their prison level into radioactive slag -might- have been an overreaction. But it wasn't my intention, exactly; someone else was behind
the wheel that night.

But it made for a mess, and the imp of course made matters worse, and by the time everything was said and done it had been more than a month since that
mission... and of course, that whole time the Crazy One had been living my -- our -- life.

Nobody wanted to hear the truth. And... I didn't want to tell Terrence and Lisa. I'd hurt them enough already with the whole Danny mess.

But the Crazy One didn't -deserve- any of that! It was my life, and she had them. Every night. She has -everything-.

Me? I've got Mr. Mysterious for company, and a battery-operated boyfriend for my other needs.

Oh, I've teased Terrence. We've worked together a few times. He thinks I'm a dimensional double and I haven't disabused him of the notion.
How to tell a man that the girl he's with is nuts, isn't the real you, and please, won't he take you in his arms and hold you and make love to you
again? Yeah, that would go over -real well-, I could tell.

Approaching Lisa would be even worse. She'd try to come up with a way to -fix- the situation. It was what I loved about her, among so many other things,
but there was no easy fix. If we got rid of the Crazy One, it would hurt Lisa and Terrence... and I couldn't stand to do that.

Once, even, on a particularly frustrating day, I entertained the idea of maybe swallowing my dislike for the Crazy One long enough to tag-team Terrence and
Lisa. I mean, they liked me before, they'll like me again, right? And I can pretend to be like her. I could pretend...

But sanity returned before I got desperate enough to act on that craziness. She's not me; she's -broken-. She's the picture of what I could have
been had I been weak, if I had shattered under the pressure. And dammit, I am -not- that weak! I didn't break. I held on, I kept it together. I
fractured a little, for a while, but I got better.

And I shouldn't have to become her to get what I want!

"Focusing on your thoughts when you should be on watch can get you killed," Sword said from behind me.

"I wasn't THAT focused," I replied. And I wasn't; I'd heard his breathing change as he woke up. It just didn't seem necessary to
acknowledge it.

"You're half an hour past your shift."

I flicked a glance down and grimaced. He was right. Again.

"Sorry," I muttered. "Don't think I'm going to get much sleep anyway, though." I rolled my neck and shoulders. "I'm too

Sword moved up behind me, and before I really knew what was happening strong fingers were expertly kneading muscles that were knotted in giant balls of agony.
I opened my mouth to speak and he found a particularly sore spot at the same time; my eyes widened and my mouth clamped shut as the spike of pain blossomed
into spreading, rapturous warmth.

For the next few minutes I refused to cry out as he found and fixed my sore muscles one by one. Tears sprang to my eyes. It hurt, but after the hurt it was
so much better that I didn't want it to stop.

"I think that does it," he said finally, removing his hands. I tried not to whimper and settled for clearing my throat instead.

"Wh-where'd you learn to do that?" I managed to say, relatively clearly, I thought. Yay me.

"Picked it up back in... a long time ago," he said. That was talkative, for him.

"You're good at it." I edged sideways and crawled back towards the sleeping bag. We had two, but only bothered using one since we were sleeping
in shifts. I wiped at the tears on my face and hoped he hadn't noticed.

"Mm," was his reply, as he settled himself on the rocks. He wasn't in his full armor, but had put the helmet on while I was moving, probably so
he could use the sensors or watch TV or god knows what else.

I burrowed into the bag and stared as his back, silhouetted against the slightly-lighter background of the cave opening, for what felt like a long time before
closing my eyes and falling quickly asleep.

A tap on my foot brought me out of a weird and creepy dream that melted away before I could really grasp it; it wasn't quite a nightmare, but neither had
it been restful.

Anyway, Sword was the cause of the tap-tap-tap that had awakened me, so I propped myself up on my elbows and told him to go to hell, I needed more sleep.
Well, I thought about it, at any rate. What I actually said was more along the lines of a bleary grunt.

Yeah, I'm not exactly a morning person.

Sword ignored my mood and tossed a foil package on my lap. "Breakfast," he said, and turned back to the cave entrance. I glared at his back, but
that never does much good. So I climbed out of the sleeping bag, shook out my boots to make sure no crawlies had scuttled into them in the middle of the
night, and got dressed.

The foil package was, as I expected, an MRE. I broke into it and seperated out the bad from the worse. Actually, this one wasn't too terrifying -- the
label said it was a cheese and veggie omelet, and while I was fairly certain the eggs had never seen the inside of a chicken, they were approximately the right
texture and you could ignore the flavor once they were mixed with the ground red pepper helpfully provided in the pack. While I was plowing through the mass I
dumped the coffee and cocoa into the foil pouch, added water, and called up enough rads to nuke it. Presto, hot mocha.

Well, sort of. I drank about half and passed the rest forward to Sword. He's got a thing for good coffee... too bad this wasn't, but caffeine is

"So what's on the agenda today?" I asked, scraping industriously at the last of the so-called omelet. It was like being back in the Army again,
except then I'd been able to head to the chow tent. Which had real -food-, not this... glop. So it really wasn't like being back in the Army again,
it was worse. I sighed.

"We should arrive by early afternoon," he replied, glancing at his watch. "The job should only take an hour, an hour-fifteen tops. Once
we're done we withdraw to a location I have plotted and from there we can go back to normal travel methods."

"You mean fly."

He nodded.

"Hallelujah!" I frowned at him. "You never did explain why we can't just fly in, you know."

"No, I didn't," he said agreeably, and finished the mocha.

I rolled my eyes and started breaking camp. Which wasn't hard, it consisted of rolling the sleeping bag and burying the scraps of the MRE. We were ready
to go in a few short minutes.

The hike was uneventful. Sword remained mostly silent, only bothering to speak to issue terse instructions from time to time. He led the way around and over
rocky hillsides, while I thought black thoughts to myself and scowled at his back. It was sheer physical labor, and while I was tempted, I held myself to the
"no gravity tricks" rule he'd established when we started this trek, two days ago.

All in all, for two superheroes operating outside their jurisdiction, it wasn't that -difficult-, it was just boring and tiring.

And then we were there.

It was a small village, nothing more than a collection of mud-brick hovels and goat pastures, with the occasional scraggly vegetable plot grimly hanging on to
survival. There was a field nearby that appeared to be growing a stunted crop of either weeds or barley -- it was hard to tell which was doing better. In the
middle of the field was a large crater, of the explosive rather than impact variety. You learn the difference quick on the battlefield.

The whole scene was eerily familiar to me, and I couldn't quite place why. I turned to Sword where we crouched on a low ridge overlooking the quiet

"What now?"

He looked at me for a moment, then jerked his chin at the valley below. "In the next fifteen minutes, a group of locals will arrive. They will have two,
possibly three, trucks loaded with weapons and explosives. In the same period, another group of... recruits, let us say, will arrive to meet them."

I didn't ask how he knew all this. He was Sword. If he stated it as a fact, then it was just that: a fact.

"We're going to bust up their party?" He didn't respond verbally, instead tilting his head in a manner that I read as 'go on'.
"Tell me you're at least getting a good fee for this," I said incredulously. "You could have just tipped off the Army, or, hell, we could
have flown in and intercepted either or both groups before now. What was with the hike, and these uniforms? Unless..." I stared at him in dawning
horror. "Wait a minute here. We're dressed like this--"

"-- because we have a job to do, and part of that job is making them think we're with the Army." He cut me off in a flat, no-nonsense tone.

"But, Sword --!"

"No buts." He reached up and grabbed my shoulder roughly, dragging me closer to him. "This is part of the -job-. It will be done. Do you

"But we're making the -Army- out to be the bad guys!" I hissed back angrily.

"Do. You. Understand?"

This was it, then. The tone in his voice told me all I needed to know. If I didn't go through with it, if I didn't complete the job, he would be
finished with me. Whether I survived that or not didn't matter to him one bit, I knew that already.

I stared at his faceplate for what seemed just shy of forever while my thoughts roiled through my head. I'd known Sword was a merc to the core; it was
what he was, and I'd accepted that from the very beginning. Now I was being asked to decide.

But that's bullshit! I told myself angrily. He can't force me to do this!

(Why not?) a voice replied, and I shuddered. There it was again, that voice that I thought I'd eradicated along with that stupid stuffed cat. I'd
accepted that it was my own mind, projected on to the physical form of something cute and cuddly and most especially non-threatening. It was what the Crazy
One relied on, because she wasn't strong enough to face it directly herself.

I was stronger than that. I'd proven it once; I could do it again.

(Shut up,) I told the Voice. I refused to give it a name again; once had been enough, if I did it again that would be giving it more power over me.

(He can force you to do anything he wants,) it sneered. (He's stronger and faster and just plain better than -you-.)

I glared at Sword, though in truth the glare was directed at the Voice. (I'm stronger than this, and I Don't. Need. YOU!)


"What is the job, -exactly-?" I ground out through gritted teeth.

Sword cocked his head curiously for a moment, then shrugged. "The contract as accepted is to, one, secure the weapons, by destruction or capture; two,
eliminate the threat without harming civilians if possible; three, frighten and demoralize the would-be recruits, so they hopefully choose another line of work
in the future; and finally, do so without revealing the presence or action of any metahuman operatives." He paused for a moment, then added, "By any
means necessary."

"So I can't use my powers, is what you're saying." Something about that list nagged at me, but I was too angry to worry about it that much.

"Not at all. The plan relies on them, in fact."

I stared at him, anger giving way to complete bafflement. "But, 'no metahuman operatives'?"

He flipped up the visor on his helmet and met my eyes with his own. "By any means necessary," he repeated slowly, as if to a child. "If there
are no witnesses, and no forensic evidence, then that condition is satisfied." He glanced at the valley, then continued. "That means, of course, no
radiation, but your gravity abilities are indetectable by normal means, which is sufficient."

I glanced at the village and saw a child dart into one of the houses. "But there are civilians down there."

"So, be subtle, or we deal with them after," he replied easily. "Now, the time for discussion is over. If you're out, start walking now.
I won't stop you."

He stared at me intently, and didn't need to add the rest of the statement: If I was in, shut up and do what I was told.

After a minute, I closed my eyes and nodded. When I opened them again, Sword was looking at me, and for the briefest moment I thought I saw... disappointment?
in his eyes. But almost before I noticed it, whatever it was, it was gone, replaced by the cool professionalism that was so familiar.

"They're here," he said, indicating a plume of dust coming around a bend on what could have laughingly been referred to as a road. He took off
his helmet and tucked it in his pack, producing a crisp field cap which he jammed on his head and adjusted to a cocky angle. He brought out a holstered
pistol, which he secured to his side, and passed me his rifle.

"Don't try to use it," he warned. "If the shit hits the fan, throw it to me and lock them down fast."

I nodded and slung it over my shoulder. We waited while the trucks entered the village, passing through it slowly while children ran alongside, and came to a
halt at the edge of the cratered field. Something about it nagged at me again, but I shook it off and fell into step behind Sword as he rose and began to
stride boldly down the hillside.

A warning yell rang out, and in moments we were surrounded by angry, armed men. One of them began to reach for the rifle over my shoulder, and I shot him a
glare as Sword said one word. A name, I thought, and found time to wonder if he knew whatever language they were speaking. It wasn't one I recognized.

The men fell silent, save for muttering amongst themselves. One, a large man with a puckered scar across one cheek, edged through the mob and stopped in front
of Sword.

"Captain... Andrews?" he said in heavily-accented English. Sword nodded. The man broke into a beaming grin, and beckoned us forward. "Come,
come!" he implored, and yelled at the men in our way. They scattered, and we entered the village.

Waiting at the truck, watching us approach with a friendly, used-car-salesman smile on his face, was a man I did not recognize wearing distinctly American
clothing -- loud Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, a pair of name-brand hiking boots over clean white socks, and Ray*Bans on his face. He couldn't have been
more cliche if he'd tried, I thought irreverently as we approached. He greeted Sword effusively, though I spotted a flicker of anxiety in his eyes.

"Captain Andrews! So nice to meet you face-to-face at last."

"Can it, Curringer. We're not here for pleasantries, after all."

The man -- Curringer, apparently -- nodded, switching to a brisk business-like demeanor with ease. "Right. I've got three trucks here, fully loaded,
as agreed. Betty will process the paperwork; you know she's on the bounce."

Sword flashed me a quick compound signal, two of several he'd forced me to memorize back when he first starting having me accompany him on missions. I
unobtrusively loosened the rifle on my shoulder and kept a wary eye out. What his flexing fingers had said was "Traps, Landmine", and since I
hadn't seen him plant any, I had to assume it was meant as a warning rather than a statement of intent.

"The natives?" Sword inquired, flinging the tarp covering the back of the first truck in line up and peering at the crates lashed down neatly within.

"Should be here any moment," Curringer said, mopping at his face with a handkerchief. "Ah, there they are now," he added, jerking his chin
at the other end of the valley, where the seasonal stream was nothing more than dried, cracked mud at the moment. Two Land Rovers that had seen better days
picked their way over the mud, both packed full of young men. One of them dragged a trailer behind, similarly full. I did a quick head count and came up with
'many', as in 'way too'.

I felt a sick, crawling sensation in my gut, and ruthlessly quashed it. I knew what it was. Fear needs no introduction. Sure, Sword and I made our living as
superheroes, but out here, none of that mattered. He was a squishy, without even his armored shell; and while I was decidedly more sturdy in my gravity field,
the fact remained that it wasn't impervious. Sheer numbers could easily stomp me flat.

And out here, there is no Medicom to yank you back from the brink of death.

"How'd you sleep last night?" Sword asked Curringer, who frowned momentarily.

"Not very well."

"Mm. The gunfire getting you down?"

Curringer twitched, and nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."

One of the men escorting us stepped forward. "Army," he said in English, and spat. Sword raised an eyebrow and turned to face him.

"Is there a problem?" he said, and Curringer stepped forward hurriedly to translate. Scarface joined Spitting Guy and started talking.

"They're upset that the price was so high," Curringer translated. "They want the third truckload to be a gesture of good faith.
They'll pay for the other two."

"That wasn't the deal," Sword responded, staring straight and unflinching into Scarface's eyes. Behind him, Curringer spat out a string of
syllables that with every word raised mutterings from the men around us.

Scarface glowered and stepped up to Sword, breaking his personal space. He uttered a short, decisive phrase, then glared at Curringer, waiting for the other
to translate.

"He's deeply offended that you what the hell were you thinking bringing only her for backup you were supposed to bring a squad are attempting to cheat
them, honest, hardworking men of the land that they are."

"Tell him that the US Army does not negotiate, it dictates." I felt better, perversely, that Sword hadn't bothered to respond to the implied
criticism of my abilities.

Spitter said something, to which Scarface nodded -- as did the milling crowd around us. The Land Rovers had reached the field now and were idling, while their
human cargo off-loaded itself and ambled over to join us. I noted they were very careful to avoid the edges of the field, sticking firmly to the center of the
dirt track that served as a road.

"He says, with comments on your parentage, that the US Army is full of cowards and thieves. His counteroffer is to pay for one truck, and the other two
to be thrown in in compensation for your insulting attitude. Might I suggest you take what you can get and let us get out of here alive, maybe?"

"Tell him that if he pays for all three trucks, I'll add a fourth for free on the next shipment, and he can keep the woman in the meantime. She's
a fully trained combat medic and is quite attractive, as well. And she'll do anything he tells her to."

I stared at Sword in shock. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Curringer doing the same thing, before he translated the speech.

My vision grew hazy and a roaring sprang up in my ears. Dimly, I heard Curringer and Sword negotiating with Scarface. Then Sword took the rifle from my
shoulder. Scarface grabbed my elbow. I stumbled along with him numbly, watching it happen through my own eyes but unable to really feel anything. I was a
captive? Again?

Scarface led me to one of the hovels, shoved me roughly inside, and barked something before leaving me there in the gloom. I stared around blankly.

This had to be part of the plan, right? That's what it was. Sword wouldn't... he wouldn't -really- do that, would he?

I heard a truck start up, the heavy diesel engine roaring to life easily with that distinctive rumble, and cheering. No gunshots, no screams. They were

I stumbled to the hanging cloth that served as a door and peeked out. Sword was shaking hands with Scarface. Curringer stood behind him wearing the rifle
I'd been carrying, and weighed down with two large, battered suitcases. The two of them turned and climbed into one of the trucks, which had already been
unloaded by the eager villagers.

They drove away without even glancing in my direction.

Later that afternoon Scarface returned. I was still numb. It wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening again. Sword wouldn't do that.

(Yes, he would,) said the Voice.

(Shut up,) I responded, without any great conviction. I knew the Voice was right.

(Sold you out,) it said. (Now you're in the hands of these guys -- again! -- and you have to do whatever... they... want...)

I scowled, but kept silent. I didn't want to give the Voice the satisfaction. Scarface hauled me to my feet roughly and pulled me towards the door; I
didn't resist. What was the point? I was outnumbered and outgunned.

He led me across the street to another hut and gestured for me to enter first. I hesitated. I didn't want to think about what might await me in there.
He grew impatient and barked something; body language made it clear it was a threat.

(It won't be too bad,) the Voice said soothingly. (I'll help you. I can make you forget, you know I can.)

(Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,) I responded, and straightening my shoulders, I stepped inside. No matter what, I wasn't going to let it get its
hooks into me again. Once had been too much.

I drew up short as I passed the curtain, causing Scarface to bump into me from behind. The interior was not what I had expected. Sure, it was full of sweaty,
dirty men; sure, the haze of smoke clung to the rough, low ceiling; and sure, the smell of alcohol was sharp and pungent.

But so was the smell of carrion and decay, of rotting flesh and pus-filled wounds. The men waiting for me were ambulatory, but injured; I wasn't sure
which of my potential 'services' were required here. I began to move forward again and bumped my elbow against an alcove where a candle was supposed
to be.

How did I know that? I stared at the niche, puzzled, for a moment, then looked around the room again. My eyes widened and my breath caught in my throat as
the images unreeled themselves in my mind.

The glint of sunlight, slashing across a worn sleeping mat of woven grass in the corner.

The concerned face of an old woman and her husband, helping me stand.

The wondering voice of a child, speaking a different language but making herself understood all the same, asking me to come play with her.

A stuffed cat, staring at me with button eyes from beside the rolled up cloth that was my pillow.

I stood there, caught between the present and the past. I now knew why this village, that crater, this particular hut seemed so familiar. The practiced way I
had to duck to clear the entrance -- I was taller than most of the men here and all of the women I'd seen, both now and before.

This was the hut I'd been conveyed to by helpful villagers after creating that crater in the field outside. The same villagers who now cowered in their
ramshackle homes and waited for the fighters to leave. They weren't the guilty ones here, but it wouldn't look that way from the outside. These were
their cousins, their brothers, their fathers and uncles; they couldn't take up arms against the fighters any more than they dared do so against the Army.

But neither would they do anything to stop these men being punished. The villagers just wanted to be left alone. I'd learned that much my first time

That was fine. I wasn't going to hurt -them-.

"Gentlemen," I said, feeling the magic pulse and throb inside me as my emotions came to a crashing head. "The deal is off."

"I don't understand you, Andrews," Curringer said as he watched Sword. He was tied up but not gagged; he sat easily against the front bumper of
the truck as though being restrained was familiar to him. Night was falling quickly; soon it would be fully dark, though for now it remained dusk.

Sword remained silent as he scanned the village through high-powered binoculars.

"You got the money," Curringer continued thoughtfully, as if trying to piece together a puzzle. "You've got a truck with a full tank of
gas, almost; you could be back on base before anyone knew you were even gone."

Sword remained silent.

"You don't have the hots for that chick you left down there, do you?" Curringer laughed. "Nah, that can't be it. You'd never have
left her down there if you did. Or brought her along, heh." He paused and shrugged. "She was kinda hot, though. Army chicks, rawr. But not
anymore, I'll bet. She's been with them too long."

Sword remained silent.

"So what's the -deal-?" Curringer continued, stretching and testing his bonds again. The zip-ties holding his wrists and ankles to each other
behind his back were immune to his efforts. "She's gone, man. I get it, you don't want to give me my cut. I can understand that. Stupid of
you, you'll be hearing from my boys soon enough, you can bank on it. But I can understand it."

Sword remained silent.

"Just fucking say something, will you!" Curringer ran out of patience. "If you're going to leave me here to die, do it! If you're
angling for a bigger cut by threatening me, it ain't gonna work. But SAY something, asshole!"

Sword tucked the binoculars away and turned to face Curringer directly. For the first time since he'd stopped the truck, he spoke.

"It's time," he said simply.

-- and was backlit by a tremendous flash of green light from the valley below.

I gathered all that energy, that magic, that POWER, that had coursed through me ever since that insane day when the firebase had come under attack; gathered
it, held it, and directed it, shaping it to my will the way a potter shapes clay.

Then I released it in a massive, overwhelming pulse, while holding the overcharged particles in check with bands of focused gravity. The net result was that I
blew the roof off that hut, sending a massive fireball into the sky... but I didn't so much as cause a drape to twitch across the street.

Three of the men perished in that first blast. There were three more that had been in the hut and were now outside -- through the door, through the window,
through the roof, I didn't care -- and a whole lot who were camped outside. I ignored the debris raining down and bouncing off my gravity field and
stepped through the smoldering curtain that formed the door. Scarface lay on the other side, gasping for breath, his face a charred wreck.

I didn't waste much time on him.

Glancing towards the field, I wrapped Scarface's corpse in a shroud of gravitation and used it to knock over one of the Land Rovers as the frantic driver
tried to start the engine. It hit with a satisfying thud, and the driver screamed and jumped, flailing, from the cab as the vehicle tilted past the point of
no return and crashed onto its side, headlights spilling a crazy arc through the village. He landed hard and rolled into the grass on the edge of the track.
He screamed again and scrambled back to his feet, turning to run, and I saw a faint flicker of motion behind him. The mine leaped into the air and detonated,
cutting him in half.

Bits of shrapnel whined and cracked off my field and the hut behind me. I ignored them, though the sick meat-cleaver thudding noises -- and the sudden, shrill
screams -- told me the men who were still outside had reaped the results of their own stupidity. No wonder the field had seemed untended. Why had they laced
it with mines? Damned if I knew.

Voices rose in the darkness as somebody, probably Spitter, began to organize the chaos. I moved to the center of the track that cut the village in half and

Invisible to normal eyes, but apparent to me, gravity bent itself into new shapes around the huts where the villagers cowered and waited for the madness to
end. I was pushing myself hard, harder than I ever had before.

I didn't fucking -care-.

I had a job to do.

The rolling thunder of automatic weapons blazed out of the night. Bullets skipped like hail off me, the buildings I'd protected, the ground, and
everything else around. The headlights of the overturned Land Rover and the flaming debris from that demolished hut provided the majority of the light, but it
was still plenty dark, still dark enough to see the muzzle flashes from their guns. There were still too many of them to take all at once -- like I'd told
that son of a bitch Sword, I had to -see- it to grab it, and you can only see so many at once before the rest become a confused blur.

But I could see the trucks just fine. Two of them were still loaded; the third Sword had used to abandon me. Its former cargo was under a tarp, ready to be
split up among the men and the Land Rovers and hauled to who-knows-where and used against its former owners.

Sword was SO fucking dead, I thought suddenly. When I got back to the States, he was in for a world of hurt. I didn't think Ifrit would appreciate what
he'd been up to on the side.

Assuming I didn't get my hands on him first.

I reached out and grabbed both trucks, flipping them into the air to land on either side of the largest group of men facing me. One or two of them were
crushed, but that was the point. I'd been aiming for the middle of the crowd, but two Fords full of weapons at the same time was a bit trickier to manage
than I'd thought.

A bullet penetrated my field, carving a furrow across my thigh; another hit my shoulder. I heard myself scream as it exited through my back, but it didn't
matter. Nothing mattered except what I had to do. I concentrated briefly and all that flattened lead, all those bullets that had missed and stuck themselves
in the dirt and the wall behind me, rose as one. The rattle of gunfire stopped as they saw the glinting rounds hovering in midair.

"Bang," I said, and starting flinging those bullets as fast as I could. I couldn't give them enough force to kill, but they bloodied and stung
their targets. The men screamed, broke ranks, and ran.

In their fear, not a all of them paid attention to where they were going. The trucks acted as a channel; they could run towards the scary lady with the
floating bullets, or they could run towards the concealing shadows and cover of the field.

Some of them remembered; most did not.

The part that turned it all to suck was when the mines shredded the trucks. The fuel didn't go up -- it was diesel, and unlike in Hollywood, in the real
world it takes quite a bit to get diesel burning -- but those thousands of iron fragments tearing through everything was enough to start the ammunition off.
And once those crates of bullets and explosives began to bark, it might as well have been a fireworks factory going up next to that field.

I had enough time to notice the large chunk of metal flying my way. Notice, but not act upon. It hit, and that was all she wrote.

A nudge on my foot brought me to painful awareness. The last thing I remembered clearly was thinking, "Shouldn't it have a licence plate?" as
the bumper of the truck hit me in the head. I groaned.

"You made a mess," came Sword's voice. THAT brought me to full awareness. I shot to my feet and ignored the sudden dizziness as the blood fell
out of my head. "Easy," he cautioned, raising a gloved hand.

"You fucking -bastard-!" I hissed. Then I lashed out and belted Sword across the jaw. I felt something pop; his jaw, my fingers, I didn't know or

His head rocked sideways, and I ignored the bruised anguish of my knuckles. When his eyes settled on mine again, they were ... thoughtful?

"Are you done?" he inquired calmly.

"Fuck you," I spat. "You abandoned me!"

"You survived," he said flatly. "And you completed the job, though you violated at least two of the conditions of the contract." He
nodded. "That's all that matters."

I stared at him. "You really believe that, don't you?"


I looked around, then, and noted that we were at least a mile away from the village, where the field was ablaze. My breath caught in my throat. "The...
the villagers?"

Sword paused, then shrugged. "As it happens, none of them saw anything. They were behind closed doors and avoided the windows."

"So they're alive?"


I closed my eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. The motion caused the bullet wound in my arm to throb, and I clenched my teeth and hissed with sudden
agony. Sword moved over and began to probe the wound with cool detachment.

"It's straight through, no bone hit," he noted. "You should be able to heal it in seconds."

"I'll do it later," I replied.


"Because I'd rather feel pain than nothing at all," I spat, and took to the air. I left Sword standing there in the middle of the desert, and
right then, I didn't care if I saw him again or not.

I stared into the chocolate depths of my coffee mug. Heat was a long-departed friend of the brew; I didn't know how long I'd been sitting there,
nursing that pot, but I was finally on the last cup, and it was cold.

I cupped it in one hand and brought it to a steamy temperature, then set it back down. I wasn't thirsty; it had just been for something to do.

"Get ya a refill, hon?"

I looked up at the waitress -- Debbie, her nametag read -- and shook my head. "I'm good, thanks," I replied.

Debbie shrugged. "No problem, saves me having to fill the pot." She smiled down at me and left.

My gut clenched. The hair on the back of my neck rose. My muscles tensed. A wave of energy swept through the room, ruffling my hair but touching nothing and
nobody else -- in fact, nobody else in the lightly-populated diner even appeared to notice it. And... the taste was familiar.

The Crazy One slid into the seat opposite me. Mr. Whiskers stared at me from her shoulder; she didn't seem to want to meet my eyes.

Imagine that.

"Well, look what the cat dragged in," I said. I can't help it, she brings out the worst in me. Us. Whatever.

"Listen, Onyx," she began, and I interrupted.

"My name is Rhea."

"Do you -have- to make this so difficult?" she hissed, glaring at me. Our eyes met, finally, and I felt that familiar, sickening, wonderful crackle
as our magic resonated with ... itself? Our selves? Between us? I forced my eyes shut against her gaze and rubbed at my temples.

"Fine," I said reluctantly. "What do you want?"

She drummed her fingers in irritation on the table, and I stopped doing the same thing as soon as I noticed she was doing it. Dammit, that was annoying as

"It's about Sword," she said, and I winced. Of course. Of all the reasons my addle-brained other self could have had to come look me up, it had
to be the one I least wanted to discuss. Murphy's an utter bastard sometimes.

"What about him?" Humor her, smile and nod, she'll go away faster that way.

She cocked her head, and from the suddenly flicker of vacancy in her eyes I knew the Voice -- Mr. Fucking Whiskers -- was 'talking' to her. She nodded
minutely and leaned forward. I edged back.

"I think he misses you," she said. "He's hard to read, but nobody's seen him around much lately, and he's talking even less than
usual. Which isn't saying much for him, but still."

I had to laugh. "Emerald," I began, and smirked as her eyes flashed the same irritation that I'd felt a moment before, "if Sword actually
missed me, he'd be at the range adjusting the sights on his rifle."

"That's not what I meant," she replied. I waved off her explanation.

"Can it, crazy lady, I'm not interested." I leaned forward again and poked a finger at her. "You just go on living your little fantasy
life, with your stupid fixation on a stuffed toy, and don't worry about me and Sword. We're fine."

I blinked. What the hell? Where had -that- come from?

The Crazy One smirked back at me, and I have to admit, it's not really a pleasant expression on my face, now that I see it from the other end.

"I knew it!" she said exultantly. "You -do- like him!"

I growled at her.

She grinned.

I contemplated sororicide.

"Well, if you're certain there's nothing wrong..." she said, and started to rise. I raised a hand to stop her.

"Sit back down for a minute. And lose the cat, okay? He creeps me out."

Frowning, the Crazy One did as I asked and settled the evil toy on the bench beside her, out of sight. Debbie appeared with a full pot, pouring a mug for my
insane twin and wandering off again. I watched as it was doctored: two creamers, three sugars, two quick stirs one way, two quick stirs the other, spoon laid
down with the bowl facing the table.


"Do me a favor, will you?" I said, carefully staring at the tip of her nose rather than her eyes. I didn't want to feel that... that -pull-,
again, if I could help it.

"Maybe," she replied, and raised an eyebrow. "You don't like me very much, and I've never done anything to you. Why -should- I do you
a favor?"

I sat back and scowled. Of all the times for the rationality that I knew had to lurk under the surface to come forward.

"Okay, fine. I don't like you very much. You stole my life."

"My life," she corrected, and sipped at her coffee.

"Our life, then." I shook my head. "You came out of that damn portal first, is all. So everyone assumes you're the real Rhea."

"I hate to break it to you, but I was here before that little portal accident."

"Don't get condescending, sis; I was here too." I winced as the migraine started up, right on schedule. From the expression on her face, she
felt it too.

Well, trying to explain how she -- I -- we -- came to be would be headache-inducing on anyone, I imagine.

"Anyway, point is, you got all the good parts, and you're the Crazy One!"

"Don't call me that," she said, an all-too-familiar tone in her voice.

"You may be able to fool the FBSA, and you can fool that therapist of yours, and you might even fool Terrence and Lisa," I said, glaring at her.
"But I'm you, and you're me, and you can't fool yourself, sis." My anger gave way to pity as I watched her scoop up and clutch the
stuffed cat like a security blanket.

Well, that's what it was, I suppose. I had simply managed to grow out of it.

"You're nuts," she stated with conviction. "You're not me. If you were, you'd know how important Mr. Whiskers mission here is, and
how I'm the only one that can help him."

"My god, listen to yourself," I said wonderingly.

"You're just a, a jealous, spiteful bitch," she fired back.

I nodded. "I was, yeah." I drained my coffee and set the mug down, upside-down, on a napkin. "But I grew up." I rose and waved her back
into her seat. "Don't worry, I've got the tab."

As I headed to the counter I heard her rise. My magic didn't flare; she wasn't going to attack. I turned.

"What was the favor you wanted?" she said. Her voice was steady and her eyes bright; I marveled at her self-control even as I winced, remembering
what it was like to force myself to be cheery and happy and friendly all the time.

No, she wasn't me, and I wasn't her. Not any more.

I stared at her for a moment, then nodded. "Tell Terrence he's safe," I said. "I won't pester him any more." At her indignant
look, I added, "Well, you know us, you, me, whatever. I won't pester him -seriously-. He's still fair game for teasing."

She nodded. "I... I'll tell him."

I dropped a bill on the counter and left.

In the end, Sword found me, not the other way around. He dropped out of the sky on quietly-hissing jets, landing with hardly a sound on a rocky outcropping
near where I sat.

I was indulging myself in a bit of air-sitting, a few feet from the cliff face. The smell of the ocean was strong here, and the faint gunfire coming from the
forest almost sounded like fireworks at this distance.

"Welcome to Striga," I said, turning to face him.

"I've been here before," he noted, and I smiled. He flipped up his visor, his intelligent eyes glinting in the moonlight. "I'm
surprised," he said quietly.

"By what?"

"The Legendary isn't out hunting down Riot Force," he replied. I cocked my head at him, inviting him to continue. He did. "I'd
expected to have to clean up Emerald with a sponge."

"I feel sorry for her."

"She chose her path."

"Mm. I know. I was there." I relaxed and let myself drift closer, finally touching down next to Sword on the rocks. He raised an eyebrow.

"You're not going to hit me again, I hope?"

"No. I got that out of my system."

He reached up and removed his helmet, tucking it under one arm. I stared into his face. He smiled, a private little grin that could have been mistaken for
smug superiority but was, I knew, no small measure of pride.

"Finally," he said. I raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "Now I can begin your training."

"Don't go easy on me," I warned him.

"I won't."
--sofaspud--"Listening to your kid is the audio equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting, Spud." --OpMegs
.....are they dating or what?

"No can brain today. Want cheezeburger."
From NGE: Nobody Dies, by Gregg Landsman
No, they're not dating. That much I know for sure.

It should be noted that the operative phrase for this entire story, as Spud and I plotted it out, was "sometimes you have to re-break a bone before you
can set it to heal properly."
"Oh, silver blade, forged in the depths of the beyond. Heed my summons and purge those who stand in my way. Lay
ok, I really like this. But I'm confused.

From what I remember, Onyx is Emerald except she outgrew the cat (possibly in a throwdown with Danny, with a minor case of fracturing)

It sounds like her trip thought the portal happened after getting into a relationship with her local versions of Lisa and Terr. This has strange parallelism
with the currently on hold (Reunions), and is leaving me wondering if the Danny in her dimension showed up earlier, or if there was some time travel in
addition to dimensional travel involved.

so have I totally misunderstood what you are hinting at?
"so listen up boy, or pornography starring your mother will be the second worst thing to happen to you today"
TF2: Spy
Not a misunderstanding, per se. Simply put, Onyx is a duplicated image of Emerald, caused by magic run amok and bad Portal Corp goof-ups. Onyx came into
being when Emerald returned from stopping Danny (the events in Reunions).

From -her- perspective, though, she's the real one, and Emerald's the lucky one that everyone -thinks- is the real one.

It gets mind-bendy.

--"Listening to your kid is the audio equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting, Spud." --OpMegs
Ok, good to know that I wasn't totally off base.
"so listen up boy, or pornography starring your mother will be the second worst thing to happen to you today"
TF2: Spy