He watched her. He had been watching her for some time now - the woman sitting some seven or eight tables away - wondering what to say to her and how. He never was one for conversation, much less when it came to her. By the look of it she was bored, but smiling.
She was a rare breed of human that enjoyed - even relished - boredom.
She looked the same when he'd last seen her, a few years ago: same pale face with the raised cheekbones, same disproportionately large brown eyes, same short brown hair (though, he always though she would look better with long hair). He observed her composure: slouching, drink in one hand, the other arm resting high up on the backrest of her chair, one leg over the other. A thin, faraway grin pulled across her face; eyes looking in the direction of the caterwauling performer on stage but vacant, a million miles away from here.
She had paid no attention to anyone else around her for the last fifteen minutes or so, even though she was quite popular with the roving eyes of all the ogling pricks around her.
Making a decision, he downed the last few drops of his drink, put down his glass and made his way to her - trying to do so without kicking up a fuss. At any other time, on any other occasion, she would have heard him coming - but, as lost to the world as she was, she didn't so much as twitch from her position.
“Have you room for one more, Agent Cross?” he asked.
She moved her head, as if she had been disturbed by something - like the response one might receive when trying to wake someone from deep slumber. He kept his patience, before she shook her head and brightened.
“Han Schmitz!” she cried, straightening in her seat, her smile broadening into something more meaningful, “What are you...? I don't even know way to say, it's been so long!”
Han sat down, placing his hands down on the table, “Indeed it has, Amanda,” a sense of rekindled affection made him smile a little at her greeting, “How have you been? Not exactly pouring over work, if you have time to kill in the recreation facility.”
“I've been... good. Much better than when last we met. Sort of,” Amanda replied, “Work's been slow. A lot of recon missions and false alarms. And then there's,” she gestured with her head at the stage, “you know. What about you? Finally got bored of Montreal, I reckon?”
Han laughed, “Please, I was bored of Montreal before I started there.”
Amanda put her drink down and folded her arms on the table, “How long has it been? Two, maybe three years? For a man so sinister-looking and sinister-sounding, you sure do have some patience. There's no way I could be cooped up in that building with those people for so long.”
“Duty calls. And you don't have to tell me. I have experience in your introversy.”
“I'm not an introvert. I do work with people,” Amanda said, “I just prefer certain types of people, that fit certain descriptions. Usually, non-sinister types.”
Han raised a brow, “And I suppose I'm an exception?”
“Oh, no, of course not. What would give you that ridiculous idea?” Amanda laughed, “I'm just happy to see you after so long, call it a novel moment. Don't worry, the world hasn't gone mad. My abhorrence for you with soon surface and all with be righted.”
Han rolled his eyes, “It's good to know you haven't changed.”
Amanda looked at her hands and said, “I don't suppose you came to just meet an old frenemy. What are you doing here in Philly, Han?”
“Amanda, I'm hurt. You say that like you don't want me here.”
“Let's go with the notion that I don't.”
“Amanda, is that really how you feel?”
“Puppy-dog eyes? On that face?” Amanda snorted, “My God! You really are trying hard!”
Han smiled a small, smug smile, “Don't you want to linger in your idleness a while longer? I'll get to my true motives in a moment, perhaps... somewhere more private,” he paused a moment, “It's... confidential business.”
“Up until you said 'confidential', I was under the impression that you were trying to hit on me,” Amanda gave an exaggerated shudder, “Now that would have been creepy.”
“Amanda, can we please converse as adults?”
“I thought we were.”
“Give it ten minutes, will you?” Amanda laughed, “Let the novelty wear off. Besides, Lisa's with me. We agreed that we'd keep all this under wraps when she was around.”
“Lisa? Is that what she calls herself now?”
“Mm-hmm. I suggested it on the idea that her name couldn't be shortened.”
“What are you talking about? 'Pauline' is only two syllables. Your name has three.”
“Yes, but you can shorten my name without making me sound like a dude. You could call me Mandy or Amy or even Cross. Lisa would be stuck with Paul... or Line.”
Han put his head in one hand, “You'll have to excuse me,” he hailed a waitress, “I can't do this sober.”
Amanda shrugged, “You're about as much fun, either way,” she paused a moment before asking, “I've been meaning to ask you: how's Elina?”
Han blinked, “She's... fine.”
“Did she say she's fine?”
Han hesitated, “You know...” he shrugged, in a bid to throw up a nonchalant facade, “Teenagers.”
“I do know. I used to work with them. But ignoring her isn't going to help you.”
“And who's implying that I ignore Elina?”
“She's 'fine'? I'd say you're implying that you're ignoring her.”
Han gave her a look, “No, really: who's been telling you about my daughter?”
“Your daughter has been telling me about your daughter.”
The waitress had returned with Han's drink on a small, circular tray. He picked up the glass and said, “Keep these coming,” and downed the beverage in one gulp.
“Isn't that a bit dramatic?” Amanda asked.
Han ignored her, “What could Elina possibly be telling you?”
“Sorry. If I want to stay friends with her on Facebook, I don't think I can tell you in details,” Amanda said.
“I told her to get rid of that advocate for wasting time,” Han grumbled.
“Just because you think it's a waste of time, doesn't mean it is,” Amanda said, “It's not like she hates you. I'm just her bitching post. It's what teenagers need,” she paused a moment to observe Han and then rectified, “It's what everyone needs.”
“I've had enough of this,” Han said, “Can we please find somewhere to talk in private?”
“Amanda!” called someone approaching the table. A young woman in her early twenties: blonde hair, brown eyes, quite tall and thin. Han noted her look of youthful naiveté. He always envied the look as much as he resented it, “Did you see me up there? Did you-? Oh... You have company.”
“Andy, you remember Han Schmitz?” Amanda said, introducing the two, “Han, Lisa Anderson.”
Han shut his eyes and bit his lip, “Allow me a moment. You renamed her Lisa only to call her Andy anyway?”
Lisa blinked and muttered to Amanda, “I remember you telling me that this is the guy you don't like.”
“It's a love-to-hate relationship,” Amanda replied, facing Lisa, “Remember when we first met, I was holding a gun to your forehead?”
“Right,” Lisa nodded.
“Well, when Han and I first met - he invited me into his lovely home, ordered me food and offered me a drink. Only, the drink was spiked with a very powerful narcotic which can both knock you senseless and help to spew your inner-most secrets,” Amanda sighed, “And... the novelty has finally worn off. I hate you, Han.”
Han gasped, “About time. Nothing is more awkward than your... strange displays of verbal affection.”
“Did you guys date?” Lisa asked, laughing.
Amanda rolled her eyes, “Very funny,” she said, “But no. We hugged, once. After I killed someone, very traumatising let me tell you. And that is as close to physical affection, I think, we can get.”
“Whatever, Amanda,” Lisa scoffed, “You've been sitting here for two hours. It's karaoke night! Why don't you join in?”
Han cut in, “Amanda is known for being distant and up-tight.”
“Oh,” Amanda grimaced, “because you're the super-chipper, heart-throb diva of a sass queen-dom.”
Han gave her a look, “I don't know what any of those words mean.”
“If I take too many goofs on stage, people will stop taking me seriously, Lisa,” Amanda explained, “I'm already on Talbot's piss list for fighting with... your... friends, enemies, what are they?” she finished her drink, “It's getting late. I think I'm going to turn in.”
“But-” Lisa began to protest.
“Look,” Amanda said, “I'm not twenty anymore. I have work to stress about, sleep to lose, stuff to do.”
Lisa pouted, “You used to be fun.”
“Yeah. Used to be. Just know that if you stay up passed 3am, I will lock the door of your room.”
“Is this about that one time-?”
“Yes,” Amanda cut in, “Yes, Andy, it is. And we agreed not to speak of it again.”
Lisa snorted, “Alright, Amanda. Just don't wait up. Probably won't be sleeping in my room tonight anyway.”
Amanda didn't supply a response, and Lisa didn't wait for one. The younger woman just went back from where she had come.
Amanda stood up, “You wanted that place to talk?”
Han nodded, left a few dollars under his empty glass and followed Amanda out of a large set of double doors at the end of the crowded room. He took in the white-washed walls, the striking white tiles and the shade-less bulbs hanging from the ceiling as they passed through the corridor. There was even a heavy sterile smell that lingered on everything, it made the air feel thick and synthetic. If a stranger had walked into this building, they would have thought it was a hospital or an asylum.
Han and Amanda knew better.
Amanda came to a room marked 0004, unlocked it and let herself in. Han had to take a moment to reacquaint himself with everything he'd known about Room 0004. Though the last occupant had been ill-tempered and paranoid (and a formidable rival to Han), he had been tidy to some extent.
'Tidy' had clearly died with him.
It wasn't so much unclean as it was disorganised - there were files, folders, and loose pages scattered everywhere - sticking out from the shelves, strewn across the floor and littered on the desk. Han was just glad that there wasn't underwear or food wrappings (or just food, for that matter) lying around.
“I don't suppose you entertain much,” he commented.
Amanda didn't respond.
“I thought you said you've 'been good'?” Han asked, taking up the stack of sheets lying on a chair, moving them onto a desk, and sitting down.
Amanda sat down on her un-made bed and said, “What can I say? Novelty. For a second, I cared about what you might think if I told you that I was a pathetic lunatic with a never-ending list of problems.”
“Then tell me how you've really been.”
Amanda shook her head and muttered under her breath, “Where to start?”
“The beginning,” Han suggested.
“Ha-ha. Heh,” Amanda looked away, “If only I knew where that was.”
Han gestured around and asked, “What's all this?”
“Recon... False alarms...” Amanda mumbled.
“Of what?” a frustrated sigh rumbled within Han.
“Valfreyja,” Amanda said.
Han scoffed, “A what?”
“Don't look at me like that,” Amanda warned, her eyes darkening, “I know you're sceptical, but I'm not fucking with you. Valfreyja. Incidents, sightings, happenings...”
“You're chasing a ghost?”
“I'm not mocking you, I'm asking,” Han said.
Amanda shook her head and tapped her knee, “This was a mistake.”
“No. No, you sit down and tell me.”
“We are not friends, Han.”
“All the better that you don't give a fuck about what I think.”
Amanda stood up, “I know that you're more concerned with NihilCorp and you don't take Beta Team's missions seriously, but this isn't a joke. Valfreyja is real. And I think, deep down, you know that. You were there when she attempted to get to me.”
“I was there to recover you from the infirmary. I was not present when you were having the alleged seizure.”
Amanda hesitated, “She's getting stronger, Han.”
“How do you know?”
Amanda bit her lip, put her hands in her pockets to show how uncomfortable she was, “I just... know.”
Han tried not to roll his eyes.
Even so, Amanda saw the doubt on his face, “I'm connected to her, in some way. Since that first encounter... I can hear her. She comes in my dreams.”
Han looked away.
“I get it, okay? I understand your scepticism, Han. I wouldn't believe me either - but Valfreyja isn't some ordinary ghost come to haunt the living for their misdeeds. No. Valfreyja wants her world back. She wants her slaves back. And you know I'm not the first to say so.”
“So... What? You've been hunting her?”
“For some time... I was,” Amanda sat back down and looked at her feet, “Now I'm just avoiding her. Staying as far away as I possibly can.”
“Damn it, Cross-”
Amanda raised a hand, pointing a shaky finger at Han, “Don't. Okay? Don't fucking patronise me, Han. Do you think I feel good about being the crazy goat-lady of the mountain? Do you think I feel good about any of this? You think it's easy?” she shut her eyes, “I'm a joke, Han! Suzy won't even listen, she's treats me like I'm insane. She's nice, sure, but not in a good way. I'm a joke because I'm taking this seriously and nobody else is. You don't know the kind of threat Valfreyja is,” Amanda sighed and held her head, “I've said my piece. What do you want?”
“But, nothing! Tell me why you're here,” Amanda barked.
Han put his hands together and explained, “I was looking for a partner. Mission in England, there's signs of NihilCorp work at hand there. They're looking for something. I need to find out what and why, and then get rid of them.”
“Why didn't you ask any of the members of Alpha Team?”
“They'd be of no actual use to me. They have training and bulk on their side, but you have skill and experience. You know and understand NihilCorp. I need you to help me find them.”
“You know how I feel about involving myself in that kind of work.”
“I will try to attend to any violence by myself. Though you'd still need to be armed. As a precaution.”
“This... activity. Where's it coming from exactly?”
“All over England. But most notably in a place known as Bradley in North-East Lincolnshire.”
Amanda looked uneasy and said, “I can't go with you.”
“What? Why not?”
“Find someone else.”
“Schmitz, I don't have to explain myself to you. No means no,” Amanda said, “And why would you even want me? I abhor you.”
“You only abhor me, because you feel you need to,” Han said, “It makes honesty easier for you. Tell me honestly why you don't want to go. More ghosts?”
Amanda gave Han a dark look, unappreciative of his sarcasm, “Just leave.”
“Amanda, Xavi won't sanction this mission if you're not involved.”
“And that's my problem, because...?”
“I will make you come with me.”
Amanda folded her arms and huffed, “You can try.”
Han rose from his seat, stepping over the stacks and loose sheets scattered on the floor. He stood by the door of the room and gave a last look at Amanda - she was looking away - before he left, feeling the slightest twinge of guilt.