The cafeteria clamoured with the sounds of chatter and cutlery. In a lonely corner, at a round table, Han sat with his mug of coffee and two sliced of lightly-buttered toast placed on a circular, ceramic dish. He held a sheaf of pages in one hand, reading them as he munched on his breakfast. He put down his mug of coffee and traced over a sentence on the page with his finger.
“It's Han, right?” someone spoke to him, “I'm Lisa. You know, Amanda's friend?”
Han considered ignoring her for a moment, but put down his work and gestured for her to sit with her tray. She wore a figure-hugging, bright yellow sweater-vest with a deep V-neck. He wrinkled his nose at her choice of clothing.
“Good morning,” Han said.
Lisa picked up a green apple from her tray and bit into it, chewing slowly to allow herself time to think, “So, what's the deal with you and Amanda anyway?” she asked him.
Han tried not to sigh, “We were partners, a few years ago.”
“No,” Han said, killing whatever excitement Lisa could have thrown-up, “No, not like that. Unfortunately, she became the interest of a different team that dealt with different things, so our partnership was severed early. It was a pity, she showed promise in some areas. But weakness in others,” Han grunted, “She surrenders to soft-spots, urges and puts her faith in the unlikely. It's no wonder she's become an unsavoury character.”
Lisa was grinning at him like she just couldn't take him seriously, “She told me you're an arrogant, close-minded fuck that can't stand to listen to a different opinion.”
Han snorted and gestured around him, “And I suppose the rest of Amanda's peers are also 'arrogant, close-minded fucks'?”
Lisa looked at her hands, checking her carefully painted fingernails, “Are you saying we live in an open-minded world?”
“Amanda likes to keep me away. And it's cute, but I'm not as stupid as I like to act,” Lisa ate more of her apple, “Just thought I should let you know: she hasn't slept a wink because of your little argument with her last night. She has it in for you, Han.”
“Excuse me?” Han raised a brow, “How would you know about any of that?”
“She looks out for me, so I try to do what I can for her. I know what she's like when she's in the mood you've put her in,” Lisa stood up to leave, “Don't hurt my friend, Han. I don't like it when she's worked-up and upset. She only becomes an unsavoury character when she meets people like you, and I try - I really do - to keep a smile on her face. This will come and bite you in the arse.”
Han paused, “She didn't sleep all night?”
Disappointed creases folded Lisa's porcelain forehead, “Weren't you listening?” she asked him, “Not a wink. I could hear her fussing over her papers, talking to Dr Talbot, all sorts - from my room. I went to see her and she just told me to go back to bed,” Han saw Lisa clench her fists and an angry frown deepened the corners of her lips, “You might think you hold the upper-hand, that you can say what you like to her and get away with it - and maybe you will. Just don't hurt Amanda. Please? The last year hasn't been easy for her.”
Lisa didn't wait to hear more. She spun around and walked straight out of the cafeteria.
Han stared after her for a long time, frozen in his place even after she had left, eyes fixed on the exit. He huffed and looked at the time, though immediately forgetting the numbers the hands of his watch indicated. Han pushed away his breakfast and got up to leave, hands in his pockets - his mind empty and removed of all thought, watching his feet as he walked. By some chance or innate disposition, he found that his feet had led him to Briar's office. Amanda was seated on a plastic chair by the door, a thin binder in her lap - that distant look glazing over her tired, sore eyes. Han watched her, as he had in the recreational facility the night before, only with more pity. He took the seat next to her and bent over to place his elbows on his thighs.
“Amanda?” he said.
She raised her head a little, as if having woken from a dream. Amanda turned her head away from Han.
“Listen, I'm...” Han felt helpless as his apology sounded with an echoing hollowness, “sorry.”
Amanda whispered, her voice tired and bitter, “You don't know the meaning of that word.”
“There just isn't anyone else that would suit this mission,” Han tried to explain.
“You're wrong. You don't know what you're dragging me into,” Amanda replied, “But then, you're Briar's pet. She'll let you have your way. Even so, whether you want to or you don't, you'll hear my plea. Even if it will serve no cause and change nothing.”
“Don't,” Amanda said, raising a hand, “If you're really sorry, stop talking and leave me in the comfort of my mind.”
Han nodded and looked away.
“Did you speak with Elina this morning?” Amanda asked.
A small electric pulse raced up Han's spine on hearing his daughter's name. He sat straighter, “Um... Yes. I spoke a little with her before she left for school.”
“She asked me... if I could take her dress-shopping,” Amanda said.
“And do you really believe that's appropriate?”
Amanda snapped, “That's why I'm asking you,” she gave him a hard look, furious and sad at the same time.
Han paused, “What about her friends, or Gemma?”
“You really think she would have asked me if she hadn't already considered other options?”
“That's not what I meant...”
“Well?” Amanda pressed.
Han couldn't look at her, “I trust you,” was all he said. He would have said more, were he not at a loss for words, sentiments, perhaps even for a sound.
Amanda waited for the words, sentiments, sounds. When they didn't come, she shut her eyes and lay back her head on the backrest of her chair - leaving reality to the chaos of her mind.
Han looked at his hands, taking a side-glance at Amanda every now and then. He hadn't been present around the time that his daughter and his ex-partner had forged such a strong alliance - and it made him feel strange every time the subject was brought up. He didn't have fears that Amanda would lure Elina away from him, but he did have fears for what such a relationship might mean for Elina. Even if Han was more than comfortable with his work, he would never intend such a fate for his daughter. And if by some chance she came to know about his work through Amanda... Elina would be bound - no - damned to it, like Lisa.
It was a one-way street.
And then he looked at Amanda. The true victim of circumstance. She never meant to be here, doing what she does. And that which she had been subjected to do had made her such a character - disturbed, upset and bitter except in the company of the few. Han was unique in the sense that he was and was not among those few at the same time.
He sighed, and picked up a stray newspaper lying ruffled on the empty seat next to him and idly looked through it as he waited for Briar's secretary to open the door to let them in. He read the words, but the stories the newspaper told were lost on him. He couldn't think straight. He cursed under his breath and tossed the paper away. As he did, the office door swung open and a high-heeled woman in a pencil skirt and tight bun stepped out.
“Ms Briar is ready to see you now,” she said in a nasal voice.
Han nudged Amanda. She 'woke' and got up with him. They not stepped into the overly-decorated office and took no notice of the marble stone work, the tall white statues that stared down at them with pupil-less eyes or the expensive red drapes that curtained such figures in a complimentary fashion. Han remembered the first time he'd come to this place. He'd met Andrea Briar for the first time in person and fell into the steel grip of his ex-rival, Dann Fisher. He shuddered at the thought, and rubbed his arm. Briar sat behind her desk - the epitome of precision in terms of dress with her pulled-back brow hair, symmetrically made-up face and her pristine dark pant-suit. She looked every part the shrewd, middle-aged woman who dealt with paperwork for an important organisation. And standing by her was the head of operations, Manuel Xavi - a mountain of meat without the appearance of emotion or sensitivity. He looked like an oaf that went barrelling into everything he could, but he was much smarter than he looked. It gave him a very powerful advantage over everyone he knew and, even more so, those he didn't.
Amanda took a seat without saying a word, and Han followed her lead.
“Agent Amanda H. Cross and Agent Hansel Schmitz - it's not been one day since you two were reacquanited: and here we are,” Briar said. She had a clinical, sterile voice - almost like she was always speaking through a bad microphone, “Just like old times, cats and dogs as always. I'm surprised the two of you don't have your own web-series.”
“Don't attempt humour,” Amanda said, irritable and tense, “You're not very good at it.”
“Ooh, barbs already?” Briar laughed.
“Says the woman who calls herself Briar,” Amanda commented, “Nothing's more annoying than stray thorns. Especially when it has no flower to guard.”
“Enough,” Xavi said, “You were not called to share tips on stand-up comedy or philosophical botany. I'm sure Agent Schmitz has discussed the matter at hand.”
“Mission to England, yes,” Amanda said, “We've... discussed it to some extent.”
“And you refused the offer, Agent Cross.”
“I am not an Alpha Team operative. I made that clear two years ago.”
“Understandable, however there is no-one within Alpha Team that shares your qualities.”
Amanda scoffed elaborately, as if this was a shared joke that never got old, “Oh,” she said, “So, now they're 'qualities'? Will I just continue as a lunatic after the mission is over then?”
“Agent Cross, I ask you to treat this meeting with maturity.”
“I can't, Mr X. I can't take any of you seriously. Not after everything that thorn in my side has put me through,” Amanda pointed at Briar and then gestured to Han, “and not by how much disregard and laughter that your lapdog and his admirers treat me.”
“This kind of insolence is not tolerated!”
“Well, you either tolerate my insolence or I leave and you reach no conclusions,” Amanda crossed her arms, “I have no qualms against you, Xavi. I'd prefer that you didn't present any to me.”
“Amanda...” Han tried to intervene.
“I have nothing to say to you, Han,” Amanda hissed.
“Agent Cross,” Xavi said, leaning against the desk and folding his arms, “Listen, please? The item that NihilCorp agents are searching for is as yet unknown to us in terms of its power and use. However, we know that the item can be weaponised, which could prove disastrous if NihilCorp is able to utilise it in such a way.”
“And where do I fit into this?” Amanda asked.
Xavi clenched his jaw, “You've encountered this item, whether you know it or not, through those fractured, fragmented ghosts in your head. You could get to it before NihilCorp could hope to.”
Amanda sighed, “Dammit, Xavi, I'm not your fucking golden retriever. I cannot go into Bradley Wood.”
“Why not?” Xavi asked.
“Prepare for ghost stories,” Briar said, her Cheshire cat grin beaming menacingly at Amanda.
Amanda glared at her and then asked Xavi, “Where is Talbot? He said he would be present for this meeting.”
“Occupied, most likely,” Briar replied, “he is a medical doctor after all.”
“Yeah. But I'm his priority subject. He puts my needs before the needs of anybody else. That's his job,” Amanda spat.
“Come now. Why would you need him?” Briar laughed, “Just tell us your cute little story so we can close the book on this arbitrary meeting.”
“My words aren't worth a dime to you!” Amanda barked, “So I'm not saying anything you want to know until Talbot is here.”
“Agent Cross, we do have other pressing matters to attend and cannot wait for you to speak when it suits you,” Briar said.
“Then find someone else to dig up your weaponisable do-hickey.”
“Agent Cross, I would like to remind you that you are an expendable pawn,” Briar stood up, “If you prove useless to us, we will dispose of you.”
“I've been useless to you for the last year or so, since everyone started calling me a wacka-doodle nutjob. How long does this 'expendable disposal' service take, Briar?” Amanda asked, “You can't get rid of me, because whether you Alpha fuckers like it or not, you know you need me.”
“Do not tempt me, Agent Cross,” Briar warned.
“Why the fuck not? It isn't going to affect me in any way.”
Han stood up, “I think, perhaps, we've gotten a little-”
Briar's voice rose as she said, “You know the consequences for insubordination, Agent Cross.”
“Uh, yeah. I do,” Amanda said, with angry nonchalance, “Shoot. See how much good it does you.”
For a moment, Briar looked like she might just do that, but Xavi gave her a look - this deep, disappointed gaze that made her scowl and sit down.
“Agent Cross, please take your seat,” Xavi said, the reserved calm unmoving from his tone of voice, “We will wait for Dr Talbot.”
“Thank you,” Amanda sat down, putting one leg over the other, and took out her phone.
Briar attempted one last attempt at a threat, “You will be hearing from me, Agent Cross!”
“Great. Maybe your formal complaint will amount to more than just three days in solitary this time,” Amanda mumbled, scrolling through the messages on her phone.