Special Agent Alice Darren rolled her eyes for the eighteenth time today, wondering once more how she'd wound up assigned to such a pain-in-the-arse case and partnered up with such a moronic fellow agent. It was pointless to ask those questions, of course, but she couldn't help herself. Because her mind still hadn't processed everything: she still didn't quite believe she was really here, and that this was really happening to her.
The ambush had been unexpected, of course. But not nearly as unexpected as the hand-cuffs; or the gag—thankfully, she'd managed to spit that out; her captors hadn't meant to make it stick, evidently. They'd probably just wanted to slow her down, distract her so they could make their escape. Still, the cuffs and the gag weren't what really surprised her. Rather, the fact that the targets were actually going ahead with their plans today was what had puzzled her. They were supposed to be planning, not executing. Someone had got their wires crossed along the way, and Alice had been given the wrong information. That, at least, she couldn't blame on her partner. But thinking about who she could blame it on only upset her. She didn't want to think ill of her boss. Not like that.
He wouldn't betray us, she told herself. He's not dirty. He can't be dirty…
Fact remained, though, that this might be her last day on earth. She might be spending her last day on earth with Hardwick.
Somebody had to pay for that.
She'd already decided that if she died, she'd haunt the arse of whoever had put her here. Even if it was her boss.
Her cheeks burned at the thought of Special Agent Alexander Wallace—the guy she'd had a serious crush on for the last two years. Sure, he was married, and she'd never ever go there. But he was just so damn sexy. It'd just been an innocent crush. It hurt her, though, to think of him being a possible traitor.
The thought hurt her deeply.
To get her mind off it, Alice reflected on how this day was supposed to have gone. The plan had been to conduct pure reconnoissance, and report back to the boss. The plan had been for Alice to be in charge, and for the idiotic likes of Agent Jonathan Hardwick to stay at the back where he couldn't cause any trouble. Alice hadn't counted on Hardwick's immense capacity for fucking everything up, though. She hadn't counted on his special ability to do all those things he'd been told specifically not to do.
She had known already that it was never a good idea to underestimate his kind; had known, but had ignored the fact. And now she was paying the price.
"Thoughts?" Hardwick asked, peering at her from out of the darkness. She could sense his irritating gaze—it tended to make her break out in hives, and her skin was already beginning to itch. Thoughts? What the fuck does he want me to say? But instead of asking him that very useless question, Alice drew a deep breath and leaned her head back, staring at the ceiling.
"You want some thoughts? Okay. Here are some thoughts. We're more than likely going to get blown up. Any second now. Smell that gasoline? Yeah…that wasn't meant to happen. Remember the plan, Hardwick? The plan you didn't stick to? Remember how you weren't supposed to yell out and alert the bad guys to your presence? Oh, and how you weren't supposed to use any of the smoke bombs? Remember that, Hardwick?"
"I've seen the way you look at me, Darren. I mean, when you think I'm not paying attention—I've seen those little looks you cast my way." Before she could choke out an indignant response, he went on. "And let me assure you—you wouldn't have any regrets if you decided to…say, act on those looks. Just ask any of my exes—they'll all tell you the same thing. In fact—"
"I can just imagine what they'd tell me," Alice interrupted. "You wouldn't want to hear it. I can imagine though, trust me—I've known your kind before." Gods help me, I surely have. "But right now, Hardwick, I've got other things on my mind than that. Like, tonight is my nephew's third birthday, and I'm really pissed you're getting me killed before I can wish him a good one. Know what I mean? Matter of fact, I was kind of looking forward to seeing his sixteenth birthday. Eighteenth, too—and hell, twenty-first! He's not going to be the same without his aunt, know what I'm saying? And Hardwick, it's your fault I'm going to die here. And I swear to the Gods above I'm going to haunt your arse when this is over and done."
He was frowning at her. "How can you haunt me if we're both dead? I mean, can ghosts haunt other ghosts? And I notice you mentioned my arse again—"
"Again?" she exclaimed. "When did I ever— Oh, forget it! Look, I'm going to do my best to get the hell out of here—and I'd really rather you didn't try to 'help' again, 'cause every time you try that you fuck things up royally. So please, just…just shut the hell up, sit still, and don't move a muscle."
"You know my buddies at the Institute used to call me MacGuyver?" he asked. "I mean, before I got into the Service. I was pretty well known for getting out of tight squeezes—in fact, if you talk to my ex-girlfriend Lindsay you'll get all the goods. I met her at the Institute, did you know? We were in the same Physics class…"
The Institute, Alice thought derisively, letting Hardwick's words wash over her. She'd heard him talk about his time in training many times before, but he'd never specified which Institute he'd studied at in particular. She'd always assumed he had lied his way into the Service, had never had any training at all. Most of the time he sure acted like he hadn't. But when she'd asked subtle questions of her boss he'd just shrugged and told her she'd be better off asking Hardwick about it sometime.
"…But yeah, that's how they got to calling me MacGuyver," he murmured. "Of course, that guy's got way more hair than me—"
"MacGuyver, huh?" Alice cut in at last, desperate to shut him the hell up. "How about you prove it?"
As soon as she'd said the words, she knew it had been a mistake. His eyes lit up and he leaned forward, a grin breaking out over his face. He really did have a smile like sunshine, but she'd always been inclined to believe it was the smile of a man with far too much air in his skull where others had brains. He reminded her of a kite flying on the breeze—surrounded by air and not much else. And yet she'd pretty well just challenged him to pull some MacGuyver stunt in the hopes of getting her out of here. No wonder a voice was yelling in her head, Are you a total idiot? Because, really, asking this guy to make himself of use was like asking an earthworm to dig a hole in your backyard for the swimming pool.
Still, what other choice did she really have? She was handcuffed and her feet were shackled. There was no escape for her, unless MacGuyver here did something serious. Or unless some other much more preferable miracle occurred, and other people came to rescue them.
But she couldn't count on that. The boss wouldn't be expecting a report till later in the day. He'd even said they could take a long lunch before returning to the office. Lunch hour hadn't even begun yet.
"Okay," Hardwick said, eyes wide and shining with the fervour of a reckless egomaniac, "here's my plan. See that little window up there?" She craned her neck to follow his pointing finger, and saw the tiniest slit of glass about two storeys up. She looked at him with an arched brow and said, "Yeah?" He grinned and nodded.
And that was it.
Didn't feel the need to say anything more. Evidently didn't care that, even if that window hadn't been two storeys up, no human being could possibly fit through such a small gap. Evidently none of that mattered to this guy. Alice fought off the urge to weep; weeping was not befitting of a Special Agent like herself. Even if she'd only been on the job in earnest for the last two weeks—before that she'd been a trainee—she was still a Special Agent in her own right. And crying in the face of death wasn't something a Special Agent did.
Or not this Special Agent, anyway.
Come to think of it, she was surprised Hardwick hadn't started snivelling yet. Then again, he'd have to actually recognise his predicament to feel like crying over it. He didn't seem to grasp anything about the seriousness of the situation. Hardly surprising, that. But with him for company, Alice felt terribly alone.
It just wasn't right, having to die in that sort of company.
"Okay, you don't get it," Hardwick murmured. "That's cool. And I guess it's only natural—I'd have to show you for you to get it. Here, take my hand." She didn't even have the energy to glower. She just stared down at her shackled hands, then up at him, hoping he'd get the message. "Oh, right," he said with a nod. "Yeah. Well, no harm done. I'll just take your hand. Okay?" She imagined rolling her eyes—just imagined it. Actually doing it was beyond her now. He reached out and gripped her wrist, still cuffed, the skin chafed where she'd at first tried to wrench herself free. Force of habit, there, she supposed. Everyone knew you couldn't just rip handcuffs apart with sheer strength. She sat there with Hardwick's hand on her wrist, wishing for a better ending than this. And then she became aware of a change in the air around her.
In Hardwick, too, actually.
The air was heating up, and she sensed an electric charge in it, making the fine hairs on her arms stand on end. The hair on her head wanted to stand, too, actually. Her scalp prickled and she shivered. The dank air grew lighter and brighter and she felt as if she were lifting into the air, floating upward like that kite she'd been thinking about earlier. Everything lightened, and she saw that distant sliver of glass flying at her, growing ever wider. She braced herself or impact, imagining her head battering against solid glass, thudding and thudding until it broke like an egg on pavement. Then something completely strange happened: she passed through the glass, almost melted through it, fused with it even. She wasn't warm now, she was hot, every cell in her body was burning and bubbling and she thought she smelled sunlight—what does sunlight smell like? she wondered, but it was more the smell of sunlight on skin, on hair, on clean clothes, that she was thinking of—and then she was standing in a glass-and-metal dome, in some round room she'd never seen before.
In her nostrils was the inexplicable scent of gasoline. She wrinkled her nose against it, trying to figure out where it had come from.
Then she realised Hardwick was still holding her by the wrist.
"See?" he said as she turned to look at him. "MacGuyver. Except he never used magic. And I don't use ropes or hooks or…you know, any of that stuff."
Her mouth fell open, and she continued to stare for a moment. Then she snapped out of it, snatching her arm back and rubbing at her wrist experimentally. There was still chafing, but the cuffs were gone. She didn't even bother wondering what had become of them.
She had other things to think about.
"How the hell did you do that?" she asked Hardwick, narrowing her eyes. Could it really be true that this was why the boss kept Hardwick around? Because he had some magical powers? It would explain why he was around, since he seemed to have no other skills in any area to speak of. Still, how unfair was it that he should have some bad-ass superpowers? He was a dunce!
"It's a trick I learned at the Institute," Hardwick said, shrugging. "Guess that goes without saying. But anyway, you gonna report to the boss for us? I've got a lunch date—can't be late. This chick is seriously a babe, I'm telling you—"
Before she could protest, Hardwick had slipped out of the glass dome and was heading for the door. She stared after him in disbelief, then shook herself and quickly followed, trying to figure out just how she was going to word her report to the boss.