A Fair Trade


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Scene Title A Fair Trade
Synopsis Melissa is forced to make one of the most difficult decisions in her life.
Date May 15, 2011

Perry and Melissa's Apartment

This evening has Melissa at home. She doesn't normally work Sundays, and since it's just past dinner, she's in the living room, sitting on the floor playing with Junie. The apartment is immaculate, as is any place that Melissa is in for more than a few minutes, though there are more than a few signs around that a baby lives there. A toybox, highchair and the like.

Right now they're playing with brightly colored blocks with letters on them, stacking them up and laughing when they tumble over or when Junie knocks them over. There's some chatter, mostly from Mel, though Junie manages to get a few coherent words out now and again. 'Mama' is the most frequent one.

There comes a knock at the door.

And Perry doesn't knock, this being Perry's apartment. Melissa is expecting no visitors, but visitors are also not unheard of either — she's the head of the Symbiosis Foundation, and ever since she leased out the small, dingy little office in East Harlem under the charity's name, whispers have breezed through New York City with the swiftness of wind through the spring leaves trembling in the trees outside of the complex that she and Perry call their home. Journalists, at least, should have the courtesy to call before they show up at her door, but whoever is standing on the other side at least has a polite-sounding set of knuckles.

"Miss Pierce?" asks a muffled voice, female and demure. "Are you in?"

Melissa glances towards the door, then back to Junie, leaning forward to plant a kiss on her forehead. "You just keep playing with your blocks, honey," she says, before rising to her feet and moving to the door. She peeks out the peephole, then opens the door. "Yes? I'm Melissa Pierce," she says with polite curiosity.

There's nothing deceptive about the quality of the voice, it turns out. A middle-aged woman with eyes veiled by thin, wispy blonde lashes tilts her chin to look up at Melissa, who is easily half a foot taller than she is, though the difference in height does not appear to perturb her much if at all. She offers Melissa a smile and then a hand with thin, spindly fingers tipped with lacquered nails — if she takes it, she will find it brittle and a little cool to the touch. The shake itself, however, is earnest. "I apologize for not getting in touch with you sooner," she says. "My name is Christine Aldrich, and I work with the Department of Social Services. I understand that you've recently filed some paperwork?"

The hand is taken, but the expression doesn't change until the woman introduces herself. "Oh yes, of course. For adoption," Melissa says, smiling and opening the door a little wider, glancing back towards Junie to make sure she hasn't gotten into anything that she shouldn't be. "Would you like to come in?" she offers, motioning towards the interior of the apartment.

Christine's smile grows tight at the word adoption and, for a moment, looks like it might fall right off her face if jostled too hard. "Yes," she says, "please," and a look twisted over her shoulder summons a figure in her periphery that Melissa had not been able to see when she first looked out the peephole.

Unlike Mrs. Aldrich, she recognizes the shadow's face as soon as he steps into the light and stops being a shadow. If Colonel Heller had knocked on Melissa's door himself, she might not have answered, which is probably why he had 'Christine' do it for him. There's nothing immediately dangerous behind the cool shark blue of his eyes, but his stare (although relaxed) is as predatory as ever.

"There's nothing to be alarmed about," Christine feels compelled to say. "Only a few— ah, complications that need to be cleared up before we can proceed."

There may not be anything immediately dangerous, but Melissa's smile dims and she pulls the door closer to her, head tilting. "And who is this? It isn't usual for two people to come to someone's house to discuss an adoption, is it?"

"It isn't usual for someone to file adoption paperwork for a child that doesn't belong in her custody," Christine answers, and it's a little bit of a strain to keep her voice level in the face of Melissa's accusation. "The little girl— Junko, isn't it? Her biological mother is a woman named Mizuki Rasmussen. I believe you may have known her as Pandora."

Melissa's brow arches. "I don't believe you answered my question, Miss Aldrich. Who is that man and why is he here? I'm not answering anymore questions until you answer that one and show me some identification. Both of you."

Christine is apparently a very patient woman who has been doing this for a long time, because her response is to go fishing in her purse for what Melissa asks. Heller, on the other hand, says in a very low voice: "You know who I am." Nevertheless, he too produces the identification demanded because he can be patient as well and even though the city is under martial law, giving him every right to force his way into the apartment without explanation, he opts to humour her for now.

They are who their registration cards say they are, and non-Evolved both. "There's no need for hostility, Miss Pierce," Christine says. "You and I have Junko's best interests at heart, and I'd very much like to discuss them if you'd allow us to step inside."

Christine's ID is barely glanced at, while Melissa looks at Heller's for a long moment. With her hand hidden behind the door she pulls out her phone, quietly hitting speed dial for Perry's phone. Oh yes, she knows who Heller is. "I'm not hostile, Miss Aldrich. But I'm not sure why you brought a military man, much less a murderer, to discuss adoption. I'd very much like to know the answer to that question before I allow either of you inside. I very much love my daughter, but I wouldn't be much of a mother if I let someone dangerous into my home, now would I? And I, quite frankly, fear for both my life and my daughter's life if I allow him into this apartment," she says flatly.

"She's not your daughter," Christine reminds Melissa gently, her voice growing tighter by the minute, "and the colonel is here because the paperwork's complications concern the operation he's conducting on Staten Island." She slips the identification card back into her purse the same time that Heller disappears his into the drab coat he wears, much shorter than the heavier wool thing he wore the last time they crossed paths and Junko came into Melissa's care. "I understand that you have your reasons for resenting the military's presence in your home — many people do — but you have my word as a mother myself that no harm will come to either you or Junko."

"It's not your word I'm concerned about Miss Aldrich. It's Colonel Heller's that worries me. It's not that he's military, my uncle is with the Department of Homeland Security. It's that he's a murderer," Melissa says, voice still flat, but pitched to carry to the phone that she's tucked into her pocket, microphone pointed upward in the hopes that Perry will hear everything he needs to. "I'd like to understand why any of this concerns some operation currently in effect on Staten Island. This should be about a little girl whose mother was executed in front of me for no reason. I don't know her mother's name, I never got the chance to ask. And I've been taking care of her, loving her, since November eighth."

This time, it's Heller that answers. "Mrs. Rasmussen's death is indeed under investigation," he says, "as there are rumours circulating that some men under my command may have made a grievous error. Her body was among those identified at a makeshift triage center where our forces engaged in a firefight with Messiah operatives. It is certainly possible that the girl's mother was caught in the crossfire — that happens sometimes, please understand — but I'm sure the events of the eighth are not as you remember them."

Heller's back straightens. "I've spoken personally with Mrs. Rasmussen's parents, and they indicated to me that their daughter was pregnant when she was reported missing, shortly after her husband's death. I of course told them that I remembered nothing about a child. Then you filed your paperwork, and Mrs. Aldrich found it very distressing that you were vying to adopt an infant with no legal identity to speak of."

"You're not the first," Christine cuts in sharply, perhaps on Melissa's behalf. "We've had half a dozen or so cases in the past few months where people in your position have made an attempt to legally claim children who have been under their care since the deaths of their biological parents on the eighth, but what you're doing is in no way legal at all. Junko should have been surrended to our offices as soon as you came into possession of her so she could be reunited with her family."

Melissa stares at Heller for a long moment. "You are completely full of it. What happened on the eighth was that people who'd been hurt by the riots were getting patched up. A bunch of soldiers showed up, picked half a dozen people, lined them up against a wall, and executed them. They were the only ones who fired. But I guess you don't really care about the truth, now do you?"

She looks back to Christine. "In no way legal at all? So you didn't come here to discuss anything, did you? You came here to take my baby. I may not have given birth to her, but I couldn't love her anymore if I had. More, she's been with me for nearly eight months now. You really think it's in her best interest to be taken out of a stable, loving home, with someone she considers her mother, and put her in foster care? For all I know, if I gave her to you, your buddy Heller there would shoot her the moment she was out of sight. Or would shoot me so I can't tell people what really happened on the eighth to my daughter's mother."

The trill of Pericles Jones' ringtone, tinny and generic, sounds from his pants pocket as he peers at a small lightbulb fitting, pensive brown stare considering the electrical elements, thumb brushing at the copper ribbon, checking its tensile strength, judging conductivity, durability, resistance. Only so many people ever manage to be the last customers in a hardware store, and fewer still are there browsing, but Perry is not many people, but rather one, singular and peculiar.

Nothing terribly noteworthy about his answer, though. Fitting set back in its bin, Perry lifts the phone to his ear, flipping it open, about to say hello but-

A conversation is in progress. Melissa's voice, then another voice, a woman, unfamiliar, but at their home? It's the third voice, though, that gets him moving, hand lifting to ward off an apron'd store employee who is about to remind him that the place is closing. It's a needless reminder.

Perry is heading home anyways.

"If I was that sort of person," Heller counters, "assuming what you're saying is true, I'd have silenced you already — and I can't for any reason think how I might benefit from murdering a child, in cold blood or otherwise. It's a ridiculous implication." The leather of his glove creaks. If there is any temptation to look past Melissa into the apartment where Junko is still knocking blocks together in blissful ignorance, it does not show on his face.

Christine is not quite so temperate. Her expression pinches into one of frustration and concern, and she breaks eye contact with Melissa just long enough to glance up at Heller, searching for any indication that what the other woman says might be true. What she finds there is between her and God, if there is one, and she's quick to look back at Melissa on the threshold.

"You're making this so much more difficult than it has to be," she says, and her voice is abruptly a murmur. "Mrs. Rasmussen's parents— Junko's grandparents are her rightful caretakers, and they very, very much want to raise their granddaughter. There's absolutely no way you can fight this, Miss Pierce. If you don't surrender the child immediately, the colonel is prepared to arrest you on charges of kidnapping, and I don't think the courts are going to disagree."

"Kidnapping? Because I'm trying to keep an innocent child out of the hands of a murderer? And I'll prove it too. You can have Matt Parkman dig through my brain and he'll see that I'm telling the truth," Melissa says, her hand tightening on the door. "You came here under false pretenses, bringing a soldier who helped kill this child's birth mother. Do you know what it looked like, Christine? To watch a soldier snatch a baby from its mothers arms? To watch those soldiers shove people against walls and just shoot them? Innocent people, who'd done nothing wrong? I do. I have nightmares about it. Junie's mother wasn't caught in any firefight. She was killed in cold blood, on purpose. And that is who you want to give this child to?" She shakes her head. "you have no right to work with children."

She wants to glance back to Junie, desperately, but doesn't dare let Heller out of her sights. His ID may say non-evolved, but she's well aware of the existance of fakes. "If this girl's grandparents want her back, then I will go with you, I will see that she is put in their custody. Otherwise I swear by everything that's holy, I'll fight this. And if I find out that she hasn't been given to her grandparents? If you haven't done exactly what you said you would? I will use every bit of influence that my family has to see that you go to jail for the rest of your life. And trust me, my family has influence."

"Miss Pierce." Christine has finally reached her breaking point; her words split down the middle with something like anguish and embarrassment. Whether or not she believes Melissa, she at least sympathizes with her and begins to reach out with a comforting hand for her arm, then thinks the better of it. The tips of her fingers settle on her thigh. "You have every right to fight this," she says, "but not the grounds, and in the highly unlikely event this does come before a judge, I'm obliged to tell the court everything that's been said here today. What you're telling me might not sound outlandish to you, but to the legal system it's—"

"That's enough, Mrs. Aldrich."

Christine goes silent, and dips head head, eyes focused not on Melissa's face but the floor.

"I'd like to have a few moments alone with Miss Pierce," Heller says, "if I could," and with a sharp nod the petite social worker is already moving away. Heller braces a hand on the doorframe. Waits until Christine is out of earshot. Then, "Exactly what are you hoping to accomplish here?"

Melissa starts to reply to Christine when Heller interrupts. The moment the other woman is gone Mel glares at Heller. "I want to keep my daughter. I don't want to give her to a man that I know has killed people. We both know her mother wasn't killed in any crossfire with Messiah. That's total bullshit. All I want, is to keep my daughter. I'd love to see you rotting in a jail cell for the rest of your life, but I don't see that happening quite as easily. And honestly? I'd forget about that so long as I got custody of that little girl. Legally. So no one like you or her could come knocking on my door."

Heller is silent. He listens to the sound of the little girl inside the apartment, only a few feet away, and allows Melissa to do the same. When he does speak again, it's in the same controlled tone — any anger that he might be experiencing at Melissa's outburst he keeps contained like a furious moth trapped in the cup of his overlarge hands. "How far are you willing to go for custody of the child?"

Melissa arches a brow. "What are you asking for?" she asks, her intense dislike for the man visible, but her voice is reasonably steady. She doesn't speak too quietly though, still making sure that Perry can hear. Of course she'd feel better if she knew that he was listening.

"You and I have a mutual acquaintance," says Heller, "who tells me that the two of you share common roots. There are things I need to know. She seemed to indicate you might be able to help."

Melissa frowns a little and shakes her head. "I'm not sure what in the hell you're talking about, Heller, so get to the point already."

"Where is the Ferry hiding?"

Melissa blinks, then frowns harder. "How the hell should I know? Which, if you need me to spell it out, means I have no idea. Wish I did though, because I really want to keep my daughter."

"Enough," Heller snarls under his breath with the sort of savagery he does not allow his mouth or eyes, glacial clear, to show. "Susan Ball says you operated a safehouse on Roosevelt Island called the Den before you quit the organization due to a disagreement with Scott Harkness. Scott Harkness, who has confirmed to me your involvement with the network. Help me find them, and you have my personal guarantee that the late Mrs. Rasmussen's parents will have a sudden change of heart.

"Ball's report indicates that you aren't on the best of terms with the council after what Harkness did to you, and rightly so, but your loyalty to your friends within the network is still strong. Right now, all that interests me is their leadership — the men and women who betrayed you, in exchange for a long and happy life with little Junie. Fair trade, don't you think?"

Melissa considers Heller for a very long moment. "Scott Harkness is working with you?" she asks, very, very quietly. "Susan doesn't surprise me, I knew she was a royal bitch. But Scott Harkness?" She falls silent for a long moment. "I want this in writing. Right now, before I tell you anything. I want you and the child services chick both to do it. I want to make it as legal as possible, then I'll give you the location. I don't get that, you don't get your info."

"Legality is a tricky thing," Heller says, and it's difficult to say what colour his knuckles are beneath the leather sheaths that are the fingers of his gloves. He's clutching the doorframe very tightly. "And so is intel, especially when it's coming from a source as close to the target as you were. I can't put anything in writing, and Mrs. Aldrich is entirely unaware of the offer I'm making you now, so you're just going to have to trust me. I wasn't lying when I told you that I wouldn't benefit from killing a child. Not incidentally, I've got nothing to gain from killing you either. I feel like we can help each other out, so here's what's going to happen.

"Mrs. Aldrich will leave with Junko and take her directly to Mrs. Rasmussen's parents in Brooklyn. I'll arrange for you to visit with them first thing tomorrow morning so you can rest assured that she's in good hands. When you're satisfied, you're going to get in touch with your friends in the Ferry, and tell them that you have some very important information regarding my operation on Staten Island. You will arrange a place and time to meet. It's not that I don't trust you — it's just that I don't trust you. Believe me when I say that I know the feeling is mutual, but as long as you do everything in your power to ensure that the network's leadership makes the date, as far as I'm concerned, you may as well have given birth to the girl yourself."

There's another long, long look from Melissa to Heller. "I'm not on the best of terms with them. And if the leadership doesn't show up, despite my best efforts? Or if they kill you if they do show up? What then? I get screwed? I lose my daughter? All because you decided it would be fun to use me to get to the Ferry?"

Heller rolls one shoulder up into a shrug that's much too tense to be casual despite initial appearances. "Do everything in your power to help me and I will, as long as there is breath in my body, do everything in my power to help you. I take absolutely no pleasure in this — regardless of what you may have heard, I'm a pragmatist, not a sadist, and there's no need to rush into it. If you feel as though you need time to regain their trust, take it. In fact: I insist. Get to know the network again before making the arrangements, and in the meantime you can visit with Junko every day, and perhaps I can even convince them to let you spend a night or two."

"As long as there's breath in your body? That's reassuring. There's a lot of people who would love to see you dead. I wouldn't mourn either, for that matter," Melissa says dryly. "But how do I know you won't just screw me over? We both know that your word is only as good as your honor. I'll let Junie go to her grandparents, for now, but I want you doing your damndest to get me temporary custody. I want her back here if I'm going to be doing all this work for you. And that way, if the Ferry kills you, I still have my daughter."

"Give me a piece of paper and something to write with," says Heller, "and I'll leave you with a gesture of goodwill."

Melissa looks skeptical, but she nods. "You're waiting out there." The door is closed, the lock flipped, but Melissa returns in a minute, opening the door again and offering him a pen and piece of paper.

Heller flattens the paper between the palm of his hand and the wall. Takes the pen between the long fingers of the other and begins scratching dark marks across the page that take the shapes of letters, then words, then complete sentences. He is fastidious even when it comes to ink.

I, Colonel Leon Heller, judge Melissa Belle Pierce not only to be sound of body and mind, but also a competent caregiver and parent to one Junko Rasmussen. It is my professional opinion that the child should remain with her surrogate mother rather than be returned to the custody of either of her biological grandparents.

When Melissa sees the writing she arches a brow and nods. "Not bad. Get Aldrich to sign as a witness, hand it over, then we're good to go. For now," she says, tilting her head towards the direction the woman took off in.

A short bark from Heller has Christine hurrying back to the doorway, and although she looks at the note pinned to the wall by Heller's hand with understandable confusion, she does not hesitate for more than a few awkward moments before fumbling with the pen herself and signing her own name in the bottom righthand corner. His explanation to her is succinct, confusing, and ultimately does not matter.

Not everyone is as defiant under martial law as Melissa. He tells her to sign. She signs.

After Christine signs Melissa holds out a hand for the paper. Only after she has it, and has it tucked into her pocket, does she nod to Christine. "I want the address of her grandparents before you leave. Don't worry, I don't plan on harassing them," she says, finally glancing away, with a sad look towards Junie. It may be a temporary separation, but it still hurts.

Looking back to Christine she says, "Give me a minute to get some of her things together and tell her bye. You can come in, but I still don't want him in here."

Christine does come in, either to help Melissa with Junko, put as much distance between herself and Heller — or both. These things don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Even if loyalty to a cause and loyalty to one's family and self evidently are.

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