wf_ace_icon.gif wf_nicole_icon.gif wf_zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Freedom
Synopsis While getting a tune up, a government asset recalls what led him to this position.
Date August 5, 2016

The Innovator's Lab

Light washes down over a metallic, sterile exam room like the brightness itself might serve to cleanse it further still. The quiet seems to allow for the ever present mechanical background buzz to grow that much louder with every second that passes, most of it flooding in from the main part of the laboratory just outside a cracked door, despite the space sitting dark and unattended.

It's six o' clock in the morning, after all, why would anyone already be working?

Except that this is the time Ace is always summoned here, every six months, on the dot. The sturdy, adjustable chair in the middle of the room is the only place to sit, and is pointed directly at a wall plastered with framed certificates and pictures taken at events - people standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, shaking hands. Frippery.

A pale clock on the wall ticks over to 6 o'clock, and out of the nowhere beyond that darkness, there is a -click- before the sound of footfalls manifest. They grow nearer, quickly and confidently, before the door swings open with a start. Dr. Zachery Miller strides into the room with one hand still up near his shoulder to smooth out his asymmetrical white coat to perfection.

"I have never felt better," the doctor says immediately and unprompted upon entering the room, despite turning to pull open a box of gloves rather than look at the room's previously sole occupant. "You know, I really do think it's about treating yourself. Having a nice breakfast, laying out your tasks for the day so you know what you're working with, and choosing to be the best version of yourself. That," he pauses, if only for dramatic effect, "is freedom."

Ace has been watching the clock, been here for the last ten minutes doing nothing but that. He turned on the lights on his way in before taking his seat, elbow on one knee and hand on the other while he assumed a position of waiting, tense and … anxious.

He wonders if maybe today will be the day the good doctor decides to sleep in, and wonders if the resulting bloom of blood will be awe-inspiring to observe. If it will be noted at all. Staring at the accolades hanging on the wall, he resolves to at least ruin those.

He will be remembered for something.

The sound of the approaching doctor saves him from his planning, the likes of which he isn't even sure he'd be able to act on, and draws his eyes to the door. Ace doesn't so much as blink as it swings in with gusto, massaging his knee in an idle attempt to filter patience into his being. The doctor was always happiest when he was at work, and it was so grating for the gunman to have to suffer through. Grating, but absolutely necessary.

"And what stunning bit of freedom have you chosen to express yourself through today?" Ace asks in a drawl, slowly pushing himself into an upright sit. He doesn't bother turning to look at Zachery yet, either. There's enough pictures of his false, smiling face already in front of him. "Wearing laboratory white instead of surgeon teal?" It's not meant to be an open scoff, but his disaffected presentation of commentary makes his disdain nearly transparent. "I think we both know what would make for an excellent expression of freedom more than that would."

The ability to be his best self is something Ace Callahan frequently pines for, and something that was almost unceremoniously stripped from him years past now.

It could have been less ceremoniously done, as well. Doctor Miller might not have been there, with his flare for the dramatic, to twist the knife and lean into stripping him of his freedom. Heaven forfend, he might have had the poor luck of crossing Doctor Ford, instead.

"But you've not got true freedom, do you?" Ace purrs, even as he leans back, head hitting the headrest of the angled chair. "The only freedom you have is how enthusiastically you'll set about a choreography pre-prepared for you."

"Ooh, look who's got some energy today," Doctor Miller responds in the distinct sing-song of a compliment, snapping a black glove onto a hand and turning to aim a look at Ace from where he stands. His eyes narrow in idle study and idle pleasure both — if the attempt to strike a nerve does anything except sustain him, he does not show it.

"Have you been taking all of your vitamins, then? Staying healthy, hale." False concern joins the smile, exaggerated to the point of where it may as well be dripping from his words. "You look healthy enough, but all that hostility can be indicative of so many underlying issues."

With the second glove still held, he reaches his right and ungloved hand to press fingertips across Ace's forehead - thumb against his temple - pushing his head slowly but firmly to the side to get a better look at the implant that sits at the base of his patient's skull.

Like so many things Zachery Miller does, Ace allows the skin-to-skin contact without fight because he likes living. It doesn't stop the tensing of his expression, the twitching of skin in recoil away from the touch just before it happens. His hand along the armrest of the chair now grips the end of it tightly, eyes flickering shut as he wills himself to display a calm he simply does not possess in this situation.

Once he's properly turned his head to the side, he adjusts his posture just slightly in the interest of making the uncomfortable somewhat bearable. His eyes open again to fix a dagger-filled stare against the wall.

"I don't know," Ace muses in reply finally, "Did the studies come back yet on what long-term negation does to a person?" He glances back over at Zachery for just a moment. With dripping sarcasm he asks, "Or are we still underway?"

"We are still underway." The answer comes back dry, with an unwillingness to play this particular game. They also accompany a push of that thumb on Ace's temple, pushing his head back into a more favourable position. It is a reminder, even if a short-lived one, because his hand slips away to allow Zachery to round the table in a clean few steps, followed shortly by the snap of the second glove being pulled into place.

"You realise, of course, that the choreography is a facilitation of sorts." He lifts a dark, metal cylinder out of his pocket, leaning forward to press a gloved hand against the back of Ace's head with just enough pressure to keep it steady. "A little like breathing. Once you've got the rhythm down, it's what you get away with between the beats that matters."

The cylinder is pressed against the implant at the base of Ace's skull, which is just as routine as the fact that it always seems to be ice cold against the exposed skin around the metal. While he waits, holding it in place, Zachery's smile pulls ever so slightly more to one side than the other. "So what fun have you been up to lately, then?" Between the beats.

Perhaps the flatness that enters Zachery's voice is victory enough for Ace, because he doesn't press the topic further himself, remaining still even as the pressure leaves his head. He's fully aware of just how painful this can be if he makes it difficult for the doctor to do his work. And he's already in pain, and not just from the last jab of his thumb.

There's a sensitivity to light brought about by a lack of sleep, the bone-settled poison of stress and unhappiness from a person who deeply despises their life affecting him questionably just as much as the cranial implant might. He's experienced teeth-grinding headaches for the better part of three years, though he is ever the image of grinning and bearing it.

The grins are coming less these days, though.

In moments like this, there is always, in his mind, the implicit threat that Zachery could simply just… not perform the procedure if it suited his whims. Relief from that concern comes in the form of that ice-cold chill to the back of his neck, a slow breath flowing from him at the feeling of it. It's lifegiving, for all that it's cold as death. The signs that the doctor is beginning to perform his work brings a rare flood of endorphins to rush his system, so much more than the slight shift that had occurred in him at his perceived win in their banter.

So he continues talking.

"Well, they haven't decided it would be fun to throw me back on the front lines and use me as human bait yet," Ace opines without particular emotion, "Thus it would seem my skills are still in demand. But I wouldn't say that's fun. I'd say it's a lot like that choreography, in a way. We're both just marionettes, waiting for a twist of the hand to set us on our next dance…" Such allusions aren't uncommon for him. Like always, he continues to try and find rapport with the doctor.

Letting his eyes close, he mentally braces himself for any unpleasantness to come, grip on the arm of the chair still as tight as before. His voice would never give it away, with all the false grace in it. "What fun I have going for me, I suppose, is that I'm at least conscious when I'm not in use. Better off than some of your other tools."

And in that, right or wrong, merited or not— he does take some small pride. He derives pleasure from imagining he has some amount of worth that merits him this luxury. Not merit enough for his government to give him both license to kill on their behalf and the use of his ability, but merit enough.

"And if nothing else, you could call being at home instead of some trench abroad its own form of fun." Ace concludes without enthusiasm. For all his attempts to find silver linings in his situation, after all, he still loathes it. "I have the DoEA to thank for that, at least."

Zachery holds still. He does not look at Ace but observes him all the same, keeping metal connected to metal as flesh and blood are studied through the ability he was permitted to keep.

Not without a price, but permitted all the same.

Only once the silence falls heavily over the two of them does he seem to come back to life with a shallow but audible inhale, and the tone of voice he adopts is just as cheery as it was when he entered - as though none of the conversation since has reached him at all.

"Sometimes you remind me of a little wind-up animal." His head dips a tick, eyes homing in on the device he's holding the same way one might look at a microwave they can feel is about to ding, internal timing courtesy of repetition. "Just chattering along for the sake of it. Or a bird, chirping incessantly toward the great, green beyond from within its single, lonely tree — hoping to hear back."

Then, the unpleasantness arrives.

First in the form of a beep, almost too quiet for Zachery to hear but considerably easier to pick up within Ace's very skull. Almost instantly, it's followed by a small twist of Zachery's wrist, and then a pull outward, which jerks Ace's head momentarily against bracing fingers and palm.

Like a cap twisted off of a bottle, the face of the implant comes away from the back of Ace's skull, staying connected by way of a tiny, shiny wire. Zachery coils it nimbly between two fingers so as to make sure he pulls it away as carefully as he can.

But not before saying, still leaned in close, "You and I are nothing alike."

Four Years Earlier…

In contrast to the man in the labcoat, the man on the other side of the glass is thrashing against the bonds that tie him down, chains and cuffs clanging wildly. He lets out a scream best described as feral, all while Zachery on this side of the glass could be considered the picture of civilized.

The file in his hand notes the subject in the DoEA interrogation room as A. Callahan, an ejected Army specialist. The various numbers and letters denoting his rank and skill identifiers have been boiled down in plain language for him: Sniper, special forces. It seemed ironic and apropos both that for such a skillset, his apparent ability seemed to be some kind of phasing. Often solitary, he'd gone undetected for longer than one would figure, but something odd during an argument nearly come to blows had given him away. He'd been negated in his sleep in his bunk and turned over to the DoEA for whatever processing they deemed fit.

Phasing. The negation drugs he was given were either shortly about to wear off, or they already had. In either case, they needed reapplied. The bulging vein on the side of Callahan's head as he pulls with all his might against the cuffs chaining him to the table shows he's trying his best to escape physically. A flicker in his being barely perceptible to the human eye but visible like a ping on a radar indicates to Zachery that he's attempting and failing to engage his ability fully, for one reason or another. At intervals, pieces of Callahan stop registering as present, as real. They become gaps in Zachery's awareness of the being only some feet away, the blind spots appearing in chunks before being blinked away.

Each attempt seems to be diminishing the disgraced Armyman's energy, too. Scrabbling attempts of an animal trying to escape a trap become less insistent with each gasping try Callahan makes. He's by no means given up, but he's grown tired, wrists bloodied for his efforts. Teeth gritting, he lays his head forward on the table and pulls his wrists toward himself as hard as he can, trying to snap the shackle that binds his hands to the table. If it and his chair weren't bolted to the ground, surely either of them would have moved by now for all the energy he's put into willing them to let him go.

But Ace Callahan was a man difficult to hit in a fistfight, not one possessed of supernatural strength. The steel is unyielding to him.

Broken skin, strained sinew, burning muscle and bone-deep aching. These make sense. They register almost on the same level as the information provided by the file, but neither of them is why Zachery has remained standing at the glass.

Something in what he's seeing creases his brow, jaw rolling forward with this last exertion. His fingertips find his palms as he watches the struggle, before he becomes aware and presses both hands flat against the cooler fabric of his coat.

This wasn't the plan for today. He doesn't really want to be here. He turns his head, but only just, to dart a look to the side and toward the door through which he'd entered the room earlier. Maybe he can just leave, and this will be someone else's problem.

A. Callahan will be someone else's problem.

Before he's able to give it any more thought, one of those flickers in and out draws his attention sharply back to the man on the other side of the glass.

Barely a heartbeat later, he heads for the door, but it's the wrong one — foregoing the system and rules in place for these sort of things to barge gracelessly into the room, notes left behind.

It's the sort of risk Zachery would learn not to take in the years to come, but for now, Ace finds himself suddenly no longer alone. Standing across from the table, with a look of frustration and confusion both, the doctor asks one, simple question. "What are you fighting for?"

Even in the throes of his struggle, Ace hears the door open and snaps his head up from the table, fists clenched. His posture shifts to match it as soon as he sees just who it is on the other side of the table. He changes in an instant, mask slipping into place and hiding away the animal he'd been moments before. Intellectually, he must know the other side of that mirrored glass was bound to have someone watching, but he puts himself back together all the same, as if he can pretend he's anything other than what he's been reduced to.

Heart hammering away in his chest, the green-grey of his gaze is more raw than sharp. "What the fuck do you think?" Ace asks in return, but it's more a demand for an answer to a question he finds to be rhetorical in the first place.

"This isn't fucking funny." He holds up both of his hands, spreading them to advertise the chain between both cuffs. "What the fuck is the meaning of this? I'm a soldier of the United States Army, a loyal fucking soldier, and when my commanding officer finds out what the fuck is going on here, you'll be fucking lucky to collect unemployment by the time they're through with you."

There's unshakable authority in his voice, even though it must be dawning on him by now that this isn't a mistake. Ace doesn't remember how he got here, but he doesn't need to to bully his way back out.

"You get me the fuck out of these," and what these are he highlights with a closed-fisted rattle of his cuffs. "And you get your fucking supervisor." His eyes sharpen, the control in his voice and his demeanor slipping for just a moment as he snaps, "Now."

Zachery flinches when his question finds a demand rather than an answer, shoulders creeping up. He's rendered speechless, underlying distress visible through the unblinking stare he aims at the man ahead of him. Inexperience robs him of the knowledge required to deal with this the way he'd like, and it stings.

But when his attention is drawn to the cuffs, his look of helplessness is joined by something else - something altogether more surprising. An inhale that might have otherwise been reserved for the beginning of a sentence leaves him in a chuckle instead, a baffled blink suggesting the sound from his own throat catches him off-guard. Straightening in an attempt to recompose himself, he continues to observe.

The shift in balance that leaves him free to move but Ace tethered to the furniture lends an edge to the only word he decides to offer in return —


It's not an acceptable answer.

Ace slams his hands down on the table in a clatter of skin and metal, and begins to rise from the chair, a predatory coldness in his eyes as he slowly comes to his height. "Get," he hisses out between his teeth, "The fucking keys." There's a stillness and smoothness to his movement, the way he hunches over the table.

"If we're going to fucking do this," he remarks with the flash of a canine, "Let's do it like civilized men? Hn?"

But his posturing ends precisely at the moment it becomes obvious he can't lift himself up to his full height. His legs are unable to straighten entirely, the position of the fixed chair and fixed table not permitting him to do so. Ace's patience for the situation and his position fades again visibly, his hands slowly pulling back toward him in the hunch that grows awkward. Without breaking eye contact, his jaw locks and turns his smile masklike at the same moment that shift under his skin occurs again, one that's impossible to see by the light alone.

This time, it's focused around his hands and forearms. For just a moment, there's a flicker in his state of existence, the tension of his muscles no longer something keenly felt across the room… but it's another false start, accompanied by a short exhale of annoyance through his nose.

Ace made a plea for civility, but the narrowing of his eyes as he smiles gives away he's only moments from being anything but civil. If he were able to properly engage his ability, perhaps they'd already be past that point.

But as it stands, Ace is not able to do that.

"I've done a lot of stupid things in my life," Zachery speaks again, swallowing back some discomfort regarding the sheer amount of truth in the beginning of his statement, "But I'm not about to add 'let a rabid dog off of his leash' to that list."

His own expression does not seem to want to settle on any one thing. Not quite fear, because he's out of reach. Not quite hostility, because he does not see anything worth fighting. Not quite enjoyment because that's…


Maybe a little enjoyment. A gleam in his eyes as he repeats, this time calmly, "What are you fighting for?"

Ace settles back down to his seat, one hand curling and flexing while his head tips forward to turn his look up at Zachery into nothing short of a glare. His smile, false as it was, vanishes. Rabid dog, was he? As loath as he is to admit it, perhaps he understands— fleetingly— where one might get that impression. The chafe of the cuffs about his wrists must not look pleasant from an outside angle. His throat is coarse from lack of water, and too much growling at his current state of being. He's done a terrible job at making a first impression, he concedes silently.

But none of that manifests visibly. Instead, considering the question posed to him, he slowly lifts his head back just a touch— regarding the researcher, peon, doctor, or whatever the hell Zachery was supposed to be down the length of his nose. His posture relaxes, sinking back into the cold metal as though he were lounging in an armchair.

What was he fighting for?

"What are you here for?" Ace sneers in reply.

With uncertainty yet lingering, Zachery meets that glare with a much more passive gaze of his own. But there's something eager in the way he draws his next breath, and in the smile that twitches itself into being as he leans onto the toes of his shoes. What's he here for, Ace asks?

"You, if I've understood correctly." Zachery answers.

He drops back down onto his heels, then takes a step sideways and back, taking a moment to peer out the door from whence he came. "I think the implication is that I'm supposed to think of some way to make use of you. Honestly, I'm not sure what to think of their judgement that they'd leave that up to me, but I've read what they had on you, and…"

His eyes land back on Ace again, but rather than his face, it's the damaged wrists that he stares at now, that smile blossoming further outward still. "You do seem fun."

A scoff rises from Ace, what lies in his face and what lives in his eyes at odds with each other for a moment longer than he likes. With a blink he looks away, ignoring the chill bringing the hair on the back of his neck to raise like hackles. He should be pleased he wasn't simply put up against a wall and shot, he supposes.

Apparently, all the time, effort, and money poured into him made him a little more valuable than that.

It's with a sunny smile again that he looks back to Zachery, the malice guarded in it just so. "Ace Callahan, pleasure to meet you. Who are you supposed to be— Doctor Horrible?" One eyebrow pops with that question, slow to level back out again. In that time, his eyes flick to the badge on Zachery's chest. And ah, there's a snip of information he can claim for himself, ground gained back in this poorly skewed balance of power between them. "Miller. Miller, I happen to be good at my job. At shooting those who'd threaten the integrity of this country." His expression scrunches in condescension. "So if you could just let me get back to that."

Name revealed without complaint, Zachery steps forward and close to the table again. One of his hands draws inward, tracing along the seam of a coat pocket before he catches himself and pulls the hand up to scrub it over his jaw instead.

"Back to what?" He questions, more sincerely than he's been so far. However tempting mockery is in this moment, something much more like sympathy drains the joy from his expression now. The sigh that leaves him makes it look more like pity. "Ace Callahan," he echoes, trying the name out for a spin, "You were relinquished voluntarily. This country doesn't want you back."

There's no bite to his voice anymore. It's just a fact.

It's the thinnest of blades which slice with the greatest efficiency, though. And though they lack bite, the words do cut. They cut straight through any tension in Ace's expression, features smoothing out to a blank, uncrumpled slate.

Silence serves as his only reply for some time, his vacant gaze turned inward.

And then he begins to laugh. It begins with a scoffed snort, and then breaks into a humorous bellow which hardly shakes his frame for how loud it is. His eyes close and his head tilts back as he continues to chuckle. On the table, one hand slowly closes into a fist, nail biting into skin.

Relinquished. Like a defective pet at a shelter.

"Too ugly to keep, and too attractive to kill. What a situation for you, Miller." he remarks, smile just as vacant as before. That, too, fades as he lets out a sigh that deflates him, the hollowness in his expression spreading. "Well…" The next thing he says is entirely bereft of the valor he'd been pretending at still having. "Well,—"

One Week Later


The desk in Ace's small cell goes flying, hitting the adjacent wall and falling on its side in a messy clatter. The two books he'd been provided with to pass the time with hit the ground momentarily after, one of them in a somersault of pages.

The fucking chains clatter around his wrists and ankles. They've grown longer, attached to a sturdy eyelet drilled into the floor, but they've also grown worse. Ace doesn't know what exactly was done to the heavy, fabric-bound cuffs— he just knows that every time he tries to shift his form, he instantly feels nauseated. The more he pushes, the worse the vertigo gets, accompanied with a tiredness in his whole body. He had almost figured out the tethers, figured out what he needed to do to use his ability in a way that didn't attempt to also shift the entirety of every object bound to him, but then this happened.

He doesn't understand what's happened— what's changed entirely, what's sewn into the cuffs— but whatever it is, it's playing into a weakness in his ability he did not know he had. This? It's worse than being outright negated. This? Ace looks down himself. This is powerlessness.

Though permanent negation is soon to come, he reminds himself, and almost certainly before he figures out the workaround to this newest, devastating obstacle set before him.

And to think, he used to be untouchable.

Staggering to the corner now void of the desk, Ace's back hits the wall and he sinks down to the ground, elbows and biceps resting on his knees while he grips his growing hair, trying to will his spinning head into submission. His toes on the ground before him help him rock back and forth in place in a less violent attempt to soothe his nausea.

A groan leaves him, the heel of his hand grinding into the side of his head. Maybe if he was lucky, the next attempt he made would simply kill him.

The door to the cell swings open. Ace knows from experience that he can’t quite reach it, or whoever’s about to come through it, from the length of his tether. It isn’t the good doctor’s face he sees, however, but the feminine slip of a form of his favorite lab assistant. Ace has never seen her in motion before. She’s always been on display like a cherished doll. Devoid of life and soul.

She eyes him warily. Now, with her autonomy granted (such as it is), her eyes burn a bright shade of blue that does nothing to hide the apprehensiveness she feels when faced with Miller’s latest project. She stands there for a moment, awkward, unsure of what to do next. She toys with the sleeve of her sweater with one gloved hand — curious that only one is gloved — and lifts her chin a fraction once she’s sure she isn’t about to have him screaming in her face. “Hello, Mr. Callahan.”

Not having looked up on hearing the door open, it's only the sound of that softer voice which finally draws Ace's attention upward. His hand comes away from the side of his head as he lifts it up, expression blank in his surprise. Eyes narrow for just a moment at Nicole in suspicion, trying to assign purpose to her presence. Opting to pull one corner of his mouth back into a frown, his eyes remain in that squint not out of malice— but because it's easier than letting them absorb all the light above.

"Miller occupied, then?" he quips causticly. He lets out a scoff that might be a laugh, letting the heel of his hand press into the side of his forehead again. Ace sags in a sigh after. "Do you come bearing something useful, or just hello, Mr. Callahan?" he wonders airily, his eyes closed.

“He thinks I’m scrubbing down instruments in one of the labs right now,” she tells him. Meaning Miller doesn’t know she’s here. “I’m much more efficient at it than he realizes.” Her mouth twitches faintly like maybe she wanted to smirk. Or maybe grimace. “Yet.”

It’s a show of faith that she advances further into the cell after having closed the door behind her. “Let’s say I’m the ghost of your future.” For all that that is a terribly dramatic way of putting it, she’s bland in her delivery. And dramatics doesn’t temper truthfulness. “If… you don’t stop this.”

A placating hand is held up, just the one with those bare fingers, pale and slender. “That’s not a threat. I’m not here to hurt you. The doctor likes you.” She’s uneasy at that admission. “He likes me, too.” The unspoken meaning behind those words being that’s not something to aspire to.

The click of the door closing and the sound of footsteps drawing closer initiate a certain stillness within the man curled up on the floor. When his eyes open blearily, a quick-thinking mind does the math; the distance between him and her.

The heavy burden around his wrists and ankles would slow him too much, if the nausea wouldn't deprive him of his efficiency first. At least, at this range.

"Of course he likes me." Knowing, the sound of his voice is still strained for all that he tries to keep it light. "I'm charming, handsome, and would also murder him if I was given the opportunity— and he's enjoying very much using that against me."

"What's not to love?" Ace purrs, leaning into it, but even that's a half-hearted thing. Heavily, his hand falls away from his head and sinks to the floor beside him, too tired to keep it held up, it would seem. His head leans back against the wall. She's not a threat, she says. Curiously, he lifts his voice.

"What if you were here to hurt me, though?" His forehead wrinkles upward more than his brow lifts. "Wouldn't that be fun?"

“For you? Perhaps.” She looks down on Ace with a mixture of concern and pity. She was where he is now, once. Backed into a corner and itching to fight her way out. “Not for me. I’m no threat to you, but you… You are a threat to me.” All the same, she’s slowly lowering to the floor so she isn’t looking down her nose at him. Down now to her knees, gloved hand braced on the floor.

“You see, you could hurt me. I’d let you.” Now there’s the flicker of a ghost of a smile on the woman’s face. “Doctor Miller likes me, but I’m not irreplaceable. You would simply replace me as I replaced Anika. He’d enjoy teaching you to be as efficient as I am.” Her gaze drifts away. Apparently she’s dug at one of her own nerves there. “He’d have to get a bit more creative in his methods,” few people have so beautifully a built-in mechanism for torture as she does with her ability, “but he’d enjoy the challenge.”

Now, she inches closer, crawling forward on all fours until she’s within arm’s reach, then a bit further. She meets his gaze and waits a moment. “You think you know pain now…” She reaches out to rest one hand against his face. Her skin is warm against his cheek. Warmer than it should be. “You don’t. Not like what he’ll do to you if you don’t stop being interesting.

It's up until that point that Ace has maintained his calm, his distance. But the moment she begins to visibly reach for him, the fog in his eyes disappears, nostrils flaring. His hand wraps around her wrist, gripping tightly. He may be backed into a corner, but he leans forward once he's ensured that hand won't be touching him again.

"I won't have to worry about that," he assures her with sudden confidence. He's come to an understanding all too quickly that she's looking for him to be vicious, but she made the mistake of advising what would happen if he did. That doesn't lessen the discomfort of the pincer grasp around her arm, though. "You'll still be there to play the role of pretty porcelain doll. Have no fear."

Ace's posture shifts, back straightening out as he seeks out her eyes. "Though it beats me… why the show of concern?" Then there's a flicker of curiosity in his gaze as something dawns on him. "Do you see everything when you're…?"

Whatever it was she had been before.

“There you are,” she breathes out. The grip on her arm causes her to suck in a sharp breath through her nose, and she twists uncomfortably, but it’s just as she’s said. Nicole Nichols is no stranger to pain. He can feel her pulse thumping beneath her skin where his fingers press tightly around her wrist. He’s got her attention, for all that she’s playing it cool.

His question is one that no one’s bothered to ask her before. No one’s cared what she sees or doesn’t see. She’s just what he said she is, a porcelain doll. “All of it. He hasn’t perfected the process yet, and I’m disinclined to inform him of this fact.”

Seeing, knowing, is horrible. But it’s necessary for her continued survival. For all that she struggles with wanting to continue to survive. She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t — isn’t still — holding out hope that Ace will simply wrap his hands around her throat and choke the life out of her.

“I came here to show you what the future holds if you don’t start playing nice with him. If you don’t stop fighting.

Ace lets go of her arm, fingers splaying out in a dramatic gesture to indicate she's free to continue her business. In the drama of that moment, though, he leaves his arm held rather than letting it fall, even for the tremble visible in his muscles. "You know what would be more interesting, though," he suggests in a quieter voice. His hand lowers, wrist turning upward between them to show the lock around the cuff. "Is how we could bypass all of this mutual suffering if you gave me the tools. I'll even give you a beautiful death, if that's still what you want."

"I couldn't promise it'd be entirely painless. But it'd be a work of art." Ace's eyes gleam at the thought, the slightest smile coming to touch his lips. It all sounds so enchanting to him, and he sounds so convincing.

It'd just take one little act of rebellion. Just like the one they're embarking on already.

Withdrawing her arm, she doesn’t touch at the abused wrist, which will surely be wreathed nicely with purple blossoms later. Her gaze only lingers on his outstretched hand for a moment before it shifts to watch his mouth while he speaks. The way he forms words and schemes.

“I don’t believe you,” she admits softly. “You may be an artist, and I believe you would love to use me as your canvas…” She doesn’t pull away even as she questions his commitment to his suggestion, a small smile creeping across her face. “But you aren’t stupid enough to stick around long enough to do it. I let you go, you’ll wisely beat a hasty retreat, and I’ll be left to him.

Nicole’s brows lift, a quiet chuckle passing her lips. “And he won’t kill me.” Slowly, she tugs at the fingers of the glove on her left hand. “He’s made it very clear that he isn’t finished with me yet, and he won’t be for a long, long time.”

The glove falls away to reveal the backs of bone white fingers that are just a little too perfect. “You see, Miller’s an artist, too.” He doesn’t get long to study them before she’s curling both hands around the hem of her sweater and pulling it over her head, off her arms and leaving it in a heap next to her. “And I’m his masterpiece.”

It isn’t the smooth paleness of her bare skin broken up by black lace to provide the last shreds of modesty that’s on display here, however. It’s the fact that her left arm is entirely artificial from the elbow down. “If you don’t stop this,” now it’s her turn to lunge out, swift as a viper to capture his neck in her fabricated fingers, “this is what you’re going to have to look forward to.”

She’s not the only one who’ll be coming away from this encounter with bruises. As she closes her fingers more tightly, digging into the base of his spine while her thumb applies pressure to his artery, her eyes narrow. “Is this what you wanted?”

Ace's disappointment with Nicole for being unwilling to take a risk turns to fascination— a kind he shouldn't be wearing, much less feeling, on seeing those porcelain fingers bared. The complete vision, once revealed, where perfect form meets skin— it's exquisite.

Masterpiece, she calls herself. Under better circumstances, he'd agree with that assessment.

Unfortunately, that beautiful hand is wrapped around his throat. It catches his skin with force that could crush with the proper positioning. He can feel his skin protest at the unwanted touch, screaming in more ways than one from the pressure. Ace lets out a short breath in shock at her.

He's no smiles now, very still under her hand. "I think you underestimate how quickly I could be done with you," he opines with a forced calm, throat tensed. "I could give you your heart in the time it takes for it to beat. But by all means… keep squeezing instead of inviting an end for yourself." And then he leans into Nicole's grasp, eyes locked on hers.

It would be so easy, Nicole realizes. And she’d enjoy it to a certain extent. To have some control over someone’s life, if she can’t have control of her own. He can see it in her eyes as she leans in close, matching him for bravado. “No,” she shoves him back finally and shifts back to sit on her heels.

“I don’t want to watch him do to anyone else what he’s done to me.” She’s startled by how willing she’d been to end his life. Nicole slides back across the floor. Distance equals safety. For his body, for her soul. “So, get your shit together, or…”

Reaching out to gather her sweater toward her again, Nicole suddenly seizes. At first, it’s limited to just trembling, like she’s frightened by something. Then she drops to the floor, convulsing as her own ability, triggered remotely, courses through her. She lets out a broken cry of agony.

Someone’s figured out she isn’t where she’s supposed to be.

After several seconds, she falls still again, gasping raggedly for air. When it seems like she’s caught her breath and it’s over, it all begins anew. Her screaming, echoing off the walls, through the corridors, acts as a beacon for the one looking to find her. They won’t be alone much longer.

"Oh, puppet…" Sounds a familiar voice in joyless sing-song, carried through the hallways beyond the door. It's not mockery, and there's no enjoyment to help draw the word out. It's disappointment.

The sound of footsteps coming ever nearer are slow, screams dying down only to allow for the set-up and punchline— "Are you playing with our guest?" Curiosity turns to ice. "Or did you find an Ace and think yourself a queen."

The moment it seems like Nicole isn't going to finish putting herself back in order is the one that Ace lifts his head, bracing himself against the wall for only a moment before pushing himself away. He uses the weight around his hands in this moment to carry him far enough forward to grab the sweater, working it until he finds the gap meant for her neck. Her screams are piercing but might as well fall on deaf ears for how motivated he is, grabbing ahold of her convulsing arms and shoving stiff limbs back inside unyielding fabric.

Perhaps he's taken that warning about not being interesting somewhat seriously. Enough that he doesn't want her to be found disrobed in his cube of concrete.

Ace hears that sing-song call and works faster, taking advantage of the moment Nicole's internal taser is paused to yank the sweater down her torso. But then she's screaming and convulsing again, the polo to the doctor's called marco.

"Close enough," Ace decides in a hurried, nervous whisper, rolling her onto her side and then shoving her roughly with his foot to get her as far away from him as he possibly can. He stumbles back to his corner, head swimming in vertigo and an emotion he refuses still to name, and comes down into a heavy sit aided by the dense weights sewn into the cuffs. One knee pulls back to himself in a pale imitation of the position he'd been curled up into previously.

Places, please.

Nicole had tried to warn him to be less interesting, but he refuses to show fear, to cower. The concession he makes is he doesn't stare at her, or at the door. He leans his forehead into his knee instead, resuming trying to grind the headache right out of his skull.

To ignore the chill that's wanting to take root in his gut.

If she’d had at all the presence of mind to understand what Ace was doing, Nicole would have chided him and called him ridiculous. A half-dressed doll discarded on the floor is nothing.

As it happens, she doesn’t even realize she’s been redressed until she reaches up to wipe some of the tears from her face and finds her sleeve to be worthy of the task. The dark fabric hides the blood that’s run from her nose, but she recognizes it as too thick to be anything else. And despite pawing the moisture away, she still continues to cry.

It fucking hurt. It still does.

She tries — god, how she tries — to speak up in her defense. About how this wasn’t what it appeared. But there’s a silent acknowledgement, as Miller begins to speak, that it isn’t going to fucking matter what she says.

So, she may as well earn this.

Nicole lunges out toward the ring built into the floor, grabbing one of Ace’s chains and snapping it as though it were nothing. Just before the next round of punishment can begin.

And it does. Nicole arches on the cold floor, shrieking for all she’s worth. With no outlet, nothing to ground her out, her power simply feeds itself. An unlimited supply of wattage with which to bring her more pain. Her voice cracks as her body bucks and she feels as though she might come apart.

But she doesn't, never fully. The moment Zachery steps near enough to pick up on her physical wellbeing (or what's left of it), his hand leaves the pocket of his coat and she's granted reprieve from the pain.

When he appears in the entrance to the cell, that same hand is shoved against the door, keeping it open while he simultaneously blocks the way out. To say he looks less than pleased is an understatement, the sneer on his face showing clear contempt.

"There you are." He echoes purely by chance down at Nicole, as if Ace is nothing more than set dressing. It's not as though the captive can reach him. "You're allowed down here, you know that, right. So long as you ask. So why…" He stops mid sentence. Suddenly, it occurs to him that there was a sound he couldn't quite place. His eyes dart to Ace, then trail to the chain and he immediately stiffens, breath catching as the annoyance fades and he snaps visibly to attention. "Shit."

Prone and still twitching, Nicole manages to rasp a single word: “Run.

Ace abandons his assumed pose when Nicole strays from where he'd kicked her. He assumes, incorrectly, that she will do something to jeopardize him. Take petty revenge on him in some way. He lifts his head to be ready for whatever it is she's about to do.

When those fingers that could have crushed his throat instead crush the chain that tethers him to the ground, Ace draws in a breath, eyes glinting. She could have lead with that, but he'll take what opportunities he's given.

And he starts by yanking the chain toward himself as he comes to his feet, wrapping it about his hand. He does as his cue card bids him to and he runs for the door, venom in his eyes. His cumbersome limbs make his movements slow, but all he needs to do is give a flick of his wrist to send the end of his leash flying for Zachery's face, buying him the necessary few seconds to make it into the doorway and crash into Zachery's being.

The doctor is a few inches taller than him, he realizes once they're finally standing in front of the other— a difference Ace makes up for by leaping, arms lifting up and around Zachery's head before he lets gravity take hold again. In the struggle that follows, Ace winds his way behind the doctor, the links between his wrists cinched tightly around the doctor's neck, the dense material sewn into the cuffs lending additional weight behind the sudden noose. With a grunt of effort, the prisoner's nostrils flare as he grabs hold of the chain and pulls, weight sending him careening backward through the hall in a scrabble that takes them both to the floor, Zachery landing on top of him.

Run, Nicole told him, but Ace had business to finish first.

It all happens so fast, and Nicole is weak from her muscles screaming, being pulled tense and now slack again. She manages to tuck her legs up toward herself to make sure she won’t present a tripping hazard to Ace as he crosses his cell.

With great effort, Nicole pushes herself up onto her elbows and turns to face the commotion in the doorway now. Breathing hard and trembling from the effort to keep from sinking back to the floor, she watches with a horrified fascination.

She dares, dares to hope that this will be the end to her nightmare. That Ace will succeed in choking the life out of Zachery.

The element of surprise does Zachery no favours - he only barely manages to avoid the metal that finds itself flung toward his face, ducking to the side only to find Ace having moved too close by the time he tries to step back.

He topples, and has already sent several kicks out at nothing by the time he even realises he's been pulled down, grazing only the floor with his heels. Sputtering a strangled cough, both hands grasp for the chain around his neck, fingers pressed hard into the links.

But he does not, notably, attempt to change positions. His whole body fights for it, but the instinct to struggle - to throw his weight elsewhere to try and escape - is ignored beyond the occasional errant twitch of involuntary movement.

Instead, he pushes his head down, contracting the muscles around constricted arteries and esophagus and buying himself the tiny bit of time in which to draw the breath required to say, "Just as — I'd found you — something n-…" He swallows, precious air escaping him through gritted teeth, in an extremely poorly timed wheeze of a chuckle.

It leaves him with just enough air to rattle out the last words of the sentence. "New to fight for."

At first, nothing changes.

Then, the tension in the chain becomes a touch less, fingers twitching out in the slightest give to allow Zachery slightly more room to breathe. Not enough to be comfortable or manage free, but Ace has stopped in the process of crossing of his wrists to crush the doctor's windpipe.

Something new to fight for? A purpose. What could he possibly…?

No. His fingers begin to curl back into place, reducing the slack he'd started to give. No, he's running his mouth.

"You think you know me?" Ace breathes out between bared teeth, offended and incredulous as the pressure around Zachery's neck slowly increases again. "That you have any idea what I want?"


He waits to hear it— to hear that guess for himself— instead of rushing to cinch his improvised weapon into a devastating, life-ending twist.

Slowly, Zachery begins to lose this battle. Not the battle for breath - though that may come yet - but the internal battle not to fight. He jabs an elbow back toward Ace's ribcage as some lizardbrain reflex wills it, but almost immediately lifts his arm away again, raising his hand up with splayed fingers that tremble with effort. Surely they can be civil enough to negotiate.

The fingers of his other hand refuse to leave the chain, his eyes glued to the ceiling and his expression suddenly indicative of the panic that claims more territory with every agitated jerk of a limb.

When the chain loosens, his body acts of its own accord to draw in a fresh breath, staggered and raw. It is spent immediately, words tumbling from him: "I don't," know you is implied, "but someone does. A handler — a client asked for you by name. Payment, housing, license to roam and kill, the lot. You'd be released tomorrow." To his credit, he keeps his voice level, free from the signs of desperation that are starting to become more visible when the metal begins to draw deeper into his neck once more.

No!” Nicole’s voice sounds like she’s swallowed glass for as raw and broken as it is. After all that screaming, it’s not unexpected. There’s a trail of blood from her nose, down to her lips and curved along their edge to run off the side of her cheek, pulled by gravity at the angle she was laying at. The flow has slowed now, but not entirely. “Don’t let him speak!

If anyone knows the power Zachery Miller wields with just his voice, it’s her.

There’s several false starts as she tries to push herself up to stand. She just hasn’t got the strength for it, but she finally makes it to her knees. “He’s lying to you! If there was a handler, I’d know about it! I’d have heard!” It’s difficult to say now which of them is the liar. They’re both desperate for this situation to go a certain way, she and her own handler, and they want it to go separate directions. She’s so close to freedom she can practically taste it on her tongue.

Or maybe that’s her own blood.

The overall lack of a struggle from Zachery is perplexing. Does he not want to live? It almost makes this disappointing. Ace's lips curl back over his teeth in a silent snarl in frustration over the lack of a fight, but he listens, and the anger in his expression dials back as the doctor uses his single gasp of unrestrained air to speak efficiently.

The words sound like honey. But are they vinegar?

Nicole seems to think so. But then again, Nicole wants very much for Ace to finish what he's doing, no matter what the reality of the situation is. But for his part, what if there were a way to continue living without becoming a fugitive, without needing to fall in with the rebel scum who wallowed in the dirt?

What to do, what to do.

"Given I promised to kill you, does it really matter what agreement the doctor and I come to?" Ace wonders, lifting his head to look at Nicole. There's little emotion to be found in his vacant eyes, but he does nothing to make Zachery's life any more comfortable while he makes that assertion. He considers her for just a moment before letting his head fall back to the ground. "For what it's worth, though—" This part said with a twinge of the chain, "it is a convenient time for you to come forward with this bit of information."

A tiss of a breath comes from him as he takes a moment to consider the light on the ceiling. With Zachery under his thumb and Nicole unable to pick herself up off the ground, Ace figures he has the time to take a few moments and think this through.

"I want my ability," he decides in a growl, unclear just who he's announcing this to. Maybe it's to no one but himself. "And I want these fucking weights off."

The twinge of chains against Zachery's throat finds another spasm of muscles in reply, back arching with another kick out at the floor - a confirmation that while he may care more for how he lives than whether he does, the fear that he will be able to do neither soon is becoming terribly real terribly fast.

The splayed fingers curl inward, and rather than reach for his neck again, the hand just drops slowly down at his side. With what valuable time he has left, he finally begins to try and look around - for anything nearby that might help, however unlikely - and finds only Nicole.

The look of desperation on her face serves as inspiration. He has this under control.

Not a lot of control, but enough.

"I-hgk-" He chokes on his attempt to speak and tries to swallow, but the pressure leaves little room for either. "Cuffs off," he manages just barely, eyes half-lidded and glazing over again. Then, he makes a decision. A decision to be truthful rather than not. Hoping that the honesty that leaves him on the barest amount of whispered-out breath will serve to prove a point. "Negate - not - up to me."

If he's unwilling to compromise on this, why would he have lied before?

His fingertips slip from the chain, knees lowering with a quiet scrape of soles - Ace has front row seats to the muscles that are beginning to relax due to a lack of blood flow to the brain, just as the cold hues of purple and blue become visible on the doctor's lips.

Kill him!” Nicole shrieks, shrill with panic. She struggles again to find the strength to get to her feet. Or to at least crawl over there and do it herself. “I can get you out of those cuffs!” She doesn’t actually know if she’s strong enough to break the cuffs themselves or just the chains attached to them, but she has to reason that her trying is more attractive than whatever Zachery will do in retaliation.

Of course, if that hasn’t sunk in for Callahan, then he’s not likely to think her effort is enticing enough. “If you let him live, he’s just going to enslave you.” If not for his own amusement, then because the people pulling his strings want it so. Nicole manages to get a leg up, one foot planted on the floor in an attempt to lever herself up again. “He’s going to put that implant in your head, and then you’re fucked. Even if you get away, you’re dead.

Which might explain why Nicole hasn’t tried harder to break her own proverbial chains.

Okay. So Zachery might be telling the truth with his offer, and Nicole might have initially been lying. But that promise of an implant— that seems to be on point. Inarguable.

That's enough of a motivator for him to make his decision. All right.

The weakening of Zachery's grip, the slip of his hand away and the slackening of his body are satisfying enough. A glance down at the blue-lipped, limp body blanketed over him is enough to send a shiver of revulsion down his spine, spurning him to release the stranglehold and shove Zachery off of him into a limby sprawl on the floor.

"Ugh," Ace pronounces of the entire experience, less enthused about its end than he'd like to be. He'll blame it on the fucking nausea, he supposes. He pushes himself up into a sit, heavied hands resting on the floor before he musters the will to climb to his feet and bear the weight of the cuffs again.

Not much longer now, though, would he have to suffer them.

Ace looks back to Zachery on the floor for just a moment. He'd not spent enough time making sure every last breath in the man's body was gone, but unconscious was fine with him— fine for now. He'll come back to finish up shortly.

The chain of his tether pools at his feet, makes such a ruckus dragging on the ground as he walks back to the doorway to regard Nicole next. "Find the key, or get me a saw, if you want to make yourself useful," he directs her flatly, shoulders hunched. She isn't doing that well, he knows, but … Ace isn't feeling that great himself, either.

Had he known this all were coming, he'd have not made such an effort earlier of experimenting with his ability while still bearing the ridiculously dense fabric restraints.

Finally, and clumsily, Nicole staggers all the way to a standing position. “There’s— I think there’s a saw in the lab.” She stares down at Zachery’s body now, daring to hope that this is the end of her nightmare. Reaching first toward the wall, then the doorframe, then Ace, she staggers her way past the body.

She doesn’t know how long it takes to actually choke the life out of someone. Her colleagues always told her that it takes a while, but the last few minutes have seemed to stretch into eternity, so this feels like it must have been enough.

“Here. Let me just…” Remembering what happened the last time she touched him, Nicole makes sure to splay out her hands in a gesture of no harm before she reaches for his wrist with her right hand, grabs hold of the chain attached to it with her left, and tugs sharply to break it. She’s much swifter about the process when she repeats it for the rest of his limbs, now that he knows what to expect. “There. That should help at least a little bit.”

Heavily, she sags against Ace, catching her breath, as though just that small act had taken too much out of her. “Lab’s this way,” she points with a shaky flesh-and-blood hand, in case he’s not as well oriented with these corridors as she is.

Ace would recoil back from her, but she's done enough for him just then that he doesn't shove her off. It's with a stagger that he supports her weight, staying still for the moment. "Can you even walk?" he asks with disdain rather than empathy. He shakes his head.

"Feel free to go crush Miller's skull in or something," he suggests. "And I'll be back." Again, it's hard to feel that he does this out of concern for her, and instead recommends the cathartic course of action because it's easier for him not to take her with him. And to that effect, he shrugs his shoulder to begin unseating her from her position leaned into him.

Nicole entertains for a moment the notion of making her way back over there and beating Zachery’s head in until it’s nothing but a thick red paste on the floor and her artificial fist. But instead, she finds she only wants to put as much distance between her and that man as she possibly can. So while Ace shrugs her off, and she staggers back against the wall, she begins moving toward the lab anyway. “Let’s just get the fuck out of here.”

After row after row of nondescript doorways designated by letter and number, they reach a bend in the hall. Nicole steers them to the left and down just a little further before the mouth of it deposits them in the lab. Her just a bit behind him. “Look for something to arm yourself with,” she suggests. Possibly they shouldn’t have left the lengths of chain behind in the cell block, but the weight of them and the noise would likely not have been much to their benefit.

Nicole staggers to a chest of stainless steel drawers, identical to at least three other sets in the room, and yanks open the second from the bottom, procuring not just any bonesaw, but Miller’s favorite.

Yes, he has a favorite bonesaw.

She smiles with grim satisfaction. It is going to be fucked by the time she gets those cuffs off of Ace.

A heavy adjustable wrench hits a metal table in the lab before Ace's hands thunk down beside it, relieved at the reprieve from bearing their weight. "Excellent," he whispers to himself on seeing the saw Nicole produces. It's positively garish, but whatever it takes, at this point. It'd be better if they could find something to just take care of the sturdy lock more directly like… cutters, or something, but she knows this place better than he.

His eyes move past her to really take a look around the lab for the first time to assess its potential use to him rather than as something which should be feared. Perhaps those chemicals stockpiled could help make the metal more brittle.

Or perhaps he should just leave Nicole to her work.

It’s amazing the adaptations Nicole’s made since having her arm replaced. Given that it’s the stronger of the two limbs, she’s acquainted herself with use of it as the situation calls. And it doesn’t have muscles that are screaming for rest right now, so it’s with her left hand that she wields the saw, leaning heavily against the table herself as she sets to work trying to brute force the lock with the thick serrated edge.

There’s a glance snuck up to his face as she works, trying to gauge where his mind is. Hopefully planning next steps. She’s under no illusions that he’s going to repay this favor if she manages to free him from the heavy burden that keeps him from activating his ability. He never promised to save her life, only take it.

But if she can spare even one person the horror she’s been put through, then perhaps that will be enough.

But not everyone can be saved. Maybe no one can, anymore.

The large, main room of the laboratory makes for an interesting place when it comes to acoustics - every sound of metal chewing away at metal is echoed via sterile floors and the stainless steel drawer-lined walls around Ace and Nicole.

There's enough purchase to do damage, but that goes two ways, leaving the bonesaw quickly dulled but the lock considerably damaged in turn.

Then, there is another noise — a name, thrown out guttural and full of bloodlust both, helping it reverberate in the space as angry as thunder by the time it fills the room.

"AODHAN!" Then, another, "ABELARD!"

A few things happen at once.

Zachery - apparently still conscious and then some - half staggers, half stalks into the entrance to the room, clutching his reddened throat and baring his teeth on his way over to the drawers right near the doorframe. He slams both hands onto the handles of two separate drawers, using his body weight to pull them back and out of the wall with the hiss of a vacuum seal undoing itself.

The momentum carries them fully open easily, on well-oiled rails. Two men dressed in gowns lie dazed within. The first to sit up turns his head, his shoulders low and his sad, near-lifeless eyes locking onto Zachery's form out of habit. He waits, while a much more muscular mountain of a man tumbles roughly onto his legs from the other drawer, attempting to collect himself.

He'll have his time yet. With both of them at his side, Zachery leans heavily on one of the drawers and commands in a ragged growl of an order, "Lift her."

The sad eyes turn to Nicole.

With the first lock worn down, Nicole clamps down on Ace’s wrist with her right hand and yanks on the lock with her left. It breaks away after two tugs and she’s quick to help him shed the shackle and start in on the next. It’s going to take even longer than the first, given how much she’s dulled the saw now. But it’s still something.

Except for the shambling footsteps and the hiss of those drawers.

But it’s the two names that see the blood draining from Nicole’s face. “Oh no. No nononono.” She should have smashed Miller’s head in. A mistake she won’t make a second time. She can learn just as well as he can.

When the order is given, Nicole throws the saw in Zachery’s direction out of some misguided sense of rage before grasping the table’s edge with both hands just as she’s torn from her feet by Aodhan’s ability. The metal protests under the grip of her mechanical arm, but even she can’t withstand the force of the telekinesis pulling her upward. It’s with a terrified shriek that she goes soaring in defiance of gravity, only to have the sound suddenly cut off when her back slams against the ceiling and knocks the wind out of her.

Oh, come on.

If Ace had the energy for it, he'd shout as much. Instead, he's scrabbling with the second cuff, yanking against the shackle with all of his effort to free his hand. Maybe if he had two of them off, maybe he'd have enough. "Fuck, fuck." He pulls with every last shred of survival instinct he can muster against the cut metal, wriggling his hand…

And like a trapped, motivated animal— snaking free.

The heavied shackle goes flying with a thump as it lands, freeing him to grab the wrench with ease. A frenzied flick of his gaze between Zachery and the apparent Aodhan determines the sad-eyed latter to be the greater threat, heavy wrench sailing from Ace's hand end over end as if it were a knife.

And as soon as its burden is gone, his form gracelessly flickers in and out of existence. The light from above that should cast shadows down him ceases to do so, his body becoming an opaque thing without apparent angles for the light to get trapped on. Attempts to meet his form with invisible force pass straight through him as if he weren't there at all, and he becomes a blank spot in Zachery's second vision where before there had most certainly been human.

For just a moment, Ace experiences freedom. Freedom from mortal coil, and the pressures able to be exerted on him when he's bound to wholeness.

The flickering phase of his body reaches those shackles still around his ankles, though, and it all goes downhill. The freedom turns to an unbearable weight that saps his energy, draining what reserves of it he had left. His mouth opens in a silent scream of protest as he fights to push through, to complete his transition. For his efforts, his body smears left, smudged out of existence.

And then Ace reappears a hiccup of time after that, stumbling and hands clenched before him in agony. The sound of his scream splices back in last, throat cracking from the force of it before it gives out. He staggers, his heavy and dense form wanting to fall to the ground, the spread of his feet propping him up just barely, and his arms catching on the side of the lab table in a clatter to keep himself from going down to a knee.

Any stubborn cling of pride he has that pushes him to refuse to bow— to give in— is vestigal. The panic in his eyes gives him away as he looks back to Zachery. At last, his fear and loss of hope are bared. He makes no effort to bargain or plead.

It's much too late for that now.

Wrench hits skull with a dull, awful noise, Aodhan too single minded in his task to notice the tool coming his way. A shocked gurgle half catches in his throat as his head turns upward with the impact, before he slumps motionlessly back into the drawer he was never able to fully rise from.

Gravity reclaims Nicole, sending her back to the ground at the same time Abelard rises to his feet properly, almost a full two heads above the doctor next to him and immediately pushing his shoulders back in an attempt to look even larger. He gives the room an utterly bewildered look, and ends his cursory inspection in a stare at Aodhan that very much spells what the fuck?

Zachery does not particularly look like he feels the need to enlighten anyone. He's too busy watching Ace, sneering and swallowing dryly between rattling breaths that so badly want to be coughs. But he won't let them.

When his subject of interest disappears, his eyes widen and he straightens away from the drawer to stand on his own. "I told you," he starts to proclaim, his voice yet rougher for saying it as loudly as he does, and tone dragged further downward in dismay. "That I would take your restraints off!"

Driven by something opposite self-preservation, something uglier and on fire, Zachery does the opposite of what would probably be advised in this situation — he moves forward, toward where he last saw the flickering of a person. The first steps land stiff with effort, but he finds more confidence with every footfall, hand slipping into a pocket of his coat once more.

When Ace reappears, eagerness snaps the doctor's attention back to the other man's face like a bullet. His jaw is tight, and the intensity of his quiet fury only increases with the addition of the scream, anticipation thick on his voice when he continues through his teeth, "But you chose this, didn't you. You chose to suffer."

He stops, close enough to reach for Ace if he wanted to. But he doesn't, saying instead, "Remember that."

Nicole, apparently, isn't even worth paying attention to.

Nicole, who moments ago slammed back to the floor in an awkward sprawl of limbs. She was spared breaking her entire goddamn face on the tile by virtue of her arm having braced her. Still, she’s seeing stars and her head pounds from the impact, but it could have been so much worse.

Groaning, she lifts her head, looking through the veil of her dark hair. The skin over her forehead has split and blood runs a ravine between her brows and down the length of her nose as she struggles to bring things back into focus. “Ffffuck,” she stutters, clumsily starting to push back to her feet.

Leaning hard against the exam table she tried to anchor herself to before, Nicole takes a second to catch her breath, shaking the spots from her vision. Then, she shoves forward with a ferocious shout, racing toward Zachery’s back with her fingers locked together in a two-handed fist above her head. This time, she does mean to bash his head in.

The notes of struggle that come from Ace as he lays his weight down on his arms, propping himself up, lack the dignity he would otherwise like to present. Somehow, he's unable to tear his attention away from Zachery, perplexed as much as fascinated by the lack of murderous intent leveled his direction. Green-grey eyes reflect that briefly before heaviness blurs his gaze, teeth gritting as he fights to stand again.

He's suffering all right. Like an aggravated muscle not listening when it's told it's time to rest, the edges of Ace's entire being flicker again in an involuntary twinge, eliciting another wave of discomfort. It wasn't bad enough that Zachery was standing over him, scolding him like he'd been a particularly impatient, ornery cat, his body had to betray him like this, too.

But, bewilderingly enough, he lives. The doctor does not push him to the ground using the sole of his shoe, does not crush his windpipe in return for the slight Ace had done him in nearly succeeding in doing the same to him.

"Huh." leaves him softly.

Ace's attention shifts past Zachery to Nicole when she comes to her feet, able to see her intention from the proverbial mile away. A faint breath escapes him next, at her, at himself, at the doctor's obliviousness. His eyes sharpen with thought, with intent— a moment before he lashes out with one hand, snaring Zachery by the collar of his coat

and roughly pulling him forward and down, out of the path of Nicole's wrecking ball of a strike.

Remember that, Zachery had said, about his choices. Ace wonders if he'll remember this one.

Zachery goes pulled forward with a hiss, something dangerously close to that expected murderous intent flashing in his eyes before he realises what's going on.

Nicole does not only miss him, but she pays a price for it almost immediately. Wordlessly, the doctor clamps his free hand down onto Ace's shoulder to push himself back up, not letting go as he finally reveals what he was holding in his pocket - a small, black device with a single button, which he is just about to push down with his thumb when he… drops it simply down onto the floor, shifting his weight to turn to her, and to fix her with a dead smile.

There are other ways to make a person scream.

Nicole’s swing finds only air where Zachery once stood, causing her to go stumbling forward and past the two men as she hadn’t accounted for not having her momentum interrupted. “You bastard!” she roars at Ace, already pivoting on the ball of one foot precariously when she catches the look on Zachery’s face and knows what’s coming. Wide eyes. Sharp gasp.

"Thank you, Nicole." Her handler's words are sulphurous.

As if she’d simply lost her balance, Nicole goes toppling sideways to the floor, landing hard on her right side with enough force that she should have cried out. But she doesn’t. She only stares ahead blankly, expressionless.

The doctor's head turns sharpy to Abelard, who still stands quietly - and uselessly - with a hand on Aodhan's limp body as if in quiet commiseration. At least, until he is commanded with two simple words: "The drawer."

Abelard may not have done much so far, but when he does finally start moving, he is efficient. Without so much as a noise in response, he almost effortlessly yanks Aodhan's body from his spot. The unconscious man is left to fall in a heap of torso and limbs on the cold floor as Abelard lumbers over to Nicole and grabs her by the torso like she's a doll, before throwing her onto his shoulder and wandering back from whence he came.

"Consider your position," Zachery tells Ace, words leaving his throat like perfectly enunciated gravel and his fingers digging into that shoulder - with too much downward force applied for it to simply serve to keep himself upright. He watches as Nicole is carried and then lifted into the drawer by his only assistant left standing, Aodhan unmoving beside them. "And then consider theirs."

Only when the drawer is shut and the vacuum seal is given a second to re-engage does he lift his chin to drag some final words forth, "Good bye, Nicole."

Now the shrieking starts anew. Not pained or agonized, but in absolute terror of the fact that she’s been essentially deposited in a coffin. The thick steel muffles the sound, but it doesn’t mute the emotion of it. The incoherent desperation. Limbs beat against the walls and the door bows out when she manages to find purchase with her left fist.

It isn’t enough to break the seal.

Four Years Later…

"There we are!" A smooth, pleasant tone of voice accompanies the satisfying click of a well-constructed design snapping into place. Zachery steps back from the table in the exam room, looking pleased as punch and gesturing briefly for Ace to get up before he turns to glance at some paperwork on a nearby counter. "You're all cleared. Recalibrated and good for another six months. The usual stipulations apply, of course."

He pauses in the midst of his reading, adding offhandedly, "I even polished it up for you so it's nice and shiny."

A sniper's dream, surely.

Yes, nothing like something reflective to call the attention of his position to help him in his day-to-day, both behind the scope of a gun and without one.

"I'll endeavor to keep it as perfectly as you've left it," Ace remarks without particular energy, taking a moment to rotate his head and see if he'll have any disorientation before he braces his hand to push himself up. His eyes close as he comes up right again, feet finding the floor.

A humorless breath of laughter passes from him as he orients himself, resisting the urge to touch the implant and confirm the shape of its continued existence. He'll do that on his own time. Zachery's words continue to be processed.

The usual stipulations, the doctor says.

"No attempts to engage my ability, no attempts on the lives of our gracious employers, no leaving the Dome without appropriate authorization," Ace rattles off, proving he still remembers. His gaze finally shifts back to Zachery.

"… And no further harm to your assistants."

Those were the terms. The price of his 'freedom'.

Zachery stands immersed in what he's reading, picking up the paperwork and scanning the words top to bottom, then thumbing the top page away to check the next. For a moment, it looks like he may have tuned the other man in the room out entirely. Until, that is, he hears that last line.

A corner of the doctor's mouth pulls slowly to the side, but contentment shows most brightly in the push of his eyelids. He lowers his work and meets the gaze aimed at him with a vividly keen one of his own.

"Go dance the dance, Ace Callahan," he bids his patient a calm farewell, delivered with approval sharp enough to cut. "You know your way out."

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