In The Shadow Of Apollo


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Scene Title In The Shadow Of Apollo
Synopsis SESA and Wolfhound coordinate an operation to the nation of Madagascar.
Date February 1, 2021 — February 12, 2021

At exactly 9:15 eastern standard time, Emily Epstein is invited into the offices of Executive Director Farah Nazan-Gutierrez, head of SESA’s New York branch. As a Junior SESA agent, Emily hasn't had direct face time with Director Nazan-Gutierrez across her tenure. Farah is, largely, administrating at a higher level than most of the day-to-day concerns of agents and especially those of Junior agents.

That isn't to say Emily is unfamiliar with the Executive Director’s reputation, however. Prior to Claudia’s death and Choi’s departure, Farah was the deputy-director of HUMINT within the CIA. Her reputation as a matter-of-fact professional and stern hand has only been further groomed in her tenure at SESA, offering little in the way of interpersonal engagements.

As Emily arrives in the office, they find Farah sitting behind a sleek black desk decorated with a cream colored lamp and a black vase filled with an arrangement of sage branches. Farah isn’t alone in her wood-walled office, though. Already seated at one of the two chairs at the desk is the unmistakable silhouette of field agent Noah Bennet.

“Ms. Epstein, I’m happy you could make it today. I’m sorry about the somewhat clandestine nature of this meeting, but there’s a reason why you’re meeting directly with us and not your usual point of contact for junior agent liaisons.” Farah motions for Emily to take the other seat, and unlocks a drawer on her desk from which she pulls a paper file folder with several levels of classification stamped across it.

One of them is Operation: Apollo — CIA Only.

Emily could leave on seeing these hints she's about to be sucked into something greater. It'd be rude, it'd be career-damning, even, but she could insist this needs to go through someone else, insist that whatever this is, she's not been back in the office nearly long enough for whatever this is.

She doesn't, though. She's not sure why, but she doesn't.

Dark lenses obscure her face, worn in the excuse she has a light sensitivity following her return from extended leave on the account of being turned into a tree. She doesn't shift them off her face now, lets the tilt of her head give away what she's seeing.

"Ma'am, I'm not sure what you think I can help you with," Emily offers up as neutrally as possible, sinking into the offered seat anyway. She is not, after all, nor has ever been CIA.

But she knows that name on the file Farah produces.

Farah looks to Noah, who returns the look in silence. Farah folds her hands on her desk, shoulders squared. “I’ll be blunt, Ms. Epstein, there’s an evaluation in my top drawer signed by former Executive Director Madeline Choi, dated April of last year that recommended your release from the Junior Agents program—should you ever regain your natural state—as a result of your trauma experienced at the hands of Ali Underwood.”

Not once does Farah make a move for that drawer. “When I was finished onboarding for this role I went through our Junior Agent dossiers and reviewed your file multiple times. I disregarded Choi’s recommendation and decided to evaluate you and your post-recovery experience myself. It’s been commendable, in so much that the trauma you experienced can be.”

Unfolding her hands, Farah settles back in her chair. “I value your perspective as a Junior Agent and I value your commitment to this agency. Your father spoke extremely highly of you in your entrance report and his word—while contentious—holds significant weight due to his wartime heroism. But your actions have proven to me that this isn’t a case of nepotism, but someone with a keen intuition blossoming in the right environment. SESA is an organization in which I have every belief that you will thrive.”

Noah, who has been remarkably quiet this whole time, continues to do so. His only contribution to the conversation is a look between Farah and Emily, watching their reactions. Farah, though, isn’t done talking.

“Deputy-Director Voss has put together a team for a diplomatic assignment to the nation of Madagascar, coordinated with Wolfhound, and under both his recommendation and that of Agent Bennet, I would like to extend the offer for you to participate in an educational capacity.” Farah explains, spreading her hands out toward Emily, as if to pantomime delivery of the metaphorical offer.

“I’ve trained kids half your age to do work twice as questionable,” Noah says with no hint of pride in his voice, “and it isn’t often I see someone with so much natural aptitude for this kind of work. Liza Messer might be the last one, but I can’t take credit for how well she turned out.” Noah says with a flash of a smile. “Good career move aside, I think it would teach you some very valuable skills you could use here or elsewhere, if you came with us.”

It doesn't take being able to see Emily's eyes for her two observers to intuit the walls she's closing herself off behind at the mention of her father. There's a stillness to her being that goes beyond the discomfort of scrutiny both past and present. The mention of what she's come back from stretched her ability to proceed with a straight face, and mention of Avi has brought her to her most tense.

She doesn't snap. She doesn't crack.

Life filters into her again at the mention of a diplomatic assignment. She blinks behind her lenses. Noah's input after brings her to turn her head his direction. After, she looks back to Farah like she's seeing her for the first time.

"I'll be honest, Director, I had a hard time considering whether I wanted to come back at all. 2020 wasn't a kind year to me even before the turn in the Dendrolatry case. The raid on the floating bloodsand ring was challenging in ways I was wildly underprepared for. I don't think jumping out of helicopters is for me— that being a field agent is, either."

"But I came back because the call of this organization is strong," Emily appends in a softer voice. "I want the opportunity to do good here, and I recognize the positive impact work for SESA can have not just on me, but on the country."

"I want to stay," she clarifies. "In whatever capacity I can. Technical, or…" Her head turns to Noah, adding, "diplomatic."

"I do have a lot to learn. And having that opportunity would be invaluable." She feels the pressure of the situation bearing down on her in ways she'll overanalyze later. For now, she just wants to avoid looking as off-guard as she feels by the offer being extended to her. "What can you tell me about the assignment?"

Farah’s tension melts away when Emily begins asking questions. She reaches for the file on her desk, centering it in front of her and opening it up. Her eyes alight from a blurry photograph on the front page to Emily.

“How much do you know about Operation Apollo?”

Ten Days Later

JFK International Airport
Jackson Heights

February 11th
7:12 am

It's lightly snowing on a particularly cold February morning. The air quality index in the Safe Zone is manageable today, the precipitation is helping mitigate the smoke from the Ohio River Fire, but it's turned much of the snow a yellow-gray color in return.

On the tarmac a short drive from the airport terminals, a Boeing 737 is taxied and awaiting the arrival of all of its passengers. A familiar pickup truck is parked on the tarmac nearby to the jet, where Huruma Dunsimi and Devon Clendaniel are unloading their gear from the back while Francis Harkness minds the truck.

It's this scene that Emily arrives to in the back of a black Yamagato Lapis alongside Agent Noah Bennet. As the SUV comes to a stop, Noah offers her a knowing look and a wordless nod of support before opening the door on his side, letting in a rush of cold air as he steps out onto the tarmac. It's in that moment, when the rush of cold air hits her, that Emily sees someone out the car window who isn't supposed to be here.

Avi Epstein steps out of the jet and lumbers down the steps to the tarmac with a squint against the cold air. “Pilot's ready to go,” Avi says to Huruma and Devon. “Francis! No joyriding while I'm gone,” he jokes about the piece of shit truck.

Motherfucker. Emily's composure slips, momentarily a deer in headlights. "Jesus Christ," she whispers to herself invectively, glancing to Noah and then back to the plane. She sighs hard.

She wonders if her presence is going to be a surprise, too, to the elder Epstein. It's hard to imagine him capable of keeping a straight face if it is. She hopes, almost, that's the case. It'd be better than him knowing something else ahead of her yet again.

Just give me those first few seconds, for once, she prays to the universe.

Emily leaves her drink in the car until she's retrieved her luggage— which she had to buy for the trip, the protective coating still on the plastic shell of it. She looks to Noah to wait for him to grab his things, then moves in tandem with him. As a part of the SESA unit, such as it is.

Until she gets closer, anyway. Then she's letting her visual attention roam to Devon. "I'm not letting you listen to the same song on repeat the entire trip this time," she tells him with a pleasantness, no external sign of her nerve having been shaken a minute ago. "I made you a playlist. It's not eighteen hours long, but it's gotta be better than whatever you planned to subject yourself to."

It's not just Emily who has Huruma watching the Lapis intently as it rolls up. She has a squinted look as the car stops, not precisely distrustful— just a little testy at the moment. At her heels is minimal personal luggage, the sound of Devon's on the asphalt briefly dividing her attention. Arms crossed, mouth a slight line, Bennet is given just a nod of greeting from the Empath, cordial but not familiar. Theirs has been an odd dance over the years. Best play it down, as always.

"As long as it helps to occupy his time," Huruma tips her head to Emily and Devon, one brow lifting. She does crack a smile, if on the small side. "It'll do. Thankfully we should be able to get a full rest on the way… "

Avi's arrival prompts her to tug her carry-on over a shoulder, pulling a case behind, boots already on a pivot towards the plane. Her voice is level when she saunters past. "It's too late, I paid him fifty dollars to drive it into the Hudson."

“That’s more than I paid for the truck!” Avi jokes back with a barking tone of voice, momentarily ignoring Emily’s presence.

With one pack already hanging from his shoulders against his back, Devon circles from the cab of the truck around to the back as the Lapis arrives. His eyes follow it, watching with mild interest as he joins Huruma in sorting out gear. He stoops to snag the strap of his duffle, and drags it close so he can recheck it’s contents. Too late to go back for anything now, but better to know sooner if he’ll have to improvise. His eyes flick to the agents, hearing them exit the vehicle, then settle on the gear he’s got packed.

He’s closing up the duffle by the time Emily is approaching, latching the small handles together with that obnoxious velcro strap that always catches on everything during packing. He looks up when she speaks, feigning injured feelings at Em first and then Huruma’s aside. “It isn’t the same song on repeat,” he jokingly scoffs.

Devon straightens and drags the longer strap of his bag onto his shoulder. “It’s classic road trip music. You’ll see.” He’ll probably try to subject everyone to it — again for the Hounds, and for the first time for everyone else. He looks toward the plane when Avi comes out announcing everything with the plane is set to go. He tilts his head that way, nudges Emily with a shoulder indicating she should follow, and starts wandering toward the craft. “You made me a playlist? Who’s on it?”

“Based on the shit she listened to when she was thirteen,” Avi says with a look over to Emily, “I… have no fucking idea, actually.” He falters for a moment, looks over at Devon, then back to Emily.

“We’re wheels up in like five fucking minutes!” Avi says to everyone on the tarmac, then looks over at Emily again. “Bring your stuff inside, just the pilots, no support crew.” He then breaks away, as if none of this were a surprise.

But Devon and Huruma know better.

A Couple Days Earlier

Are they out of their fucking minds!” Avi screams from his office, throwing something against the wall. “No, I didn’t know they were sending her to fucking Madagascar!” He’s on the phone with someone, but for how loud he’s shouting through a closed door you’d think whoever was on the other side of the room was down on the street.

“I don’t know it just came on a fucking dossier across my fucking desk!” Avi yells, voice ringing off the shut door. “She’s your daughter, she probably gets it from you!


No! I’m not letting her fucking go alone are you out of your fucking—”


Devon and Huruma know much better.

“Dunsimi, Clendaniel,” comes a different voice up from behind Emily, backpack over his shoulder and a smile on his face. Huruma knows Noah Bennet, though not particularly well. He’s basically a cipher to Devon, in spite of Devon recognizing exactly who he is. His reputation extends so much further than any real knowing of him.

“Agent Bennet, SESA.” Noah introduces, offering a handshake to both Huruma and Devon, “I’m bringing Junior-Agent Epstein along as a training exercise. I’m excited to work with Wolfhound, I know my Claire was really happy with her time she spent with you.”

Emily's kept a facade up from the moment Avi interjected himself into the conversation, her emotional state having grinded to a defensive shutdown of a halt. The event arrested, consequently, an immediate reply to Devon's question. Her pleasant, if absent, stoic exterior shifts with the mention of Noah's daughter. Her eyes flit up to the agent at her side.

"Learning all sorts of things already," she notes lightly. She stops at the foot of the boarding bridge to roll her suitcase to a stop, pushing down the handle on it. A moment passes where she reflects on the comparative ease she's able to pick up her bag and haul it up the stairs with her.

It feels like not so long ago it'd have been impossible. Despite that, it's also been two years. Her appreciation for what was granted to her has only gotten stronger. It's with that strength— bittersweet and complicated as it's inextricably tied with the memory of the loss of the person who granted it to her— that she clears the boarding ramp without any assistance needed.

When she steps inside the plane, rolling the bag along with her, she stops a full three seconds once she turns to look down the aisles.

"Jesus Christ," Emily whispers to herself, looking upon row after row of empty seating. She'd thought it was weird that Avi had declared there was no support crew on the plane.

They have an entire fucking jumbo jet to themselves for this transatlantic flight.

There was something about she's already not going alone, but there was nothing doing about the rest. The effort Avi is expending to be Okay doesn't tell Huruma to stop having a concern. Yet— she is trying. He is trying. Even if it's Madagascar. Maybe it's a good thing he's here after all. (Even if Huruma is getting the temptation to yank his chain on having Cheap Taste.)

"Bennet." Theirs was a skirting familiarity, though Huruma greets him as if it weren't; she takes his hand, an edge remaining on her aura. One brow lifts at mention of Claire, the dark woman's expression shifting into a smirk. "I know she was. Thankfully she is not here for this, though." She can't be certain he knows a damn thing about Claire's time where they are headed; it wasn't kind to her, just like it wasn't kind to Avi.

Huruma looks up past Emily's shoulder when she ascends in the girl's wake, an amused puff of air moving out through her nose. A hand lifts to gesture Emily forward to the roomier cabin, Huruma's features twitching with a half-quelled grin. "If you think this is something… make sure you get a window seat, hm?"

“Which is probably what his parents said about his choice in music when he was thirteen,” Devon says quietly, to Emily and Huruma, once Avi’s walking away. The faint grin that had formed with the quip for the Major’s opinion fades slightly when Bennet interjects, erring to something closer to professionalism.

“Nice to meet you, Agent Bennet.” Dev hitches his duffle a little higher onto his shoulder so he can shake the man’s hand. “Only half of what Claire told you about Wolfhound is true.” Brows raise slightly, and it’s hard to say exactly how serious he might be. Especially since he turns to follow the others up the ramp and into the aircraft.

“Oh, I’m sure.” Noah says with a knowing look to Devon and a pleasant smile as they board the plane.

Avi is the last one on the tarmac, offering a nod to Francis before following Devon and Noah up the stairs. “Bennet,” Avi says with a tone, “been a while. You’re looking spry.”

When Noah reaches the door to the aircraft, he looks back at Avi, then down to his leg and up to his no longer missing eye. “We must have the same diet,” he says with a water-cooler smile on his way inside the plane.

Avi mouths Noah’s words back in a mutter under his breath and a wobble of his head from side to side.

Not Long After

Over the Atlantic Ocean

Final flight prep and takeoff only took a handful of minutes, and leaving the coast of New York behind for open waters less than ten all told. When the fasten seatbelt lights come off, Avi rises from his seat and stands in the aisle, looking around the aircraft until he finds Emily, moving down the aisle in her direction.

Noah, who had taken a seat beside Huruma on the flight in spite of the considerable amount of space, has done nothing but keep her conversationally engaged in small talk about Claire and her new relationship with a young man back in the Pacific Northwest. The aspiration of grandchildren has come up a few times.

Emily isn't sitting alone either. In the middle of the plane, where there's ample legroom but elbow room is still at a commodity, she sits shoulder to shoulder with Devon in one of the window seats. Earbuds in, eyes on the wing of the plane and the distance rapidly gained over the ocean as they ascend into the clouds, her left hand is snared tightly with Devon's as a leftover ward against anxiety during takeoff.

She'd thought they'd have some semblance of privacy, at least for a while. But alas.

The young Epstein lets out a slow sigh as she loses interest with minding the shade of the ocean and the thinning to the visibility in its movements while they ascend. She turns back toward Devon in the middle seat to ask him something, catches sight of her father beating a trail down the aisle in their direction from the higher-class seating.

Her hand slips free of Devon's. "Of course," she mutters to herself, abandoning whatever she'd meant to say. She looks away back out to the clouds which fail to captivate her attention, then shift back toward the aisle. She makes eye contact rather than ignore his approach.

She's glad for Devon's presence at her side, helping her maintain an even calm she'd otherwise just be pretending at.

For her part, Huruma has decided to indulge Noah Bennet in his idle socialization for this particular portion of the journey. The energy of arriving and hopping onto this transatlantic flight will settle eventually.

Though she is listening to Bennet go on about his Claire-centric updates, Huruma has a tablet open in her lap, a hand spread to keep it at rest on her knee when she does respond. It's not overtly impolite, just signaling a touch of preoccupation. Nobody nearby to mouth 'help' to, yet.

"She mentioned someone out there, once or twice," The dark woman tips her head as she considers Noah, lightly sucking on the inside of her teeth. "If she is as comfortable there as you make it sound, she deserves it." Claire was one of them, in more ways than can be counted. Huruma is glad to hear it from Noah that things are positive, at the least.

The signatures of the others are there in the back of her head, as per usual; Emily's fresh dismay is familiar enough that the empath can put two together, but Huruma glances up regardless of if she has line of sight.

“I keep telling her,” Noah continues with a broad smile and a slow shake of his head, “if she has a girl, she’s gotta use her great-grandmother’s name on her mother’s side. Sandra and I…” Huruma feels a pang of guilt and loss bubble up inside of Noah, quickly reining it in. His outward expression doesn’t change at all in spite of the intense emotional spike.

Lyle was going to name his first after my dad when he had kids.” Noah says after a moment of silence, smiling through the pain as if nothing is amiss. He looks down at his lap, shaking his head. “Dajan has a son, right? Badrani?” Noah squints, uncertain if he’s remembering correctly from so many years ago. “Any other grandkids back home?”

Through taxi and takeoff, Devon had only half focused on the world outside the window. It isn't the easiest to watch from the middle seat without squishing whoever had scored the window seat — and he'd made some minor teasing efforts while Emily got settled, mostly to ease her nerves about flying and the trip in general. But after a couple rounds of leaning into her shoulder and a brief stint that involved his head shoulders blocking all of Emily's view, he also settled in for the flight.

One earbud dangles free with some tinny sounds belonging to John Denver just touching on audible levels. The other is still seated firmly in the opposite ear. His eyes are closed, but he's obviously not sleeping. His breathing is too steady, and once Emily turns toward him his eyes come open.

His head starts to turn toward her, but when his hand is released he angles his attention toward the aisle instead. He lifts a brow at finding Avi making his way between the rows of seats and, for a brief second, considers excusing himself. After a glance back at Emily, Devon decides against that idea. And instead, he simply leans back and closes his eyes again.

Avi stops at the row before Devon and Emily, then sidles in and kneels on one of the seats, arms folded across the seatbacks. “In case you were wondering, I didn’t have a fucking thing to do with this,” are the first words out of Avi’s mouth. “I think it’s a shit idea and no matter what Huruma says it’s a fucking dangerous country for an American.”

Realizing he just ambled up and started brow-beating Emily, Avi dials it back and remembers why he’d walked over. “I… just want to say I’m…” He trails off. “The whole country’s held together with duct tape and spit and you found a place for yourself in it and…” Avi bobs his head up and down as if having an imaginary argument with himself.

“I’m really proud of you.” Avi says like a threat, even though he doesn’t mean it.

"I figured you didn't," Emily responds back to him more quietly. She doesn't need or want volume, to give the words any more float in Noah Bennet's direction than the emptiness of the plane otherwise affords them. "I think it's an opportunity. A high-stakes one that provides a chance to fuck up. To prove the recommendation you apparently tagged to my file was nepotistic bullshit after all, or… something else."

Like, for example, an opportunity for her manifested ability to become more visible. A liability. That's paranoia speaking, but one that she's not been able to shake.

When Avi goes on, she lifts her eyes to meet his, reading between the lines of what he's trying to say. The intent behind it. Despite herself, after he's finished, she settles in her seat, eyes softening. Her mouth presses into a line to avoid giving him a small smile. He could have practiced this on the way over, or before getting up, but maybe if he had he'd not have closed the distance to say it at all. The communication itself is progress.

"Going to do my best to not fuck it up," Emily tells him mildly in place of thanks. "And not to live in fear of fucking it up. And I'd— I'd rather be doing this than being somewhere as a field agent. Needing to be in a literal line of fire rather than the proverbial one I'm walking into."

With any luck, after all, the danger on this trip remains political and diplomatic rather than physical.

"Your belief in me did help me get here," she acknowledges, breaking off her look to glance out the window. "So thank you." comes from her after all. She'd like to say more, to suggest that they take advantage of the time they might have together away from the city and the regular noise of their lives, but no more words are prepared to come immediately. That's fine. There's over ten hours left for her to find and summon them properly.

Those nuances of 'back home' could be argued, of course; Huruma knows better than to get at semantics now, of all times, so the brief flicker of consideration is quick to pass. As much as her interaction with Noah is wary, the inside speaks so much more clearly than impassivity and glasses and musing about the life of a child. There's a distinct taste there. Something more searching, or lonesome in its own way.

Huruma sighs through her nose a little and lets the tablet fall to sleep. Alright. No fuss going on with the others, and it feels as if this won't hurt anything.

"Badrani, yes. He's been signing up for very early credits in university, which just baffles me." Huruma's eyes are focused ahead to start with, turning to Noah in due seconds. "Azaly. My daughter's adopted. Not nearly as baffling, thank god."

Silent and still, Devon is listening to the exchange, though he minds himself to stay out of it. His arms fold loosely across his chest, eyes still shut in the practice of restive awareness. It's not really his business, and choosing to stay put doesn't exactly involve him. Or invite any opinions he might have. Still, it's good to know where everyone on the flight stands with everyone else.

Avi is silent for a time, looking between Devon and Emily. A knot of something like worry rises in his features—always seems to whenever he’s around them both—and he awkwardly excuses himself with a belated, “Yeah, yeah. Well… you’re welcome.”

Seated beside Huruma, Noah glances over his shoulder to Avi, then looks back to Huruma with a flash of a smile. “Tell me you have pictures.”

Twenty Hours Later

Antananarivo International Airport
Analamanga, Madagascar

February 12th
3:27 pm Local Time

As Emily Epstein and Devon Clendaniel step off of a jet for the first time in their neatly day-long journey, they are greeted by the subtropical warmth and bright sun of a foreign land on the other hemisphere of the Earth, where Winter is Summer, where the air smells sweet, and the sky looks like a blue plate dusted with wispy cotton. It feels like stepping into another world.

Antananarivo's silhouette is not only taller on the rolling landscape beyond the airport, but brighter too. The suburban sprawl looks much as it did decades ago as shown in photographs in The Wolves of Valhalla; red and white buildings, brick and stone, wood and green, the sparkle of water and rainbow of markets. The closer one gets to the city center, the more profound those buildings become, and the more complex. Newer. Bolder. Taller.

There is none of the cold, dark steel and stark, angular sensory experiences one might find in other countries. Here, the air is clean, the infrastructure sound, the urban sprawl almost fiction. Solar panels and self-contained wind turbines coat the bodies of buildings and a few significant skyscrapers, of Malagasy scale. Flora drapes across the city, seamlessly integrated into houses and rooftops, a literal and meticulous urban jungle that works alongside the manmade world. Animals make homes on the outskirts and in certain green spaces within; birds move alongside aircraft in the sky, zebu still a common sight amidst sleeker, smarter vehicles. Small lizards which cling to walls and scour for pests, even troops of lemurs who have effectively become their own subsection of critters accustomed to life around humans.

Culturally, visually, economically— Antananarivo is a shining example of a new world. A phoenix from the ashes of death and despair, fiery wings supporting the sky.

In the years leading up to the Second American Civil War, the events culminating in Operation Apollo changed the Malagasy landscape forever. The island came to a crossroads. The desire to rise from the ashes was there, and the population's heart was there, pushing together and lifting themselves up; but the world isn't kind to the poor, and such a thing seemed a dream in itself.

Luck was on their side, in a way. The destruction brought by the Vanguard not only decimated the will of the people, it left scars across the land itself. In the intervening years, attempts to salvage what they could led them to a discovery of game-changing proportions.

Madagascar's biodiversity was never in question. Flora, fauna, the sea itself endemic to the island. When it split from the main continental shelf, it took a splinter of life with it. It became its own. The discovery of valuable materials under its surface brought about a blossom of movement; while tiny deposits were found in the east of Africa, the quality was poor, brittle, hardly worth the effort to dig; they were splinters themselves, as Madagascar had not only taken with it unique life, but unique earth as well. Whatever had reached desperately up from the guts of the mantle had made it to light there, a hand pressing through the crust, holding onto the island's place in the sea.

However these resources had come to be there, the citizens of Madagascar were able to push themselves up, dust themselves off, and become a far, far more fortunate casualty of the Vanguard.

Now, gone are so many of those scars. The deeper ones remain, treated and healed, yet keloid in the way they have changed the texture of the land and people. If anything was certain, however, Madagascar has always been a home, and her children had always been the same; community meant the world, and more then ever. With the help of war heroes and a newly formed government, the first steps were difficult, but proved fruitful.

Burned countryside grew green again, forests spreading free and clear, waterways clearing as they made their way back to a deeper, bluer sea, whiter beaches. Agriculture and self-sustaining harvest practices came back in force. Villages found more stability. Towns formed around them. The cities grew too.

The cities are mirrors of one another, slightly different but always sharing aspects in infrastructure, as siblings do. Architecture has shifted, keeping its uniquely calico styles, pieces of its past melded into something new, and special. Antananarivo remains one of the most unique. The diversity of people echoes in cultures, traditions, economy, even food, music, and the dancing languages. Green hills and thick trees surround the capital, a stalwart wall of nature protective of the capital's vibrancy.

Avi Epstein treats it much in the way he treats everything good in his life, with skepticism and uncertainty. He, Huruma, and Noah are already on the tarmac when Emily and Devon descend under the bright sun. Noah shields his eyes with one hand, smiling at the two youngest members of the trip.

“Hope you brought some sunscreen!” Noah says like a complete fucking tourist, holding up his travel bag in one hand.

When Emily takes step after heavy step down from the plane, it's with her coat laid over her forearm. Blue-lensed aviator sunglasses over her face, she reviews the veritable paradise with a wave of surprise as warm as the breeze that swims around them.

She lets out a laugh at what Noah says, because it's fucking ridiculous, yeah.

"Hope you forgot your fanny pack back in New York," Emily says in return, setting the wheels of her suitcase to the ground. Her mouth twists in a wry grin as she looks to Devon at her side.

"Maybe this won't be so bad after all," she suggests to him in a much softer voice.

Checking timestamps on messages in her phone, Huruma lifts her head when Noah outs himself at high speed, even for him. She just shakes her head once at the figurative blinking light on his head, putting away the tempered face of her phone and looking from Emily and Devon to the city's silhouette. Avi doesn't need a power to see that the results of the pair's arrival outside are pleasing to her.

It's not smugness, really.

"The joke is on you, Bennet. Summer is also the wet season. I hope you brought an umbrella too." Huruma lets it sneak out with a smile, a more contained thing that remains for when she looks to Emily. "For what it's worth, I'm glad that this assignment is you two." As agents and tourists, the pair know how to be respectful— and it goes a long, long way here.

"We won't be waiting long." Huruma finally asides to Avi, one brow raising. Open space, tarmac, anxiety.

“Five dollars says he wears socks and sandals,” Devon quietly says to Emily as he affects a grin at Noah. Something tells him it's going to be like vacationing with Grandad.

He lightly taps his elbow against Emily’s, turning a much easier smile to her in response. “I'm sure it'll be fine. Good experience, great trip.” He hopes, anyway. Huruma seems pretty calm about things; it's rare to see her flustered at all, but her calm is such a stark contrast to Avi’s apprehension, maybe it's just the major overreacting.

“Come on.” Devon bumps his shoulder into Emily’s as he starts down the ramp. “Let's get a look at this place while we wait.”

Huruma’s assertion was correct, however. Coming up the tarmac a fleet of black SUVs cut a crisp silhouette against the sun-dappled asphalt. The vehicles are heavily armored, looking like a combination of a riot response vehicle and a luxury SUV. The seal of Madagascar is emblazoned in silver on the hood of each vehicle along with three Malagasy words: TANINDRAZANA, FAHAFAHANA, FANDROSOANA.


As the vehicles come to a stop, doors on the middle open and a pair of sleek armored figures step out into the hot sun. Their body armor looks like a combination of high fashion businesswear and military tactical armaments woven together with gold and chrome accents. The Apo Mpiambina, Madagascar’s elite SLC-Expressive security force, heralds the arrival of the nation’s hero.

Dajan Dunsumi steps out of the SUV and carries himself with the stature and posture of a celebrity. He too is dressed in a combination of armored businesswear, including a matte black sleeve gauntlet integrated into the right side of his blazer, stenciled with traditional Malagasy patterns in reflective gold. Dajan unbuttons his jacket as he approaches, arms wide and smile bright.

“Welcome to Madagascar!” Dajan greets with a personality as large as his stature.

Avi is, perhaps reflexively, the first to greet Dajan. “Commander Dunsimi,” he says with an obvious tension in his voice, “it’s been a while.”

Dajan approaches Avi briskly and doesn’t stop until he collides with the Wolfhound leader, taking Avi’s outstretched hand in a handshake but also pulling Avi into a firm hug with two sound slaps on the back. “Major, you are looking well. Youthful. Getting away from your government has done you wonders.”

Noah hangs back during the introductions, watching Avi and the vigilant Apo Mpiambina cautiously. He scrutinizes the armored transports, then looks up and down the runway as if looking for something.

“Commander, this is my daughter Emily Epstein and Agent Noah Bennet, they’re our SESA liaisons for this trip.” Avi introduces them both, then looks to Devon. “Officer Devon Clendaniel with Wolfhound, and obviously your mother needs no introductions.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you all, especially you Ms. Epstein.” Dajan says with a nod to Emily. “If you would join me in our transport, we should get off the runway.” As Dajan says that, Huruma’s senses latch onto a tremor of anxiety in her son she hasn’t felt before. Something is troubling him.

If Avi's surprised by the warm greeting Dajan gives him, Emily is doubly so. Her easygoing affect slides away, wondering at this exchange so at odds in tone with the Madagascar her father was worried would receive them. Her smile becomes a thinly pressed, polite thing by the time Dajan looks her way, her eyes meeting his through the lenses of her sunglasses. "It's a pleasure to meet you too, Mr. Dunsimi."

She's certain to separate herself visually at this point from the Wolfhounds she's more familiar with. It's Noah's side she gravitates back toward now as she steps forward toward the motorcade.

Or doesn't, depending on what Noah sees and feels.

Keeping one eye on the others in her peripheral vision, Huruma surveys the disembark of the officers, and then Dajan. She doesn't bother with hiding her mirth as the latter moves to welcome them— including Avi, a victim of happenstance and hugging. Could be worse— but it's as much a way to welcome all of them without turns, especially as Epstein makes some short introductions for the others.

Huruma's eye on Noah leaves the peripheral to briefly become centered on him; it's a blink and miss, but the man knows the type, questioning above all else.

When Huruma moves in to deliver Dajan his own embrace in greeting, there is also a soft-spoken word when she's close. "Aorian'izany, lazao amiko izay tsy mety…?"1 To the others it sounds like not a thing but words from mother to son, even as Huruma is the one to initiate the prompt return to the cars. If anything, his mood simply tells her not to dawdle about for long.

The sound of tires on tarmac pulls Devon from looking one way to watch the arrival. Brows raise slightly at the procession, and his jovial mood fades marginally. The excitement of the adventure is tempered and exchanged for a more serious response.

His eyes flick to Huruma when Dajan appears with a boisterous greeting. Possibly, wisely, taking his notes from her now that they're in company rather than left to their own devices. Attention returns to the welcoming in time to see Avi returned to his feet and respond to the introduction with a nod. Dev lingers, watching the remaining exchanges and the security detail until he's herded along into one of the waiting cars.

The interior of the vehicle looks nothing like its armored exterior, the seats are upholstered with supple champagne-colored leather, soft music is playing, there is a bottle of champagne on ice in the center console and a full rack of glasses in the far door. It is as spacious as a booth at a nightclub and carries some of the same energy as one. The driver’s portion of the vehicle is partitioned off by a raised smoky-glass barrier.

Dajan is the last one in, giving his mother a look of acknowledgement that she knows well. As he gets into the vehicle and shuts the door, muffled sounds from outside indicate the Apo Mpiambina are getting into another vehicle.

“I am sorry for the rush,” Dajan says with an apologetic shake of his head, “we have been—enduring some troubling times as of late, and security precautions are high. Your flight was not cleared with any official government channels so that your presence in the city is not as widely acknowledged.”

Avi sits forward, hands folded between his knees. “I thought the greeting was a little toothy. What’s going on?”

“It is nothing that we cannot handle, Major Epstein,” Dajan dismisses with a wave of his hand. “But part of my concern was for your presence. Though I understand you are former US Military, our people here have not forgotten what the United States tried to do to us after Operation Apollo, and while you are friend to my family, the same cannot be said wider.”

Avi makes a soft noise and sits back in his seat, rubbing one hand over his mouth.

“Out of professional concern,” Noah chimes in with a look across the seats to Dajan, “we may be enduring the same problems state-side, if your altercation in Yamagato Park during your last visit is any indication.”

An altercation that was not in the news, let alone something SESA even handled. Dajan levels a suspicious look to Noah, then a Mom Who Are Your Friends look to Huruma, before he draws in a patient breath and exhales a breathy sigh.

“Mazdak.” Dajan explains in a single word.

Fresh off the plane and they've already walked into their first problem. Settled near to the partition in the front of the vehicle by nature of having entered it early, Emily has an easy view of everyone's reactions. She pulls the sunglasses from her face and slowly closes them in her hand while she listens.

"The measures you went through to ensure our safety on arrival are appreciated, Mr. Dunsimi," she acknowledges quietly, hands in her lap. "Mazdak is a problem we're familiar with, but I imagine you face a different magnitude of it here, being closer to their heartland. Is there anything else you can tell us?"

"My biggest concern now would be that somehow, unwittingly, we might do something to cause tensions to rise, or put ourselves or you in danger simply by not knowing better," Emily confesses sympathetically. "Therefore any context you can help fill in will help us not only be better guests, but perhaps even better partners in addressing some of this problem."

She doesn't falter, blue eyes keen on Dajan. Mazdak is a complex problem, but offering to help how they can while they're here comes as naturally as breathing.

Huruma knows already that Apollo's figure still lingers here, and hearing as much from Dajan's concerns only serves to repeat it for her. She settles in against the inside of the door, limbs withdrawn and eyes bright in the shade of the interior. Noah's response and Dajan's look is answered with a somewhat exaggerated shrug from crossed arms, mouth pursing pointedly. What?

She remains silent even in the advent of Mazdak being a part of the problem— because of course they are— and instead watches as Emily steps to the plate, simmering until the young woman finishes.

"Madagascar belongs to Madagascar. If Mazdak hopes to gain ground here… I hope they are treated just as Mitchell's forces were. With prejudice." Huruma's tongue slides over her teeth, breath leaving in a short rush, head dipping in gesture to Emily, eyes on Dajan. "What little ground America has in diplomacy here does need protecting. Pretending to be civilians wouldn't hurt." A pause, "Or Canadians."

Settling into his seat, Devon follows the conversation with his eyes as much as with his ears. His brows draw into a slight frown, and the fold of his arms across his chest might imply more of an untrusting demeanor — part of which comes with the career he's chosen — but there's none of that come from him. He's taking the information, what's said and how particularly from Dajan and Noah, but it's no different than his attention during briefings.

Dajan looks over to Emily with new eyes, as if only really seeing her for the first time. He blinks a look over to his mother, one brow raised, then looks down to his hands as he folds them between his knees and sits forward.

“Mazdak already has a foothold in Madagascar. We just did not realize it until it was too late,” Dajan says with a small spread of his hands. “Our nation prides itself on its independence, on our abilities, on having one of the largest Expressive populations, per-capita, in the world. Mazdak poisoned that, took pride and turned it into extremism.”

Narrowing his eyes, Dajan looks from side to side, as if tracing the path of events that led to this moment. “There are terrorist cells within our nation, groups that push the idea of Expressive pride but are bases for radicalization. They are small, close-knit.”

“Dinu?” Noah thinks to ask and Dajan gives him an abrupt look.

Namgur Dinu,” Dajan clarifies. “We thought we rooted them out a year ago, but they’ve gotten stronger. They’re pushing a populist movement, trying to start a citizen’s uprising, pointing fingers at us for allying with America after what happened a decade ago. They are saying Madagascar is stronger apart from the rest of the world, isolated.”

Dajan shakes his head. “I don’t need to tell you where that path leads.”

“So why accept our request?” Avi asks, glancing briefly at Emily and then back to Dajan. “It’s not like I’m a folklore fucking hero around these parts.”

“Because I will not live afraid of what I know is right.” Dajan says sharply. “This is my home, and I will not hide from the world because of fear, resentment, or a misplaced sense of superiority. I fought for my home once, I will do it again.”

Emily's gaze dips away while she thinks. It's not her place to reproach, here, but even from where she sits she gets the sense somehow that their presence plays right into what this Namgur Dinu is rallying people by. One wrong move could feed their fire and bring disorder to the island nation.

Or played right, maybe there was still hope to prove the US was a capable, worthy ally— one eradicated of the leadership that before had threatened their prosperity.

But what did they have to offer that could help prove that? Emily glances in Noah's direction, her mouth pressed into a thin line. "Forgive me for being direct, but does your plan with hosting us include being open about our presence in the country once we're in a better-secured area?"

“No.” Dajan says quietly. “I’m taking you to my home. It won’t raise any questions that I am entertaining my mother and guests, nor will it raise questions that Mihaja is there.” He spreads his hands slowly. “It’s for the best right now.”

Emily nods in understanding, an unsettled turbulence playing out in the back of her head. There wasn't an easy option here… but she worried what could happen if it were found out that an American delegation was being entertained in secret, what it could do to the story Namgur Dinu was spinning. But she's said enough, and maybe everyone else will feel differently than she does. Her eyes flit to Huruma cautiously.

Huruma says nothing to Dajan's willingness to fight again; she knows he would. Just… perhaps not quite like the first time. There are many ways to fight, not all of them visible. Her expression skews troubled in the half-light of the cabin, brow pinched and mouth tight. Whatever is first and foremost on her mind remains unvoiced, the secondary thoughts are clearly drawn in by Emily's desire to question, the answers she gets, the feeling as they come.

"…We must simply be careful. You are all, officially, my guests, and not agents of a foreign nation…" Huruma decides this out in the open rather than allow it to linger implied, one hand gesturing to the rest of the little group. Her tone is measured, though remains intimate. "It will be better to have the conversation on …possible scenarios once we have had a moment to adjust, in a more secure place. As for Dinu…" Her pale eyes focus on her son, brow set in its worried bend. "Figure that there is usually one within spitting distance, if nothing else. I have other thoughts on them… but not here."

It's a measure of Devon’s patience to not pick at the finer details. The blanket reason for his presence, as a presence, is obvious. However he's missing the clues on why the trip at all. And of course he didn't bother to ask while the mission was proposed. He just sat there silently accepting the directive without knowing some of the more important pieces.

It really needles him when Huruma emphasises that they're public ally guests and he realizes he's still holding onto that habit. Still, he's not going to disagree that certain conversations should happen when they're in less potentially hostile territory. He’ll pick at things later.

“To keep up appearances then,” Devon cuts in. His brows lift, eyes angling a quick look to Avi and Huruma. “Maybe you could point out some of the more interesting sites along the way. Maybe even tell us more about your country.” And save work for later. “Emily and I’ve never been here.”

Dajan nods thoughtfully, then settles back against the soft upholstery of the vehicle’s seats with a sigh. “The city you see out these windows is not what was here when your father was here last,” he says to Emily. The comment draws Avi’s attention from the window, fixing Dajan with a concerned but patient look. “It was built by the passion, hard work, and determination of this land’s people. Built by our desire for independence, freedom from oppression, and imperialism.”

Dajan shakes his head slowly, and Avi looks back out the window again. “It has not made us as many friends as it has enemies,” Dajan says quietly. “But we will, all of us, fight for it with all our lives.”

“Claire always wanted to come back here,” Noah says quietly, turning his attention out the window as well to the bustling cityscape of Mandritsara and its juxtaposition of cutting edge skyscrapers and centuries-old European-style villas. “Under better terms, in better times.”

“I remember her,” Dajan confirms. “She is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. When you return to the States, I hope you send her my regards.”

Noah nods slowly, brows creasing. “I will,” he says with momentary distraction.

But Dajan is right, no matter how much Noah stares out the window he can’t see the Madagascar that Claire talked about. He can’t see the nightmare wrought by the Vanguard.

But when Avi Epstein looks out the window…

…that’s all he sees.

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