Traps For Troubadours


nick_icon.gif richard4_icon.gif rue2_icon.gif wright_icon.gif

Scene Title Traps For Troubadours
Synopsis Richard Ray calls on allies to secretly investigate an old Institute safehouse in Sweden…
Date December 13, 2020

It’s hard to imagine that Jackson Heights was once a concrete-littered ruin filled with rusted out cars and broken dreams. From the executive suite of the Raytech Offices, Jackson Heights looks like a thriving center of commerce, where glass-walled skyscrapers and eco-brutalist architecture meets the postwar world head-on. It’s the dream of a bright future promised by another reality, except this one isn’t a painted facade over a rotten carcass.

Richard Ray has watched Jackson Heights turn from a bombed-out parking lot into the bustling neighborhood it is now. Every day out these windows he would watch buildings be torn down and reconstructed, he would watch human laborers gradually be replaced by automated construction worker drones, he would watch the world change before his eyes. In less than a decade the promise of the Safe Zone cannot be more clearly seen anywhere than here.

«Mr. Ray, your three o’clock is here.»

It was a world that they had all saved, a world they all had a hand in rebuilding, and a world they weren’t going to let die.

«Should I send them up?»

Not this future.

Not this time.

Raytech Industries, NYCSZ Campus
CEO’s Office

Jackson Heights
NYC Safe Zone

December 11th
3:34 pm

A security camera follows Rue Lancaster everywhere she goes in the Raytech building. It’s hard not to set foot inside the corporation’s NY headquarters without feeling every single eye on her. After what her double had done it doesn’t come as a surprise.

Wright Tracy doesn’t notice the ubiquity of surveillance technology in the building quite the same way. Instead it is the dazzling display of eco-friendly architecture juxtaposed with bleeding edge technology that is the spectacle. Raytech is nothing if not something of a peacock when it comes to corporate offices.

When Raytech’s security chief personally leads the Wolfhound members up to Richard’s office, Rue and Wright find that they aren’t the first people to arrive. There’s a man roughly Richard’s age sitting at the desk while Richard stands by the windows overlooking Jackson Heights.

The last time Rue saw Nick Ruskin it was a memorial for November 8th, 2006 held at the Brick House Museum. He was there with Delia Ryans, she’s fairly certain. But that isn’t where Rue’s mind goes back to. No, her most vidi memories of Nick Ruskin are within the crumbling walls of Pollepel Island. Coincidentally, that’s the only time Wright had ever run into him.

It would seem this is something of a reunion.

“Agent Ruskin,” Rue greets first with a smile and a handshake. “You remember Wright Tracy?” She takes it upon herself to introduce her partner in this little caper of theirs, leaving them to exchange pleasantries while she makes her way to the windows and Richard. Because of what the other version of her had a hand in doing to him, they both know she’s no threat to him now as she crosses that distance and stands within arm’s reach, her hand outstretched.

“We’ll always have Berlin,” Lancaster murmurs low, for his ears alone. Threat or not, now he knows she is who she appears to be.

Wright strains for a moment to recall any interaction she may have had with Nick at Bannerman’s. There’s a moment where she reflects on the novelty of a memory just too old to have simultaneously experienced with Elliot. They can share the memories from before the link, and she feels Elliot do so now as she calls up a handful of brief interactions with Nick around the castle.

“Nick,” Wright says with a nod and a professional handshake.

As the others arrive, Richard's silent as he gazes out over Jackson Heights, lost in pensive thought. It's not until that quiet statement leaves Rue's lips that he smiles - even a little - and turns away, head dipping in a bit of a nod to the redhead. He reaches out to her extended hand, taking it briefly in a warm squeeze before releasing it. "That we will," he murmurs, turning fully towards the gathering, "Thank you all for coming. Rue, Nick. Good to see you both. Ms. Tracy. I'm almost disappointed you aren't wearing a yellow trenchcoat."

Even for someone his age, that's an old reference.

"Alright. To cut through all of the preamble; we'll be heading to Sweden to investigate the summer home of the Institute's late director, isolated up in the hills and thus possibly undisturbed for some time. We have reason to believe one Karin Brauer - alias 'Ruby' - may be there. She's the partner of the late Simon Broome, and the father of Desmond Harper."

He draws in a breath, "Let's not damn her because of her family, though - she wasn't involved in the Institute's work, and she's into her eighties now. She's been incredibly helpful since I made contact with her, but… the fact that she told me in passing about this place and then left for there suddenly without a word highly suggests that I'm being lured there for some reason. Which is why I'm not leveraging my corporate assets to get into the country, but instead asking all of you - who can get into Europe without too much suspicion, and who aren't obviously connected to me - to help get me in."

Dryly, "I will be hiding in a suitcase, thanks to my ability. You’ll all probably have a much nicer flight."

Nick’s brows lift at the formality of the title. “Just Nick is fine, unless you want me to call you February,” he says with a small smile, reaching to accept her handshake and then Wright’s. His accent these days is decidedly English, unlike in the days he spent ferrying people and supplies between New York and Bannerman where he seemed to be an American and went by the surname York.

“Good to see you again,” he tells the former Ferrywomen, before turning his attention back to their host. His dark brows draw together at the explanation Richard gives, before one arches in skepticism.

“Definitely sounds like a trap. What do you expect to find there, besides Brauer?” he asks. “Or rather, what do you hope to find and what do you expect to find?” The two are often not the same.

Rue winces at the use of her full name, but chuckles. “Oof. Point taken, Nick.” If she’s managed to finally kick the habit of calling Richard Mr. Ray, she can manage to apply the same to him, she supposes.

Slanting a smirk in Richard’s direction, she manages to avoid making a Dick joke. “When you give us watch radios, we’ll dress up according to your little noir fantasy.” No, they won’t.

Rue meanders her way back to the other side of the desk while Richard lays out what he knows. Her lips purse the more he has to say. “The only way this could be more obviously a trap is if Admiral Ackbar were shouting at us right now.” Rue sighs quietly. “You’re sure on the timing on this? I could go scout ahead, get some pictures, talk to some locals…” They’ve talked about this already, but she’d be remiss if she didn’t give it one more shot.

“Plus I’m already a watch radio,” Wright says. Dick Tracy comic strips were still running in local newspapers when she was a kid. And while she may have seen advertisements for the movie on some other VHS, she at least knows it exists. “And that’s Mrs. Tracy. Wright’s fine though.”

Elliot’s emotion at the chance to investigate one of the Institute director’s holdings is more anticipatory than anxious, though not anxiety-free. He’s wanted a chance to do something like this for a long time. Wright shares his anticipation, mind already whirring with what they might find. What she might not want someone else finding first.

"Honestly? I have no idea," Richard admits, "At the very least, I hope to get some answers from Ruby, if we find her there, but other than that… he was even more paranoid than me, so maybe he had some information backups stored there, something we can make something of. Not all of the Institute's projects were horrific violations of human rights, but they all went down in the same fire in the end."

"The worst case scenario is finding out that she's been working with Mazdak this whole time and this is another trap to capture me, but… I don't find it very likely," he admits, "This is far too— convoluted even for one of their plans. I'm going to assume that whatever her motivation, there's something or someone there that she wants me to see, so I need to take that risk."

A quick smile, gesturing to the group, "…but I don't have to be stupid about it."

“I apologize I didn’t have the foresight to add Swedish to my studies,” Nick says with a smirk. French, Polish, or Russian are all in his wheelhouse, along with his native English, but the natives of Nikkaluokta aren’t a people that can blend in with as seamlessly as the CIA agent can in other countries.

“I can see what the agency has on the area, but it might alert someone there to our plans. My guess is that if they haven’t investigated it themselves before this, they’re unaware of it, though,” Nick says, tapping his fingers lightly against the arm of the chair — if he weren’t inside, he’d probably be reaching for a cigarette about now. “But if you want me to check, I can.”

“They had you once,” Rue points out in response to the likelihood of this being some Mazdak trap. “It seems a little foolish that they’d go through the trouble of snaring you once, just to let you loose and then try to snare you again. They have to know you well enough by now to know you’d accept an invitation if they extended it.”

With a sigh, she shakes her head. “Whatever you need from us. I’m happy to kick in some doors and turn over some rocks. In whichever order that needs to take place.”

Wright is relaxed in a way that evokes confidence rather than familiarity. Her eyes take in the view of the city, marvelling to herself at the scope of how far it’s come, and the resources of the people who own large swaths of it.

Her ears remain on the conversation. She doesn’t find any need to interject into a situation where she’s such a newcomer. When Rue mentions kicking in doors, however, she nods in agreement and reiteration of where her skillset is most useful. Other than as a comms unit.

“Tempting as it is, Nick, I’d be worried that whoever this is might have eyes and ears in the Agency. So we’ll just have to walk into their trap as… carefully as possible,” Richard admits a bit wryly, “And see what secrets we can dig up in the process.”

One hand comes up to rub at the nape of his neck, “And hopefully not get into any trouble with the local authorities. It’s supposed to be the one of the only buildings in those foothills, so we should be pretty out of the way.”

“Blind as bats we go, then,” Nick says. “Hopefully we won’t fall down any stairwells this time, eh?” He smirks at Richard, but it’s a short-lived thing, given their rescuer in that misadventure later aided and abetted his sister in holding him hostage, but it still makes for an interesting war story of sorts.

“Once we’re there, you can unfurl and scout ahead, yeah?” he asks the other man, before turning to the women, brows lifting. “Door kicking may not be necessary after all, but we’ll wear some steel-toed boots just in case.”

Nick’s restless fingers tap lightly against his knee. “Weapons? Can’t just go into a Walmart and buy a gun there. If we go by Poland first, I have a safehouse with some supplies already. Nothing heavy,” he says. “Hire a boat to take us over, avoid the ferries that’ll have metal detectors and the like.”

“Fortunately, I can carry my scope with me,” said with all the ease of someone who’s gotten used to flying with a firearm in post-war America, “so as long as you give me something worth attaching it to, I don’t care where it comes from.” Rue shrugs her shoulders. “I’m easy.”

At that, a look is instantly angled Wright’s way, but it’s not for Wright. Not a word, those blue eyes warn.

Wright angles an eyebrow at Rue on her own before Elliot gets a chance, but lets it slide. “I feel like we could get a lot of mileage out of a ‘clueless American’ routine if we do happen to stumble across somebody.”

“What are the legal ramifications of what we’re doing here?” she asks. “Say if someone at Polish TSA decides to unzip your suitcase, or if we’re happened upon by a wilderness cop.” It’s always good to have an idea of how much jail time a mission could entail.

“They won’t see anything. If they happen across me— well,” Richard shakes his head, “If feasible, deny any knowledge of me, and I’ll claim you were victims of my nefarious hijacking.” A bit wry, he brings a hand up to scratch under his chin, “Assuming I can’t just bribe my way out of it. If unfeasible, well, it’s— pretty illegal. Anti-Evolved sentiment is pretty high in Europe these days.”

Hand raking back dark hair, Nick lifts his shoulders. “I know we’re trying to go under the radar, but if worse comes to worse, I have contacts with Interpol that should be able to sort us out, maybe even do me a favor and keep it out off CIA radar.”

He levels a glance over at Richard with a smirk. “You can be a pain in the ass, but you don’t deserve to go to prison, mate. At least not for this.

Smartassed comments averted, Rue lets her gaze drift to the ceiling overhead. She exhales through lightly pursed lips, eyes narrowed faintly in a thought that clearly excites her. “Oh, if only I could figure out a way to bring Wilby.”

Her ultimate companion in fuck around and find out.

This would hardly be the first time Wright did something illegal, though most likely the first since she had a child to worry about not seeing. She knows Ames would be cared for, but she can’t help but feel momentarily worried. Being in trouble three thousand miles from home was different than being in trouble somewhere Elliot could get to her.

But this is the job.

“Wilb— “ Richard’s gaze shoots over to Rue, and he lets out a bark of laughter, “You’ve got that monster? Yeah, I don’t think there’s any way to get her through customs, not going in this way…”

He shakes his head, “Worse comes to worse, technically none of you have done anything illegal. Well, maybe some aiding and abetting, but you can call ignorance, and I’ll back you up there if I have to. Basically, if the worst occurs, you turn on me like a dime, alright?”

Richard’s words get a shake of Nick’s head. “Ignorance’ll work with the locals maybe, though pretty sure our names will ping our various superiors if we get into real trouble, legally speaking,” the Englishman says, with a shrug of his left shoulder. “They probably won’t buy the ignorant alibi but they’ll probably pull the necessary strings to get us out.


He smiles. “Swedish prison’s like living in a dorm room, complete with an Ikea Billy bookshelf and a television set. We’ve all been in far worse.”

“Sounds like it’s better than my last apartment,” Rue comments dryly, agreeing with Nick’s assessment. Bringing her gaze back down from the ceiling, she flashes a grin to Richard with a lift of her brows. “You bet your ass I do. I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve been dying for a chance to get him out for walkies.” But unlike Wright, this has not been her job for the better part of a year now. And the bounties have been slim to none anyway. “Maybe next time.

“Meeeantime, I’ll bring my scope, Nick hooks me up with a rifle once we’re through the bullshit, and I’m in business.” Rue’s needs are few.

“If you can get me a gun there I’m handy with it,” Wright says. “Plus the skill-sharing benefits of the network are always a leg-up. My partner would need to orchestrate the link but it can be maintained long-distance up to a couple weeks. He’ll ping as Expressive but Rue and I won’t.”

“If you need to access my detailed knowledge of military history,” she laughs. “Or medical. A lot of my combat prowess doesn’t transmit, but there’s other utility, aside from comms.”

Richard shakes his head, a smile tugging up at the corner of his lips at Rue’s commentary, “You keep this up I’m going to have to start calling you Swords, Lancaster.” His gaze cuts to Wright, and he gives his head a little shake, “You all definitely don’t want to be linked to this mess, trust me. My fieldcraft might be a little rusty, but it’s like picking up a bicycle.”

Nick nods to Wright. Guns, they can get once they’re in Europe. “Naszym celem jest więc najpierw Polska,” he says, with a small smile. “I can already taste the makowiec.”

A short jaunt in Poland to grab some weaponry wouldn’t be complete without Polish pastries, after all. “Hopefully we won’t need the guns, but obviously we're not walking into a trap bare handed.” To Rue, he adds, “I don’t have a lot of options, but there’s a rifle and some handguns. I’m not a sniper, and I’m not the one usually breaking down the door, unfortunately.”

Well, it’s not that unfortunate. But he’d have a better armory if he was.

“I made do with less in the war,” Rue assures Nick. “Any rifle is better than a box of rocks and a poke in the eye.”

Wright doesn’t press the invitation to the network, though she nods to Richard in acknowledgement. Fewer people in the network is generally better, especially if Elliot needs to link somebody else here while she’s gone.

She’s also not picky about her weaponry options, she’s gotten her hands on and used a considerable number of firearms over the course of her life. She keeps to herself, comfortable letting the meeting play out until she has something useful to add to it. Instead she casts her gaze about, calmly disliking the architectural style for reasons she can’t really put her finger on.

“Alright, then,” Richard crooks a bit of a smile, looking over the group, “I think we’ve got a plan. Now let’s hope we don’t have to set it on fire and improv, in the end…”

The wordless like usual hangs in the air.

Two Days Later

Lappland, Sweden

December 13th
2:17pm Local Time

The village of Nikkaluokta is nestled in the snowy foothills of Mount Kaskasatjåkka, a peak within the Scandinavian Mountains. From Nukkaluokta, the mountain range is shrouded in clouds and snow on an overcast day like this one. From the lobby of the mountain lodge, the snow-capped peaks are an aspiration for winter revelers and travelers who come here on holiday for skiing and other winter recreation. For the four weary souls sitting by the fire in the lodge, recreation isn’t on the agenda.

It was an eight and a half hour flight from the Safe Zone to Copenhagen, then another three hours in a cramped two-prop plane from Copenhagen, Denmark to the Kallyx Flyg Air Base outside of Nikkaluokta, a small outpost of the Swedish air force that doubles as a civilian airport. Having only been out of a plane for less than twenty minutes, there’s a growing sensation of restlessness. The reason for their journey is nearly at hand, a mere two miles away somewhere on Kaskasatjåkka.

With the fire crackling and popping beside them, Richard Ray, Nick Ruskin, Rue Lancaster, and Wright Tracy are given one final moment of respite before the final leg of their journey into the unknown.

Rather than be seated, Rue stands with a hand on the back of the chair she would be sitting in. Instead, it is occupied by her backpack, heavy coat, a sweater she may or may not have swiped from her beau’s closet before departing, and the long sleeved thermal worn under that. Her boots remain in front of the chair where she took them off. She’s going to enjoy the chance to be clad in just a tank top for as long as that moment will last.

The chair makes a good enough stand-in for a barre, and Rue uses it for balance as she does her stretches. That was too damn many hours in planes. A long-legged creature like herself never does enjoy being huddled up so much. There’s not even a trace of self-consciousness in the way she indulges in her ballet warm-up routine, stockinged feet sliding across the floor. First position, second position, plie, releve

Some things will just never change.

Once they start hiking, she’ll be glad she took the time to limber up. Without any prompting, there’s a chuckle from the redhead. “I’m pretty sure the last time I was in a lodge like this was in the… Italian Alps?” There’s an extra upward lilt to Italian to indicate that she’s really not sure if that’s the country of origin or not.

“Was coming off some modeling gig and decided to go skiing.” Dropping back to a flat-footed stance from the one she was just holding, balanced on the balls of her feet, Rue now braces her foot on the arm of the chair and leans into a stretch for her hip flexors and hamstring. “Except skiing just meant dressing cute and playing wingmate for Lucille while boys bought us drinks in the lodge.”

And some things have changed a lot.

Wright collapsed into a chair the moment she could, and immediately regretted it. Sleeping on the plane was made easier by Elliot sleeping at the same time in the Safe Zone, but it still wasn’t easy. But she just spent most of a day in a chair, sitting in this one now feels like a little defeat.

She sighs and watches Rue stretch, more for Elliot’s benefit than for her own. Elliot always glows when he sees Rue dance, sheds the barriers against what other people think of her. Wright can’t help but share Elliot’s glowing smile when they watch Rue from thousands of miles apart. “I think I’ve only ever been in a hunting lodge, somewhere up Maine as the olds say. Too early for skiing and too late for swimming. Almost shot my dad.”

A ripple of Elliot’s amusement appears in the network manifesting as a quiet snort from Rue — one that disrupts the dreamy little smile she’d been wearing in response to Elliot’s distant admiration — before Wright remembers to add, chagrined, “Accidentally. Long before patriotism school.” She dismisses it with a tired wave of her hand.

“I swear that he did this on purpose,” Richard mutters under his breath, holding his hands out towards the fire, “The sonuvabitch knew goddamn well how I feel about snow. He could’ve set himself up in Honolulu, but no, he had to pick somewhere he knew I’d hate going.”

He has the gear for the weather at least; multiple layers, at least one of them with an internal heating system that’s probably some sort of proprietary technology. One of the advantages of executive life, one supposes. Most of it’s folded neatly nearby since it’s warm inside, but he knows it’s cold out there, so the fire offers respite. Psychologically, anyway.

Leaning back, he folds both hands behind his head and stretches back with a bit of a grunt. He’s getting too old for this shit oh god that sounds like an Avi thought, stop it immediately, “My father-in-law has a place upstate that’s pretty nice. I’ve had to lay low there a few times.”

“Mark Twain once said ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,’ but I always thought he could’ve been talking about London,” chimes in Nick in his East-ender accent. “This,” he gestures to the crackling fire and lodge that surrounds them, “is about as remote to me as Honolulu would’ve been. But as far as cold goes, December in Poland was pretty bad.”

His travel mates probably have no idea just how big of an understatement that is.

“At least the view’s better here,” he adds, taking another sip from the coffee mug clasped in both hands, as if he could absorb all of its heat before they head out into the wintry outdoors.

“My dad used to take me hunting, too,” Rue picks up Wright’s thread with a small grin. “Mom was afraid I’d injure myself and end my showbiz career. Joke’s on you, Mom. I make my career shooting things. Who’s the one with silly hobbies now?” She rolls her eyes and moves on to the next topic in need of ribbing.

“Oh, cheer up, Richard,” the ginger teases good-naturedly. She taps her nose and points at Nick. “The scenery is beautiful,” she agrees. “There are far worse places he could have picked for his little vacation home.” Which is almost certainly not going to be little. “You boys are spoiled. I’m from Chicago.” And for a moment there, her accent 100% reflects that. “Yeah, it’s fuckin’ cold out there,” Rue points a finger toward out there before leaning forward, keeping her leg straight and reaching for her foot, “but we don’t have to deal with lake effect. That shit’s miserable. This is at least a dry cold.”

Yeah, she just said that.

Rue turns her head to one side and fixes Wright with a little look before dipping her chin. “Hey,” she voices with faux indignance. “That is definitely a thing.” She’s having a conversation with someone who isn’t in the room. Again. She straightens up again and switches which leg she’s stretching now. “Don’t you sass me, Hitch. I’m on a mission.” It’s like the old days when she was definitely not on Bluetooth, but pretending she was. Only she’s done away with the pretense of the earpiece.

Wright chuckles at Rue’s antics, but she’s happy to see her partner’s girlfriend taking to the network so well. Being so open. She doesn’t pass on Elliot’s, “I feel like none of you have spent a winter in New England and it shows,” comment. Winter is unpleasant most places Wright’s been. No need to participate in the Coldest Winter Olympics. The cold both here and in the Safe Zone are mediated by wood-burning fireplaces, which does nothing to help her lethargy. But then there’s the smell of coffee.

Not the ‘good’ coffee which Elliot leaves in the kitchen at the Bastion, the good stuff, which she can smell in the kitchen in his townhouse. Most people couldn’t detect how or why it’s italics good versus apostrophes good without sensing it the way Elliot does. She picks up an insulated metal thermos from beside the floor and removes the cup and cap, mildly astonished to see it still steaming lightly. “Vaccuum insulation is fucking magic,” she mutters before pouring herself a cup. She raises it to her face, luxuriating in the scent. Vanilla, cinnamon, chipotle pepper.

"I've climbed up mountains in Alaska, and I've marched through Antarctica," Richard observes a bit dryly, rocking up to his feet in a slow straightening, "I've died in both places. I think that I have the right to hate the cold and snow by this point…" He does seem awfully alive for a dead guy, but maybe that's just hyperbole.

One hand rubs along the back of his neck, and he looks to the others for a long moment before clearing his throat, "Okay, ah… before we get going, there's something very important you all need to keep in mind. If I get badly injured, shot or something, don't attempt to give me medical attention, don't try and— carry me to safety, none of that. Get the fuck away from me for your own safety."

Rue’s comment that some of them were spoiled is met with an arch of Ruskin brow and a soft huff of amusement, but Nick doesn’t argue. Weatherwise, his upbringing in London wasn’t a problem, after all.

He takes another sip of coffee, then sets the mug down when Richard grows suddenly serious. He’s worked with the man before and never had this caveat in the briefings, so his brows draw together with some confusion.

“You grow another ability since Detroit?” Nick wonders aloud — he may be CIA, but Richard Ray’s SLC-E status isn’t one of the things he’s privy to.

If they’re going with upbringings overall, Rue will be first to admit she’s the spoiled one in this bunch. But she can at least claim the Roughest Winters badge. Elliot’s own sentiment about that is responded to silently with her amusement and a roll of her eyes that she angles at the two-way mirror that is Wright.

Nick’s question is one that she has the answer to, so she takes the onus off Richard for this one. “Before then, actually. It’s… complicated. But if he’s injured, his body will try to heal itself and use us as fuel for the fire required by that engine.” Rue smiles wryly. “Rough stuff. If anything like that happens, I’ll—”

A gust of cold and a soft ring accompanies the door to the lodge opening. A lone man walks in from the wintry outside, dressed in a heavy hiking jacket with the fur-trimmed hood pulled up and a scarf wound around his face. He, like the other handful of visitors to the lodge, does not at first seem alarming. But as he turns attention toward the four sitting by the fire and unwinds his plaid scarf, the situation evolves.


Richard Ray is the only person in the room to recognize the square-jawed and blonde-haired German man approaching them with heavy footfalls. Niklaus Zimmerman is a shadow in Richard’s history, a man he once saved the life of, who has since wavered between friend and reluctant acquaintance. When they last met, two years ago, the tensions between them had not diminished. But Niklaus has been a ghost since that day at the Clocktower Building.

Guten nachmittag,” Niklaus says, stopping a few feet from the group as he draws back his hood. He seems surprised to see Richard. “Ruskin, Wright, and Lancaster?” He asks in slightly accented English.

The sudden blast of chilled air cuts off Rue’s thoughts and she suppresses a shudder as it washes over her bared skin. That the newcomer sets his sights on them immediately is not lost on Lancaster. Whomst the fuck?

Deliberately, but in a way meant to convey a casual ease, Rue gets both her feet back on the floor. She doesn’t have her boots on, but that can’t be helped now. She’ll just have to be mindful of her placement and— Leaning against the back of the chair now, the curly-haired ginger lets a little grin form as she lets her gaze sweep the German up and down in open assessment.

He wasn’t prepared to see Richard, which means that he likely picked up on their arrival from the flight manifest, or their registration requests from the embassy, perhaps? Something about them flagged, at any rate. She wonders if it was any particular one of them who sent the ping, or if perhaps it was their destination. That seems more likely. A little place in the middle of nowhere like this? Easy enough to monitor the traffic in and out and assess it for threats.

“Lancaster,” she confirms, lifting her brows and twisting a strand of her hair absently around one finger. “Are you the welcome wagon? Because if so, this tag has just gotten sehr gut.” And for all that outward flirtatiousness, there isn’t a single warm sensation to go along with it felt in that link she shares with her beau and his partner. Rue is working, and Richard’s seen firsthand how she can use that act to great effect.

“It’s Tracy if we’re operating on a surname basis,” Wright corrects with a shake of her head to Rue. “More and more I’m regretting not taking my Wife’s last name.” Nobody ever assumed that Burgess was a first name. Wright has long since made peace with being given a last name for a first name, and she knows her birth surname wouldn’t be any less confusing. Thanks, Superman.

Familiar enough with Elliot’s ability to act in a way his emotions contradict, Wright can guess what Rue is after. She watches the others for clues to whether or not anyone else recognizes or reacts to the newcomer.

It's an uncomfortable question, and Richard pauses as he considers how to answer— looking a little grateful as Rue jumps in to assist, although he imagines there might be some pointed follow-up questions given Nick's history and sibling. So he's briefly relieved when the door opens, head turning towards it and a hand moving to his side as if to reach for a weapon— only to realize after a moment that he's just been moved from the conversational frying pan and straight into the fire.

The last time that they saw each other, in the Clocktower, it was a tense moment. They'd parted with harsh words and accusations that ended their friendship, and words can cause wounds that last much longer than that from a gun. There's silence from the executive for a few long moments as the others offer their cautious greetings, before finally he steps forward with an expression of relief.

"Niklaus," he all but exhales in surprise, startled to see the man in question but it seems deeply glad to be doing so, "Thank God. You're— alright?"

The explanation offered by Rue — such as it is — elitics an arched brow from Nick, angled toward Richard. Curious.

“Sounds familiar,” is all he has time to say before their little respite is interrupted by Niklaus Zimmernan’s entrance, his hand too inching toward a weapon as he turns his gaze in that direction. Both brows rise when the three of them are named.

Giving a small nod to the man; Nick doesn’t confirm which of the three names belongs to him — not yet, and it’s unnecessary as the women both do so, leaving his identity obvious.

“Afternoon,” he replies politely, cautiously, but when Richard clearly recognizes him and Nick sees that look of relief on the other man’s face, he relaxes a little.

Niklaus’ expression does not change amid greetings, corrections, and old-acquaintances reunited. His wire-framed glasses have started to fog up from the warmth of the room, and he takes them off of his face, wiping the lenses off on his plush scarf. “My apologies, Ms. Tracy,” is Niklaus’ gentle correction, eyes averted to his glasses.

Rue earns a rather neutral if somewhat unseeing look before Niklaus puts his glasses back on. He inspects her — and then the others — for a moment much in the way someone might a chair or an armoire at an antique store; determining how to fit things into a proverbial trunk. The smile that comes after is both belated and faint.

“I am well,” Niklaus says for Richard’s peace-of-mind, “or as well as could be under the circumstances. But let us not hitch cart before horse, eh?” He saps with a spread of gloved hands. “I suppose I am here on behalf of Ruby Harper. Given the company I now see you all keep, my interrogatory phase can conclude preemptively, and I can proceed with the invitational.”

Niklaus steps to the side to allow for a better view of the street where a mid-sized all-terrain SUV is parked up by the curb, idling. “If you were headed to the residence I presumed you were, we can continue this conversation en-route.” Then, somewhat awkwardly, he adds. “One of you will need to ride up front.”

Lancaster’s brows lift at the exchange between Richard and the German man. “Friend of yours?” she murmurs. “Thank goodness.” Her posture immediately changes, her lean against the back of the chair abandoned in favor of turning around and starting to gather her discarded overclothes, pulling the thermal back over her head first.

There’s some advantage in keeping up the pretense of being at least a little airheaded, but given their apparent escort knows who Richard is, and with that likely has enough knowledge to realize he wouldn’t bring anyone less than competent with him, Rue feels confident dropping the act entirely.

Once she’s tugged her sweater over her head, the ginger raises her hand. “I’ll fall on that grenade,” she offers. It’ll give a different perspective to view the drive from anyway. There’s no reason for Richard to have to go full shadow when there’s a simple enough solution.

As she drops into the chair to put her boots on, she finds herself incredibly grateful they aren’t going to have to hike after all. As much as that means she isn’t going to have a chance to scope the residence out from a distance. If they’re invited, the chances of having made their approach undetected had been slim anyway. Zipping up her coat and gathering up her pack, Rue smiles amiably. “Ready to boogie when you all are.”

Wright seems grateful for the opportunity to stand, quickly drinking the coffee she’d just poured and returning the cup to her thermos. She stretches her arms and back, nudging her belongings with her feet before throwing her coat on and placing her luggage in her chair. She packs the heavier bits of gear away with some light mountaineering supplies.

Gear in hand she waits for a formal acceptance of the invitation before making her way to the door.

Well, it’s about as warm a welcome as Richard could expect to get, he supposes. “Of course. You’re working for Ruby…” The surprise - and relief - fades for something more rueful, and he turns to reach out for his first layer jacket, “I suppose that now that the element of surprise is out of the picture, we might as well go to the front door.”

The question from Rue brings hesitation, and then a quiet, “Once upon a time, anyway.”

Once he’s fully suited up, he shoulders his pack, moving with the others towards the door. He glances a few times at Niklaus as if wanting to say something— but holds his tongue for now.

Like Wright, Nick is quiet, watching Niklaus’ reaction to Richard through guarded blue eyes. He doesn’t release his coffee quite so soon, taking another sip or two for its caffeine and warmth, but once Richard agrees to the offer of a ride, he sets down the mug.

Rising, he too finds his parka to pull on, tuque and gloves tugged out of pockets to find their ways onto head and hands. “If I had a dollar for everytime you yelled Shotgun,” he teases Rue, referring back to the days of running errands for Pollepel and earning him a cheeky grin from the caller in question. “I’d have… maybe four quid,” is an anticlimactic punchline to that story.

For the lighthearted joke, his eyes are still wary, and he glances at Richard, brows lifting. Just because they’re being given a warm escort in doesn’t mean it’s not a trap; after all, the spider was polite to the fly in his parlor before it ate him.

Niklaus is quick to turn from the entrance of the lodge, escorting the group back out into the cold and then politely opening the curbside doors with a wave of his hand. The SUV just barely accommodates the crew assembled, with Richard in the back alongside Wright and Nick. Their proximity is palpably felt in his proximity to living bodies. Mercifully, whatever fusion of the conduits Richard now possesses doesn’t seem quite so hungry as what Kazimir Volken was cursed with.

When Rue joins Niklaus up front he brings the doors shut with a clench of his fist. The vehicle is a left-side drive, uncommon for this side of the Atlantic. As Niklaus moves the vehicle into gear and pulls out onto the snowy streets, he looks in the rear-view at the group behind him, then turns up the volume on the radio enough for background noise.

“Your arrival to the country flagged a warning system we have,” Niklaus explains without really explaining the we of it. “Anticipating an official government inquest I was sent to assess your position and invite you up to the estate should you be amenable. Richard’s presence… changes things, but I suppose for the better. Longer roads are now cut short. But for clarity’s sake, I do not work for Ms. Harper. It is merely she who extended this invitation.”

Niklaus looks down to the fuel gauge, then back up to the road and begins leaving the outskirts of the town. “While I am not at liberty to explain everything about this situation, I can afford you some context. I am formerly under the employ of the Deveaux Society, a philanthropic organization responsible for much of the post-war social developments in America. However, before the passing of the Society’s leaders, I was made aware of my larger role to play in… longer-stewing events.”

Looking up to the rear-view mirror, Niklaus makes eye-contact with Nick. “I do not mean to distress you, Mr. Ruskin, but your arrival was predicted after a fashion. The others are… A happy accident, I suppose.” Niklaus turns his attention back to the road, turning off onto a roughy plowed mountain trail that jostled the passengers around. “It isn’t to say we were just waiting here for you all, but you have pushed up our time-tables.”

Niklaus then looks over to Rue. “I must ask: Are you this world’s February Lancaster or the other?” He asks rather directly.

“That’s me,” Rue utters to the earlier comment with a cheer that’s at odds with the flatness of the delivery, “happy accident.” She angles her gaze out the passenger window, watching the landscape roll by. She also watches the door mirror to ensure there’s nothing trailing along behind.

There isn’t, obviously. It’d be a little too easy to spot here in the middle of nowhere anyway. It’d have to be the worst tail ever.

As she glances up to the rearview mirror, she nearly misses the question Niklaus actually directs at her when she turns her head sharply to look at the passengers in the row behind her. She could have swore she saw—

“Only my parents call me February.” Rue leans back in her seat and grinds the heels of her palms against her closed eyes. “If I was the other one, do you think I’d tell you?” she scoffs, at this point just accepting that every-fucking-body knows about her situation. Because sure! Why the fuck not? “Yeah, no, clearly I’m the one who belongs to this reality. I’d be dust if I wasn’t.”

Wright is seated behind Niklaus for the dual benefit of letting him look at the people he’ll likely have more to say to, and being able to reach forward for a choke hold should things go south suddenly. She expects that Rue’s long legs can hit the brakes for them.

The sudden change of topic to the other Rue has her wondering why this man has access to all of this information. Everything he’s saying implies atypical prediction, if not precognition. Though the we gives her further pause compared to his admission that he isn’t working for their target.

She glances to Rue with concern over what the question might do to the other woman’s mood. For now she merely hopes that emotion will bridge the gap between them silently.

It’s against the other door - behind Rue - that Richard ends up, leaning a bit against the door. Although his ability doesn’t seem to be hungry he still tries to give the others a little bit of space, his gaze watching the scenery as it begins to roll along past them. Taking note of directions, of changes, of landmarks.

“I can confirm that she’s our timeline’s February,” he offers, although the question gets a sidelong glance towards the front of the vehicle, “You’re pretty well-informed about things, it seems, Niklaus. Do you— I mean— do you know about your sisters?” His voice falters a bit there, the subject still a raw wound for him.

“They were not my sisters,” Niklaus says without taking his eyes off the road. “Still, tragic.”

“Blood doesn’t define family,” Richard replies quietly, but he doesn’t press. His gaze returns to the window, a grimace crossing his expression.

The meeting of eyes in the rearview mirror finds Nick’s ticking upward. “My coming has been foretold,” he murmurs, in an amused voice, but it doesn’t lessen the tension that’s coiled in his muscles, like he too might be ready to spring into action the second this friendly escort goes sideways.

The mention of other Februarys earns Rue her own arched brow; he doesn’t need to be linked with her for Rue to catch that ‘You too?’ sort of skepticism in his expression. He certainly doesn’t seem shocked about the revelation of other worlds, having dealt with doppelgangers himself.

Rue catches Nick’s look and nods with a faint curl to her lip. Yep, me too.

“We’re familiar with Deveaux,” he says. “How long ago were you employed by them?” He glances at Richard, then back to the rearview mirror to meet Niklaus’ eyes when the driver glances back.

“Years.” Niklaus says in a terse response as he takes a turn at a fork in the road, splitting off onto a much steeper and even less traveled path into the mountains. At times it doesn’t even seem like there is even a road, so much as merely ruts in the snow. “You could say I helped shape modern American democracy,” Niklaus goes on to admit, “but I have closed that chapter in my life.”

Reaching forward, Niklaus turns up the volume on the radio in the subtle indication that he no longer wishes to converse with the passengers.

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

The vehicle rolls on through the rugged mountains, a rough and violent ride through uneven terrain that winds up high above the snowy countryside. The land is blanketed in white as far as the eye can see. Niklaus seems perfectly familiar with the drive, seeming more bored by the drive than anything else. But Rue can see the tension in his expression, the growing sense of anticipation for what’s to come.

I shouted out
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

And what’s come before…

Lappland, Sweden


Let me please introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay

“I love this song.” Turning from a faux-wood paneled record player, Richard Cardinal lifts a multi-faceted glass of whiskey up in a toast, striding across the hardwood floor toward a man in black standing at the tall windows overlooking the mountain forest beyond. “I was killing me, waiting for them to produce it. Part of me was worried I… stepped on a butterfly somewhere and it would never come out.”

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby

Coming to stand beside the man at the window, Cardinal rolls his glass around with a motion of his wrist. The ice inside the glass clinks softly as it settles. In a moment of conversational quiet, with the Rolling Stones flooding through the spacious confines of the house, they watch the spring leaves rustle in a cool breeze.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what's confusing you
Is just the nature of my game

“Have you?” The man in black asks without looking away from the window. Richard raises one brow, giving the taller man a side-long look. He looks back, into his whiskey glass, divining the best answer in the swirl of alcohol and melting ice.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint

“Probably,” Richard says with a heavy heart. “In ways I’ll never know. Deviations that don’t change the big picture, but maybe the person who used to make me coffee every morning in Cambridge was never born. Or maybe they died early. The river keeps on moving, regardless of the small stones.”

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah

The man beside Richard slowly turns, affording him a thoughtful look. “You’ve mentioned that before, the river. It’s starting to sound less like a metaphor and more like…” he struggles to find the right words, “the hand of God or something.”

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, mm yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, mm mean it, get down

“There is no God,” Richard says with a sip of his whiskey. “I’ve seen immortal Nazis, indestructible killing machines, people who could turn the blood in your veins to poison, perfectly ordinary people willing to fill a trench with the bodies of children. There is no God.”

Woo, who
Oh yeah, get on down
Oh yeah
Aah yeah

“My mother said as much once,” the dark-haired man at Richard’s side says. “When we left Germany before the war ended. She said that there could not be a God if he allowed people like my father to exist. I was never a very pious person, but I will never forget the day she took off her crucifix and threw it into the Hudson River.”

Tell me baby, what's my name?
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name?
Tell me baby, what's my name?
I tell you one time, you're to blame

“Life will do that to you…” Richard says, taking a deep drink of his whiskey. “It’ll wear your convictions down until you’re willing to make so many compromises that you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.” Looking past the brim of his glass, Richard’s stare becomes a thousand-yard one. “Did she ever find it?” Richard asks.

What's my name?

“Find what?”

Tell me, baby, what's my name?

“Her faith.”

Tell me, sweetie…

With a sigh, the tall man says, “No.”

Present Day

What's my name?

“We’re almost there.” Niklaus says after several minutes of silence as the SUV pulls in to a snow-laden forest of heavy pine boughs and stickbare branches of coniferous trees. There is a frozen river to the right of the path the SUV travels, crusted over with ice but flowing with water beneath the surface.

Up ahead, as the SUV rounds the corner of a large outcropping, a sprawling structure comes into view. It is a multi-story house built in a 1960s Futurist style with squared brutalist framework. A helicopter is visibly parked on the roof of the building and explains why the road in is so infrequently traveled.

“This is The Reach,” Niklaus explains, looking into the mirror at Richard. “Your home.”

At least the radio’s playing a tune she actually enjoys. Although Rue’s kind of surprised there’s as strong a signal as there is this far out. But Sweden didn’t get bombed back into the stone age, so. While she maintains a casual front — the condition of the road doesn’t even faze her, she’s seen just as bad — she keeps Niklaus and his tension in her periphery, feigning interest in the mountainview that goes by out the driverside.

Her gaze lingers a moment on him, and her vision overlays with Wright. Rue watches Niklaus, but also the mop of her red hair sticking out from beneath her hat, the view out Wright’s window. She shares a flicker of concern with her partner, but nothing to suggest any edge of panic. We ought to watch this, the emotion suggests. She waits until the flicker of acknowledgement before she closes that door between them, and it’s just her own sight again.

She’s quiet for the duration of the ride, save for the low whistle of appreciation she gives when The Reach comes into view. Rue turns her head to look to the back seat. “So, you’ve always been into the Brutalist shit,” she observes with the hint of a smirk before turning back to the structure again. “That is a mid-century lover’s daydream.” Like she can’t wait to see what it looks like inside.

Wright streams Rue’s perspective in turn, looking around the back of the headrest at where she’d be able to sling an arm around for a good strangle. She doesn’t stray into anxiety, though there’s a background feeling of anticipation for the entire ride.

As they finally come to a stop she takes in the view and says, “Have we found the person responsible for brutalism yet? I realize we have other concerns right now, but somebody needs to be punished for this. Can’t complain about the siting though, what a view.”

There’s silence from Richard at the words spoken, at least at first, as he gazes out at the home. He’s never seen it. There’s no sense of deja vu, no memories surface. And yet it’s as familiar in a strange way as the cut of his hair, as his fashion sense.

It’s the house he would build, given the materials, the era, and the property. And the knowledge makes his stomach churn, nausea washing over him before he draws in a deep breath and forces it back.

“After all this time, Niklaus,” he says quietly, in tones layered with genuine hurt, “You still think I’m him?”

“One must have a mind of winter,” Nick murmurs to himself as the picturesque but stark beauty of their destination comes into view, with the crystalline stalactites hanging off the already sharp angles of the building.

The words have the air of a recitation, but he doesn’t continue the poem to its continuation, choosing instead to look upon the sight in silence.

When Richard asks his question, Nick’s eyes slide that way, then to the sliver of Niklaus’ face visible to him in the rearview mirror before breaking away once more to the building perched above the frozen waters. “Who else is here?” he asks — not to interrupt or distract from Richard’s question, but to see if there is an answer to help them prepare for what’s waiting for them inside.

“A few guests,” Niklaus says, not acknowledging Richard’s question save for making eye contact with him in the rear-view mirror. “It is not a full party, but it is enough.” Niklaus drives the SUV straight up to the front doors and puts the vehicle in park, turning off the engine. As he opens his door and steps out into the snow, Niklaus makes a thumbs up at the house and its dark windows, then opens the driver’s side rear door.

“I meant what I said,” Niklaus finally says to Richard as the passengers disembark, but he doesn’t clarify any further than that. “The Reach was constructed in 1966, cutting edge for the time. It was updated and modernized several times over the intervening decades. Most recently in the handful of years since the conclusion of your country’s last civil war.”

When Niklaus approaches the glass front doors of the estate he lifts one hand and emits a low, sonorous hum in the air. The doors swing open and the metal frame vibrates with the same humming resonance. “It has one master bedroom, eight guest rooms, seven baths, a study, command center, seed vault, and greenhouse, among other amenities.”

Playing tour-guide, Niklaus allows the others to walk ahead of him into the ground floor of the mansion while he holds the door open without touching it. The ground floor they arrive in has a soaring cathedral ceiling with cream-colored couches set around a central brick wall. “Please, have a seat and get comfortable.” Niklaus says. “I’ll go let Ms. Harper know you’re— ”

“I already know, Niklaus.”


Coming down the stairs on the far side of the foyer is a woman in her late seventies or early eighties. Chalk white hair is worn loose around her shoulders, wavy and wild. Her blue eyes are piercing and possessed of a piercing intelligence. She is dressed for the warmth of the mansion, not the frigid cold outside, in bohemian fashions one might expect from someone who sells herbs and crystals at a place that smells like clove cigarettes and does tarot readings in the back.

“Ruby Harper.” Niklaus introduces her as he shuts the door to the outside and comes up the few short steps to the raised foyer. “This is Officers Wright Tracy and February Lancaster of Wolfhound, Agent Nick Ruskin of the CIA, and obviously you know Mr. Ray.” Niklaus then looks to the group he escorted inside. “Ruby is the life-partner of one of the Commonwealth Institute’s founders, Simon Broome. In spite of the Institute’s… dark record of merit, I assure you she is an ally of the highest order.”

Not a Hound, Rue thinks to herself, not for the first time today, and that’s First Lieutenant Lancaster besides.

Instead, she simply inclines her head in greeting, trailing alongside Richard to aside to him in a hush, “I think your deutscher Freund is saying this place is yours now. Not his.” Rue glances at her fellow doppelgänger victim sidelong, returning her attention to the architecture before concluding, “It would be just like you to write yourself into your own will.”

Wright shuffles around the others to give Richard the space for this greeting. When introduced, she nods respectfully to Ruby with a polite smile. Names in their proper order this time, she glances about the room silently. She takes in all of the things she dislikes about it, though keeps her opinions and feelings on the matter contained.

She’d been mostly joking when she scorned the architectural style in the car, but now that she dwells on it for a moment she thinks she suddenly gets what it is she dislikes about it. It reminds her of what’s left of Elliot’s memories of the Ark. The time he spent before being discovered and captured, mostly, and some of the escape. The latter time period is the most broken in his recollections, and it’s been a long time since she viewed the memories and all of the compounded emotional imprints left on them by Elliot’s early attempts at clearer recollection.

“As much as you’re right about his sense of humor…” Richard just shakes his head a little as they head to the house. It’s been a point of contention between the two of them for a long time, and he has no reason to believe that Niklaus has changed his viewpoint.

He follows inside, then, out of the cold and into the warm of the house. He’s silent until the lady of the home is introduced.

“Is she?” Richard challenges the German’s assertion, hands coming up to push the hood back from his face as he watches the aged bohemian descend, a single eyebrow lifted sharply, “You set the stage and baited the trap, Ruby, and here I am. Are you an ally, because these days I’m not sure who really is, anymore, and I’m getting tired of being manipulated.”

NIklaus’ non-answers earn another arch of a Ruskin brow, but Nick doesn’t speak as they exit the SUV to make their way into the house. His blue eyes lift to study the unique architecture of the house, before he turns at the sound of the woman’s voice when Ruby Harper greets them.

He nods as his name and affiliation are given, mouth tipped into a small smirk at their careful planning when it seems that it was all for naught, with his presence somehow foreseen, with Niklaus knowing each of them and their jobs without being told. He glances over at Richard. “An invitation might have sufficed,” he says lightly.

“An invitation could have been intercepted. The intention of making an invitation could have been foreseen.” Ruby says with a purposeful rise in her voice each time. “When you’re playing a game of chess as long as this one, you have to understand how each of your opponent’s pieces on the board move, and how to outsmart them.”

As Ruby talks, Niklaus removes his jacket and stands quietly beside the others, offering out his jacket laden arm in the wordless invitation to take their coats. Ruby approaches, looking at Richard and the collected group with a mild, though concerned, expression.

“And look at the auspicious group you brought with you. I don’t know if I could have hand-picked them better myself, but that’s why you’re the one in charge, Richard.” Ruby says with a gesture toward him. “I know you must all have a significant level of questions, given everything that you may have heard or seen over the last few years. But I assure you that this isn’t a trap…”

There’s a creaking sound somewhere behind Ruby, floorboards straining. A noise comes from a sprawling sitting room beyond the foyer, along with a motorized whirring sound. Soon a shadow is cast along the far wall, one that takes on a shape that sends a chill down Richard’s spine. He realizes what is about to round the corner before it does. But the others are greeted by a man in a motorized wheelchair rounding the corner followed by a dark-haired woman in loose clothes and a shawl.

The man in the wheelchair comes to a stop, his old, weathered face contorted into a beaming smile.

Hello old friend.


“Welcome to the new beginning.”

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