st_aurafina: John Reese, looking down, covered in fairy lights (POI: John lights)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Three
Rating Teen
Notes: Canon character death (Michael Cole)


John came out of the surgery into a world that swirled with colour and sound, even in the sterile white of the infirmary. His mouth was dry from the anaesthetic and the chemical cocktail they'd given him to wake his brain up, but above the taste of plastic tubing and bottled oxygen, there was a whole conversation of odours drifting through the air in an honest to god scent trail. In the hospital bed, he turned his head like a bloodhound, following the smell of a good burger and fries brought in from off-base. His mouth watered.

Beside his bed, oddly muffled in comparison to the strength of his sense of smell, one of the surgeons spoke. "Responding to extra-sensory stimuli already. That's a good sign."

In the recovery phase of the surgery, John learned more about the project he'd signed onto, through muttered conversations at the end of his bed that were nonetheless perfectly clear to him, things he wasn't classified to know. This was the second phase of the project, started once the survival rate of the activation process cleared fifty percent. Project Cascade started months after the planes hit the Twin Towers, and five years later had entered the second phase. They'd been screening elite military units for a year; the CIA recruiters had already had a report of his genetic eligibility when they'd approached him. He was the eighth soldier to go through the treatment which woke up the parts of his brain that, through some genetic lottery, would make him a better operative in the field, able to see and hear and smell at a higher level than baseline humans.

The critical point was five days after the procedure, the nurses said. He'd be able to start learning how to use his new abilities, start working towards getting out in the field. On the third day, though, his hearing overloaded; sounds became distorted and his sense of them muddled. A conversation felt like a drumbeat on his temples, rich and resonant. A dropped tray was hot shrapnel burying under his skin. On the fourth day, he had his first seizure and after that nothing was right. Sight was sound was taste, a swirl of flashing colour and brassy trumpets and thick, chemical oblivion.

There were more doctors, then, their sensory presence sliding over John's body like wet leaves. Then came the squeak and clatter of the operating theatre again and the thick, soapy taste of anaesthetic burning his throat. Once, he remembered the visceral thup-thup of a chopper ringing through his body, and for a while he was reliving an airlift with his unit out of Sheberghan, breathing dust and feeling charge build under his fingertips as the rotors spun.

That hallucination was vivid and prolonged, and he only came out of it at the request of a voice, a quiet voice that cut through the clouds and confusion, speaking without echoes or sensory feedback. The words hung before him, so still that he wasn't sure they had been spoken at all.

Sleep now. Your mind is protected here.

It told him to sleep, and so he did. His dreams were still vivid, but beautiful, filled with clouds cut through by tall glass spires. It was incredibly peaceful, and he slept deeply for the first time since the surgery.

That didn't mean his senses had settled, or that he was any use at all to the project. John woke in a padded room, insulated so thickly that even his senses couldn't detect more than the soft footsteps of nurses outside in cloth slippers. At intervals he should have been able to track, a plastic tray slid through a slot in the door, and every time, the slick noise made him jump. He didn't try to escape; the only time he even rattled the handle the noise cut into him like it was cracking bone. He awoke on the carpeted floor in the dim light that indicated night. The pain and confusion that followed stopped him thinking about the world outside. The idea of walking down a road while cars roared past him turned his stomach with fear, when he'd never feared pain, not once in his military career. Firing a gun seemed an impossibility. He spent hours fascinated by the tick-tick of the wire-wrapped lights above him, or the complex weave of the cotton sheet on his bed.

He was sure there were other people in cells like this, though he heard nothing but nurses passing in their felt-soled shoes. The window in the door was opaque, and his vision alternately focused on the crazed pattern of the frosted glass or the shadowed figures moving in the hallway outside. Everything was muted: the grey of the walls, the soft pile of his institutional pyjamas, the pad of footsteps outside. John was anaesthetised by it. Between blinding headaches, meals and sleep, the days slid past in a dull and unchallenging silence.

There was no way to know how much time had passed when the door was flung open. It moved fast, bounced off the wall in recoil, then a man stopped it with the tip of his shoe. The noise was crisp, and threw echoes that rang down the corridor behind him. It was the loudest thing since the hospital. John folded, his legs cut out from under him by the effect of that single sound, and he simply knelt on the thick carpet in the middle of the room.

The man was thin, his skin stretched tight over a receding hairline, with dark brows and a broad smile. His eyes were not smiling. John took a quick breath in the silence, and tasted a city, jet fuel, gun oil, apples. His head swam with the sensory input. The insulated shell that had kept him safe was fracturing.

"On your feet, solider," the man said, lounging against the frame with nothing resembling military posture. He held something in his hand, completely obscured, but John heard the electrical charge build inside it, and not knowing if it was a bomb or a cell phone or a TV remote, he clambered to his feet and launched in the man's direction. A button clicked, and John's skin prickled, waiting for electricity or fire or something. His heightened awareness meant that the screaming guitars coming from the tiny but powerful speaker made him stagger backwards with one arm over his face, protecting his eyes, ridiculously.

"I chose this track because it gives you thirty two bars till the drums kick in," said the man. "It'll hurt when they do. One of you guys dropped dead on the spot. I'm Mark, by the way. Mark Snow. Hopefully we'll be a team. If it isn't death by death metal."

John gasped and tried to balance against sudden and swimming vertigo. "Turn it off!" he said, voice hoarse from disuse.

"Nope," said Mark. "I'm not risking my ass if you don't have the intestinal fortitude to look after yourself. I'll make it stop if you get over here and we make the right connections."

The guitars were rising in pitch and volume. John moaned and stumbled a few steps forward.

"Atta boy. Figure it out fast, now. I can sort the sounds; tone it all down for you. But I won't lift a finger if you're not worth it." Mark tilted his head, listening to the music. "Oops, here comes the first verse."

The guitars were challenged by a chorus of screaming. Seven men, John's traitorous mind told him. Anger swelled inside him, at the man lounging insolently in the doorway, and at himself, for being unable to protect himself, a quality he'd valued since he was a child on the school yard. He lurched forward, determined to do something, even it was only to collapse on this Mark and drag him to the floor.

"Knew you had it in you, John," Mark said. "They think you're a write-off, but I know there's a killer in there somewhere. Come on, let's see if we're simpatico."

John lunged and caught Mark around the chest. He felt the press of a gun, and he'd gotten a hand into the holster before he realised that his ears were no longer ringing. The music had receded, and though it was still at the same tooth-shaking volume, it didn't make him see stars or want to vomit. The drums finally kicked in, and John didn't even care. Something was tamping down the sensory input, and he could no longer feel the music against his skin. It was bliss, euphoric, the relief of the dentist drill backing off, and John laughed. He leaned against Mark's chest, breathing nothing but clean laundry and a faint trace of cologne. They were both sitting on the soft carpet, legs inelegantly tangled.

Mark rested his chin against John's head. "Oh yeah, feel that bond settle in? We're going to make magic, Johnny boy. Just wait till you meet Kara; you two are going to be deadly."

Everything was fading into perspective now: the constant rattle of an air vent John hadn't even really identified, the harshness of the lights in their wire cages, the annoying plush of his flannel pyjamas; all of them now unobtrusive. His brain spun its wheels for a moment, searching for the massive data input that had dropped away, then started to generate thoughts by itself.

"What day is it?" he asked, not moving from Mark's grip. "What did you do to me? Will it last for long? Where is this place?" There was a heaviness over his skull, as if someone was pressing on it, like the way you press on a temple to stop a headache. Whatever it was, despite the oppressive sensation, John didn't want it to ever go away. Not if it meant going back to the madness of sensory overload.

"This works pretty easy," said Mark. "You feel it, and I stop it from hurting. If there's anything you don't want to feel, I shut it down. I'm like the panty girdle that stops you hanging it all out."

John took another deep and satisfying breath; he wasn't sure he'd even been breathing properly while he was in this room. He suddenly had a craving for food with taste and texture: crispy onion rings from that burger place near his childhood home, sushi with the bite of pickled ginger and a clamour of Japanese voices, the rustle of a new bag of corn chips and the crunch of them echoing inside his head.

Mark's stomach rumbled in response. "Thanks for that, John. Now I'm going to be hangry when I deal with the hospital administrator." He tightened his arms around John's shoulders. "Jesus, you're skin and bones. We're going to have to build you up before we let you loose on the world."


Shaw still rattled with snippy aggression while they prepped for the raid on Mercer's apartment.

"Come on, Shaw, you love New York." Next to her in the van, Cole made a tentative mental reach for her to settle her agitation, but she pushed him out mentally in irritation.

"I never told you that about New York," she said. "Don't lift shit out of my brain, unless you want more than a bloody nose." It was true though: she couldn't have given a damn about one city or the other, not until her powers were activated. Then, for some freaky Cascade reason, Manhattan had always felt friendlier than other places. It bugged Shaw that Cole had seen it; even though she trusted him more than any other person, it was a little more personal than she liked to get.

"Okay!" he said. "But if you don't let me sort the data, you're never going to know what that guy was all about this morning. " He was busy loading data onto a thumb drive, while Shaw checked and re-checked her weapon. "You know, he was probably hitting on you." This got him a punch in the arm, which made him laugh, and not punch her back.

Shaw let Cole run the visuals from this morning, though she was certain he was right. If that guy was any kind of threat worth worrying about, he never would have let her see him. And he did see her. Shaw was clear on that, from the challenge in his gaze and the set of his shoulders, which even now, she found difficult to ignore.

A hand touched her shoulder and she whirled on Cole, teeth bared.

"Hey, are you zoning already?" He brushed her mind gently and winced. "You want a suppressant before we go in? You're practically vibrating."

Shaw shook her head. "I'm fine."

"Hey, Shaw?" Cole spoke while his eyes were fixed on the screen, which, since he could touch-type in the dark under fire, was one of his guilty tells. Shaw scowled at him.

"What did you do? Is this about that girl in Gstaad?" She took his chin and looked into his eyes. "Do I need to go kill someone over this?"

He shook himself free. "No, god, Shaw. I wanted to ask – that thing about New York…"

"That thing you lifted from my thoughts?"

He blushed this time, which was weirder. "Yeah, I'm sorry. I stopped over in DC, and I was talking to Brooks. Did you hear she's assigned to Devon Grice now?"

Shaw nodded. "I came through Cascade with Grice. He's okay." Still, at the mention of another Sentinel, Shaw felt a prickle of anger at the back of her neck.

"She said he's the same way about New York. Only New York, same as you. I think, maybe, it has to do with Cascade." Cole copied more folders of info on to that thumb drive.

"You Guides are so gossipy. You know you're not supposed to be talking to other Cascade personnel, Cole. You're not even supposed to know who they are. Let alone other Sentinels. They're paranoid about us keeping fraternisation to a minimum. You know, so we don't kill each other with our teeth."

Cole smiled at her, the stupid smile he used when he was trying to convince her of a plan she disagreed with. "What if there's something to it, though? You know that thing you do, when you push back at me? Grice can do it too, though apparently he's too much of a gentleman to use it."

Shaw rolled her eyes at this. "You saying I'm not gentlemanly enough for you, Cole?"

"Stop fucking around, Shaw, I'm trying to tell you something. The Sentinels who have that extra push, you know, they're the ones that are all weird about New York. I was wondering what's so special about New York."

Shaw checked her weapon one more time. This conversation was hitting her buttons: other Sentinels, getting reassigned to different Guides, stupid Cascade practices. "Well, it's not that we're into musical theatre, Cole. Does this have a point?"

"Remember the Aquino mission?"

Shaw gave him a flat-eyed stare. That had been a clusterfuck, early on in their partnership. "The one where you puked in the car? Kind of unforgettable."

"It was wrong, Shaw, there was something really wrong about that mission. He knew what Sentinels were, Shaw. He looked for me. He knew to check for the Guide."

"He was looking for help, Cole, because I was about to put two in his skull."

Cole was finally finished with his laptop. He closed it, and shoved the thumbdrive into a pocket. "He had six flights to New York, the same year the Gen II Sentinels were being activated," he said. "I'm pretty sure he was involved."

Shaw grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close. He reeked of guilt and uncertainty, which was not a thing she wanted coming off her Guide right before a mission. "What did you do, Cole?"

"I've got a contact in Langley that traced a financial connection between him and some of the off-shore Cascade shell companies. When we got the mission, we were told he was selling secrets, but now I know he wasn't being paid by any foreign governments. He was working on Cascade's dollar. At least some of the time. And then we killed him." He held still in her grip, and his face was serious. This, Shaw could tell, he was certain about. And worried, for her and the other Sentinels.

Shaw didn't know whether to shake him or pull him close to tell him the few things she'd figured out, in training with the other Gen III active Sentinels. Fortunately, their target Mercer got a text and left his apartment, giving them a window to search it. She let him go, smoothed down his collar where it was all rucked up.

"Let's go get this sorted," she said. "We can talk about it after."

Inside Mercer's place, there was a weird atmosphere, above and beyond the kind of funk Shaw expected in a dive like this. She tasted charcoal on the air, sulphur and metal floating like a greasy mist in the air.

"Been a lot of weaponry here," she said, as they skittered up the stairs to Mercer's place.

She cleared the corridor and kicked open the door. Mercer's room was as sparse as she'd have thought, and as filthy: furniture reeking of many, many bodies pressed against the upholstery, the clatter of legs as roaches in the corners crawled over each other in the sudden light. The curtains practically radiated cigarette smoke. Shaw yanked them closed, then wiped her hand on her pants.

Cole slid to a halt in front of Mercer's laptop and got to work while Shaw prowled the perimeter. She was bristling, her instincts telling her this mission was very, very wrong, though there was nothing solid on which to hang this suspicion. Frustrated, she reached for Cole's mind, seeking a boost to her abilities so she could pin down what was making her twitch.

"Stop it," said Cole, brushing her off easily. "I'm trying to concentrate. Wait, that was easy." He tapped away, and Shaw tried to figure out why it bugged her that the computer was the cleanest thing here; why so many people had touched it.

Cole's muscles in his back tightened and Shaw was beside him before he'd pulled himself fully upright in front of the screen. "What?" she said, sharp and jittery. She was up on the balls of her feet ready to spring, but there was nothing to spring for. Yet.

"Well," said Cole. "Someone's been paying Mercer, all right. They've been organising him with weapons, cash, a time frame."

Shaw hated computer screens; they flickered and hummed and gave off heat in a way that set her teeth on edge. "So, what's the ID on the email?"

Cole's fingers slowed on the keyboard. "It's us. Straight out of our accounts, with money I know we didn't have yesterday."

"What?" That was unbelievable. Shaw grabbed the screen and pulled it in her direction. She saw conversations between herself and Mercer, telling him how to build himself an IED, where to plant it for the greatest damage.

A murmuring from street level dragged her attention to the window. Voices whispered down there, then came the click-chunk of someone cocking a weapon. That gave her enough time to turn her face away, before the sound of weapon fire and the muzzle flash could dazzle her. At the same time, she heard Cole's sharp intake of breath.

"What?" Shaw kept her senses trained on the street and whatever that fracas was about.

Cole turned the screen in her direction, and she saw a text box in the middle of the screen.

> It's a trap. Get out of there. Now.

Her body was faster than her reading comprehension, and she had pulled Cole out of his chair by the time she understood what the message meant.

"Ambush," she said, under her breath. There were footsteps coming over the threshold of the building, quiet as hell, but not to her ears. Four men, standard formation. And another one, even quieter, bringing up the rear. Her skin crawled at that last trace; he'd be the one to watch. She held out her hand: five fingers, five hostiles.

Cole drew his gun and they stood back-to-back, ready to act. "Can you get us an exit?" he said, subvocalizing so only she could hear.

She nodded, and gestured to the next room. The window there led to an alley, and they could make it to ground level via a Dumpster. She let tendrils of awareness go that way, but there was nothing living there except for rats.

The sonic grenade went off while she was at her most vulnerable, senses stretched in all directions: a mix of ultra and sub-sonic clatter that curdled her guts and set her head on fire. She doubled over with a groan. It was silent to human ears, but Cole felt the wave of the assault through their link and caught Shaw by the elbow before she hit the ground.

"Up you go," he said, the words coming through their bond. Cole didn't have to say anything as he tamped down the pain from the grenade. He couldn't get her hearing back until the physicality of the damage had settled, so she'd be functionally deaf for a bit, but she could operate on four senses perfectly well. Her skin prickled and her vision sharpened in response to the temporary hearing loss, and she saw the dust jumping on the floorboards. She bent and touched the wooden floor: the vibrations were footsteps coming up the stairs. She spun to cover the door, but it was too late. A spray of bullets came through the flimsy plywood, and connected with Cole's back.

She hauled Cole out of range while she caught a mindful of confusion down their link. She squashed that down in favour of action: returned fire through the door, squeezed her eyelids shut when the percussive whomp of a flash grenade hit her gut. Damn it, they were going after all her senses, which meant they knew exactly who they were dealing with. When the room was secure, she leant, blinking and deaf, over Cole's body to assess the damage. Now she understood Cole's griping about feedback when she got shot, though if this was what he was talking about, he was being generous. It was almost unbearable: lights too bright, the smell of blood everywhere, the bewilderment of muscles not obeying, and pain so intense that everything else went white. Shaw was overloaded; she knew it from the way her hands trembled on Cole's chest, and the fact that words wouldn't string together into a sentence. She couldn't hear her own voice.

"I don't… I need to call Control, get help…" There was too much blood, and none of it hers. She was pretty sure Cole knew exactly how bad he was hurt. He smiled up at her, his eyes so blue that they pulled her focus back into place.

"Go on," said Cole. "You go, be amazing and live." His words were completely clear inside her head, his face clear and open despite the blood splatter.

Shaw opened her mouth to tell him to shut the fuck up and let her get on with saving his ass, when she felt him in her mind, pushing hard. Methodically, as if he'd done this a hundred times, he strengthened their bond, doing all the things they were trained not to do. He made connection after connection, until the sensory confusion settled into utter clarity. She could see and hear everything now, as if she soared above the house and gazed down on a floor plan: four gunmen inside the structure, here, here, and here. Three gunmen bleeding on the street, with injuries to knees and arms. A voice on someone's radio, sending in a second team.

By the time she finished staring around her in wonder, Cole had slipped away, smiling as if the sight of Shaw using her powers fully for the first time in her life was the best final image he could imagine.

This new way of seeing informed her that Cole was dead: he had no heartbeat, no electrical activity in his brain, and just like that, her best friend had transformed from a living being to a hunk of meat.

There was no time to dwell on that, though, because a new assault team was on the stairs. Shaw mapped out a plan of action, flying high on the bond Cole had just made complete. Team two didn't stand a chance; she cropped them down between breaths, shooting outside her peripheral vision, through doors and into the roof. The guy who rolled the flash grenade into the room – identifiable by the trace of phosphorous on his fingertips – got a grenade of his own under his breathing mask, and Shaw could easily filter out the sound of his screams and the scrabbling on the plastic of the mask.

That was satisfying, except that then she turned to face a muzzle; she'd missed one.

"Sorry, Cole," she thought, waiting for the impact on her body, feeling guilty about wasting his final gift. Then the guy went down, shot by someone moving silently in the hallway.

Shaw's reflexes were already hyped up, but whatever lurked in the corridor kicked them into overdrive. Lip pulled back over her teeth in a snarl, she swung the gun in that direction. Her gut screamed at her that death stood there in the shadows, and she was suddenly angry, in a way that she'd only felt when they'd first activated her abilities.

"Get out here!" she said through clenched teeth. "Let me kill you."

He stepped out of the shadows, the guy from this morning, tall and focused, his gun loose in his hand. "Shaw, listen," he said. "My name is John, and I'm here to help you."

Shaw put three bullets in him then dived through the window.

Chapter Two /Chapter Three/ Chapter Four
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