The Margate Affair
|The Margate Affair|
|Prerequisites||The Theta Contingency, The Tightrope Act, a whole progression of a relationship maybe|
|Level||Pretty domestic if you ask me|
|Rewards||Marriage? Friendship? Who knows|
The Triad is about to face their biggest mission yet: getting Nick Tang married.
He’s been considering this for a while.
Recently, he’s tried very hard not to think too hard about it, what with the task at hand with searching for whoever hacked the multiple databases of several countries and agencies. It’s maddening, to say the least, irritating especially when the current mess with the explosion is taken into consideration. It’s hardly even 9 in the morning but he’s sure that half of the day has already gone by, what with Kowalski getting cleared to return to light work despite the clear fact that he wasn’t okay.
But of course, the doctor had his opinions about Kowalski so surely, he was somewhat cleared for duty. That still did not sound right to him.
Anyway, it was just the two of them in Kowalski’s penthouse, which felt terribly empty now that he was taking it in properly. The place was filled with an eerie silence, not a single sound heard except for the rustling of the leaves of plants in the hanging gardens. Rogue had shuffled off to one of the rooms in search of a hair dryer (she reasoned with him, after Kowalski was out of earshot, that she was pretty sure that Marine had some stuff lying around the place), and he had just stepped out of the shower and was now getting himself ready for the day.
For some reason, though, his thoughts drifted back to her. He’s been unfair to her, hasn’t he? His attention has been absorbed in his work as of late, split between the two worlds distinguishing the MSB from the EPF. For the past few months, maybe years, he’s been going after leads to investigations whenever one sprung itself before him, tirelessly toiling so that he could somewhat keep whatever evil’s in this world in the shadows for a little longer. Idealistic approach to his work? Maybe, but it was how he perceived it and why he keeps working.
“Something’s bothering you.”
To say that he jumped at that would have been uncool and embarrassing so by extent he certainly did not jump, not at all, and instead turned to look at Rogue, who was leaning at the doorway with a furrow in her brows. She was already in work attire, hair dried and combed back, scrutinizing him with a glare he’s sure would mean that she has a few questions for him to answer. It took him then to realize that his own clothes were still disheveled, half-worn, making him hastily button the remaining buttons of his shirt.
He smoothened back his hair with his flipper as he tried to appear calm, collected. While this is something he would very much like to discuss over a round of Cream Soda with the two of them, he wasn’t so sure now was the best time. “It’s just the case, that’s all. Considering what I have to do first.”
“Are you sure about that?” She’s wary, stepping forward and watching him steadily. They had at least half an hour until they were expected back in the Command Room, so this moment of conversation shouldn’t be too much of a hassle for either of them. He tried not to appear nervous, nonetheless, of the direction of the conversation. “While I lost my sense of reading other people’s minds, I know conflict when I see it.”
He inhaled sharply, but tried not to make that obvious since doing so would just be counterintuitive with his mission of not putting too much attention to what he’s thinking about. Alright, maybe one of his closest friends would have a good bit of advice for things like this, but then again, this one happened to be a dense wall of workaholicism that can’t even see that her best friend (she’d argue he isn’t, but he and Kowalski say otherwise) had the hots for her. She should probably win an award for that, bearing a density so thick that she can't even- right, back to the conversation.
“I’m just thinking about something relevant to the case,” Nick said calmly, raising both flippers up in surrender as he appeared to look as innocent as possible. Of course, in their line of work, that would be near impossible, especially with all they’ve done behind the scenes. There was no harm in trying to appear harmless. He waited as Rogue made her assessment before shaking her head and turning, disappearing out of the door.
Did he sag against the vanity table he was leaning on as she left? Maybe. Yes? A little. No. Definitely not. Final answer: no.
He sighed and spun himself around to turn towards the mirror, assessing his own reflection to see if there was anything out of place. He knows that this investigation will wrangle the breath out of him, maybe give him a few more white hairs, but he can forget about that for a moment as his phone beeped to life and Jewel chimed in helpfully.
"Commander Tang, it's Zhi Rong," After numerous attempts to correct her, Zhi Rong finally managed to convince Jewel, his latest AI creation, to call her by her first name rather than her official title. Of course, he doesn't mind to hear her being referred to as Senior Staff Sargeant Zheng Zhi Rong, but once she heard Jewel refer to her as such, she's been adamant at reverting it to just Zhi Rong.
He accepted the call and tried to keep up a light tone, despite the crick in his neck that was still there from his awkward sleeping position last night. He should probably rub some ointment on that later before teleporting to headquarters, otherwise, it'll annoy him for the rest of the day and that's not something he wanted. "Good morning to you too, Zhi Rong. How is everything there?"
"Yes, hi there Nick," There's a bubbly lightness in his tone that eases him, just a bit, and he leaned on the vanity table once more and closed his eyes, relishing in the pseudo-warmth he felt just listening to her. It was nice that she called for him, especially when he was usually so busy that he simply couldn't set aside time to put in a call. It would sound as if he was being a jerk, really, when in actuality he just preferred to focus on his work that way. It's only a relief that Zhi Rong could be just as busy whenever she's attending to her own cases. His mind almost slipped past the next words she said, and he struggled to mentally reel back time so he can replay what she just uttered. "Everything okay in there? Any leads?"
"Our latest lead blew up the other day," Nick frowned at the thought of that and shook his head, turning away from the vanity and traversing the room. It was sparsely decorated and simply designed, meant to be a guest room rather than something elaborate. He sat down on the bed and wondered what sort of thread count these sheets had as he flattened his flipper over them. This thing's probably softer than his own duvet back home. "Going to over there in a few to see if it isn't that blown up. You know, in case anything is salvageable."
"Well, I hope you find anything good for the investigations," There's a twitch on her beak, he's sure of it, a sad smile that is supposed to be a cross of worry but sympathetic. They've always had busy lives, what with both of them preoccupied with their own occupations. Nick had to constantly make trips between Margate and Club Penguin while Zhi Rong pored over police reports and stalked around rougher parts of the island. He could feel an edge of anxiety in her tone, "We've been seeing... things over here. Protests, just a bit, rather rowdy if you ask me. We've been kept on our feet since the leaks."
He rubbed the back of his neck and tried not to feel guilty. "I know, I'm sorry."
"Oh, you have nothing to apologize for," There's noise in her side of the call, and he knows that the morning roll call will begin for her shortly. He could hear the familiar laughter of one of her co-workers (Lim? Ong? He can't remember) and the chatter of what is most likely snack room gossip. He knows that this call has to end soon. "I need to go now."
"I know. I love you," To say that he bunched up the fabric of the duvet underneath his flipper was an understatement. She chirped out a goodbye message to him before he's met with silence, the call ending as Zhi Rong's chief started a roll call. He set his phone down and stared ahead, mind swirling with thoughts of what she mentioned and what that would mean to the case. There's more pressure now, a greater necessity to search for this mystery hacker knowing full well that it was starting to affect Zhi Rong's own work. He fiddled with the end of his shirt and wondered what he could possibly find when he visits the blast site later.
Anyway, his attention is called for once more by an annoyed Rogue, who complains about his idleness and demands him to get out of the room so that they can teleport to headquarters together. Sighing and shaking his head, he righted himself and stowed his phone into his pocket, taking a deep breath and giving himself one more look in the mirror before heading out.
This was it. Tonight was his last night in the Island for 2017, a few days shy of Christmas. The wind was crispier now with frigid coldness, and snowfall was a common sight from morning to evening, prompting many to bundle up in their many thick layers of clothing while turning up collars and bringing out heat packs.
To celebrate (mourn? commemorate?) Nick's last day, they've managed to wrangle themselves into one of the many watering holes of the intelligence community found in the server, a Grey Area ran by a grouchy bartender called Cobalt. Nick could actually name most of the penguins in this bar based solely by the sound of their voice, making up a lengthy list of agents, freelance assassins, and third-party cleanup crews. He winced as he heard the familiar voice of one of those cleaners, taking a long sip from his Cream Soda. They certainly needed the drink at this time and age.
"So, Nikki," Kowalski casually lounged back and swung his flipper over Rogue's shoulder, who gave him a glower as she remained hunched over her third round of the drink. The atmosphere was light, filled with the chatter of patrons. They were all dressed casually for once, with Kowalski bearing a sensible turtleneck and Rogue having a thick leather jacket around her shoulders. Nick himself was wearing a knitted pullover that he found in his apartment, "What're your plans for the holiday?"
Right, the other reason why he was here. The media's hype was finally dying down as the mission was slipping out of public focus, and he could finally have a clearer head for far more important things to do. It was partially why he resigned from his post in the EPF, a decision that pained him, but ultimately would cause him peace. He fidgetted in his seat and smiled smoothly, twiddling with his flippers that were currently on the table. "Well, Zhi Rong's coming with me to the temple this year."
"As she does every other year," Rogue commented plainly and frowned, looking up after staring intently at her drink to stare at him. There's a vague mischievous look in her eyes that had him fidget a little more, reflected in Kowalski's that was catching on to what she could possibly be referring to. He internally groaned and tried not to bang his head against the table, realizing that he's walked himself into an interrogation.
They've been nagging him over finally proposing to her after he revealed to them his plans on making a move. Whenever it was just the three of them, in between chaotic meetings with the rest of the intelligence agencies or when there was a slight lull of information, a discussion would spiral back to when he was planning to ask, what he was going to give her, when the wedding would be. He's had the longest relationship of the three of them, spanning six years of harmonious love before this. Rogue and Kowalski have been complaining that he's been waiting for too long.
Maybe they're right?
"Hey, we can talk about this-" Nick tried to explain himself, but to no avail. He feels like he's in another family reunion with his nagging and curious aunts and their insistent questions about Zhi Rong. Everyone seemed enamored by her and couldn't wait for her to be part of the family. Well, he couldn't wait too, but if he could just explain the whole story to them before they jump to points and start another round of interrogation in the bar then that would be nice.
"Well now's a good time, Nikki boy! It's your last day here, we need the intel if we should be expecting anything." Kowalski leaned forward and gave him a look, eyes widening near comically as he tilted his head. Rogue was batting the half-filled (or is it half-empty?) Cream Soda bottle between her flippers, giving Nick the same but less intense glare. Kowalski squeezed her shoulder hard as he gave emphasis to his next sentence, "Come on, you can't hide this from us, can you? That would be deception at its worst!"
"If you actually gave him time to talk and explain himself, maybe we'll get to the plot point and finally get this thing moving," Rogue frowned and shook Kowalski's flipper off of her shoulder, giving him a withering glance as she shook her head. "Alright Tang, get talking."
He took a breath, tried to remember how he was supposed to explain this to them, and shook his head upon realizing that he had nothing. Funny, to think he's been preparing to talk about this since the moment he invited them to this part of the server. Oh well, there went all of his planning. Instead, he fished around his pockets in search for a tiny box and finally found it, setting it down on the table between them.
Their reactions varied. Kowalski gushed, "Oh Nick, you shouldn't have, I'm sure Marine would love this."
Rogue, meanwhile, slapped Kowalski's shoulder and glared at him scandalously. "Kowalski, you asterisk!"
Nick rolled his eyes and silently asked whatever higher entity out there to take him out - in whatever fashion that would be depended on them. He flipped the cover open and watched as the both of them leaned forward to gaze upon the beauty of the gemstone he's picked out for Zhi Rong. It was a family heirloom, really, something he thought of while stressing out between missions as to what he should give her. It took him ages to badger his father for it.
"Well I'll be," Kowalski muttered in amazement, leaning a little bit more forward to look at the gem better. It was a simple, cleanly cut jade with a gold bead that tethered it to the cord. It was simple but elegant in its own way, "Finally."
"Hopefully she'd say yes," Nick mumbled to himself, scratching the back of his neck and looking around to see if anyone was watching them. He noticed a few heads turn away from their direction.
"She'd be a fool not to, and you're a fool thinking she wouldn't." Rogue shook her head, taking a long chug from her bottle and slamming it down, a visible crack appearing on the bottle as she stood, hollering to the general direction of the bar. "Tonight's a night of celebration, folks! Nick's finally manned up to get his girl, this round's on me!"
After the events of the Theta fiasco of last year (could he argue that it was last year when the more accurate term is last month?), things were only starting to pan out to normalcy now. His dreams started to drift to random, harmless things such as chasing Mabel across Club Penguin with a laser gun, and he stopped dreaming about what could have happened at Munijoch. There were no more pesky news reporters who wanted an exclusive interview with him, no more eager questions from his buddies whenever they go out to socialize. His mind was not haunted by the notions of submitting a mission report to his superiors, no longer boggled by countless papers he had to read through and sign. His attention has been turned to other things such as... this current mission.
In today's episode of MSB drama: Jian Liang Heng, stuck in the forest in a guerilla match? Currently happening, place your bets. Would he make it out alive without making another hasty decision that would add grey hairs to Nick's scalp but prove to be way more effective than the original plan? Find out now!
Tonight's setting just happened to be his own office, a variety of small hologram projectors dotting his room so that if he sat down on his chair and turned everything on, he'd have a neat set of screens showing him what was going on. At least eight of them were showing body camera footage from Heng's team, tinted green by hologram and night vision. The firefight was white flashes from the ends of dark green sticks and yelling in both Mandarin and English.
Across the room, seated on the couch while precariously keeping one of the projectors from tumbling towards him, Marius Go fidgetted with the tablet he was holding and tapped in a few commands every now and then. He was a promising one, easily becoming a commissioned officer at the young age of 24. He was currently under Nick's tutelage after suggesting the possibility of creating a rapid healing canister — something that was absolutely necessary especially during these trying times. At the moment, he had an earpiece and was calmly speaking to whoever was on the other side of the line.
"I swear, if Heng would stop being stupid and actually follow through with the original plan, we wouldn't have messes like these," Nick clucked his tongue bitterly and shook his head, clearly unimpressed with what was going down. For some reason, a rookie managed to trip an alarm on the way out and they were not scrambling towards the rallying point, which was still a few more kilometers out. Ah, the woes of remote locations. They were just too difficult to plan and strategize for, aren't they? A true pain in the butts, whoever thought that putting their headquarters in far-flung areas.
"Their transport is 10 minutes out, sir," Go said calmly, propping his glasses back up his face as they were slipping. Nick had half the mind to tell the officer to delay transport by 2 minutes just to irritate Heng. He knew how particular he could be about timing. After a few moments of silence as Nick inhaled deeply and leaned back on his seat, Go piped up once more, "Er... sir?"
"Lay it on me." He knew that tone well, it bore the heavy subtext that whatever the person had to say was somewhat uncomfortable with them. Most of the time, it involved something absurd or wild that occurred while he wasn't looking, or involved the rumor mill and whatever juicy topic it currently had. He can vaguely tell what this one is about. "Let me guess, is it something from Heng?"
"I've heard he made a bet that you wouldn't propose to your girlfriend before the end of the year, sir," Oh, he's aware of that too. The things people do when they think you're not listening, all he did was go to the break room to take a quick nap on the couch during one of their late hours in. At the time, Heng had come back from a mission in one of the islands and was fixing himself a ramen cup, speaking to one of their colleagues who was also working a late shift. He wasn't totally asleep and heard them commenting about his drawn-out relationship with Zhi Rong. "I was wondering, if I may ask sir. When do you plan to propose to her?"
He's never really told anyone besides his parents and the Triad about this, funnily enough. He's been waiting for the right time to tell this to everyone, but it simply slipped out of his mind's grasp when he realized that he had missions and paperwork to do.
"About that..." He cleared his throat and glanced at the holograms, still showing the hasty exfiltration of Heng's team. He adjusted his collar to loosen a button and reveal that a small pendant made of a quartz crystal. He tried to ignore the way Go's eyes brightened. "She said yes."
Suddenly, an explosion of conversation lead by Heng's yelling and swearing was heard in both of their headsets.
Right, he forgot that he had his microphone on.
One: The Group Chat
A conversation between Nick Tang, Mason Kowalski, and Rogue Tvarkov
Dated January 6, 2018
finally I thought I had to start a conspiracy that you were going to break up with her
Even I'm not that mean Kowalski sit down
In other news congratulations now when do we plan the wedding
"easy parts of it" "when and where"
Nick those are literally the hardest things you plan in a wedding
Until the end of the year? Evil
Anyway what else do you have to say for yourself
yeah Nikki when are you going to ask us to be your best men
I'm not saying I want to be your best man
but it appears to be the case
I have a bad feeling about this
Aren't they supposed to be men only
hmmm I wonder why Rogue knows this
Kowalski pls you act as if you don't know me
Wait what gatecrashing
we have to infiltrate Zhi Rong's house???
sounds bad but ok
Yeah let's go
So Lynx looked it up for me
You're a cruel man, Nick
yeah man ofc
wait what is it
A conversation between Nick Tang, Mason Kowalski, and Rogue Tvarkov
Dated April 15, 2018
Do any of you have statistics on kidnapping cases in your regions
Yes Nick, you can ask Zhi for the numbers
I just want to know
like what would you need it for
Are we good on those stats
you're kidding me
the numbers seem to be higher? though I can't be so sure of that
EPF's seeing similar trends
A conversation between Nick Tang, Mason Kowalski, and Rogue Tvarkov
Dated May 19, 2018
that you weren't here, Tang
yeah about that
who is he exactly
and why aren't you here
Oh we're actually talking now
How's the wedding planning
I'm sure it's going fantastic since you're not here
but who is he
he sounds like you but meaner
Honestly the difference between Heng and Nick is that Nick is a softie
Sorry wait, I'm disappearing in and out
smh take your medications and come back
when are you coming over we're dying here
fine but you better come over asap
this is a mess and we're only starting
A conversation between Jian Liang Heng and Nick Tang
Dated June 26, 2018
nikki fruit juice
nikki fruit juice
oh yeah it's raining ash there isn't it
nikki fruit juice
eh they're cool
is that the only reason why you messaged me
nikki fruit juice
i thought id have to bribe you to get her to come
nikki fruit juice
A conversation between Zhi Rong Zheng and Nick Tang
Dated July 12, 2018
i already know i have to be in uniform but like
why that one
but im also wearing medals in my usual uniform
im not gatecrashing in that
can u tell mum how that uniform is so tight and stiff
id fail gatecrashing
A conversation between Nick Tang, Mason Kowalski, and Rogue Tvarkov
Dated August 26, 2018
in my defense, I'm actually being rather productive
Productive? I can hear you playing rock music from my side of the office
That’s because he chickened out and went back to the hotel early
finally decided what uniform you're wearing for the big day?
I just might consider wearing my old uniform from storage
I'm suddenly glad I wasn't in the military
Unless I can walk in wearing my usual uniform
nah we see you in a dress for a change
Bold of you to presume I'm going in wearing a dress
you almost sound excited to get married
A conversation between Rogue Tvarkov and Nick Tang
Dated September 5, 2018
tang. nick tang.
i mean,,, its the truth
you two act like a married couple
so how did you find out
tang. nick tang.
come on :((
spill the tea or else youre not part of my tea ceremony
tang. nick tang.
you know i can just easily ask jason right
hes more receptive than you
im granting you mercy now
tang. nick tang.
rogue, pls dont let it be what i think it is
tang. nick tang.
A conversation between Nick Tang, Mason Kowalski, and Rogue Tvarkov
Dated November 3, 2018
Tang you are literally the slowest we've been waiting here for 3 years
Can't we just hail a cab
but that would be so rude
why would Nick let his xiong di's get in a cab
when he can just get them himself
nah thats all the more embarrassing
its how you say
For everyone's knowledge I just slapped Kowalski upside the head
everyone is so mean nowadays
I can't believe it
The deterioration of our moral values is so concerning
Alright we're in a cab
Wow this is faster than I thought
so Nick when are we going to kidnap you from your office
and take you to the nearest bar
for that bachelor's party
Three days or so
Evening flight, I think we'll have to get them
>:( for that you're not getting invited to my wedding
Keep this up and none of you are going to my wedding
If I'm actually having one
Two: Stag Night
While he was very much pleased that he was "kidnapped" from worked and hauled off to a good little place to have his bachelor's party, he was not so pleased that his friends thought it would be a good idea to drag him to the bar nearest to a military base. This said bar was loud, boisterous, filled with high energy and probably filled with military men who could recognize them if they turned this way or that. Nick took the time to study his current lineup of Xiong di, who were all sprawled out in the booth they managed to squeeze themselves in.
There were Kowalski and Heng, who were currently in the process of outdoing each other in a speed round of chugging. Heng was dressed casually for the night, bright colors and relaxed attire that bounce off the frantic lights above them. Kowalski, meanwhile, opted for something that toed the line between business and casual, donning a neat dress shirt and trousers. Both were "glad" to see each other after months of being away, quickly exchanging dry banter between each other as the first round of Cream Soda was served.
In the sidelines, Kang was quietly nursing her third round of Cream Soda, muttering next to Rogue about a conversation he could not hear over the booming of the music overhead. Kang is from the spec ops division, relatively down to earth and docile unless provoked by Heng or him, though the former is more likely the case. He eyed the mechanical flipper that was currently holding the bottle and wondered if a wrong move would cause it to shortcircuit and malfunction.
And then there were Khris Ng and Tharman - the most famous duo of the dragon boat team during his time in uni. Both were lounging in the couch next to him, laughing at the two officers who were busy out-chugging each other. They were perfect complements to each other, Khris being leaner while Tharman was thickly built. They might as well embody yin and yang with the rate they're going, constantly balancing each other and complementing the other's skills.
Nick's starting to wonder how he got himself to get them to agree to be in his entourage. Later, in a more clearer state of mind, he'll realize that logically speaking that he cannot ask for one of them to be his Xiong di without the other finding out and begging to be part of it.
"M'back boss," The last one and the youngest of them all, Reyes slid in holding another round of Cream Soda for everyone to take. He watched dryly as Heng and Kowalski simultaneously grabbed for two bottles while spewing off a tirade he couldn't make sense of. The singular advantage of having Reyes in his team, besides having someone who could be ordered around due to the rule of age superiority, was the fact that he can rely on this one to not tease him about something he's done in the past. Additionally, there's nothing wrong with having young blood in the clique.
"Welcome back," He said dryly over the music as he set down his bottle, sighing deeply and resting his head back. In less than a week, he's going to get married and finally have a month-long honeymoon with Zhi Rong. He can remember the plans he's been running through for the past few months, the practices of the ceremony that occurred. Is he excited? Definitely, but that does not mean that there's no room to be anxious. He snapped his head to turn to Reyes and frowned, "I'm not your boss, Reyes."
"I know, but a boss is still a boss," Reyes said simply and shrugged, lying back and sipping his own bottle. The kid was dressed neatly for once, wearing a beanie rather than his obnoxious cowboy hat. There were thicker curls peeking out of that knitted hat and he was tempted to ask if it had something to do with- "Say, what'ya think is Zhi doin' now?"
"Funny you ask, she just sent me a picture of them," Zhi and her entourage went off to a resort a few kilometers out of the city two days ago, relishing in the spa services and nature that surrounded it. She just sent him a photo of what dinner was for them, a wide variety of seafood that looked appetizing. "She's actually having a good time."
"Gotcha," Reyes nodded, quiet for a moment as he returned to sipping his drink. Nick turned back to watch the current spectacle of Khris reaching for another bottle while Tharman was inching it away from his reach. Annoyed, Khris smacked his flipper in a sloppy way that indicated intoxication. Meanwhile, Rogue and Kang were both watching the two out-drinking each other and stood, disappearing to wherever they were supposed to be going. "Hey, boss."
He'll ignore the title and how it's said and turned back to Reyes, "Yes?"
"M'real honored you invited me as one of yer uh... best men, or something," Reyes shrugged as he took a minimal sip from his bottle and nodded sheepishly at him. Nick quietly gauged how much he drunk and wondered briefly what were the last numbers he knew about Reyes' metabolism. "Didn't think ya'd ask for me to be with ya on yer special day."
"Of course I would," He said plainly, shaking his head and turning back to the rest of the table. Kowalski was currently accusing Heng of cheating, who in turn struggled to verbally defend his honor. While this would be an entertaining watch during most nights, he did not want to call attention to himself and his entourage. "Look at those fools, getting drunk and aggressive. I'm sure Zhi Rong's better off now."
"Maybe, want me to break them apart?" Reyes asked, setting down his bottle and cracking his neck helpfully. Nick glanced back at the two and noticed that Tharman had the same thought. He sighed and shrugged, only watching as the two stood and made their way to Heng and Kowalski. What followed was a cacophony of yells in both slurred Mandarin and warbled English that had some people turning to them.
"Are your friends always like this, Tang?" He turned around to see Kang standing behind him, holding her emptied bottle of beer. He couldn't see Rogue anywhere and didn't want to ask as Kang continued, passiveness on her face. He knew that it was not a good sign, "Or is this just... reunion celebrations?"
"I'd say the latter," Nick said and turned back to see both of them sitting on opposite chairs, fuming at each other across the table.
Everything was running past them really fast now, he'd be so amused if he wasn't so dizzy at the moment.
He's on a really soft pillow. Think like the butt of a newborn chick. No. That was weird. Another comparison would do? Er... marshmallows! Marshmallows are soft, right? He can't even remember what those things are supposed to be, but the first syllable of the word is literally "marsh" followed by "mallow" so it has to be something soft, right?
Drunk logic is so not working now.
Heng giggled helplessly from where he was lying and watched as the world around him zoomed past him with bright lights blinking overhead. There was a rumbling somewhere, under his head, over it, and around? The world was rumbling, like his belly when he hasn't had his dumplings in a long while. Dumplings. He should ask Nick if they can stop by some Chinese restaurant - oh, would Mrs. Yao's be still open at this hour? It's like, 2200, she's probably closing up.
What time is it even?
"Heng, stop squirming on my lap or I swear I will throttle you off it," What's a lap? Is that supposed to be something he's lying down on? He patted around his head and felt someone smack his face, making him groan loudly and glare upwards, at whoever offended his gracious face. He had a really pretty face. Joie likes it, his mom likes it, and that's all that matters in the current circumstances. He had a great face. How dare that offending flipper smacked his face?
"Noot noot," He whispered to himself and giggled, the word sounding funny to him. He couldn't seem to stop giggling as he kept saying it, elongating the letters and giggling harder. "Noot noot!"
"Kowalski, you broke him," Someone groaned. Female. Exasperated and very far away. There are only two women in the entourage that would fit that description and that's Rogue and Nikki. Nikki. The bride... groom? Nikki is a girl's name, right? Why can't he remember anything about the celebration at the bar? He scratched his head and thought very hard about that as he watched the lights appear and disappear, speeding away from him as if they were terrified.
"I can tell you all that I am perfectly broke, I think," Heng threw his flippers up in frustration as he continued, ignoring the swear that came from whoever's beak he smacked. Their fault, not his. It's not like he actively targets smacking anyone's beaks. It's probably the beak of whoever smacked his face. Serves them right. "I don't know, salary comes next week and I haven't checked my bank account."
He could sense an eye roll, somewhere in the room, but he isn't sure who did it. He's just sure it's there... somewhere...
SEVENTEEN NOVEMBER TWO THOUSAND EIGHTEEN
PER REQUEST OF SENIOR STAFF SARGEANT ZHENG ZHI RONG
[RECORDED BY LYNX 3.8.5]
TRANSCRIPT OF COMMUNICATIONS - TANG ENTOURAGE (???)
[01:12:13 MST] THARMAN: What do you eat in the camp, Tang? Heng's practically deadweight!
[01:12:20] NICK: That's a secret, Tharman, like government top secret. That is not worth your life and kids... wife and kids.
[01:12:22] HENG: We eat noooodleessssss
[01:12:26] REYES: Why're we here again?
[01:12:31] KHRIS: The Tangs are literally clean freaks so we might as well trash the place so they have something to clean up?
[01:12:36] KANG: ... Weird logic but I'll take it. Anyway, you boys - no, put that back Heng!
[01:12:38] NICK: Is he... raiding my kitchen cabarets? Cabinets?
[01:12:43] HENG: And your fridge!
[01:13:02] REYES: Hold up, is that Super Smash Mates U.B.E.R.?! Sir, we gotta play!
[01:13:07] HENG: Isn't that the game where Rogue comes in as a helper?
[01:13:10] ROGUE: What's a helper?
[01:13:13] KHRIS: I call Kermit!
[01:13:16] THARMAN: Noooo Kermit's my call!
[01:13:19] KANG: There aren't even enough consoles, I can only find two here.
[01:13:24] NICK: I am the man of this hose - house! House and I can... I call dips on Kermit?
[01:13:26] HENG: Dibs, Nikki, dibs.
[01:13:32] REYES: Alright I'm starting it up.
[01:13:36] NICK: Hang can you police stop taking shops from my- you know what, I'm not Eden gonna try talking anymore.
[01:13:40] ROGUE: I have no idea what this game is and what a helper is supposed to be.
[01:13:42] KHRIS: This'll be a nightmare.
[01:13:46] THARMAN: Oh, this'll be fun! How bad could it be?
LYNX NOTES: A lot, apparently.
Three: Does This Spark Joy?
He woke up with a headache and Zhi Rong standing over him, visibly amused and holding up a pill bottle.
Nick groaned and righted himself, pain shooting up his back in greeting and sunlight glaring at his eyes. He felt something wet at the side of his beak and wiped it off groggily, limbs feeling numb from his sleeping position. Bits and pieces of last night's stag party were tricking into his mind slowly with the throbbing of his head, and it was irritating, to say the least. He had the urge to close his eyes and ignore Zhi Rong if not for the fact that there was someone resting and snoring loudly on his lap. He looked down and saw Khris curled up on his side and shook his head, blindly reaching behind him for a throw pillow that would replace his lap. He had to pull it past Kowalski.
"You had fun," Too loud, Zhi Rong grinned widely as he winced, eyes flying closed. Her flipper on his shoulder felt nice and cool and he was instinctively leaning on it when someone whined underneath him. Right. He forgot Khris was still there and he hasn't moved an inch from his position. His butt felt numb. "And we have quite a mess to clean."
He finally extracted himself from Khris and looked around. There were pillows and crumpled chips bags scattered around the floor, with crumbs and some cans joining the fray. There were oddly some discarded shirts and jackets littering the floor and he gave the rest of the entourage a quick look. He really can't remember what happened last night. He turned back to Zhi Rong, "I can explain."
"I'm sure you can," She chuckled and helped him up. The world tilted like that and he stumbled forward, Zhi Rong smelling fragrant and fruity against his face. She gently pushed him back and raised the pill bottle in front of him again. He gratefully took it and wobbled to the kitchen to take them.
When he turned around, he noticed that Kang was already talking to Zhi Rong, hair wrestled back with a large hairpin. While the world was slowly righting itself before his eyes, he leaned back on the kitchen counter to try and recall what happened a few hours before. They were playing the video game, alternating between themselves with who'd play against the other. He could vaguely recall yelling and cursing and some betting money being placed down on the coffee table, and he sneaked a glance at said table to see if it was still there. He could vaguely see the small pile of coins and bills on it. His attention is turned back to Kang and Zhi Rong.
"I say we should wake them up now so that we can get to cleaning your apartment soon. That way, we can still catch lunch in that restaurant you keep mentioning," Kang bemused, eyes skittering back to the pile of sleeping bodies on the couch. Upon further inspection, Nick realized that only Kowalski, Khris, Heng, and Reyes were on it. There were two other missing people. "From there we can split the rooms to be cleaned."
At that, there was a knock on the door. Nick jumped at the loudness of it and turned towards its general direction. Zhi Rong grinned, "Nick, can you get the door, please?"
He followed and went over to open it. He doubled back when he saw that standing on the other side were Tharman and Rogue and the Jie Meis - Zhi Rong's entourage - who held different cleaning equipment and materials with them. It seemed that Tharman struggled to carry a mop with its bucket with a whole vacuum on his back, while Rogue had with her a few canvas bags and a few brooms. He eyed the canvas bag that Rogue held that had red bedsheets peaking out of it.
The An Chuang was a traditional ritual to do prior to the wedding of a couple in Margatian culture. It involved cleaning the bedroom of the soon to be wedded couple, changing their bedsheets to red ones for luck, and eventually leaving it be until the couple returns to it after the wedding. While it usually followed that the couple and some family members did it, Nick and Zhi Rong opted instead for the Xiong Dis and the Jie Meis to do it together.
He allowed them in and shut the door behind them, watching as the small team organized their canvas bags on the floor behind them while talking to each other about what the system would be with cleaning. He shuffled out of their way and returned to where the rest of his entourage were, picking up the scattered shirts around them and handing it back to Reyes and Khris, who were now wide awake and confused.
"Thanks, boss," Reyes murmured as he took his shirt and sheepishly pulled it back on, clumsily getting to his feet as he ran a flipper through his hair. Nick could vaguely hear the shy giggles of the Jie Meis behind him, and by the look on Reyes' face over his shoulder, he was the subject of their giggling. He sighed to himself and wondered who would have to break the news to them.
His attention is turned back to Zhi Rong, who is clapping her flippers and calling for a huddle in. His stomach growled at that and he sighed, ignoring his hunger for a moment to listen to what she had to say about the plan.
This was a really weird set up if Zhi Rong thought about it for a long time. Most of the people in their entourages were from the law enforcement or military sectors and were usually known more to them as weapon-wielding, tactics talking, cloak and dagger people who could get the job done with little fusses. She never considered seeing them as people who would clean their whole apartment in the name of tradition.
She, Nick, Rogue, and Heng were in their bedroom. She and Nick were in the middle of picking through the cabinets and closets for things that should be thrown away or kept, Heng was busying himself with brooming the floor, and Rogue was arranging their laundry by colors to bring down to the washing machines later. They worked in mostly quiet silence with only the whir of the vacuum cleaner in the other room.
"So, we'll be using a technique from that show to see which goes and what leaves," She started, turning to Nick who perked up in attention. "We have to ask ourselves as we hold something: does this spark joy?"
She heard Heng snort while Rogue piped up, "Is that from that cleaning show you suggested to me a few months ago?"
"Yeah it is, satisfying isn't it?" Nick replied as he turned to her and grinned.
"I'm not sure a lotion bottle would spark joy in me," Heng frowned, nodding at the bottle in Zhi Rong's flipper.
"The bottle not really, it's clunky and big when the thing's already halfway done." Zhi Rong shrugged and turned back to it, studying the brand and scent it proclaimed itself to be. It was a Christmas gift from her mother that she uses religiously, something that tugged at the memories of her adolescence. A reminder of her past. "But it smells like ylang-ylang and I like that, so it stays."
"This can go," Nick said, picking up a half-burnt disc that still faintly smelled like oxidized metal. It was his attempt to tinker with a few scrap parts in his office to create a mini projector that would project a little animation whenever it was opened. He presented it to her when they were in Mrs. Yao's ramen shop.
Zhi Rong looked at him scandalously, "Nick, you gave that to me on our third anniversary!"
"Yeah, and it almost exploded in our faces when you opened it," Nick sighed and shook his head, setting it aside to where everything else that should be discarded was. Joining it was a shriveled up orchid, a forgotten box of half-eaten chocolates, and a box full of dysfunctional earphones. He considered bringing it with him to the office and harvest it of salvageable parts.
"Does that spark joy in you?" They both turned to look at Rogue, who was pointing to Heng who was across the room. Zhi Rong can already sense the joke as soon as Nick opened his mouth.
"No, so to the trash he goes." Heng protested and squawked his offense when Nick suddenly bolted to him, a black garbage bag in hand. She can only laugh and shake her head in wonder as the two chased themselves around the room and eventually around the apartment, Heng arguing how he sparks joy in everything and everyone except Nick, who is supposed to be "no fun and sucks the joy out of everything".
She turned back to the mess around her once more and went back to figuring out what to keep and what should go, proceeding to go into sorting out the colognes and perfumes.
"Listen, kid, I'm giving you the easier task here, see? That's a tiny little thing while I scrub the whole shower area."
"Kowalski, sir, I had ta scrub toilets with an ol' toothbrush while in the Academy. If I 'ad ta touch one again it would be too soon, too soon."
This was the current predicament: they got the short end of the stick. It was just the two of them cleaning up the bathroom of the Tangs while everyone else was fixing the other parts of the place. Reyes reckoned that the bridesmaids (he cannot be bothered to remember the Chinese name) were working on the living room and kitchen with the other three. Tharman and Khris were doing most of the heavy lifting and organizing of shelves with Kang.
They already scrubbed the sink and floor and organized the little shelves and cabinets of the bathroom, leaving the two main things to work on cleaning: the toilet and the shower area. Mostly they would have both shrugged it off and did what was asked, but Kowalski was grouchy and had a hangover and was pulling rank to avoid working on the toilet. Reyes, younger and enhanced to have a faster metabolism, was being adamant and stubborn about everything.
Kowalski was being very insistent, borderline persuasive, "Look, I know that we've both got military backgrounds and wouldn't really care to scrub that thing, but right now I feel like vomiting the second I'm near that thing. I'll give you anything you want. A date with your boyfriend in some 5-star restaurant? A two-week vacation with pay from Tvarkov? Heck, I'll even make it three so you can take your sweet time-"
"Then vomit in it, ye can clean it up after." Reyes shrugged, crossing his flippers over his chest and tapping his foot idly. Kowalski glowered at him but it held no fire. He sighed and turned back to the last two things they had to work on. Zhi Rong conveniently did not have any hangover pills on her, which annoyed Heng and Kowalski in particular. Strangely, he vaguely recalled the sound of a pill bottle when he was half-awake.
"We can coin flip on it," Kowalski finally suggested, rummaging through his pockets for a coin. "I'll take heads and you can take tails."
It is to his bemusement that it landed on heads. It was all the more satisfying to see Kowalski's exasperation and his assertion that he was being cheated.
Cleaning up the whole shower area was way easier when he wasn't using a tiny toothbrush, rather using a proper brush. He was already taking out his bucket of murky water when Rogue walked past him, carrying a basket filled with white clothes that smelled strangely like week-old laundry. She barked an order for him to take the colored one behind her and follow her downstairs, which he scrambled to do as soon as he set down his bucket. He only had a moment to rub his flippers over his apron (a black one handed over to him by Zhi Rong the moment they got bathroom duty, to her bemusement) before gripping the basket with both flippers and hauling it out of the room.
The laundry room of this condominium was arranged much like the ones in the Academy: rows of washing machines and a bench in the middle, with folded tables to the side for anyone to take and use for folding their laundry. Rogue had some loose change on her and paid for working the machines, the laundry easily occupying three in an instant. He noticed her stuffing a whole duvet in one of them.
The clothes were all spinning around and around now, machines humming loudly around them. They both sat on the bench side-by-side, emptied baskets next to them, watching the clothes turn around in soapy water in an unending pool of cleanliness. Surprisingly, no one was in the laundry room despite the fact that it was a weekend. That left them the privacy to talk openly between each other.
"I looked into it, as you asked me last night," She started, turning to him as she fiddled with her EPF phone. He turned to her and held her gaze, frowning as he tried to remember what he asked of her the other night. His head still faintly pounded and his memory remained muddled, but she still asked him an unspoken question as if expectant of his reply that would explain something. "Are you two alright?"
It takes him longer than usual to realize what she meant. He awkwardly cleared his throat and shifted on the bench, the wood creaking a little and ticking. Right, he asked her a favor last night when they both sneaked off to the kitchen to grab some more Cream Soda from Nick's pantry. He could still remember how he leaned closer to her and giggled about how if it'd be funny if they called Kazuki Taira to check up on him. The call went to voice mail. "Yeah, s'real busy is all."
Rogue hummed lowly, eyes level at Reyes. Sometimes, when he did not have any work to do with the RRS and he would walk aimlessly around headquarters because he just did not feel up for going home to his lonely igloo, he often found himself at the foot of her office. There was the constant hum of a projector or the whirring of images and files from her computer wall, maybe the low mutterings of Rogue if she was thinking to herself about a case. She always allowed him into her office where he'd watch, maybe give his own points, or tell her about something that's going on in his life lately.
Sometimes, when he remembers that she is hardly older than him, he realized that she feels more like a friend than his boss during those nights.
"If necessary, I can ask Oxton-"
"Nah, s'fine bossman," Reyes shrugged, slipping his flippers in his hoodie pockets and kicking the air aimlessly. He turned away and took the moment to think, tempted somewhat by her suggestion. Taira was a relatively busy body in the Japaland branch of the agency, usually found hopping around wherever he was needed. Their relationship did not necessarily overstep the anti-fraternization laws of the agency (at least, that's what Rogue insists) due to his relation in the field and Taira in the bureaucracy. "I can handle it on my own."
"You don't have to," She said simply, then left it at that. He listened to her tap away on her EPF phone, most likely managing some light work that demanded her attention. He vaguely recalled her looking at leave permits in the elevator, anyway, so she was probably looking into that. He sneaked a glance to the side to see her tapping a message to Laurenson. She noticed his attention, "He's asking if I'm available later. Apparently, he found a little restaurant near the hotel and wants to try it."
"Y'all gotta go then," He nodded and frowned, a thought formulating in his brain. There were many similarities between the Commanders' relationship and his with Taira, one of the major factors is their distance between each other. He opened his mouth to ask it before he could think hard on it, "Hey boss, how'd y'all make it work?"
This is when she turned to him fully, an equally deep frown on her face as she snorted. "Reyes, just because it happened doesn't mean I know how."
It was then that the humming from the washing machines stopped, and Rogue stood to get the dried clothes, while Reyes went up to get the foldable tables. He noticed a clothing iron and grabbed one too, coming back to help her stack the clothes in the baskets.
And it was left at that.
Dinner was fantastic, at the very least. After cleaning everything up and fixing the bedsheets to the red ones that they bought a month ago, they headed over to the hotel where they'll all be staying and got their own rooms. They were paired up for sharing rooms and unpacked before they went out to look for a good restaurant to eat at. They found a little South Joseon barbeque place a few blocks away from the hotel where they ended up eating too much fish and kimchi in one sitting.
They were all back in the hotel now (except Rogue, who for reasons unknown is MIA), and Nick found himself fidgetting with his suit earlier that he'll be wearing for tomorrow. His mother came in earlier with a box full of corsages made of beautiful orchids and baby's breath, asking him if he was excited for tomorrow and squeezing his cheek as all good-natured mothers do. She chirped about how proud she was and how he's all grown up, then teasing him to have fun in the honeymoon. He flushed and quickly tried to give her an appropriate reply before she was off.
Khris and Tharman were in his room for some reason, saying that they deserved some "bro time" before the big day. Khris was sitting on his bed and kicking his feet in the air while Tharman was looking at the window to appreciate the Margatian skyline and nightlife. Nick, meanwhile, was seated in one of the plush chairs in front of the television and silently wondered when they're gonna start talking.
"I remember when I got married," Tharman started, eyes still gazing at the window. He remembered that too. Of the three of them, Tharman was the first to get married. Nick was one of his Xiong Dis at that time and could only watch as the guy stuttered through his vows and nervously accepted every handshake and wedding gift given to him. They used to joke that he would be the one giving the sage married life wisdom to the other two should their come time to get married.
"Oh, I remember too," Khris snorted and started kicking harder, making soft thumps with the edge of the bed. "You were still hungover and almost vomited when you saw Priya."
That, he also remembered very vividly.
"All I'm saying is that we all get nervous sometimes, and that's okay, you're meant to," Oh, so this is the bro time that they're having. Nick leaned back on his chair and sighed, reaching over to grab the remote off of the bedside table and mute the television. He turned back and watched as Tharman moved to the cabinet to fiddle with his suit again. He seemed to be straightening the lapels and adjusting the corsage a little. "You'll do perfectly fine, just don't freak out too much."
"You think?" Nick frowned, watching him as he finally let the thought sink in. He's getting married. He's going to go through all of this work and effort. It still felt surreal. "And what if the... whole thing doesn't work?"
Tharman turned and looked at him steadily as if thinking of a suitable reply to give him. They both jumped when Khris spoke up. "It'll look sometimes like it isn't working, but trust us, it will."
It took a while for Tharman to pick up from that, pausing again before giving Nick a grin and walking over to pat his shoulder. "Yeah, it has to man. You've been with her for like a decade now, it'll be a curse if you don't work out."
Nick could only grin and shake his head fondly, laughing along as Khris barked with laughter. Maybe there's nothing much to fear about tomorrow after all.
Four: Mission Somewhat Possible
She liked to go for an early morning run, especially when she's on foreign soil. The concrete jungle always had a different vibe in it for every country, and running always seemed to guide her to the finer places of the major city she's in that isn't often trampled upon by tourists. She was usually up and running a few blocks around when the sun is hardly peaking out and the city lights are the only things illuminating her path.
Rogue just came back from her morning run with a takeout box filled with peanut pancakes. She shut the door to her hotel room behind her and sighed, watching as the sun slowly rose into view from her window. She popped the box opened and munched on one of them, giving the room a quick look. Reyes' bed was vacated and there was no sound of running water coming from the bathroom and quickly checking the dresser saw that there was only one suit hanging on a hanger: hers. Her phone chirped with a message from Jason asking her if she wanted anything for breakfast and she declined.
It was quick work to shower and get dressed in the suit. She thought of carrying the takeout box with her in case any of the guys haven't had breakfast yet. She bumped into Kang on the way and nodded in greeting, watching as the latter adjusted her tie with her metallic flipper. To this day Rogue wants to ask her how she got it. "Is that Min Jiang Kueh I smell? Hand that over."
Rogue offered it up to Kang, who quickly took two and stuffed it in her mouth. They stood in front of the hotel room in silence as Kang ate the food, getting some crumbs on her sleeves and collar. Rogue slowly tried to offer a handkerchief to brush it off. Kang seemed to have noticed something on her, "That's a new accessory."
Oh, right. The light glinted off the metallic bracelet, a silver thing with a band of red in the middle that glowed eerily against the fluorescent lighting. Rogue huffed and nodded, twisting the bracelet around her wrist and raising it higher as Kang took the offered handkerchief. "It's a suppressor made by Perez. It keeps me from teleporting or using my strength."
"Interesting," Kang hummed, despite not knowing who this Perez person is. She handed Rogue back her handkerchief and tugged the wrist closer towards her, listening to the quiet hum of the metal. It felt cool to the touch and light, "What's it made of?"
"Silver and magic, I guess."
"Ladies!" The door flung open and Heng's face popped out of the doorway. His eyes immediately landed on the half-opened box of peanut pancakes, taking it from Rogue's flipper without any preamble. She frowned and could only watch as Heng grabbed one and offered it to whoever was inside the hotel room. "Come on, come in."
Rogue mentally counted the heads in the room and frowned when it came up 7, herself included. She couldn't figure out who could be missing with the flurry of activity before Khris noticed them, whistling loudly and seemingly rummaging through his pockets for his phone, "Don't we all look foine this morning! Come on, we need to get a picture of this."
As Rogue and Kang squeezed into the frame, Nick turned to Rogue just as she realized who was missing. The look on Nick's face was of confusion, "Rogue, where's Reyes?"
"I thought he was with you," She replied just as quickly, frowning as she took out her EPF phone and tapped in a few commands. She patched a call to Reyes' number and waited as Nick also took out his own phone, calling Reyes as well. Both of them went to voicemail. She felt the beginnings of suspicion settle on her stomach. "I swear, I thought he was with you."
"I thought he was with you?" Logically speaking, Reyes was in her room and was also her subordinate, so it's expected that she'd know where the kid went. Rogue could only frown as she started sending a message to Reyes.
"Seven people in the entourage, not exactly auspicious." Khris shrugged as Tharman glowered at him sourly.
commander bosswoman tvarkov
Where are you??
If you're bailing out on gatecrashing I am putting you on probation
Lynx says your tracker's offline
commander bosswoman tvarkov
Reyes don't play with me
Did you just leave your tracker on your bedside table??
This isn't remotely funny
commander bosswoman tvarkov
Look, if this is about Taira he's on a plane
He should be here by the reception so can you PLEASE get here
We're not starting without you
commander bosswoman tvarkov
We can't wait for you anymore, double time.
→ Read at 9:36AM
Sometimes he wondered why he followed through with military traditions and customs with this whole wedding. He really, sincerely, wondered, but wondering would mean nothing in the long run now that he was here.
Because this looks bad, in every sense of the word. Along the driveway headed towards the lobby of the MSB, an obstacle course was prepared for them to go through. Wedding guests, some curious officers from the MSB, and drones from the EPF swarmed the area as they waited to see this go down. For reasons unknown to Nick, some media outlets were also there to cover the event, large cameras poised to take in all of the action.
The obstacle course was rather basic, child's play even, but that was if he was in a cotton shirt and running shoes and not a full suit and loafers. He quickly turned around to the rest of his team and then back to the obstacle course, sighing deeply. "Alright, let's talk strategy."
"I see buckets of water balloons to the side," Rogue squinted, and Nick sighed again. That was most likely a joke Zhi Rong took seriously when they were planning out their wedding. He turned to the crowd again and spied Zhi Rong's cousins flanking the sides with the buckets beside them. He shook his head and turned back to the rest of the team as they fired off their observations.
"Khris and I can go ahead to prep up for the wall climbing, get in position to hoist people up quickly," Tharman chimed in, eyes flitting back and forth to the team and the 6-foot wooden wall that was hauled from the training grounds for this. "Kang and Tvarkov can be last to haul us back up."
"The water's going to be extra cold, maybe ice cold knowing Zhi Rong," Nick said and shuddered, thinking of one of those water balloons hitting him or anyone on the team, "Luckily, the red envelopes are in my inner pocket."
"I hope that suit's double lining," Heng frowned as the horn sounded, prompting them to turn towards the crowd that revved up in anticipation for what was coming. Nick sighed one more time and adjusted his tie, smoothening his hair and turning back to the team. He gave them only one nod before they started running.
Well. That went... fine? On the most part. Maybe. The plan worked for the most part, with Tharman and Khris doing well in the frontlines. The monkey bars were mostly a breeze but seemed to tug at the seams of their suits the wrong way, but not that Nick really minded. The ropes were a nightmare at the very least, and Nick needed a moment to take a breath as soon as he reached the top and rang the bell. As expected, they managed to vault everyone up the wall without a hitch and they proceeded to (poorly) dodge the water balloons that were coming at them. It was a race to the lobby door and Nick was very glad to see it... that is, well, until Priya and Huian.
On a different day, the two might be amused to find their husbands to be soaking wet and looking like wet ducklings, but today was not the case. They aptly ignored them as they turned to Nick, "For safe passage, the red envelopes."
"Right, how many do you want?" Nick frowned, mentally counting how many he had in his inner pocket. He slid a flipper in and held the paper, thankful that it wasn't soaked by the barrage of water balloons earlier. The grin on Priya's face slightly unnerved him.
"11 will do."
"That's a bit much ladies, isn't it? I think 9 would do." Nick said, laughing nervously as he realized that two were missing. He only had 8. He quickly turned to the team behind him and wondered if anyone held a red envelope. Kowalski coughed next to him and pointedly glowered at his back. Oh. He must have slipped the other two in his back pocket. "Can't just blow this all off in one go."
"8," Nick replied, just as quickly. There was tense silence between the party. Priya and Huian glanced at each other and murmured lowly as if arguing about the bargained price for their entry. Nick slowly pulled out the red envelopes necessary and waited until the two nodded, taking the offered red envelopes and nodding, stepping aside. Nick broke out to the politest smile he can manage, "Thank you."
"Proceed to the elevators. Someone will meet you there." Huian said steadily and opened the door for them.
The lobby was eerily quiet, for some reason. There wasn't even someone in the reception area to greet the entourage as they ran past. Nick and Heng lead them up to the staircase and past the portraits of past commanders before coming up to a small alcove where the elevators were. They pressed the up button and an elevator immediately opened.
Joie was inside. Heng sputtered as he and the entourage came in, tumbling into the small thing and somehow managing to squeeze together. He uncomfortably found himself wedged between Tharman's shoulder and Kang's neck. "Joie? What are you doing here?"
Unfazed by his surprise, she offered them a black box filled with earpieces. "For safe passage, please put one on and hand over your coats."
Nick was the first one to gingerly shrug off his coat, reach forward, and grab one of the earpieces, putting it on as soon as he was holding it. The rest of the entourage slowly followed as they removed their coats, some of them folding it and setting it next to Joie's feet, picking up an earpiece, then putting it on. Nick had an odd sense that this wouldn't turn out so well, and waited until the rest of the team had it equipped.
As soon as the elevator stopped, the lights flickered off and they were enveloped in darkness. Nick tensed as he realized that Zhi Rong probably took everything he joked about for their ceremony seriously. The lights flickered on in crimson neon, enveloping them in its hue. Joie could only smile to herself as she chimed in, "She'll be in your office, Nick. Good luck."
They were ushered out of the elevator like that. The hallway was dark, lit only by faint blue neon lights that lined the borders of the floor and ceiling. Nick squinted as he tried to make sense of what was-
Khris swore as he tripped over something that sounded like boxes, stumbling and making a loud clutter. The noise was familiar. There was a cackle that seemed to echo around the hallway as the rest of the entourage huddled together, backs pressed against each other, a familiar motion since most of them were in combat occupations. Nick knew whose cackle that was, and swore to himself that he'll make sure the voice's life is living hell after this gatecrashing is all over.
"Howdy y'all, guess what time it is?"
EIGHTEEN NOVEMBER TWO THOUSAND EIGHTEEN
PER REQUEST OF SENIOR STAFF SARGEANT ZHENG ZHI RONG
[RECORDED BY LYNX 3.8.5]
TRANSCRIPT OF COMMUNICATIONS - TANG ENTOURAGE (???)
[09:36:16 MST] LYNX: Welcome to the final stretch of the gatecrashing, Team Tang. I am Lynx 3.8.5 and I am going to be your gamemaster today.
[09:36:20] ROGUE: As soon as this is over you are going to go through all of the maintenance tests and upgrades with Felix and you will not be happy about it.
[09:36:23] KHRIS: Nick, when you asked me to be your Xiong Di, I thought we'd have the basic traditional stuff and not this!
[09:36:25] LYNX: If you'd all look at the boxes Khris just knocked over, your weapons would be stored there. They are stimdarts tech courtesy of James Cueva from the Orion Initiative.
[09:36:28] NICK: I... am seriously going to have a chat with Cueva once this is all over.
[09:36:31] LYNX: Your objective is to search for the payload and secure it, then deliver it to the extraction point as one team. Your only obstacle would be, of course, Agent Reyes.
[09:36:35] ROGUE: He can hear all of this, right?
[09:36:37] LYNX: Yes, Commander.
[09:36:39] NICK: Reyes, you're suspended.
[09:36:40] ROGUE: Suspend him? No, I'm doing much worse: Reyes, you're on administrative duty for the next three months.
[09:36:42] LYNX: Mr. Kowalski and Khris, your med packs are the two backpacks found at the side of the elevators. You will have 3 minutes to strategize. Good luck, Team Tang.
[09:36:46] THARMAN: First off, I would like to ask for permission to call my wife and kids to tell them I love them.
[09:36:48] HENG: Denied, we don't have time for this. This place is a maze if you don't have it memorized so we have to- wait, Reyes can listen to all of this.
[09:36:51] NICK: He doesn't speak Mandarin and we all conveniently do.
[09:36:53] ROGUE: Lynx doesn't have a Mandarin translation program... yet.
[09:36:56] HENG: Fantastic, now the-
LYNX NOTES: ERROR. Mandarin cannot be translated.
Here were the teams, based on her understanding of their rapid-fire Mandarin: Nick, Heng, Tharman, and Kowalski. Kang, Rogue, and Khris.
Seven xiong di's against one rogue xiong di.
Bemused, Zhi Rong sat back on Nick's desk chair as she watched the holograms that were spread out all over the room. The hologram projectors hummed with the playlist that was playing in the background, a track list of the latest popular songs that had fast beats and strong bass. To the side was a hologram depicting the whole layout of the floor with earpiece trackers indicating who was with who and where. At the moment, all of them were far away from her room, with Reyes prowling a few corridors away from their entourage.
This chair was really comfy, by the way. Very nice. No wonder Nick spent a lot of time burning the midnight oil in this place. She leaned back and hummed to the music as she watched them scramble into their respective groups, splitting down the hallway and quickly gaining ground.
A crackle in her earpiece indicated a shift in channels, and she smiled to herself as she listened to Reyes' thick accent fill her ears, "So, which way do we go?"
She raised her flipper to summon up one of the holograms to move closer to her, the floor layout coming into clear view for her to observe. Taking out the four of them wouldn't be so bad, since they'd be easy pickings for the agent she's borrowed for the occasion. She's sure that Nick wouldn't dare hurt the kid in the name of tradition, probably wouldn't try to turn his magic against him. Heng and Kowalski, meanwhile, are two people she's rather wary of, as she's sure they'll be rather trigger happy with getting this done and over with. There was also the chance of ambushing the three man team, but that was both Kang and Rogue in there. They were obviously paired together to sweep the floor and take out Reyes if necessary. She wasn't going to hand him over to them that easily.
They seemed so confident that they'll win this final round, Zhi Rong thought. It was almost cute. But she wasn't someone who can be won over that easily. That had to be reflected somehow.
Grinning, she realized what had to be done. She reached over to her earpiece and pressed down on the button on its side, "Let's shake them a little. Are you ready to test out that thing?"
"Always am, ma'am."
"Great. Take the path to your right and show them what you're made of."
Whoever tricked out the whole office had to paid good money for this, because this is really a bit much for someone who's gonna get married.
Kang gripped the gun in her flippers and marched onward, sweeping the dull darkness ahead with slow gazes. She couldn't see much in this semi-darkness. It wasn't exactly good training grounds conditions. Usually she'd have night goggles on her, maybe some padding around her torso and elbows, and maybe a briefing that was better than that AI's. This? This was literally nothing. They're literally going in blind. It irked her.
Her breath appeared in front of her whenever she exhaled. They even dialed down the temperature here, for goodness sake. She was sure that the metal of her arms were ice cold, and anytime soon she'll have to fish out a bottle of oil in her inventory if she still wanted them in working condition. She cursed to herself and wondered if it was possible to slide into one of the rooms to oil them. None of the doors would open for them whenever they tried the door handles.
"This is a really trippy wedding ceremony," Khris laughed nervously behind her, his own gun held up to his chest. The medic pack strapped to his chest felt warm against her back, somewhat comforting especially since she was starting to regret handing over her suit jacket. Rogue was keeping an eye on their six, her own gun sweeping the midst in case a wild man happened to pop in. Kang wondered when it would be appropriate to tell them that her arms needed oiling soon and that she couldn't exactly do it herself-
A blip appeared out of nowhere and the world became a blur of red, the sharp staccato of gunfire following quickly after as she was pressed against the wall by a taller figure. Kang blindly reached for her own weapon and fired a few shots into the smoke, ignoring the warning yells of Khris that she could hit someone else. She heard more than saw the moment a stim dart clipped him, a sharp yell before a sharper warping sound.
She wiped the smoke in front of her and coughed when it slipped into her mouth and nose. Eventually the haze cleared. There was no sign of their assailant. That was too quick an exit. Khris sat on the floor, two stim darts on his torso, clear surprise on her face. Stepping back, Kang frowned and blurted, "What just happened?"
Communication was choppy with the other team, and that did not bode well with him. Kowalski made a dry remark some time ago about how this whole place was rigged to be way harder than all the operations they did in the UAN Taskforce, and Heng was almost ready to agree. He hefted up his rifle on his shoulder and swept the path ahead of him with the business end of it, narrowing his eyes as if it would help him see past the darkness ahead. Fear set itself in his belly, quiet amidst the noisy clamor of his heartbeat in his ears, and he wondered if it wasn't too late to call it a day and just head home with Joie.
"Crap, Khris is down," Tharman said, prompting the three of them to turn around and look at him. He was clutching his medical pack loosely, slung over his shoulder as if it were one of his daughter's bags and not something that could save them from the inevitable pain of whatever stim darts felt like when they hit them. Heng heard a shrill noise, a shriek of some sort, and he quickly turned around to raise his weapon. He, Nick, and Kowalski pressed their backs against each other as they waited, eyes sweeping about.
"I hope you're having a good time, Tang," Kowalski muttered beside him, his shoulder digging uncomfortably against his own, "Because I'm certainly not."
A canister landed in front of them and released red smoke with a hiss, startling Heng and prompting him to kick it away from him. Nick yelled an order to duck as he and Kowalski pulled their triggers and fired into the smoke, yelling something in English too quick to understand as he ducked into the smoke and scrambled to search for their attacker. Heng pushed away the smoke that was getting in his eyes and grabbed a glow stick, snapping it and shaking so that the two can avoid hitting him. He held it up and rushed onward. He heard darts whizzing past him as he ran, until he found something solid and pulled it to him.
Reyes was a sight, decked out with full makeup to terrify whoever dared to look at him. His eyes were a bright amber, face covered in red paint with wisps of white hair hanging off his beak. Two horns were atop his head and his teeth suddenly looked too white. His suit was switched out for something red and traditional, golden embellishments decorating his sleeves and pant legs. He looked very much like a dragon dancer, sans the dragon head and the body, and for some reason that irked him.
"Ya real cheeky holdin' me flipper, don't ya think?" It took him a second too long to realize that he was holding Reyes' hand, and instantly looked down to let go of it in embarrassment. Multiple bracelets adorned his flipper, a prominent one being a silver one with a single red band on it. He narrowed his eyes and turned back to Reyes, also noting that he had his gun's barrel pressed against his torso. "Too bad ya ain't got hold of me for long."
Heng scrambled back and yelled out a warning as he felt the darts connect to his body. He sucked in a breath as pain scattered down his torso, wrapping around to settle on his back, sending him buckling and on the floor. Everything hurt, like he was being burned alive, and his trembling flippers struggled to pat around to see where it got him. He quickly pulled out one of the darts and screamed, curling into himself. He fought back the pain as it threatened to spill into his sight.
It was only when the kid escaped his sight when he realized what he saw. Contacts for recording night vision video. Bracelets for teleportation. That silver and red band for power.
"We're being played," Heng gasped after a moment, scrambling to his feet, pain shooting up his torso as he did. He didn't even know that Tharman was next to him. He ignored his warnings to lie back down as he yelled at Nick and Kowalski, "Reyes is playing with us!"
To be continued