Chapter 26: Playing the Fool
When they stepped into the jet, four ENIGMA agents were waiting for them. Makoto recognized all of them, though there was one who set her on edge, despite her recent change of allegiance.
Tobias was the pilot’s seat, and Uriel got up from the copilot’s chair when she saw the newcomers. Jared and Christina were seated against the wall to their left, watching them curiously.
Uriel approached, breaking the tense silence. “Thank you for coming, Akari.” She extended her hand with a tiny smile.
Makoto went to shake it, but her fingers wrapped around cold metal. She looked down at the gun in her hand, and then back up at Uriel.
The other agent bowed slightly, surprising Makoto with her consistent respect of her Japanese heritage. She returned the bow and grinned eagerly.
“It’s good to see you again.” Uriel said, and then greeted Tadashi in like manner.
While she was giving Makoto a holster and extra ammunition, Christina approached, shifting nervously in the presence of the woman she’d kidnapped. It didn’t help that Makoto was armed.
Christina glanced back at Jered, who nodded firmly to her.
Regaining her confidence, Christina faced Makoto strongly, no sign of her earlier distress. She didn’t flinch when the Japanese woman stiffened and gripped her newly acquired handgun more tightly.
Uriel noted the uncomfortable situation and returned to the cockpit to give them privacy.
“I’m sorry.” Christina apologized in her deep, humming voice. “I have caused a lot of destruction and I’ve treated you horribly.” She seemed to consider her apology concluded until Jered not-so-subtly cleared his throat.
Christina caught herself mid-eye-roll and fixed another penitent expression on her face. “I hope you’ll forgive me and consider me your ally.” She let her eyes fall to the floor, her slow, run-together words and lack of enunciation filling the small space and hanging in the air.
Makoto knew what had happened.
Christina had been under the influence of erased and altered memories. She’d been conditioned to be a heartless soldier by some unknown spymaster and she’d had no control of her actions.
But it had still been her face behind all those deeds, and they expected her to work with that face and act like she wasn’t the same person?
Why did that sound familiar?
Makoto’s eyes flicked over to Tadashi.
Tadashi, the guy who had tortured her relentlessly from the very beginning, but turned out to be the masked crime fighter who saved her every time she needed him to.
And the same story was her father’s.
A wry smile found Makoto’s face and she met Christina’s worried gaze. “I just so happen to be in the business of forgiveness.” She said brightly, and then shrugged one shoulder. “No hard feelings.” She went to sit down opposite Jared, but nearly ran into Uriel. Makoto fell still, shocked. She was usually so aware of her surroundings that no one went unnoticed.
Apparently spy versus detective was where the true challenges lie.
Nonetheless, Uriel was still blocking the way to her seat. But before Makoto could question the intervention, Uriel nodded to the copilot’s seat with an arched eyebrow.
Catching the hint, Makoto went to the specified chair and sat down, glancing curiously at Tobias as she went past. “Hey, stranger,” She greeted, buckling in.
He smiled, but was silent in concentration as he piloted the aircraft into a smooth take-off.
When they were in the air, he glanced at her. “You don’t have to do this.” He said lowly. “After what happened last time...”
Makoto fought down the surge of self-disappointment. After all of her successful missions, that was the impression she made? The girl who got stabbed. Fantastic.
“If you’ll give me the chance to try again, I’ll give it my best.” She promised. “I’ve been training ever since I recovered enough to be able to. I’m stronger and more capable, and I’ll prove it.” The look she fixed him with was almost begging.
Tobias smirked, but it hardly masked his concern. “Look, I’m glad to give you another shot, but even with all of your accomplishments, you’ve got some proving to do to make up for how far you fell behind.”
The words hurt, and they made her angry.
She remained silent until she was confident she wouldn’t be launching him out the window. In an attempt to distract herself, she glanced over her shoulder.
Tadashi caught her eye, his frown almost looking worried.
“What happened to your arm?” Christina was asking Jered, staring blankly at an angry red gash running down his forearm.
Jered tugged his sleeve down with a wince. “My last mission.” He explained. “Got nicked.”
‘Nicked.’ He didn’t get nicked, he severed nerves and muscle. How was he supposed to help with one arm out of commission?
Christina’s face brightened like the sun. “Do you want me to kill him for you?” She offered like it was the best way to make his suffering a little better.
It sounded like her rehabilitation still had a long way to go.
“Nope.” Jered responded flatly. “Try again.”
Her expression changed to one of realization and shame. After a minute, she pursed her lips. “Not worth killing for?”
“Makoto?” Tobias asked, snapping her back into her conversation.
She straightened in her seat, her features easy and relaxed. “Yeah, I know.” She answered his earlier statement. “That’s my goal.”
He nodded approvingly, looking relieved that she hadn’t fallen apart in a puddle of tears. He probably hadn’t even realized until after the words had left his mouth that it might be somewhat offensive.
Makoto used the following silence to wonder how long they’d be cleaning up Christina’s mess. Not that she was officially part of the cleanup crew, but she wanted to know how many of Christina’s forces were involved.
And who had roped Christina into it?
“I don’t usually say this to anyone outside my very small circle of friends, but I’m proud of you. Not many people can go through that much captivity and pain and forgive the woman who did it. I don’t really understand it.” Tobias said carefully, subtly pushing her to explain herself.
Makoto shrugged again, toying with her gun belt. “She’s not the first person to treat me poorly for good reason. I don’t really want to forgive her, but I’ve got no right not to, so I might as well be happy about it.”
Tobias’ features were hooded in thought, but it didn’t surprise Makoto. Not many people understood her willingness to forgive, and she was used to his reaction.
A few minutes passed before Uriel poked her head into the cockpit. “Am I interrupting something?” She asked abruptly.
Tobias shook his head. “No. Why?”
Uriel turned her stare on Makoto. “Great. Get out of my seat.”
Makoto grinned, amused, and unbuckled her seat belt before taking a seat next to Tadashi. She spent the remainder of the flight watching him subconsciously play with a loose threat on his gun belt.
It took just over 2 hours to get to New Mexico, giving Makoto enough time to remember to text her father. She thought about lying and calling it an after-hours study session, but decided against it.
After all, with her father being Ronin, he had the ability to make an appearance should he think she was in over her head. So she told him the truth, leaving out details about the top secret team she was working with.
Tobias touched down in the middle of the street, which was almost completely empty. “They’re waiting for us.” Uriel announced, striding past Makoto.
The severity of the situation settling in on her, Makoto glanced around her and then down at herself. She wore a sweatshirt and blue jeans. The others wore black tactical uniforms and not much in the way of armor.
For a prestigious law enforcement agency, ENIGMA didn’t show great judgment when sending teenagers into a war zone. At least VALOR, the operation that Vesper Anderson had founded, had everyone completely covered in body armor.
Deciding not to voice her concerns on account of everyone else exiting the jet, Makoto got out of her seat and followed Tadashi out into the street.
As soon as she stepped into open air, she threw herself into a roll to avoid being crushed by a crunched car. When she landed in a crouch on the sidewalk, she drew her pistol and pressed herself against the side of the closest building.
Makoto leaned over to see around the corner. The ENIGMA team was already dispersed throughout the street, combing their way toward the enemy.
The hostile force was blocking the west end, men hiding behind empty cars, in and around the buildings, and behind civilian shields. There were at least 30 visible gunmen, and 12 hostages.
While the men thickly surrounded multiple stores and one church, there was a different caliber of mercenaries posted outside the bank. They were more heavily armed, and they were the only eight guys who didn’t look like they’d never been behind the sights of a rifle before.
Makoto filed that information away and refocused on the team’s progress. They were all advancing from the front, except—
“Do you see it?” Behind her, Tadashi crouched with his sidearm in hand.
Unaffected by his sudden existence behind her, Makoto nodded shortly. “Of course I do.”
“They don’t.” His hand appeared by her shoulder, index finger extended.
Makoto’s eyes followed the direction in which he was pointing, finding Uriel and Tobias to be fighting their first targets outside the church building. It had the most men guarding it—she didn’t blame them for assuming it was the outpost.
“Do you think we can use her?” Makoto asked lowly.
There was a slight hesitation. “Not sure. She’s been missing in action for a while.” He responded, a hitch in his voice. As soon as he stopped speaking, he tapped her shoulder in signal.
Already on board with his intention, Makoto ducked lower against the wall and plugged her ears. When she moved out of the way, Tadashi shifted forward on one knee and fired a single shot.
10 yards away, across the street, his bullet felled a man who, given half a second longer, would have stabbed Jered in the heart.
Tadashi turned to Makoto to gloat, but her attention had long since drifted. She jabbed a thumb towards a green garbage can in the opposite alleyway.
For a second, there was too much gunfire for anyone to think clearly anyway, so Tadashi ignored her and threw himself on his side, undoubtedly bruising his ribs, and fired a few rounds.
The gunfire became slightly quieter and he pulled himself back into a crouch. Finally, he twisted around to see what Makoto was pointing at. For a second he saw nothing.
Then his eyes focused on deep brown curls and a purple leather jacket. More specifically, he spotted Christina hiding behind a trash can. She didn’t look scared. She looked like she wasn’t sure what to do.
Makoto watched her surroundings calculatedly, anxiety rising when she saw how close the gunmen were getting. Well...gun-persons, actually. Most of the approaching hostiles were women.
“We’ll have to get to her before she starts firing at her former allies.” Tadashi commented, checking his magazine.
A sudden rush of energy surged through Makoto, and she wasn’t sure if it was adrenaline or the need to throw up, but she used it to her advantage.
Before anyone could stop her, Makoto was on her feet, sprinting across the street. She made it to Christina’s side before the enemy managed to find their triggers, but they began shooting again before Tadashi could follow.
Makoto glanced behind her to see Tadashi’s frustrated glare. She didn’t care, of course, and therefore returned to the task at hand. Finding refuge behind the garbage can behind Christina, she gave her former enemy a nudge. “You okay?”
Christina rolled her eyes dryly. “I’m fine.” She bit, her tone defensive.
Makoto ignored the challenge to argue and instead nodded swiftly. “Good. How do you feel about playing double agent?”
A second of silence followed as Christina blinked blankly at the woman she still perceived to be an idiot. “I assume you know I’m compelled to tell you that you should say sextuple agent.”
Her comment gave Makoto pause.
She was right, though.
Christina’s life had been a rollercoaster of loyalty.
First a law abiding citizen, then a brainwashed child soldier turned rehabilitated ENIGMA agent turned brainwashed teen soldier turned rehabilitated ENIGMA agent, and then, possibly, pretend brainwashed teen soldier.
Not many people got to be a double agent six times over, if somewhat inadvertently.
That was, however, irrelevant in the current situation.
“Yes, apologies, my mistake. I assume you haven’t told you former followers that you’ve recently cancelled your subscription to Evil Weekly.” She left the statement open for Christina to correct her, but she was met with more silence.
The silence was briefly broken when the ENIGMA agent lifted her gun and fired a round over Makoto’s shoulder, followed by the sound of a body hitting the pavement.
Christina went back to watching her companion expectantly.
“Great. So you wouldn’t mind putting your villain cape back on and getting some of us on the other side of the firing squad, then, would you?” Makoto gave the ENIGMA agent her sweetest smile.
Christina rolled her lips in thoughtfully, looking eerily excited by the idea. Kind of concerning coming from a woman who was hiding in fear of relapsing.
“We’ll have to make it convincing.” The brunette warned, not looking at all pensive about it.
Makoto smirked hesitantly. “And here I thought you meant that apology.” She’d gone through a lot of abduction and abuse. What was a little more? She pushed away her fear and nodded. “Do what you feel will sell it.”
A horrible gleam brightened the green of Christina’s eyes and she snapped to her feet, seizing Makoto by the arm.
The smaller woman couldn’t help the tortured cry that choked past her lips as Christina twisted her arm harshly and dragged her toward the opening of the alleyway.
Makoto heard the group of enemy gunmen jogging closer as her eyes met Tadashi’s, who was watching from across the street.
As they reached the mouth of the alleyway, Christina shoved Makoto in front of her, planting her heeled boot in her back and harshly kicking the Japanese woman into the street.
Makoto landed on her knees and forearms, blood immediately beading from invisible wounds on her arms.
Gunmetal shifted and clicked as the hostiles lined her up in their sights, but there was no available escape for her to take cover.
Tadashi leapt across the expanse between them at a speed that would have freaked her out had she not known he moonlighted as a giant super-cat. He landed in a crouched position over top of her, guarding her from the inevitable onslaught of bullets.
Somehow trusting Christina, Makoto could only duck down against the pavement and pray that Foxtail knew what she was doing.
The click of her heels was like the comforting melody of birdsong. “Hold your fire.” Christina’s easy hum ordered, causing all six of the enemy soldiers to freeze.
Makoto glanced up at Tadashi, who narrowed his eyes and reached for his gun. “Do you want to die?” He hissed darkly, and she shrugged, somehow amused by the whole thing.
“Not especially. Why do you ask?”
“Foxtail.” One of the women exclaimed, snapping to attention. “We thought you were...” She hesitated, fear entering her voice. “We thought you were dead.”
Christina entered the street and gripped Tadashi by the collar and pulled him away, pressing her gun to his temple to effectively silence his arguments. “Think again.” She corrected them calmly. “And think carefully next time. I don’t frequently offer second chances.”
Makoto rolled over on her back, fingers wrapped tightly around her sidearm, watching to see how the scene was going to play out. The amount of pleasure Redding was taking from the act was kind of making her nervous.
One of the guys Christina was lying to, one of the too-brash-for-his-own-good kind, didn’t lower his weapon. “Where’ve you been for three months, Foxtail?”
Christina let go of Tadashi long enough to pull the neck of her shirt down just far enough to bare her collarbone. Just below it was a scar from a bullet. “Not dying.” She responded, reclaiming her grip on Tadashi’s jacket.
That seemed to be enough for the whole squad and they squared their shoulders respectfully. “What do we do?” One of them, a terrified girl who, at Makoto’s inference, had a two-year-old son at home who needed his mother to survive. “They’ve got a whole team. Three of them have already taken out half of our forces.”
The young mother tried not to flinch at the gunfire that grew louder from the west side of the street.
“Well, then, the battle’s practically lost, isn’t it?” Redding quipped in a sing-song voice. Her followers stared at her, agape.
“Take one of them and scare the rest of the world into leaving us alone. At least something good should come of this.” Christina ordered.
Makoto crawled to her feet just as two of the gunmen lunged at her and grabbed her arms.
“Oh, good choice, morons. Take the one whose injuries don’t read on camera.” Christina drawled disinterestedly, throwing Tadashi at their feet.
Makoto’s throat clenched at the heavy sound of flesh and bone striking concrete and reached for him as soon as she was released. But before she got to him, Christina’s arm was around her throat.
All this for a bluff.
“Take him inside. Get him behind a camera. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.” Christina commanded. “I’ll stay out here and stall the slaughter.”
Makoto felt the cool barrel of Foxtail’s handgun against her temple and willed tears to come to her eyes. After all, she was just a college student watching her friend get hauled away by armed gunmen.
Tadashi and his duped captors got farther and farther away, and still Christina’s grip on her never loosened. “We still good?” Redding asked quietly.
“Maybe. Why’d you let them take away our muscle?” Makoto shot back.
“He has a better chance of fighting them off and surveying once they’re behind closed doors than you do.” Christina responded, pushing her closer to the warzone. “Why don’t we just use your nifty portal thing?”
“I’ve never been inside the bank.” Makoto grunted, stumbling to keep up with Redding’s longer legs. “If I can’t picture the destination, I can’t get there.” She inspected the scene in front of them.
Uriel was surrounded by three grunts and handling herself just fine, as evident from the way she lifted one by his throat and threw him through the second story window of the building across the street.
Jered was heading for the six goons who were dragging Tadashi towards the bank, but making slow headway due to the five cronies bent on stopping him.
Tobias had found a motorcycle and was throwing it into a crowd of eight, but the eight in front of the bank were still standing calmly at their posts.
When Christina and Makoto were roughly in the middle of the madness, Christina fired a shot into the heavens and then lifted her voice to be heard above all the other explosions. “Hold your fire or the girl dies.”
Makoto just about unhinged her own jaw in her attempts to pop her eardrums back into a state of functionality. Were they bleeding?
But it had worked.
Utter silence fell over the New Mexico street.
Hostiles backed away from ENIGMA agents, wary of being struck down in their vulnerability.
All three of Makoto’s operative friends were staring with mixed expressions of shock, anger, and betrayal.
The remaining 17 of the enemy army were simply shocked.
“Here’s my deal.” Christina called loudly, still managing her lazy slur while calling out commands with terrifying authority. “The three of you do-gooders can sacrifice your sorry lives for the good-doing of saving your college kids. As soon as you’re seeing angels we’ll put them on your jet and if they can learn how to fly it, they’ll be free. Deal?”
Tobias pushed his way to the front, meeting her face to face. “What’s in it for you?” He growled, clearly unhappy at the prospect of being betrayed.
Christina kicked the back of Makoto’s right knee, dropping her to the blacktop and shoving her gun harder against the back of her neck. “What’s in it for me? Two harmless victims go crying back home and the federal government reconsiders sending a team here. Deal or no deal?”
There was a long moment of silence.
Christina jammed her foot down on Makoto’s back, shoving her down on her face in order to free her hands. While the Japanese woman cried into the concrete, Foxtail grabbed Tobias by the throat and jerked him closer. “Trust me.” She hissed viciously. “It’s all part of the plan.”
When Tobias didn’t answer, she slammed him back and put a bullet an inch from Makoto’s head, leaving hole in the asphalt.
“Alright!” Tobias snapped, dropping his gun with a clatter. “But if you touch them, so help me—”
“What?” Christina shot back. “You’ll haunt me?” She looked over him and gestured to her men.
Makoto groaned. Her face felt broken. Christina’s still implanted heel had probably punctured a kidney, and she might never use her right knee ever again. It was a horrible plan.
“Line them up. Disarm them.” Christina ordered, kneeling and grasping a fistful of Makoto’s hair. A single tug was incentive enough for Makoto to crawl to her feet, gimping on one leg.
As the wretched scum they called soldiers put the operatives on their knees and forcefully removed their weapons, Christina let her voice carry loud enough for anyone who might be listening to her. “I want you to watch this.” She slurred sharply. “And remember it.”
But the next time her lips moved, no sound came out.
“On the count of 2.” Makoto read the words on her lips as clearly as though she were shouting.
Makoto shot a pointed look at the 8 in front of the bank.
“Tadashi’s waiting for a signal.” Christina mouthed. Done staring silently into her captive’s bloody face, she jerked the girl around in front of her. “Honor the young agents with a firing line.” She ordered sweetly. “And wait for my signal.”
Like clockwork, seventeen self-assured soldiers lined up in front of the agents, their backs to Christina. There was no doubt that they’d executed people before.
Halfway fake or not, it was sickening to watch.
Their willingness to kill without a second thought sent blinding rage through Makoto’s soul.
“Ready.” Christina’s word had the 17 readying their weapons.
Makoto prayed for speed. Her stomach knotted.
Both women drew their holstered guns like lightening and stepped away from each other, emptying their magazines at impossible speed.
All the while, Makoto expected to get shot in the back by one of the lazy bank guards, but it never happened. The additional shots sounding behind them could only be the work of Tadashi.
In no more than fifteen seconds, every gunman on the street was dead. Makoto hobbled on one leg, panting heavily, her gun hanging limply at her side.
Jered was the first on his feet, headed for Christina.
Makoto got to her first, however, and was allowed to punch her once in the eye before Tobias pulled her back and held her tightly enough by the arms to bruise.
“Ow, Christina.” Makoto spat. “Ow.”
Christina shrugged, one hand over her eye and an annoying smile on her lips. “We sold it though.” She shrugged in apology.
Jered reached her at last and grabbed her elbow. Looking angry and relieved at the same time, he proceeded to run through a series of questions to make sure she hadn’t regressed to full-on psycho.
“You good?” Tobias asked Makoto, seeing all the blood on her that bled from visibly nowhere.
She gave him her attention and noded. “Yeah. So—the bank?”
Tobias let her go and turned to the structure, where Tadashi stood in the doorway and eight highly trained mercenaries lay at his feet. “That’s the outpost?”
“Either that, or they want us to think it is.” She responded.
Tobias turned back to his teammates. While he was talking to them about whatever he planned to do next, Makoto gimped over the sidewalk toward Tadashi, her knee and back burning with pain.
Movement to her right just as Tadashi shouted a warning.
Makoto was already jumping as far left as she had the strength to go when a deafening explosion erupted next to her. Debris and flames battered her in the ribs before arms caught her and pulled her away.
She felt lightheaded, mind numbed by pain and agony in her side when she realized it was Tadashi carrying her and not the force of the explosion. All she knew for sure was that she did not like the physical contact and he needed to let go.
Tadashi put her down between the bank and a library, where she would be shielded from the flames. She reached out to the wall to steady herself, heart pounding in panic.
Blinking rapidly until the world was no longer blurry, she was irritated to find that the haze of smoke in the street was no easier to see past.
A groan escaped her and she threw her head back, jaw clenched as she clutched her side. Blood clung to her hand, but it wasn’t the most concerning thing she’d seen all day. “I suppose I should thank you.” She grunted.
“If you like.” He responded simply, watching blankly as she slid down the wall to the ground. “Are you okay?”
She scoffed, like her whole body didn’t feel like the fire he’d just pulled her out of. “Yeah. Obviously.”
She wasn’t quite sure why the attitude had surfaced, but there it was.
“You don’t look okay.” He leaned down closer to scrutinize. “In fact, I think you’re hemorrhaging.” Mild concern laced his tone, but that was it.
Makoto raised an eyebrow. “Really?” She rolled her eyes. “My injuries are nocturnal. I’m fine.” She pushed the issue away like a pesky fly or an annoying shapeshifter. “We have to finish the mission.”
After helping her up and making sure she could stand, Tadashi headed out into the smoke. “We’ll talk about this later.” He called over his shoulder.
Talk about what?
The injury thing?
Right. Like he ever volunteered to talk. Man of fewest possible words.
Once she had meandered past the roar of the fire, Makoto could hear the ENIGMA agents calling for the two college students who had disappeared in the smoke.
She coughed out a reply, and when her call was answered, she found herself closest to Christina. A seconds later, the formerly vile woman broke through the gray and gave Makoto a searching look. After assuring herself that her Japanese companion was alive, she gestured to the right. “Bank’s this way. We’re going in.”
Makoto followed, keeping her purple jacket in sight until they reached the stone structure.
The flames from the explosion radiated incredible heat, hot enough to bring both women to a glistening sweat by the time they reached the cracked and crumbling glass doors.
So distracted by her pain and concentration, Makoto didn’t realize she’d lost her only gun until Christina was holding the door open and inviting her to enter enemy territory first.
If all she could do was act as a shield for Christina, it was enough.
Makoto sucked in a lungful of smoke and stepped inside. They were in a partitioned entryway. There were the eight men and women who had hauled Tadashi away, along with ten or eleven others, unresponsive on the floor.
Makoto recognized Uriel first, her long cinnamon hair tangled and dirty but still far too red to be masked by grime.
Tadashi, Tobias, and Jered stood with her, recognizable only when they spoke.
“Are we ready?” Tobias asked lowly, all of them checking their weapons.
Instead of announcing her embarrassing blunder, Makoto decided to preserve her dignity and attack theirs with a weakly stated insult. “You look like a cremation disaster.”
Jered almost looked insulted, but upon inspecting his own arms found no standing in denial.
“It’s scheduled to rain in about an hour. You can rinse before we leave if you like.” Tobias responded. He squinted at her, wary of the ash hanging perilously on his eyelashes. Who wanted to start a hostile takeover, only to call a timeout to rinse out eyes? “Where’s your gun?”
What had she done to deserve such misery? “I lost it.”
Christina let out a scoffing laugh. “Yeah. Good idea, guys. Bring a couple of civilians along. When they lose expensive equipment we’ll just pretend it’s not a problem to pull the cost out of one of our paychecks.”
Makoto felt a little bit worse.
Guilt clenched in her chest and she looked at Uriel. “I’ll find it.” She promised. “When we’re done I’ll retrace my steps.”
Uriel nodded understandingly. “I recommend that you do.”
It was easy after that. Even with one unarmed member, the team of six made their way inside the bank, neutralized the gunmen, and grabbed the man in charge of the New Mexico branch.
He was a pathetic second-in-command, but Christina had explained that she’d chosen him because of his blind compliance and general stupidity, making him more likely to obey her every command and less likely to form a mutiny against her.
And, true to her word, Makoto found her gun in the rubble and put her conscience at ease.
At the conclusion of the mission, the team and their hostage boarded the jet, securing the prisoner and preparing for takeoff.
Makoto crashed down clumsily in to the seat next to Tadashi, breathing heavily. Part of her was too hurt to care that she was completely uncoordinated and off balance. Another part of her just flat out didn’t care.
Tadashi rested his still-warm gun on his knees, leaning back. He was completely collected. His heart was pounding at a steady rate, his body temperature was normal, and he wasn’t out of breath in the slightest.