Fire & Ice

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Chapter 6

Finals week is thankfully coming to a close. I took my second to last exam yesterday morning and spent the rest of the day helping Atlas clean up our room. We’re moving out tomorrow afternoon and I can’t help but be amazed at how much the pair of us can destroy such a small surface area in only a week. We keep the room relatively neat and orderly throughout the semester every year.. All bets are off, however, when finals week hits and we find ourselves going from reasonably stable to nearly crying over a bag of chips in one fell swoop.

I’ve just finished taking my last exam for the year and now I’m on my way to the team tower for my Wednesday training session with Max. He’s chatting with Mr. Moon when I step into the lobby instead of waiting for me up on the athletic floor like he was last time.

“Hey, Lake,” Max greets as I join them by the front desk. “How’s finals going?”

“Just took the last one,” I reply, sighing lightly in genuine relief. “One more year and I’m out.”

Max chats a bit more with Mr. Moon before saying goodbye. We get onto the elevator and I think we’re heading to the training floor until he presses the button for the seventeenth floor instead.

“Where are we going?” I ask, but he just shrugs innocently and says nothing.

We get off on the floor he choose and I follow behind him in mild confusion. It looks like a large open plan apartment. There aren’t any personal items or decor. Everything is quite clean and modern but also relatively untouched. Right off of the elevator is a short hallway that leads to a living room on the left and a kitchen on the right. There’s another short hallway with a few doors leading off of it all the way at far end of the apartment.

“What is this?” I finally ask, looking to Max for an explanation.

“A standard issue residence suite in our tower,” Max replies with a tinge of pride lining the edges of his tone. “This one would be yours if you chose to move in.”

So that’s what this is about. First it was JD and now it’s Max but I can’t say that it’s completely unexpected. Living in the tower with the rest of the team would definitely make being on the team a lot easier. I’m also becoming increasingly aware that although Derek and I still share an apartment when I’m not in school, he’s also been involved with his girlfriend, Alexandra, for a long time. They’ve been together long enough that they’re just around the point in their relationship where they probably want to live together. I think it’d be better if I just avoid the conversation where asks me to move out or tells me he’ himself is moving out all together.

“Ya know, I already told JD I would consider it,” I say matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, well, you’re moving outta of your dorm tomorrow, right?” Max shrugs before shoving his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “I know you’re undercover until further notice so you can’t technically live in the tower yet, but you can just leave some stuff here that you won’t need for the time being until everything is said and done.” Max is rambling a bit which I’ve never heard him do before. It’s a strange kind of vulnerability that Max never really shows around me or the team. Maybe me moving in is a lot more important to him than I think it is.

“Alright, Armstrong,” I say, sighing heavily and eyeing him with an amused look, “you’ve got me seriously considering this, now, okay?”

“The team loves having you around,” he continues. “I know the commute is starting to get to you, too.”

I look around the apartment again. The entire place seems warm and comfy. I’m 21 now and although that’s still kind of on the early side for kids of my generation to move away from home, I feel like it’s about time.

My gaze swings back around to Max. He has this earnest expression on his face that I’ve seen only a few other times before. Max is quite possibly the most silently observative people I’ve ever met. His face is typically contentedly blank or mildly amused and it doesn’t really stray from those expressions very often.

“Okay, Max, alright. You’ve convinced me,” I say, finally giving in. A grin spreads across my team captain’s face at the news. “I’ll move everything I don’t need on a daily basis here, and I guess I’ll ask JD to help me move everything I do need into that cover apartment they assigned.”

“I think this is just a reminder of how lucky we are to have JD,” he says with a grin.

“Yeah, kinda awesome having a guy who’s so fast nobody will see him come and go.” I pick at a loose thread on my t-shirt. “It’ll be like I’ve been there the whole time.”

“Smart kid,” Max remarks. “Can definitely see why Scofield chose you.”

I turn around to face the elevator before looking back and raising my eyebrows at him in question.

“So, are we gonna train today or...what?” I say finally.

He huffs out a laugh and I turn all the way back around to see him shaking his head.

“Nah, training is canceled for the week,” he says, and it’s a decision he’s just made right now by the sound of it.

I let out a breath of guilty relief. As much as I value any lesson that Max can teach me, I’m glad that I can slip away and pack up the rest of my dorm room early in the day instead of late at night.


Atlas and I officially move out of our dorm room the next morning. I introduce him to JD and the two get well acquainted pretty fast. JD gladly takes the boxes I’ve set aside for my assigned apartment I’ll be staying in until everything with the Rivera gang is wrapped up and is back in under five minutes.

“I unpacked it all, too,” he says sheepishly.

“Jeez, you didn’t have to do that, J,” I say with a sigh, but he just shrugs and takes a look at the boxes of mine that are still in the room.

“The rest is going to the tower,” I tell him. The smile that spreads across his face look nearly painful in intensity. That’s right. I never told him that I agreed to move into the tower.

“You decided?”

I nod and he nearly jumps in excitement.

“Oh my god! We’ve gotta do so much stuff!” he says, immediately jumping to ramble about things we’re going to do once I’m officially moved in. I guess to say the team is excited about having me around all the time an understatement.

Maggie shows up a little while later to help Atlas move all of his things. They spent a few weeks apartment hunting and finally decided on a nice one in Queens. Atlas told me that it’s so they can move out and live together just for the summer, but I have a really serious feeling that they’re going to be skipping the dorms for our senior year. I won’t say I’m surprised, but I do kind of wish that people would be more upfront about things.

I walk to the Chipotle a few blocks from campus after all is said and done. I texted Derek last night asking him out for lunch this afternoon. A lot of things are changing and some of it involves him so it’s only fair that I explain it all. He thought it was weird that I was inviting him out instead of just coming home, but it’s how things to be for now. Derek is my only remaining family and if being connected to me got him hurt, I’m not sure what I would do.

He’s already sitting at a table with two trays on the table when I get there. Aw. He must pay more attention when we get food together than I thought if he knows my Chipotle order by heart.

“Got you your usual,” he drawls, unwrapping the burrito that he must have been restraining himself from eating since it was handed to him. I thank him before sitting down and don’t waste any time before digging right in to the tortilla wrapped present.

“I’ll admit that I found it kinda weird that you wanted to eat here instead of at home, but,” he begins, but stops and shrugs his shoulders without finishing his sentence.

“Yeah, it’s a work thing that I’ve found myself in the middle of,” I say, purposely leaving the word “League” and anything to do with it out of our conversation. Joining the League in general has had the undesired side effect of turning me into a paranoid mess. Taking on the most dangerous Valiant cell on the east coast that has enough power to have me taken out with a worrying degree of ease. “I’m making sure I keep you and anyone else important to me out of it.”

His eyebrows shoot up into the brown of his hairline. I told him that I was applying for an entrance exam placement back when the paperwork process a couple months ago. I made sure he was okay with me listing him as an emergency contact, as well, because I would never put someone is a position they didn’t ask for. We didn’t talk about what would happen once I finally ended up in the thick of things, though, because we never thought I’d be in that situation so soon. It’s common knowledge new agents don’t jump straight into the fold. When photographs of new agents appear with an established team all over the internet, it’s typically disclosed that that agent had been with them for well over a few months. I have somehow landed myself in a scenario where I don’t have that luxury.

“I see,” he says once the surprise wears off. He takes a large bite of his burrito, chewing and nodding as I gear up to tell him as much as I can without breaking any of the rules Salem drilled into me at our meeting.

“You know Valerie, right?” I say, choosing my words carefully. He narrows his eyes with sudden concern before nodding cautiously.

“Of course I do. Why? Are you doing it?” The way he asks reminds me of back in high school when I was getting the shit kicked out of me by Jude regularly. I went from relaxed and easygoing to skittish and paranoid so suddenly that Derek eventually sat me down and asked if I was on drugs. I couldn’t really tell if he was more angry than concerned back then, and it’s about the same now.

“No, no, I’m not doing it,” I reply with a quick shake of my head. “I’m in with some of her friends right now, though, but they’re too judgmental to bring around my friends and family. It’s only temporary, though.”

It takes Derek a few second to process the second meaning to my words. Once he does, however, relief explodes across his face. Everything I just said is close edging close to dangerous territory. Salem would probably have my head if she could hear our current conversation. He nods in understanding as he dips a chip into a side of salsa.

“Alright,” he says finally. “Is that the only reason we’re here?”

I smile lightly.

“Listen, Derek, I’m a big boy now. I have a big boy job. That big boy job offers and recommends housing with the rest of my coworkers, so.” I stop and take a long sip of soda before continuing. “I’m already basically moved in, so what I guess I’m saying is that I’m moving out of our apartment.”

He looks dumbfounded for a second before he nods and takes another bite of his burrito.

“I was wondering why you didn’t ask me to help you move out this semester.”

“Sorry for not telling you, you know, in advance, but now you and Alex can do whatever whenever wherever and, I mean, come on, it’s about time you guys took the plunge and started living together,” I ramble, breaking a chip into tinier and tinier pieces on my tray as I go on and on.

“Lake, relax. I get it. I’ve kind of been meaning to ask ever since you joined up with work. Figured it’d be something they’d offer and probably want. It’s not like we’re filing for divorce or anything.” I laugh and roll my eyes.

We talk about everything and nothing after that. He just graduated undergraduate college and is already making plans to take the GRE and start his graduate school adventure. I would have gone to his graduation and everything if he decided to make an effort to go himself. Derek has never been into the official ceremonies before so I wasn’t even surprised when he told me he wasn’t going.

I tell him all about my hell of a week but he doesn’t have much sympathy because he just finished his own exams, as well. He’s not surprised to hear that I’m a thousand percent over college but tells me to stick to it because there’s no reason to quit when I’m only one year away from a degree.

I finally ask about how things with Alex are and warmth spreads through me when his face lights up. I remember the beginning stages of adoration he had for when they first met and his features now betray nothing but overwhelming love. He doesn’t even need to answer for me to know that things are going very well.

“Gosh, she’s so great, Lake,” he replies, eyes brighter than they are when he’s talking about anything else. “She’s going for her masters with me and she listens to me ramble about space as much as I want.”

“She doesn’t even yell when you leave your dirty socks all over the place?” I quip.

“Nope.” He smiles even wider. “Leaves hers all over the place, too, actually.”

“Then I guess it really is meant to be.”

This remark has him narrowing his eyes at me in curiosity.

“How about you, then? Any news on the counter front?” I mean to deny it immediately but the mere mention has me jerking back a bit. The reaction gives me away immediately. After two decades of the same response to this questions and ones similar to it, anything different is bound to cause suspicion.

His eyes widen and he sits back in his chair with his mouth dropped open.

“Spill!” he exclaims.

I sigh and roll my eyes, playing around with the straw on my drink.

“It’s...complicated,” I say finally after deciding to give him the same explanation I gave Atlas. “Very complicated. I can’t tell you very much.”

“He’s from work?” Give it to Derek to be right with his first guess.

“Yes, but not in the way that it could ever work legally, if you get what I mean.” I shrug and break another chip into multiple pieces.

“Oh, man,” he says once my words must have clicked in his head. “That’s...awful. I’m sorry.”

I shrug like it doesn’t matter even though he’s absolutely right. It is awful. Even if I could somehow convince Rowan that nothing I did to do his father and his gang was about him when everything is over, what I’m doing is an ultimate betrayal. It’s totally not fair, either, because I took the mission without knowing that I’d meet him on it. So much for this whole counterpart thing being about fate. Why the hell did I have to meet him in an impossible situation if we’re supposed to be together forever?

“Lake,” Derek says my name in a way that tells me he’s had to repeat himself already. I must have zoned out.

“Yeah.”

“I get you can’t tell me anything about him, not really, but what’s he like?” Derek says patiently.

“What’s he like?” I find myself asking the same question. I don’t really have a clue. I only got to see that small bit of him before I ran off like we’re in some kind of an over dramatic romance movie. “I don’t really know, actually. He...alright, well, he’s obscenely attractive. It’s almost unfair, Der.”

Derek cracks a smile.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and I know we’re supposed to care about each other and all, but in the situation we’re in...he didn’t have to, you know? But he asked me something he really didn’t have to because we don’t know each other at all, but it sounded like he...I don’t know, cared, or whatever.” I end my rambling with a defeated shrug. Rowan didn’t have to go out of his way to stop me and make sure I don’t do Valiant, but he did. He’s part of a gang that is built upon the foundation of that exact drug and yet he made sure that I didn’t take it. The gesture didn’t mean anything to me at the time, but I suppose that it must have been him trying to express concern for me. Or not. I can be completely off the mark here.

“Don’t be so negative,” Derek says. “There’s a huge chance that things will work out. That’s the point of the counterpart system.”

“My case has the odds at more of a fifty-fifty,” I say before sighing lightly. “Maybe a seventy-thirty leaning towards a negative outcome.”

Derek frowns with something bordering on pity. Christ. I quickly change the subject and force the rest of my food down my throat. I didn’t meet up with him to discuss my love life.

I make sure he knows that I’ll be moving everything out of our apartment once the operation is over. I can’t exactly give him a super accurate time frame but shoot for something around a month. It’s enough of a green light for him to move Alex in whenever he wants, though. He tells me there’s no rush but I can already see the scenarios that come along with Alex moving in playing behind his dark blue eyes.

Once I say goodbye to Derek, I take a subway to the new cover apartment I’ve been assigned by the League. I’m only going to be staying in it until the mission with the Riveras is over, but there really is no way of knowing how long that will take. As I was explained by Salem, undercover work is quite tricky. Progressing too fast or even too slow can easily raise suspicion.

The apartment is small but small tends to mean cozy. I’d feel a lot more at home here if I didn’t know that this place was temporary, but that’s probably for the best. I can’t get attached to a place that isn’t mine.

Along with the normal furnishings, there’s also some odd things that don’t come with a typical apartment. There’s a full first aid kit with extra bandages under both the bathroom and kitchen sink. I quickly found a 9mm in the nightstand next to my bed as well as taped under the kitchen table. There are multiple knives stashed in obscure places like a cookie jar on the kitchen counter and in the decorative bowl on the coffee table. It’s very clear that this is an apartment provided and taken care of by people in the League.

The boxes I had JD move here are stacked neatly in the closet but they’re all completely empty. JD really did unpack everything in them. My favorite fleece blanket is laid out on my bed. The half eaten box of Oreos I tossed into the mix is in the cabinet above the fridge. My clothes are folded in the dresser and even hung up in the closet.

The cabinets are all stocked with boxed and canned foods, as well. There’s the equivalent of a case of water bottles in the fridge as well as eggs and milk. It’s all very convenient.

I make some mac and cheese for dinner and watch some old Nickelodeon shows on TV while I eat. It’s a lonely and quiet affair. I wash the bowl in the sink and set it aside before standing and looking around the place for a little while. It’s cozy, sure, but also very empty and plain. It’s just me here. Atlas isn’t even around to bother me like he’s been for the past three years.

When I finally lay down for the night in the unfamiliar bed provided, I toss and turn for at least an hour. My mind is moving a mile a minute. The guns and knives hidden about the house have me more on edge than anything. It’s like inviting danger. I would barely know what to do with one of those guns even if I had to use one of them. Max ran me through a quick crash course once I signed onto this mission, sure, but the simple fact that I’m referring to my gun training as a “crash course” doesn’t have me feeling particularly confident.

I fall asleep sometime between trying not to stress about meeting back up with the Riveras tomorrow night and wondering whether Derek is right about Rowan.

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