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Chapter 12: Mysteries and Meetings
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes: Warnings for this chapter - No real warnings! I've put them all off until next chapter. Since this marks my twelfth post for this story, however (which means next month I've been posting this for a year!), I wanted to celebrate by sharing something special. Have a look at my icon, which is a smaller version of a character study I requested from my fabulous artist friend, Snowzapped, in order to prepare for creating the cover art for when I turn this into an e-book. If you'd like to see a full-sized version of this picture (since I couldn't make the LJ picture function work right...#%#$@), you can find it at the Super page on FB: https://www.facebook.com/SuperAWebNovel

Many thanks to my wonderful editor gwoman for her work on this chapter, and a very happy birthday to her, as well!

Back to Chapter 11

The next day Lex met with Mr. Chen in the morning, feeling fully recovered after a good night's rest. She sensed a change in the way the two of them worked together that day, however. It seemed that Mr. Chen had become more careful in the way he treated Lex, and she asked him about it as he watched her in the studio mirrors, reminding him that she felt fully recovered. He looked away for a moment and then sighed.

“Lex, this is the way we should have been learning together all along. I assumed some things about you that aren't true, and was impatient and unkind with you as a result.”

“What do you mean,” Lex asked, looking at him with puzzlement. Mentally comparing training under Mr. Chen with her father's teaching methods, Lex had always found him to be kind and gentle.

“One of the first things I was taught when I began training many years ago as a young boy was the Chinese name of the skills we know. If you translate the words roughly into English, they are 'stop fighting.’ My teacher explained that learning what we call martial arts would be learning the skill of how to stop or prevent fighting. Of course, as a young man I sometimes forgot this and misused my training, but the older I got, the truer I understood those words to be. So, when we first met, I didn't want to teach you, since I guessed you were a martial artist who did not know this truth. But as I learned about you, I understood that you are not that way.” He sighed again. “I should have listened to Casey about you to begin with.”

Lex looked at the wooden floor for a moment, smiling but feeling a stinging in her eyes. “Thanks, Mr. Chen,” she said, swallowing the lump in her throat before they started work again.

The rest of the week rushed by in a blur of training, strange medical tests, and trying to incorporate her belongings from the condo into her room. Lex had still been working on setting her new things up when she had to move the rest of her old things in, but by the end of the week most everything had either been incorporated or discarded. She looked around in satisfaction Thursday night before she went to bed, happy with the small sleeping, study, and sitting areas she’d created.

Lex didn’t feel as great after she saw Casey off on Friday afternoon, mentally preparing for a long weekend in. Casey would be spending the weekend with some visiting cousins, and she'd grilled Lex at dinner for the past couple of days about fun things to do in the area. Later Lex had to turn down an invitation from Serena to go clubbing, reminding her that she couldn't leave the facilities that weekend.

Serena growled at the unfairness of it. “I wish you could come. I had so much fun the last time we went out.”

“Sorry, Serena. Maybe next weekend?” Lex suggested, trying to smile.

“Let's plan on it! There's this new club that just opened that I hear has the hottest guys,” Serena told Lex with a grin, just before she left for the evening.

At about ten that night Lex gave up and got ready for bed. The loneliness and darkness had gotten to her, and the feeling that no one was waiting for her, and wouldn't be next weekend, either.

She felt a little better when she woke up Saturday morning, and after breakfast and a good workout she studied her strategy books until the time she’d agreed to meet with Riss. Grabbing a new notebook and a pen, she headed over to the other woman's room and knocked.

“Come in,” she heard Riss’ muffled voice sound out, and Lex entered the darkened room.

Riss sat in nearly the same place as when Lex had seen her last, but she wore different clothes now, a faded black t-shirt and grey leggings.

“So,” Lex asked, sitting in an office chair nearby, “where should we start?”

Riss gave one of her almost-there smiles. “Well, first I should get dressed and have some coffee and then we can figure out what to do next. Make yourself at home while I finish waking up.”

“OK,” Lex agreed. “Do you mind if I start by having a look at the computers here?”

“Help yourself.” Riss worked on starting a pot of coffee at a coffeemaker perched on the edge of one of her computer tables while Lex began to examine the computers in the room. She'd brought a tiny flashlight to look up their serial numbers and maker's marks in Riss’ dimly lit room when she realized what she’d originally found strange about the setup.

“Riss, where are the keyboards? And mice?”

“Look under the left hand table, I think,” Riss replied, a considering tone in her voice. “There should be a wireless mouse and keyboard there. If you want to move it to any computer, just use the USB key that should be in the Dell desktop, the last one on the table on the right.”

So saying, she disappeared into the bathroom and shut the door. Lex found herself left with the sound of coffee brewing and her own confusion. By the time Riss came out, however, Lex had examined some of the computers and had begun to take a few notes, buoyed by the smell of strong coffee. She looked up at Riss as the woman poured a cup, her curiosity nearly boiling over and not willing to hold her tongue any longer.

“Riss, why aren't there any input devices connected to any of these computers?”

Slowly stirring sugar into her coffee, Riss fixed Lex with a gaze. “I don't really need anything like that when I use computers. That's why they want me here, I guess. I can communicate with computers directly.”

Lex nodded, intrigued. “So, you can speak to them with your mind?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“That must be amazingly useful. Have you always been able to do it?”

Riss shrugged. “I don't remember being able when I was really little, but I got into computers at a young age, maybe eight or ten. It was around then that I figured out that I didn't need a keyboard to tell a computer what to do.”

Lex nodded, thinking. “That should probably help a lot in this job. Have you used your abilities to try to help you catalog what's on the network here?”

“Yes, but the problem is that if I'm not sure where the computer is, or what type it is, like in a network, I can’t effectively give it commands or get information. We've tried some experiments like that, and the results have always been random, as far as what I can do.”

Lex nodded in understanding, but wondered why Riss didn’t seem able to meet her eyes at that moment. “I still think it could help, along with some tools, maybe. I tried to figure out the best way to tackle this, and thought maybe we should work on the catalog of resources first, and then talk about what your plan is for securing the computers. I can do the write up and you can verify it. When we're both satisfied, we can turn it in. What do you think?”

Riss nodded. “Sounds good to me. Do you want to get started with the inventory?”

“Sure, but don't you want to get some breakfast first?”

“Not really, I'll get something later.”

Lex shrugged, but began by showing Riss the basic data she'd put together for all the computers in the room. By using Riss' skills, they quickly gathered the rest of the needed information about the twenty-three computers in her room. Once Lex had noted everything down, she turned back to Riss.

“Do you know if we have a computer room here?”

“It's right next door,” Riss replied. “I actually have the permissions to go in. Do you want to go there next?”

Lex nodded in reply so they went next door, being allowed in after Riss hit the access panel near the door with her ID. After getting inside Lex just stood for a moment, staring at the sight. Racks upon racks of servers had been jammed into the room, leaving just enough room for one person to squeeze past and through them. Multi-colored wires came from seemingly every direction, creating a tangle like spaghetti behind the machines and on the floors. The power and network ports all looked overloaded, and the room seemed uncomfortably warm compared to the hallway or Riss’ and Lex's rooms. The hum of working computers seemed to drown out all other sounds. Lex finally looked back at Riss with wide eyes and watched the other woman shake her head.

“I know,” Riss said with a shade of disgust in her voice. “I've told them this room needs a lot more attention than it gets, but they don't listen to me.”

“Is there even someone who administers this?” Lex asked, her hand gesture taking the whole server room mess in.

With a shrug Riss said, “Supposedly there's someone who watches it remotely, and occasionally I've seen someone come in here and mess around with it, but I think it was set up and then basically left alone ever since, aside from the occasional software updates or addition of new gear.”

Lex sighed. “I guess we have our work cut out for us here. I think we should probably make recommendations about having someone administer this place at least part time, do some maintenance, and make some upgrades to this room so it can really handle this many servers.”

“Never hurts to ask, I guess. Maybe they'll take your word for it.”

“Why wouldn’t they listen to your recommendation? You're the computer expert; my knowledge of the subject really isn't all that much. I'm just good at figuring things out and turning them into some kind of order, that's all,” Lex replied with a shrug.

Riss gave her an odd look for a long moment, which caused Lex to meet Riss’ eyes, wondering at the distrust there. Finally, Riss raised an eyebrow with an almost invisible smile. “I guess the others aren't much for gossiping,” she eventually said. “Ask Casey about me sometime. She should be able to fill you in.”

Lex looked down at her notebook, twisted in her hands. “Casey says that I should always ask people about themselves.”

“Tell her I said it's OK if she talks to you about it,” Riss replied, looking at Lex with an unreadable expression and then turned to examine the servers, running her hands over their faces.

Lex swallowed. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry or upset you.”

“I'm not upset,” Riss said with a sigh. “It's just something that's difficult to talk about. Anyway, forget about it for now. Let's get cracking on these.”

“OK,” Lex agreed, turning back to her notebook. They worked for a while, making good progress, but after a few hours Lex had to call a halt.

“I'm sorry, but I've got to eat. Aren't you hungry?”

“I guess,” Riss replied, looking unconvinced.

Lex gave her an odd look, wondering how the woman could work for hours on coffee alone. “But you didn't even have any breakfast! Come on, let's get something to eat now. We can finish this later.”

Again, Riss shrugged but followed Lex as she went downstairs to the kitchen. The two of them poked around in the freezer to find something to eat and eventually located some frozen dinners that didn't look too unpalatable. As they sat to wait for them to heat, Lex wondered aloud why it was that even though a number of people lived in the building, they barely ever ran into one another.

“Pretty simple,” Riss replied. “Serena and I keep later hours than you and Casey, so I see her more than anyone else, if I need to leave my room. Joan’s been out on maneuvers with her old unit for the past couple of days, I think, but she's usually out at some of the local bases anyway, even when she's in town. Lily’s only ever here if we're going out on a job. They have her working on some other project in the area during the day, and though she has a room, she doesn't even live here.”

Lex stared down at the kitchen island for a moment, lost in thought before she responded. “So what usually happens when we're sent out on an assignment as a team?”

“It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, we don't usually stick together. Joan tries to tell everyone what to do but no one really listens. Instead, we all go off and do our own thing.”

Lex felt puzzled. “When I was reading my contract, it talked about regular team exercises and training. Don't we do things like that?”

Riss looked back at her blankly. “I've been here about a year and a half, and we've never done anything like that in all that time.”

Lex gaze fell to the island again, her fingers digging into the smooth surface, this time feeling even more confused. Why isn't the team training that’s supposed to be happening going on, she wondered? She rested her chin in her hands while she leaned her elbows on the kitchen island, thinking that it didn't make any sense.

After a brief dinner where Lex wondered if someone forgot that only the outside box was supposed to be made of cardboard, Riss and Lex continued cataloging the machines in the impromptu server room, Lex stopping halfway through to get her laptop to transfer some of the information she’d gotten by that point. It was late when they finished. Lex had started to yawn every few minutes, but she wanted to keep going until they’d finished cataloging the room.

“OK,” Lex said, tiredly turning to Riss, “I'll finish writing this up tomorrow and store it somewhere we both have access to so that you can change or add stuff if you need to. Tell me where I should put it.”

After Riss finished explaining the network setup for the building and making sure Lex was connected properly, she added, “After this we'll still have to identify and catalog all the other machines in the building.”

Lex groaned, thinking of the machines she'd seen on the medical floor, the screens in the conference room, and any individual computers she or the others there had. The list seemed suddenly limitless.

“All right, let's figure out how to do it tomorrow afternoon. I won't be able to work late, but we should be able to put together a plan of action. OK?”

Riss nodded. “Sleep well, Lex.”

The next morning Lex spent mostly buried in her strategy books, along with time for a brief workout. She’d found herself beginning to use the ideas in the books on a daily basis, carefully considering the situations she was presented with, the resources she had available, and the outcomes she wanted to achieve. Lex had started making notes on the paper she eventually planned to present, and one thing she noted that day stated that the team should actually have scheduled practice exercises together instead of just talking about it, and she jotted down a few ideas as to what those might consist of. In the afternoon she and Riss discussed how to best identify all of the computers in use in the building, eventually settling on a several-weeks-long floor-by-floor inventory with sniffer tools to assist. Lex agreed to put in the request for whatever tools Riss researched and found to be most useful.

On Monday morning, Lex greeted Casey at breakfast and asked how her visit with her cousins had gone. After sipping English breakfast tea while listening to Casey recount how much fun they’d had at local monuments and attractions, Lex waited until Casey fell silent for a few minutes, then tentatively cleared her throat, her fingers silently tapping a nervous tattoo on the rough underside of the kitchen island.

“Casey, what do you think about Riss?”

Casey gave her a look with narrowed eyes, and then tilted her head to the side. “I think she seems like a good person, but I don't know; I think there are a lot of things she feels like she can't talk to any of us about.”

Lex's gaze flashed to catch Casey's, intensely meeting those dark blue eyes for a moment before looking back down at the kitchen island. “Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that,” she said quietly, knowing they were being listened in on and hoping Casey got her meaning, that they should talk outside these walls at some point.

As she looked back up, Casey nodded almost imperceptibly. Message received. “I forgot to ask you, do you want to go out this coming weekend? Just the two of us, to this little place I went to with my cousins. I think you’ll like it.”

“OK,” Lex agreed, nodding, “I think Serena wanted to do something this weekend, too, so we'll have to figure it all out, but I do want to try that place with you.”

Casey nodded in reply, returning Lex's earlier intense eye contact, and the two of them finished the rest of their breakfast in near silence, Lex leaving Casey with a smile to go downstairs and start her morning workout with Mr. Chen.

Between her work with Mr. Chen and the various weird medical tests being run on her, the week flew by. Ever since their discussion the previous week, Lex had felt her study with Mr. Chen settling into a comfortable partnership where she seemed to be learning more and much faster than ever before. Also, as odd as it felt to think of a martial arts instructor this way, Lex felt cared for when they worked together in a way she never had with any other teacher.

One particular thing had worried her that week, however. The doctors had insisted on injecting her with radioactive glucose that they said would help mark different areas of her brain during a set of brain function scans. As they explained it to Lex, she thought it sounded dangerous and probably unnecessary, but they eventually talked her into it. Fortunately it had been an afternoon test, because Lex had ended up feeling headachy and nauseous once the doctors had finished with her. When she’d complained, they’d given her some medication that had made her feel so out of it that she’d simply stumbled upstairs and fell into bed, nearly waking up late the following day.

Lex and Casey ended up going out on Friday night. Lex felt surprised when they didn't take a cab, but Casey explained, “This is a crappy neighborhood, but there are some bars not far from here anyway. We're going to one of the ones that's not too bad and close enough that we can walk. Don't worry, no one will bother us. Some people did before they got to know me, but no one in this neighborhood even approaches me now.”

Lex nodded, keeping her attention on their surroundings, and then asked, “So, am I finally going to be able to meet your mysterious boyfriend tonight?”

Casey looked down at her, a broad grin on her face. “You sure are. I told him to come out and meet us at the place we’re headed for. He should be there in about a half hour, which will give us some time to talk about other stuff beforehand.”

“Yeah, I-” Lex broke off for a moment, looking at the sidewalk to think about how she should put her question, “I was talking with Riss, and she made a comment that the people we work for would probably trust my opinion over hers. When I asked her why, since she’s the computer expert, she told me to ask you. So, I'm asking.”

Casey glanced at Lex with a frown as they both rounded the corner, moving from a block of burnt-out or boarded-up warehouses and vacant lots to a block that at least looked partially inhabited, judging by the window glass and locks on some of the warehouse gates. Lex could even see some bars and shops up ahead in the next block that appeared to be in operation. “I can only tell you what I know because nobody’s mentioned anything else to me about Riss,” Casey finally said. “I'd been with the group several months when Riss joined, though I don’t know if joined is the right word.”

Lex looked at her with some confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I don’t think she did it by choice.” The two of them exchanged a glance, then Casey continued. “From what I can tell, she tried to leave several times during her first month here. Finally, she stopped trying, but I’m not sure why. One of the times she attempted to go, I happened to walk in on her slipping out a window. I guess she expected me to stop her, but since I figured it wasn’t any of my business, I didn’t. She never talked about it to anyone that I know of, so I’m not sure what was really going on, but she did say one thing as she was leaving that day. She thanked me and told me, ‘I don’t know if it makes any difference to you, but I didn’t do it. I’ll pay you back for this someday.’”

Lex and Casey just looked at each other for a moment, and then they continued walking to a bar a few doors down. As the two walked inside, the room quieted briefly, then people began talking again, loudly. Glancing around a bit served to remind Lex of the set of a western film, making the unpolished wooden floor, big bar, and plain wooden chairs and tables seem almost familiar. The room looked to be full of mostly working-class people, almost all men. Lex thought it seemed as if they knew Casey, however, because most of them seemed to go out of their way not to look at her. Casey went to an unoccupied corner of the bar and ordered a beer and a tonic water and lime, and then steered Lex to an empty table in the corner before handing her the drink. She bent close to Lex in order to be heard over the general noise.

“It’s not fancy, but it’s somewhere to go where everyone isn’t too nosy, or too cool.”

They both took a sip of their drinks, Lex enjoying the limey fizz that tickled her nose, and then she looked back at Casey after a moment. “So, what do you make of Riss? What do you think is going on?”

Casey shrugged. “I don't know. From the fact that she's tried to get out a number of times, I'd almost say she's being kept here against her will, but I don't even know how anyone could do that for so long, and why she wouldn’t complain to the police. And when she said that she didn't do it...I mean, the whole thing is just too weird. Did she make some kind of mistake? Did someone do something and blame it on her?”

Lex looked back at Casey, knowing her puzzlement showed in her face. “I’m not sure. It seemed like when we talked that she wanted me to know something, but she also seemed to feel she couldn't talk to me. Maybe it's because of all the monitoring or maybe she just feels she can’t trust me.”

The two of them fell silent for a while, Casey taking another drink of beer and Lex looking at the tabletop and thinking about their teammate. After a few minutes she looked back up, realizing they couldn’t solve this puzzle tonight but feeling determined to give it some thought later. To shake off her worry and curiosity, she turned to Casey with a smile.

“All right, enough of that for now. So tell me about this guy before he shows up! What’s his name?”

“It’s Lou, Louis Wingfield,” Casey replied, suddenly looking uncharacteristically shy, but smiling nonetheless.

“Does he have any family? Where does he come from?” Lex settled a little further into her chair, getting comfortable in anticipation of the upcoming story.

“Well, he grew up with his grandmother and younger brother on a reservation in upstate New York, not far from Lake Erie. His grandmother passed on and he doesn’t know where his brother is these days, so I don’t know if he has any family left,” Casey replied, frowning a little.

Lex’s eyes widened. “Did he say what happened to his mom and dad?”

Casey shrugged. “No one seems to know for sure. All he knows is his father and his mother left him and his little brother with their grandmother when Lou was five and his brother was two.”

Sighing, Lex tried to absorb all of that while she thought about how to move on to a happier topic. Finally, she asked, “How did you two meet?”

Casey gave a big, infectious grin that seemed to come spontaneously. “We actually met at headquarters, believe it or not.”

Lex raised her eyebrows in surprise. “How's that?”

Before Casey could answer, a man appeared behind her. Lex's mind categorized him as large rather than tall due to the fact that it looked like a wall had suddenly appeared behind her friend, a wall that seemed muscular and had dressed in blue jeans and worn work boots, a green flannel shirt and a leather jacket. Lex tipped her head straight back until she saw a face at the top with a dark bronze complexion, brown eyes and long, straight black hair pulled back into a braid. He grinned at her, and Casey’s smiled had widened by the time Lex turned back to her friend.

“Actually,” the man said, sitting down at the table next to Casey, “I was working there on a construction project, doing some remodeling on the main floors.”

“I'd just arrived a few months before,” continued Casey, linking hands with the stranger, “They’d started building out the main area and creating some more rooms on the second floor around then, I guess because they planned to add more people to the team.”

The man held his free hand out to Lex. “Hi, I'm Lou.”

Lex put her hand forward, noting how it looked like a young child's in his, but his grip was firm as well as gentle. “Lex,” she replied with a grin. “It's nice to meet you.”

Lou nodded before continuing, “We'd been working there a few weeks, and I noticed that every morning she’d come out around eight and then disappear. Whatever she was doing kept her away until after quitting time, so I'd only see her in the mornings.”

“No wonder I felt like I was being watched more than usual!” said Casey with a laugh. “I noticed him right away, of course; he’d be hard to miss. He looked like a teacher among a middle-school class when he was with the rest of the construction crew. I did eventually notice him watching me, which felt good, because a lot of men…well, I guess they don't like me being so big.”

Lou smiled at her. “They’re fools, then. Anyway, after watching Casey start her day for a couple of weeks, I decided that I should try to get her attention. I figured the worst she could do would be to ignore me. But the first time I smiled at her, she smiled back.”

“I was wondering what took you so long!” Casey added with a little laugh. “But, it was nice to know you’d noticed me. I remember I was the first one to say anything, though.”

Lou nodded. “You said 'good morning' to me a week or so after we first smiled at each other.”

“I guess it wasn't very memorable.”

“Hard for me to forget the first words you ever said to me,” he replied, looking over at Casey with a quiet smile. Casey leaned into his shoulder and closed her eyes. After a moment, Lou seemed to remember Lex was still there, and smiled at her as well. “Anyway, we started out with just small talk, but after a couple of weeks or so, we were talking for at least five or ten minutes every day.”

He looked at Casey then, who smiled in response. “Of course,” Casey said, “I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't want to make it too obvious to any of our monitors that I was interested because I was worried. Serena had already passed word to me that our sponsors seem to like to discourage us from dating, along with some weird stories she'd heard from some other people. So, I had to figure out a way to make things happen without letting anyone at the facility know.”

“I kind of figured she was shy and that I'd have to take my time so that I didn't scare her off,” Lou said, looking at Casey again, and then back at Lex with amusement in his eyes. “I figured eventually she'd get comfortable enough with me that she'd let me know if she was interested.”

“Well, after a month of this, I figured I'd better do something, because Lou and I still talked every morning for a good amount of time and I figured it would definitely attract attention if things kept going like that. But I couldn't figure out how to communicate with him in a way they wouldn't see or hear. Finally, I settled on writing him a note while pretending to read just before I went to bed, with the book half under the covers so that they hopefully couldn't pick up on it.”

Lex looked at her in horror for a moment, about to blurt out, “You mean they have our bedrooms monitored, too?” But a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach quickly followed that told her that she really should have expected it.

“So,” Casey continued, “I just had to figure out a good time to slip the note to him. Fortunately, the next day gave me my chance. Lou had just come inside from working on something around the outside of the building. It was a cold day, I remember, even for winter, and I was lucky enough to have just finished boiling water for tea.”

Lou smiled. “I remember her calling out to me from the kitchen, asking if I liked tea. Of course I said yes, even though I’m not a big fan, and the next thing I knew, she handed me a cup and told me to be careful because it was hot. As I grabbed it, I could feel her hand in mine for a second, and then something else. I didn't know how much they kept an eye on you all, but I did remember being suspicious when we found some camera equipment as we worked on repairing an inner wall, so I figured there was probably a good reason for what she did. I thanked her, went away drinking my tea, and slipped the paper into my pocket as I stuck my hand in there, hoping it looked like I was doing it because I was cold.”

“What I'd asked him was to meet me at this bar the following Friday,” Casey continued, with a smile at Lou. “So, being that it was early in the week, I had a lot of time to worry about whether he would or not, and figure that he probably wouldn't. The next day, though, when I saw Lou, the first thing he did was to smile and nod. I was hoping it meant what I thought it did.”

“I waited until I got home to get the piece of paper out of my pocket,” Lou added. “When I saw what she wanted I nearly cheered. and I tried to let her know the next day that I’d be there.”

“I’d asked him to meet me here at 8, so I dressed up and came out. I remember how nervous I felt, and how foolish, thinking that he probably wouldn’t come, but when I got here and walked in, he’d already gotten a table.”

“Didn’t want you to get here early and think I wasn’t coming,” Lou said with another smile at Casey.

Casey smiled back and then looked at Lex again. “We’ve been together ever since.”

Lex couldn't help smiling at the two of them as well. “That's a great story.”

“Well, I think you're one of the first people we've had a chance to tell it to,” Casey replied with a rueful shake of her head.

Lou shrugged as if to say life’s just like that sometimes, and then turned to Lex. “Tell me about yourself. Casey’s only mentioned a couple of things, and then told me she wanted me to meet you since you’re friends. So, you're a local girl?”

Lex launched into the story of her past and a little about her family. After that, the conversation went in many different directions, including more about Lou's background, the construction industry in DC, the difficult business climate in general, politics, and the unending wars, among other things. Finally, after turning to buy another round, Lex noticed that the clock over the bar said it was getting late. She turned back to the table apologetically.

“I've really loved meeting you, Lou, and hanging out with the two of you, but I should be getting back. I have some work I need to do tomorrow before we go out with Serena. I'll call a cab-”

Lou shook his head. “I drove, so I can drop you off along the way.”

Lex looked at Casey and Lou in turn. “Is that OK?”

Casey nodded, looking back at Lou. “We'll just have to make sure to drop her a few blocks away.”

“Are you sure that's going to work? This isn't a great neighborhood,” Lou replied, gazing back at Casey.

“I may be a lot smaller than the two of you, but I can take care of myself,” Lex interjected.

Casey nodded at Lou and he shrugged in return but didn't argue. Lex had been surprised to see when they all got up that Lou stood about a head taller than Casey, who Lex was certain stood around seven feet tall. The three of them left the bar and got into a heavy-looking truck outside, Lex getting into the tiny back seat. The evening had gotten brighter and a bit colder and the moon had risen, shining brightly and nearly full. Lex amused herself by gluing her head to the side window and trying to identify constellations overhead as her companions spoke softly in the front. After a few minutes, they stopped and Casey got out to let Lex onto the sidewalk. Lex shook Lou's hand again before jumping out of his truck.

Lex nodded once she stood in front of Casey on the sidewalk. She smiled up at her big friend, who returned it with a grin.

“I had fun tonight,” Lex said, moving to hug Casey. “You look very happy. I think you two make a great match.”

“Thanks, Lex,” Casey said as she pulled back. “Keep an eye out going home, but no one should bother you from here. I'm glad you could come out.”

Lex waved at the two of them from the sidewalk, then turned before their taillights disappeared. She looked up at the moon for another moment, and then walked the few short blocks back to headquarters without incident.

The figures in black surrounded her. For some reason, however, they didn't pay her any attention. Lex looked down at her arms, which seemed visible to her. She gazed back up at the vaguely human-looking figures, trying to see what she might be able to tell about them, but they didn't have individual faces that she could discern, or any way to tell one from the other. They almost seemed to be shadows that had gone missing from their owners.

Lex noticed then that they seemed to be hard at work. All of them stood in some sort of darkened tunnel and they seemed to be disassembling everything and recreating it. Examining it more closely, Lex felt the wall of the tunnel away from the figures, and noticed that it was soft, pulsing periodically as if alive. She moved through the area where the figures worked, walking through some of them as if either they or she were ghosts, and examined what they’d done. The rebuilt section of tunnel felt more unyielding, oddly plastic-like with a strange, artificial smell. It still pulsed, but she could feel it more weakly, as if it had been damaged as a result of the rebuilding.

Lex sat up suddenly in bed with a gasp, her mouth tasting of dust. She saw only darkness, and a look at her clock told her it was now after two in the morning. She became aware that she felt afraid, but couldn’t figure why. Trying to settle back into sleep, Lex realized to her distress that this sort of thing had become more common. Her dreams used to be something she could understand and draw guidance from, but lately they’d become scarier and murkier. Closing her eyes and reminding herself that she had to get some rest to work with Riss and go out with Casey and Serena later that day, Lex went back to sleep, having several more familiar dreams that felt no more comfortable, where Kurt turned away and left her again and again.

Forward to Chapter 13

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