The motel was perfect – neither too sleazy nor too clean cut. The collection of sturdy sheds - misleadingly named cabanas - lurking off Highway 193 near Holmehurst were a fitting place for a secretive rendezvous. Admittedly, it was too scruffy to host the usual congressional liaisons that the Washington DC area was traditionally prone to, but that suited Jane Mallory just fine. The last thing she wanted to encounter was some congressman and his intern of the moment. Traffic along the Beltway had been the usual honk-and-crawl and her nerves were stretched to the breaking point.
            Security was as lax as could be desired. The thin greasy woman behind the desk of the E-Z Rest Motel had glanced at Jane when she walked past, but that was all. Clearly, she couldn’t be bothered to move from behind her desk and the array of tabloids spread out in front of her. That suited Jane just fine.
           
Pausing before the door of Cabana 6, Jane took a moment to rearrange her features so that Mason would recognize her. Like her, his nerves were on a knife’s edge. Surprising him – well, surprising him too early – could prove fatal. Within moments, her flesh rippled and a pretty blonde woman replaced the short, acne-scarred brunette that had breezed through the parking lot. Physically, the features were quite similar to Jane’s real face – the same oval shape, the same mouth and chin. She was essentially herself, but blonde, blue-eyed and a little heavier. Having to hide her talents from both parties in this particular conflict limited Jane’s options, but she worked within the constraint as best she could. The consequences of discovery were too high to contemplate.
            You were Caitlin Ward for six months. Jane took a deep breath. Another sixty minutes won’t be too hard.
           
Knock twice, pause, knock twice again, then wait. The door opened slowly and, to Jane’s relief, Mason Schreiber peered out. He looked like hell, his young face aged by fatigue and short brown hair tangled by too much anxiety. Being a fugitive takes it out of a guy. Looking around quickly, Mason beckoned Jane inside the room, shutting the door behind her.
           
The room lived up to every implied promise of the cabana’s exterior. Although relatively large, the too-small windows guaranteed constant dimness, which proved to be a slight mercy when one examined the room closely. Decades-old wallpaper, darkened by cigarette smoke and just a hint of mildew tentatively clung to the walls. The battered fixtures – everything screwed to furniture that was, in turn, bolted to the floor – perfectly matched the room. In turn, the oppressive setting matched Jane’s mood – and Mason’s too, she suspected.            
           
As Jane tentatively sat on the threadbare bed, Mason wedged a chair under the doorhandle, barely able to take his eyes off his companion. Suspicion and relief fought for dominance on his face. Finally, he sat on the edge of a dresser and spoke quickly, as if he feared losing his nerve.
           
“How the hell did you get away from them?”
            Straight to business, is it? I’m not surprised. Time to pray he doesn’t have a truth-sensing ability.
           
Jane smiled nervously – the nerves, at least, were genuine. “It’s a long story, Mason, but the short version would be this…” carefully, she let her features change yet again – she was constantly thankful the process was painless – from Caitlin’s familiar face, to that of a famous movie star and then back again. “I’m a nova.” She admitted, almost smiling at Mason’s slack-jawed surprise. “The whole raid was a clusterfuck, so I grabbed the face of one of the cops and got out of Dodge.” Always keep the lie simple.
           
Mason sagged, relief having won over suspicion for now. “But how…why? Why didn’t you tell us?” He sounded hurt.
           
Jane suppressed a moment of guilt. She had no reason to feel like she owed Mason anything. “For precisely the same reason you didn’t tell me that you’re a nova until, what, last month? Security.”
           
Mason scowled, his disappointment obvious. “Yeah, for all the good it did us.” The constant, closed-mouth security of the CFF had been the bane of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the reason why the organization had lasted as long as it did. Mallory’s boss had to resort to assigning her to six months of deep cover in order to learn anything of value about the group. Six months of pretending to be a covertly-radical law student, of carefully being at the right place, at the right time and saying the right things. Finally, she had been invited into the organization and able to examine it from the inside out.
           
After that, things had moved quickly. The revelation of the groups’ ideals and goals – to assassinate the majority of the Supreme Court – might have been dismissed as hopeless pipe-dreaming if it hadn’t been for Mallory’s inside-information. The approaching imminence of their self-proclaimed “Day of Action” prompted a sudden raid by the FBI – and then things got weird.
           
Jane shrugged. “These things happen. But at least we got away.” She forced a chuckle. “ I nearly fainted when you turned to smoke and wafted out the window. If we can get the word out to the other cells, maybe we can warn them before Michael…” her voice trailed off as she named the group’s leader. I have to at least seem sorry for him, even if I’m not. Youthful zeal or no, these people had planned to commit multiple murders, and Jane couldn’t condone that under any circumstance.
           
“Before Michael breaks.” Mason gloomily completed the sentence. He sighed. “He should have been a nova. Not me.”
           
“I sometimes feel the same way,” that lie was easy. She smiled nervously. “So, uh, what else can you do? I mean, I’ll show you mine…” Why haven’t they called?
           
That provoked a dry laugh. “Sure.”
           
Mason concentrated for a moment, then transformed into a cloud of misty vapor. There was nothing gradual about it. From solid to gaseous in less than a second. Another eyeblink later and the young man once again leaned against the dresser. “But you knew about that, already.” He grinned like a kid showing off his favorite party trick. Which I suppose he is, Jane realized. “That’s really my biggest gun,” he admitted. “I don’t get tired – well, hardly ever. I’m tough, but not strong, you know?” Jane nodded. Extraordinary stamina seemed almost common amongst novas. “And I can see and hear things really well. I’m like a cat in the dark. It’s kind of strange. Sometimes I forget to turn my lights on when I’m driving at night, and I can’t figure out why everyone’s honking at me.”
           
Jane nodded thoughtfully, then shook herself out of her reverie. Nice kid, really. She thought sadly. A shame he’s joined the wrong team.
           
“My turn,” she admitted. “Show and tell?” Mason shrugged, curious but relaxing, finally.
           
Jane stepped onto a nearby wall, ignoring the moment of vertigo that always accompanied a change in her frame of reference. Stepping around the tacky art on the wall, she walked to the ceiling and faced Mason. “Next trick,” she announced, fading into the background. Her research referred to it as chromatophoric ability. Jane preferred her own nickname – the human chameleon. Noticing Mason’s surprise, she smiled. “I’m sure ceiling tiles aren’t my best look.”
           
Assuming Caitlin’s visage once again, Jane returned to the floor. “And the face-change thing you already know about. Oh yeah, and I can bench press a Volkswagen. But doing that would blow my cover.” She concluded lightly. There’s no need for him to know about the poison, or the voice, or the tongue. Dear god, why did I have to get burdened with that? It makes me feel like the punchline to a bad joke. Then again, why did I get stuck with any of this?
           
“Wow,” Mason breathed. “This is going to come out wrong, I know but-“
           
Jane interrupted, dryly. She wanted to distract him from any train of thought that might lead him to thinking what a good spy Jane could be. “No, I won’t pose as Claudia Schiffer next time your ex-girlfriend is in town.”
           
That did it. Mason laughed. “Damn.”
           
Keep going, “I didn’t bring it up to anyone because I’m not exactly within the law,” Strictly speaking, that’s true. “And I didn’t know how you guys would react to having an aberrant nova in the group.” And never mind the fact that she had thought about divulging her secret to Mason before the raid. She liked him, she thought they had a lot in common, in some ways. In hindsight, it was best that she had held her tongue. Had Schreiber told Michael, then the lid would have been blown off at the Bureau. Not good at all.
           
“All this time, we’ve had so much in common.” Mason said wistfully, echoing Jane’s thoughts.
           
Jane fiddled awkwardly with the cuff of her jacket. “Yeah, it’s a shame that I didn’t confess earlier. Might have saved us a lot of trouble.” Not really… The celphone in her pocket chirped softly. Finally.
           
Waving off Mason’s alarm, Jane held a finger to her lips in the classic ‘keep quiet’ gesture, as she pulled the small Nokia from inside her jacket.
           
“Hi, this is Caitlin.” Stress added a squeak to her falsely cheerful telephone-voice.
           
“Hi Katy, it’s mom.” Jennifer Graves, Jane’s field-boss, sounded justifiably tense. “Where have you been? You didn’t answer when I called earlier.” What’s the situation?
           
“I’m fine, mom. I just had some errands to run before I got home.” Situation is as expected.
           
 “I’m calling about dinner with your dad. I know you said you wouldn’t mind the drive to get here by seven, but could you be here earlier?” Jane had to guess at the meaning of that statement. Bureau double-talk wasn’t as sophisticated as that of a full-blown espionage organization. She understands where I am, but not when? Ahh, probably a case of where, not when.
           
“Um, sure,” she reluctantly agreed. “How about six? That’s really the earliest I could get there. Alright?”
           
“If that’s the best you can do, sweetie, then that’s fine.” All clear. “Promise not to pick a fight with him, this time?” Action imminent, keep Mason in that spot.
           
She nodded. “Sure, mom, I’ll try. As long as he doesn’t give me any grief.” I’m as ready as I’m going to get - as long as they don’t kick in the wrong door.
           
A theatrical sigh. “That’s the best I can hope for, I suppose. See you tomorrow, Katy.” More like fifteen minutes.
           
“Sure thing, mom. Bye.” She breathed a silent sigh of relief for the assumption that all novas could listen in to both ends of a phone conversation. If Mason had gotten an earful of Bureau operations-talk…he would be floating out of the window already.
           
Jane smiled weakly. “Parents,” she apologized. “Mom keeps forgetting that putting dad and me in the same room is a sure-fire recipe for thrown gravy boats.”
           
“Rough relationship, huh?” Mason asked, clearly not too concerned about the answer.
           
“Yeah, I think he resents the fact that I got a better score on the law boards than he did. Anyways,” Jane changed the subject. “What now?” Ain’t that the truth? “I mean, what about the CFF? What are we going to do? Can you even tell me?” Jane pitched her voice carefully, subtly persuading him to volunteer information, even if it went against his better instincts.
           
Mason sighed. “I’m not sure. Michael told me how to get in touch with the other cells. Well,” he pulled a wry face, “he told me where to find the file containing that information, I should say.” His tone became brisk. “One of us needs to get it. Given your skills, I think you should-“
           
Pain shattered Mallory’s train of thought. For one panicked moment, Jane thought she was suffering an aneurysm. In fact, she wondered if that would hurt less than the blinding headache that had struck with sudden force. As she helplessly crumpled to the floor – voluntary motor control had departed along with comfort – she noticed that Mason’s face bore signs of pain and surprise. A sliding thump suggested that he had followed her to the floor. Jane couldn’t move and, more worrying yet, she could feel her features changing, blurring back to the face on her Bureau ID.
           
What the hell? The Bureau favored old-fashioned busts and this clearly wasn’t going by the book. Graves mentioned anti-nova measures, Jane remembered, but I thought she was referring to manpower. Through the pain, Mallory realized that she could soon be in as much trouble as Schreiber…

            “Don’t try to push me off with some story about needing to know!” Jennifer Graves was a fortunate woman - she could be absolutely furious without becoming a hag or, worse yet, being ‘cute’. Her pale skin was flushed, but not choleric and even mussed by rage, her short honey blonde hair managed to look somehow purposeful. I wonder if that knack could be learned…The thought occurred to Mallory as she watched her future fall apart during a meeting between her field boss – Jennifer – and her administrative superior, Sean Taylor. Jane believed that she had very little control over what was about to happen, so she felt safe in indulging some tangential thoughts.
           
The arrest of Mason Schreiber had been routine, with two exceptions. First, the Directive – the federal agency concerned with nova activities – had unexpectedly butted in and demanded that they participated in the arrest. That in itself wasn’t much a surprise - rude, yes, but not entirely unexpected. The Directive had already established a history for barging into any matter – state or federal – that involved nova, particularly criminal ones.
            Second, The Directive’s gracious loan of a nova-hobbling device – synaptic disruptor, my ass, Jane thought bitterly, I feel like my neurons were fried – managed to thoroughly blow the lid off Mallory’s true nature. Jennifer had burst into the scene expecting to find a well-padded blonde, and instead she found a wiry brunette – Jane’s true form. Hissed explanations, curses and threats ensued. Now it was coming to a head in Taylor’s over-furnished and under-ventilated office.
           
Taylor, a middle-aged man who had never in Mallory’s five-year acquaintance with him, had a straight tie past the first ten minutes of the day, regarded Graves warily. He knew that he stood on thin ice, but he took some consolation from the fact that she had not immediately blown the whistle on Mallory’s state to the Directive. He hoped that, for once, the long-standing rivalry between the two organizations would work in his favor.
           
“It wasn’t a case of needing to know,” Jane interrupted quietly, just as he was getting ready to tell Graves the truth and risk the consequences. He had become tired of lying to his own people. “He didn’t know.”
           
Graves’ anger paled into shock. “What? How could he not…?” She glared suspiciously at the pair, whilst Taylor successfully hid his own surprise.
           
Having decided that it was better if only one career went up in smoke, rather than two, Jane continued. “Assistant Director Taylor did not know of my…true state until this morning.” Jane spoke with the carefully formal tone that was a hallmark of an FBI agent on possibly shaky ground – a cheap trick to restore the semblance of order to the room.
            “Please believe me. I’m telling the truth.” Jane knew she could be extremely convincing when she wanted to be – it was another one of her talents. “I know I lied to both of you, but I believed I was acting in the Bureau’s best interests. Let you think you had a master of quick-change on your hands, rather than a nova.”
           
Playing along, Taylor asked. “Why?”
           
“I think Agent Graves can guess.” Mallory made a show of reluctance, wanting to see if she had yet brought her field-boss under her sway.
           
“Maybe. But tell me anyway,” her tone was brittle.
           
Not yet. Jane felt a little guilty, doing this to a fellow agent, but she continued. “Because the moment I admitted myself to be a nova, the Directive would have pulled jurisdiction and Taylor would have lost one of his best agents.” Jane allowed a hint of self-deprecation into her tone. “That is, if I can believe his last review.”
           
Graves nodded slowly, reluctantly agreeing with Jane’s words. But the agreement quickly turned to confusion. “Wait a minute…if you’re a nova, but Taylor didn’t know… You’re an Aberrant, aren’t you?” Jennifer’s expression shifted from suspicious to shocked.
           
Jane sighed mentally. She had hoped that Graves wouldn’t come to that conclusion just yet. It would also be easier, she realized, if so many agents weren’t such boy-scouts. Clearly, Jane’s criminal omission horrified her fellow agent.
           
“I registered shortly after my eruption,” another easy lie. “But it seems that something is holding up the official paperwork.”
           
Even Jane’s skills couldn’t pull that much wool over Graves’ eyes. “Bull,” she said, succinctly.
           
Hell, go for broke - Jane decided - it might be the only chance I get to hear the answer, anyways. “That’s as may be, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to is. Why aren’t you already talking to the Directive?”
           
Graves deflated further, sinking into a nearby chair. “You already answered that. They’ll come in, crying that they’ve got proper claim to your time and off you’ll go. We’ll get the usual schpiel about if we want to request the services of a nova, we can submit Form 19-A and fuck you very much.” Jennifer turned pink momentarily. “Excuse me, sir.” She apologized. Taylor waved it off. He was far too concerned about how this scene was playing out to worry about the niceties of language.
           
“You’re assuming I’ll want to join them,” Jane disagreed. “That’s not the case. My career is here. My friends are here. Why would I want to join a pack of arrogant, high-handed, narcissistic holier-than-thous?” The popular perception of Directive novas within the Bureau wasn’t flattering. Jane tried to use that to her advantage.
           
“I don’t think you’re going to get much choice.” Taylor warned. “They’ve got Schreiber. They’re going to find out that you’re nova, sooner or later. And I’m afraid the lost-paperwork story won’t go any farther with them than it did with Jennifer, here.”
           
Jane nodded, her face glum. “Blackmail one-oh-one?”
           
“I would think it most likely, yes.” Taylor’s tone was equally dark. He believed in the Bureau perception of The Directive, too.
           
Shit. The possibility had simply escaped Mallory’s notice. But now that it had been mentioned, it seemed all-too-likely. She bit nervously at a fingernail and simultaneously cursed at backsliding into a bad habit.
           
“So how long do you think I’ve got?” she asked.
           
Taylor sighed. “No idea.” His speakerphone buzzed into life. “Director?” It was Lori, Taylor’s ever-unflappable assistant. “I’ve got a Mr. Alan Rauch from The Directive here. He’s asking if you can spare him a few minutes?”
           
“Hold on.” Taylor hit the ‘mute’ button on his speakerphone. “That’s almost eerie,” he sighed. Jennifer looked uncomfortable – did she tip him off, anyway? Jane realized she would probably never know the answer.
           
“The game’s up,” she shrugged. “Let him in.”
           
Taylor scowled and reached for the speakerphone. “Give me a minute to finish this e-mail and send him in, Lori.”
            “Yes, sir.” Lori knew that meant to she should leave the guest waiting for at least three minutes – and so did Taylor.
            “You could just walk out of here with Jennifer,” he suggested. “If you move quickly, he wouldn’t get a chance to tell if your face matched your ID.”
           
Jane shook her head. “That’s only putting off the inevitable. Let’s see if he’s willing to have a shared meeting. I’ve got a feeling I’ll be involved, sooner or later.”
           
“Alright,” Taylor nodded. “But I think you can head out,” Taylor told Graves. “There’s no point in dragging you in any deeper.”
           
Agent Graves didn’t argue. She hustled out of the office without a backwards look. Jane suspected that Graves was just an ordinary person – frightened by the novas, and glad to be shut of them. We’ll see…
           
Moments later, Alan Rauch entered the room. Mallory was half-disappointed that he didn’t wear spandex and a cape, despite the fact that hardly any novas – not even the independent Elites – bought into the comic-book look. Instead, he looked remarkably like any one of a thousand bureaucratic drones: an unfashionable suit and a tangle of ID badges arranged beneath a moon-shaped face with large hazel eyes and mud-brown hair that should have been trimmed a week ago.
           
Still, who knows what he can do? Jane’s thought halted, momentarily. If anything. They aren’t all novas in The Directive, are they?
           
Rauch greeted them politely. “Director Taylor.” A moment’s pause. “Agent Mallory,” and a hint of surprise betrayed by the tilt of his head.
           
Jane fought off the sinking feeling in her gut. He knows me by sight already? She nodded a curt acknowledgement of his greeting.
           
Taylor tried to cover the suddenly awkward atmosphere with an explanation. “I was meeting with Agent Mallory when you dropped in,” he said smoothly. “And we both thought it might save some time if perhaps she remained during your visit.” His firm tone dared Rauch to dismiss her.
            No-one could ever fault Taylor’s loyalty, Jane thought. I just hope it doesn’t end his career.
           
“Sure thing,” Rauch assented easily, settling into the chair recently vacated by Graves. Jane found his lax manner irritating – and then she became angry at her irrational reaction. For the past three days she had been caught in a cycle of jumpiness and self-irritation and she was increasingly worried that this stress would provoke an irrevocable action.
           
Rauch launched into the purpose of his visit without preamble. As Mallory listened to his Carolina drawl, her stomach continued to sink into her shoes. It was the anticipated recruitment pitch. Of course the Directive understood that the FBI might feel they have some prior claim to her time, yadda yadda. Willing to overlook her Aberrant status, so on and so forth.
           
“That’s all well and good, Mr. Rauch.” Jane interrupted. “Especially your willingness to grant me the benefit of the doubt but, honestly, I want to stay with the FBI.”
           
Rauch stared blankly at her. He hadn’t expected refusal, especially given his offer to not prosecute her as an Aberrant. “Agent Mallory,” the folksy easiness of his tone rapidly evaporated. “I don’t think you understand. This isn’t exactly a choice we’re offering you. The paperwork is already on the way to the big boss,” he meant the Senior Director. “Unless you want me to call in the Marshals instead?” he suggested.
            Even Jane recognized that as pure bluster. If she was going to be arrested, Rauch himself could probably do it. Think quick, woman. “Ah, if that’s the case,” she made a show of relenting, sagged in her chair.                       Rauch nodded, satisfied. “There’s an e-mail waiting for you, Miss Mallory-“ the change in address grated on her ears. “All the details you’ll need. Given that today’s Wednesday, I thought maybe we could expect to see you on Monday. Give you a couple of days to tidy things up.” He smiled coldly. “Come up with a story.”                       “Yeah, sure.” Jane nodded wearily. “Monday.” Rauch got up to leave. “Wait. One question?” she asked.
           
Rauch sat back down. “Certainly,” now that he had won, the charm had returned. Smug bastard.
           
“Mason Schreiber. Are you going to prosecute him, or recruit him?” Rumors persisted that The Directive had forced several felons to convert to their cause, as an alternative to prison – or execution.
           
Rauch regarded Mallory carefully. He believed he had her, like he had snared other Aberrants in the past. The offer of amnesty and a steady job was usually too much to resist. Add on to that that she was a Fed, why should she turn down the offer to continue acting in a law-enforcement capability? He decided to tell her the truth – most of it..
           
“Mr. Schreiber had been considered a possible recruit,” Rauch ignored Taylor’s outraged glare. “But he has since proven…intractable. Terminally so.”
           
Mallory guessed at his meaning. “Committed suicide, did he?” she asked dryly.
           
Rauch nodded without a hint of irony. “Just this morning, actually. A tragic shame.” He said without a tinge of regret.
           
“And when were you planning to tell me this?” The Assistant Director demanded.
           
“I just did.” Rauch shrugged.
           
Taylor glared at him. “Be sure to let the papers know that he died in your custody, not mine.” He growled. “I don’t want to deal with another congressional hearing about perceived screw ups.”
           
“Of course,” Rauch replied mildly, ignoring Taylor’s disquiet, and Mallory’s too. “I’ll make a special note of it.” He stood once again. “I’ll see you on Monday, Miss Mallory.” He said by way of farewell. “I’ll see myself out.” Silence reigned in the stuffy office for nearly a minute after Rauch’s exit.
           
“If that doesn’t cement their reputation around here, nothing will.” Mallory muttered, finally. Taylor broke off his brooding reverie and responded with a weak smile. “I guess you had better get a stack of Form 19-A.” she added.
           
“I guess so.” He agreed, sounding bone-weary.
           
“Hm, it’s one-thirty.” Jane’s voice was brittle, her eyes hard. “I think I’ll go get some lunch.” Her tone was more suited to tackling a hated enemy, or some other difficult task.
           
Taylor blinked, taken aback by her change in demeanor. “Sure Jane, I think we’re done here.”
           
Mallory nodded. “I think we’re more than done.” She agreed. She took a last look at her boss, and she could tell that he had realized her plan. “See y’around, Sean.” She smiled with more bravado than she felt.
           
He nodded. “Take care.”
           
After all, she reassured herself. I can hide anywhere, imitate almost anyone and I know more about investigation than most novas on the planet. If I can’t make it on my own, then maybe I don’t deserve to…
           
Humming a popular song, Jane Mallory walked out of Taylor’s office, out of the building and out of her life.


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