Its Own Absolution

Prompt: I want to know more of the animosity between Justus and Red Wolf. by Kabobbles. 5 Things Meme—of the Ficlet Variety

Prompt: Red's story ties to Justus' story? Interesting. I look forward to seeing how. by pygmymuse. Pause the Sonata

So this one was a request and a surprise to myself. I really wish sometimes I didn’t explore the darker parts of these characters’ histories and psyches, but sometimes these stories appear, so here it is.


Liana Mir

Series Listing

16 — 02. Summer

When the Clock Strikes Midnight

16 — 02. Summer through 03. Autumn

Wake and Thrive

16 — 03. Autumn through 17 — 01. Spring

Its Own Absolution

16 — 03. Late Autumn

After the Grief

16 — 03. Late Autumn

Battery Acid

17 — 02. Summer

Accounting for Redemption

17 — 02. Summer

Counting Heartbeats

18 — 01. Spring

Song Between the Waking and the Dreaming

20 — 04. Winter

Echoes of Anchor Lost

21 — 01. Spring

Don’t Remind Me That It’s Over

21 — 02. Summer

Welcome

21— 02 Summer through 22 — 01 Spring

Name Me Another (or Glass Angel, Redux)

22 — 01. Spring

Glass Angel

22 — 01. Spring

Pause the Sonata

22 — 02. Summer

Without a Reason

22 — 03. Autumn

Learning Legato

23 — 02. Summer

Acceptable Cost

23 — 02. Summer

History Lesson on the Night Train

23 — 03. Autumn

Abyss Looking Back

23 — 03. Autumn

Collateral Damage

23 — 03. Autumn

Five Reasons I Love You

23 — 03. Autumn

Little Things

23 — 03. Autumn

Owning Beauty

23 — 04. Winter

Dream the Dance

23 — 04. Winter

Snow Day

24 — 02. Summer

As the River Breathes

AU 21 — 04. Winter

Normal written in coffee grounds

Its Own Absolution

Shift’s team was brutal. They had to be. Storm’s team was bloody. They were a strike team. They had to be. Storm had a conscience. Shift didn’t. The only thing they all have in common is the will to survive.

16 — 03. Autumn through 17 — 01. Spring
Kingdoms and Thorn Science Fiction
Short Story

Despite sharing a single underground military facility, the four teams stationed twelve miles south of Kishet rarely interacted. Team members from different teams might meet up through medical or greet each other in passing from the airfield, but otherwise, they had separate living and training facilities and interaction was discouraged. Leaders had more reasons than most to run into each other.

Shift was surprised to get the call down to Team Eight’s section, but she met up with Chandler, her team’s handler, reminded herself not to gut him, and shifted to baseline.

Her natural hair color was actually fiery red, despite almost never wearing it, and every bit of her looked like a honed, lean-muscled weapon. She always threw on the curves when she wanted masculine attention. Her natural looks were indiscriminate mixed ethnicity with a dusting of freckles and interesting more than beautiful.

Chandler let his disgust show on his face—he never trusted the genetically modified humans under his charge; wise, since they hated him fiercely—but led her to the Team Eight admin area, a wide bay with a sensor light at the top of the room, currently shining blue to indicate the presence of GMH special-type humans.

Storm was half-sitting, half-leaning against a desk, much to the chagrin of the secretary behind it. He was Team Eight’s leader and someone Shift had worked with before. He was also nearly six and a half feet tall. She came to a stop beside him, ignoring Chandler.

“You rang?” Shift leaned one hand on her hip, the one without the holster.

“Shift.” Storm straightened and got her disgusted look for that. He knew she didn’t like looking that far up to him.

But he gestured to the redheaded man standing beside him that she had barely noted on entering. Shift sized him up in a glance. Strong, compact, tense all over but confident. He had the look and feel of a team member though she had never seen him before, and that thought gave her a small jolt of suspicion, then that familiar hot anger burning in her gut. She met Storm’s gaze.

“Red Wolf,” he said, gesturing with a tilt of his head. “Or Alpha.”

“Alpha.” She moved her gaze from the known variable to the unknown. “Who named you?”

He considered whether to answer. She could hardly blame him. Shift was the kind of woman you trusted if you were hers, not the kind you turned your back on.

“Whisper named me,” he finally said evenly, meeting her stare with a keen assessment of his own.

She nodded at that. “Give her my greetings.” The two women respected each other for their abilities. Shift was the only one on her team that did assassinations, but Whisper was ranked first in the Department for that particular skill. “So his rank?”

Storm paused until he had Shift’s full attention. “I promoted him to first.”

First. Shift stared into Storm’s unrepentant eyes until she was satisfied that there was a good reason for the change. “I expect to have no difficulties working with your team in the future.”

Storm shrugged. “No more than usual.”

There were always a couple of firebrands that didn’t get along. Shift’s team was brutal. They had to be. Storm’s team was bloody. They were a strike team. They had to be. Storm had a conscience. Shift didn’t.

She nodded once, curtly, turned on her heel with a shift blurring herself into softer lines—her dark auburn form with just enough curves to be interesting, the dress she could fight in, more muscled, less acrobat. Seeing another operative made when that had been illegal for years, it made her want to kill something. But she tossed out a, “Welcome,” over her shoulder, as if this was any kind of life to welcome him to.


Justus found her on the mats, running the series of stretches and katas and maneuvers that turned into strangleholds and broken limbs on a battlefield. Hand to hand combat was one area in which the teams particularly excelled.

“Kilter said you wanted me,” he commented cautiously. She could hear it just behind the casual tone and at-ease position.

Shift spared him a glance. She had considered questioning him but rejected the idea. He didn’t need that from her. She didn’t really need that from him. A quick hack through the files yielded enough data to conclude that Justus and Red Wolf arrived at the same time. One was processed; the other was offered to her. And she thought her own history was messed up.

“You’re fourth,” she finally said, naming the rank she had given him weeks ago. “Do you know what fourth does?”

“Sear’s been filling me in.” Sear now occupied third rank, but she had been fourth not so long ago. It was complicated, fourth—like any of them weren’t—but Justus had the temperament for it, brash aggressiveness and protectiveness wrapped up in cautious reason.

He looked and felt like a team member, but a team member who remembered. They were rare. Twelve percent. She had trained him to do what he had to do anyway, but he remembered.

She shifted then, from cool, lean acrobat back to the dark auburn. She’d been wearing the skin when she trained him and Justus always reacted instinctively to his conditioning. He did now, tension flaring as he realized she intended to use that conditioning. In fact, she threw herself toward him and nearly swept his legs from under him. Reflexively, his hand caught her wrist and he rolled with the punches, literally, then caught her on top of him, knife inches away from his throat.

Neither of them were out for the count, their tight pinning and hold of the other a farce when both of them could send this sort of position back into lethal combat at a moment. And Shift had the advantage. He had her arm twisted back, knife arrested, but she could shift her molecules and body fluidly out of his grasp if she wanted to. She didn’t.

“When this is all over,” she said quietly, fiercely, “you will make yourself a life again.”

“What—”

“You’re mine, Justus,” Shift cut him over, caught his gaze in hers. “I never lose one of my own. I will not lose you.”

His jaw set, eyes hard and unyielding. “You have no idea—” he bit out, but she cut him off again.

“I don’t care.” She thinned her wrist and pressed the knife that much closer. “You will make a life for yourself. I don’t care if you fell from heaven’s purity to become the worst of sinners. You. Will. Not. Stay there.”

He stared at her, uncertain and uncomprehending of why she had him down on the mats, why she was forcing the issue. “That’s my choice.”

She felt that sharp, dark amusement bubble up, lift her brow. She wrestled herself back up to sitting, and he warily let her go. “Do you really want to owe Shift?” she demanded lightly.

She heard his breath catch, knew then that he realized she was pulling rank, weight, and a whole lot more they most days pretended didn’t undergird their entire trainer and protégé relationship. But she was also offering him a way out, the very choice she had given to him when she accepted him as her own. Do you want my protection? she had asked. She had told him then there would be a price for it, that no matter what she had to do for it, she would not lose him. It was never a small price to be paid.

He set his jaw and she knew he had accepted this, however resignedly. “No.”


Red Wolf was professional. The more Shift dealt with him, the more it became obvious that he was exactly like she was, in that he had never known anything different. But she hadn’t really expected Justus’ reaction the first time her top five were assigned with Team Eight’s top three for an operation.

She couldn’t fault Justus’ composure, but there was that stony pause before he settled into his rank behind her. If Red Wolf noticed, he gave no indication.

They continued. Red Wolf quickly proved to prefer Kilter’s methods than her own. Shift’s second had always been steady, been the one to do things by the rules—he had a sense of right and wrong that Shift had long since found impractical.

“You’re suggesting we destroy the entire cell in combat,” Storm commented dryly. It was one thing to incapacitate terrorists; it was another altogether to slaughter them.

Shift shrugged from her seat, ignoring Kilter’s grinding teeth or the bland indifference in Whisper’s eyes. “I’ve done it before.” She had bloodied her hands enough.

“Destroying the cell is fine,” Red Wolf interjected, “but detonation would be a thousand times cleaner.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Shift’s grin was sharp.

Red Wolf’s recoil was well internalized, but something in his face and eyes closed up and his tone went cool. “I agree that we should wipe out the entire cell.”

Maker, his fourth, disagreed. “We’re talking about potentially having families with them.”

“As a blind,” Justus pointed out. “They want to keep their base a civilian target, but footage shows their children are learning the trade already.”

“We did,” Whisper said so quietly she might have been whispering, but she wasn’t, and the entire group fell silent at that.

Red Wolf leaned back a little from the table, looked at Shift with that keen gaze she had already figured out tied in with whatever special ability processing had given him. The man took intuition to a whole new level. “You’re brutal.” It was a plain statement, unadorned, unjudging, but absolute.

Shift bared her teeth in a razor-edged smile. “You just now figured that out?”

Justus shifted his weight from one leg to the other and shook his head. “You’re bloody.”

Nobody seemed to have expected the rejoinder, but Red Wolf contained his startlement in an instant and dispelled it with a matter-of-fact nod. “We’re a strike team. Our targets have earned death, and we deliver it. It’s as simple as that.”


Shift watched the interplay between the two throughout the mission. It was not so pronounced if one wasn’t looking for it, but she was.

Justus was hers, completely; it showed and anyone who had a problem with her methods would likely have a problem with Justus. That was something she would have to mitigate. Shift was the most respected and feared team operative of all, ranked first in the Department. Even Kilter knew that half of his job was to sit on her so she wouldn’t simply walk a trail of blood and destroy the entire organization. She didn’t care if she lost whatever goodness a person could be fooled to think she had left, but there were other issues involved, especially now that Shift was a team leader.

Red Wolf was a strike operative. It showed in the way he killed cleanly with no compunction and led his team well. Storm had been his own leader once but now took instructions with full confidence that those instructions were good. Whisper was the best assassin in the Department, and she trusted Red Wolf’s commands.

Neither like the other’s approach. Too brutal. Too bloody. One cared. One didn’t. They both did what they had to do, but only Justus did it because he had chosen it.

And how in the world was Shift, who to stay sane had embraced what they’d forced her to become, supposed to help him with that? She needed to push him towards others on the team, those who still cared as much as Justus did. She glanced at Storm and let him catch her meaning behind the look. Red Wolf was on him. Whatever had once been between those two, they were no longer a packaged deal.


“Shift. Kilter. Sear. Justus.”

“Wolf.” It was Justus that nodded curtly back.

Parting from one team to another, unraveling like a strand of RNA to go to their respective places, done transcribing their work.

Sear nodded respect to Justus. “Keep your count. You’ve eighteen verified from this one.”

A shadow passed over his face, but he nodded.

Shift waited until the two of them stood alone in the corridor.

Justus looked her way expectantly. “You rang?”

The words that started all of this, from her own tongue to Storm’s ears, she could hardly help but chuckle darkly. But she had. She had ordered him with her look to stay put. “What do you have against Wolf?”

He raised his own eyebrows in amusement, and the bitterness of that humor struck her like a slap that he could share her own brand of seared conscience. “Nothing,” he said. “He did a good job.”

Shift tilted her head, waiting for the rest of that.

The shadow returned, storm clouds brewed up in his now closed and hard expression. “Forgetfulness is its own absolution.” Justus didn’t wait for her dismissal. He turned his back on the woman who had trained him, someone no one but a living weapon or an innocent child could safely turn their back upon, and walked away.

#


Kingdoms and Thorn Science Fiction

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