Chapter Two: Stale Crackers

They arrived outside an apartment block with Rose still shivering from the cold winds that had lashed her face during the trip there. Looking up at the unimpressive block of apartments, she knew that this was another case of Stefan not wanting to attract any attention to himself.

Rose and Brendan were led up a flight of creaky stairs and up onto a landing where they stopped outside a door with a rusty, brass number eleven hanging on it. Here Stefan spent some time fumbling around in his pockets, searching for his keys. Eventually he pulled out a pair of keys that were as rusty as the number on the door.

He ushered them into the apartment and steered them to the lounge room. Rose plonked herself down on one of the cushy couches, waiting patiently for Stefan to tell her what she was doing here. Brendan sank into the seat next to her, while their host went off looking for some refreshment.

He came back with water, some old crackers and a guilty expression. "Sorry," he said gesturing to the food, "I don't really come here too often and there isn't much food in the house." Rose nodded; she'd already discerned that much from the peeling paint and the never-been-lived-in feel of the place.

For politeness' sake Rose picked up a cracker and munched on it slowly. It was stale. Fighting to keep her face from showing how disgusting the cracker was, Rose continued to chew slowly. Unfortunately, Brendan refused to cooperate with her. He took one bite of the stale foodstuff and nearly spat it out. "That's stale!" he exclaimed. Then he looked at Rose, an expression of shock on his face. "How can you eat that?"

Rose looked up at Stefan and grimaced. "I think you need to bin them," she said truthfully. Now that the cat was out of the bag, she may as well admit it.

He nodded and placed the crackers on the coffee table, looking embarrassed. "Well we're here to discuss things more important than my stale crackers," he said, and was about to launch into some speech about what exactly they were doing there, when Brendan burst out laughing.

Apologetically, the blond waved a hand in response to their questioning looks. "It's nothing," he continued to laugh. "It's just," here another gale of laughter overcame him, "The idea of people getting together to discuss stale crackers..." and they'd lost him again.

Rose had to admit, the thought of a midnight meeting about crackers was funny, but she only chuckled for a moment. She was too preoccupied with wondering why she was here. Stefan continued once Brendan was done. "You're both here because I need your help. Brendan, you know why, but Rose doesn't. So bear with me while I explain, would you?"

Rose interrupted, "Explain what?"

Brendan made a shushing noise. "Well if you'd waited for him to explain then you'd know what, wouldn't you?"

Stefan glared at them severely. It was the same look that primary school teachers fixated on class clowns when they were being particularly troublesome. Rose swallowed the retort that was on her lips and turned her attention back to him. She gave him a tiny nod to convey that she was ready.

"You know how I said that if T.I.P came into being I'd want you to shout it from the rooftops?" he asked her.

Rose narrowed her eyes; she'd thought Stefan was explaining things to her, not asking questions. "Yes," she said shortly.

"Well, that project's going to come into being," he paused here because Rose had gasped.

"But...I thought you won," she stammered.

"I won the city, but Emelie Chauce won the country and she's all in favour of T.I.P," Stefan explained, looking at the floor. "Of course, I still pack some political punch, but this is one issue I won't be able to persuade Emelie on."

"OK." Rose was still devouring the information, trying to work out what was happening here. "So you want me to shout it from the rooftops?" He nodded tersely and Rose bit her lip. She was afraid, very afraid, and she didn't know if she could do this. "I don't know. My life's at stake here, isn't it?"

Stefan nodded again, looking miserable, and Rose wondered whether she'd given him enough credit thinking that he'd only hesitate a moment before killing her. The way he was looking now she figured she could buy herself at least two.

"Ahem," Brendan coughed to get their attention, "She doesn't have to put her life on the line here. It's called a pen name, plenty of people use them. Call yourself oh, I dunno, Vera Wang."

"And put an innocent fashion designer's life into the firing line?" Rose shot at him.

"It was just an example, do you take everything seriously?"


Rose was cut off by Stefan who was looking at them wearily. "Could you two please stop bickering?" he asked them quietly.

They both nodded, looking ashamed of themselves. Somewhere in the back of her mind Rose was aware that Stefan was manipulating both her and Brendan into listening to him. If he didn't stop making her feel like a badly behaved school girl soon, she was going to have to say something about it.

"What is T.I.P, exactly?" Rose asked. She was going to have to know a lot more than she currently did if she was going to write about it in an article.

"It's too complex for me to go into right now," said Stefan. "I'd be talking for hours...But I can give you a basic rundown of what it is. T.I.P is the brainchild of a professor at the University of Alksan. Over the last few months, there's been some debate over whether or not we should fund the project. Give it military aid and so on. Our party decided not to, but Emelie Chauce's party decided it would be a good thing to do, for Conwardians anyway."

"Now that Emelie's been elected, I'd bet that the military's out in the far reaches of Alksan - near the arctic - setting up equipment, technology. There'll be scientists quitting their jobs up in Alksan to help carry out their research, and billions of dollars will be pumped into the project."

He paused, looking thoughtful. "Maybe you could use the taxpayer angle in your article? People always get concerned when they know that their taxes are going to waste or to a bad cause," he looked at her almost pleadingly. "Just don't mention the gangs. Pretend you've been speaking to a government insider and know nothing about the gangs. Otherwise, the leak's too traceable to the Protectors and me." Rose nodded slowly, trying to memorize all of the facts she'd just heard. It was going to be difficult writing an article on this if she didn't know what it was about.

"Brendan," Stefan turned and caught Brendan's always roving eyes, holding them with his own steady ones. "You have contacts in the Roaming Tigress gang and the Advancement party. I want you to get in touch with those contacts and persuade them into seeing T.I.P as a bad thing."

Brendan swept his fringe out of his eyes. "I don't know if I can," he told Stefan, with what Rose thought was sincerity. "See, they may not want to talk to me."

"They'll talk to you. In fact, I want you to go to them, grovel, and get yourself back into the gang. If you can't get into Roaming Tigress, then get in contact with Emelie Chauce. I'm sure she's looking for a bright young spark like you," Stefan seemed to be trying to flatter the younger man into action.

Brendan shook his head. "I don't think there's a chance of it. Not after what I did tonight. I will try though, 'cos it'd be great if I could get back into the party and pull everyone round to our point of view. I could persuade most of them," he looked uncertain here and Rose thought he was lying to himself. Nicole Stevenson didn't look like an easily convinced woman.

"Look, Stefan, I think I have a better plan. I'm going to help Rose, just generally, with information and all that for her article, and then I'm going to head down to Alksan, find their technology and their research facilities. I'm going to trash it all."

Rose just stared at him. That had to be one of the daftest ways of doing something she'd ever heard and she'd gone to university with a bunch of crazy journalists. Stefan seemed to be thinking along the same lines because he said, "Are you insane?"

Brendan laughed. "Maybe. But it'll be worth it, and there's nothing else we can do about it Stefan. Rosie's going to work on getting the word out there. You're going to try and put some political pressure on these parties and people, and I am going to be doing the hands on part of the operation."

"You'll die," Rose said, forcing herself to speak.

Again he laughed. "Who's left to care if I die?"

"Uh, me," Rose said forcefully. She was getting angry now. He couldn't just throw his life away with a heedless laugh.

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Even if I do die, I'll make sure that I get the job done and then it'll all be worth it. It'll be my life to save a billion lives."

"Oh please," Rose rolled her eyes at him. "Stop trying to be a martyr."

"I'm not," he seemed to be boiling over with barely contained anger. "I just need to do this."

"No, you don't," Rose said firmly. The plan was suicide, and she couldn't let Brendan – who seemed mentally unstable at the moment – go through with it.

"Yes I do," he returned flatly and she could see from the way that his hazel eyes closed up that he wanted her to drop it. Too bad she wasn't going to.

"No you don't," she repeated, knowing that this was going to turn into one of those childish fights where everyone keeps repeating themselves. The same ones that she'd had back in primary school. Even with the knowledge that she was being an idiot, Rose couldn't help herself. She indulged in the immature fight for a full minute and would have kept on going except for...

"Would you two please, shut up?" Stefan seemed at his wits end. "Look, Rose, we may not like it but he's got a point. Giving up one life to save a billion. Do the math Rose, it makes sense."

"It's a suicide mission," Rose said stubbornly. "It might be worthwhile if you were going to send out a whole team of people. A group that could work together and help each other out."

"Are you volunteering?" Stefan asked her, a soft concern in his voice.

Rose stared at him, shocked. Her volunteering to go to Alksan was laughable. Stefan should know about her aversion to the cold by now. If she didn't do it though, who would? She couldn't just let Brendan go out there by himself. Not in his mentally unstable condition. But at the same time she wasn't willing to go on a suicide mission with someone whom she barely knew.

"I'll think about it," Rose replied, not wanting to give a yes or no answer straight away.

"That's ok. Think about this all you want. I'll only be leaving once you're done with your article and that should take a few days. You really should think very carefully though. For me, it's not much of a sacrifice. I've already lost. I've lost my friends, my family...everything. You on the other hand, have everything to live for."

"You're wrong," Rose said softly, staring down at her boots as she spoke, "I have a few friends, but no family. At least not any immediate family and not in Liberty," she managed to look up him. "My parents were killed when the Trade Heart Towers were attacked. Bloody terrorists." She felt angry just thinking about the fundamentalists that had blown up her family and nine thousand others for no good reason.

This revelation didn't evince the reaction she was expecting from either of the men beside her. Brendan winced, his whole face full of guilt, not sympathy, and Stefan buried his head in his hands. "We have to tell her the truth, Stefan," Brendan sighed out eventually. "If we don't, she's bound to find out later and hate us for lying to her."

"I guess you're right," Stefan removed his head from his hands and looked at Rose, but said nothing.

"Fine. I guess I'll have to do it. Whatever I say now, you have to promise not to kill Stefan and me. Ok? We weren't involved in any of this, and it really isn't our fault..." Rose nodded and he continued, looking more and more miserable with every word he said. "Look, the attacks that killed your family, well, they weren't carried out by terrorists. They were carried out by the gangs. Actually Emelie Chauce was in power then, too."

Rose gasped as she felt this revelation hit her, hot anger seared through her belly, rising quickly to her head. She rounded on Stefan; she knew it wasn't really his fault. Four years ago, when the attacks had been carried out Stefan would have been merely a pawn in the political games that the gangs carried out. Still, she needed someone to snap at. "Why didn't you tell me?" she practically shouted, glaring at him.

"I didn't know your family was involved in those attacks until today, and we don't tend to tell civilians these things Rose," he said apologetically. "It wasn't my fault though, so don't take it out on me," he added as her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Take it out by writing a nice, venomous article about Emelie," he told her soothingly.

Rose tried to nod, with her head bowed to disguise her tears. They were hot tears, not of sorrow. She'd cried away all her sorrow years ago. These tears were tears of shame and anger that she belonged to a country whose government – because really the gangs were the government – had killed nine thousand of its own civilians.

It was in this position, with her eyes focused on her lap, that Rose made the decision to go to Alksan with Brendan and help him to smash all of Emelie's equipment. This woman was obviously cold blooded, so hopefully she'd feel the loss of her machines as much as Rose had felt the loss of her family.

She looked up once she'd regained some of her composure. "I'm coming with you," she told Brendan. "And we are going to make it out alive. If only just so I can see Emelie Chauce's face when she finds out that all of her equipment's been smashed." Rose was furious, she'd never thought she'd want to see someone dead, but this woman deserved no mercy. Maybe in some cases capital punishment was the only answer.

Stefan's black brows had knitted themselves together during this speech. "Are you sure?" he asked her.

"Yes," she said firmly.

"Ok. Well, if you're going to be going on this mission I guess I'll have to send some gang members along to help protect you," he said.

It took Rose a second to work out why that would be necessary, then she remembered the file. "Oh, there's really no need for that. I'll have the file deleted if you're that worried about it. Besides, it's not like anyone's going to hear about me dying when I'm in the middle of nowhere up near the North Pole."

Stefan raised his eyebrows. "And nobody's going to get suspicious if you just disappear for months on end?" he asked her in a mocking tone.

Rose bit her lip. "Oh, don't worry about Jane. I'll just tell her that I'm running off to the North Pole." She made it sound simple, but she wasn't sure that her best and only friend would take the news very well.

"Ok then," Stefan said, but he didn't look as though he trusted her. "I'm still sending along members of the gang, to ensure your success."

"Stefan you can't just send members of your gang off to the Arctic, people will ask questions."

"I know - I'll tell them that they were silenced for assaulting members of the public," he explained, flashing them a wicked smile. "I've done that before, you know. I don't believe in letting rapists go free."

Stefan clearly believed in capital punishment far more than Rose did. "So, there's only one last thing for us to sort out. If you two are going on this super-mission, we're going to have to get another journalist to cover this for us, when Rose is gone. I want the media message to be constant."

"Jane could do that, I think," Rose volunteered her friend before thinking about it. Damn, now she was going to be forced to have two equally difficult conversations with her best friend.

Brendan laughed. "Who exactly is this Jane, that you mention so much?"

"She's my best friend," Rose replied. No need to tell him that Jane was her only friend as well.

"So here's what's going to happen. Rose, you're going to write the first article while Brendan helps you and prepares for the Arctic. Once you're done with the article, call me and we'll set up a place to meet. Bring this Jane along so we can fill her in on everything," Stefan spoke methodically, leaving a pause between each sentence. It felt like he was saying 'Step 1...Step 2' though he never actually uttered those words.

"So then, I guess we're done here. Do you two want me to drop you off at your homes?" Rose nodded. It had gotten dark by now and Liberty City was not safe at night. She could have just hailed a cab, but why bother when Stefan could just drop her off?

Brendan shook his head. "I need a ride to the nearest hotel. Not my house." Rose looked at him in confusion. "After what I did tonight there are a lot of people in Roaming Tigress who'd like to see me dead and all of them know exactly where I live," he explained.

Stefan nodded. "You could just stay here for the night," he offered.

"Thanks, but no thanks. I would, really, but I'm hungry and there's no food here." He glared at the cracker box. Rose nearly laughed, reminded of people who yell at their TV screens when they don't agree with something that's happened during a sports match.

"Alright then, which hotel?"

"Any. As long as it has room service, I'm fine," Brendan said with a grin.

Then they were out the door, coats flapping in the wind as they scurried to Stefan's car. Remembering how cold it had been sitting up the front last time, Rose slipped into the backseat. Hopefully it would be warmer. This time, both of her companions were rather talkative and it was her who was quiet and preoccupied. She was running through what she was going to say to Jane in her head and none of her imagined words sounded right. They all made her sound like she was insane.

"Rose! Rose!" A large hand waved around in front of her eyes, which had glassed over. "Hellooo? Anybody home?" Brendan said, trying to get her to pay attention to him. Eventually, after a few more waves of the hand, she snapped out of her reverie.

"This is your stop," Stefan said and Rose nodded, embarrassed. She'd let herself slip off into her own little world while they'd driven. Absentmindedness was a bad habit of hers. She waved them goodbye as she slipped out of the car and onto the street outside her apartment block. It was only as she watched the car speed off down the street that she realised she'd never told Stefan where she lived.

A.N Thanks once again to my wonderful betas ClandestineMadness and CovertLeader. Now, go review and tell me what you think? Too over-the-top, too contrived, bad characterisation? Criticise me! Compliment me too, though, otherwise I'll be discouraged...