No matter how far you run, your past will always catch up with you...
Author Note: If you're a M.A.S.K. canon purist, you may want to look away now. I'm playing a little fast and loose with one or two canon elements. I hope you can forgive me. This is also the set-up for a much longer story, so all questions will be answered. Eventually ;)
With many thanks to Jonath, Ganeris and Nessa for editing, feedback and patient hand holding.
Why do I always end up chasing Vanessa? Buddy wondered as he pursued the VENOM agent into the former Sunset Motel. She was always faster than me. Memories of less lethal games of chase loomed, when they'd both been unwanted kids in the county home; games of chase that he'd so frequently ended up losing. Just like now. Back then, she'd been his little sister, he'd been her big brother - though there was actually barely any age difference between them.
And now we seem to spend most of our time trying to kill each other, Buddy noted, taking the stairs two and three at a time.
Sometimes, he wondered what Vanessa would say - or do - if she knew the truth; that her 'big brother' was one of the people working so hard to stop her. She'd probably want to know why I didn't quit the second I knew about her. Buddy smiled thinly. Thing is, I'm still looking out for her. She just doesn't know that. And that was the reason it was always him who got to chase Vanessa. Because Matt knows I'm the only one who ever stands a hope of getting through to her.
He rounded the next twist on the stairs and had to duck rapidly or risk being decapitated thanks to a shot from Vanessa's Whiplash mask.
"MASK pest," Vanessa hissed. "Why don't you just quit?"
"You'd miss me if I did," Buddy answered, dodging another laser whip.
"Like a tooth ache," snapped Vanessa, turning to run on.
"Oh no ya don't." This time, just for once, he was going to catch her.
Without needing to think about it, Buddy dived forwards, tackling Vanessa to the ground. She lashed out with fists and feet and head, but Buddy's bigger bulk won-out and he was able to pin her arms behind her back.
"I'm taking you in, Vanessa," Buddy hissed, "so you might as well quit fighting me."
But her retort was drowned by the ominous sound of falling masonry. Both of them froze. Falling masonry couldn't mean anything good.
"Buddy; get out of there!" Matt's voice sounded strained over the communications net, as if the battle outside hadn't been going well at all.
"We have to go." Buddy dragged Vanessa back to her feet and started towards the stairs.
"What do you mean 'we'?" Vanessa snapped. "I'm not going anywhere with you." She started struggling.
"Rax has set charges," reported another MASK agent over the communications net. "Got no way to neutralise them. Buddy, get outta there!"
Buddy was too busy trying to avoid Vanessa's kicks and still retain his hold on her to bother identifying the bearer of that piece of bad news, but he redoubled his efforts and finally reached the top of the stairs. There, Vanessa managed to brace herself, effectively preventing either of them from descending.
"Look," he snapped, "your buddy Rax is trying to blow up this building. So unless you want---"
Buddy didn't have a chance to finish what he was saying. The dull whumpf of explosive charges going off neatly curtailed his sentence. There was one long, stretched out second of silence, and then, with a dull roar, the building started to collapse in on itself.
As the concrete floor they'd been standing on crumbled, Vanessa screamed.
They started to fall.
And Buddy did the one thing he could think of: "Penetrator - on!"
Vanessa screamed again as the world blurred and took on a blue-grey shadowed look. Buddy couldn't blame her. It was disconcerting when you knew to expect it; how much weirder was it when you weren't?
"What are you doing?"
"Trying to keep us from getting killed."
A falling steel beam dropped towards them; then through them. Vanessa gave a short, chocked off cry and then went limp in Buddy's arms. For a fraction of a second, Buddy was worried. Then the next instant, they were both fading through the rubble pile and he was glad to know she wasn't awake to see the sickening blur of twisted steel and stone as they passed through it.
The broken concrete seemed to go on and on and Buddy began to wonder if he'd miscalculated. Were they going to end up materialising in solid rock? That would end this whole caper right there. Again he was glad to know Vanessa had fainted. At least if that did happen, she'd never know what hit her.
Then two things seemed to happen all at once. The terrible blur of stone and metal was replaced with darkness and the penetrator effect wore off. There was just enough time for Buddy to recognise that they'd reached the hotel's basement parking garage and then he hit the ground with a breathtaking thud.
It was sometime later that Buddy fully came round. The faint hiss of static told him that he could expect no help from the rest of the team for the time being; the blurry darkness told him he was still in the hotel's parking garage. The question was, where was Vanessa?
He shifted a little, intending to sit up, only to have white hot pain stab straight through his shoulder. He bit his lip in an effort not to scream.
He thought he might have been successful, then a voice said, "Broken collar bone, as far as I can tell."
That, at least, told Buddy that Vanessa was still here and still alive. The big brother in him let out a sigh of relief. The rest of him was far more concerned by what she'd said. "How can you tell?"
Light, sure fingers ran across his injured shoulder, provoking a hiss of pain. "I can feel the break."
Something was different. It took Buddy a couple of seconds to realise that Vanessa had removed her mask. He wondered at that. All he said was, "Oh."
"That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen," Vanessa continued. "You could have got us both killed."
Despite the situation, Buddy smiled. This was the Vanessa he'd grown up with. She always tried to cover her fear with anger. "Seemed like the best thing to do at the time," he replied mildly. "Anything had to beat getting crushed."
"And we wouldn't have been in there to be crushed if you'd just let me go."
So they were back to that, were they? Buddy sighed. "And maybe if Rax hadn't decided to play demolition derby, or if Mayhem had decided to go flower picking today instead of terrorising downtown San Diego, we wouldn't be here either."
Vanessa's next words were a shock: "You weren't supposed to catch me."
Maybe it was the pain from his shoulder or maybe he'd hit his head harder against the garage floor than he'd thought, but it took Buddy several seconds to track exactly what Vanessa meant. "You knew what Rax was doing," he realised.
Vanessa said nothing.
Was it concussion fuelling the sudden nausea or was it the realisation that his little sister could be complicit in something as cold-blooded as murder?
Then came another shock. "When--- When Rax's charges went off, why didn't you just run?"
"I couldn't---" But Buddy couldn't even finish that statement.
Vanessa obviously misunderstood his half-started comment. "You could have!" she exploded. "You could have got out. You could have left me and---"
"And what?" Pain or no pain, Buddy sat up, reaching for Vanessa with his uninjured arm. "And leave you to die in a collapsing building?" He caught hold of her arm and shook it. "Who the hell do you think MASK is? Who the hell do you think I am?" He swallowed as more bile hit the back of his throat. "Vanessa, it's my job to protect people from VENOM. Last time I checked, you're a person."
"I'm also a VENOM agent. I can take care of myself."
"Right." Buddy snorted. "You get yourself caught in a building you know is going to be blown up, but sure, you can take care of yourself."
Buddy wasn't sure who he was the angriest with. He was angry himself for not being quicker, but it was Mayhem, who'd come up with this plan in the first place. And then there was Rax, who hadn't cared that Vanessa was in the building when the charges went off. Rax, who was supposed to have loved Vanessa once. On balance, maybe that was where most of his anger was directed.
The big brother in him longed to get his hands on Rax. I owe him, Buddy thought grimly. And someday, I'm going to pay him back.
Awkward silence filled the parking garage. Buddy guessed Vanessa had no response to his outburst and he didn't know what else he could say. Instead, he tried to concentrate on the information his mask was feeding him. Information on depth of rubble above; on airflow; on possible ways out; on mask power levels. Unfortunately, his eyes refused to focus on any of the readouts.
"No, no, no!" Vanessa's hand came down on his uninjured shoulder and shook it. "You are not going to pass out on me. You got me into this mess; you can damn well get me out of it."
Buddy blinked dizzily. "Pass out? I'm not gonna---"
"Skip it," said Vanessa harshly. "If you're not losing consciousness, why the hell are you leaning on me?"
Just like old times, Buddy thought, absently noting that despite her complaints, Vanessa wasn't forcing him to move. We leaned on each other then. Seems right we should do it now.
"Damn it! Will you focus?" Dimly, Buddy recognised that once more Vanessa was covering her fear. "Talk to me," she demanded. "What does your mask say about airflow?"
"Why not just look at yours?"
"Mine's damaged," Vanessa admitted.
"Oh." Well it was a reasonable request. Buddy swallowed hard and then tried to make the characters on the display stop dancing around and multiplying long enough for him to read them.
Buddy swallowed again, trying to will away the increasing nausea. "Air's good. Please don't make me do that again."
"Damn, you really are concussed."
To Buddy's surprise, the words came out matter-of-fact; a sure sign that Vanessa had moved from fear to full-blown panic. "Does it matter?" he mumbled.
"Of course it matters," snapped Vanessa. "How the hell are we supposed to get out of this if you can't see straight enough to read something as simple as an airflow measurement?"
"Not if Mayhem's plan's worked out."
"And that happens so often."
"Can you hear any of your friends?" Vanessa asked.
"No," Buddy admitted. "Only static. But we're probably too deep---"
"Or there's no-one out there," Vanessa finished. "Mayhem's plan was to pick you off, one by one. There were traps set for all of you and you fell into yours."
"Yeah well." Buddy found himself wanting to laugh, though nothing about the situation was remotely funny. "They never did claim I was the brains of the team. The rest of the guys are smarter than that."
"I know," Buddy corrected, his eyes sliding shut. "Now please, just let me sleep."
"Damn it, no," Vanessa snapped. "You are not going to sleep."
"Try and stop me," he mumbled.
He felt a light touch on his injured shoulder. The next second white-hot pain lanced the abused joint and he screamed.
"I don't want to do that again," Vanessa stated, her voice unsteady, "but you have to stay awake."
The pain collected in the pit of Buddy's stomach and turned to raging nausea. "Help me up," he gasped.
There might have been something in his voice that gave it away, or maybe Vanessa had been expecting it. Either way, she didn't argue. She simply did as he asked and helped him up into a kneeling crouch.
"Better?" she asked.
Buddy gulped a couple of deep breaths and tried to will the nausea away. "Maybe."
Hesitantly, Vanessa said, "It could help to take your mask off."
Matt might kill him for it later, but at this point, Buddy felt that would probably be a mercy. "Do it."
Awkwardly, Vanessa popped the seal and lifted the mask off. A cool breeze hit his face, drying the sweat that had built up and leaving him feeling shivery. His stomach rebelled and bile hit the back of his throat again.
"Talk to me," said Vanessa. "Keep talking to me."
"What about?" Buddy asked thickly.
"Anything. Where you grew up."
"It wasn't so interesting." Of all things, why did she hit on that? "Average."
"Well I don't know anything about average. Tell me about it."
Buddy swallowed. Why did it have to be that? "Not much to tell."
"Tell it anyway. Where did you grow up?"
"West Beach, Florida," Buddy lied.
"That doesn't sound average."
"Guess." Buddy swallowed hard. "You?"
"Me what?" Vanessa asked.
"If I'm telling you about my childhood, you can tell me about yours."
"I didn't have one." Her voice was brittle. "I lived in a children's home in Boulder, Colorado."
Buddy winced. "I---"
"I don't want your sympathy," she snapped, cutting him off. There was a pause. "What was West Beach like? I don't think I've ever been there."
Nausea finally abating, Buddy had to smile at her comment. He could tell her the only reason he knew anything about West Beach was thanks to a vacation that VENOM had ultimately ruined, but he doubted she'd appreciate that. He'd always meant to go back. Maybe he could now. If his collarbone really was broken, he wouldn't be working for a long while. Just right for a vacation.
"You're drifting again," said Vanessa sharply. "C'mon," she cajoled. "Stay here. Talk to me."
Buddy opened his mouth to reply, but into that miniature silence, the bleep of someone trying to contact him via his mask's communications link seemed unnaturally loud.
"I guess this is where you tell me you told me so," Vanessa muttered as she helped him to re-seal his mask, but there was no heat to her words.
"No," said Buddy. "This is where we both get out of this mess." Without waiting to see if Vanessa had any response, he answered the link. "Please tell me you can get us out of here."
"Buddy?" Matt sounded exhausted now. "Are you all right?"
It seemed like such an inane question, Buddy couldn't help but laugh, though that movement sent stabs of pain through his already abused shoulder. "I'm in the basement of a collapsed building with a busted shoulder and concussion so bad I can't see straight. Not even Dusty could say this was 'all right'."
"And just for that, you see if I help dig," snorted Dusty.
"Quiet," Matt said, effectively hushing any other heckles. "Buddy, is Vanessa with you?"
"Yeah." The desire to laugh suddenly left. "She's here."
"Is she injured?"
"Her mask's damaged. Otherwise, I don't think so." Sheepishly, Buddy realised he hadn't actually asked.
"Good." Though quite what Matt meant by that, Buddy wasn't sure. "We'll have you free in a few minutes. MASK out."
The connection cut and Buddy found himself sagging in relief. This whole nightmare would soon be over.
"Well?" Vanessa asked, reminding Buddy that if their incarceration was over, there were some aspects of the whole mess that might just persist a while longer.
"They're gonna get us out." There didn't seem to be a lot of point in saying anything more.
Vanessa grunted and a couple of minutes of silence ticked by. Buddy's eyes were just beginning to close again when she suddenly said,
"It wasn't all bad."
"The children's home," she clarified. "It wasn't so bad. I had someone looking out for me."
"Friend?" Buddy asked, morbidly curious as to who she meant.
"Brother," said Vanessa. "He was my big brother."
There was no time for any more conversation. Roughly three feet away from where Buddy was crouching still, the ceiling of their prison began to glow first a dull red, then orange, then yellow, then white-hot. Then Buddy could see blue sky through the newly made hole. A moment later and he saw the welcome shape of Bruce leaning over the hole.
"One moment," Bruce promised. "Lifter - on."
Buddy felt himself slowly and gently being lifted by the power of Bruce's mask. Unfortunately, for all the care Bruce took, the sensation of flying just increased the nausea and Buddy was all too glad to see Julio also waiting, along with Matt and Dusty.
Not that masks could express emotion, he got the impression all four were relieved to see him. He also got the feeling that they were rather less pleased to see Vanessa coming up out of the hole behind him. In fact, Buddy suspected that they were, all four, rather pointedly ignoring her, but as Bruce set him down safely on the sidewalk, everything started to blur and minor details like that stopped being important.
Someone said, "We need to get him to a hospital, now."
Someone else said, "Hey - where'd the red-haired bitch go?"
The first speaker again: "It doesn't matter. Hospital now. Worry about Vanessa Warfield's location later. She's not going to try anything until her mask's fixed."
And then, as far as Buddy was concerned, everything faded into a nice, soothing blackness.