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Saturday, March 26th, 2011 11:45 am
Title: To Each A Tempo -- Chapter 14
Fandom: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney/Elite Beat Agents crossover
Revision date: March 5th, 2011
Rating: PG-13
Wordcount: 2049
Characters: Cherry, Agent Derek, Agent Foxx.

      It had been a long time since the Agency's last recon job. It had been a long time since the last blunt reminder that they weren't civilians; they worked from the sidelines; they kept to the shadows.

     Derek laid his newspaper aside, and he was on his feet before Foxx had said one concerned word. The chef was terrified like J had never felt her before, wilder than ever. Derek knew what that meant. The lobby crowds parted and let him pass, giving him poorly hidden glances -- it didn't matter what they thought of his hair. A turn of corridor, a steel-heavy door and Derek was out of the courthouse, into the warm midday.
     "You got 'er, bro?" Morris's voice in his ear.
     He did -- and he paused to tap out as much. LaFlamme beat familiar, a waft of sharp panic Derek could grip and follow between the sycamores and the granite walls, over the dry grass.
     "If anybody can wrangle her," Morris replied, all smile, "It's you."

     Mayhem boiled inside the courthouse, people worried and determined and on the move. They were easy to tune out. They didn't have a clue where they were going. Cherry knew the way and so did Derek, whether they had ever been there before or not.

     Smoke was his next clue, a whiff of sweet-reeking tobacco. He moved on cool Agent strides but somewhere inside, he was ten years younger -- grease-streaked, soapy to his elbows, never too tired. Derek pushed his shades down long enough to examine the soaring courthouse pillars -- there was no sense taking the roof. Ground-level was more likely, and navigation would be a trick on his minimal gear, anyway. Then a steel-blue wisp appeared on the breeze, emerging from behind a stone buttress. LaFlamme gave herself away. Her rhythm raced, struck every note but the right ones, thundered with all its strength. Derek had borrow-felt that more times than he could count.
     He approached slow, eyes to the shadows. Cooks were cockroaches: tough as nails, and at home in the crevices no one else thought to check.
     The smoke trail puffed wider as he came around the buttress. There was proud, chef-clad LaFlamme, crouching on the dirt and glaring death at nothing. A near-spent cigarette hung between her fingers; one heel bounced against the ground so hard that she shook.
     Derek passed her, through the hot beam of her gaze and out of the smoke. He leaned onto the wall. He was near enough to ask for a light and, for an otherworld instant, he considered it.
     LaFlamme said nothing -- she saw nothing, she knew only steam pressure and wildfire now. But she could endure. She had proved that. She didn't need the kind of help an Agent gave.
     Breeze stirred in the treetops. Derek folded his arms, slowly. In the distance, a songbird chittered.
     "Rough day?"
     "The hell would you know about it? Butter-basted mignon." She dragged hard, cigarette's ember flaring; she shoved a ragged braid out of her face. "First time I'm away from the Orchard in three years and it's for this applesauce, season and sauté it, anybody else'd be running off and-- and-- I don't know, taking a day off, whatever you do on one of those, damned if I know. S'just about sticking to what you've gotta do even if you take some tack for it, and that's how I do things, always has been! Keep at it, and work hard and put out a good product and that means fifteen hours over a hot stove sometimes, bone anybody who-- who-- thinks it's just-- well, if you don't do it, you don't know!"

     Derek's clearest memory of the Noisette's kitchen was a sudden awareness that something was wrong -- it was a feeling as plain and unspecific as that. He had looked up from the rack of gleamingly clean forks and watched the new prep cook -- his back bent studious, quick-darting white sleeves and head whipping as he searched. Obviously, the kid needed help. Derek had called the head grill cook and nodded toward the something-wrong, the sensation that needed to be corrected. A ponytail ghosted on his neck each time he thought about it. The Agent suit didn't change a thing.

     LaFlamme dug another cigarette from her apron and pressed it to the first one's burning end -- carefully, trembling.
     "And see what I get for all of it," she spat, "Blamed for this! You try to do a good thing, y'know, you work hard and try to keep people happy, look what it gets me!"
     She threw the butt into the grass -- where it quietly smouldered -- and she barely finished another drag before exploding again.
     "Years!" She waved a claw-tensed hand through the smoke. "Years! Working my rump roast off and it's not for any lack of trying to keep people happy, you think I don't want to clobber every meathead that comes through the door and looks at a perfect med-rare venison sirloin on morel-shiitake pilaf and asks for ketchup?! I worked corn-poppin' hard on that dish! Spent a whole week imagining what the forest would taste like, thinking about earthy green things and fiddling with the sage and chervil, yeah, please do dump a damn bottle of ketchup on it. I could just snap some days, I swear! Just tell it all to get stuffed!"

     People more driven than her had done it. Making art from food was one thing, but it took a special breed to ride out the stress that came with it, to thrive on the punch-drunk highs and blackest lows and to alert Agents who didn't even know they were Agents. Derek hadn't been much for the cooking part of professional cooking. He had stuck to the black-caked roasting pans and wet-chugging old dishwasher -- his work involved humidity, not heat. He had seen dozens of short careers and sensed far more than that. He had made distinctions and notes for that star-emblazoned guidebook. And with Morris's friendly red pen, and Chieftain and Kahn's considering nods, the unneeded assists began dwindling away.

     LaFlamme propped her forehead on a fist. The blaze and the ringing feedback left her, scarlet colour diluting in water.
     "And it salad-tossin' figures, it's the one customer that doesn't give me a coronary! Every frickin' day he's been in! So what if he makes a pea-steamin' mess of the table, he's here, and those plates come back clean, even the squeezes and sauce sopped up with his bread. Y'know how many people just send my apricot relish back to be scraped into the damn trash? It's a bean-bakin' crime! And how about that bad February last year? I made it by pennies and most of them were from his meals, he's practically kept the place alive by himself all these years and I'm actually glad to see him every day, and if I go and squeal on my ... "
     She sighed. She flicked ash from her cigarette.
     "I guess the real thing is ... having the prairie oysters to stick by what you believe in. Loyalty or whatever. 'Cause if ... if I give one inch on my Orchard and it gets in the weeds -- and the emergency fund's gone, I'm toast if the oven goes again -- don't think for a second anybody'd be there to take care of it for me!"
     A considering drag while she squinted away into the trees.
     "'Cept Dempster." She sniffed like quiet defiance. "There's always Dempster. Christ, if he followed me any closer I'd be stepping on him, all this time-- So that's exactly the point, nothing can happen to the Orchard! Not those gossiping biddies, not Wright and Edgeworth and their corn-crackin' theories, n-not even ... if--"
     LaFlamme bit herself off, and was quiet for a long moment. The forest murmured to itself.
     "So ..." she tried. The heel-bouncing stopped, and she rubbed again at her messy braids -- she was suddenly grey and tired, older than she ought to seem, her tempo lacking. "It's down to my bistro or my customer? I'm not taking the fall for this, I can't! But he ..."

     Life was full of wrenching choices. Whether it was closing a suffering business's doors, turning away from a supposed friend … Or doing something as simple as sending a monthly letter, telling family members little more than still alive. Agents never looked back: they only lived and helped others do the same. LaFlamme had never been one to look back, either.

     "God, what do I do," she murmured into her lap.
     It wasn't a question for anyone but her. Derek shifted, refolding his arms.
     "How d'you choose? But he made the choice too, he-- I saw him, he decided what he was going to do, he knew damn well and then whats-her-face, Beasley? Turns up dead, practically on my doorstep! Where the biscuit-bakin' hell does that leave me?!"
     LaFlamme looked up suddenly, sniffing hard, rubbing her nose with a knuckle. Fire crept back through her.
     "I'll do the same stinkin' thing I've always done, that's what! Keep doing what I have to, and nothing's taking my Orchard down, not even-- That miserable sonnovaheifer dragged my Orchard into this! Flambée his broccoli-boilin' peaches with Grand frickin' Marnier!" She stood, brushing convulsively at her apron so the tongs swayed wild. "I like the bastard, don't get it flipped, but I know turning points and this is a fork stuck in the road." She took a last, hurried drag and dropped her cigarette to stamp on. "Barley's right. He's right and he finally speaks up when it counts, always knew the kid had it in him. Guess I better go tell the grill-greasin' truth, huh. "
     She moved a step, and paused, drifting in a magnet's pull. Her rhythm settled into the even darting of a blue-yellow gas flame.
     "Hey," LaFlamme muttered, sharp eyes darting between Derek and the grass at his feet, "You're all right."
     He nodded.
     And with a deciding hum to herself, LaFlamme stormed off -- the world would never get in her way.

     Once her distinctive red and white had vanished around the courthouse corner, Derek lifted a hand to his communicator.
     "I'm here, Derek," came Foxx's voice, softly anxious. "How's LaFlamme?"
     "On her way back. She decided to testify."
     "Good. Did you get any information from her?"
     Nothing clear enough for a mission report, not by a long shot. Derek leaned his head back on the stone and considered the clouds. "She's not the perp. It's gonna be someone else we know." Just a feeling told him that, just a particular beat.
     Foxx murmured agreement. "She's still hiding something? Wright has more work ahead of him, I suppose ..." Her keys clicked at an unsure pace. "It's someone we know ... Would I be wrong to guess that it's someone you know?"
     "Could be." That was all Derek had to say about it. He knew a lot of people.
     "I still don't like how this lines up. Have you noticed anything unusual in the courthouse?"
     "Com link with Morris went down for thirty-three seconds, just before ten AM." And Foxx's lovingly tuned networks never went down -- limped with poor sound quality once in a while, maybe got an occasional whisper of static, but they never went down.
     "Less than an hour before my link with Wright went down ..."
     "Twice is coincidence," he offered.
     "There are too many coincidences in this case. The perpetrator happens to match an Agent too closely for comfort, and now we have signal interference ... Stay with the courthouse, and let me know if there's any further disruption in the com lines. We have eyes on the police department as long as Edgeworth is pressing them for clues."
     Foxx was getting better at speaking in the crisp tone of a leader. Times had changed. With a nod, Derek stood, and he was on the move toward anxious rhythms once more.
     "We haven't seen the surveillance footage," Foxx mused. "Someone damaged that camera for a reason. And there's only speculation on the murder weapon … Same with the alleyway target. LaFlamme is still our best lead on those issues. I'll brief Wright. Over and out."

     Questions and more questions. Derek took the side entrance back into marble and high ceilings, slowing his pace to courthouse unremarkable, his shoes' click echoing. Asking for answers meant getting them.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 01:47 am (UTC)
It's fascinating.