Three men looked up expectantly as Agent Daniel Navarro entered the home office of Dr. Zachary Johnson, led by the Doctor's daughter. Their eyes glazed over as they realized that he was just another guest.
Navarro recognized Gregg Collins, at least, though he was not actually all that familiar with him. Collins gave him a brief nod before occupying himself with small talk with an older researcher while they occupied an even smaller couch. The third, a younger researcher by the look of everything but his eyes, sat slouched in the chair Navarro had learned to avoid.
After glancing around to make sure Johnson wasn't hiding somewhere to get the jump on him, Navarro shut the door and idly wandered the back of the room before his attention was brought to one of the bookshelves. He lifted one of the small figurines sitting on the bottom shelf and grinned at the bear. At least, Navarro was fairly sure it was supposed to be a bear. He knew for a fact it looked godawful, but it was the first piece Johnson had made himself. He placed it back where he found it and slowly began to peruse the rest of bookshelf's contents.
A suppressed chuckle left one of the men behind him. Navarro looked over his shoulder to see the source of the humor, but only found the young researcher watching what looked to be nothing. A shrug at the laugh and a half-hidden smile at Collins almost choking on his drink was all Navarro gave in response.
Returning to the shelves, Navarro found it uplifting to see Johnson's progress as an artist over the years. Each piece was lifted and examined with a silently critical eye before being returned to their spot. Even if Jonnson had never taken up anart he had certainly adopted, or at least finally revealed, a mindset after his time with Navarro. The most recent piece was nothing more than a gray cube.
When the door opened, Navarro gave the old man entering little more than a glance before looking back to the bookshelf, dismissing him as just another of their host's colleagues. Then he heard the familiar thump of a cane on the floor and gave the newcomer another, better look. Zachary Johnson looked right back at him and gave him a grin that would give a skeleton a run for its money. Navarro didn't know what had put Johnson into such a state, but his own story of a coffin possibly containing an exploding pig trying to entice him into opening it suddenly sounded a lot less harrowing.
Feeling like he should say something, Navarro could only stare with a slightly open mouth. The other men in the room didn't fare much better. Johnson caned his way to his desk, where he deposited the large wooden box he had been huddling under one arm. After a brief thud of wood on wood, Johnson cleared his throat.
“Dr. Johnson, what the hell happened to you?” the younger researcher said. Which was a damn good question, really. Johnson replied by putting up a hand for silence.
“Give me a moment to get there,” he said with a sad smile. “First off, allow me to thank you all for being here. I know that for some of you this meeting was short notice, and that the trip was a great distance. I cannot begin to say how much I appreciate all of you attending. I see some of you have already found the drinks. If you haven’t already, please help yourselves as we proceed.”
Navarro only leaned against the bookshelf, still reeling from something akin to shock.
“I will not mince words with you, gentlemen,” Johnson continued. “I am dying. It was the reason for my retirement. I have been diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, and should the disease continue its course, I will be dead within the next four months.”
'Well, fuck,' was all Navarro could think of. Clueless on what Glioblastoma multiforme was, Navarro was unable to form any coherent idea on what to think. Apparently it killed people, and Johnson certainly looked like something was trying to kill him. Very actively.
The man in the uncomfortable chair murmured some sort of denial. Johnson looked him dead in the eye and gave his head a small nod. The man somehow sunk deeper into the chair. Johnson regarded him for a moment before continuing.
“Rather than burden all of you with my suffering, I felt it would be more my style to take advantage of what strength I have left and leave each of you a final gift,” Johnson said. “You know, say my goodbyes while I’m still half the man I was. While I still embody how I’d like to be remembered.”
If this is what he looked like with some strength left, Navarro did not want to think about what he would look like even a month from now. Whatever it was- Cancer. It suddenly clicked in Navarro's mind, as long as it took. The old man had cancer.
Johnson opened up the crate he had brought along and pulled out a small black box that gleamed in the dull orange light filling the room. A chuckle fought its way up Navarro's throat but he kept it in with a teeth-grinding grin.
“Let’s begin then,” Johnson said. By the time he turned to look at Navarro, the latter managed to turn the grin into something a little more natural looking. “Daniel, you have saved my life on two separate occasions. After the first of these times, you gave me this trinket. While it is not my place to reveal what it is to these gentlemen, I do feel that considering the circumstances it would be put to better use if returned to your possession.”
Agent Daniel Navarro dug his back into the counter that he was using as protection. Next to him, an older researcher was huddled up with his cane gripped in both hands. All around them, Site-19 was going to Hell in a hand basket. Chaos Insurgents had attacked the site, for reasons even they probably didn't know, and were currently causing havoc in one of the various lobbies.
"Come here often?" Navarro asked with a small smile.
The researcher barked out a laugh. "More often than I'd like."
Nodding in what he hoped was a nonchalant way, Navarro slowly edged his way around the counter to see if any insurgents were still in the room. Only one was left, laughing like a madwoman and spraying fire from her right palm. She didn't really seem to be attacking anyone or destroying anything, she was just blasting fire purely because she could. She just happened to also be approaching the counter as she did so, which made for a very convincing "Hey I'm gonna cook ya."
Navarro chewed on his tongue before drawing his gun and taking an experimental shot. The woman directed the pillar of flame and annihilated the incoming bullet. Now understanding he was now facing magic fire, Navarro snapped back under cover and tilted his head toward the researcher. "Heyyyyyy, Doctorrrr…"
Zachary Johnson made an effort to sit up straight. "Johnson."
"Doctor Johnson. Have you done anything particularly important today? Made any plans, any new discoveries?"
Confusion coated the man's face. "Can't say that I have, no."
"Oh, good." Navarro smiled amicably and drew a small knife from his pocket. "Because what I'm about to do is probably going to get me reprimanded and you… Amnesticized? Amnestitized? You're gonna forget stuff. So, uh, sorry about that."
With a practiced hand, Navarro pricked the points of each finger on his left hand. He then made small cuts on each knuckle of the hand, and made a much larger gash across his palm. With a grimace he waved the pain away from his hand and launched himself into a standing position. After fishing in his pocket he pulled out a lighter and popped it open.
"For safety's sake, I recommend closing your eyes," Navarro said. "And maybe holding your breath."
He muttered a few words and lit the blood pooling in his hand on fire. It immediately flickered toward the pillars of flame being emitted from the chaotic insurgent. Navarro strode forward at a relaxed pace, waving at the woman when she noticed him. She hesitated for a moment before stamping the ground.
"Back up!" yelled Alexandra Radcliffe. "I've got plenty more where that came from."
Navarro held up his own ball of fire. "Try me."
After fighting another bout of hesitation, Radcliffe let out a burst of fire. The flame sitting in Navarro's palm gorged itself on the incoming heat, leaving the agent no worse for wear. The insurgent cocked her head and fired another blast. The two grinned at each other before Radcliffe let off a monstrous stream of fire.
"How long does this last?" she called over the roaring flame.
"Forever?" Navarro lifted his palm to the ceiling, redirecting the assaulting fire in the process. "Fire grows hungrier the more it's fed, sweetheart."
"Soooo I should stop." And so she did. "Well, that was cool. But I can hear your buddies coming, so… I'm out."
"Oh, this should be fun," Navarro said with a smirk. He drew his firearm with his free hand. "And how are you gonna do that, pyro?"
Radcliffe held out her hand, palm facing down. A thick black mess Navarro didn't recognize quickly congealed in her palm before dropping to the ground, splashing into a large puddle. The insurgent produced a rose from nowhere, bowed, and threw the flower to the agent. After a quick laugh she hopped into the puddle, and sank into it as if it was nothing. Moments later, the puddle bubbled before fizzling out entirely.
"That was amazing."
Navarro turned around to see Johnson leaning against the counter. The old man had the biggest grin on his face, which Navarro found to be unbearably infectious. Navarro stole a quick glance in the direction of approaching footsteps and hurried over to the doctor with a childlike bounce in his step.
He held out the orange flame. "Wanna hold it?"
Both of his hands shaking, Johnson held out one hand while the other wobbled his cane around. Navarro deposited the hungry fire into his waiting hand, and laughed at the researcher's reaction. Johnson tossed it up and down as if it was nothing but a ball, his wide eyes reflecting the bright fire.
"This cannot be sanctioned," Johnson said with soft disbelief. Navarro pulled some bandages from his pocket and wrapped up his palm while Johnson played with the little ball of heat. "I simply cannot believe the Foundation would allow someone who could do this to work here."
"You'd be surprised." Navarro spit in both palms and clapped them together over the fire. When he brought his hands away there was nothing but soot smothered on his palms. "I was an anartist before this. Fight fire with fire, eh?"
Johnson just smiled, a tittering laugh constricting any speech.
"Listen, doc, if you do happen to remember any of this later? Hit me up, I got something you might like." He offered him a hand. "Daniel Navarro."
Johnson offered the something he might like, which it had turned out he had indeed liked. It was a small black box composed of some wood from some reality, both of which Navarro had a difficult time pronouncing, and a small metal clasp on one side. Inscribed along the top was was the phrase, "What killed the cat?" in gold lettering.
Navarro found it too difficult to meet Johnson in the eye, given the circumstances. So he just stared at the box, waiting for the dying man to speak first.
“It was truly a beautiful gift, thank you for sharing it with me.”
Navarro finally looked up at Johnson, who he could still barely recognize. Save for his eyes. Still as sharp as when they had been entranced by magic.
"Any time," Navaro said when he couldn't hide the smile anymore. He slipped the box into his breast pocket and gave a quick nod before backpedaling to his spot next to the bookshelf.
“Karlyle,” Johnson said after a moment. Navarro's eyebrows rose when the old man pulled out a revolver. It was Johnson in the Office with the- Navarro shook his head and made himself listen. “You and I started at the Foundation around the same time. You are easily one of my oldest friends and we have had more than our fair share of close calls. This is the revolver I used during that containment breach in ’96. I can think of no better person to have it than you. I hope you will never find yourself in a position to use it, but if you do, I think you’ll recall that this can get the job done.”
Karlyle Aktus chuckled as he stood from his spot on the couch, and he approached the desk. Johnson handed him the gun, which Karlyle simply set back on the table. Before Navarro could wonder what he was doing, Karlyle nearly tackled Johnson in a hug.
"I will treasure it forever, Zach."
"I appreciate that."
Navarro almost winced when Karlyle slid the revolver into his pocket before returning to his seat. It probably wasn't loaded, anyway. Maybe. Hopefully, for the old man's sake.
“Gregg,” Zach said as he pulled out an ornate, polished chessboard. “You were my first assistant, and have since become one of my closest friends and colleagues. This is the same chess set I used to have in my office. You should recall the numerous games we played, you as black and I as white. It is my hope that it may bring you as many fond memories with your assistants as it brought me.”
Collins stood slowly and walked even slower over toward Johnson. Navarro's throat hitched when he noticed the man's glasses were much wetter than glasses were really supposed to be. Collins retrieved the chessboard and silently thrust out a hand. The two had a brief, solemn shake and Collins returned to his seat.
After apparently fighting through the weight of the room's atmosphere, the youngest researcher blurted out, "Dr. Johnson, I can't accept anything from you. I just can't-"
"For the love of god, Jacob, call me Zach." Navarro couldn't help but smirk, knowing he was just as guilty yet had gotten off scot-free. "And I insist. I'd very much like you to have it."
Johnson then placed a small silver watch on the table.
"This watch was originally a gift to me from Dr. Thompson prior to his incident. He said that, like this timepiece, I was simple, dependable, and had a slightly odd tick.” The old man laughed harder than he looked like he'd be able. "In the time I have come to know you, I feel that you exemplify these qualities more than I ever had. This is why I think you should have it."
Jacob Conwell didn't move for what was probably too long a time. He just sat there like a dummy and stared at the watch, his mouth hanging open. Eventually he lifted himself up and trudged over to the desk. The watch sat in his hand for several seconds before he smiled.
"Thank you, Zach."
Navarro had to chew on his tongue, it was just all so damned touching. Conwell returned to his seat and all eyes returned to Johnson.
"That’s all folks," he said. He picked up the box he had brought in. "Thank you all so much for coming. I consider it an honor to have spent my time on this earth with gentlemen such as you."
With it all over and done with, Navarro took advantage of him standing and slid over to Johnson to be the first to say his final farewell. Johnson smiled and eyed the pocket Navarro had placed the box in.
"Well, doc. I… am not good at this." He scratched the back of his head. "It was fun? Was definitely fun."
"Indeed it was. Humor an old man's dying wish?" He prodded Navarro's pocket. "What's in that accursed thing?"
Navarro almost threw his head back. "Whaaat? You could never open it?"
"Oh, I tried, I can assure you. Just didn't want it enough, I suppose."
Navarro giggled. "Well, I guess I can spoil it. And man, I feel kinda bad considering why you're giving it back and everything but- ahaha. It's pretty funny."
Johnson smiled and rose his eyebrows. "Well? What's in it? What's so special about the box that it requires a magic latch?"
Navarro couldn't help but laugh. "Nothing."
Johnson blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Not a goddamn thing!" Navarro grinned. "The box doesn't open. There's nothing in it. The thing isn't even anomalous."
The brow of Zachary Johnson furrowed like it had never furrowed before. His eyes screwed themselves so close together it was hard to tell if they were even open. His lips smashed together into a thin line, the edges perking up slightly.
"Get out of my house," he said in a low voice that threatened to crack. Navarro stood his ground with a shit eating grin as his only weapon. Johnson quickly broke down into laughter. "You cheeky bastard. You're serious, aren't you?"
"Serious as cancer." There was a brief moment where he wondered if he had gone too far, but the comment earned another chuckle from Johnson. "C'mon, I mean, really. Did you expect more from me?"
"I expected nothing less." They shook hands. "It's been a pleasure, Daniel."
"Likewise. So much likewise. See ya in another life, Doc."