Off the Hook
rating: +26+x

Off the Hook

A Twisted Pines / Wilson's Wildlife Tale

It was strange, Wajima "Hagi" Moyumi thought. Strange how she had been able to leave the Foundation so easily.

It wasn't that people couldn't leave the Foundation, of course. They could, but unless they were high ranking officials, they were doomed to forget everything about it. The Foundation's main purpose is to hold information, and retirees are just bundles of information asking to be abducted and interrogated by any number of antagonistic groups. Say, a Mekhanist wanting to know what Site contained some kind of artifact, or an agent of the Chaos Insurgency trying to pry out anything that might lead to a successful interception or bombing. Or, anyone who has no problem selling that information to others. In short, it was dangerous to leave any retired Foundation employee with any amount of useful information unprotected, and since bodyguards and surveillance take time and energy, the Foundation made it a habit to wipe most everyone. Soon enough, other groups of interest began to notice that no amount of torture could pull up anything useful, and life for these retired scientists and injured field agents became a lot less ruckus and a lot more safe.

Hagi's situation was different.

When the Foundation was wondering how to go about breaking the news that they would be loosening their grip on Wilson's Wildlife Solutions, something that came up was the idea that they could reveal Hagi to have been a spy, and then pull her from their ranks, as a fairly literal example of their grip loosening. It was pretty foolproof. Nothing in the Boring Agreement actually banned espionage, from the Foundation's side, and it would have shown them that a new era was dawning — an era outside the grip of the Foundation. Everyone was on board.

Except Hagi.

She had been very upset when she heard the news of this plan. Someone upstairs must have noticed, because soon enough she was called into a meeting with the Nexus 17 research team, and asked about her thoughts on the matter. When she spoke dissent, they heard her. Which was wholly unexpected.

See, Hagi didn't want to leave Wilson's Wildlife Solutions.

She'd been with them for… just about two decades, by that point. It had become her livelihood. She knew a Foundation agent's lifestyle required flexibility, and the willingness to change at a moment's notice, but… she hadn't felt more fulfilled with herself in her whole life. She asked them if perhaps they could still reveal her, but afterwards… take her off their payroll, so to speak, and let her stay as a full-time employee of Wilson's Wildlife Solutions.

It was risky and Hagi hadn't expected it to go anywhere.

But it worked.

She got to remember most things, or so her memories told her; she did know that at this point they were hard to trust. They had wiped her of many, many things — she didn't know the locations of any Sites, for one. She didn't remember almost any anomalies she had worked with (besides the animals at Wilson's), she didn't remember the layouts of any research facilities… she was allowed to remember her friends and colleagues who she had said goodbye to, but they wiped her of their names. Still, the fact that she could remember that she worked with the Foundation at all was a rarity.

The first couple months after that big reveal were tumultuous. There was a lot of celebrating, but… quite a bit of animosity had come Hagi's way. People were understandably upset at being spied on, even if it was from the Supervisors, whose whole job it was to supervise. Eventually, it cleared up, and while she did know that there were a few that still hold it against her, even those people hid those feelings to make the workplace a better experience for everyone. But not everyone had reacted that way. Faeowynn Wilson had been kind to her, and so had her good friend Gary Harp — though they did have one or two very hard conversations.

"Are you ready? The first trip is always a doozy." Hagi stood at the edge of a sewer gate — an unfortunate place for a Way, but what do you do? There's not much room to complain.

"I mean, I think I am." Gary winced a little. "Does it hurt?"

"Not at all. C'mon, I'll show you how it's done."

Hagi had gone into Three Portlands with the Foundation at least twice before, but for what reasons she could not remember. Now, she was going into Three Portlands with Wilson's. It felt… surreal. More surreal than Three Portlands already felt, which was quite a feat. Three Ports had always been a great big anomalous secret, and it felt crazy that Wilson's Wildlife should know of it, of all people! It was a step upwards for sure. With the upcoming location that they were going to build there, Wilson's Wildlife was going to be more connected to the anomalous world than ever before.

"You don't have to. I heard the descriptions before, I can do it."

"If you say so."

Gary opened the sewer gate, and plugged his nose.

"Plugging your nose isn't part of it."

"Shuddup."

Hagi giggled, and they descended through the gate.

"I'm just worried," Gary started, "about setting up wifi in a parallel universe."




UIU Agent Tosh Reddy was doing very important work. Not the most fun work, per se, but it was important work nonetheless. With a roll of blue masking tape in one hand and a stack of posters in the other, he slapped an ad onto the inside of a storefront window before turning back to the shopkeeper, a kind elderly woman. "Thank you for letting me put this up, ma'am!"

The woman waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, don't worry. I'm always happy to support local businesses!"

Tosh just couldn't help but smile. "I'm happy you support us. Now, uh, I've gotta run. I've got lots of these things."

"Of course."

And with that, Tosh stepped outside into the bustling crowd of Three Portlands, peering off towards the inverted horizon and catching glimpses of several lighthouse shadows, that same dumb grin still plastered onto his face. He looked up into the sky. It was fun, sometimes, to work with people — he'd forgotten that warm, fulfilling feeling in his heart to do something good.

Usually doing good in the UIU just meant throwing someone in jail, or busting another anomalous drug ring. Sure, it inherently improved the world, but… something was different about seeing the immediate effects of your actions, seeing how they affect people. It was nice.

"Hey, Tosh!"

The agent looked up to see his partner, Agent Tahirih Adams, with a noticeably smaller stack of posters compared to his. By the look on her face, that was exactly what she was about to talk to him about. "Have you been slackin' or something? Come on, we've gotta get this done fast! Just look!" She pointed down to one of the posters in her hand.

Somewhere beneath "Come to the Grand Opening of Wilson's Pet Shelter!", the images of happy anomalous animals, and a long list of reasons to support the export of weird and "unusual" critters (that seemed to be their favorite word to describe it) from Boring, Oregon to Three Portlands, Tahirih's finger landed on a single innocuous line:

"Meet us for the grande opening at 14542 Echo Ln., on 6/4/2028!"

Tosh looked unimpressed. "Yeah? What about it?"

"The fourth of June is the next next Sunday, you moron! There's no way we're gonna be done by then."

"Well… That's the date Ms. Wilson gave us."

Tahirih blinked. "Fae."

"Mhmm, I know, Ms. Wilson."

She blinked again, her eyes narrowing. Tosh hated when she did that — accentuate her blinking. It was so painfully passive-aggressive. Then again, maybe he was just digging too far into it. "She told us she'd rather be called Fae."

Tosh opened his mouth to object, but something tugged at his heart. "Alright, alright, I'll lighten up. Everyone's always Mr. this and Mrs. that in agent work, so you can cut me a little slack. Well, anyways, I bet Fae knows what she's talking about."

"I wouldn't be so sure, I mean, it's a lot of work."

Letting his roll of masking tape fall around his wrist, Tosh patted his partner's shoulder. "I think you could use a bit of 'lightening up' too, eh? I mean — these people are so optimistic. Maybe you could learn from them."

"Hmph. Maybe I could."




Hagi and Gary decked themselves out in white, filmy suits. Hagi did her hair up in a bun, and hid it under a cheap white cap. Gary pulled on white coverings over the soles of his shoes, and — with some difficulty — pulled up a sticky zipper on the front of his onesie, wondering if it was really necessary to do all this just to paint.

"You don't want to damage your clothes, Gary."

Gary grunted. "I didn't wear anything I cared about today," he protested.

But Hagi just rolled her eyes and shrugged. Gary wasn't a manual labor guy, ever. His jobs were behind desks, behind screens, and on phones. But… he really did want to help out with the new location, and he knew that meant getting his hands dirty. Transferring over to their new place was an option reserved for employees that had been there since the Tim Wilson days — days that still hung on the horizon like they'd never left, even though they had been gone for a good four years by now. Anyways, Gary was one of those people. But it wasn't just an option. It required putting in the work. Gary really didn't want to do that, but…

Hagi was transferring there, and he knew that without her, the office back at base would get boring.

So with a sigh, he picked up a paint roller, dipped it into Wilson's signature minty green, and made his way over to the nearest wall. They had already placed the cardboard beneath each wall, to make sure that their colors wouldn't drip down onto the hardwood floor, which they wanted to keep clean for now (at least until it got all scratched up by the high traffic of dogs, cats, birds and the like). With a steady hand that Gary had acquired from years of computer building and soldering, slick clean strokes of green began to form on the wall. He looked over at Hagi and smiled to show her that he wasn't going to complain again. She smiled back, and followed suit, dipping a roller into the mint solution.

Hagi joined Gary's side at the wall, and outclassed his strokes in almost every regard — they were straighter, longer, and she made them faster. Gary had to look away to feel good about his own work. To his right, his eyes peered down the in-production hallway that was going to lead to their animal pens and field. It was familiar to him, in a way. It looked just like the hallway off from the main hub of the headquarters, except that if he were to follow it to its conclusion, he would see the artificial sun that gently warmed the super-soil, and a great expanse of extradimensional city. The scale here was… no, it wasn't bigger. Everything was just stranger. And people here had come from all over the world to seek refuge from "normal" and camp out in the town of the unusual.

A strange, strange feeling washed over him.

"Gary?"

"Hmm? Oh, sorry."

"Why'd you stop like that?"

"It's nothing."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, 100%."

"Ookaaay."

Gary made one more stroke, but then couldn't help but speak. "The eras are really coming and going, aren't they?"

"Hmm?"

"I mean," he dipped his roller back into the paint inside the paint tray, and rubbed the excess off onto the ridges, "it's been, what, four years? Since Tim passed?"

"God rest his soul."

"Yea, and, you know, before then. Everything felt like it was repeating itself, over and over. Maybe even getting a bit worse. We couldn't handle everything that came to us, we misplaced money a good number of times, we had to be saved, we were a mess. Felt like we weren't going to make it. It really didn't. Boat loads of stress."

"Yeah," Hagi sighed, and looked concerned at Gary. "Yeah, I know how you feel."

"But, that's a discussion for another time. What I'm saying is, ever since Fae got in the big chair, feels like we've been going a mile a minute. First we have a new boss, then the Boring Agreement gets shredded and stitched together like eight times, then we get a new base on the coast so we can look over some sea and aquatic critters… we start getting donations from anomalous organizations, which spawns a whole 'nother Boring Agreement fiasco, turns out you're a spy — err, sorry. But, I mean, like… the Foundation loosens their grip as they deem us trustworthy, now we have an alliance with the feds, and we're breaching into Three Portlands? And making an adoption center? Like, the pound, but for anomalous animals? It's… insane. It's been four years. Can you imagine that? Four years. I'm just, I'm a little overwhelmed."

Gary painted a second longer, pausing to allow Hagi a space to respond, but no response came.

"I dunno, it just," Gary felt the need to continue. "…It feels like the world is anxious to be happening, you know?"

Hagi kept painting, but nodded slowly. "Yeah," she whispered. "I know."




Wilson's Wildlife Solutions had never really owned a real adoption center before. They would usually just find an animal that didn't do much harm, put some posters up, perhaps schedule some visits, and then hope someone would fall in love. But that only extended to the few residents of Boring and to the volunteers and employees of Wilson's Wildlife. The operations were small, and only for special cases. Thing is, Three Portlands was a hot mess of anomalous activity and individuals that Wilson's wasn't ready to deal with, and if something went wrong, UIU agents would have to deal with the fallout. A type of experiment like this required some oversight. Which is exactly why the UIU requested that two of their agents, Tosh and Tahirih, were to be the ones to pick the first 'test batch' of adoptables. So, after driving up the quaint and lightly forested SE Wally Road and parking in the shade for comfort, they met longtime Wilson's employee Feather Fanucchi, who was to take them through the premises.

"So, for the Pet Shelter we want to have five… ish?" Tosh looked over to his partner, who nodded in agreement. "Yeah, five animals. They need to be sociable, easy to take care of, y'know, stuff like that."

"Dogs and cats are good starts too," Tahirih added. "Most folks tend to be more open to adopting typical pets than like, a turtle, or something."

"Or a mini pterodactyl? Y'know. Just as an example. Anyways, yeah, that should be easy." Turning to the left, Feather led them along. "We've got an enclosure specifically for canines, I think there are some good contenders."

A barrage of barks and yaps erupted as Feather opened a door, leading the pair of agents through. There were dogs of all breeds and sizes — and the group was immediately swarmed by the fluffy herd.

However, with a single "calm down," from Feather, they all quieted. "Good boys. Um… Liam!" As the rest of the herd backed away, returning to their usual activities, one tiny tan and white beagle poked its head out of the crowd. "Yes, you."

The dog sneezed as Tosh looked over to Feather, grinning. The corner of her lips rose, quivering.

Meanwhile, Tahirih knelt down onto the grass. "Come here, Liam!" Without warning, the beagle suddenly broke out into a dash, tackling her with wet, sloppy kisses. Tahiri simply giggled a bit, hugging Liam.

"Well, looks like you're getting well-acquainted. This is Liam, he's a lemon beagle, two years old. Very energetic, as you can tell. His entire deal is that he's completely low-maintenance. Barely needs food or water, so he only needs to go to the bathroom once a month."

Tahiri gasped, turning to Tosh as the beagle strained to get closer. "He'll be perfect for those city-goers up in Three Portlands!"

"Then sign 'im up!" Tosh knelt down, scratching the dog's head. "You're going places, doggie."




Why is it that whenever you aren't able to have something, it's always much more prominent in the world?

Like when you get braces, and suddenly caramel sounds really good.

Or you lose a prized pencil or pen — and suddenly it looks like everyone is using yours.

Or even when you're lonely, but you notice everyone else with their friends.

It's strange, isn't it? That something in your mind drags attention to things you can't have, things you've lost.

And walking through the crowded city of Three Portlands, Sherman Vega sure was seeing a lot of dogs, and happy barking wormed its way into his ears. He put in earbuds to try and drown it out.

It made him sick to his stomach. He sat down on a bench, closing his eyes.

There weren't any pet stores in Three Portlands, he knew that much. And he definitely couldn't go out into the real world — without power over his abilities, he'd surely be noticed and locked up in some cell at the ends of the earth.

He wondered about the friends he'd left behind. Did they still remember him? He'd told them his plans, but they still never visited him. His only real company had been his dog, Uriel, but… Uriel was an old dog.

Sherman's grip tightened on the edge of the bench, and he stood up, rubbing at his eyes. Suddenly, a green poster caught his eye. On the other side of the glass on a storefront for magical rocks (unlike the "new age" shops from where he used to live, these seemed to be legit), there were pictures of frolicking cats and dogs — one breathed fire…? But, puppies were puppies.

Coming closer, it was an advertisement for a pet shelter — "Wilson's Pet Shelter". A pet shop? In Three Portlands!? His stomach jumped. When and where?

June fourth. What? That was today!

His heart skipped with a childlike, gleeful hope. He quickly committed the address to memory, and stood up straighter than he had before.

Maybe he'd go check it out.




"…Five?"

"Five was all we needed."

"Are you… sure?"

"What're you expecting, a stampede?" Tahirih looked puzzled. "You don't just come in and get a pet. There's a whole process, and it's the first day. I'd say you'd be lucky if you cleared all five. Just go put the open sign up already."

Hagi set her bag behind the counter, a little unsatisfied with the batch they'd picked out, and went to turn their "closed" sign to "open". She wondered. Was she expecting a stampede? No, of course not. Hagi was fully prepared for today to be slow, and relatively uneventful. But she was definitely hoping for more than five animals to show off. That seemed very underwhelming.

Ah well. All she could do now was wait here with Tahirih. Gary and Tosh were in the back, looking after the dogs. She had to say, they did a good job on this building! The light above it made it easily identifiable from far away, Wilson's colors had brought some of their small town charm to the big city, and the small yard for the animals was a beautiful touch. There were of course some rooms that still needed work — most of the offices, really — but the lobby, front desk… everything that a customer would see was spotless. Hopefully, it would be very impressive. Pictures of their favorite Wilson's Wildlife animals were hung up on every square inch of every wall, to make sure anyone walking through the door would immediately be struck with the impression of an animal sanctuary, as that was, pretty much, the point.

But, fully expecting to sit for hours behind a desk before anyone showed up, the morning had already yielded a customer.

Suddenly, the lobby door burst open, and a sweaty, panting young man entered surrounded by a yellow aura. It wrapped around him, twisting and turning with each raspy breath.

"Ah, hello there!" Hagi lit up with joyous surprise. "H-how may I help you?" She wasn't quite sure how to greet people yet.

"H-hi, I'm uh, Sherman, nice to meet you, um…" he searched her for a name tag.

"Hagi."

Sherman smiled, and a thrill of pink went through his aura. "Hagi, hi." He reached out for a handshake, quite unexpectedly. Hagi made sure to shake his hand — which shook at a rate she hadn't experienced before. "I'm Sherman — I mean, I'm, looking. For a dog."

"Alright, do you have any history of pet ownership?" Tahirih had crept from the back towards the desk to do her job — background check the customer.

"Yes, uhh, I had a dog when I was young — it was 'my' dog but it was the family dog, you know. But, I did have my own dog. A big Weimaraner, named Uriel. He was mine and only mine for over a decade. Good boy. L-loved that guy."

"And where were you born?" Hagi understood that everything that Tahirih said, she was supposed to log and repeat for all future customers.

"W-what? Where I was born?"

Hagi was also logging exactly what she would do differently. "Yes, we need to be able to background check you for a criminal record. We're selling anomalous animals, you understand. We don't want them to end up in the wrong hands — mistreated pets could be a danger to the owner and to others. If you're the mild mannered, polite person you seem to be, you shouldn't have a thing to worry about."

"Well…" He looked reasonably confused, and a gray-blue shuddered down his now more jagged mirage. "Okay, okay. Sherman Vega, from Kansas City, Missouri." Hagi noted that down in her customer checklist, of which she had tear-off pads full.

She looked to Tahirih, to see if a name and birthplace would be enough. Agent Adams nodded — looks like the UIU didn't need much to track people. "Good! Would you like to come back around and see the animals?"

Red blushed back into Sherman's aura, and he nodded frantically. Hagi opened a small gate, and waved Sherman through. Hagi led, Sherman followed, and Tahirih stayed back at the desk. They passed several small pens for the animals, which were all released into the yard at the moment. At the end of the hall, Tosh stood, and seemed (reasonably) surprised at how quickly they had acquired a first customer. He courteously opened the door on the left (his right) out into the yard, where Hagi and Sherman happened upon Gary playing with three dogs and two cats. The yard was fenced off completely — and that meant towards the sky as well. There was a chainlink shield around the entire thing, connecting to a white fence at the ground, and the building at the top. The small artificial sun was directly above, giving the place a summer's warmth at all times.

Gary was caught entirely off guard, especially because his unfamiliar eyes were still getting used to anomalous humans. Animals were one thing, and people were entirely different. He put on his best business casual attitude, before realizing that the best thing to do was to go full Wilson's and look like the happiest man alive. Which wasn't too far from the truth… sitting in a yard and playing with animals was just about the best thing he could think of to do right now. Well, except sit behind a computer and feel at home within the code and numbers. But that was work, even if he enjoyed it. This was pure fun.

At once he remembered the plan that Tosh had given him; he knew that he should push Liam, the lemon drop beagle.

"This is our batch right now," Hagi said, feeling more than just a little embarrassed at how small it was. Sherman, however, didn't seem to notice, as his cloud became pink, orange, and a little fuzzy.

"I… I, how do I approach them, will they hurt me?"

"Hurt you? We wouldn't be giving them out if we thought it was likely that they'd hurt people!"

Sherman had a smile growing on his face, as he knelt down and awkwardly waited for one of the animals to disengage from Gary's toy waving and ball throwing and come over to him. Gary noticed as much, and threw the toy into the little pool of animals, and made his way over to Sherman. Gary, never the most sociable, asked: "Open to suggestions?"

Hagi lifted eyebrows at him.

"Uh, um… yeah, I'm, not really sure what I'm looking for."

"Cat or dog?"

"Dog."

Gary smiled smugly. All according to plan. "Liam! Liam, c'mere boy."

A little white and light brown short haired dog bounded over and went straight into Gary's open arms. He scooped the little guy up, and showed him off to Sherman.

"This guy's named Liam. He's the perfect pet. Wanna know why? Well, he's low maintenance. That's his entire thing. He needs significantly less food and water than most — we'd suggest about a meal every other day, and… well, the common dog etiquette is to fill the water bowl when it's dry, but I doubt you'll need to very often."

"No sh-shit?"

Gary handed Sherman the beagle, who yapped once in excitement for meeting a new person.

"No, he still poops."

Hagi gave Gary a look.

"I mean, yep! No shit! That's his whole thing. Perfect for any city-goer, such as yourself."

Sherman brought the dog close to his face and rested his cheek on its head — well, for as long as he could, before it pulled away enough to lick him. Sherman closed his eyes, and let the dog coat his cheek and forehead in doggie kisses. Gary looked at Hagi, who shrugged, content to let him have his moment.

Sherman sat down without opening his eyes, still being loved by the dog, and began to gently pet it. His aura turned a calm, watery blue.

Gary was getting a bit impatient.

"So…"

"When can I have him?"

Hagi smiled wide. "You can reserve Liam for a small fee of $15 while we look to make sure you're fit to be a dog owner — sorry, an unusual dog owner. Should only take…" Hagi looked around her, thankfully finding that Tosh had heard her pause.

"Less than a week."

Hagi smiled at him, silently thanking his addition. "Less than a week. We'd just need a way to contact you —"

Sherman pulled a pen out of his pocket and produced a pad of paper from inside his hoodie. Quickly, he wrote down an email, and handed it to Hagi.

"Is… is that all? I'll receive an email and come by?"

"When you come by, we'll need to see a receipt for dog food, and pictures of where you intend for them to sleep, just so we know that you're preparing for owning a dog." Hagi realized just how ruthless this must be, and was quick to add: "We just want to make sure we're giving them the best lives we can."

Sherman nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, y- of course, I understand. Th-then, uh… I'll, go." Hagi led the way back to the lobby. "Thank you so much, no one's come to visit and I just, I need a pal, and, my last furry pal isn't with me anymore, and I can't tell you how happy I was to see that we were finally getting a pet shop around here, I'm just so, so… happy. Thank you." Sherman walked out into the main lobby. "Thank you," he said as his gloved hands pushed $15 into Hagi's. And as he walked out the door, "thank you!"

The bells of the door tinkled as he stepped back out into the streets of Three Portlands, and slowly walked out of view.

Hagi stuffed the $15, along with the email, into a little cubby behind her desk labelled "Liam". She had thirty such cubbies, as that was the number of animals this place was built to hold at a single time. After the money was logged, Hagi looked up, with a huge smug smile on her face.

"First bull in the stampede, I reckon."

"Ohh, shut it." Tahirih said, half turned away from Hagi so as to suppress a smile… but Hagi could tell. They held meaningful eye contact for a good second or two, and then Tahirih began to walk towards the back. "I've gotta talk to Tosh about this."

Hagi was secure in the knowledge that they were going to share good news. The pet shelter was going smooth and they hadn't been open for more than an hour. A load of anxiety slumped off of her shoulders and fell onto the floor. They'd done it.

One small step for man, one huge step for Wilson-kind.

As another young fellow approached the front glass doors, Hagi knew in her heart that everything was going to be alright.

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