000: Preamble

A nearly thousand-word preamble to a fan fic? Yes, just to set some expectations and allow people to manage their personal preferences.

I only discovered fan fiction after the show's finale and embraced it to help cope with the loss (thanks, writers/enablers!). The finale really stuck with me and - as I considered the entirety of the series and to my complete surprise - this happened.

I don't want anyone to accidentally waste their time on something they should know they will dislike (deliberately doing so is another matter entirely). And it is going to be a pretty dense, lengthy read with some known hot buttons / potential objections. So please indulge this one-time lengthy preamble before investing your time. Or skip ahead to the break if you know that you simply don't care!

Warnings / Here's a few things you should know (or maybe just forgot)...

Events: Mostly for any new Chucksters (Welcome, Friends!), via NetFlix or otherwise, obviously expect extensive spoilers and in no predictable order. For all prospective readers, this is still fundamentally a canon retelling - after a fashion - and I know many have tired of that. Although it does bend some events, happenings, backstory and motivations and fills in some blanks to fit my headcanon. I initially set out to explore canon events throughout the series in the context of that headcanon so the train never really jumps the canon track - although it may adhere more to the scenario rather than strictly to the events. Still, it is rarely intended as any kind of 'fix it' fic.

Pace: Positively GLACIAL.

Tone: Fully embraces the admittedly stylized / unrealistic elements and darker themes present in canon and inherent in the spy genre that CHUCK heavily leverages. It therefore tends to be fairly angsty and deemphasizes the more whimsical elements that some prefer. This darker approach also includes a wide spectrum of approaches to THE hot-button topic: seductions...

About 'that'...: I AGONIZED over the decisions related to seductions. I don't want to feed any kinks (no offense if that's your thing but...nope) nor do I want anything to come off as Pollyannaish or disingenuous. I DO want to be true to the underlying genre (warts and all), to be consistent in tone and, therefore, to acknowledge its too-casual, repercussion-free yet prominent usage in canon - all of which made it impossible to ignore seductions completely - while also trying to avoid the portrayal of such things as something blithely accepted. No choice here was made lightly but this means some portions of that spectrum will be unpleasant.

Caveat Emptor: Some of these elements are mere annoyances to some readers (pace, certain canon events) but others are known hot buttons. I have been reluctant to share this story having seen readers take great offense on principle to some elements and wanted to provide ample opportunity and the necessary information for those readers to opt out.

I now consider those who have strong aversions to any of these aspects to be sufficiently informed to make their own decisions and, perhaps naïvely, rely on the prospective reader's self-awareness and their ability to manage their own consumption. Having provided ample warning, I will try to avoid cluttering things up in the future with any additional commentary on story choices or blanket rebuttals and instead let the story tell the story from here on out.

And with that, as the good Captain says, I wash my hands of this weirdness. ;)

Acknowledgements

Because I am a control freak and crazy nervous about sharing (see Exhibit A above) this is technically unbetaed but thanks to everyone who has been supportive or offered their opinions when this was still in its early formative stages.

Extra special thanks with a cherry on top to the brilliant, talented and extremely gracious Steampunk!Chuckster for going the extra mile and offering to bounce ideas around - and let it be known, I have thrown some seriously wack ideas at her from a multiverse of possibilities. If any part is irredeemably offensive (as opposed to uncomfortable-but-story-appropriate), it is likely because I didn't heed her advice enough. A thousand thank-yous, Agent V. You are the best!

Logistics

The lengths of most installments should be around the 9k - 12k range in their entirety. This will make frequent updates unsustainable but I will try to update regularly. Due to extreme variation in scene/what-could-have-been-chapter lengths, some installments (like this first one) are single chapter 'long takes' while others are multi-scene/multi-chapter. They will be labelled so you know which to expect.

It is a bit 'front-loaded' due to extremely rich and dense S1 source material and a prologue that tries to set some rules of the universe, clarify expectations by example and even provides some early reveals to help with both. The prologue will be six chapters (usually roughly synonymous with 'scenes') spanning the first four installments/parts (published 'chapters') before we even get to Burbank.

For those few intrepid adventurers among you not yet dissuaded, willing to take the bad with the good and willing to forgive my missteps as I try to achieve a difficult balance, with no more ado...and that was a LOT of ado...let's remix this business...

Disclaimers / Easter Eggs

The author has derived no income or other profit from this work. No ownership of or claim to the characters or story of the television show Chuck (referred to hereafter as CHUCK) or the movie Tron is asserted or implied in this or any subsequent part. No ownership of or claim to Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters is asserted or implied.


Becoming

PROLOGUE

"Choices"

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it." - Charles Dickens


Part I (Prologue): The Greater Good...

...in which a government agent contemplates recent events, her role in them and the unsavory career that has led her to this time and place before making a difficult decision...

Canon Reference: Contained within flashback elements of Chuck vs. The Baby (episode 5.08)

Contents: One super-sized chapter (Ch 1); 11,800 words, breaks indicate suggested rest points as we begin to delve into many of the elements warned of in the preamble


001: The Greater Good and Other Lies

Budapest, Hungary;

Sun Sept 16, 2007 12:56 am

Nicole Schroeder sat rigidly upright at the foot of the bed of her darkened hotel room. Her ankles were crossed and hands folded in her lap as she breathed in and out slowly, smoothly and deeply through her nose. The beautiful, blonde woman's heavily shadowed eyes were softly closed as she listened to the rain clattering against her window punctuated by the occasional flash of lightning visible through her eyelids and the subsequent soft rumble of distant thunder. She was taking advantage of this overdue moment of relative quiet to contemplate the convoluted events of the last several weeks.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to steer those thoughts away from the more existential questions she feared to face about the endless cycle of lies and violence her life had become and instead focus on more immediate concerns. Those immediate concerns currently consisting of both the contents of the repurposed gun case resting near her pillow and how much she hated the three men she held responsible for her current situation.

She resented the very idea that she in any way required a handler after over nine years in the CIA and six as a very successful and eventually highly autonomous field operative. She may have understood the thought process that could lead to distrust of her allegiances given recent events but she still couldn't believe a conclusion had been made that she was suddenly somehow unreliable in some way.

Had she known that the decision was less about the actual probability that her loyalty to The Agency was in question and more about the extreme risk she posed as their most deadly agent she may have been slightly flattered but no less angry. She was simply too dangerous for her superiors to blindly assume she could still be trusted.

She wondered what it would take to remove this cloud of suspicion and for how much longer she would be under this additional scrutiny. Scrutiny brought about by the mysterious actions of the man she now wondered whether it might be more accurate to consider to be her former partner.

If Bryce Larkin knew what was good for him he wouldn't show his face around her unless he had already cleared up the situation with their superiors. His sweet talk and roguish smile weren't going to cut it this time. If she were honest with herself, his Casanova act had lost some of its charm a long time ago but he had proven to be a hard habit to break.

They operated independently as often or more often than they worked as a tandem and it wasn't uncommon for either of them to disappear without warning when called away for a mission that didn't require the pair of them. But this was the first time she had been deployed under false orders, detained on arrival and interrogated at length about his suspicious actions and possible whereabouts. Now she knew exactly what it looked like when one of those absences was unsanctioned. She had once trusted him with her life but was now starting to doubt that faith in him.

Bryce had earned some benefit of the doubt over their time together - at least with regard to her faith in him as a partner. So maybe her anger was a little bit misdirected. After all it was the man who had originally recruited her, the current Director of the CIA Langston Graham, who sent her on this assignment ten days ago.

The Director had simply said there was an AIC in Hungary who needed someone who could work efficiently and autonomously to deal with some local trouble. Her version of a smash and grab - infiltration and elimination of heavily armed opposition to retrieve a classified target. Her bread and butter. She could often achieve the same results with or without bloodshed - the difference usually came down to whether her presence could or was preferred to go unnoticed, whether survivors were needed for questioning or what sort of message needed to be sent. She was very, very good at sending messages.

She had objected to being put under the supervision of a handler again - especially since one of the explicit operative requirements was autonomy - but Graham had shut her down. He reminded her that although her identity was still classified and closely held, he was still dealing with the scrutiny of the other sixteen members of the Intelligence Community around his rogue agent and anyone associated with him. He told her this mission was just something he pulled off the top of the proverbial pile to keep her sharp until the apparent hornet's nest Bryce had kicked eventually calmed down.

Graham knew how antsy she got when she wasn't in the field and, frankly, he didn't like her to have too much time alone with her thoughts. And so he sent her. Not Sarah Walker.

Sarah Walker, by all accounts, was an administrative efficiency expert currently reviewing regional operations out of a small CIA post in Belgium who had suddenly been recalled to Langley for vague reasons involving administrative briefings and budgetary reviews. No one paid much attention to the comings and goings of Sarah Walker - and no one will have distinctly remembered seeing her in Virginia those days or not - but that's what her personnel file would say.

That sort of thing seemed to happen to Sarah Walker a lot.

The Director had instead sent Nicole Schroeder to Budapest. Yet another woman magically created out of thin air by the maestro Langston Graham to fill the vacuum created whenever Sarah Walker was absent from the world.

She had briefly been Laura Davis when she was processed out of the black site in South Africa where she had been interrogated for eight days. She had been handed a phone with one of Graham's staffers on the other end. Authentication protocols were exchanged before she received her orders, a small case full of mission gear and a packet containing her new credentials from an agent on site and she went on her way. Just a typical day she remembered thinking at the time.

Three weeks and one relatively simple yet highly micromanaged intelligence gathering mission later she became Nicole Schroeder. Now she was thinking that maybe she should simply blame Graham for this entire fiasco - both for sending her here and for targeting her for recruitment in the first place nearly a decade ago.

As she always did, Nicole Schroeder had accepted her new identity without question. Slipped seamlessly into a different woman's fictional life playing her role to perfection...though she sometimes wished she had veto power over the names themselves. She couldn't prevent a mental image of a disproportionately large-headed cartoon character playing Für Elise on a toy piano whenever she introduced herself these last few days.

But while Bryce Larkin did deserve some of the blame for the nature of her recent assignments and Director Graham deserved a share for his part in selecting them, it was Kieran Ryker that was the object of most of her anger. He was the Agent in Charge for this op and the one who had sent her into that meat grinder alone last night.

The expectation of dealing out death and carnage itself didn't bother her at all - or at least bother her more than the nagging buzzing it had become in the back of her mind over the past couple of years. Death and carnage was her stock-in-trade for most of these last six years. At least when slipping in and out like a ghost in the night was not an option. It was the fact that she had been lied to from the start about what was actually going on that really pissed her off. That and the fact that Ryker had tried to kill her himself on a busy street yesterday afternoon.

Nicole inhaled deeply through her nose, opened her eyes and stood. She efficiently gathered a few items from her purse and from around the room. She then stepped out on her covered balcony and placed the metal trash bin on top of a folded wet towel just in case the bottom of the bin was even thinner than it seemed. Nicole Schroeder took her last breath as the woman who had donned her skin carefully and individually burned the last of the few scraps of paper that were the forged passport and other identifying credentials of a fabricated person. In mere moments, without pomp or ceremony, Nicole simply ceased to exist.

The now nameless woman wondered if she would ever go back to being Sarah Anderson. Or if she even wanted to. Sarah Anderson was still on administrative leave pending review. Current Location: Parts Unknown.

As she had watched Nicole burn, she wondered what Sarah Anderson's given name - or rather, first name; they were all given names - might have been if she and her most frequent partner for most of the last two years had not previously met and if he had not overheard what she no more considered her name than any other nom du jour.

He had first known her as a 'Sarah' having bumped into Sarah Walker at Director Graham's Langley office. That name was not a cover identity per se. It had been assigned as a primary yet seldom utilized alias. A default setting. To Graham's point, he had to call her something. But 'Sarah' was no more her name than 'Nicole' or any of the others that had come before.

Her partner - and that was still how she thought of him despite her irritation with him - had foolishly introduced himself as Bryce rather than an approved alias. He had then eventually become Bryce Anderson more often than not when they were later assigned as frequent partners and had occasion to pose as a married couple. She had learned to live that cover just as she had the many before they met and the many others assumed on various missions since but it had been the most compelling of the bunch. Perhaps she had lived that one more fully than the others even as unwise as that may have been.

When she was assigned to solo missions - usually cleaning up some mess for Graham, often indirectly of his own creation - she adopted yet another new identity. But for nearly two years she had been a Sarah of one type of another more frequently and for longer durations than at any earlier point in her career. It was what Graham called her unless she was specifically operating under a different identity and Bryce had adopted the same habit. Yet she never thought of herself as 'Sarah'. She tried not to think of herself at all.

Bryce had gone off the grid entirely doing God knows what and she had been questioned for days about his whereabouts. It had been mild by her standards - just a little drug cocktail and your standard polygraph - no lasting damage and nothing she hadn't been trained to beat ten times out of ten, just repeated over multiple days. She wondered how much of a hand Graham had in limiting the intensity of her interrogation.

Lying and scheming were second nature to her long before she was enticed into joining the CIA. In the years before Graham had assigned her scores of identities, her father had given her dozens of his own devising. She guessed she had been more than two hundred different people over the course of her twenty-five years on the planet.

The CIA's spycraft and interrogation specialists taught her to school her physical reactions and hide her sometimes raging emotions more effectively than even she had thought possible. Snuff out her feelings, bury them somewhere deep down inside. In a place she couldn't bear to look anymore. Become unreadable. Show only what you wanted others to see. Her father would be so proud.

She was sure that her ineffective interrogators were convinced that she knew very little. Her story had the rare but convenient virtue of being the truth. She had told them truthfully that she had last seen Bryce when the two of them had been lounging in the living area of their shared two-bedroom suite - preferring such an arrangement or even more private spaces whenever the situation and covers allowed.

She left the common room where Bryce had been checking his email and retreated to the sanctum of her bedroom to take a shower and settle in for some quiet time before bed. Shortly after she rinsed her hair he knocked, apologized in his usual automatic and casually insincere way for breaking her rules about intruding in her personal space uninvited and casually announced through the bathroom door that he was running down to the corner for some snacks. He had even asked if she wanted anything.

It was an odd intrusion. Especially knowing as he did how serious she was about the privacy of her nighttime rituals. And even at the time it had ominously reminded her of some of her father's ice cream runs when she was a child. Not the joyful ones after a successful con job but rather the ones that unpredictably turned into absences stretching into days or sometimes weeks. She foolishly expected Bryce to pop back up even days later but that was the last time she had seen him or heard a word from him.

That was over two months ago.

When he had failed to return by the following morning she had tried to investigate the last thing he had been reading but the laptop - one that at least cosmetically was very different than hers - was completely useless as anything more than a paperweight. She had later learned that some components were actually melted. Some sort of aggressive malware was suspected but some of the laptop's components and the damage they had suffered were beyond anything the CIA techs had ever seen.

It was as though it had been designed to melt down but much more elegantly than the usual effective, but easily detectable, CIA tricks of miniature degaussers or small thermite charges. She had no idea where he had gotten that particular laptop - a point of surprising interest to her interrogators.

The only thing of any import - and so little of what he said outside of mission planning these days was of any import - that she could remember Bryce mentioning before he disappeared was that the CIA and NSA were working on something jointly that was going to change the espionage game. Something big. Their higher-ups were pleased that things were finally coming together after some early failures and the approaching anniversary of 9/11 was somehow considered a significant milestone for their efforts. This seemingly minor detail was the one thing she withheld from her interrogators.

She withheld that information for practice more than anything. Or possibly out of sheer boredom. Or perhaps because the anniversary itself roughly coincided with a dubious milestone of her own.

She had been in custody or on assignment for three of their five planned emergency meeting points and their Plan Z - a series of widespread rendezvous points in case either of them had to unexpectedly go dark - wouldn't be active for another three months. If she wanted direct answers she would probably have to wait until then. When Bryce had not showed up at their remaining two locations she began to wonder if she had misplaced her loyalty and should have revealed the minor point she had withheld.

She had not heard of anything unusual in the intelligence community or through any of her less conventional contacts to indicate that he had been up to anything causing any death or mayhem. That should have been reassuring but she knew Bryce - at least professionally. To his infinite amusement chaos tended to erupt in his wake wherever he went but The Agency always knew what he had been up to. They usually preferred her surgical precision but sometimes encouraged his tactics in order to conceal their intentions behind the pandemonium he usually created. But they had no tolerance for agents who disappeared entirely and this silent absence spoke volumes. Something was coming.

As she cast the ashes from the can out into the rain and wind and stepped back inside she said a silent goodbye to Sarah Anderson as well. Whatever Bryce was into - unless he had a vastly better explanation for his unauthorized improvisation than he had ever produced before - this was likely the end of him as an agent. Possibly the end of him altogether. And Sarah Anderson was likely just as dead as Nicole Schroeder.


The woman leaned with one foot crossed over the other and her tailbone and both palms against the edge of the vanity causing her shoulders to shrug slightly as she contemplated the gun case on her bed. What was she supposed to do now? Even if she decided to do so, disappearing was not an option. Maybe if Bryce hadn't vanished first she would have had a chance but now The Agency would assume the two of them were up to something together and they were clearly well beyond unhappy with just Bryce having gone rogue. She needed to stay the course and allay suspicion. Reestablish herself to buy some time to plan if she were ever to consider such a thing.

No one she had encountered in her time with The Agency was sentimental enough to assume they were something as sappy or impractical as two star-crossed lovers. Nor would they foolishly allow two of their top operatives to roam freely with unknown motivations. They would assume the worst - that they were conspiring in some diabolical scheme - and pull out all the stops to find her. If it were just herself, she could do it. Maybe. At least for a while.

But she thought about the person she was - the person she had become to survive this life. And about what needed to be done next - the commitment - the longevity it would require. Any sane person would agree that she was clearly the wrong choice.

There were literally hundreds of reasons she was the wrong choice. She now knew that her experiences and role were somewhat atypical within the broader intelligence community. Director Graham had the full gamut of potential resources at his disposal. From a legion of conventional agents and support personnel churned out of The Farm on a regular basis to the utterly criminal. Con artists. Master thieves. Assassins. Seductresses. He either developed people filling those four roles internally as a subset of the conventional ranks - or somewhat less conventionally as she had been - or he occasionally contracted out the most distasteful aspects of their world to freelancers when the work required less finesse.

She he had originally thought she would have fallen on the more conventional end of the spectrum but instead now found herself regularly filling three of the four roles at the other extreme and occasionally dabbling in the fourth. She had once hoped to break away from the con game and become someone more respectable, yet she found those skills to be useful for even a conventional agent. It was both a disappointment and a relief - something she knew she was good at - and her prowess had not gone unnoticed as The Agency invited her deeper down the rabbit hole.

The same went for pickpocketing - a skill she developed, expanded and enhanced to conduct heists from the most secure facilities in the world. She had to become a government agent to truly reach her full criminal potential.

She hadn't thought she was wired for either of the other two - the most extreme roles she might conceivably be asked to play. She had once thought that only sociopaths and jaded prostitutes would be willing to perform the extremes of those respective roles with absolutely no compunctions. She honestly couldn't say which was worse. Both were horrific and repulsive in their own special ways.

Now knowing for certain that such things were generally not asked of most conventional recruits - at least not as cavalierly as they were asked of Graham's 'specials' - didn't change the fact that she had reached the height of her profession long before coming to that realization. That ship had sailed long ago. She had almost unwittingly chosen one over the other and found she had a remarkable capacity for violence. And once you were among the killer elite it was difficult to justify utilizing you for anything else.

Her strike team experience was black and white combat - kill or be killed - and she was mostly able to come to terms with that. But her first assassination target had been something else entirely. Just a photo in a folder and an address. Not even a name. A woman labelled a traitor but with no proof provided. A mission completed almost by accident. The first of many.

She was usually more successful at preventing at least her waking mind from contemplating her own milestones - the ones that had come to define her - but Graham had predictably invoked 9/11 for a more self-serving reason when they last met.

What seemed like a lifetime ago, the agent had completed her lengthy and unorthodox training in 2001 just two days before the attacks on both towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a fourth plane downed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after a revolt by its own passengers against their hijackers.

Hoping to reignite her zeal for her new profession after discovering some unexpected revelations during her training about the new life she had chosen, she had attended as an anonymous observer several days earlier when the former Director had delivered an impassioned speech to the incoming class of conventional CIA recruits - many of whom were intended for much less covert roles. As one of the handful of practical children then Deputy Director Graham had plucked out of questionable circumstances to be his chosen few, she had received a similar message behind closed doors. It was the only event that would mark what could be loosely termed her graduation.

Both messages were variations of the same bill of goods she had been sold when Graham had recruited her. Turn her back on a life of crime and serve her country. Live a life of adventure and excitement while serving a larger purpose.

Serve the Greater Good.

That hadn't been the only reason she had originally accepted Graham's offer but she had embraced it if for no other reason than to make her new reality more palatable. She had already seen enough by the end of her training to suspect it was almost completely bullshit. She would never admit it to him now but even on the day she walked out of the secret training facility and embarked upon what would be a remarkable but completely anonymous career she still had hope that she could redeem herself in some way for the sins of her youth and erase some debt on a cosmic balance sheet. Do more good than harm. She no longer clung to such hopes.

Just two days after the completion of her training and field tests, the attacks spurred a frenzy of activity of which Graham - ever the opportunist - took full advantage. The political pressure and media scrutiny drove demands for results that ensured that his new secret classes of operatives would avoid any close scrutiny. And his methods - which once would have been considered controversial - were ignored completely allowing him to produce results more quickly than expected and curry favor on The Hill for his eventual appointment to Director.

She and the rest of his less-conventional, recently minted covert agents - known only to her by a set of operational code names - were all thrown into the fires that consumed nearly one third of them in the first year. Scrambled to the four corners of the world in response to this newly prioritized threat. She herself, like many of her faceless colleagues, had been swept up in the ensuing national pride and briefly nursed new hopes of being in a position to do something about this terrorist threat that shocked a nation and left so many feeling frightened and helpless.

But eventually some distance made even these aspirations fade into the haze of any other mission. While she knew she had foiled many overt threats and thwarted many covert plots against the United States and her interests over these past six years, many other actions revolved around political influence and economic warfare - either defending her nation against such actions or committing them against rivals. Forwarding an agenda rather than protecting a nation. That was the least shocking difference between reality and her naïve expectations.

Too many other missions had focused on eliminating threats directly or by sowing discord between loosely aligned factions - usually by creating the impression that members of one had been killed by members of another - leaving no trace of her involvement in those deaths and letting them then betray and eliminate each other. She couldn't help but think that her role in any of these had left her deeper in the red far more often than not.

Nonetheless, given the coincidental timing of her finally - if more clandestinely than most - joining the ranks of The Agency's clandestine forces, it was not unusual for Graham to comment to her on the approaching anniversary.

It seemed the agent, in all her varied incarnations, had crossed a significant milestone in a solo mission just two weeks before Bryce vanished. With the sixth anniversary of both the attacks and of her secretive induction as an agent approaching, Graham had stopped in to share the news while she was in custody undergoing relentless questioning. Literally a captive audience for his recounting of events she had no interest in reliving.

He had questioned her to his own satisfaction and then assured her that she would soon be released. He said it was for appearances, to ensure no one accused him of preferential treatment or of being anything less than thorough, but she suspected it was lingering misplaced anger toward Bryce. He had apparently decided that this interrogation session at this non-existent facility was the time and place to merrily inform her of her updated confirmed kill count before leaving her there to dwell on it - bound by straps to a metal chair that was bolted to the floor and wired to a polygraph - for most of the next two days.

He had catalogued her actions that had brought that count to an impressive and grotesque 'nice round number' - if she had stopped there. It was the third time he had used that phrase in those six years. Then he catalogued the actions that exceeded that round number for a third time.

The first time had reminded her - reluctantly hopeful - of a repentance tale from Islamic teachings that she remembered from her cultural training and associated readings. The second, morbidly of the 'four times fifty' of Coleridge: "the souls did from their bodies fly; they fled to bliss or woe". Her only remaining hope was that none had fled to bliss and her greatest fear was that any had. There was really no acceptable number.

She couldn't even repeat the number itself though it was never far from her thoughts as she had no cleverness remaining for this third such milestone. What Graham saw as tally marks in their favor in the bloody crusade to defend his Greater Good she saw as soul-crushing debits on her balance sheet.

Ever since she had requested her assignments be limited to stealth, extraction and elimination Graham had kept her informed of the body count she had left in her wake. She had been careful to phrase her request in terms of all the things she could still do for him rather than the thing she feared. The possible consequences of being found out while at such a tactical disadvantage represented an unacceptable risk. She had no desire to put herself in a situation that forced her to consider the full range of possible actions ever again despite her training - except possibly in the most impossibly dire of circumstances. She had learned quickly that Never was a dangerous promise to make to oneself but she struck a bargain with Graham to vastly improve her chances.

She had never been comfortable in the role of seductress. She had the benefit of an unconventional upbringing where she had learned to talk her way out of almost any situation. She could convincingly play any role not just a vampish temptress. And when such an approach was judged to be the most effective and likely to succeed, when there was time to plan, the plan almost always included sufficient backup and contingencies to avoid the worst possible outcomes.

When seduction was part of the primary plan, it was never explicitly expected that she even approach repulsive extremes; the full-blown variety she had feared since her formal spy training. When some degree of seduction was involved it was usually a simple distraction or a bait-and-tranq to facilitate intelligence gathering. She had come to find as much amusement in the moment when she betrayed an evil man who she had led on as she found disgust at doing it. Perhaps even a bit more.

But her newly discovered beauty had proven to be a burden when she fit the need for the most obvious of roles and entered into the most dangerous game a female agent could play more often than she had expected. Not every situation allowed for robust planning and not every plan went as expected.

She had witnessed the aftermath far too many times when other female agents had wormed their way into the confidence of extremely unsavory, dangerous and unpredictable men only to make a fatal misstep or to be betrayed by circumstances. Some had survived and wished they hadn't and she was sure the ones who hadn't wished they had. She had seen one fellow agent come out the other side of a horribly overplayed hand changed forever.

Survival didn't necessarily have to mean demeaning yourself by blithely accepting the worst possible outcomes of the game they were playing but it was a careful balancing act with much at stake. It was uncommon but not unheard of for an agent to choose a path that ensured their survival at great personal cost. She didn't know or ever want to find out what they had to do to cope with such situations.

Director Graham heavily utilized conventional agents but also ignored every unwritten rule in favor of results. He had operatives like herself - one-agent wrecking crews - and several other even less conventional resources at his disposal. She had occasionally crossed paths with some of Graham's people who were barely trained and considered lesser resources. So-called Valentine operatives - one of many demeaning terms. Agents in the technical sense only posing as the companions of their targets to gain access and track their movements and interactions. Solely intended as infiltrators but based on what little she knew of them they were not quite as lascivious as male agents often portrayed them.

One had told her that The Director had saved her life and that there were far worse existences. That particular philosophy didn't mesh with her own but she had later acknowledged that these women were survivors in their own way - more resourceful than she had expected with their own avoidance techniques when dealing with their marks and their own coping mechanisms when those techniques failed - even though their reputations carried over to the few full-fledged female field operatives like herself in a simplistic male agent's view of the female agent.

But even those other agents didn't have her array of skills. In a no-win situation she found that she could change the game. And that was how she discovered what she sardonically regarded as her hidden talent.

More often in her early missions - in situations where another agent might consider herself trapped - she had talked her way out or otherwise achieved her objectives through stealth. Graham was unimpressed. He said he could have farmed out that kind of work and called her lucky. A glorified grifter and a waste of her extensive training.

One particularly nasty situation led to something of a habit of escalating with violence to end the charade early, earning her a certain dubious reputation that was thankfully contained within one of many, many code names. That first time, her support team had been unable to implement their planned extraction and her mark had been far more aggressive than she had anticipated. With no small degree of luck, her particularly bloody alternative solution born out of desperation had still allowed her to achieve her objectives. And had gotten Graham's attention.

She logically understood the merits of using every tool at your disposal and tried her best to overcome her revulsion, eventually becoming more artful with her deceptions and more judicious with her wrath. The worst were the overnighters - a Virgin Mary some juvenile, provocative yahoo had nicknamed them. Not after the Holy Mother, of course, but rather the non-alcoholic drink. All of the window dressing, none of the hard stuff. Only employed on less wary, less dangerous marks in scenarios requiring no recurring contact.

She could win the interest of nearly any man and had been trained and equipped - relying heavily on knockout drugs with euphoric side effects and other somewhat revolting tricks with convincing effects - to create the impression they had been intimate with one another the night before then artfully excusing herself from any follow-up activities the next morning. Most men suited for such an approach were simply fools, petty criminals or pretenders. Rarely aware of the full significance of their actions. She was aware that she was betraying them with her manipulations - deceiving them into believing she was something she was not - and so she seldom felt the need to wield the full force of her wrath against them.

But she drew the line there and refused to entertain the thought of overstaying her cover and having to resort to even more convincing acts to maintain that cover or her mark's interest. She would die before she allowed herself to be used that way.

Or someone else would. Not all marks were so easily fooled or manipulated and some had to be dealt with harshly and decisively. She had been trained to recognize the signs and determine when a situation was and was not salvageable - and she had been trained at the knee of a pretty good con man to read people long before that - but many of the decisions were all preordained.

She had realized early on that no matter how seemingly mild your intentions, once you set foot into such a role the downward slope was incredibly slippery. If things went well and you suffered through being kissed or pawed at by someone you despised while pretending to be an enthusiastic participant perhaps you could achieve your objectives without sacrificing too much. Without betraying yourself or what few ideals you still clung to. Without revealing your true intentions or your deceptions. Without suffering the consequences of revealing either.

If things went poorly and all best laid plans failed the options no one wanted to talk about still included the worst. Playing out the cover to avoid suspicion. A repulsive choice she had thankfully managed to avoid that was still preferable to almost certain death. Or so she had been told - a theoretical choice she suspected had more to do with the value of Agency resources and wasn't entirely convinced she agreed with. She had occasionally considered that, if she completely lost control of a situation and there were no other options, she would give them no choice but to kill her rather than become their plaything before they killed her anyway.

After six years she still felt more appreciation than outrage for the man who had laid it all out for her simply because he had been brutally honest with her. He described the dangerous situations she may find herself in, what may be required to survive them and deliberately shattered the last of her naïveté for her own good. She was in too deep by then and he had pulled back the curtain on what alternatives - unlikely but conceivably - could be required of her and what she had to be prepared to do - how convincing she might have to be - if for no other reason that to make it out the other side alive. And she was a survivor.

Always a survivor.

Looking back on every situation where she had begun her deception with a wink or a sultry look - knowing full well where the chain she had started could lead if absolutely nothing went right - only made her feel as though they had all ended in the revolting way that every true operative secretly feared.

She had quickly come to realize that calling any of it a choice of any kind was lying to herself. Eventually, her luck was going to run out. Even with all the backup in the world and the best planning you could hope to have, it was a roll of a die. One she had rolled enough and no longer wanted to gamble herself on.

So, highly trained, having demonstrated her proficiency in combat and having seen too much of the fate she didn't want for herself, she decided it was something she no longer wanted to risk to chance. After initially brushing off the suggestion, Graham surprisingly conceded to her well reasoned argument that she was even better suited to other uses.

She still felt incredibly unclean when such things invaded her thoughts. Both for what she had even, purely as a tactical option, considered doing to survive on a few unfortunate occasions and for what she had traded to - not necessarily prevent - but merely improve her chances of never having to do it.

She had never really considered that she was effectively offering to become Graham's personal fixer. At the time, eliminations seemed to be just as extreme of a concept as what could have happened on those few missions that had nearly fallen apart at the seams completely and required far too much of her. It wasn't as though she hadn't had to kill numerous times over the course of many other missions - been forced into it really by the nature of her service - and she reasoned that at least it didn't require as much of a sacrifice of her soul. After all, if you found yourself looking down the barrel of a gun in her hand or with the blade of her knife under your ear you probably knew what you did to bring her there.

From the beginning, it had seemed to be the lesser of two evils. Of the two, she thought she would eventually become more desensitized but she couldn't have been more wrong. She had just never considered that Graham would utilize her quite so liberally. She had gotten exactly what she asked for and traded one horror for another. And she was so successful at it that she had effectively made Graham's career.

Those with any degree of knowledge of his reputation, from enemies of the state to members of his own Agency or the broader Intelligence Community, came to fear him and his seemingly inescapable reach.

They especially feared the ghost that was his so-called 'enforcer'.

Even so, Graham had not been pleased that one of his few surviving protégés from his days as Deputy Director had become more and more reluctant to allow anything more than a wink and a kiss or occasionally to demean herself by allowing some heavy petting or some other humiliation she would later repay in the course of completing her assigned objective. But he had agreed to her request and reaped all of the unexpected benefits.

She still utilized her beauty, sex appeal and enticement skills. Frequently to set up a kill. Often to quickly gain access to secured areas or other objectives by exploiting foolish men. Only occasionally going as far as a Virgin Mary to leave no indication of her duplicity. Even without going as far as she once feared, she had eventually reached a point where she could barely tolerate a mark touching her. In what passed for her personal life, she was far too concerned with losing her professional credibility to pursue relationships with fellow agents.

When she indulged her need for human contact, her few attempts at relationships outside the intelligence community were doomed to be nothing more than brief trysts due to the nature of her work - adopting disposable identities, her reluctance to trust and her awareness of the blood on her hands. Not to mention the smaller betrayals sometimes required of her while on those types of missions. Short of what other agents may have had to do at one time or another but betrayals nonetheless. She had thought there was no one who could possibly understand the sacrifices she had made. The things she had done. And there had been no one she allowed to remain around her for any significant period of time. Not until Bryce.

She wasn't sure if Graham kept her updated on the number of lives she had extinguished as a show of pride and support of her in her most notable and notorious area of specialty or to somehow punish her for not fully embracing her role as some unvoiced vision of the ideal female agent.

Either way, she didn't need reminding. She knew the number. And she knew their faces. And most of their names. She had added the eleven on the way in and eight more on the way out just over twenty-four hours ago. There had been too many missions like that over the years. So few missions were a simple in-and-out or a glorified con job. She usually got the dirtiest, bloodiest assignments, executed them in the brutally fierce manner that was her calling card and the bodies had piled up quickly.

She had once done the math. It was similar to the example of earning a penny on the first day of a month and doubling it every day. It sneaks up on you, closes fast and overtakes you completely in the blink of an eye.

After the first ten days of doubling your penny, your earnings increased from a single cent to a vastly improved but still modest five dollars a day. After twenty days it ballooned to five thousand. By the end of one short month your wage would be five million dollars. Per day.

Her burden was similar - but like so many things in her life upside-down and backwards. Decreasing instead of increasing. Dividing instead of multiplying. Destroying instead of building. If every kill had cut her soul in half, as it had felt after the first one, what was left of it was now infinitesimally small.

Divide by two enough times and you close on zero unbelievably fast. If you're feeling generous, divide by something less than two as many times as she had and you didn't fare much better. What little was left was questionable in its significance - even if she limited herself to Graham's preferred count of only her direct kills rather than every casualty on every mission. She wondered every time she got even closer to zero just how close she was to simply blinking out of existence.


Ryker should have raised the count by one and put her one step closer to oblivion but she had missed her opportunity and only managed to wound him. She stood to her full height and let her bare feet carry her back to the sliding glass door. She gazed straight through her faint reflection there - through the ghost in the glass - at the thunderstorm raging outside and fumed as she recalled how he set her up to do the wet-work for his little money grab and tried to dispose of her afterward.

Never mind what a cocked up plan it was in the first place. There were no terms of inheritance. The vast sum of money had simply been transferred to a secure account at a private bank and the only people who could currently access it without assistance lay dead on the floor of their palatial dining room.

She had hunted down Ryker's tech guy - a scrawny, twitchy little hacker type who liked to call himself Spider and spout unoriginal nonsense proclaiming himself the master of the web. Spider didn't realize how close he came to increasing the count by one.

She despised hackers - always hiding behind their computer screens and their clever little self-created nicknames. So self-important yet never really putting themselves at risk. He was more fortunate than he would ever realize to currently be cuffed to a radiator with a broken knee cap and several broken fingers. Probably sitting in his own filth by now. She would call it in once she was clear of the city and have him brought in to corroborate Ryker's rogue action. Or Ryker would find him first and tie up the loose ends for her.

She had considered eliminating him herself but realized Spider didn't know any more about her than Ryker did and so she left him to his fate. It didn't matter to her either way. Killing him quickly didn't improve her situation at all and she was sure he wouldn't appreciate her mercy if Ryker was the one who found him. Her vague amusement at the idea of what would happen to him if Ryker found him alive with no information of value to offer may have been why she left him alive.

She focused her eyes on her reflection in the glass of the door rather than the tempest raging within her shadowy image and her mirror-self seemed to judge her for such a casual dismissal of yet another human life. But he was as complicit in all this as Ryker and didn't warrant another thought from her now that he had revealed all she needed to know - that Ryker had known everything from the start.

Ryker had played both sides against each other and tried to use his own agency to take advantage of it. Convinced the banker to move all of the funds to his own in exchange for false promises of protection and to temporarily mask his involvement. Convinced the bad guys that their money man was betraying them with predictable results while gathering everyone who could point back to him in one place. And worst of all, convinced both her and Graham that this was a legitimate op with a completely fabricated target requiring a minimally proficient agent. Ryker kept up the charade while she independently confirmed his falsified reports and unnecessarily tracked the movements of the key players. All he really wanted was muscle to go in and soften up the opposition.

The one thing Ryker could not have anticipated was that due to the current lack of confidence in her by her superiors she would be a part of that pool of potential agents who fit the required mission parameters. Loners. Killers. Ghosts. Ryker had wanted one of The Agency's disposable assassins but coupled with Graham's desire to get her back in the game, he got her. As far as Ryker had been concerned she was completely expendable and had not been expected to survive. He clearly had no idea who he was dealing with.

Spider now knew exactly who - or at least what - he was dealing with. It hadn't taken long for him to break, his initial bravado crumbling under the sheer intensity of her restrained fury. All she initially asked for was his name. Just a name and the pain could stop. Break the persona and break the man. She had quickly learned that his real name was Norman and shortly thereafter he had told her everything.

He told a sputtering, sobbing story about stumbling onto the inconsistencies in the banker's finances and, after digging deeper, determining that he had been stealing from multiple clients for years and funneling the proceeds to a secure account. An account at a private bank that required the physical presence of an account holder and a fingerprint match - of even the tiniest fingers - to access the account.

The banker had thought those precautions would give him some measure of protection but his most dangerous clients had killed him and his wife not realizing any of this. Or realizing that prior to their visit the banker had completely emptied their accounts into his own at Ryker's direction in exchange for promises of protection that never came.

When she had defied expectations and survived her initial onslaught, Ryker made a tactical error that ultimately revealed his true intentions. She had planned on slipping out once she retrieved her objective but the nature of the package prevented that. He should have immediately sent her to engage the reinforcements - the outer guards she had earlier evaded to maintain her strategic advantage over the more concentrated group - that she later had to fight through on her way out anyway. Then he could have concocted a story to cover his tracks, sent her on her way if she had survived and gone in himself after the smoke had cleared.

Maybe he had panicked not knowing whether anyone else knew as much as he did. Or maybe he was just too big of a chicken-shit to face any remaining opposition himself. Either way, he had opted to direct her to retrieve what he deemed 'the package' - the last surviving person capable of accessing the account and Ryker's true target.

That third person was barely three months old and would have to wait nearly eighteen years to independently access the funds. The agent was still unclear exactly what he had expected to do next. Keep the girl in isolation for the next eighteen years and eventually manipulate her into accessing the funds? Lop off those tiny fingers or otherwise lift her prints and try to manipulate the records, size differential and any number of other security obstacles to pass himself off as an authorized account holder? Pose as a guardian? Forge some sort of power of attorney?

Norman was unclear on those details but some combination of the last two or something similar were probably part of the plan and she found she was uninterested in the details. The agent smiled wickedly at the thought that she had made those plans, whatever they were, irrelevant. Neither the Hungarian mafia nor the rogue agent would be getting their hands on any of that money. Or on the little girl.


So the agent took stock of her current situation as a particularly violent thunderclap shook the building: she had been saddled with a handler for the first time in over four years because of the uncertainty around any involvement she may have in whatever Bryce was doing. She had been sent on a suicide mission into a farcical, impromptu dinner party for the leadership of half the Budapest underworld apparently celebrating the murder of their financier and his wife. And the handler she hadn't wanted to deal with in the first place had tried to kill her. At least her life couldn't possibly get any more complicated given her most immediate concern.

Her most immediate concern, and the biggest reason by far that she directed the vast majority of her hatred toward Kieran Ryker, was the now relentlessly screaming bundle haphazardly swaddled and resting in her gun case turned makeshift bassinet.

She had given a lady down the hall eight, brown 2000 forint notes to watch the baby for four hours while she gathered the information she needed to determine why they were after the baby in the first place. She would have paid ten times that but it wouldn't have meshed with her hastily concocted cover story of a desperate mother needing to go to a job interview.

She had paid Norman a less-than-friendly visit, confronted Ryker to confirm the story, failed to kill or apprehend him and then while contemplating her next step - as she began to make her way back to the hotel with no specific mission objective left to achieve - she had stopped in her tracks in the middle of the sidewalk as she suddenly realized that her entire life was at a crossroads.

She stood stunned by the revelation - and her shame at the fact that she could even entertain the thought - as fellow pedestrians sidestepped to avoid her like a stream breaking around a stone in it's path. There was absolutely no legitimate government interest served by her returning to the hotel to collect the baby from the complete stranger she had given the equivalent of less than a hundred dollars in Hungarian currency, a few disposable diapers and a single bottle of ready made formula.

She had no real need to go back to that hotel at all. She rationalized for a moment that since Ryker had not already come looking for her at the hotel he must not know she was staying there. So surely it would only further endanger the baby if she were being followed and chose to return there now.

But she was sure she wasn't being followed. As good a liar as she was, she couldn't lie to herself. Not about this.

There was no magnanimous justification for running away that she could convince herself was true but the smart play was still the simplest. She had backup credentials and half her mission bankroll hidden in a locker at a nearby train station. She could be out of Budapest inside the hour. There was no valid tactical reason to go back to the hotel.

None at all.

None except to be absolutely certain the child would be safe. To see to it personally. She had no reason to worry about such things - her mission here was over - she had not yet reported Ryker's betrayal and he was still hunting her. The smart thing for a survivor like her to do was to disengage and withdraw. To walk away.

Yet here she was now, standing in near pitch black darkness staring at a wailing baby lying in a gun case.

Unwelcome and completely unexpected thoughts about the horrific but unlikely things a stranger could have done with a baby had sent her rushing back to the hotel as fast as she could without drawing unwanted attention. The woman she had chosen solely out of convenience to watch the baby girl had chuckled at her disheveled appearance and the obvious relief that was, surprisingly, entirely unnecessary to fake.

She felt no ill will toward the child herself. In fact, she tried frantically for the next hour and a half to attend to her every need but had no idea what she was doing. The baby girl had finally slept for nearly two hours but the thunder had woken her again and now she was inconsolable. Diapers had been changed and a bottle of formula drained. The agent was at a loss for what else she might need.

It had been so long since she had seen anything good and pure that it scared the hell out of her. She had just killed nineteen men and tortured and seriously injured another. Now she was trying desperately to keep a tiny baby alive. The Greater Good for which she had been fighting what seemed like every waking hour these past six years had always been a complete abstraction. So much so that she had begun to wonder whether there was such a thing. Was this little girl really worth saving? She could become anything. She could become a doctor. Or a teacher. A force for good in the world.

The murdered banker and his wife would have provided the little girl a life of comfort. And where would that path have taken her? A life of privilege would have given her every opportunity but also exposed her to every vice. The baby girl's parents had foolishly involved themselves in a world they didn't fully understand, why would their daughter make any better decisions? Given a life surrounded by ill-gotten opulence would this little child have been able to make the right decisions or would she become entitled and cruel?

But what would happen if the agent - or the woman she had considered abandoning the baby in the care of - had simply decided to drop the child off in a local orphanage? Adoption into a happy home? Possibly. A perfect storm of luck that led to a happy future? Unlikely. Even less so in this less than hospitable area. A lifetime in an institution somehow resulting in a successful, happy adulthood? Conceivable - but only if she ignored every wicked thing she knew of the world. A too-short life of some combination of poverty, crime, addiction or prostitution? Far more likely.

She briefly wondered if she had done the girl any favors by saving her life. Circumstances clearly weren't enough to ensure a happy future. Starting your life in even the most loving of environments guaranteed nothing.

She needed to look no further than her own childhood to prove that. The chain of events beginning with the agent's own choice at the age of seven to follow her father's path instead of staying in the loving home that her mother would have provided had set her on a bloody path that brought them together all these years later.

The agent morbidly thought that if the little girl was extremely fortunate and made the perfect decisions at the perfect times she too could avoid a life as a con artist and still live a life of lies and thievery. Avoid being labelled a criminal yet live a life of crime. Avoid the brothels and still become a reluctant temptress, with the possibly of worse on a really bad day. Dare to hope to change the world and instead do so by becoming one of the world's elite among killers. Just like her.

But at that moment the baby girl briefly stopped crying with a little snuffle and just stared back at her. She hesitated to touch the tiny, perfect creature afraid that she would taint her in some way. She looked into her eyes and wondered at the possibility that at a time predating her earliest memory she might have once been that innocent.

The corners of her mouth turned up and she laughed silently to herself - she never laughed out loud anymore - as she conjured up the image of herself as a modern day Diogenes but with an even more ambitious quest. Searching for a good person rather than the already impossible goal of seeking a merely honest one. Of course this little baby seemed like the embodiment of goodness. She had seen nothing of the world. She wasn't even aware that her parents had been murdered mere hours ago.

How much more did the late Nicole Schroeder have to see to finally admit to herself that the cause she had sold her soul to champion was a falsehood? That a suspicion she had long feared was true; that the Greater Good was a lie? Or at least it was almost never whatever the CIA declared it to be.

She had thought she saved lives by stopping arms trafficking only to realize those arms were then redirected to fuel some conflict that better influenced a more desirable political environment somewhere else in the world. Just as many bullets found just as many uses and turned just as many people into just as many corpses.

She had helped dismantle rebel factions - whose overall aims she could find some sympathy with but whose brutal methods she could not - because they opposed the aims of her government. She had assisted other practically identical and equally vicious groups because they aligned with those aims.

Whether she ever took the time to process if she personally agreed with any of the decisions or not, they were driven by a political agenda and might made right. It wasn't for the Greater Good but for the marginal benefit of a specific group far away from the killing fields. Within the borders she left behind, who could say whether more or fewer lives were lost or ruined based on her actions?

There were many such examples and it was rarely as simple as killing a madman with his finger on a button - killing one to save thousands. More often the mission consisted of retrieving or obtaining information or some specific thing by any means necessary for an unknown or non-specific future purpose. Or simply eliminating people who stood in the way of some vaguely defined agenda that could change like the wind.

A few black-and-white missions had come her way over the years and were definitely the most fulfilling. But was it worth the many charcoal grey things she had done with more ambiguous motives to ultimately position herself to do such things? Would she ever find a worthy cause that was clearly the right place to make her stand?

Such questions were considered to be ill-advised and well above her pay grade; deemed to be counter-productive and beyond the understanding of a cog in the clandestine war machine. And she was trapped in this mad world. Disobedience was treason and her masters had many ways to encourage compliance.

So, like many others in her profession, for years she had shielded herself from her own conscience by wandering further and further away from questioning the justness of her assigned directives. Embracing the excitement and adventure of near-death experiences and choosing willful blindness too often in the name of self-preservation and some semblance of sanity. In for a penny, in for a pound and the more lost her true self became the more easy the compromises became.

Clear opportunities to do something right and just were rare. To sacrifice only of herself without bringing suffering to others in order to help someone else. But no one was so unselfish. She herself was certainly no martyr.

Everyone was corrupted in some way and, when there was any risk to themselves, thought only of themselves. Maybe she would reconsider if she ever met someone who had lived long enough to face the evils of the world and had not turned from the light in some way. Maybe, like that of Diogenes, such a search would simply be a derisive commentary on the futility of the search. Just another bad joke.

But she could do this one thing - save this one small person who was the only indication she had seen in nine long years that the concept of a Greater Good might not be entirely a fiction created to rally dangerous, thrill-seeking people like herself to do the bidding of the US government.

Despite the horrific things her government had demanded of her - and despite her own need for excitement and adventure that had mostly run out of steam but had allowed her to convince herself for a long time that such things were necessary evils - she still clung to some hope that at the core of it all her duty to her country still held some inherent importance. That she had done some good despite her methods. She was the best in the world at what she did and had no idea what else she could ever be. So she clung desperately to the hope that at least some of the ends justified her vicious means.

Her own account may be beyond reckoning but perhaps some good was done along the way. Otherwise her entire adult life was a complete waste. And so she would keep lying to herself - telling herself that she had made the right choices, that the ends could justify the means, that she hadn't sold her soul for nothing and that she could use her prodigious if unsavory skill set to make a positive change in the world.

That she was a good person.

That lingering sense of duty - of purpose - whether it was illusion or not was all she had left. No matter what she had once hoped to achieve, this was all she was now. Just a spy.

But if the Greater Good was a complete lie why did she feel as though she was standing here looking it in the eye? Maybe she had cast her net too wide; set her expectations too high. She had never believed in fate, opting to believe that each person chose their own path. Wrote their own story. Was responsible for the choices that made them who they were. But maybe she herself wasn't the one who deserved saving. Maybe all her past misdeeds had been to position her for this one foolish act. Could all her wicked deeds be justified because the end result was positioning her to save this baby girl?

Maybe the Greater Good didn't exist or it was just so far beyond her reach that she could never truly be a part of it again. If she had helped to build a better world she had forfeited her right to be a part of it in doing so. But that didn't mean there wasn't any goodness in the world.


The baby had begun to cry again and everything she tried to soothe her was futile. So, as much as she hated to do it, the agent's thoughts turned to the one person in the world she knew would and could help with her current predicament. The one person whose scrutiny she had never wanted to face and who certainly didn't deserve to be drawn into her dangerous world.

She had left a few incredibly brief, often incomplete and occasionally completely incoherent voicemail messages over the past few years. She always made a point of deliberately calling the woman's house phone when she knew with absolute certainty she was not home. Sometimes she called just to hear the still familiar voice on the recorded greeting.

She almost always called from a phone forwarded to a number she kept solely for voicemail service. A number only two other people knew. The fact that Bryce was not one of the two was one of many an irritating flaws that had not been enough to make her face the nature of their relationship until now.

Four long years ago she had made the mistake of calling with a recently acquired burner phone and leaving a few seconds of dead air on the machine without blocking the call display. The number had still been forwarded to her voicemail account. It was an uncharacteristic mistake.

But that was another lie. It was no mistake at all. She had been hoping that exactly what happened next would happen. A return call. She had watched with the phone clutched in both hands and gasped as the number she had memorized appeared on the display while the phone rang the requisite number of times. She shuddered with relief as she dialed the forwarded account after anxiously waiting several minutes after the ringing had stopped and heard the automated voice tell her there was one new message on her voicemail.

A message that had bought her to tears as she listened to it at least a dozen times before destroying the now effectively useless phone and SIM card and allowing herself a moment to mourn a lost life. A message she had never deleted and still listened to occasionally over the past few years. The last time she had listened had been just before doing what she did best at the direction of someone she now knew to be a rogue agent. As she tried to make a decision she had been considering since her revelation on the streets of Budapest, she indulged herself by listening to it once more.

Hey, honey. I haven't heard from you for a while. I miss you. Wherever you are, I hope you're okay. Safe. I want you to know, if you ever feel like you need a place to come home to...well, you have one.

She liked that message.

Heard from you in a while referred to a dead air voicemail a few months prior. But the woman had always been patient. She obviously knew who was making these prank calls but there was nothing accusatory in her message. It was as though the two of them spoke regularly but their calls had simply been missing each other recently.

The agent often abandoned herself to that fantasy when she listened to the message - pretending that it was exactly the case rather than the reality that they hadn't seen each other in nearly twenty years. Just the hope that she could one day be forgiven for all she had done and be so welcome and loved somewhere was comforting despite the fact that it would never happen.

She had sought her out shortly after she completed her first major rotation abroad and and was surprised to find her living in San Diego as she herself once had. Probably because she herself once had before contact was severed completely. She had considered trying to reconnect a few times since. To see if she could possibly be forgiven for what she had done all those years ago. Or to at least let her know that she was OK.

Which was, of course, yet another lie. She was pretty fucking far from OK in so many ways. And there were unforgivable mistakes and a whole childhood of lost time between them that she could never make up for. But maybe this was the person who could guide this baby girl and help her walk the tightrope she herself had fallen from long ago. Help her take the path that she herself had not. The safe home that had been offered to her could be given to someone far more deserving.

And so she dialed the number from memory, listened to three rings, swallowed a lump in her throat and ignored the burning in her eyes before responding as, for the first time, something other than the answering machine answered the call.

"Hi Mom...It's me."


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