A/N There's a lot going on in this chapter, so I'm trying to keep it all more or less in chronological order, in spite of the location. I originally thought I'd have more time, but the story advanced itself on me and I still have plates to set spinning, and a bunch that I need to stop. This episode finishes off the Gobbler (finally) and moves right into some of Push Mix, but with our characters much better positioned than they were in canon.
RAB: Since my main rule in writing is never to do what's been done already, I'm glad you didn't expect that version of the seduction. I didn't expect it either.
Guest: You've captured the idea behind nine2five in a nutshell. Bear in mind the scriptwriters have lots of business constraints that I don't, though. I've only been able to do this story as quickly as I have because they did most of the heavy lifting for me, S3 especially. S4 is taking a lot more work on my part.
I've always preferred the third Back to the Future movie over the others, because it was slower-paced. That said…it's a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up.
"Always look as if you belong."
"Any orchid can bloom in a hothouse."
"It's not the place, it's the woman."
Breakfast at Volkoff's compound, the day after Fatima Tazi's party…
"Good morning, Father."
"And an excellent morning it is." Alexei Volkoff sliced into his breakfast steak with gusto, as Vivian settled in front of her usual fruit cup. "You remember that super-note enterprise I warned you off of?"
She sipped her tea to clear her mouth. "I remember you saying that it couldn't possibly go well."
He smiled at the understatement. "It didn't."
"How many agencies stepped in?" The ramifications of an American economic collapse would have been worldwide.
"Just one," said Volkoff, sounding only a little surprised. "But in this case, one was more than enough."
"Agent Charles?" she guessed. He would always be her first guess. "She had an army."
"An army of idiots. Worse than useless, against a single clever man."
She put her fork down. "How clever?"
"No idea," said her father, patting his lips with his napkin. "Riley had one of his best agents pose as a dancer. In the confusion she absconded with the security footage. When you've finished perhaps you and I can review it together."
She ate a bit faster. That 'perhaps' was only a bit of politeness on her father's part, and if her time here had taught her anything, it was that Alexei Volkoff was never more dangerous than when he was being polite.
At Volkoff Industries HQ…
Alexei and Vivian stepped out of the elevator to find Frost and her new shadow standing by his office door, with Frost just putting her hand to the scanner.
"Well, you're up nice and early," said the boss with approval.
"Yet you always seem to be ready for me," said Frost, turning his way.
"Not exactly," said Alexei. "Mixing business with pleasure. as Agent Charles did last night down in Marrakesh, before returning to Prague. We came up to do a little footage review. The real work of the day has yet to begin."
"So it won't set your schedule back any if I take my new personal trainer down to the gym for some hand-to-hand?"
"I thought she was injured," said Vivian, blandly.
"Then maybe this time I can keep up," said Frost, sounding equally unconcerned for Sarah's well-being.
"One hour, Frost," said Alexei, putting his hand to the plate. The doors unlocked, and he and Vivian went inside.
Frost and Sarah turned away, and Sarah handed Frost the little spider-bot that they'd used to deactivate the security, just a little over two minutes ago. The raid had gone splendidly, if you can call netting one name–'The Contessa'–splendid, but the escape put them in front of an elevator just about to open.
Frost tucked it in her pocket for disposal. "That was too close," she said. Something had disturbed Alexei's routine. She couldn't have that.
"Look at his face," said Vivian softly.
"He looks blasé," said Alexei, sounding blasé on the outside, anything but on the inside. Frost should be here with them, she loved to do analysis. Something was off with her, and he couldn't have that.
"Exactly, father." Vivian reached out to tap the screen. "Here he has this great bosomy thing on top of him and from his expression he might as well be lifting weights." She'd always known he would be above such…behavior.
Alexei chuckled. "I wouldn't call Fatima Tazi a 'thing', dear."
Men. "Believe me it's the politest of the things I would call her, even to her face."
Volkoff made a pained noise. "I doubt she has much of a face left. She was at ground zero of a missile attack."
She'd send them a thank-you note. "Who?"
Alexei pointed at Chuck's blasé face. "Her gentleman caller."
"Chuck would never be so crude."
Alexei shrugged. "The others on his team were all recorded elsewhere at the time."
"Then he didn't mean to do it."
That got a laugh. "Oh granted, a missile isn't exactly a precision instrument, but he did target the poor woman's bedroom. When you take action, you take the consequences of that action."
"Send me the footage," she said stubbornly. "I'll prove you wrong."
"Vivian, Vivian," muttered her father, but that didn't stop him sending her a copy of the file.
Same place, later in the day…
Vivian stopped by the computer department on her way for tea. Certainly they could have had it sent up but Father was always telling her to make the occasional appearance among the troops. Good for morale, and all that. Well, this would be good for her morale. "I need your best graphics man."
Once the required underling was sent to her, she brought up the screenshot she'd carefully selected. The footage of the missile attack itself was disappointing, just the harlot and her latest mark, some old man, and the camera was destroyed before she could see what became of either of them. The recording had other uses, though. She pointed out those bits of Miss Tazi's body that she'd left in frame. "Do you see what this man is doing?"
He saw what he would have been doing if he'd been that man. "Yes, Miss Volkoff."
"Do you see his face?" she asked. When he acknowledged that he did, she stood up. "Put a smile on it."
Washington DC, the same morning…
General Beckman was hip-deep in back-dated deployment orders for the drone she'd re-purposed last night, when the chime came through her monitor. She touched the little stud without looking up. "This is General Beckman."
"General, I have part of that analysis you asked for," said Manoosh.
Analysis of what? Right, the…thing. Clearly, it was too early for multi-tasking. "I'm listening."
"The pieces are fragments of a data repository, shaped like a glass eye. A crystalline lattice structure that can store multiple hard drives' worth of data on a molecular level."
"How much data, Mr. Depak?"
"Terabytes, ma'am," said Manoosh, excited. "Complete portability, with no loss of data. A few disks of this stuff could replace the Library of Congress."
Or a criminal empire. The crystal was smashed, yet Volkoff Industries was still a threat. And Sarah had not returned when she could have. Hunting the data? More crystals like this, or some other form of backup? Suddenly she realized that Manoosh was still going on about the new technology. "Thank you, Mr. Depak. Get this data to Agent Charles ASAP."
"Already done, General. We did a remote ULDS deployment to an existing on-site delivery device."
It was also too early for jargon. "I don't believe I'm familiar with that designation."
"I just made it up," said Manoosh. "It means an Ultra-Limited Data Set, very focused, minimal bandwidth. Ellie said to give it a field-test, since a courier would take too long. We have a device with a larger dataset in transit, just in case."
Thank God Ellie knew when not to wait for official sanction. "Very good."
"You have something else?"
"Just that this tech is bleeding-edge, General. There can't be many people in the world capable of making such a thing."
How nice of him to notice. She nodded her approval. "Then that's your next project. Find out who could have constructed this crystal. We need to track down whatever data was on it, and we need to do it now!"
In Prague, where late-returning agents had been allowed to sleep in...
Casey pounded on the door, knowing better than to walk in on a sleeping agent. "Up and at 'em, Charles. You've got a package."
Back in DC, a bit later, when multi-tasking was again possible…
Her monitor chimed again, another welcome distraction. Sometimes Mr. Clark was just too efficient. "Beckman."
"General, we did that overflight," said Hannah.
"What were the results?"
"It's a house, ma'am." A series of photos appeared, taken as the satellite approached and then departed the area. Thermals indicated a single occupant. A low stone wall, a manicured lawn, a garden that showed both pride and skill in the making. "It looks…bucolic," said Beckman. "Anything underground?"
"Nothing we could see. Possibly a root cellar, but nothing with power."
"Why would Orion's computer target that house?"
"I'm surprised your thermal imaging didn't reveal a large red 'X' right underneath." Beckman sighed. "But you're right. If we want to justify an incursion into allied space we need to perform all due diligence. Check the other possible sites, but don't expect to find anything. Get me a timeline, I'll put the team on alert."
Casey sat back, putting the pair of downloading glasses to one side. The new program seemed to work as they said it would. Between Orion, Ellie, and Manoosh, what did he expect? "Alright, Bartowski, what have you got for me?" They were in a Quiet Room, where it was safe to use real names.
Chuck wasn't sure he liked this new technique. Sure it was lightweight, but he was used to getting a lot more bang for the flash. The whole point of the Intersect was to find connections and this ULDS had very few of those. Like throwing out a net and getting only one fish. "One name. Roni Eimacher." He started typing it into the computer.
Casey pulled up a pad and started punching in Beckman's number on the secure phone. "How do you spell that?"
Sarah, not having the run of the building, sat in her little blank empty office with her injured foot up. It suited her, four gray walls that provided a minimum of stimulation. Symphonic music played over the speakers, while her tablet contained an assortment of books and a variety of games to keep her occupied.
Someone slid an envelope under her door.
"Mr. Depak, how are you coming with that analysis?"
"Putting together a list of possibles, General," he said. "Then I'll do a comparison of dates, to see who was doing what when. This project must have taken a big chunk of someone's time…"
"Is the name Roni Eimacher on that list?"
"Yes it is, General, and with high probability, not sure why. He doesn't seem to have been active in this area for years. I found a bunch of references in the current research but nothing current of his own. That seemed to do it for Hannah, though."
"She knows first-hand how frightening Volkoff can be, Manoosh," said Beckman, glad they were working together. Hopefully this Eimacher person was just in a different line of work, and not terminated. Faith. Frost wouldn't let Volkoff terminate an innocent. "Find Eimacher. We'll have a little chat with him ourselves."
Frost unlocked the door to the office where Sarah was basically being stored until needed. Like a stakeout but not as interesting. "Well, Agent Walker, are you ready for a–"
The room was empty. The music played, the furniture was intact, but the tablet was smashed. Frost sorted through the pieces and was about to sweep them into the trash when she noticed a wad of paper at the bottom of the bin. She pulled it out and swept in the debris, and then unfolded the wad, which took a surprisingly long time to do. The paper was quite large, but it had been compressed, squeezed into a tiny ball by extreme force.
Frost touched her own throat, well aware of the kind of strength Sarah had, the kind of extreme force she could apply. She smoothed the paper on the table, almost unable to see the details of the picture for all the creases.
Then she knew where Sarah had gone, was going, right now.
With a discreet tap on the door, an underling brought herself to the Master's attention. "Miss Frost sent this for you, sir."
Volkoff grunted an imperative, and the woman placed the envelope into his outstretched hand. She knew better than to be around when he ripped into it and pulled out the single sheet of paper. He stared at the image for a second, and reached for his phone. "Frost? What is this?" Then he heard the noise. "Where are you?"
"I'm in the air, Alexei, taking the helicopter to the airport. I have to head her off."
Volkoff wasn't in the habit of asking questions that made him look stupid. The smile that he knew was drawn-on, the feathery feel of paper that had to have recently been ironed to flatten it again, all added up to one thing for a man who was very good at math. "Agent Walker's on her way to Prague."
"In a company car with a company credit card. I need to stop her before she destroys us."
Someday he and the CIA would be at loggerheads but it would come at a time of his own choosing. Today was not that day. "Bon chance." Volkoff hung up, grateful that Frost was on the job. Then he lifted the receiver again, and pressed a single button as he examined the picture more closely. "Vivian, could you come to my office, please?"
Washington DC, hours later…
Her monitor chimed. She pressed the stud without looking up. "This is General Beckman."
No one answered.
Now she looked up. A single icon sat in the middle of her screen, titled 'Archer's Music'. Why would Orion be contacting her now? Could he have gotten the anti-toxin to Russia already?
She opened the file, a receipt for merchandise she'd never sent or received, a CD titled 'La Contessa', for…five hundred thousand rubles? For that price she could buy a hammer and a toilet seat. And why in rubles?
A small airport in Prague…
The plane touched down with a bump, braking hard. Frost waited until the plane had come to a stop, then rose and went to the door as the stewardess unsealed the door, and stood back. Frost gave the woman a friendly nod as she passed. Then she stopped.
Sarah hit Frost with the butt of her pistol, dropping the older woman to the floor. She stepped over Frost's unconscious body and out the door.
Back in Washington…
The number seemed familiar, hauntingly so. She could practically hear it in her memory, 'something-something-five-hundred-thousand-something'. A man's voice, not her aide's. She hadn't spoken to that many other men today.
She pressed the button on her monitor. "Manoosh."
"Yes, General?" said Manoosh, when the connection was made.
"Have you said the number five hundred thousand to me today, Mr. Depak?"
If he found the question strange, he didn't show it. "Yes, General. That's the equivalency of CDs to these crystal disks I told you about."
"Very good. Thank you." She killed the connection, working through Orion's puzzle. Five hundred thousand CDs equal one disk, and that disk was called the Contessa.
Who could that be? If they could find her they'd find Volkoff Industries, lock, stock, and barrel.
She touched the button again. "Hannah."
"I have a priority project for you…"
At the CIA Training Facility…
Chuck opened the door to his room, but before he could hit the light switch a hand grabbed his wrist and threw him across the room. The door closed, and he rose to an attack position in the dark, the wall at his back.
Someone growled at him.
"Another training exercise, Casey?" Except he'd just left Casey…
A shadow moved, black on black, and Chuck struck out at it. The almost-invisible figure dodged, taking advantage of Chuck's extended position to force him out of his defensive position and into the center of the room. From there it was kick-dodge-parry-thrust time, as Chuck held his own against an opponent he could barely see. He was faster and stronger, but whoever this guy was, he seemed to know Chuck's every move. No one here could fight like this.
This was real. This person could kill him.
Suddenly the dark figure spun and kicked him right in the chest, knocking him down on the bed. A heavy weight settled over his waist and arms, pinning him to the mattress. A hand gripped his neck. "Sarah, wherever you are I love you!" he yelled, just to make sure it got said.
Something crashed into his mouth, probably to shut him up, silence him, smother him. Then he realized that it was a pair of lips. He knew those lips, that scent, the texture of that hair…"Sarah?"
Frantic dingers pressed 1-2-1-2 on both sides of his face.
He rolled her over and touched the light, desperate to see. "Oh my god," he said in a tone of wonder. Kiss. That smile. Kiss. Those eyes. Kiss. That hair? He touched a few dark strands. "This isn't right. I feel like I'm cheating on you, with you. Does that sound strange?"
Sarah rolled him back over and got up off the bed. Pointing firmly to keep him right where he was, she went into his bathroom and came back with a towel, wrapped around her hair. It wasn't the usual blonde but it was much better than black. Chuck felt like his heart was beating again. "God I've missed you."
Sarah started removing her clothes. She'd missed him more, and she was always better with actions than with words.
Back in Moscow…
Volkoff pinched the bridge of his nose. "An overnight bag?"
"My overnight bag," said Frost over the phone, vastly annoyed. Sarah had even taken her car, forcing to use this POS. Plus she had a headache. "No one noticed it, even though I didn't bring anything with me." Rule one of any successful infiltration.
In the background Frost thought she heard Vivian say "Can we kill her now?" but with traffic noise it was hard to be sure.
"You must bring her back, Frost," said Volkoff. "Whether she achieves her objective or not, we'll need her as a bargaining chip."
"I'll stuff her back in the bag myself."
Sarah sat on the bed, watching her Wonderful husband sleep, holding his Wonderful hand. She squeezed, he squeezed back, even in sleep. Hard, strong. Wonderful
She looked at her own hand. Grief. Yes.
His pain, her pain.
Pain shared is pain halved.
Love. Oh, very yes. Her body still quivered with the love they'd made. She leaned over him, body to body. Wonderful
He twitched. "No," he said, and she sat back quickly, but he spoke to a dream. "Don't make me…" He lifted his hand, fingers curled loosely.
She gripped his hand, pressed it to her face, and he calmed, his whole body curling toward her. "Sarah…"
Sarah Bartowski lied to her husband. All was not well. They'd hurt him, damaged him.
Not a word, not a sound. Years of her life flashed before her eyes as they curdled into one indigestible clot. A congealed lump of history. They'd hurt her too.
The gun in his hand was them. The strength in his hand, in his heart, to do what he hated, was him. She touched his Wonderful chest. Lub. Dub. He smiled, a 'Sarah' smile.
Her Chuck. Her precious. Her smile.
Not theirs. The woman in the picture was them. The fake smile on his face was them. They tried to take him from her.
She grieved for him, but raged at them.
Someone pounded on the door, disturbing her Wonderful husband's rest. His head moved, his grip tightened on her hand, and her fragile thoughts shattered and scattered in the rising winds.
"Charles! Up and at 'em! Time to fight the good fight."
They. Not her.
She growled, throaty and voiceless. He was her lover, not a fighter.
She was the fighter.
Casey knew he was in trouble the second the door opened. Sarah had recently terrorized a country, and she'd only gotten more unstable since then, in Volkoff's company. "Walker," he said sharply, trying to get her attention, but even as he said it he knew he'd made a serious mistake.
Sarah's lips curled in a silent snarl. Don't call me Walker!
Casey reeled as her deadly left leg made the point very clearly. Three names and the only one he could use would get him killed.
He fought back as best he could, but she was faster and always had been. He'd always counted on strength and endurance over all that ninja crap. It wasn't like he wanted to hurt her, either, she wasn't in her right mind.
Ow! Or any mind. She was like some homicidal ninja robot, set on high. Like she wouldn't stop until he was dead.
Hmm. Not a bad idea.
He backed away, leading her down the hall and coincidentally away from any sleeping trainees who might come out at the wrong moment and add to this chaos. He turned his head slightly to make sure he was going in the right direction and she nearly took it off. She grabbed his arm and slammed him up against the window. He pushed back and shoved her away from him, but that only set him up for her deadly kick.
Casey stumbled back and crashed through the window.
Washington, twilight-time after a very long day…
Her monitor chimed and General Beckman sighed. Why wasn't Mr. Clarke handling all these calls? "This is General Beckman."
"General, I've got some bad news, from Prague," said a man with a serious-but-friendly voice. "Agent Charles is dead, murdered by a mysterious assassin known only as the Black Widow."
Beckman blinked. "Really?"
"I'm afraid so, ma'am. She pushed him out a window and he fell to his death. I knew you'd want to be informed straightaway."
"You were correct. This is terrible news. Thank you, Mister…?"
Prague, on the other end of the line…
"Bartowski, General," said Chuck holding up his new credentials and reading the name proudly. "Special Agent Charles I. Bartowski. You're most welcome. Good night."
"'Fell to his death'?" sneered Casey. "We were only on the third floor. I could handle sixty feet, easy."
Chuck put the little wallet in his jacket pocket. "Good thing Sarah didn't know that, otherwise she might have jumped after you to finish the job." He picked up his new gun.
Casey grunted a negative. "If she really wanted me dead she'd have killed me in the hall." He saw Chuck handling his gun and frowned. "I hated that pouch, hated it, Until I saw they'd assigned you a tranq pistol as your official weapon." He shook his head. "Only you. Guess I should be glad, though. If they gave you a gun for real she might get mad for real, and we know who she'd take it out on."
Chuck put the gun away with all proper caution. If he tranqed himself just holstering his weapon Casey would never let him live it down. "How do I look?"
Casey grunted reluctant approval. "You know none of us wanted this for you, right?"
"Tell that to the Belgian," said Chuck. He didn't want this for himself either, but what could he do. He'd never been a shirker before, and he wasn't about to start now. "Or my mother. My father and my sister, too, for that matter. Face it, Casey, it's destiny."
"It's not destiny, Bartowski. Destiny implies that someone cares. This is just fate, and fate screws everybody." Casey snatched up his own jacket. "Now come on, I've got a mission to England and I'm already a man down." Casey went for the door but stopped just before he opened it, and turned to Chuck. He held out his hand. "Agent Charles is dead."
Chuck smiled and took it like a man.
Casey nodded. "Long live Agent Bartowski."
A/N2 Sarah's scene in the bed was hardest to write, critically important yet she had no words to do it with. Like The Buffy episode Hush, she only had her actions and her feelings. If the first thing that popped into your mind after reading "They tried to take him from her" was "She would kill them for that", then I did my job right.