Like ice coursing through his veins, the shock spread through John Casey's system and he knew he was dying. The blood drained from his face, leaving him chilled, and light-headed, but that faded quickly to heaviness and his quivering limbs threatened to collapse. Death was prettier than he'd imagined, standing there by the DVD's looking at him as he looked right back. She wore the face of his high-school sweetheart, who he'd knocked up, runaway with, and married all before the age of seventeen. His life wasn't flashing before his eyes so much as stalling on that single memory and the question of why she was here. His joints were locked; he couldn't reach out to touch her. She approached carefully, looking concerned, like she didn't know him, nor did she realize she was his grim reaper come to fetch him.
"Are you John Casey?" she asked.
He swallowed thickly and nodded, more shocked by her presence than his own death. He was vaguely aware of the guttural sound leaking out of his mouth as he struggled to speak her name.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Casey's eyes darted around the Buy More, wondering if anyone noticed his distress or her presence. Bartowski had crossed over to the Orange Orange. Most of the other kids that worked here were cheering a boxing match on the TVs. He wasn't dying. He was just surprised to see her. He had to get a grip.
Breathing intentionally, he looked at her again and forced his mouth to form the words of his long-lost lover. "Erika?"
She bit her lip and shook her head, her blue eyes filling with tears. The age wasn't right – the lines on her face. Casey's breath quickened as the impossibility came to life.
"Emily?!" It was barely a squeak of whisper above his pants for breath, and he couldn't get air in his lungs, his chest was so tight. It couldn't be. It was impossible. Unless it really was death come for him. And before she could confirm or deny the question, his world went black.
His mouth felt dry and dusty, like it was coated with peach fuzz, and Casey coughed. His head ached, and his lungs felt like they'd turned to solid rock. A slap on his cheek kicked up an imaginary cloud of dust and he coughed again.
"John?" Anna knelt beside him, cradling his head. He hadn't opened his eyes, but she had a scent about her that reminded him of jungle animals and other deadly things. "Are you alright?"
He grunted, because his throat hurt too much to talk.
"Twenty bucks said he has some weird bacterial infection from the toe-incident and he'll lose the whole foot."
Casey planned to kill Jeff one day. And Lester, because the betting pool had opened and now all the staff were placing their wagers. How many were standing around him now, and what had happened? Was this just from seeing her again?
"Where is she?" he croaked, forcing his eyes open, and finding Anna hovering over him, caressing his face with a gentleness that ran counter to her hard-edged image.
"That customer?" Anna asked. "I think you scared her off."
"Did you see her? Where did she go?" He forced himself to his elbows, but the world exploded into stars. Bartowski came through the sliding glass doors, saw him there, and ran to his side.
"Casey," he said in concern, but didn't have a question to follow it up, so he just knelt there, hands in the air, afraid to touch him, lest he break something off. Casey wondered if he could really look so frail, but then, he was awfully content to leave his head in Anna's lap until the world didn't hurt so much. Something was not right. This reaction – it was too extreme, wasn't it. He must have been hit with a poison or some other danger. He needed to get Chuck out of here, and into the castle. But then, his head felt heavy now. His eyelids. Chuck's pleas filled his ears, but were lost.
Casey limped around Chuck's bedroom, taking advantage of the quiet evening to replace some of the bugs that had copped out in the last few weeks. Big Mike had insisted he go home, because fainting salesmen were a liability. Casey played up the injury to his foot so it wouldn't seem like he'd passed out for no reason. Civilians were very sympathetic to gunshot wounds, probably because they didn't experience them monthly, weekly, or daily, as Casey sometimes did.
Finishing his circuit of the bedroom, Casey peeked into the hall, wondering if Devon would stay in the shower long enough for him to check the rest of the house. Not likely. Casey sat heavily on the bed and flexed his knee and ankle. The whole leg hurt from the toe right up to his belly, and he was miserable. He couldn't remember if he'd eaten today, but just the thought churned his stomach. Walker had Chuck locked down in the castle until they had time to review the security tapes. Casey figured he had another hour before he'd hear.
Curling his lip in annoyance, Casey rubbed the perspiration from his face and hobbled out the window.
"Are you a stalker?"
Casey yelped in surprise, turning and closing his hand around the gun concealed at the small of his back, heart pounding. As much as he told himself the danger wasn't real, there was comfort in the coolness of the metal on his skin.
"Don't pass out," she teased, holding up her hands. It was Emily, hiding behind the fountain, looking at him with an uncertain smile.
"Where did you come from?" he asked warily.
"Topanga." She stepped slowly around the fountain. He pulled his gun out and she stopped when she saw it.
"The local DMV was short-staffed," she explained quickly. "I saw your Crown Vic in the paper work … I didn't think it could be you, but you know me. So it must be –"
"I don't know you," Casey said firmly, slamming Chuck's window closed for emphasis.
"You know my mother," she insisted, reaching out to him, though her feet were planted for fear of the weapon.
"Knew," he corrected. "She's dead. And so are you."
Emily's jaw dropped with hurt, but Casey was tired of talking to a hallucination. He figured it was a side-effect of one of those drugs he'd been given for his foot, and that was not good. That could compromise the whole mission.
"I'm real," Emily insisted, pressing toward him. He pointed his gun again and she stopped.
"Want to test that?" Casey warned, and she held up her hands, looking around the court yard like hell's bats were circling them.
"Is it safe out here?"
"I'll ask the questions," Casey growled.
She wrapped her arms tightly across her chest and waited, eyes alert. Shifting foot-to-foot, she finally looked at him and prompted impatiently with a raised eyebrow.
Casey heaved in frustration, searching for the right question as a million different ones pummeled his mind. Was it really her? Why was she here?
"What happened to you earlier, at the Buy More?"
She trembled fearfully, looking into the darkness beyond the courtyard. "I saw you go down. I thought there was danger. How did you know my mother?"
Casey ignored the question. "Are you in danger?"
She nodded gravely, and brushed her too-long brown bangs away from her face. "Ever since I found your papers. Ever since I looked you up –"
The ping of a silenced gunshot echoed in Casey's ears and Emily fell, bleeding from her shoulder. His whole body was in seizure with hers, his mind tortured as he watched her dying, again. She was a hallucination – already dead. He didn't rush to put pressure on her wound; he just left her there and turned his back. Maybe the dream was warning him of real danger.
Keeping to the shadows, Casey circled the perimeter of the courtyard, seeking anything more unusual than the stack of magazines Morgan left in the bushes for when he waited there for extended periods of time. When he turned back, the fountain in the courtyard was basked in a pool of light and Emily's body was gone.
Fire tore through his chest, pounding blood into his lungs with every heartbeat, life threatening to vomit itself out his mouth, his nose, and that gaping hole just above his heart. The world whirred with danger, but an arm hooked under his shoulders dragging him across the rough cobble stones, over the patches of weeds pressing between the seams, and into safety. He was too warm, too cold, and too much in shock.
He didn't feel the needle go in, but he felt the cool rush of fluids and fresh blood through his arm, and all of the sudden the noise and red faded into the sound of a single heart beat chirping on the monitor, and cool, dry air in his nose. It hurt to breathe.
Casey felt the crust on his eyes and at the corners of his lips and tried desperately to remember when, where, and how he'd been shot. He blinked until he felt moisture on his eyes, and then again until a tear escaped and rolled down his cheek, tickling in the stubble growing there. The single sensation cut through the scream of pain and soft, warm fingers caught the tear.
"Casey." White light cast her in silhouette, and her blonde hair glowed like a halo, but they'd been partners long enough for him to know who called. His body bowed in pain and her palm pressed gently and firmly against his chest.
"Bartowski?" he checked. The danger lurked in the shadows like a crouching panther ready to strike.
"Safe for now," she answered. "Do you know who shot you?"
Her tone was business-like enough that he knew no civilians were present, though the room seemed to be a clamor of rushing doctors, frantic nurses, and screaming machines.
"Where is she?" Casey begged. The dream – the death – he wanted her there. When it was her lying shot on the ground, he felt no pain.
"Who?" Sarah demanded. Her eyes were cold, her hands cupping his face, forcing him to look directly at her. His jaw ached, the muscles were so tense. "The other woman, who was with you? Who is she?"
"You saw her?" Casey cried incredulously. "You can't!"
Something wasn't right. The fire was gone from his chest, but the room still whirred. Everything became cold.
"She's not real."
In. Out. The natural, painless rhythm of breathing permeated Casey's semi-conscious. Numbness faded into a bare hospital room with a single monitor chirping to the tune of his heartbeat. His fingers curled stiffly, and when he blinked, his eyelashes stuck together a little.
Ellie Bartowski came into the room, smiling gently, working matter-of-factly. She folded back the blanket over his foot, unwrapped a bandage, and set to cleaning. The foot was swollen and covered with red bumps that throbbed at the slightest pressure. Aside from the identity of his doctor, this world made significantly more sense than anything in recent memory. There was no hole in his chest and no ghosts from his past.
"I told you to stay off it," she chastised.
He laid his head against the pillow and ignored her, concentrating instead on not throwing up with each burning surge of pressure. He could feel the grit of dried bile on his tongue. She finished her work, rebandaged his foot, and reset the blanket. Then she wet a cloth and dabbed the perspiration from his face. This was a job for a nurse, not a doctor, but she had that same neighborly concern written in her actions that she'd had the day he was shot. It was in the way her eyebrows crinkled and her lips pressed together, like she wanted to gush in sympathy, but was holding back all the emotion and mechanically tending to what needed tending.
"Your fever broke this morning," she told him. "Are you in pain?"
It was a yes or no question, meaning she didn't expect him to speak in response. Simple, yet weighted with meaning. The answer was yes, but not in the way he'd expected. His foot burned and throbbed, but the sting had tempered since she placed the balm on it. It felt like tiny shuriken were coursing through his legs, but even that pain died off once past his hip. He felt dry, but not dehydrated, and he'd obviously been kept clean because nothing itched.
"My fingers are cold," he murmured, and her eyes widened in surprise.
"I don't think you could've given me better news," she told him, sliding her hand under the blanket and into his. It was so warm. "Squeeze my hand."
Had the infection paralyzed him? Pushing through the ache in his joints, Casey squeezed her hand once, and then he turned his hand inside of hers, until her warm palm coated his chilled fingers. Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
He couldn't conjure her face anymore – Emily. He didn't want to. The doctors kept asking him if he had family he wanted to call, but he couldn't very well bring his mother here, into his cover life. She was too proud of him, and she'd feel the need to set everyone straight on what a hero he was to this country – she didn't know that he specialized in killing. General Beckman would send someone soon enough to pose as his mother and take him back to the east coast. It was too neat and tidy – this infection scenario.
But Casey knew it was poison. Emily had said, when she was in the store, she suspected danger when he went down. There was no reason for a grown man to keel like that, even if he was seeing his dead child. Casey knew how to handle injuries, and he would've noticed the tell-tale signs of an infection. Emily knew it wasn't safe in the courtyard. He should've listened to her, should've believed she was real, should've gotten them out of harm's way.
"Lester's finder's fee is $50, but he's only holding the toe for another week," Chuck joked, pacing the room, looking at his shoes, at the blank TV, or at Sarah – never at Casey. He and Sarah had been visiting him every day, for their cover, because Ellie would get suspicious otherwise.
"There's an ebay auction already in progress, if you don't claim it by Friday," Chuck explained. "He has the thing on ice in the Buy More freezer. If I were you, I'd just let it go."
This was a joke to them. All a joke. He had some strange poison in him making him see not only dead people, but dead people who had aged thirty years in his head.
Sarah closed the door, then turned to face him, her face all business. "Casey, who is the woman?"
He was coherent now, and they knew he could talk, but it wasn't like he'd had time to sort out the reality from the hallucinations yet. Emily – or someone – had been talking to him in the courtyard. Maybe she hadn't disappeared, but rather she'd just been dragged into the Bartowski house when his back was turned. Devon had been home at the time. It made sense.
"I don't know," he answered.
She crossed her arms, and exchanged a look with Chuck.
"What!" Casey demanded.
"According to the Intersect, you two are connected."
"I don't know," Casey repeated fervently. "I keep seeing the face of someone long dead."
His eyes stung with tears at the notion. Not only were Erika and Emily dead, but so was he, in a way. Instead of grieving for them, he'd hollowed out his soul, replaced love with anger and resentment, and joined the marines. He replaced morality with duty, and the government had plenty of work for a man would kill cold, without question or remorse.
What if they were alive? Maybe they were only taken from him so that he would become a killer. If the Intersect knew –
Casey heaved and hyperventilated, the thoughts too overwhelming, his mind not big enough to hold the man he was and the man he'd become. He started screaming out her name, and the names of all the people he'd killed. Sarah clamped a hand over his mouth, urging him to keep quiet, but he couldn't stop. He shouted and shouted until a fresh needle went into his neck and darkness curtained the fragments of reality and dream.
Casey drove to the Topanga DMV against his better judgment. Someone had finally listened to him on the poison theory and found an antidote, and he'd been released from the hospital that morning. It was still all surreal – he remembered being shot in the chest, but had no wound. Still, Emily had been right all along. Someone was chasing her to get to him, and he needed to protect her. He couldn't shake the memory of her thirty years ago, holding her in his arms while she was sick, laying her in the ground after she died. He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.
The DMV was crowded, as DMVs tended to be unless they were closed. A police officer stood by the door, turning away anyone that did not have an appointment, but Casey flashed his badge and strode past, willfully keeping the limp out of his step. It was strenuous just walking, and he could feel his throat going dry and his shirt getting damp with sweat.
"The end of the line is here," an angry patron protested as he cut through, trying to figure out who best to talk to about personnel. He picked someone at random.
"I'm looking for Emily Mareau. I was told she works here," he said, holding up his badge, so she wouldn't ignore him.
The woman flinched, and her fingers twitched against the keyboard. "I'm new," she whispered. "I don't know everyone yet."
Casey went to the next window and the next, but all he got were head-shakes and excuses. Maybe she worked a different shift than this lot. Maybe she'd been put in protective custody and they'd been warned to keep quiet. Or maybe he'd been hit with the poison dart first, and she'd only ever been a hallucination.