Walls Can Talk
(flashback: April 14, 1981)
"Johnny!" John Casey's boss, Darryl, called as he pulled out of the dealer's lot in the brand new 1981 Crown Victoria, his arm resting on the sill of the rolled down window. "It's a company car!"
"I'll take care of her like she's my own," Casey assured with a broad grin. He loved this car and planned to buy it as soon as he'd saved enough money.
"Like last year's model," Darryl chided. Last year, he'd borrowed a car to drive the family to D.C. for Reagan's inauguration. Before that trip, he could make puppy eyes and have his pick of any vehicle on the lot, but since then Darryl had been getting less lenient about such things.
His boss leaned against the roof of the car and dropped his voice. "Lose the car seat, Johnny. Our insurance doesn't cover that kind of ride-along."
Casey looked at his daughter's car seat secured in the back and winced. He and Erika didn't have a car of their own, and taking the baby to the hospital on a bus was a hassle.
"I'll take it out before Monday," Casey promised.
Darryl raised an eyebrow, warning Casey against a weekend trip anywhere that would rack up the mileage. It was all they had as a family right now – those weekend trips to D.C. The Smithsonians were free.
Darryl looked unhappy, but he backed away from the car so Casey could drive off. Casey was starving and today was food stamp day, so there was bound to be something decently fresh on the table. It was a hard life, but he loved it to pieces. He spent his days surrounded by beautiful cars and his nights with his beautiful wife and daughter. They paid rent on a small house in a decent neighborhood just outside of Norfolk, only three blocks from his mother's house. Every other week, she'd break down in pity and come over armed with a pot roast or other food offering. His family was his strength, and he was looking forward to a weekend of lounging around and doing nothing (though there was probably a honey-do list a mile long waiting for him at home).
When he rounded the corner to his block, the car halted, along with his heart. He felt the ground shake like a train pummeling past, and the smoke rose from the lot where his house was tucked into a mass of shrubbery and trees. Gunning the engine, he raced toward his house, and parked the car haphazardly, hitting a trash can and scraping the curb. He jumped out of the car, hands raking through his hair in disbelief, stumbling toward the house with only one thought in mind.
Please, God, let them not be in there.
Sirens and screams blended into the background as he rushed toward the door like fighter planes rush into battle, ready to plow through the flame and throw his body over theirs. If he could not save them, then he'd at least be with them.
The smoke grew thicker and the heat on his face slowed him down. He coughed and wheezed, looking for a way inside. The second floor buckled and caved inward on the first, pressing the flames skyward. Then someone grabbed his elbow and spun him away from the horrific sight.
"Johnny, you can't go in there!"
He looked back at the house, engulfed in flame. He could barely breathe for the sting of ashes swirling in the air and choking his lungs. He turned back to the neighbor who'd stopped him.
"Where's Erika?" he demanded, pulling his collar over his nose and mouth so he could breathe. The neighbor shook his head helplessly, but followed when Casey took off running.
"Erika!" he shouted, circling to the side of the house, searching for a window that did not have flames coming out of it. He ran to the back of the house and could see flames eating through the den. Emily's swing was burning.
"Erika!" he cried again. "Emily!"
He tried to go in again, but his neighbor crossed in front, physically tackling him to the ground and rolling them away from the spreading flames. Glass exploded behind them, spraying a shower of shattered pieces over their bodies. Looking up, Casey saw their vacuum cleaner sitting on the lawn, a few feet out the window it had just crashed through. The flames whooshed outward to follow the path of fresh oxygen, and then like a dream, they came running out, wrapped in a burning blanket. Erika yelped in pain with every step, but there was no sound of a baby cry.
Not caring about the consequences, he tackled the burning blanket, rolling until the flames went out. Gently, he kept telling himself. He could feel how her arms were cocooned around the baby, but everything was going red as his own skin covered with burns just from touching her smoldering body. Ripping the blanket away, he jumped back in horror. Erika's skin was too burnt to touch and Emily, while not burned, was pale blue and not breathing. A fireman ran over, extracting Emily from her mother's arms and starting CPR. Casey fell on his knees next to his beloved wife, trying to see her face through the blackened skin, frozen in a scream. She'd been running not ten seconds ago.
"Somebody help!" he screamed, but when they came, they were helping him, because he was burned and Erika was already dead.
Casey stood in the observation lounge watching the surgery on Agent Walker. Seeing her fall through the floor of that burning house had brought so much back of the day he'd lost Erika. It wasn't a stirring in his soul, but rather a fresh visit to that burnt patch of ground where his dead and cremated soul was scattered and forgotten. He couldn't count the number of times he'd told himself, if only he'd been there, Erika and Emily would've lived. Days like today, when everyone got out alive, only convinced him more of that truth.
Chuck came into the lounge, but didn't do more than peek out the blinds into the operating room. He was the squeamish type, but he'd proven his worth on more than one occasion. Chuck's injuries were less severe than they'd seemed at first, which would make things significantly easier to explain to his friends and family. His cuts would heal in a few days and didn't even need stitches. The doctor had taped a patch over his left eye and he'd never have 20/20 vision again, but all things considered, he was lucky.
A team of NSA agents had gone to clean the mess of Tom and Karmen, but Casey's guns were still missing, as were all their phones. He'd been issued a replacement phone, but the battery had died while General Beckman was still chewing him out and he didn't have the inclination to recharge it since the General was the only one with this number.
"You know how they say walls can talk," Chuck opened. It sounded like an interesting start, so Casey listened. Actually, he always listened to Chuck, he just never encouraged the conversation. He wasn't supposed to be making friends on this assignment,
"Tristavee's walls are still talking. It's like my ears are ringing, but inside my head. They go on and on."
The photos of Trista Vero's walls were on his lost phone, but Chuck seemed to have taken in an awful lot. "You go on and on, but you don't see me complaining."
"Yes I do," Chuck said. "Frequently."
Casey turned to the Lieutenant looking in from the door.
"You wanted to know when the girl woke."
Technically, Beckman had pulled him off this case, but having a reputation as a killer opened certain doors. He'd wanted to talk to Walker first, but Emily – Tristavee – whoever she was – was first out of surgery. When he walked out of the observation lounge, Chuck followed him like a stray puppy follows a man with a cheeseburger. There were a million reasons to tell the kid to stay back, but Casey was just reacquainting himself with his own sanity, and having a shadow helped significantly.
The hospital room was white with splashes of that weird sea green that was supposed to be soothing, but was really just a cliché hospital color. Emily lay on the bed, bangs plastered to her forehead with sweat, but swept messily to the side, away from her eyes. They'd hand-cuffed her to the bed, but she'd already picked the lock and was fiddling with the cuffs dispiritedly. The bed was angled so she was sitting up and her arm was strapped to her torso to keep her from agitating the freshly stitched wound on her shoulder.
Casey entered quietly, motioned Chuck to stay in the corner and keep quiet, and then closed the door for privacy. Emily kept her eyes very firmly on her own hands.
"You blew up the house," Casey opened, not bothering with pleasantries. "Why?"
Her lip twitched slightly, but otherwise there was no response. She stopped fidgeting with the hand-cuffs, dropped her arms by her side, and rested back against the inclined bed.
"The NSA agent is going to question you later," Casey warned. "He won't be as friendly as me."
She sighed and turned her head toward the opposite wall, he shoulders slumped with the weight of hopelessness. Her depression seemed so extreme and he wanted so badly to know who she was and why he felt compelled to reach out to her.
"Is there something specific I should mention … or omit?" she asked wearily. Casey's jaw tensed, but he couldn't say he was surprised. She'd already shed her past life and was taking on a new identity, asking him to shape their shared experience so no one would see through the lie.
"I can't advise you if you don't tell me what you know."
She pressed her lips together, daring to look at him and averting her eyes just as quickly. "You'll still protect me?"
She nodded, as though she'd expected the threats and betrayal. "That house led me to you, and you got me shot."
"You got me poisoned," Casey countered.
She didn't laugh, because as much as it was a one-up competition, it wasn't funny. Finally Emily sighed and rubbed her face. "So we're even, then?"
Casey folded his arms crossly. "Where are the guns and our phones?"
"You're fortunate your collection was so extensive," she answered, adopting a superior attitude. "Your guns were traded for three lives and are probably in Mexico right now having their serial numbers filed off. I threw your phones into the fire to protect your identities."
Casey harrumphed and raised an eyebrow.
"Right," Casey sneered. "You tossed the phones in the fire, but you kept my badge."
"In case you betrayed me," she answered simply. "That badge is tied to you and your government. That phone betrays every one in your address book. I suppose I was more concerned for their identities."
Emily swung her feet over the side of the bed and padded barefoot to the TV, considering the buttons. Then swooning slightly, she leaned against the wall with her head buried in her arm. The hospital gown fell off her shoulder, revealing the tattoo of the dove with the tear drop.
"Please, tell me who you are," Casey begged. "And don't say Emily."
"The tattoo," Chuck murmured, causing both Casey and Emily to look at him. "You're too young to be Trista Vero, but somehow you are her."
"I was," Emily agreed. "Now I've been compromised and the name must be passed on."
"Sounds very 'Dread Pirate Roberts,'" Chuck commented, then cocked his head. "But you are Emily, aren't you? Or you were, but you've had a lot of names since then."
There were times Casey would give anything to be inside Chuck's head and have all that information come in a flash.
"Fourteen," she said. "I've had fourteen unique identities. Fifteen now, though I don't know who I'll be tomorrow. Emily was the first. I remember when I was five, I'd just learned how to spell my name and I was so proud of myself, and the next day, everything changed."
"You said the photo was in Vero's attic," Casey checked. The whole concept nagged at him.
Emily's face went stone cold and expressionless. "Please tell me you destroyed it."
"Burned," Casey acknowledged, nearly choking on the words. "But you aren't the girl in the photo."
"It said Emily and Johnny," she whimpered. "Everything seemed to fit."
Emily paced the room, using the wall for support, alternately pressing her palm to her chest and clutching her stomach. She was hurting, but she didn't want to sit, and he understood the fidgetiness, so he wasn't going to tell her to go back to bed.
"I just wanted to know where I came from," she said softly. "But if your mother is like mine – running from her past – you can't go poking around with a stick and expect not to get shot, I guess."
Casey stayed silent a moment, thinking. "If you tell me the aliases you know, I can run some checks."
She circled the room again, and then stopped just inches in front of him looking him square in the eye, making him shudder. "You're not the first person to tell me I'm supposed to be dead. But in all the other cases, I had to say who I thought I was first. I never told you who I was. You looked at me, and you knew who I was supposed to be."
"I know," Casey said, his throat getting tight. "It's just impossible."
"Casey," Chuck spoke up. "She's not Emily Mareau. She's Emily Grunberg, born December 25, 1982."
Emily turned sharply, then doubled over in pain and staggered to the bed. "You know me?" she asked breathlessly, looking simultaneously fearful and grateful at hearing her name acknowledged in the open air.
Casey's eyes widened and he stumbled backwards himself, finding a chair and sinking into it. A soft stream of curses fell from his lips as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
"Jennifer had a child?" It was a question as much as anything else, because he never knew this girl was conceived, though he had no doubts about when, where, and how. The anniversary of his grief, the bottle of scotch, and the sister of his late wife all combined in a moment of weakness and sorrow, and when he'd woken the next day, Casey knew he could never recover from the tragedy, so he'd bid his life farewell and gone to the recruiting office. There was trouble stirring in Lebanon at the time, and maybe he could die fighting. Why hadn't Jennifer told him?!
"Yes," Emily said, tears filling her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. "Yes, Jennifer Grunberg. Who did you think I was?"
"Jennifer was my wife's sister," he replied before he could stop himself. It was dangerous for them to be connected in this way, and as much as he'd needed to know, he wished he could un-know for the sake of both their lives.
"So that means you're my uncle." She tested the idea in her mind and the words in her mouth. There was so much hope in her voice and she sounded just like … Jennifer. She made more sense as a mixture of him and Jennifer.
He nodded, not bothering to correct her. If Chuck had known the truth, he'd have said, but he kept quiet, so the secret was safe for now.
"Until tomorrow's identity takes hold," Casey told her. She nodded, but the weight of depression was gone and she beamed through her tears.
"This is worth getting shot for," she said, and Casey had to agree. Jennifer had named her Emily. His daughter had a namesake and a half sister!
Casey sat at the table, setting up his equipment to clean and inspect the new weapons he'd been issued. He'd pulled up a chair to prop his foot under the table, even though his foot was healed up enough not to need it. It made Chuck feel guilty, and when Chuck felt guilty, he usually brought pie as a peace offering.
Casey had never lost a limb before. It was an irony. Before he'd entered the service, he'd lost heart and soul and been completely gutted of his humanity, but he remained physically whole. Now that he had this assignment little bits of his soul kept re-growing, only to be scraped out again – Ilsa, his sensei… now he'd lost a toe – traded it, it seemed, for the emergence of a daughter he never knew he'd had.
With Emily safely tucked into a new identity, Casey was finding it easier each day to disconnect from the pestering visits of heart and reverie. He'd told the General about his kinship to Emily Grunberg, because it afforded him much leniency in the case. The General had made a condescending remark about an ill-spent youth and asked if he'd sown any more wild oats that she should know about, but also promised to personally oversee the girl's protection.
"That man we brought in, Karmen, confessed to the poison dart that hit you," Walker said, coming down the stairs into castle. She'd been released from the hospital a week ago and wasted no time getting back to her snarky self.
"Why would he shoot Emily, though?" Casey asked. "She hired him to protect her."
"He was protecting her," Sarah explained. "The shooter was a Fulcrum agent. Tom and Karmen took out the shooter and left evidence on the body to lead anyone who found it on a two week wild goose chase to Prague by way of New Jersey."
"All the touristy cities," Casey commented, though he worried about Fulcrum lurking outside of Chuck's apartment. Casey planned to used Bartowski's sister's wedding as leverage to get Chuck to move.
"Two weeks is more than enough time to disappear and establish a new identity, if you happen to be in the business."
"Which they are," Casey said. "Did we tie their prints to anything?"
Sarah shook her head. "Strangely enough, their paper work got lost in transit, as did they."
"How do you escape Federal lock down?" Casey asked, abandoning his guns and jumping to his feet, wanting to check the report for himself.
"Impersonating an agent," she said. "Your badge number came up in the report."
Casey groaned irritably, even though enough questions were answered to keep him satisfied. Identities were their business, and he never expected to see Karmen or Tom again.
Bartowski came down stairs next, dressed for work, but wearing dark glasses to protect his eyes from the light. He said he wasn't getting headaches anymore and the glasses were a fashion statement, but Walker didn't buy the excuse and they'd been handing off every potential mission over the last few days on account of it.
"Chuck, the General sent some documents to look over," Sarah said, handing Chuck a stack of papers she'd printed earlier that morning, then heading up the stairs to the store front. "Let me know if you flash on anything."
He took the papers and sat opposite of Casey's guns, resting his elbows on the table and his head in his hands as he scanned the stack slowly. He didn't take the sun glasses off. Casey perused the report from Washington and decided there wasn't much more to it than what Walker had just told him, so he checked his e-mail and his favorite comics, then went back to inspecting the weapons.
"I have a question," Chuck said almost as soon as Casey sat.
"Did you flash?" Casey asked.
"Not exactly," he said. "Tristavee's walls are still talking."
"Anything relevant to that intel you're looking over?" There were too many identities that needed protecting to risk putting Chuck's flashes into writing when it came to Trista Vero's house.
"Well, you said Emily Mareau and Emily Grunberg are cousins because they're moms are sisters."
Casey didn't say anything. He checked around, seeing on the monitor that Walker was upstairs serving frozen yogurt. He still didn't want to be talking about this with Chuck.
"We've been debriefed. We can no longer discuss this," Casey dismissed.
"She looks like you," Chuck said quickly.
"Thanks, Daredevil," Casey said sardonically, gathering his weapons off the table and cleaning up the smudges of gun oil. "Is there a part of 'not talking' you don't understand?"
Chuck shook his head and went back to scanning the reports. They could never speak of it, but for some reason, it made a difference that Chuck knew the truth. He would almost certainly tell Agent Walker what he suspected, but secrets like that were safe among the three of them. After 20 years alone, he'd found a friend, a partner, and a daughter. It was dangerous having these connections and it would get him killed one day. But it was worth it.