A/N: So I promised that there would only be three chapters, and the fact that this is, indeed, a fourth chapter being posted right now makes me seem like a liar. The answer to that is both yes and no. Yes, there are four chapters in this document, but everything that happens in this chapter was supposed to go into Chapter Three. When chapter three ran on for far too long, and Sarah leaving the bunker seemed like a natural ending place for it, I chopped it in half. Now Chapter Three Part II is the epilogue, but everything in here was planned from the beginning.
Let me repeat that: this is the epilogue. After this, To Resist Both Wind and Tide is no more. If I write in Sarah's point-of-view again, it's going to be awhile. A long while. Things in What Fates Impose are heating up so it's time to fasten my seat belt and get revvin' on that story.
So, people to thank...let's see, there's you, for still being here. There are so many great works on this site that I'm flattered you choose to read mine. Just because I can, I'd like to thank Ardent Aardvark. Thanks for the shout-out! And, as always, the academy award for Fandom's Most Awesomest Beta Reader Ever (shut it, it's a real award) goes to *drumroll please*…mxpw! For being the Most Awesomest Beta Reader Ever, of course! He claims he's having fun. I personally think he's a masochist.
Just a warning—there's a little bit of language and crude talk in this chapter. It appears once you take Sarah away from Chuck, she's…well, you'll see. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Don't own her. But ain't she cute? No money is being made, all situations and opinions pictured here (or written here) are those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of ff-net. I'm no good at legal/disclaimer speak.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
- ee cummings, i carry your heart with me
Keeping the Stars Apart
21 NOVEMBER 2005
DOMODEDOVO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
"You're quiet," Bryce said. When Sarah looked up from her newspaper, he added, "Er. Quieter."
"Yeah, I noticed you didn't sleep well at the hotel last night. Something on your mind?"
Something on her mind? She could say that. She'd been out of that damned bunker longer than she'd been inside it, and Sarah's mind couldn't seem to avoid wandering back. She wondered what Chuck was doing. How he was taking being alone again. He hadn't seemed to have a problem with it, but…didn't that get lonely? The life of an agent was doomed to be a lonely one, even if you had a partner as great as Bryce Larkin, but this just seemed extreme.
They had avoided mentioning Chuck's name during their crazy, hodgepodge journey across Russia and Siberia, so much that it had stood between them like an impenetrable wall. So maybe it was time to get a few things out in the open. The Domodedovo Airport was busy enough to cover any conversation, after all. Sarah made a point of folding up the paper and crossing her legs. After four days in ski pants and cold, it felt strange to be wearing a business suit and skirt.
"Why did you really bring me to Siberia, Bryce?" she asked, laying the folded newspaper in her lap. "You could have made that trip to visit Chuck on your own. You knew I'd wanted to go to Cabo and relax, and yet you ambushed me with this trip. I want to know why. And I don't want a bullshit answer, Bryce."
"You're still mad about that?" Bryce frowned. "You seemed to be having a good time."
"That's not what I said, and it's beside the point. I want to know the reason for this trip."
Bryce hunkered forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Their cover for the trip back from Moscow to DC was as business associates, contractors for a private security firm. Bryce had already shucked his suit jacket, as was habit, and rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbows. Just add a fedora, Sarah thought as he stared forward, deciding how to answer her question, and he could be a throwback to the days of Sammy, Dean, and Frank.
Throwback or not, he was taking awhile to answer her question. So she nudged him with the toe of her high heel, none too gently. He shot her an aggrieved look. She raised an eyebrow in return.
"I wanted to surprise you back in Washington," he said, finger-combing his hair back. "After that disaster in Nicaragua, and that little, uh, problem in the Congo, I petitioned Washington for our own dedicated tech backup."
Sarah tilted her head just a fraction. "We're dumping Digital Dave?"
"He's responsible for too many teams, and we've almost died because he couldn't verify the data well enough." Bryce scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck and looked away. "And here's the thing. It's a little unorthodox, but Bunker Seven-Seven-One-Four-Two-One-Three-Five has some of the best connectivity on the planet. Well, for where it is."
"Bunker…" Sarah trailed off. "What? Where Chuck is? Out in the middle of freaking nowhere?"
"It used to be an OSS/CIA outpost, but it got modified about eighteen months back to be an operational base. They stationed Chuck there because he's got a good head for tech."
Sarah shook her head. "But Chuck told me he doesn't speak a word of Russian."
"And that's important because...?"
"He's in the middle of Siberia, Bryce. They should put somebody who speaks Russian in their Siberian high-tech outpost. It only makes sense."
"Since when has the government ever made sense?"
A spate of Russian chatter interrupted them; Sarah held up a hand so that she could listen, but it wasn't their flight being called yet. She leaned back in her seat, crossed her arms, and pinned Bryce with a "Well?" expression.
"Look, the techs that man these outposts, it doesn't matter if they speak the language. It's not like Chuck's going to go out and interact with the natives. He'll be in this post another year, eighteen months at the most, and then he'll have served his time with the agency, out of harm's way."
Sarah wasn't sure if she'd rather dodge bullets on a daily basis or be stuck in such a tiny space day in and day out for two to three years, but she was leaning toward the bullets option.
"Then why are they gassing him?" she asked.
Bryce sat up quickly. "What?"
"You didn't feel it, when we were in the bunker?" Sarah watched her partner closely. "I'm pretty sure they were pumping sedatives into the bunker. You didn't feel tired, at all?"
"Are you sure it wasn't your claustrophobia?"
Sarah scowled. "I'm not claustrophobic."
"Fine." Bryce held both hands out, an entreaty for peace. "Your dislike of small spaces, then? You sure it wasn't just that?"
It could have been, but...Sarah shrugged. "Pretty sure it wasn't." She hadn't done as well in the CIA's Gas and Harmful Substance Detection course as he had, though. "But it could have been, I guess."
"We've been working crazy hours lately. I mean, I've been tired, too." Bryce frowned, but seemed to shrug it off. "Anyway, moving on, I brought up Chuck's situation to the higher-ups and pointed out that we'd have a much better success rate with dedicated tech support. A compromise was struck." His grin seemed a little forced when he looked over at her now. "As of thirty-six hours ago, the paperwork cleared, and congratulations, Sarah, we've got full, dedicated tech support. Chuck's the absentee third member of the Larkin-Walker enterprise."
"Walker-Larkin," Sarah said automatically, as she always did. Behind the agent mask, her heart gave one huge, absurd bounce, and a feeling flowed through her, like the color slowly returning to the world. It had seemed rather gray and dismal since she'd left the bunker and Chuck behind, but she hadn't noticed a lack of hue until just this moment. She put a smile on her face that matched what should have been her degree of happiness at finding out that they had dedicated tech support. "That's fantastic, Bryce. How much access will he have?"
"The works. Digital Dave has a friend over at the NGA, got him set up with a satellite connection, and Chuck's one of the best hackers you'll ever meet. His brain is actually like a computer. The way he comes at problems…" Bryce shook his head in sheer admiration. "He's a genius."
A genius with a smile warm enough to melt the polar ice caps stuck all by his lonesome in the frostbitten nowhere.
"So I took you out there," Bryce went on, unaware of her thoughts, "to get the team together. I wanted to introduce the two of you since we'll all be working together, is all."
The trip had been for work, Sarah thought. That was a bit…cold, considering that Chuck was literally stranded with no human contact. She almost frowned, until she remembered that Bryce had deliberately lugged along the dice, the old Dungeons & Dragons gear, familiar things that would remind Chuck of home. The reason for the visit had to have at least been two-fold.
"When can we go back?" she asked, keeping her tone neutral.
Bryce gave her a puzzled look. "For?"
"You said he's a member of our team. I'd like a chance to review his set-up, make sure everything's okay."
"I did that."
"Fine. I'd like to double-check. I'm putting my life in this man's hands, after all."
"Sarah." Bryce paused and slowly sat up. "We can't go back."
Sure, the trip out to the bunker had been expensive, but Sarah didn't mind. She had money. The government paid for all of her meals and accommodations when she was undercover, and she made more than enough yearly to worry about some minor travel expenses. "Why not?"
She almost missed the flinch. It made the cautioning voice in the back of her mind pipe up. Something was definitely up.
Indeed, Bryce cleared his throat twice, a nervous tell (and one she never intended to let him know about, unless it could lead to them getting killed). "Well, we kind of weren't supposed to go in the first place."
Uh-oh. "Kind of?" Sarah narrowed her eyes. "I thought you said you pulled some strings."
"I did. Uh, I just wasn't expecting them to be attached to…well…some pretty big higher-ups." Bryce flinched again. "The, er, excrement hit the fan a couple of days ago."
Sarah quickly flitted through her memory. "The call you got," she said. "Back in the bunker. That was Washington?"
"A very pissed off Washington," Bryce confirmed. He didn't look sheepish, not quite yet, but Sarah could definitely sense something amiss. She braced herself for whatever was coming next. "And the good news is that…well, you got your vacation."
"Bryce?" Sarah's tone held just a thin edge of the potential for violence. "What did you do?"
14 DECEMBER 2005
ROCK CREEK PARK, WASHINGTON D.C.
She was going to kill Bryce Larkin.
With every footfall, Sarah repeated the thought. It didn't matter that it had been over three weeks since she'd actually laid eyes on Bryce, or that he'd apologized sincerely, or that she really didn't even have a good reason to be mad at him, all things considered. None of that changed anything. She was going to kill Bryce. It wouldn't even take much. Just a well-practiced flick of the wrist, the quicksilver arc of a blade. A death rattle, a funeral, a star on a wall.
Her revenge would be complete.
She'd thought of about fifty ways to do it. Overt ways, covert ways. Shoot him. Accidentally "slip" and push him off a convenient bridge. Smother him with a pillow. Drop some poison into his martini some night. Take a page out of the Soviet handbook and inject him with a poison pill, just a minuscule pellet with a gooey ricin-flavored center.
She knew that poisoning was stereotypically a woman's device, but she was pissed, damn it. She wanted Bryce Larkin dead, whatever way she could get it. And she'd prefer it to be as painful as possible.
The problem, she thought as the running path curved and tilted gently upward, making her calves burn, was that Bryce was smart. He'd seen what was coming, and he'd abandoned the field for warmer climes while they both waited for the suspension to be lifted. It was completely unfair. She'd been dragged away from her dreams of Cabo to a bunker in the middle of the coldest country on the planet, dragged away from that far too soon, and now she couldn't even do her friggin' job. All because of Bryce's machinations. And the coward hadn't even been man enough to stick around through the aftermath.
Oh yes, the aftermath. Bryce knew that Sarah didn't handle boredom well. On the job, sure, she was fine with it. Being a spy was 97% boredom, 1% adrenaline, and 2% desire to wet your pants from fear or exhilaration. It was outside the spy life that Sarah had trouble. She could handle a week, tops, without starting to slowly go mad.
It had been three. Three damned never-ending weeks.
Sarah was going to shoot something. Preferably Bryce, but by this point, she wasn't feeling particularly picky. She took the left fork in the running path. Shooting Bryce would mean being put on trial for murder if her license to kill didn't hold up. Going to prison. Probably getting a little too friendly with other women inmates, a thought that made her shudder.
But at least it would give her something to do. She breathed out a puff of steam and considered how she'd go about it.
She was one of few braving the running paths around the park. A cold snap had descended over Washington DC and the Tristate area, which meant even the most hardcore runners had retreated indoors to the safety of the treadmill. She could feel the cold burn down her esophagus like splinters of glass, threatening to rip her innards apart every time she sucked in another biting breath.
It was a welcome distraction.
The other runners on the path looked miserable, huddled in their winter gear, faces reddened by exertion and cold. Sarah nodded as she passed, but she didn't stop. She didn't want a distraction taking her away from her current distraction. Every day meant a farther distance, a longer run. She had too much pent-up energy these days, a sort of restlessness that unnerved her because she knew exactly when it had started, even if she didn't like to acknowledge it. She wished the energy had originated from a different source, a different lust for a different man. Then she could actually do something about it, guilt free, even if he'd headed for the sand and the sun while she froze to death running herself into the ground.
Sometimes, she thought as she hurdled a boulder, rebounding one sneaker off of a tree with a little old-fashioned parkour, life just sucked. She scoffed. Sometimes?
It didn't help that she didn't have much to do these days but think. There had been a disconcerting silence from headquarters since their plane had landed in Dulles and she and Bryce had been shipped off to Langley to get their asses handed to them by the bosses. Suspension, reduced pay. A permanent scar on both of their records. Nobody calling her on her cell phone, giving her mission specs, no prepping to go undercover. Just nothing but questionable reality programming and soap operas on TV—honestly, she couldn't care less about Chris and Sheridan's romance, as Sheridan would never get over Luis, and they were just characters besides—and running. Lots of running, lots of time in the gym. She could wear her body down, but her mind continued on.
Her watch beeped. Should she listen to it or just keep going? Just keep running on and on—but from what? She was approaching the end of the path. If she kept going, she'd just have to double back to get back to her car. With a sigh, she slowed her pace. Might as well get back to a full day of idleness. Maybe she'd hit the gym later, or a jazz dance class. She didn't like to go too often as the other women in the class were chatty and wanted to be friends, but by this point in the game, she simply didn't have a choice.
She made sure to stretch every muscle before she climbed into her car, taking the time to run through the stretches properly. That ate up a good chunk of time.
God, she was bored.
She kept the radio set to NPR as a habit as she was too impatient to actually listen to songs all the way through. Half the time, she tuned out the DJs or whatever they were called. Sometimes, though, they had pretty interesting things to say. On the drive home, Sarah made sure to focus her attention on the topic at hand.
She couldn't keep letting her mind wander back east.
Though it did. She wondered what he was doing. He was eleven hours ahead of her, which meant it was nearing seven o'clock in the evening for him. Would he be eating dinner? She winced. Another day, another MRE.
Another drink of Tang. Another breath of drugged air?
She found a parking spot mercifully near her apartment and cursed the cold weather for the fifth time that morning. At least it kept the others inside, though the sidewalks were still fairly busy with those brave souls that chose to walk to work even in this cold. She'd found the two-story apartment nestled in one of nicer neighborhoods in Georgetown. The upwardly mobile young crowd, Bryce had decided when he'd helped her move in back in May. She'd tailored her clothing for the area, not that it really mattered. She wasn't at the apartment much, the last three weeks notwithstanding.
The thing she loved most about her apartment was the small courtyard with its little gate. In the summer, the few times she had been around, the plant-it-and-leave-it-alone garden had been a luxury. She'd indulged herself with nothing more than a lawn-chair and a book, safely hidden off from the rest of the world by a wraparound fence.
Now, halfway up the charmingly uneven sidewalk, she paused. Something felt…off. Had somebody moved the planter on the corner of her front porch? Had it always been in that spot?
"You know," said a voice behind her, and Sarah very briefly shut her eyes in exasperation, "it's always the spider plant that gives it away. And that's really an indoor plant, just so you know."
"Which is probably why it's dead," Sarah said dryly. She turned and leaned back against her apartment wall, her movements very slow and sure. She rolled her eyes to see Bryce holding one of her Smith & Wessons. "I see you found my new stash."
"Very impressive." Bryce kept pointing the gun at her. "If I'd actually been out to get you, you'd be dead, Miss Walker."
Now he shows up, she thought. Good, maybe he'll do something stupid and I can be justified in killing him. She forced her lips up into a smirk. "If you'd had the balls to pull the trigger before giving away your position, maybe."
"Balls, Walker?" Bryce laughed, just a small scoffing noise. "I'll show you balls—"
Sarah's knife embedded itself into the siding panel a quarter inch from Bryce's left ear. He jolted. "Gah! I hate it when you do that!"
Sarah used the distraction to snatch her gun away from him and yank the clip out. Empty. She checked the chamber. At least he had the decency not to point a loaded gun in her damned face. "And I'm not real fond of people breaking and entering, but we all have our trials to deal with, don't we?" She shoved the gun in her waistband.
"You gave me a key."
"Trust me, right now, I'm thinking of asking you to return it."
Bryce winced. "Still mad, then?"
Sarah just yanked the knife out of the panel—it proved more difficult than expected—and turned to head into the house.
"Still mad," Bryce said. "Well, it's a good thing I got you a Christmas present, then."
The man was always giving people presents. It probably came from growing up with such a disposable income, but handing out lavish gifts was pretty much just a habit for him. She was a little less than impressed. "How was…where were you this time?"
"Virgin Islands," Bryce said. "You should've come."
"No thanks." They'd had their chance in Cabo. Relenting only a little, she flicked a glance back at him as she mounted her front steps. "You look good. Tan."
"Thanks. You look…buff. You spend this whole time at the gym?" Bryce grabbed her arm.
Sarah nearly twisted and drove his head into the column holding her front porch roof up. It wouldn't be hard to do. Just a simple shift in balance, the proper application of torque, and Bryce would be suffering from a splitting headache for most of the day. "I haven't had my coffee," she warned him, glaring at his hand.
"I made a fresh pot when I got here. Just wanted to let you know before you could go in and start shooting: Digital Dave's in your home office."
Aggravation made her wrench her arm out of Bryce's grip. "For your information, that only happened one time, and Dave forgave me for it a long time ago."
One of Bryce's eyebrows went up. "Oh yeah? Which is why he specifically sent me out here to warn you first?"
She opened her mouth to argue that point, but her brain caught up. "Wait a second. What the hell is Digital Dave doing in my apartment, anyway?"
"He's part of the Christmas present." Bryce's grin flashed. "The suspension's been lifted. We've got new orders."
The very, very tiny part of Sarah that had been worried let out a huge breath of relief. The rest of her squinted at Bryce. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. Dave's getting a secure line set up with our tech support as we speak. Briefing's in twenty minutes."
Their tech support? Chuck, Sarah's traitorous mind whispered as elation pumped through her. She was back to full agent status with only one disciplinary notice on her record, and in twenty minutes, she'd get to hear Chuck's voice. Even if it would only be over speaker phone, she couldn't stop the flood of giddiness.
Sarah Walker, the rational part of her brain chimed in, reduced to a teenage girl with a crush at just the thought of a guy. It was humiliating. What the hell had the world come to?
She didn't care. She was too excited.
Still, her poker face stayed perfectly set. She smiled for Bryce's benefit and finally pushed her front door open. "Any idea what the mission is?"
"Not a clue. Just got the orders a couple of hours ago. We'll be teleconferencing with Chuck and the bosses and we'll all find out at once, I imagine."
"Teleconferencing?" Inside her entrance hall, Sarah paused. She glanced down at her running gear. "Video?"
She swore and raced for the stairs. "Damn it. Be back in ten!"
"Briefing's at nine! Better hurry!" Bryce sounded like he was laughing as he headed toward her home office.
Sarah was too busy shucking clothing to come back with a biting retort. She jumped into the shower before it had even warmed up, cursing when it froze most of her body. Her hands and feet, still red from the cold outside, started burning as the water warmed, of course, but the rest of her enjoyed it. She ignored that as she washed and rinsed. Did she have time to crimp her hair? Or should she straighten it? Which look was more professional? More importantly, which look would Chuck like more?
Shut up, Walker.
She went with a simple ponytail. After all, the briefing would take place in her home and she didn't want to stand in her own office, where she usually just lounged in ancient sweats and a tank top, looking like Career Girl Barbie. Even so, picking the proper clothing for the briefing took twice as long as it should have. She rejected three blouses before she settled on a rose silk button up that would go well with a gray skirt. They wouldn't see her feet, so she didn't bother with her heels. If Bryce teased her about her shoeless state, she could always just sweetly remind him that he hated it when she wore heels anyway.
Wasting precious time, she took extra care with her makeup and just hoped that Bryce wouldn't notice. She stepped back and took a critical look at herself. As far as she could tell, there weren't any red flags that Bryce could catch. Her dress was professional, and she liked girlier colors, as Bryce called them, when she wasn't on a mission. Nothing to say she'd spent the last few minutes frenzied because of a guy half a world away. Pathetic, utterly pathetic.
Still, she had a calm look in place when she came downstairs. Like her clothing, she'd tailored her apartment to look like any other apartment in the area—nice, middle-of-the-line furniture that was slightly edgy and vaguely modern, coffee-house prints and modern art on the walls. If asked, she could name every artist in the place, but she didn't really have any strong affinity for any of the artists she'd picked.
Bryce was seated in the breakfast nook when she came into the dining room, a newspaper spread out in front of him. He checked his watch. "You sure you want to come down now? I mean, you've got almost four whole minutes to primp. Why waste them?"
Sarah merely picked up the Smith & Wesson he'd left on the counter and gave him a look.
"What?" Bryce asked.
"Did you search my whole place for the fun of it?" Sarah grabbed a mug from its hook on the underside of the cabinet and poured herself the first glorious hit of coffee. "I stashed those things in very specific locations for a purpose, Bryce. Now I've got to go around and put everything back."
"Yeah, we should probably talk about that. I'm a little worried you're taking the thirty-foot rule a little too much to heart." Bryce set aside the newspaper.
"It's my apartment. I'll hide my damn guns where I want to hide them."
Bryce eyed her. "Why are you really mad at me?"
"Three weeks, Bryce. Three weeks of nothing to do. And let's not even forget that lovely six hour chewing out session that we got from Graham." Sarah glared as she slid away the hidden panel she'd had installed for her second back-up gun. "All of which I didn't have any choice about because you dragged me to the middle of Siberia without so much as a by-your-leave and then didn't tell me we'd catch hell for it."
Bryce sighed. "What do you want me to say, Sarah?"
She didn't want him to say anything. She wanted those three weeks of her life—of her career, really—back. And half of her wanted to go back in time and just go to Cabo with Bryce and spend her vacation having mindless sex. Because then there wouldn't be all of these confusing, annoying feelings involved. She wouldn't feel tugged in half whenever she thought for too long about a man she had no future with, and a partner who was all too willing to move their relationship up to the next level.
If they hadn't gone to Siberia, she'd be fine with doing that.
But they had gone to Siberia, and she'd met Chuck. And even if part of her wanted to, she couldn't go back and un-meet him. So now she was stuck with restlessness, loneliness, and an inexplicable guy that wouldn't stay in a neat slot in her brain where he belonged.
And worst of all, she was being a bitch to her partner. The guy who'd introduced her to Chuck in the first place.
So she sighed. "Nothing."
"Really? Don't want to head to the nearest gym and beat the hell out of me?" Bryce folded his arms over his chest, mimicking her stance, and gave her a skeptical look. "As if you could," he added after a moment.
That made Sarah roll her eyes. "Don't tempt me."
"You say the word, and I'll go back to my place and get my boxing gloves."
"No, I'm okay. I've spent enough time at the gym lately." Sarah fixed Bryce with her no-nonsense look, the one that had could blister the finish off of a tank at fifty paces. "I want an apology."
"We've talked about this. You may think you know best, but if we're going to keep being partners, Bryce, I want a promise that you won't do that to me again. I don't mind the bunker. I had a good time. What I had a problem with was the way you went about it. You can't keep playing your Machiavellian mind games. If you're going to do something like that to me again, I want to know everything before we go. Where we're going, why we're going, and I sure as hell want to know if it's going to lead to a three week suspension, got it? If you ever pull this sort of stunt on me again, I will sever your arteries, one by one. Got it?"
Bryce's face didn't change, though Sarah fancied he looked a little paler as he nodded. "Okay."
"Wow," said a new voice, and both agents looked over to the doorway of Sarah's office. Digital Dave filled it. He also had both eyebrows practically buried in his hairline as he stared at Sarah. "Remind me to never piss you off."
"Dave, if you piss me off, next time I shoot at you, I just won't miss." Sarah kissed his cheek on the way by. Digital Dave was one of her favorite people in the spy game, even if she didn't understand half of the gobbledygook he spewed on a regular basis. "How're the wife and kids?"
"They're good, they're good. Josie says hi, since she probably won't see you at the CIA holiday party." Dave lumbered into the office behind her and plopped down in the desk chair. His bulky frame dwarfed it, of course. "So I've got the set-up all ready to go, just waiting on a response from—oh, there it is."
The huge TV above the desk had been modified to be used as a computer monitor. Sarah's heart jolted slightly when half of the screen sprang to life. It was grainy and dark enough that she wanted to squint, but that smiling was face was definitely—
"Chuck!" Bryce, who'd come in behind Dave, grinned for his friend. "How are ya?"
On the screen, Chuck's smile transformed into a full grin. He held up a hand to tell them to wait, and tapped something on his keyboard. The screen brightened up considerably. "There, that's better. Can you hear me over there, Dave? Guys?" There was a quarter-second lag between the audio and the visual.
"Coming through loud and clear," Dave affirmed. "How's your connection?"
"Really?" Dave's head shot up. "That high?"
"I…kind of rigged something to amplify the signal." Though Chuck looked at Dave, he kept sneaking quick grins at Bryce and Sarah. "It's usually higher, actually."
"That's so cool." Dave sounded like he had a new idol. "Well, just let me bring headquarters up on the line, and then I'll get out of your hair, as this is way above my pay-grade." He grunted as he tapped something into the keyboard of Sarah's computer. A few seconds later, the other half of the TV screen filled with the dour face of Agent Pennyweather, their direct superior. Oh, great, Sarah thought as Digital Dave left them with a nod. We're going back to the Middle East. Well, at least it would be warmer—assuming they weren't going into the mountains.
"Agents Larkin, Walker," Pennyweather said, nodding at each of them. "Agent Bartowski."
Chuck waved. Sarah looked down to hide a smile; Bryce coughed.
"Shall we begin?" Pennyweather didn't wait for a response. He launched into a textbook pre-op briefing, detailing their targets and objectives. Knowing that this was likely a test for all three of them and how Bryce, Chuck, and she functioned as a team, Sarah focused all of her attention on Pennyweather's instructions and diagrams, though a few of Chuck's questions for the strict mission commander made her cover a smile with her hand. Bryce, likewise, seemed to be coughing a great deal more than normal.
Neither agent could hold it in when Chuck referred to their target as the angry dwarf with the dead eyes and the turban, though. Sarah saw even Pennyweather's calm façade crack a little, but not out of humor.
She smoothly directed the conversation back to safer ground.
Pennyweather wished them good luck and reminded them about their transport out of Dulles before his half of the screen blinked offline. Bryce moved over to the keyboard, hit a button, and Chuck's face filled the whole monitor. "Angry dwarf?" he asked as he straightened. "Really?"
"How are you not seeing it?"
"I just don't—"
"He's like evil Gimli! Look at this!" Chuck tapped his keyboard, and a picture of their target—who did indeed have dead eyes, Sarah saw—filled the screen. Chuck's voice still floated through, slightly crunched by static. "He's all, 'Grrr, argh!' You sure you're gonna be able to handle this guy, Legolas?"
"If I can't, Arwen can," Bryce said.
Chuck's face reappeared back on the screen, but his eyebrows were now low over his eyes. "You're kidding, right?"
"No, really, she can."
"Not what I meant. I meant, you're kidding about her being Arwen. She's clearly Eowyn. Duh, Bryce."
As one, both men turned to look at Sarah, one in person, one through a computer screen. "Yeah," Bryce said after a second. "Yeah, I guess so."
When he turned back to face the computer screen, Sarah made a note to find out who the hell Arwen and Eowyn were, and why the hell she was one and not the other. Just one more thing to be in the dark about when it came to her teammates.
Thankfully, Bryce cleared his throat, ending all nerd-speak. "Now that headquarters isn't here, I wanted to make sure you're okay handling all of the assignments."
Chuck grinned. "It'll be a cakewalk."
"I could do this stuff in my sleep."
"Awesome. When can you get them to us?"
Sarah stood back while the boys discussed the technical specs. The screen was still a little dark, and grainy, but Chuck still looked the same. Of course, what else had she expected? It had only been three weeks since they'd waved good-bye across the snow. With nothing to do, it had just felt like a hell of a lot longer. Seeing his face now, the way his eyebrows lowered as he answered Bryce's questions, didn't deliver the same punch as his physical presence, but her pulse had been a little fluttery ever since the teleconference had started.
Ten minutes into his discussion with Bryce, his eyes flitted up, met hers, and he smiled briefly at her before returning to the problem at hand. She smiled back before she could stop herself.
"Okay, so if you can get the data to me via email within thirty-six hours, I think we'll be a go for this op." Bryce glanced down at the PDA he'd been scribing notes on. "Your satellite phone works all right?"
Chuck's eyes cut to Sarah's for a brief second of mirth before he nodded. "Got it working."
"We'll give you a call when we land in Kabul. You sure that this is all the equipment I'll need to set up the connection you'll need to access the security?"
"It's a quick and dirty fix, but it works, I promise."
"Fantastic. I'll—" Bryce's cell phone buzzed. "Hold on a second, okay?"
"Sure." The screen jumped and blurred briefly. "I gotta warn you, though, I'm losing connectivity."
Bryce scowled at his phone. "I have to take this call. I'm sorry, Chuck. Call my sat phone if you have any problems. Sarah can finish out the rest of the stuff with you."
"Catch you later, Bryce." Chuck waved as his friend left the room. He turned his smile toward Sarah. "Ha, I thought he'd never leave."
Her sentiments exactly, though she wasn't kidding about it like Chuck was. She stepped forward, closer to the screen. As she did so, the screen blurred, jumped, and abruptly cut to black. She was left staring at her own reflection across the black.
Until Chuck's picture cut back in.
"What'd I do?" Sarah asked, afraid to move lest that set off another glitch.
"You? Nothing. I'm just losing my connection, so we should probably make this quick." Regret colored Chuck's tone. Sarah felt a stab of sympathy for him. "Any details that Bryce and I are missing?"
She hadn't been paying attention, but she was hardly about to admit that. "I think you got everything."
"Cool. I'll email the specs to you as well, just in case Bryce needs help setting the tech up." Chuck's grin invited her to share in their personal in-joke. "You don't need anything else, do you? Your personal hacker, at your service." He gave a little half bow on the screen and flourished his hands so dramatically that she giggled.
She quickly covered her mouth with her hand. "Honestly, I think we're good. How are you? How have you been?"
Chuck opened his mouth to answer, but she never got to hear it. The screen jittered and danced, Chuck's image flickering between grainy color and grainy black and white. Though she could see his lips moving, the only audio that came through was static and a weirdly distorted deep sound. Finally, Chuck held up one finger and typed something into his keyboard.
The words "Sorry! Losing connection!" blinked across the screen.
Sarah, unsure what to do, just nodded to show that she understood.
On screen, Chuck typed something. The words disappeared. After a few seconds of lag and a shaking image, new words filled the screen.
Merry Christmas, Sarah.
The last thing she saw before the screen cut to black a final time was Chuck waving with one hand and giving her a thumbs up with the other. She had to laugh, even though the room suddenly felt that much emptier.
She indulged herself for just a moment after the connection had died, just a moment of stillness. A year to eighteen months more in that bunker, all by himself. Even though she'd probably never see him again—after the reprimand she and Bryce had received for going off of the grid so far into Siberia, she doubted she'd ever get permission to visit him in the bunker, and once he was done there, he was probably out of the CIA and wouldn't want old spies dropping in on his regular life—there had to be something she could do to help him. Unknowingly or not, he'd helped keep her comfortable during her time in the bunker. And she'd been a complete stranger.
There was definitely something she could do to return the favor, so to speak. She picked up her phone from its charging station, and keyed through her contacts list. After a minute, she found the name she wanted. It rang twice before it was picked up. "Logistics and Supplies, Preto here."
"Josh?" she asked, just to be sure.
"Speaking." The voice sounded a bit harried. "Who wants to know?"
"It's Sarah Walker. I had a question for you—"
"Wow, I didn't think you high-and-mighty operatives deigned to talk to us peasants unless you're coming in and demanding supplies at the last minute."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Do you want me to apologize for the Pakistan thing again?"
"No, just felt like yanking your chain a bit." Josh's voice abruptly turned more cheerful. "What can I do you for, Agent Walker? New mission?"
"Well, yes, but Agent Larkin will be contact you about that. I'm calling for..." Sarah took a deep breath. She'd already made the call. No backing out now. "A more personal reason."
"Yeah? Finally decided to stop resisting the Preto charm? Sweet. I'll pick you up at seven."
Since the boys in the home office hitting on her was nothing new, Sarah ignored that. "You're in charge of sending supplies to Bunker Seven-Seven-One-Four-Two-One-Three-Five, aren't you?"
She heard paperwork rustle on the other end of the line, and imagined that Josh was checking the messy clipboard that lived in his hand. It grew thicker every year, the papers on the top never changing so that they grew shabbier as time passed. After a few seconds, he said, "Yep, that's on my list. Wait a second, how do you know that?"
Sarah saw no reason to dispel the commonly-believed myth that field operatives knew all and saw all. "When's the next shipment going out?"
"Hmm. Today, on the two o'clock flight out of Dulles, it looks like. I was just about to seal it off."
"Can you add something to it? For me?"
On the other end of the line, Josh sounded a bit puzzled. "You want me to add something to a shipment going to…" Paperwork rustled. "Siberia?"
"All right, I'll bite. What do you want me to add?"
"Got any whiskey? The good stuff, not crap."
"Agent Walker," and Josh sounded affronted, "this is Supplies and Requisitions for the Central Intelligence Agency. If we had nothing else in our grand, grand store-room, it would be a case of whiskey. What brand?"
"What brand whiskey do you want? We've got, and this is just off the top of my head, Jameson's, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Rebel Yell—Keith Richards liked that one, you know, so we always keep a bottle around—Jack Daniel's, Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal—"
"That one," Sarah said.
"No, Johnnie Walker. Is it possible to get a bottle of that added to the shipment? You can put it on my tab."
More paperwork crinkling in the background. It sounded like Josh might be writing something down on that clipboard. "You want to include a note with it or anything?"
Hopefully, the brand would be note enough, so Sarah declined. "Got it," Josh said after a moment more of scribbling. "Anything else?"
She was about to say no again, but an idea struck her. "Got any comic books?"
"You want me to send a comic book. To Siberia." It was almost a question.
"I'm starting to think you're a very strange woman, Agent Walker, but sure, I can throw a comic book in there. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse?"
It sounded like Josh might be trying to fight off a headache. "Which comic book should I put in there?"
Oh. This could be a problem. She had no earthly idea what Chuck liked as far as comic books went. She'd tuned out most of the nerd-speak in the bunker for her own sanity. Maybe she shouldn't do this. Maybe she should just stick with the whiskey. Of course, the pragmatic side of her pointed out, if he didn't like the book, he could just toss it in the bunker's incinerator. And if he did, well, that was great, too.
"Dealer's choice," she said.
"Whichever one you think is best." After all, Josh Preto was a geek, too. A functioning one, and one that could be quite charming when she wasn't wreaking havoc on his pristine storeroom, but he'd get Chuck's interests better than her.
Indeed, he chuckled. "All right. I've got the perfect thing in the back. Are you hung up on the comic book idea, or would a graphic novel be okay?"
What the hell was the difference? "Again, you'd know best."
She hung up a couple of minutes later, took a deep breath, and went to join Bryce in the dining room. He was unrolling a mail tube. "Pennyweather's messenger just dropped these off, so I thought we'd get started on—what is it?"
Sarah jolted. "What?"
Was she? It felt like it had been ages since she'd smiled last. At least not since November. Still, she didn't exactly want to admit to Bryce that a twenty-minute web-cam conversation was the source of her happiness, not when they'd both just had their suspension lifted. "Glad to be back at work," she said.
"Yeah?" Bryce smiled back. "Me too."
She helped him spread out the maps for their next assignment across the table. Finally, she thought as they stepped back into the cadence of being Agent Larkin and Agent Walker, life could finally get back to normal.
Well, as normal as you could get when you were Sarah Walker.
A/N the Second: It's been a great journey, guys! Tune back in to What Fates Impose for the rest of the story! Oh, and mxpw has a message for you.
mxpw: Yeah, she says it'll be a long time before she writes anything in Sarah's POV, but she and I both know that she's a sucker for a bet/challenge. If you want to see more of the Fatesverse from Sarah's POV, send me your ideas for how we might conspire against her. I'll talk her into writing another story. I know her weaknesses. It'll be fun! Besides, I gotta eventually beat her at something.