Written for Jellie Carnival Summer Challenge
Sequel to "Tightrope" and "Fire Eater."
A/N: Spoilers thru Season Three Finale
Disclaimer: I don't own them, just letting them play around in my brainpan. Thanks to Kuryakingirl for beta! Hope y'all enjoy…
Ellie peered from behind the red and black plaid curtains, eying the fishing boat parked across the water. The bass boat looked average enough. The two men within it seemed preoccupied with inspecting and preparing their poles and their lures and their electronic fish-finding gizmo.
"See what's there," a deep voice coached quietly at her ear. "Then see what's beneath it."
Ellie felt herself relax, bolstered by the calm, steady presence at her back. John leaned close, the two of them trying to stay concealed behind her Gramma's handmade curtains and still both see their quarry through the window.
"Look for what's hidden under the surface. See what you're supposed to see, then find the signs that point to the truth of what's really there."
Nodding at his instructions, she studied the pair at face value, trying to take in each little detail about them, as he'd just taught her. Ellie winced as she stared intently out the window. She was no agent, but she had to learn to think like one, act like one. Here of all places, she was learning to think like a spy.
This cabin held some of the happiest memories of her entire childhood. It had once been the safest place she could ever imagine being. She associated it with her life before… before Mom had left…before Dad disappeared…before Chuck got kicked out of college… Here, life had been normal. No computers full of government secrets crammed into people's heads. Nobody trying to kill them. No cover stories for the cover stories that backed up what may or may not be the truth.
Here, they had been a real family. Here, they had been normal.
At least, that was what she had to tell herself. Ellie wondered bitterly if even then, her family had already been involved in the world of espionage. Her mind wandered back, pouring the hazy images of summer vacations and holiday getaways through the filter of what she now knew. There must have been signs, subtle hints of the trouble to come. If she could have seen it, interpreted it, maybe she could have…
"You're drifting," John murmured, snapping her back to task.
"Sorry," she whispered, focusing on their quarry again. She could feel him shift slightly as he eased a pair of binoculars over her shoulder.
"Keep the lenses angled away from the sun," he said. "Get a closer look without putting off a glare that could draw your mark's attention. Tell me what you see."
"Okay," she breathed, taking note of the sun's position and sliding the binoculars in front of her eyes.
"It won't help, by the way."
Ellie sent a sidelong glance to his profile. "What won't help what?"
"Reliving the past," he answered as conversationally as if he were talking of the weather. "Trying to play it all back, find where it all went wrong, wondering if it had always been that way. Won't help. Can't change it now. Probably couldn't have changed it then, anyway."
She just stared at him in shock for a moment, her breath catching every third or fourth inhale. "How did you know –"
He gave a humored grunt. "Seen that look plenty enough times. On rookie agents. And veteran spies. Assets. Marks. Officers." He cast her a wry smile that didn't reach his eyes. "The mirror."
Ellie studied him in silence as he returned to his own set of binoculars. A flood of shame washed over her as she realized she'd never once even wondered what John Casey's life had been like before. She knew he'd been in the field most of his adult life. That he placed his job, his duty, ahead of his own life, ahead of his wants and needs.
She knew now that he'd been in love once, engaged to his childhood sweetheart. That he'd forfeited the chance to fulfill that love when his country had called for a deeper service from him. He had a daughter, a lovely, strong-willed young woman he'd only recently found out about. Ellie wondered what kind of father he would have been, had he known all this time. She had no idea what kind of childhood had John Casey had. Had he been an outgoing teenager, or the brooding, solitary type? Were his parents alive? Did he have siblings? Had he always wanted to be a soldier, or had he once held other dreams?
Did he ever wish his life had turned out differently?
In all the years he'd come to her table on Sundays, the long months she'd sat at his as he listened to her work out her issues, he'd never once brought up his own. And she'd never asked.
That sickening sensation of being watched by the wrong eyes snapped her attention back to the window. One of the men in the boat had swiveled his chair around to face the cabin. Whether the fishing buddies were an actual danger, or if she was just being paranoid, it didn't matter. This place was no longer the haven it had been when she was a girl.
Ellie wondered if she would ever truly feel safe anywhere again. John was right. As long as the Ring, or people like them, knew about her, she had to watch her back. Watch her step. Wonder about every new person she met.
"Tell me what's out of place," John murmured. "Look for the small inconsistencies. The big things are easy to cover. That's what most people see, so those are the bases most operatives make sure to cover."
"Well, the bass boat fits. And the hats. Dad and Gramps used to wear hats just like that when we came up here."
"Anything else?" he prompted. "What do they have that your old man didn't?"
"Well," she mused, chewing her bottom lip between her teeth as she thought for a moment, then shook her head. "It's probably nothing."
"Nothing is ever nothing," John said. "Don't discount anything as 'nothing' until you've explored it fully. That 'nothing' could very well be your subconscious pointing you toward 'something' your waking mind is glossing over. So… what is this 'nothing'?"
"I…I remember Dad wore a vest, but it wasn't so loud. There's no way anyone's going to miss those guys in their bright orange. Wouldn't someone trying to stay low-key be wearing a less noticeable color? I mean, neon really sticks out, right?"
"Hmmm, nice observation," he said. "But, sometimes low-key doesn't mean hiding, it means blending in. So I ask you… do the vests fit?"
She thought about that for a moment. "They fit for outdoorsy things. The woods. And hunting and camping and…"
Ellie heard his murmur of approval as the oddity clicked in her mind. "Hunting and camping, but why would you need a neon orange hunting vest for fishing? You don't have to worry about other anglers accidentally getting you instead of the fish, like with hunters shooting. You wouldn't, would you? And those aren't floatation vests. They're just regular, neon hunting vests."
"Good. But one inconsistency could be explained away. Look for more." He said quietly at her ear. "What else."
"Okay," she said, trying to focus through the optics before her anxiety raced toward full-blown panic. "Okay, okay, they… uh. I don't know. I don't know, John–"
"Relax, and don't think so much," he said just barely loud enough to hear, resting a steadying hand on her opposite shoulder. "Keep your breathing steady, and your voice down. The shorter one, what's he holding?"
Ellie took a deep breath, letting the warmth along her shoulder calm her. Slowly exhaling, she matched his volume. "It looks like one of those electronic thingies they use for finding fish, shows where they're hiding underwater."
"Mmm. Looks like, doesn't it? So let's concentrate on that. Anything wrong with that story?"
A frown formed between her brows as she thought about it. "You already know, don't you?"
John raised a brow and tilted his head with a light grin.
"You do," she accused lightly. "Okay. Okay, let me think. Oh!"
"This little cove… it's not very deep here, maybe fifteen feet at most. Would they need help finding the fish here? An electronic fish finder for fish that aren't really hard to find?"
"Good, good," he nodded. "Not likely, but it is plausible. Some people care more for owning the trophy than the actual experience of earning it. This guy might be the type who'd use one in a stocked pond. But that's a good observation. What else?"
"The poles!" she whispered excitedly, her confidence growing as he grinned at her. Maybe that was part of John's goal, she thought, to help her feel more in control of the clearly out-of-control situation that had landed on top of her.
"What about them?" He prodded. "People fish with cane poles all the time, what's the big deal?"
"I mean, really, cane poles, John? Looks like they just picked them up at the bait shop. The owner stocks them for the kids. Grampa used to take Chuck and me to the stock pond each visit when we were little, and we'd always swing by the shop for worms and a brand new cane pole for each of us. I mean, who's going to spend all that money on big motors and electronics to go fishing, but not spring for something a little more fancy than a plain old cane pole? That's significant, isn't it?"
He smiled broadly at her, and Ellie felt her breath catch.
"Good job," he said, the pride evident in his voice. "See? All it really takes is seeing what's in front of you, seeing what's truly there."
He peered back through the binoculars. "Most people walk around with perfect vision, but are completely blind. They see what they expect to see, what's projected, but seldom what's really at the heart of the matter. Half the time, you could parade the truth naked in front of their faces and they'd still never see it."
An unexpected warmth spread through her midsection as she realized how much his words applied to than more than just espionage. Ellie felt a flush creep up her neck and cheeks as her breathing grew faster, more shallow on its own accord. Glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, she tried to see if he'd noticed, relieved to find him still concentrating on the men in the boat who were probably trying to kill or capture her.
The reminder that her life was in danger, would likely remain so for the rest of her life, should have been like a splash of icy water in her face. Her now pending divorce, the papers only signed hours ago, should be a devastating weight around her neck, precluding any kind of attraction to another man for some time.
Somehow, none of that seemed to quell the rising awareness of this man next to her. It had been him, when she was floundering to make sense of her father's murder, who had calmly listened without trying to justify the madness. When her formerly 'awesome husband' transformed into a caricature of his former caring self, eager to shuffle off her concerns and fears with a bright cheery excursion or hours of exercise, it had been him to listen without judgment or a thousand suggestions of what she was doing wrong.
For the past three years, he'd quietly, secretly been watching over her family, over her, with little thanks and no expectation of it. John Casey had been the rock she'd unconsciously come to rely on. He'd shouldered her need without complaint, never once brushed her aside or been too busy.
A myriad of feelings raced through her as she surreptitiously watched him, standing like a fortress between her and those who would do her harm. For the most part, the flood of images and hints swirling around inside her refused to be defined. Two emotions, however, broke from the ranks to demand her acknowledgement.
Turning to face him fully, she let those two emotions shine without reservation. Whatever he'd meant to say when he lowered the binoculars a moment later frozen on his tongue when he caught her eyes. A faint smile curled on his lips as his brows lifted in question.
"Thank you, John," she said simply and sincerely. "For…everything."
It was hard to tell in the cabin's dim light, but she almost thought he blushed a little, just before he smiled and dipped his head toward her. "My pleasure, ma'am."
She smiled back at him, laying her hand on his arm for just a moment before the urgency of her situation pressed its way to the front of her thoughts again.
"So… they're most likely operatives for the Ring or someone like that, right?" she asked in a hushed voice. The months since the Big Revelation of Chuck and Sarah and John's true occupations had taught her never to assume a room wasn't bugged with listening devices.
John nodded slowly, eyes swinging back out to the men in the boat not a hundred yards away. "High enough chance that's no fish locator, but more likely a high-powered sound amplifier."
Ellie swallowed hard, glancing through the slit in the curtains and back to the agent's face. "What do we do now?"
He sighed softly, then shrugged as if getting to the point would be easier in the long run. "Now we secure our cover. We go over our 'story' together until it's seamless. Until we both answer to our cover names automatically… which is why I've picked names similar enough but different enough to our own that you should catch on them quickly. And we…"
A visible discomfort fell over his features. "I know it must be difficult for you, Ellie, especially since you and Devon just…" A pained expression crossed his face for the briefest of moments.
He shook his head, and was once again the professional operative who was hell bent on keeping her safe at all costs. "This may be hard for you, but since our most believable cover is as a loving couple, we need to present ourselves as such. That means the usual… touching, hugging, general displays of affection. It's crucial that we seem completely natural with one another. No awkwardness, no stiffness, no skittishness if a more personal display is required to fool the enemy."
Ellie nodded in silence, but John pushed the point, concern written in his eyes. "Ellie, I need to know, right now… is that something you think you can handle? Because if it's not…"
"What alternative do we have?" she asked.
"If you don't think you can pull this cover off convincingly – we run. Right now. Hard and fast to my car, and we get you the hell out of here. Those two out there will see us, or hear us, and either give chase or call in reinforcements to intercept us. There's a high probability of gun play. And since the most likely point of interception would be your apartment, or Chuck's, we can't go there. Which means a safe bunker, until the threat is eliminated."
Ellie paled. "Which will, in all likelihood, be never. Right?"
John grimaced, but nodded.
She chewed her lower lip a moment as she weighed all the information she had. "If we run, we risk losing these two, and whatever information they may have on the Ring. Am I right?"
Silently, he nodded again.
"But if we stay," she said hesitantly, "we may be able to capture, or at least identify a few more of the people who murdered my Dad. Those who want to kill or hurt Chuck. Or me. Or anyone else close to us?"
"We might be able to do that," he said. "It's not a guarantee, though."
"But it's still more likely than if we run."
"Yes, it is," he said simply.
Ellie contemplated the options before making her decision. "We have to show the world a loving, affectionate couple, is that it?"
"That's the gist of it, yes. But if it's too soon after –"
Thinking back on the time she'd known him, Ellie could honestly say she'd never seen John Casey truly surprised. Until now.
His momentary shock as she twined her fingers around his collar and pulled his mouth down to hers gave way to approval when her lips brushed against his. Another emotion altogether burned in his eyes just before he closed them and deepened the kiss she'd started.
To be continued…