A/N: Amusingly, this really is the birthday chapter. Events in this chapter happen on three different birthdays in my life: my grandfather's, my best friend from high school's, and mine. However, one thing that did not happen on an actual birthday is the posting of this chapter, which I wrote for the fantastic crystal(dot)elements. Her birthday was on December 27, which you probably saw if you visit my blog at all (we get excited about birthdays over there).
So here's the part where I talk about Crystal. It's really not that hard to do: Crystal is a wonderful person, y'all. I know most everybody is a fan of Closet Gleek and Kill Bryce and AP's inventive use of Space Mountain, and you've probably seen some of the awe-inspiring videos she's cut, but you may not realize that behind all of those brilliant works is a freaking genius. I'm not making that up; I have proof. I visited her at Stanford myself and she is five times even more fun in person, I swear.
So, Crystal, this chapter is written for you. It is without a doubt the longest single chapter I have ever written for this site, which I know you will find amusing since you always rail on about how long my chapters are. In addition, it is also the most epic thing in scope I have ever written, I think, which is fitting because you deserve nothing less. I said this on the blog already, but it has been an absolute privilege and treat to have met you and to be able to call you a friend. Happy (very belated) birthday, Crystal!
And yes, this chapter is twice as long as the next longest chapter of Fortune Favors Fools. Why? Evidently I like Crystal more than the rest of you. :-P
With a bitter cry of sorrow,
And a dark and angry frown,
Looked that band of gallant patriots
At their gunner stricken down.
"Fall back, comrades, it is folly
Thus to strive against the foe."
"No! not so," cried Irish Molly;
"We can strike another blow."
Quickly leaped she to the cannon,
In her fallen husband's place,
Sponged and rammed it fast and steady,
Fired it in the foeman's face.
Flashed another ringing volley,
Roared another from the gun;
"Boys, hurrah!" cried gallant Molly,
"For the flag of Washington."
- William Collins, Molly Maguire at Monmouth
Strike Another Blow
5 OCTOBER 2007
SECURE HOLDING FACILITY, LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
They were being punished. Sarah knew it, the administrators knew it, and she knew they knew she knew it. Putting Chuck and her in the holding facility in Langley's basement was a slap on the wrist. Letting them wait a day, a scolding. Going on three days...they were in trouble, and the bosses wanted them to know it. Sarah might not have minded, except that her world existed in a vacuum, and she was scared, and tired, and terrified. Somehow, the CIA had managed to conceal knowledge of Chuck's being back in the country from Gwen Davenport, which meant that he wasn't going to receive representation, which meant that the CIA and the NSA were going to steamroll everything and throw Chuck back into the bunker. He was too valuable for the classic CIA "accidental death" cover-up, after all.
As for her, she saw two possible endings. One, a prison cell, solitary confinement, ironically similar to the bunker they'd kept Chuck in for years. The other, and more likely, the dark alley, the bullet she wouldn't see coming. No accidental death story for her, since there was nobody in her life to fool.
She'd never outright feared death, but she was scared now. The past two years had been eye-opening. She wanted to do more than survive now. She wanted to experience. And if she were really being honest with herself, she didn't want to experience alone anymore.
She sat on her cot, legs pulled into a half lotus and wrists resting face-up on her knees, but she wasn't attempting to meditate. She'd already gone through a Tai Chi routine, sit-ups, push-ups, butterfly kicks, and as much of a cardio routine as it was possible to work in the small cell. She'd heard Chuck doing the same in the next cell over, though he'd been quiet for over an hour now, apart from kicking the wall. She wanted to snap at him to stop.
She didn't. If it helped him feel connected to something, she wasn't going to begrudge him that. Hell, she might even join in, given time. At least it was something to do.
Chuck had been quiet. She wanted to ask him about it, but they weren't the only ones in the detention center, so on top of the boredom and the cabin fever and this newfound fear of death and lifetime imprisonment that she absolutely hated, she was driving herself a little crazy wondering what exactly Chuck was thinking. Her ulcer was on the way to developing an ulcer.
"Hear that?" Chuck's voice broke the silence that had fallen for what seemed like days.
Sarah strained her ears, but it seemed that the cold she had feared in the bar in Athens might be making its way to reality. Great. One more thing to make her life miserable. "What?"
They were living in open-walled cells in a detention center with convicts that came and went at all times of the day and night. "Something's always happening."
"I think it's time to face the firing squad."
"I highly doubt there's going to be a firing squad."
She heard an amused noise, not quite a laugh. "Do you think they'll let me smoke a cigar instead of a cigarette? I mean, don't get me wrong, James Dean could make a cigarette look cool, but I don't know if I'd be able to pull that off. Especially since it would be a sin to shoot me wearing a leather jacket."
He'd look good in a leather jacket, a little distressed and comfortable to wear off the nerd edges. And it was a sign of her own sense of humor that Sarah had to smile at such morbidity. "Again, I highly doubt there's going to be a firing squad."
A single shooter didn't count as a squad.
"Probably for the best," Chuck said. "I'd hate to crap my pants in front of a group of men like that."
Sarah closed her eyes, and saw, once again, how defiantly Chuck had stood in front of Casey and his men on the beach in Athens, how much taller and broader and more heroic he'd seemed. She still didn't precisely know where that cell phone and the media codes could have come from, but if forced, she would bet her old friend Randy might be involved. And she wasn't sure how she felt about it all, even after given days of reflection on the matter. A little hurt, perhaps, that Chuck hadn't seen fit to include her, but awed all the same at just how ingenious Chuck had been, and how fearless he had seemed on the beach.
She regulated her voice now. "Oh, I don't know. I imagine given time you could talk them out of it."
There wasn't a reply. Sarah lifted her head and swiveled to look back at the wall between them, the wall she knew Chuck was leaning against on the other side, but she had not yet developed the ability to see through walls, so she had no idea what he was thinking. It made her want to hit something to be this close and this far away.
She didn't get a chance. The footsteps arrived outside of Chuck's cell, by the sound of it. Cautious, Sarah pushed off of her cot and wandered to the far corner of her cell, where she could see Chuck's visitors. She recognized the heft and brawn of Major Casey right away.
"You Charles Bartowski?" Gwen Davenport of the FBI asked into Chuck's cell. Her hair was considerably longer than it had been at the Christmas party a few years before, and there were a few more wrinkles, but Sarah definitely recognized her.
"Depends if it's Ed McMahon at the door or not."
Sarah hid a smile.
"I'm Gwen Davenport with the FBI."
"FBI, CIA, NSA. You know what? I'm really tired of initials."
As much as she would have loved to tell Chuck not to back-talk the woman who would be representing his case, Sarah couldn't help but be proud. To see some fight in him again after Smith's beat-down in Italy was amazing.
"Well, here's a few for you. MYA," John Casey said.
"Midgets Yacht Association?"
This time, she had to muffle a giggle.
"Move your ass, Bartowski. Get up."
It took a minute, while Sarah waited, arms crossed over her chest, watching the two in the corridor that didn't pay a lick of attention to her, focused as they were on whatever Chuck was doing in his cell. That was, Sarah corrected, until Casey glanced over and gave her a venomous look. Definitely no love lost there.
His shiner looked like it might be healing very slowly. Now the pride she felt was for herself.
"Inter-agency liaison?" Chuck asked, and Sarah tensed. He'd just flashed. Had Davenport caught it?
But Davenport wasn't peering at Chuck oddly, which meant she hadn't seen the way his face had no doubt gone slack and his pupils had expanded to the size of golf balls. "My reputation precedes me, apparently. How are you doing, Agent Bartowski?
"Healing, no thanks to Agent Casey's buddy," Chuck said.
"Major Bartowski? Has a nice ring to it."
Casey looked like he would rather be cleaning out latrines. Sarah wanted to laugh.
In what was probably a good move to protect the nerd, Davenport stepped in. "Agent Bartowski, I've been assigned to your case and to protect you from any continuing abuse. If you'll come with me?"
There was a pop and a hiss that marked the opening of cell doors in the detention center, though thanks to the angle, Sarah couldn't see that. She decided to wander forward, just in case, so that she was up against the bars of her own cell. "Whoa," Chuck said. "How did you—"
"You learn a few tricks over the years," Davenport said. "Major Casey is here to keep an eye on you."
That's supposed to be my job, Sarah thought as Casey held up handcuffs and Chuck sighed. "We've got to stop meeting like this," he told the NSA agent.
"I should've shot you on the beach. Would've saved me loads of paperwork."
"Oh, I'm not sure about that," Sarah said, leaning her elbows through the bars of her cell. All three in the corridor turned to look at her, and she was grateful she'd at least finger-combed her hair. "Murder generates its own amount of paperwork. Any District Attorney could tell you that."
"Would've been worth it. Say good-bye to your girlfriend, Bartowski. This is the last time you'll be seeing the likes of this traitor."
Casey flashed a huge, victorious smirk in her direction, and Sarah understood. Chuck would be granted some form of clemency, but her fate had been decided. That was, unless Casey was bluffing, but Sarah knew, deep down inside, he wasn't. Her stomach turned inside out and threatened to upend itself all over the concrete, while her brain chided her for the purely emotional reaction. It wasn't unexpected. She'd made her choice and would make the same one again in a heartbeat.
But did Casey really have to be such an asshole to Chuck about it?
Indeed, the human Intersect had gone the color of bone. "Wh-what?"
"They're sending her to the pen. The big house, the slammer, the—"
"I get the picture!" Chuck snapped, and despite the nausea, Sarah wished Casey would come a little closer to the bars so she could punch him in his smug, fat face. But Chuck stepped between them, still pale. "They can't send you away! You're innocent—I know you are, I was right there with you—look, I'll tell them it was my idea, that I coerced you or something..."
Sarah's wanted to punch Casey all over again. But Casey wasn't the important person here. So she took a deep breath, she looked at the man who trusted her most in the world, and she lied through her teeth, "Relax, Chuck. I'm not going to prison."
Casey snorted. When Chuck shot an accusing look at him, Casey said, "News to me, twerp."
"I got my orders a few hours ago." It hurt to lie, but the truth hurt much, much worse. "While you were asleep. I was just hanging around until your representative got here. Trust Agent Davenport, Chuck. She's one of the best—she'll do right by you."
Agent Davenport, who had been eyeing Sarah with the sort of interest Sarah didn't feel comfortable with, as it meant she was being measured and weighed and possibly found wanting, chose this moment to step forward. "Thank you, Agent Walker," she said, putting a hand on Chuck's shoulder.
He shrugged it off. "O-orders?"
She could see it almost in slow motion, the same panic that had nearly overtaken him in the train station in Moscow returning. Chuck's breathing grew shallower, his pupils dilating in a way that had nothing to do with an Intersect flash. Oh, no, Sarah thought. He was going to hyperventilate.
And she was going to be stuck on this side of the bars, able to provide absolutely no help. So she poked him. "Chuck! Relax."
The breathing slowed, at least. Chuck still looked dead-pale. "Will I ever see you again?"
Probably never, Sarah thought, and wondered why that would cause physical pain in her chest. She shook her head and tried to infuse as much warmth into her voice as she could. "Who knows? I can't make promises, you know that."
Except she had. And now, she might have to break it, unless Gwen Davenport did her job.
She could see Chuck collecting himself, trying to be strong, maybe for her sake. "Hey, maybe they'll have regular visiting hours at my bunker this time. It's no Cabo or anything, but you could stop by."
Davenport stepped forward again. "There will be no bunkers involved here, Agent Bartowski. Now, if we could move this along?"
"Yeah, the government's not gonna wait all day for you lovebirds to keep twittering," Casey said, and Sarah wanted to punch him again.
She tightened her grip on Chuck's elbow, one last contact and one last moment of weakness. "Go on, Chuck."
Then, and it seemed only then, he let himself be pulled down the corridor. He looked over his shoulder, his face heart-breaking and scared, as they led him away. "Good-bye, Sarah Walker."
She waved back. "Good-bye, Chuck Bartowski."
The tear slipped down her cheek before she could stop it and, horrified at herself, she ducked back into her cell so that she wouldn't truly have to watch Chuck walking away from her.
1 OCTOBER 2007
AVIANO AIR BASE
They hadn't given her any coffee.
It was smart. In fact, they'd removed most of what could be considered a weapon from her person, which meant that her reputation had evidently preceded her. The lifeless brown shoes, prison shoes, had Velcro, the flight suit's pockets had been cut out inside so that she couldn't hide anything. The flight suit fit her horribly, a shapeless, baggy sack, but it at least had the benefit of being comfortable. They hadn't even given her a hair-tie, so her hair lay loose over her shoulders. She'd held it back by tucking it into the collar of the flight suit.
Sitting there, hands cuffed behind her, without her knives and her S&W, she felt exposed and oddly cold, though it was plenty warm inside the interrogation chamber. Warm, she thought, and gray. Very, very gray. The walls were gray, the linoleum had grayed over time, and even the tabletop of the single piece of furniture—save the gray metal folding chair she was currently leaning back on two legs, her feet resting against the edge of the table so that she could hide her hands and the spring they held from the silvery-gray expanse of the observation window—seemed colorless with disinterest. With a single dim fluorescent light flickering overhead in the wooden rafters, the gray threatened to overwhelm everything, including her.
Perhaps it was fitting. She was in every sense of the word a prisoner, and the gray only amplified that. By now, Major Casey or one of his goons would have contacted Graham. She wondered what his reaction had been. One member of his top team gone rogue, the other member taken prisoner by agents of her own government, surely that reflected poorly on him. That was probably why he was letting the NSA deal with her; he was likely too disgusted to do otherwise at this point.
The door off to the side of the room, gray like everything else, opened, and her least favorite person entered, followed by one of his lackeys. Unlike her, he was holding coffee. It smelled sinful.
One more reason, Sarah thought, to hate John Casey. The man might be doing his job, but did he have to smirk all the damn time?
"Walker," he said, as his lackey—whose nametag said Martinez—shut the door behind him with a click. Automatic lock, Sarah noted. There was no way she was getting out through there.
"Didn't bring any for me?" she asked, eyeing Casey's coffee.
He snorted. So far, Sarah had categorized about fourteen different noises, sarcasm level varying, that he used to communicate, and even fewer words. This snort was different than the one he'd given Chuck when Chuck had asked about staying at the Hilton instead of on base, but it boiled down to the same meaning: no way in hell.
She normally liked a man who stuck to his guns. She would have liked coffee more.
"I don't have a lot of time to waste with pleasantries," Casey said as Martinez took his place across the table, standing between Sarah and the door. "And nobody thinks they're really all that pleasant anyway, so let's get down to it: where's Bryce Larkin?"
"Beats me," Sarah said.
"Obviously you don't understand how much trouble you're in."
Sarah laughed. It wasn't the wisest move, but she was cranky. "I know exactly how much trouble I appear to be in, Major Casey. And if I knew where Bryce Larkin was, believe me, I would tell you. I owe him an ass-kicking for making my life hell."
Casey took a long sip of coffee. Sarah knew exactly what he was doing: trying to play off of her weaknesses, which right now was a lack of sleep and a lack of information. Coffee would help with one, silence with the other. It would have been effective, if Sarah weren't a trained interrogator herself, and if her thoughts weren't down the hall. She'd spent most of the night worrying about Chuck, as they had him stored in a different building, but her fears had been for naught. She had seen him that morning when they had both been led into the MP office for their interrogations. He had looked nervous, but whole. She was more than starting to suspect he could take care of himself, given the way he'd stood up to her at the Acropolis, and the fact that he had set up a failsafe plan to protect them both, but it had laid to rest hours of worry to see that he was truly okay.
She forced her mind to focus on Casey. He was doing his hardest to break her, after all. She should at least pay him the respect of letting him think he might be making progress.
See? Sarah thought at the absent Carina. This is how you play nice with people.
"Okay, let's put this a different way. Bryce Larkin blows up the Intersect, two hours later you're on a plane out of the country toward the man he sent that same Intersect to, and you're telling me that not only were you not involved, but you have no idea where Larkin is at all?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"How'd you know about the Intersect blowing up, then?"
"Great hearing." Sarah cocked her head.
"Drop the cute act. That may work on the morons in the CIA, but I know better than that."
"I don't care if you believe me or not, Casey, but I was doing my job."
"Letting oil sheiks get a peek up your skirt so that you can kill them with a pencil?"
"What can I say," Sarah dead-panned. "My legs are killer. But no. My job was to protect Chuck. I was doing that the way I felt best, until you and your goons burst onto the scene and threatened to kill us both. Did you include that bit in your reports, Casey? I wonder what the higher-ups would think of you telling the Intersect that the next bullet goes in his brain. Seems counter-productive with all of the work they've put in on the Intersect project."
"Probably the same thing they think about you taking a valuable piece of classified and dangerous intelligence on a joy-ride through Russia and Europe. What's the matter, Walker? Get tired of humping CIA-sanctioned marks? Decide to get a little nerd-loving in?"
Sarah had to giggle. It was either that or see white again, and that option meant that Casey was getting to her. Careful not to move her wrists and give herself away, she let out a peal of laughter and tilted her chair back even farther. "Is that really what you think? That I was on some sort of...sex-capade? Pretty nice of Bryce to set that up for me, don't you think?"
"Hey, I don't ask what you CIA perverts get up to and you don't tell."
"If you know even a tenth of what I do about the Intersect project, you'll know that Chuck is now extremely valuable. But he's also a person, and I wasn't sure who I could trust and who I needed to protect him from." Sarah let the front two legs of her chair click back down onto the linoleum, though she didn't remove her feet from the edge of the table. Martinez, still across the table from her, shifted his stance, and Casey began what she could only think was a prowl around the room, circling like a predator. "We were due to be extracted into the States today, actually, so that I could approach Langley and let them know that Chuck, and the intel, was safe, but your little stunt at my beach house put a stop to that."
"I don't believe that."
"I'm sorry. Your loss."
"What I do believe," Casey said, pacing behind her, "is that you and Larkin were working together. He blew up the Intersect computer, you retrieved the human subject to prep to sell to the highest bidder."
"Why wasn't I there sooner, then? Seems like if I'd been in on the plan from the beginning, I'd have snatched Chuck from the bunker a lot sooner."
"Don't ask me to explain the incompetence of the CIA. Larkin does his thing, you do your thing, and you meet up later, sell the Intersect, split the money, and spend the rest of your days doing perverted CIA things on some island nobody's ever heard of."
Wrong CIA agent for that fantasy, Sarah thought. She carefully clenched one fist and then the other, making sure that Casey couldn't notice her movements. No more slipping like the Acropolis, or on the beach. She had to stay completely focused for Chuck's sake, and maybe for her own. Chuck's stunt with the media and the Intersect file had brought them both time, but her words now mattered, Sarah knew.
"First," she said, her voice still saccharine, "his name is Chuck, not the Intersect, not the human subject, and he's been a member of my team for going on two years now. He's saved my life several times, so the last thing I would do is sell him on any market. I meant what I said: I wasn't working with Bryce, and I was protecting Chuck. I don't have the first clue where Bryce is, but after the hell he's put Chuck and me through over the past several days, I will gladly hold him down while you get your kicks in, provided you return the favor."
"Heh," Casey said, and she nearly blinked to realize that Casey was thinking of just that scenario, and fondly. Apparently, she had an ally—if she could convince him of such. She heard him pause behind her. "This time, without the sarcasm: how did you know about the Intersect blowing up if you weren't working with Larkin?"
"I told you—" Sarah broke off as a faint cry of pain split the air. Her head whipped toward the observation mirror. Chuck had been led away in that same direction. Surely that hadn't been...in that second of silence, another cry broke through. A shout forced from somebody, somebody in deep pain. Sarah had heard the instinctive calls of too many people being tortured or hurt to know otherwise, and she recognized that voice.
Blood turned to ice water in her veins.
She gave no warning. The instant Chuck's shout of pain ripped the air, Sarah Walker moved faster than she ever had before.
She drove her feet forward, shoving the table into Martinez's stomach. Even as he doubled forward, grunting, Sarah let the chair fall back. She didn't feel that one second of tell-tale weightlessness. By the time the chair hit the ground, she had flipped out of it, landing easily thanks to years of acrobatics and gymnastics and keeping up with her damned partner, who didn't believe in things like gravity. Her hands snapped free of the cuffs, as she'd used a spring stolen from her mattress to pick that lock nearly an hour before. She pulled strength from her knees and core, and slammed her elbow as hard as she could into the smug visage of John Casey before he could even get an "Oh, shit" out. Her other hand grabbed his coffee, and she flicked her wrist, throwing that right into the face of the doomed Martinez.
She didn't hear either man hit the floor. One jump and she was atop the table, sprinting full force down its length at the two-way observation glass. Her mind calculated distances, time; she reacted without thought, springing up so that her hands wrapped around the support rafter above her head, while momentum carried her forward feet-first, swinging straight for the glass.
She hit with a crash.
She landed with a crunch.
She felt neither.
There were two guards working the room, one at a recording station, the other by the door. The latter was already reaching for his gun when Sarah landed. She didn't dodge; the guard at the recording station was on a rolling chair. She yanked him out and used him as a shield.
The tranq gun went off once, twice. By the third round, Sarah had rolled to her right, ignoring the bite of the shattered glass. She launched herself from a crouch to full flight, leading with her right foot. The kick caught the guard in the midsection; he toppled like a building. The gun clattered to the ground.
Six of Casey's men had accompanied them to the interrogation rooms. Three down. Two to go. They'd be outside, in the hallway, waiting for her to emerge. Sarah shoved open the door, waited a split second that lasted an eternity in which she didn't breathe, didn't think, and her heart didn't dare beat.
Then she threw herself forward and slid for home.
The guard in the hallway had obviously been expecting somebody at his level. By the time he readjusted his aim, she'd already shifted her weight onto her hands and one knee. She used her momentum to sweep his feet out from under him, drove an elbow into his stomach, and yanked the gun from his hand. One brief jerk of her arm and the guard would be enjoying several hours of naptime.
Where the hell was her last guard?
Chuck cried out again, and the noise was full of terror and pain.
She didn't let herself think, didn't let herself imagine the thousands of horrible, bloody, painful scenarios that her mind was more than capable of picturing thanks to years of working for the CIA and visiting every war zone imaginable.
Not Chuck, damn it. She was supposed to keep him safe.
Fear, rage, self-loathing, terror propelled her. She hit the door to Chuck's interrogation room with both feet, and the ancient wood was no match. Splinters flew everywhere, but Sarah didn't see them. She stepped in, chopped the side of her hand down and took out the first guard. The tableau unfolded: Chuck was in the corner, as if he'd been thrown there, crumpled forward in obvious pain. Standing over him was Lieutenant Smith, Casey's second in command. He blinked stupidly at her, fist still raised.
Sarah didn't think. She aimed and put two in his chest.
When nothing happened but two little red fletches spouting dead center over Smith's heart, she threw the gun to the side and swore. Why the hell couldn't they have carried real guns?
"Who the hell let you—" was all Smith got out before he dropped forward, out cold.
Sarah wasn't sure her feet touched the ground at all as she raced across the room. "Chuck! Chuck, are you okay? Oh, God, are you okay? Are you hurt? What did he do to you?"
The lump on the ground coughed once, twice, and the sound of it froze the ice water pumping through her system. "S-Sarah?" Chuck lifted his head, and Sarah's heart leapt backward and up into her throat. His face was already swelling, blood dribbling from a split lip, a red mark swallowing his left eye. "How did you get in here?"
Rage was a living thing, biting into her so intensely that she shook. Even worse than that was the panic, which paled in the face of the encompassing, whole-body fear that had overtaken her the instant she had heard Chuck shout. She wanted to kick Smith's face and head until there was nothing but a bloody pulp left, but the very real confusion and worry in Chuck's eyes, the fact that he was obviously so badly injured, would have to come first. She ran her hands over him, checking for breaks, making sure he was whole.
He grabbed her hands. "I'm okay, I'm fine."
"You're not." And now, on top of everything else, there was the burn of very real tears in the back of her throat. "You're not. He hurt you."
"Not very much." But Chuck proved himself wrong by coughing, and blood spattered the ground and the front of Sarah's flight-suit. It wasn't much, but to Sarah, it might as well have been an ocean.
She actually felt the world tilt and judder. So much blood, was all she could think. They had hurt her Chuck, and there was so much blood.
She turned mechanically. What she had in mind to do, she didn't know, but the last time she had felt this lack of emotion, lack of anything had been...never. She'd killed genocidal dictators with more pity. Her eyes fell on the downed Smith.
Unlike the other guards, he didn't carry a tranq pistol. She could see it there, not even snapped down, in a hip holster. She reached for it; her only thought was that she hoped the scumbag had a full magazine. She was going to enjoy unloading a few rounds into his head.
A hand grabbed hers. Her first instinct was Farm-trained: grab the thumb, exert just the right amount of torque, give the owner of the hand something to think about for the next ten days to six weeks. Her second instinct turned all of her internal organs to jelly, especially when that hand shifted, the fingers interlocking with her own. Chuck. What the hell had she been about to do? She pushed out a shaky breath and turned back as slowly as she'd turned away. Chuck was giving her his most earnest look.
"I'm fine," he said again. "Just cut up my lip a little."
"Yeah, running into his fist." She forced herself to focus past the second surge of fury. "What happened?"
"He wanted the media code. Apparently, the word 'please' is not in his vocabulary." Chuck looked like he was trying to twist his face up into a smile, possibly for her benefit, but the best he could do was a pained grimace. It really was possible, Sarah realized distantly, to taste raw anger. Chuck still had a hold of her hand, however, preventing her from turning and delivering a few punches her instructors at the Farm had specifically warned against using, as they usually involved lethal force. "How did you get in here? Where did you come from? Did you kick in the door or am I hallucinating?"
"It was old. Didn't take much. And Casey and his toady were...otherwise occupied, so I came to see you." Sarah heard the footsteps clanging from the hallway and extricated her hand from Chuck's. "And on that note."
She turned, grabbed Smith's gun, and had just pointed it at the empty doorway when Casey came barreling through. He pulled up short at the sight of the carnage: two dropped guards, one broken door, the bleeding Chuck, and Sarah standing in the center of the room, gun aimed at him. He aimed his right back at her. "What the hell was that, Walker?"
"Don't move," Sarah said. "Don't come one step closer. You and your men have done enough."
She was shaking, she realized, almost quivering. She could only hope that Casey didn't notice.
"That's not how this works," Casey said. "Drop the gun."
"Fine. After that little stunt you pulled, I should shoot you and save the legal system the trouble and money of convicting you of treason and attempted murder."
"That's if I don't shoot you first."
From behind Sarah, there was another cough, and then Chuck spoke up. "I'm sorry, but is the whole 'at gunpoint' thing necessary to this conversation?"
"Of course not. I'll put down my gun when Walker does."
"I'm not putting my gun down." Sarah shifted her grip. It was a minute movement, but any experienced gunman knew that actually sliding the index finger onto the trigger was a warning.
"Look around you, Walker. You're in the middle of an Air Force Base. With your looks, you won't get twenty feet outside this room without being swarmed by horndog airmen on leave. I won't even have to call the guards."
"I'm not going to escape," Sarah said, biting off her words. "What I'm doing is I'm keeping all of you the hell away from Chuck."
"No, he's not. So I am staying right here and I am holding onto this gun until you get Chuck some medical attention. And if you don't like it, you can suck it."
Casey's sneer seemed automatic, and well-used. "So that's how it's going to be?"
"I'll let you get your men out of here," Sarah said. "But nobody but a doctor is going near Chuck."
"Sarah, I'm fine, really, I promise." Beside her, Chuck tried to lurch to his feet, his movements drunken and pained.
The reflex was automatic from both agents, apparently. "Stay down!" Sarah and Casey said at the same time.
Chuck sat down. "Okay, okay, sheesh."
Casey broke first. "I let the doctor in, you put your gun down."
"Not until the doctor is here."
"You try to pull anything—"
"You try to pull anything, and I will end you, Walker. I mean that. I know a lot of people high up the chain that would love nothing more than to see your scrawny CIA ass freezing on Mount Washington."
"Hey!" This came from Chuck, and made both agents look over at him. "She's not scrawny. And she's doing her job much better than you are, so back off."
Casey must have caught the murderous glare Sarah was currently putting all of her effort into, for he didn't have a snappy comeback to that one. Instead, she caught the way his eyes lingered on Chuck, checking the other man's injured state. Apparently he wasn't entirely incompetent. He said nothing about it, though. "Jones, Martinez, go get Smith before she kills him." When neither man behind him made a move, he growled. "That was not a request! Move it!"
Though it bothered her to no end to see the man who had hurt Chuck be toted away from where she could do considerable bodily harm, she kept her word and allowed Martinez, who was blinking a lot and covering his scalded face, and Jones cart the other man away, keeping her gun trained on Casey. Once they'd cleared the room of both Smith and the other unlucky guard, she tilted her head slightly. "Now, the doctor."
"He's already on his way. Drop the gun."
"Not until he's here."
"You two," Chuck said from the floor, "are very strange."
Neither contradicted him.
2 OCTOBER 2007
AVIANO AIR BASE
Once the doctor had declared Chuck's injuries to be superficial, and that he would be fine to travel—though it was not recommended—Sarah had allowed herself to be put back into handcuffs. Casey had ordered her thrown into the same cell as Chuck's ("They can fight over who gets the cot."), and had left the two of them alone for the rest of the day. It had passed mostly in silence. The drugs they'd fed him had made Chuck incredibly sleepy and groggy. He'd tried to insist that Sarah take the cot. She'd agreed to, then, the moment he'd fallen asleep, had bodily hauled him onto the cot and left him there. She was content to sit at the foot of the bed and let her body recover. The spike of adrenaline and fear had turned her into a shaky mess, and it took hours for the trembling to stop.
It was a temporary victory, being near Chuck, and she knew it. When they got to D.C., Casey would do everything in his power to exact his revenge for the fact that she had neutralized his team in less than thirty seconds. Men like Casey, men who lived and breathed only when Uncle Sam told them to, didn't tend to take that sort of thing lightly, and they had an even longer memory than she did.
But she was with Chuck, and for now, she could keep him safe.
Now she followed Chuck off of tarmac and onto the loading ramp of a C-130 plane. The sun hadn't even risen yet, so the airfield was chilly, the air damp and sticking uncomfortably to places like the back of her neck and the insides of her wrists. Martinez had her on a lead rope, and he wasn't being particularly gentle, but she didn't care. They let her sit next to Chuck.
"Stay," Martinez told her once he'd finished locking the handcuffs to the restraint bar attached to the floor. They were taking no chances. Why the men were calling her She-Ra, she had no idea. It hadn't made Chuck glare when he'd heard it, so she didn't figure it was an insult.
Chuck leaned toward her, grimacing. "Hey, can you do me a favor?"
"Remember that thing you did at the Acropolis? Is there like a six-hour version of that you could do to me? I promise not to drool on your shirt."
"Oh, yes, because I care so much about this," Sarah said, giving the flightsuit she was still wearing a deadpan look. "Unfortunately, my hands are kind of full right now."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess so." He looked awful, Sarah couldn't help but think. Even in the dimmed lighting on the back of the plane, a whole half of his face was puffy, his eye swollen mostly shut. They were lucky Smith hadn't knocked any teeth loose.
The thought of it made Sarah very slowly turn and glare at the man who had caused all of it. Smith glared right back.
"Where are we, anyway?"
"Italy," Sarah said. "Near Venice."
"Really?" Chuck perked up. "I've always wanted to go to Venice. Those little boats they've got, the, you know which ones they are—"
"Gondolas," Sarah said.
"Yeah, those. Always wanted to ride one. Although I think you're required to have a date on those. It'd be pretty lame to have some strange Italian man singing love songs to you while you sit there all by yourself."
Sarah bit her tongue over an offer to go along with Chuck on said ride, as she wasn't sure he would be able to take her up on it. If her gamble with Gwen Davenport worked, he might be free to eventually explore Venice—likely with an armed detail—but she probably wasn't going to see the outside of a prison cell for a long time.
"I don't think they actually sing anymore," she said instead.
"I'm sure if you pay them enough, they would." Chuck broke off with a groan.
Sarah glanced over sharply. "What? What is it?"
"Nothing. Just remind me not to breathe too deeply."
"That's it. I'm going to kill Smith," Sarah muttered, and thankfully the plane's engines started up, masking her words from Chuck. She scooted over to give Chuck more room, so he could be a little more comfortable.
"Hey, Sarah?" Chuck had to shout to be heard over the engine noise. He broke down into a coughing fit, and Sarah wanted to tell him not to talk, to save his strength, but she knew he wouldn't listen.
"What—what happens now?"
Sarah paused, debating if she really wanted to answer that. "You know what? Ask me when we're about to land. I'll know more."
"Okay." Chuck gave her the smile that could destroy her from the inside, a little sleepy, the smile that said he trusted her completely, that things would be all right because she was there. It terrified her and at the same time, it made her want to be the person that deserved that smile, though she doubted she ever would be. Then his smile faltered abruptly, and she had no idea why. Before she could ask, though, he leaned back against the seat and pretended to be asleep.
Well, that was odd.
Casey appeared, gripping the straps overhead to make his way to them. "No funny business," he told Sarah on the way by, a ferocious scowl in place.
"Chuck stays safe, I won't do a thing," Sarah told him, and kept up the innocent look until the other man had strapped himself in between her and Smith. She didn't blame him. She was still toying with the idea of breaking free of her restraints and poisoning Smith's drink. It might be a womanly way to kill somebody, but she didn't care. She'd seen firsthand what some poisons could do, and while it wasn't quite awful enough for what she wished would happen to Smith, it would have to suffice.
When the plane hit open sky, she closed her eyes. Next stop, she thought, D.C. And the tap-dancing would truly begin.
5 OCTOBER 2007
SECURE HOLDING FACILITY, LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
It took longer than she expected, but that may have been her complete lack of objectivity. Time had a way of speeding or slowing right before a major event, Sarah had always found. Even so, time slowed so much that Sarah began to doubt she had correctly interpreted the look Gwen Davenport had given her before the FBI and the NSA had taken Chuck away from her. She had nothing else to do, though, so she waited, both hating every passing minute and grateful because it meant that the evidence of her tears vanished.
At long last, she heard the noise down the corridor of cells change and stir in a way that indicated visitors. Following that came the click of expensive high heels on concrete, and Sarah relaxed. Agent Davenport might have been on an FBI salary, but Sarah had noted the tasteful cut of her suit and the Louboutins. There was money there.
And class, too. Gwen Davenport didn't speak immediately when she reached Sarah's cell, like Sarah didn't look over right away. It was just another game of nonverbal chess, Sarah knew.
"Crimson Radcliffe, huh?"
Sarah moved a shoulder, a half-shrug. "I was in a hurry."
"Didn't put it together that the bright, young, Harvard student that looked more like a model I met at a holiday party years ago was the one sending me a file until a couple of days ago. I thought you were Secret Service."
Sarah shook her head. "CIA."
Far be it from her to defend her agency right now. "It pays the bills."
"Mm-hmm. Well, either way, I'm glad I broke your code, or I never would have found either of you, the way the CIA had you buried."
"I'm glad you did." Sarah unfolded out of the half-Lotus and rose to her feet, crossing to the bars of her cell again. She leaned one shoulder against the wall and looked out at Gwen. "Where is Chuck?"
"I'm not authorized to tell you that."
Sarah's stomach fell. "I see."
Though Gwen's eyes had been kindly when she had led Chuck away, they hardened into blue steel now. "I have questions for you, Agent Walker."
"I thought you might."
"You met Chuck Bartowski nearly two years ago. You knew the conditions in which he was living, and you clearly knew my office existed. Why did you wait until last week to come to me?"
Guilt twisted through Sarah's stomach. "I didn't remember you."
"What could possibly have jogged your memory while on the run?"
"I'm not sure."
"I think you're lying to me, Walker. I read your file. Recruited at seventeen, top of your class, lots of commendations for actions that are all black-lined." Agent Davenport's voice never fluctuated, edged with a simmering anger that, had Sarah been a fearful person, would have made Sarah grateful for the bars between them. It was no mystery how Gwen Davenport had become the head of her division. "I think what you are is a Company woman, through and through. Chuck Bartowski was an asset to the Company, and so you left him right where he could provide the most help, and only contacted me to help save your own ass."
Though she made sure her face never changed, Sarah had to fight the desire to lash out, grab the back of Gwen Davenport's head, and slam her face into the bars. The rest of her wanted to curl up and try to blink out of existence. Gwen was right. She could have remembered and gone to somebody like Gwen sooner. She had had everything in her power to save Chuck from the bunker, and she'd done nothing. She'd even told herself that he didn't mind time and again to make it better, to make it easier.
She ignored the little voice in the back of her head that Chuck himself could have gone to Gwen and her division, and hadn't because he felt like being in Siberia was his duty and his way to make a difference, and even though she knew Chuck had gone beyond the call of duty, she understood the drive to belong and do well because it had compelled her to do the same from the age of seventeen, to kill and steal and do despicable things in the name of Uncle Sam. Of course, he'd reached his breaking point with his time in the bunker, if his threat to kill himself before returning to the bunker had any truth in it, but she still understood the basic principle behind his initial service.
But it wasn't an excuse, and she knew it.
"In the CIA, we're trained not to rely upon anybody," she said. Her study of Gwen had told her that an impassioned plea would hold more water, but that felt like cheating, and she had cheated Chuck enough. "That asking for help is the equivalent of failure. You never know if you're going to have help in the field, so it's best never to expect it. On top of that mentality, the CIA would have me completely forget that you and your division exist. They like their agents to follow the Company lines. So, you're right, up until this past week, I was very much a Company woman."
"My partner betrayed the government, Chuck, and myself, and I saw the full extent of what government service had done to Chuck. So I contacted you and yes, I do regret not doing so two years ago."
Gwen was silent for a long time, and even though she had a lifetime in the study of body language, Sarah couldn't read the other woman's face. "Why didn't you contact me directly?"
"Because I was not sure who I could trust."
"Yet you still had that file sent to me."
"Straight to your desk, via a courier I was relatively sure I could trust. I paid him enough, that's for sure. But I could not be sure you weren't being monitored, so I didn't follow up."
"Very well. So why did you feel Chuck would be safer with you alone than the best protection detail the government had to offer?"
"Chuck trusts me, which, in his current state, is the best protection the government can afford. And two people can hide in plain sight far more easily than a detail."
"What is your relationship with him, Agent Walker?"
"Friends and coworkers," Sarah said without hesitation. "He trusts me. And thanks to Agent Larkin, it's my job to protect him. I did what I felt was best. As for your accusation about me only wanting to save my own ass, you're wrong. I contacted you for Chuck, not me."
"Agent Bartowski is not the only one who needs representation in this matter."
"He needs it more. I'll be fine."
One corner of Gwen's mouth quirked upward, a half-smile and the first break in the dam. "Nobody likes a martyr, Agent Walker."
And nobody likes a bitch on a high horse, Sarah almost replied. Instead, she moved forward, threading her arms through the bars so that she could lean forward on her elbows. "In a perfect world, we both know a representative would be the best thing for me, but this isn't a perfect world. I'm sure your division is pretty damn effective at its job, but having that rep is only going to piss my bosses off more and make things worse for me. I've pissed them off enough lately, thanks. I'm better off on my own."
"If that's how you feel about it, why conspire to get me on Chuck's case?"
"Because Graham doesn't like you, and the bosses aren't the only ones pissed off."
"Just friends and coworkers, huh?"
"You don't get to make a lot of friends in the CIA," Sarah said, "so the ones you do make are important."
"Mm-hmm. Still seems a long way to go for just a friend."
"That's a bit surprising coming from the woman who not five minutes ago accused me of not doing enough for my friend."
"Touché. I'll speak to my supervisors about your case."
"I'd rather you didn't."
"You don't have the market cornered on being pissed off, Agent Walker. I had Chuck Bartowski transferred to a hotel, and Major Casey is with him. And yes, only Major Casey. I had very little choice about that," Gwen Davenport said, and with a nod of her head, left. Alone, Sarah leaned her weight against the wall and slid until she was sitting on the floor, staring at nothing. If she had only remembered Gwen Davenport sooner, everything would be much, much different. Chuck would be healthier, she wouldn't be sitting behind bars, and Bryce would...well, who the hell knew what Bryce would be doing? Sarah had stopped knowing the minute she'd gotten that phone call from Digital Dave.
But Chuck was safe, and in a hotel, so that was something. It would have to do.
8 OCTOBER 2007
SECURE HOLDING FACILITY, LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
Around the Farm, there were stories. Every training scenario came with at least three or four ghost stories of agents who had either failed a course so spectacularly that they had been dropped from the program and black-listed or who had done so well they had immediately been offered agent status. There were tales of death from food eaten in the cafeteria, long sagas of the most legendary agents, whose training names were still listed on the plaques hanging up around the cafeteria, whispered accounts of those wonder teams that always got the prime jobs filled with danger, sex, and glamour. And among those stories was the story of the 34-J, the court-martial so secret it didn't exist in the CIA code of conduct manuals. Students would always point out that there was a 34-I and a 34-K, but the 34-J was conspicuously absent.
And if Sarah had known then that it wasn't just a mythical horror, she would have paid more attention to those rumors.
They didn't let her sit. No, instead, she stood, wearing a dark orange pair of trousers, shapeless and baggy like the flight suit had been, and an overlarge orange tunic. She was cuffed at the ankle and at the wrist, and both sets of cuffs were locked to the floor. They didn't even let her appear presentable for her under-the-table court martial.
She didn't know the name of a single person in the room besides her own, and that of Director Graham, who sat with the others at the tables. There were seven of them in all, at seven identical tables on a raised platform, while she remained standing in the center of the room, under an uncomfortably-warm spotlight. The walls were dark, and there were no windows—unsurprising, given that they were underground, a couple of levels above the detention center.
Each table contained a sizeable stack of files. She'd wondered what they could contain at first, but it quickly became obvious: anything and everything she had done for the CIA, not a single line redacted. The past two days had been devoted to going over every single line in those files. Sarah had essentially heard her entire life history—every grade at Harvard, every score from Camp Peary and Harvey Point, the result of every failed and successful op she had run. It was a little more than disquieting. It was like she had been stripped naked and studied by a group of men whose names she didn't have the authority to learn, save that the CIA found them important. They even knew her real name.
The man at the center desk, more ancient than the rest of the gentlemen in the room put together, and whom Sarah had taken to calling Eyebrows, as that was his most identifiable feature aside from a lantern jaw and a dour look, cleared his throat and closed the final file. "Do the gentlemen of this council have anything to add?"
A general murmur that nobody did.
"Have we reached a decision?"
Another murmur, this time affirmative.
"Very well. Having heard the sworn testimony of the agent so-called Sarah Walker in the matter of the Central Intelligence Agency 34-J Court Hearing, the Council has reached its decision."
Sarah's stomach hit her knees.
"Agent Sarah Walker, so-called, the council finds you guilty of high treason in collusion to the destruction and theft of the Intersect project. As punishment for your innumerable crimes against the Government of the United States of America, you should be sentenced to twenty-five years in federal prison."
Raw pain and terror speared through Sarah's gut. She dropped her gaze. Even her famous and infallible poker face couldn't stand up to that sort of sucker punch. Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years was a long time. Almost as long as she had been on this earth. By the time she got out of there, she would be in her fifties.
"However," Eyebrows continued, and Sarah's head snapped up, "there is the matter of a certain piece of blackmail making its way through the channels." Eyebrows gestured one frail hand toward the screen to the side of the chamber, the same screen on which Sarah had spent two days watching surveillance of many of her kills and ops, including that first, horrible assassination. It flickered to life now.
A face filled the screen, and Sarah's traitorous heart leaped. Chuck! The video wasn't very high-quality—it looked like it had been shot at very low resolution, like a cell phone camera—but Chuck's face was perfectly clear. He looked so sober that it took Sarah a second to recognize the bathroom from the second safe house in Athens behind him.
"My name," Chuck said into the camera phone, his face distorted into pixels and blurs, "is Charles Bartowski. I am an analyst for the CIA, currently on the run. And if you're watching this, it means that I have sent a locked file containing information on national secrets, information I don't think any of you want getting out, to five media sources. It'll be like a field day for them, trust me. And if I have not sent a personal code to destroy the file, it will unlock automatically two weeks to the second after being sent. If you are watching this in that time, my requests are simple: clean slates for both Agent Sarah Walker and myself. Neither of us was working with Bryce Larkin, so you can do whatever you like to him, but Sarah and I are innocent, and if you want that code sent, you'll believe it."
The video ended on Chuck's face looking entirely sober and unlike him. Sarah didn't dare breathe. She knew Chuck had told the others he'd sent that file on the beach, but she had thought of it as a bluff, a way to buy them time. Casey hadn't even asked her about it in the interrogation. She had assumed, with the all-too-real evidence of the 34-J in front of her, that the bosses and everybody else had dismissed it out of hand. Apparently, she had assumed incorrectly, as there was an air of definite unease among the seven sitting at the desks. Well, Sarah thought, looking at her old mentor, six of the seven were uneasy. Graham was leaning back, quite at his leisure, idly rolling a pencil between his thumb and forefinger while he studied the other men in the room.
Finally, the reedy-voiced man at the end cleared his throat. "I move that the accused be removed from the premises in order to allow for a more open discussion."
"Motion passed. Agent, remove the accused."
In a lengthy process that was repeated at meal-times, recesses, and at the end of the day, Sarah was unchained from the bar on the floor and led away by the nameless agent. His name hadn't been used either, but he had stood guard quietly, always three feet behind her and a foot to the left, hands held in parade rest behind him. If he ever grew weary of the stance, he didn't let it show.
Agent No-Name didn't lead her far. They reached the two benches outside of the courtroom, one on either side of the hall, and he locked her into place in front of one. At least, Sarah thought, letting her weary body sink down, she could sit.
"You don't have to stand," she told Agent No-Name. "I promise you, I'm not going anywhere."
"Do not speak unless spoken to," Agent No-Name said, looking and sounding like he might be John Casey's long lost CIA brother.
Since replying would only start the cycle over again, Sarah closed her eyes. You should be sentenced to twenty-five years in federal prison. They hadn't even brought in any real evidence to convict her, she thought, the unfairness of it all boiling in her stomach. They had simply looked over her actions in the past week and a half, and made a decision. Every blemish, every spot on her record, had been weighed against her, every mission reviewed with commentary about how it could have been run better.
As if the bastards inside that room even knew what it was like to be a field agent anymore. She was pretty sure that Eyebrows wasn't even CIA, that he was OSS, and had probably slipped behind enemy lines in France or Germany. Any other day she might have been impressed, but to have that same man comment on how slowly she had cracked a top-of-the-line bank vault with tools he hadn't even heard of...
She wanted to kick something.
Footsteps made her look up. They were several levels under the main floor at Langley, so anybody walking these halls was definitely meant to be there, and she hadn't seen a soul down here but Agent No Name and the seven men in the room with her. This time, it sounded like the click of high heels on the concrete floor.
A tiny woman in uniform rounded the corner. Sarah didn't have to see the number of stars on the woman's shoulders to know that she should rise to her feet. Everything about the woman screamed of disapproval and prim lines, from the top of a bun that was surely the result of Miss Clairol to the toes of the no-nonsense military pumps.
"Hm," she said, stopping in front of Sarah and looking her up and down. "For some reason, I expected you to be taller."
That was not something Sarah, whose height had hit awkward unfortunately around the same time as the rest of her poor teenage self, had ever expected to hear. She blinked.
The woman hardly noticed. "Where is Director Graham?"
"Still inside the courtroom, ma'am," Agent No Name said before Sarah could.
The General, whose nametag read Beckman, turned and silenced the brawny agent with a single look. "I don't believe I was addressing you, Agent Danowitz."
"My apologies, ma'am, but the accused is not supposed to—"
"Agent Danowitz, do you like your job?"
Agent No Name abruptly looked uncertain. "Of course, ma'am."
"Then I suggest you stop talking until I tell you otherwise."
The agent wisely remained silent. General Beckman turned back to Sarah, giving her another critical once-over. "I'm only going to ask you this once, Agent Walker," she said, and Sarah had to admire the woman for having that much bravado when she barely rose to Sarah's chin. "Did you aid Agent Larkin in any way in his destruction of the DNI room and the theft of the contents within?"
"I did not, ma'am."
Beckman's entire countenance went from steely to waspish at Sarah's words. "I don't suppose you'd have any proof of that to make things easier, would you?"
"Believe me, after the last couple of days, if I'd had any proof, I would have offered it by now."
Beckman's scowl deepened. "Danowitz," she said without looking over her shoulder at the chastised Agent Formerly Known as No Name, "take a walk."
To his credit, he only hesitated for a few seconds before he hurried away.
Once he was gone, Beckman gestured irritably at Sarah to sit down. "We've stood on enough ceremony for the damned CIA today," she said, taking a seat as Sarah went through the process of lowering herself down without falling over. "As you've no doubt guessed by now, I am General Diane Beckman, and the NSA half of the Intersect Project was my responsibility. A responsibility that is now a headache thanks to the grandstanding stunt your former partner pulled."
"I had nothing to do with it," Sarah said.
"And it should have stayed that way, but it didn't, and now here we are." Beckman gave the dark hallway around them a distasteful look. "Pandering to the CIA and its absurd need for secrecy yet again. I knew I should have passed on this project when it was offered, but that's neither here nor there. You became acquainted with Chuck Bartowski two years ago, correct?"
"Yes. He's been remote tech support for Agent Larkin and myself ever since. We've been his main contacts."
Beckman nodded, but didn't explain. "And your relationship with Agent Bartowski?"
Was she going to have to jump through this hoop with everybody from the President to the mailman? Sarah only just managed to keep the exasperation out of her voice. "Friends and coworkers."
"Oh, really, now." It wasn't a question, so Sarah didn't answer it. "I think you need to take a look at this."
Sarah had some difficult taking the manila folder from the General with the handcuffs on, but she managed and, holding it awkwardly between her thumb and her ring-finger, was able to peruse the contents. It didn't take her long to figure out what the folder held. Confused, she looked over at the General.
"Those were taken by some of the top NSA psychologists. They are unaware that Mr. Bartowski—"
"Agent Bartowski," Sarah said without thinking.
Beckman let out a little huff of breath through her nose and gave Sarah a deadpan stare, and Sarah decided that maybe she shouldn't interrupt again. "As I was saying, they are unaware that Agent Bartowski is the Intersect, but there are some rather interesting trends present, wouldn't you say?"
At any other point in time, a trend showing a fixation or deference to her—as the file had called it—on Chuck's psych profile would have sent a flutter through Sarah's stomach. She probably would have turned into a sappy, idiotic female, even. But she was too busy fighting bewilderment. Why on earth was she being given permission to view Chuck's psych profile? Hadn't they just been determined to throw her in prison?
Since Beckman was expecting an answer, Sarah cleared her throat. "I fail to see why it would be particularly interesting. The man has been living in a bunker for three years with very little contact. I was part of that 'very little contact.' It seems natural that he would have some sort of..." What the hell was the word she was looking for? "Dependency."
"He doesn't seem to regard Agent Larkin in the same light, even though they were college roommates and said to be very close."
"With all due respect, ma'am, Agent Larkin sent him the Intersect and started the spiral that led to Chuck being taken captive by the US government. I'm the one that coerced him to leave the bunker, and I spent pretty much every following moment with him until we were separated a few days ago. He's bound to place me above Bryce in his esteem right now."
"So you say," Beckman said. Both women looked over as the door to the courtroom opened. Sarah's heart rate sped up, but she calmly closed the file and tried not to look guilty as Director Graham came out. None of the other council members followed him. Beckman didn't rise. "Director."
Sarah looked from one to the other and sensed, not for the first time since Beckman had arrived, that something way above her pay grade was going on here. She focused on Graham. The man had been her recruiter for the CIA, and her mentor throughout the years. Sure, she'd harbored more than a few thoughts of outright hatred toward him over the past week and a half, but all of that history had to count for something. "Have they reached a decision?"
"They reached their decision long before they ever got inside that courtroom, Agent Walker."
"I see," Sarah said, and had to look down very quickly as her poker face cracked yet again. "Do I at least get to pick the prison?"
"We're not sending you to Gitmo, Walker. The fact is, you're compromised, and the CIA doesn't like compromised agents. Even if they'd found you innocent, you've gone off-grid and that looks bad for the Agency." Graham's face settled into the same annoyed lines Sarah had seen in the courtroom for the past two days. "Keeping you on staff provides a bad example."
"But thanks to your friend, firing you means all our dirty laundry will be aired to the media, and the NSA will not tolerate that."
"Can't imagine why not," Beckman said, her voice so droll that Sarah almost wanted to take lessons.
Graham shot his contemporary a look. "Similarly, the Intersect Project is now a mess. The plans had been going forward to use a healthy host for the Intersect secrets inside of six months. Instead, the original files are destroyed and the Intersect is currently residing in the head of a man who is essentially a shut-in. So that makes two major issues." He steepled his fingers together in front of his broad chest. "And fortunately, we can clean them both up with one easy solution."
Though the line about Chuck being a shut-in rankled, she merely stared at Graham.
"That solution would be you, Agent Walker. As of 0800 tomorrow, you're assigned to Operation Prometheus."
"The NSA scientists who have been studying Agent Bartowski's cognitive abilities believe that he can serve as the human Intersect we've been hoping for. With a little coercion, of course. Given that his psych profile shows deference to your judgment, it shouldn't be too difficult."
The full impact hit Sarah. If she hadn't been hand-cuffed and essentially hobbled, she would have sprung to her feet to tell them exactly how to go to hell. She chose the next best option, and went very still. Rage made her want to shake, but she focused all of her anger into a single icy look. "Don't you think you've done enough to him?"
"Agent Bartowski volunteered for Prometheus, Walker," Beckman said, a warning in her voice. "We've even arranged the headquarters based on his own requests. He is participating because he wishes to."
"Oh? And how am I supposed to believe that when you just told me that my job would be to coerce Chuck to be the perfect little robot for both of you?"
"Mind your tone, Agent Walker," Beckman said. "You may be entitled to an opinion, but I don't pay you enough to have to listen to it."
"You don't pay me at all. I don't work for you."
"Incorrect. The minute you got involved in matters of the Intersect, you became joint property of the NSA and CIA. You can join Prometheus willingly, keep your CIA title, and the 34-J will be expunged from your record." Beckman's eyes flashed. "Or you can rot in prison."
Sarah glared right back. "I will not manipulate Chuck for you or anybody else, General. The government has done enough to him, and I won't be part of that."
"Walker." Graham's quiet tone made her look at him, across the corridor from Beckman and herself. He was leaning forward, his face earnest. Before this whole mess had exploded, she would have trusted that face. Now she mostly wanted to kick it. "The General and myself would like nothing more than for the Intersect to be in anybody but your partner. But the fact of the matter is, he has it, and we have spent far too much money on this project not to go forward with it. If we don't invoke Prometheus, the only other choice is to send Agent Bartowski into protective custody. Giving him operational status means that he'll be able to work in an environment close to his sister and the others he didn't get to see in a bunker, and wouldn't be able to see from protective custody. However, we can't deny Bartowski has several emotional and psychological problems he will also have to cope with."
"And whose fault is that?"
Graham ignored the dig. "The psych profile shows that Bartowski struggles less whenever you're nearby. Call it what you will, but it's there. We need him as field-ready as he can be, but we also need somebody on the team who understands how Larkin's brain works, in order to safeguard the Intersect from any attack on that front. You fill both requirements."
Sarah stared at her old mentor for a long time. She hardly knew what to think anymore, except that she was angry. Not as angry as she had been in Italy, but she still had a good head of fury boiling. How dare they? After everything else they had done to Chuck, to her, how dare any of them? How dare Gwen Davenport judge her? How dare Beckman take that tone with her? How dare Graham try to use emotional blackmail on her?
You could work with Chuck, a small voice said at the back of her head. See Chuck every day, outside of the bunker, without a price on both of your heads.
But they don't have to know, the voice argued. They're not going to be there every day and heaven knows you're good enough at lying. You could tell them what they want to hear. Isn't being with Chuck enough to make up for a little deception on your part with the bosses? Isn't keeping him safe worth it?
It had never been a choice. She knew it, Graham knew it, Beckman knew it. Even so, Sarah kept her gaze focused on the ground between Graham's feet, not willing to concede the victory to them yet. "What does Operation Prometheus entail?"
9 OCTOBER 2007
ECHO PARK, CALIFORNIA
"I really appreciate you being willing to do this on such short notice. I'm just..." Sarah searched for a proper excuse. NCS hadn't had time to put together much of a cover story for her. "I had to move so quickly, you know, and I can't really afford to stay in a hotel for too long."
"That's okay." The brunette leading the way through a pretty courtyard looked more like a model than a doctor, but Sarah had read her file on the plane, and she knew exactly what sort of intelligence was hiding behind those good looks. Apparently, being scarily smart was something Chuck shared with his older sister. The resemblance was even stronger in person, Sarah couldn't help but think, but she doubted that she would have recognized Dr. Ellie Bartowski without Chuck showing her his photograph. "I was supposed to have a shift, but another doctor needed tomorrow off, so I swapped. Good thing, too. The apartment's this way."
"Thanks," Sarah said.
"My last roommate just moved out, and she really had no time to clean up after herself. She took a job on the east coast, job of a lifetime sort of thing, but they needed her there ASAP," Ellie said as she dug in her purse. She'd met Sarah at the curb, and it looked like she had returned from shopping of some type. "So it's a bit of a wreck."
"That's no problem."
"So what is it you do, again?"
"I'm an actress," Sarah lied without hesitation. She'd used the excuse on a couple of different covers, and thankfully, she had the face to back it up. "Out of work, of course, but I've got some savings and I'm actively looking for any type of work, not just acting, I promise. My credit's really great; I made sure to build it up back in Boise."
"Boise, huh? Idaho?" Ellie found her keys in her purse and unlocked the door.
"The gem state, yep. It's home."
"Do you ski at all?"
"Sure, I used to hit up Sun Valley with my brothers."
She saw the way Ellie paused, the door halfway open, and immediately wanted to kick herself. Chuck's sister had never been told anything about his whereabouts, so the subject of brothers was not really something Sarah wanted to broach with Ellie. Even though Chuck would be there within two weeks, she didn't enjoy twisting the knife.
I don't know what the government told her when they stashed me away. I haven't talked to her in five years. I…occasionally used satellites to, you know, check up on her, make sure she's okay.
Chuck's words from the beach, as he had showed her his picture, echoed back through Sarah's head. She took a deep breath before she followed Ellie inside. The apartment was spacious and cheerful, made colorful thanks to southwestern-style tiles decorating the walls and archways, and light-colored floors. Sarah took all of this in while she forced herself to seem like any normal person apartment-hunting. "You're a doctor, right? I think that's what you told me on the phone?"
"That's right. I work over at Madison Mercy. My boyfriend works there, too—what about you? Any boyfriend?"
"No, not even a goldfish. There was a guy, but..." Her last boyfriend, if he could be called that, had been Bryce. And that went beyond thorny, so she gave Ellie her best bright smile. "Just me for now, I'm afraid."
"It's a good thing you're moving to L.A. Plenty of hot men around." Ellie grinned. "I'm taken, but that doesn't mean I can't look. Anyway, this is the living room. If you've got any furniture you want to move in here, I'm more than happy to move stuff around. It's been awhile since I've gotten the chance to redecorate."
"Unfortunately, I didn't bring much with me."
"Hey, that's okay, too. Um, through here's the kitchen. Fridge is open territory. I like to cook and I don't mind splitting grocery duties or going about that separately, whatever you're more comfortable with. I keep a list here." Ellie pointed to the list, which was exactly where Sarah would have expected a grocery list to be in the kitchen. Apparently Chuck's neatness might not have been a result of the bunker. "Bathroom's back this way, I've got a separate tub and a standing shower. The pipes are kind of old so it takes awhile to heat up, but we had the water heater replaced last year, so you never have to worry about cold showers. I don't have a cleaning service, sorry. I figured we'd take turns cleaning."
"Fine by me. I can't really afford a maid anyway."
"And this would be your room," Ellie said, continuing the tour. "Like I said, I'm sorry it's a wreck. I promise that if you move in, it won't look anything like this. It does come with the furnishings."
"Half the appeal," Sarah said. "I don't really have a lot. Just some clothes and my car and stuff."
"Okay, good. All of the furniture used to belong to my brother, but..." Ellie trailed off with a half-shrug, an action Sarah recognized from a male counterpart, and pushed the door open. "Well, either way, it was his room."
"Oh." She schooled her features as she walked into the room. It was ironic that she was asking Ellie about Chuck, she couldn't help but think, as she knew more about his present whereabouts than the other woman did. "He moved out?"
"You could say that. He went missing five years ago."
Sarah whirled. "Oh, my God. I am so sorry!" She hated herself for the deception, but it would only be a couple of weeks. And she had a job to do here.
Ellie shook her head. "I've made my peace with it. What do you think of the room?"
Looking at it objectively, it was a nice room, though she could understand why Ellie had called it a wreck. Her previous roommate had obviously left in a hurry, as the room needed to be swept, and there were thumbtacks in all of the walls, and trash piled up in the corner. She looked beyond that: the walls were a peaceful sort of blue, there was a stone hearth in the corner (though the ad said the fireplace was for show only), and the closet space was pretty nice. She turned and raised an eyebrow. "Uh, what's TRON?"
"Oh, that—I'm sorry. It belonged to my brother, and you're free to take it down if you take the room. I just, I used to tease him about having such a geeky poster on his wall, and now that he's gone, I can't seem to take it down." Ellie ran a hand over the edge of the poster hanging by the door.
"You were close," Sarah said, needlessly.
"We were, but I should probably stop depressing you now. Do you want to see anything else? We've got a patio space out back, do you want to see that?"
"Sure," Sarah said, if only to get away from so many reminders of Chuck. When Graham and Beckman had told her the night before she would be coming to Burbank to set up the first wave of Operation Prometheus, and that she would do everything she could to install herself as Ellie Bartowski's roommate, she'd had no idea it would come to this. Not only would she be living with Chuck's sister, but apparently she would be sleeping in his old room as well.
And in two weeks, she would see him again.
"So I called the references you gave me after I talked to you," Ellie said as she led the way to the back patio. "They spoke very highly of you."
"I'm pretty likeable," Sarah said, though she had no idea if that was true or not. "And I never really seemed to have problems with any of my previous roommates. I didn't understand the point of fighting about it, you know?"
"Oh trust me, I know. I almost wasn't going to take on a new roommate, but I'm not quite at the place where I'm comfortable living with my boyfriend all the time, even though we see each other at work and he's over a lot. That's okay with you?"
"Perfectly fine by me." According to the little information she'd been handed on Ellie Bartowski, the other woman was involved in an on-again-off-again relationship with another doctor, Devon Woodcomb. They had been together when Chuck had left for Army training.
After Ellie showed her the patio, they sat at the kitchen island with glasses of iced tea, and Ellie looked at her frankly. "I'm sorry, but I have to ask. You're not an axe murderer or anything, are you?"
"I'm not an axe murderer," Sarah said. At least, she didn't think she'd killed anybody with an axe before. Possibly a hatchet once, but she had heard later that the guy had made it. She gave Ellie a worried look over her tea. "Why? I'm not giving off axe murderer vibes, am I?"
"No, I just had to check the one last detail. Well, your references check out, and if you've got the security deposit and the rent, and you still want the room, it's yours. I've got no problems with you moving in as soon as you're ready."
"All because I'm not an axe murderer?"
"I've got to have standards. And you're the first response I've had to the ad who wasn't a meth addict or allergic to showering."
Well, that eradicated the ever-pressing worry that she smelled like an airport. She'd been given one night of patchy sleep in her own apartment before she had hopped the first flight to Los Angeles that morning. Sarah kept her nerves and fatigue out of her smile as she raised her glass and sipped. "I definitely want the room. I can't believe I found the perfect place on the first try. My girlfriends back in Boise warned me that it might be months and I might have to live in some rat-hole."
Ellie smiled and raised her glass in salute. "Must be fate."
Must be something, Sarah echoed silently. She'd hardly call it fate, though, not with the government playing such a heavy hand in everything. What it was, she couldn't say, but after spending a week on the run, three days in a cell, and two days hearing everything she had ever done weighed and judged by bureaucrats, she knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. For some reason, fate, destiny, the government, whatever the hell it was, had seen fit to grant her more time with Chuck, and to grant Chuck a new beginning with the same sister that still thought he was missing.
And Sarah wasn't going to let fate screw any of it up. Not if she had a damn thing to say about it.
A/N the Second: Poor mxpw. I only gave him eight hours to beta this, and he proved that rock stars could take lessons from him. Thanks, Maximus! Aaaaaaand we're done. Did everybody like Fortune Favors Fools: Phase Three?