A/N the First: This was going to be my WAY challenge entry, but it's a Christmas story and they didn't seem to be very interested in posting the Christmas stories before Christmas, so I'm going to post this a little later that I'd like. Sorry to pull out of the competition! I'm sure there were some of you looking forward to teasing me about my many "Frea Tells" (too long, angry Sarah, ironic use of old-timey language). But here it is, my Christmas gift to the world. I wish I had the time to go through and thank each and every reviewer and reader individually, but there are peanut butter and chocolate cookies upstairs.
But on the serious, thank you, everybody. You've made my life so much more fun since I started writing Fates and everything that goes along with it, so this is my Christmas (or Festivus, if you prefer) present to each and every one of you. I'm sorry that I forgot to get the receipt so you can't exchange it for the iPod you really wanted, but I hope you like it anyway.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of it.
Express elevator to the ninth floor of a department store, carrying Miss Marsha White on a most prosaic, ordinary, run of the mill errand. Miss Marsha White on the ninth floor, specialties department, looking for a gold thimble. The odds are she'll find it, but there are even better odds that she'll find something else, because this isn't just a department store. This happens to be the Twilight Zone. - Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, "The After Hours"
Here's Lookin' At You, Kid
Sarah wasn't sure she had ever done anything this stupid in her entire life and unfortunately, thanks to a long memory, she knew exactly what that meant. It meant before the day was out, she was probably going to get her ass kicked by Jihadists, and then maybe by the Hindu Kush Mountains, and if she was really lucky, by every boss on the chain from Agent Pennyweather all the way up to Director Graham.
That was, she thought, worming forward another few inches and feeling the concrete scrape away at the front of her fatigues, assuming she survived at all.
"Couldn't stay in the damned truck, could you?" she muttered. She'd been timing the guards' rounds as they stomped by over her head, so she knew she was safe to bitch as much as she liked. It gave her something to do besides focus on just how cramped it was in the crawlspace beneath the terrorists' hideout, and just how many ways she was probably about to die. "Had to get out and do your own thing, just like always. Listening to orders made too much damned sense, didn't it?"
She knew her day had been going too well when the mission had gone off without any trouble. It had left a distinct itch between her shoulder blades that somehow the universe was conspiring against her, and would get its revenge.
She should have listened to that itch. Now her shoulder blades ached, just like the rest of her. The crawlspace wasn't meant for anything larger than an eight-year-old. Even though she kept herself fighting trim, it was a cramped and messy affair, and she was already bleeding from several scrapes even through the fatigues. The heat, lack of light, and lack of air and space would have sent anybody with less of an iron will screaming for the hills by now. Sarah just worked her way forward and continued to turn the air blue.
"I should have known better. Should've used the damn handcuffs, no matter how much of a perverse kick you'd have gotten out of that," she said, the words breaking down into grumbling when she realized the path ahead grew much narrower. She left a couple of patches of Sarah skin behind, but by pushing her gun through first, sucking her stomach in even farther, twisting her hips, and thinking of England, she made it through. "You so owe me for this."
Assuming they both survived. If not, well, then she would probably have company in Heaven or Hell or the Elysian fields or whatever awaited her in the afterlife. Sarah had never really given much thought to whether or not there was life after the long shuffle off the short mortal coil before, but hoo boy was she thinking about it now.
She stopped cursing for a moment. Overhead, a guard stomped by, each footfall shaking dirt loose in the crawlspace that would have made it hard to breathe had Sarah not pulled a dusty bandanna over her mouth and nose. Why the space beneath the floors hadn't collapsed years before, Sarah didn't know, but she knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. She'd discovered the route when she'd flown a surveyor's plane fly over with infrared and heat cameras, and thank Heaven—or Hell, or the Elysian Fields—for small favors. The Jihadists occupying the building didn't even know about it. Sarah suspected that the tunnels had been used to hide heroin, but had been long forgotten, which meant on top of everything else, she was going to walk away with a spectacular contact high. If either of them were able to walk after this.
She hooked a left, angling her body awkwardly to make it around the corner. The blueprints, thankfully, had been accurate, and the Jihadists hadn't changed up their habits since the last time they had kidnapped an American citizen—the DEA agent Sarah had helped rescue earlier that day. So she knew exactly where to go; it was simply taking eight times as long to get there through the crawlspace. Of course, the last time she had visited, she had sprinted through the compound, M4 at the ready.
Now, she reached her destination and waited, not breathing, listening for any signs that there might be a guard in the room. Every heartbeat seemed to hammer against her ribcage and eardrums, a booming toll of a clock that constantly reminded her she didn't have much time.
Now or never, Walker. Move it while your ass is still young.
She pushed upward on the grate over her head, grunting a little as it proved stubborn. Her hands were slippery with sweat and blood where she'd torn a cuticle by the time she could shove the grate to the side, but the pain was fleeting. She cased the room, just a dusty storage room she doubted many of the terrorists actually used, and seeing nobody, hauled herself free. She raced to the shadows behind the door, where she would be able to get the drop on any visitors, and took a knee, setting her pistol in easy reach before digging in the pockets of her cargo pants until she had all of the pieces of the rifle she'd "borrowed" from the armory. Assembling it took a little work, but she forced her mind to focus past the shaking hands, and the orange juice taste of adrenaline in her mouth, and her exhausted body, and the bumps and bruises and scrapes from the crawlspace, and a million of other little things. When it was complete, she tucked the pistol into her hip holster, checked her ammo stash, and took a deep breath.
Now or never.
She took only the time to wrap the black scarf all the way around her head to hide the sunny blond ponytail before she moved to a tactical crouch. The guards would be coming by in twenty seconds, if she hadn't lost track of her internal clock.
Surely enough, they stomped by right on time. At least something was going according to plan.
She waited until they'd gone through the corridor beyond the storeroom, and then eased the door open. A few steps later, she was running as soundlessly down the hallway as her boots would allow, gun lowered and resting against her shoulder. She'd brought a silencer, but it would still sound like an explosion in such close quarters, so she could only pray she didn't run into any guards.
Left, left, right. Left, up a half-flight of stairs. She encountered nobody.
This was going too well.
When she reached the same door she'd kicked in four hours earlier, Sarah gulped in a breath, slung the rifle onto her back, and swapped it for the pistol and her second bandanna. She eased the door open an inch. Good. The guard had his back to her, facing inside the cell. Seeing those dirty bars again made Sarah's stomach clench, but she forced herself not to think about it.
Instead, she slipped through the door as silently as a snake. The terrorist didn't have a chance. Sarah shoved the bandanna over his mouth before he could shout out a warning, her other arm swinging down to slam the pistol butt against his skull with an audible crack. She caught him to keep his body from thumping to the ground, and lowered him to the dusty tiles. Then, adrenaline and fear making her heart race faster than ever, she turned to the cage. "Why the hell couldn't you have just stuck to the damned plan?"
"Good to see you, too, Walker," Carina Miller drawled. She didn't get up from where she sat at the back of the cell. Uh-oh. "Took you long enough."
"Now is really not the time to be glib." Sarah kicked the unconscious terrorist's weapon away from him and began checking his pockets for a key.
"That's the problem with your world-view, toots. There's always time to be glib."
"Don't call me toots." Finding no key, Sarah scowled and pulled a couple of bobby pins off of her wristband. She knelt by the cell's lock. "You okay?"
She wasn't, Sarah could see. Sure, Carina's eyes seemed as bright and full of fire as ever, but she continued to lean against the back wall of the dirty cell, legs splayed out in front of her and one arm wrapped loosely around her ribcage. The terrorists had roughed her up; Sarah could see that without noticing the purpling bruise on the other woman's cheek.
It sent a stab of fury through her. Her hands remained steady at the lock.
"You're an awful liar," she said. "We should play poker sometime."
"No, we shouldn't. You cheat."
"I do not."
"Do so." Carina coughed, and the sound, the ratcheting, hollow, congested timbre of it, sent chills racing across Sarah's skin.
"They done anything to you?"
"Oh yeah. We went through that whole 'You hold this newspaper and speak to your loved ones while we speak gibberish at the video camera' motion earlier. They made me keep my clothes on." Carina rolled her eyes. "I'd rather be shooting a porno."
"I'm sure most people would rather see you in a porno," Sarah said.
"Aw, thanks, Walker. It's nice to know you've noticed."
"How bad is it?"
"The boys didn't play nice, but I'm fine. I can walk. And shoot."
"Good. Because you're going to need to do both if we want to get out of here." Sarah heard the final pin click, and the lock popped open. She immediately yanked it off and tossed it aside, racing to her friend's side.
When she would have checked for injuries herself, though, Carina pushed her hands away. "No time, you can feel me up later. Give me a damn gun, help me to my feet, and get me out of here."
She knew better than to protest that she hadn't been feeling Carina up. So she handed Carina the Uzi she'd kicked away from the guard, and hauled the other woman to her feet. It was Carina's left leg that was the problem, she saw immediately. She moved to that side; the move didn't get by the other woman. "Lookin' out for me, Walker?"
"Somebody has to."
"What's the plan?"
"Get out of here. Shoot anybody who gets in our way."
"I like this plan. It's sheer elegance in its simplicity."
"Yeah, well, I borrowed a page from your book to make it happen. Let's go." For a second, Sarah worried that she might actually have to lever an arm under Carina to help the other woman along, which was bad because it meant she would be shooting primarily with her left hand, but Carina hobbled forward, her face pained but determined. It was faster than a walk, slower than a run, and it would have to do.
"You got a car stashed somewhere?"
"About three klicks away." Sarah caught the grimace. "And if push comes to shove, I'll carry your bony ass, no worries."
"Did I ever mention how much I love it when you talk about my ass?"
She had to laugh. It was either that, or swear. "We get separated, head northeast about three kilometers. You'll find the car there. I've got the keys, but it shouldn't be a problem for you, right?"
"I've been hotwiring cars since you were in diapers," Carina said, sneering.
"You hotwired cars in diapers?"
"What can I say? Daddy was a redneck. He made sure I knew the important stuff."
Sarah had no idea if Carina was telling the truth, or yet another altered version of her past meant to throw Sarah off the trail, as spies invariably liked to play these games. She hardly cared. She could see a dangerous, glassy sheen to Carina's eyes, which meant they had probably given her friend drugs to keep her addled and confused, and the better she kept Carina focused, the easier things would be on both of them until she could get them both of the compound.
"Did Agent Scotty make it back okay?" Carina asked, gasping a little as she hobbled to keep up with Sarah. They hurried down the steps together.
"Yeah, he's in the safe-house, no thanks to you and your inability to follow a simple plan."
"Admit it. You're just mad because coming back for me ruined your manicure."
They neared the corner; Sarah held up a hand, indicating that she would take point, and Carina nodded, dropping back half a step. Sarah led with the rifle, but this hallway proved empty.
"I thought there were more guards than this," Carina said, panting.
"Oh. Good thinking. How'd you get in here?"
"So that's why you look like you've been rolling around in the desert. Gotta say, not the best look for you."
Sarah rolled her eyes, but didn't tell Carina to shut up. There was a sheen of sweat on her friend's forehead, which was a bad sign. Carina was almost superhuman; she barely sweated in the desert, never suffered from hangovers, and apparently could eat or drink anything on the planet without gaining a single ounce. If Sarah didn't like her caustic sense of humor so much, she probably would have shot her and made it look like an accident long before.
Now, she kept her voice just as snide as Carina's, matching the other woman step for step. "You complain this much about everybody who saves your life?"
"What can I say? You're special." Carina coughed, and Sarah felt another wave of concern. She almost swiped a hand across Carina's mouth to make sure the DEA agent wasn't hiding blood from her, but something stopped her. Fear, she thought, trying not to give it too much weight. She'd always viewed Carina as the brasher, mirror version of herself. If she were grievously injured, Sarah would almost prefer not to know about it. But that was the coward's route, and Sarah Walker was not a coward.
So she gave Carina a look over her shoulder. "Still okay?" Her tone was steely: don't lie to me.
"Still okay. I'd have gotten myself out of here, you know. Without your help."
"I was just resting."
"Gotta rest. Not everybody can be as strong as Walker the Martyr."
"What can I say?" Sarah asked, rolling her eyes while inwardly, panic began to set in. Carina's tone was becoming slurred and erratic, which meant either the drugs or the injuries were taking a toll over her. Sarah had no idea how much longer Carina could actually last. She picked up her pace. "I'm awesome."
Carina fell silent. Sarah could still hear the other woman's labored breath, hissing out between her teeth, but the crabbing stopped. It was time to resign herself to the fact that she would probably be hauling her friend to the car if they escaped alive, unless they got creative or another equally unlikely miracle occurred. Sarah wasn't hedging her bets.
They were nearing a T in the hallway. Left would lead out the doors faster, but it took them by the kitchen area of the compound. Right was safer, but would take longer. Sarah deliberated which way was better. Should she risk it with Carina? Did she dare?
Before she could decide, a guard rounded that corner. Sarah's eyes widened, and there was that inevitable nanosecond where the guard stood frozen in shock. In absurdly slow motion, Sarah watched his mouth open to sound the cry that would alert the compound, and knew she was going to have to squeeze the trigger, which would do exactly the same thing.
They were screwed.
The man's mouth opened—but no sound emerged, save a weird thwipp noise whipping by Sarah's head. She blinked, and the man dropped to the ground, a knife sprouting between his eyes.
"Good thing you're predictable," Carina said, wheezing a little. Sarah blinked and looked down at her utility belt, one slot now empty, then looked back at the guard. That hilt belong to one of her throwing knives. "Can we go now?"
# # #
How on earth they managed to make it out of the compound in one piece, Sarah would never be entirely sure, and she would never fully believe her own report on the situation, even having gone through it. There had been a very tense moment while the two women sneaked by the kitchen, but apparently Carina's bloodthirstiness had taken a temporary backseat to her desire to escape without any more injury, for she didn't cause trouble then. Instead, they had sneaked into the compound's motor bay and had taken not one of the cars, but something they doubted the terrorists would notice was missing for awhile.
"No," she said now as she walked through the scrub and underbrush toward where she had stashed the car. She would have liked to move faster, but she had apparently met the one creature on the planet more stubborn than her.
"Why not?" Carina asked, coughing again. It sounded a little better now that she was no longer on her feet, but she still needed medical attention—and fast. "Why the hell you gotta be a Debbie Downer?"
"Because it's not what happened. We're not writing that we stole a vintage Camaro in our reports."
"Why not? It sounds so much better than...this." Carina scowled.
"Anything sounds better than this. Also, for the record, I hate you."
"Are you talking to the ass or me?"
"Yes." Sarah tugged on the lead rope harder, but nothing short of kicking the donkey seemed to make it move any faster. And she wasn't going to be answering to PETA if she didn't have to. She had enough people waiting in line to kick her ass over the stunt that Carina—and by proxy, she—had pulled. She could only be grateful for small favors, for at least the donkey could support Carina's weight, they were near the car, and no alarm had been sounded from the compound. If they were lucky, it would look like Carina had either escaped on her own, or a ghost had helped her.
"You don't really hate me."
"Yes, I do."
"If you hated me, you would have left me back there in the compound."
"Maybe I don't want to waste time finding somebody new to hate."
Carina snorted. "Face it, toots. You'd be lonely without me. I—" She broke off with a groan, her hand flying to her ribcage.
Immediately, Sarah was at her side. "What is it?"
"Nothing, it's nothing. I just got in the way of some terrorist's foot a few times. I'll be okay." Carina's face was screwed in a grimace. "Move it, Walker. The faster we go, the sooner I get morphine."
It was an excellent point, Sarah thought, moving warily to the donkey's head and picking up the lead rope again. It was too bad the donkey didn't want to cooperate.
When Carina laughed, she immediately went for her gun, but Carina just waved her off. "Oh, it just occurred to me," she said, still laughing at little and her face twisting up as the laughter obviously pained her. "Too bad you didn't knock me up."
Sarah tugged the rope harder. Her friend needed morphine more than she had thought. "Uh, still female, Carina." Despite your best efforts.
"Not what I meant. I mean, think about it. Christmas Eve, the Middle East, I'm on a donkey and you're leading it. All we need are some shepherds and a friggin' manger and we've got our very own spy Nativity set."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "I highly doubt you'd ever give birth to baby Jesus, Carina."
"But I'm the one on the donkey."
"Yes, because clearly, everybody who's ever ridden a donkey has given birth to a major religious figure."
"You're no fun, Walker."
"None at all," Sarah agreed. Relief bubbled up inside her when she spotted the car in the distance. She stopped the donkey and crossed to Carina's side. "I'm tired of the ass—the other one, not you. Hop on."
"Oh, yay, a piggyback ride," Carina said without any enthusiasm whatsoever. It was awkward for both of them with the Uzi and the rifle, but she managed to climb onto Sarah's back so that the blonde could finish the trek to the car at a jog. Carina sent her mount packing with a swift kick to the rump, and Sarah once again apologized to the PETA gods in her head. After a minute of holding on tight, Carina groaned. "I think I preferred the other ride. He smelled better."
# # #
Unfortunately, Carina had been right, and Sarah discovered that all too soon after they had climbed into the car to head toward Afghanistan and their allies. Thanks to a combination of it having been two days without a shower for her, the reek of the musty crawlspace, and sweat from their escape from the compound, she smelled more than a bit ripe. But, and she made sure to point this out, she had nothing on Carina, who had been sitting in a dank, befouled cell that had held quite a few captives and their waste, for over six hours. If her sensibilities hadn't been ground to dust by years of training on the Farm or missions in the jungle, desert, and other places were showers were unheard of, Sarah might have passed out from the odor.
Instead, she was too busy being happy to be alive.
Getting across the border wasn't a problem, and thankfully she'd memorized the route to the military base. They had no hopes of simply driving through the gates, but Sarah had taken care of that problem by stashing Carina's DEA badge and a falsified DEA badge of her own under the seat earlier. They just had to get close enough to the base where they would be picked up on one of the patrols.
The soldiers who found them, upon ascertaining that neither was a threat, per se, had just grinned and said something about Christmas suddenly becoming a hell of a whole lot merrier. Sarah had ignored his leering grin and climbed into the back of the Jeep with the injured Carina.
Now, hours later, with the more serious scrapes stitched up, showered, and wearing a pair of borrowed BDU slacks, a black tee-shirt, and her own boots, Sarah felt much more human. She'd gone to mess with a few of the sergeants stationed on the base, but they had gone off to a Christmas party and she hadn't felt like intruding. She didn't really do Christmas. She knew her partner Bryce was off in Connecticut, celebrating with his family, but she'd volunteered for the DEA assignment instead of taking leave. And it was a good thing, too. There were very few people on the planet that would have been reckless or foolish enough to go back for Carina. On the other hand, she doubted Carina would have been so foolish or reckless herself if she hadn't known Sarah was there to watch her back. It was a vicious cycle and one bound to give her a headache.
She leaned back on the cot she'd been assigned until Carina was healthy enough to ship out. It would be a couple of days at least before they could get back on a plane stateside, which meant that unless her bosses were willing to tear her to pieces over the phone, she had at least that long before they ripped her a new one. The bunks were little more than cubicles, little rooms in rows inside a large building. Showers and restrooms were in a separate detachment about a hundred yards off from that. Thanks to the fact that the walls were flimsy, Sarah could hear almost everything going on in the cubicles around her.
She wondered if the PX was open. She could use a drink. Down the hall, it sounded like somebody, another loner maybe, was watching TV.
Sarah lifted her head from the pillow and blinked to see Carina, similarly attired to her, though there was a bulkiness under the tee shirt that suggested gauze bandages around her ribcage. "What are you doing here?"
"Told 'em I didn't want to stay in the infirmary." Carina plopped on the other bunk and let out a long breath. Whatever pain medications she had been given, they looked pretty heavy-duty. Her speech was just a bit slower, and her eyes were once again a little glassy, but Sarah felt far better about that now that they were surrounded by the US Army and not terrorists. "I told them you'd keep an eye on me, being the killjoy that you are."
"Oh, thanks for that."
"Cheer up, Walker. It's Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is not the time to be a killjoy."
"Which is why," Carina reached into the cargo pocket of her BDU slacks and pulled out a silver flask, "I may have lifted this off of the doctor."
"What? He was trying to hit on me."
"Do you think you should really be drinking when you're on pain meds?"
Carina looked like she went to move one shoulder, but decided against it due to her injured ribcage. The terrorist's foot that she had intercepted earlier, as she had put it, looked like it had indeed done some damage. "I'm the Drug Enforcement Administration Officer here, not you, so we should trust my word over yours on matters like these."
"Yeah, but my agency has the word 'Intelligence' in the title."
"Some days you wouldn't know it," Carina muttered. From seemingly nowhere, she produced two shot glasses and poured a healthy amount into both. "Besides, we just went over this. Christmas Eve. No killjoys."
Sarah gave her a look.
"It's one shot, Walker. Relax."
"One shot," Sarah said, holding up a finger. "One."
"Yes, Mom." Carina handed her one of the glasses, and Sarah took the flask, too. It looked like her evening would include not only watching over Carina, but also sneaking into the infirmary and returning the contraband. Still, she had to smile as Carina melodramatically cleared her throat and raised her shot glass. "To my friend Sarah, who's batshit enough to break into a terrorist camp and save my ass—"
"Even though you could have saved yourself and have said so. Several times."
"Do you mind? You're ruining my speech here."
"Sorry, go on."
"To my friend Sarah Walker, the only one crazy enough to take on forty terrorists by herself for me. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," Sarah said, clinking her glass against Carina. "Here's lookin' at you, kid."
Together, they tossed back the shots—and started coughing. "What the hell is that?" Sarah asked. "Did we just drink rubbing alcohol?"
Carina was still coughing. "No, but it was pretty damn close. Gah, it's like licking a—"
"Don't you dare finish that sentence."
"I'm going to go drink about three gallons of water and hope to get that taste out of my mouth sometime before the Second Coming of my unborn child. I'll be right back, and then we can really get started on our Christmas partying."
"Uh-huh," Sarah said, and rolled her eyes, not unkindly, as her friend stumbled off toward the bathrooms. She lay back down on her bunk, locking her fingers together behind her head, and stared at the ceiling. She'd been genuinely scared for her friend so many times, and now she felt nothing but relief mixed with exasperated amusement, a not-uncommon sensation when dealing with Carina. It looked like they were celebrating Christmas together, which would be the first time she had shared the holiday with anything approaching family in years. It might have been odd to be happy while biding her time out on an Army Post in Afghanistan, but she couldn't deny it: she was. And who knew what future Christmases would bring?
Down the hall, the same TV she heard earlier seemed to grow louder, and she heard somebody—a host? A narrator?—say, "Marsha White in her normal and natural state...but it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street? A rather good question to ask, particularly in the Twilight Zone."
A rather good question indeed.
A/N the Second: So...do you think you would have recognized me? Sorry I didn't give you the chance, but I hope you liked my dark, twisted little Christmas story.