A/N the First: So here we are again. This time last year, I posted two stories. One the readers on my blog had voted on, Sleeping on the Job. The other was one I wrote solely for the fantastic mxpw, one of my favorite people on the planet. September 10th is a day where we celebrate the fantastic occurrence of mxpw's station finally landing on earth in search of the glorious treasure trove of SWP. And I like to celebrate accordingly.
So I wrote this. He requested a Sarina story. But I'm contrary and I wrote Sallie instead. So here's to you, Maximus. Ellie, Sarah, and self-defense lessons in scanty clothing. All for you, buddy.
(On the serious side, my life has been so enriched since I met mxpw eighteen months ago. He remains one of the most wonderful people on the planet, the best beta a struggling writer could ask for, and I'm honored to have him as my friend. Happy Birthday, mxpw!)
PS – Thank you to Ayefah and Connie, who patiently read through this (as I couldn't very well share it with my regular beta) and let me know what did and didn't work. You guys are the best!
self-de·fense /ˈsɛlfdɪˈfɛns, ˌsɛlf-/ [n. self-di-fens, self-]
1) the act of defending one's person when physically attacked, as by countering blows or overcoming an assailant: the art of self-defense.
2) a claim or plea that the use of force or injuring or killing another was necessary in defending one's own person from physical attack: He shot the man who was trying to stab him and pleaded self-defense at the murder trial.
3) an act or instance of defending or protecting one's own interests, property, ideas, etc., as by argument or strategy.
Training, Lies, and the CIA
16 NOVEMBER 2007
CASTLE LOCKER ROOM
Ellie dropped her gym bag on the little wooden bench that had been bolted into the floor and tried not to stare at her surroundings. It was so freaking surreal. Surreal? Her doctor's brain nearly scoffed. She shouldn't be so freaked out. After all, she'd spent years in locker rooms—the agony of high school and outrunning a first name that rhymed with "smelly" and a last name that, well, Bartowski was bad enough, then college locker rooms after intramural games, and finally the locker rooms at med school and then at Madison Mercy. But this, this was a locker room in a secret government base.
There was even a door that slid open like something on an old cartoon, that led down into a moody, underground facility. High-end monitors that actually monitored things like national security and hot spots and a thousand things she'd probably never be able to identify. Optical and fingerprint scanners. Sarah hadn't even blinked at the door at all. She'd just pushed it open like she walked through things out of a TV show every day. She'd been talking at the time, "I know we didn't have time to give you a real tour really, or an orientation or anything. But maybe we can do that after?"
"That's fine," Ellie had said. She'd been too dazed to disagree. "Whatever works."
"Awesome. I'll show you the locker room, let you get changed."
And now here she was: the locker room in the secret government base where her brother—her brother, the spy—worked. Was this, Ellie wondered as she unzipped the gym bag with shaky hands, what a nervous breakdown felt like? She'd come close a couple of times in med school and when Chuck...when Chuck had disappeared. But she'd never imagined the real thing would be anything like this.
"You doing okay?" Sarah asked.
Ellie jerked back. She'd thought Sarah had left the locker room, but the other woman was standing just inside the doorway, poised on the balls of her feet as though uncertain as she fiddled with one of her fingers. Awkwardness seemed to be the theme of the night, Ellie couldn't help but think, and then she nearly snorted at herself. Of the night? Things had been downright uncomfortable since she'd cornered Chuck into confessing Sarah's true nature at Stanford.
But in the same way things were awkward and they both knew it, neither acknowledged it. So Ellie cleared her throat. "Yeah, I'm fine. You just, you startled me. Guess I need those self-defense lessons after all, huh?"
"Oh." Sarah didn't seem to know what to say to that. "You sure you're okay?"
Sure, Ellie wanted to ask? Sure? She'd just accepted an offer to join the goddamned NSA. Her roommate worked for the CIA. Her brother worked for the CIA. The only thing she was sure of was that her life had never been this crazy.
"I'm fine," she said again.
"Okay. I'll let you, um, change. Shout when you're ready, or come find me in the dojo."
"You're going to just let me wander around a secret government base?" Ellie asked before she could stop herself.
Sarah shrugged. "You've got unrestricted access to everything. I don't see the harm."
"Oh. Right." Unrestricted access. Because she worked for the NSA. Right.
What the hell?
After Sarah left, Ellie stood for a minute and just let the idea wash over her. When it was obviously not going to settle in, she peeled out of her scrubs and changed into a tank top and her cropped yoga pants. Sarah had said to dress comfortably, and Ellie didn't know what was coming, so the familiar seemed important now. She shoved her gym bag into one of the empty lockers and moved to the door, looking around.
The locker room was at the end of a hallway, with open doors lining either side. Ellie had peeked into a couple as she'd followed Sarah down, but in her dazed state, she hadn't really retained any impressions. Now, curiosity got the better of her as she wandered down. She told herself it was because she was looking for the dojo, but she'd spotted that on the way in. After all, this was her first government base. Curiosity and interest was to be expected. So she poked her head into a couple of rooms that were clearly offices—one had a copy of, of all things, the movie Speed on the desk, the other a copy of Guns & Ammo.
Not exactly what she expected to find in a place that was probably listed on maps as a no-fly zone, to be honest.
She found the dojo easily enough. "What are you doing?"
Sarah barely turned from where she was facing some kind of punch-dummy, wiping away at its brutish face with a moist towelette. She must have heard Ellie coming. "Your brother," she said, sounding annoyed, "left makeup on Frank."
Sarah tensed up. "Uh," she said, still not turning to face Ellie. "It's kind of a long story..."
"Chuck named your workout dummy."
"Okay, not that long of a story," Sarah said. Now she finally turned. She was dressed oddly similar to Ellie, but thankfully they weren't quite matching. Sarah's pants were black, after all, and hers were gray. The fact that they both wore red tops was just a weird coincidence. "He gets bored sometimes. Chuck, not the dummy."
"Frank," Ellie said, pointing at him. "The dummy that...Chuck put makeup on."
"Yes. And a dress." Sarah crossed to the other side of the dojo to throw the towelette away. "Like I said, he gets bored. And when he wants to mess with me, he usually leaves me a note. On the dummy. The dress was a nice touch, though don't tell him that."
Ellie nodded. Dressing up a dummy sounded more like a Morgan thing, but...it was also something old Chuck would have done, before his disappearance. She put a hand over her stomach and told herself the discomfort was just heartburn from the meatball subs Devon had brought them both for lunch.
"He's fine," Sarah said, and Ellie's head snapped up. When her eyes narrowed, Sarah shrugged and toed out of her sneakers. She nodded at Ellie's stomach. "You do that when you're worried about Chuck, and he's fine. He's with Morgan, playing video games."
"Surprise, surprise." Hoping the move looked natural, Ellie dropped her hand away from her stomach. "My brother. Playing video games."
"Good to know some things don't change?"
"Yeah," and it was, Ellie thought. Chuck was back in her life, and playing video games, and they were all working for the government. She shook her head to push all of that to the side so that she could focus. "So, um, what do we do first? I've taken a self-defense class before, but never one-on-one."
"Yeah, after there was a mugging in the parking lot a couple years ago, the hospital offered the course to everybody." She'd been dead tired at the time, but Devon had suggested that maybe she sign up anyway. And he'd always remembered to bring her coffee on the days of class. "It was just some basic self-awareness stuff, but the instructor showed us some karate moves. Nothing kung fu goddessy."
"Kung fu godde—" Sarah broke off with a laugh. "Please tell me that's not how he's actually describing me."
Ellie bit her bottom lip, but Sarah only laughed again. "Oh, Chuck," she said, and that was that. "So what exactly did you want to know about self-defense? Because really, the best thing I can tell you is just make a lot of noise and get out of there as soon as you can."
Now, Ellie hesitated. This was where her problem came in. In joining the team—Prometheus, the team's name was Prometheus—she knew she'd need to get to know her new coworkers. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, since she was rooming with one of them already. But she'd been rooming with some imaginary figment with the face of Sarah Walker, and now that she'd uncovered the secret, she was dealing with the real Sarah. Ellie wasn't the shy type by any means, but her usual suggestions like a shopping trip to bond wouldn't quite work on a super-spy.
So she'd asked for self-defense lessons. Surely, having to work together and talk to each other would get rid of some of this weirdness. Of course, Sarah's startled confession from the other night still hung in the air like an unwanted blind date.
I think in a perfect world, we should grab Chuck and Devon, get the hell out of Burbank, and drop off the grid completely.
And with that still in the air between them, the awkwardness wasn't going away for a long time until they either talked about it, or successfully buried it. She might not know her roommate well, but Ellie knew one thing: there was no way Sarah would talk. Ever. So self-defense lessons it was.
"Yeah," she said slowly. "I got all of that from the first lessons I took, but...you're a kung fu goddess."
Sarah looked pained. "Can we not use that term?"
"Fine. Expert, then. And I kind of got the feeling that things might get hairy? Or at least a little dangerous sometime? And I'd really like to be able to defend myself a little better, just in case. Since your first priority has to be Chuck."
"Who actually handles himself really well in a fight," Sarah said.
Ellie's jaw dropped. "Chuck's been fighting?"
"What?" Sarah looked a bit like a startled rabbit, her eyes growing wide. "Chuck hasn't been fighting, where would you get that idea?"
"Because you just said—"
"Statistically, the issue a lot of women have in self-defense is that our opponents are bigger and stronger than us. That doesn't leave us with many choices."
Ellie's heart rate was still galloping over the idea that Chuck would ever be in a fight, but she forced herself to take a deep breath. Her brother was an adult. He could handle himself—in a fight, apparently. And oh, god, that was a terrifying concept. All six and a half feet of Chuck trying to fight off a foe didn't really inspire much confidence. It was like trying to imagine Gumby taking on Snidely Whiplash.
"What can I do, then?"
"Run hard or strike fast."
"Oh. I think I'm probably better at the first. I'm not really the violent type. What happens if a guy tries to hit me?"
"Chances are he'll try to grab you rather than hit you, but I can show you some blocks. You know, so we have some place to start." Sarah shifted her feet, shuffling them back and forth on the mat. "Okay, I've got an easy one that'll let you do some damage so you can get away."
"Okay, what do I do?"
"Hit me." Sarah set her stance in front of Ellie.
The brunette blinked. "For real?"
"Don't worry, you won't hurt me. Just try to punch me."
Careful not to tuck her thumb into her fist, Ellie shrugged and threw her punch. Sarah's right hand snapped out, sweeping her fist to the side. With the left, she grabbed Ellie's hand above the wrist and yanked it back over, stopping just short of pain.
Ellie still gasped. "Holy—"
"I didn't hurt you, did I? I tried to stop it in time."
"No, no, it's just...that was cool!"
Sarah belatedly dropped Ellie's hand—and burst out laughing.
"What?" Ellie asked. "What'd I do?"
"It's like the worrying, the caretaking, and the constant need to clean things weren't proof enough," Sarah said, still laughing.
"What are you talking about?"
"That's exactly the reaction Chuck would have."
"It is," Ellie began indignantly, and realized halfway through that Sarah had a point, "too. Wow. Sorry about that. But that was really a neat block. Can you show it to me again?"
"Sure. Slower? Or full speed again?"
"Let's try one full speed and then go slower?"
"That's no problem. Ready? Hit me again, maybe a little faster this time. I promise you won't hurt me."
Ellie wasn't so sure about that. She was a doctor, she'd seen the injuries even a simple fistfight could incur. And as much as her brother claimed that Sarah was infallible, Sarah was still human and bruised just like the rest of them.
But if they were going to do this self-defense bonding, it was better to try and trust Sarah a little. So she took her stance that she remembered from the class she'd taken before, and she tried to punch Sarah again.
Again, the block came. Sarah swiped out with the back of her hand, knocking Ellie's punch to the side. This time, however, when she grabbed Ellie's hand, Ellie stepped forward. She watched with some sort of disconnected horror as her own left fist came up, straight on a trajectory to collide with Sarah's jaw.
Sarah didn't have time to duck. Her eyes went wide.
Ellie's fist hit. It hurt.
"Oh god!" Ellie yanked her fist back, but it was too late. The damage had been done. She leaped backwards, her hands flying to her mouth. "Oh, I am so, so sorry. I don't know what came over me. I don't know—"
"It's fine." Sarah touched her jaw gingerly.
"How is it fine? I just punched you!"
"And it was a pretty good one, too." Sarah held up a hand to stop Ellie from speaking, so the brunette could only keep watching, frozen with horror. Sarah grimaced and wiggled her jaw, looking genuinely pained. "Nice left."
"Apparently," and Sarah straightened, popping her neck, "you retained more from that self defense class than you thought."
Ellie made a small squeak of horror.
"It's fine," Sarah said.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive, I promise. But trust me when I say I'm never letting my guard down around you again."
"Like you ever would," Ellie said. Sarah froze, and Ellie realized what she had just said. "Sarah, I—"
"Direct hit," Sarah said. "Your second in as many minutes, I guess. Touché. Maybe we should move to a safer exercise."
Anything to clear this odd tension from the air, and to keep from babbling a thousand apologies and sounding even more like her brother. "Like what?"
Sarah tilted her head as she thought about it. Ellie saw the moment the idea took hold only because Sarah's face shifted to a sly grin that she knew well enough to dread. "How do you feel about learning how to throw somebody? Probably should keep you away from strikes for the time being."
"Deal," Ellie said, glad at the opportunity to get the one-two punch behind them. Devon, she knew, would have gone for a high-five and a "That's awesome!" With Sarah, maybe it was just better to move on and pretend it had never happened. "What do I do first?"
16 NOVEMBER 2007
Learning how to throw apparently meant learning how to fall first. And Ellie discovered that she was, if not good, at least proficient at falling. Sarah showed her how to tuck, how to roll, how to get back up quickly, and what not to do when falling. The mats weren't hard floorboards by any stretch of the imagination, but after a few minutes of the lesson, Ellie's bones had been rattled so hard they might as well have been.
Once Sarah was satisfied with her progress there, they moved on to throws. Or specifically, Sarah tossed Ellie around like a rag doll.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you hated me," Ellie moaned, not getting up after Sarah had thrown her for what felt like the fiftieth time.
"I don't hate you. Though I may need to remind you of that when you get up tomorrow."
"What?" Ellie paused halfway into clambering to her feet. "Why? What have you done to me?"
"Done to you? Nothing. But your hamstrings are going to ache."
"Great, one more thing to look forward to." Ellie let Sarah pull her to her feet, wary. Thankfully, this time it wasn't a trick to just flip her again. The blonde was a bit of a vicious trainer in the same way that L.A. traffic was only a little backed up at 8 a.m. Ellie dusted off her yoga pants and wanted to groan. "Next time we want to try bonding, we're going to a spa."
"So this is bonding, huh?" Sarah grabbed their water bottles from the stand off to the side of the mats and passed one over to Ellie. "I thought I sensed some ulterior motives."
"It's been awkward," Ellie said. "Ever since—"
"Yeah," Sarah said. "But that's normal. I'm..." She leaned back against the wall, twisting the cap of her water bottle round and round. It took her a moment to speak. "I'm not an easy person to get to know."
Gee, Ellie nearly said, tell me something I don't know. She winced. Getting thrown around like a hay bale during baling season apparently made her cranky. She took a long drink of water. "Why's that?"
Sarah's left shoulder moved an inch, an instinctual movement. "Lifetime of training, I guess?"
"Oh. Wait, an entire lifetime? You said the CIA recruited you at seventeen."
"I always forget you Bartowskis never forget anything," Sarah remarked, more at the air than at Ellie. She twisted the cap off, back on. "I know you and Chuck are sharers, but I can't tell you my life story. Agency policy, I guess. And that's kind of what I meant. I'm hard to know."
"Was all of it an act?" Ellie asked. "The whole persona, the out-of-work actress thing?"
"Some of it." Sarah took a drink and chased it with a deep breath. "I'm trying. But like I said..."
"Not easy to get to know, got that," Ellie said, saluting her with the water bottle. "I appreciate that you're trying, as I have a lot of questions."
"Oh, no you don't," Sarah said. She pointed a finger at Ellie and actually backed up a step. "I remember what happened the last time you started asking questions. I'm not falling for that. We can be friends, but you're not suckering me with that play again."
"Suckering you into..." Ellie blinked, and then it hit her: Sarah Walker was scared. Sure, the other woman had practically sprinted out of the kitchen the other night after her confession. That was a given. She'd been crying before, nobody really liked being seen like that. It had been a fluke.
Only, things had been awkward since then. Sarah had hidden it somewhat well, but she'd been noticeably edgy around Ellie ever since. And Ellie had barely seen her around the apartment at all. Until she'd called to ask Sarah for the self-defense lesson, it hadn't even occurred to her that Sarah might actually be avoiding her out of fear.
But how on earth could a woman with the ability to simply and easily throw people around actually fear somebody like her? It just truly boggled the mind, but it was there in black and white.
She terrified an official CIA agent.
Would wonders never cease.
She let out a puzzled laugh, more at her surprise than at Sarah's statement. "That's just absurd. I'm not 'suckering' you into anything. I really do have questions."
"I am not talking about my feelings for your brother with you."
Now Ellie's puzzled laugh became a real one. "That wasn't what I meant!"
Sarah went milk-pale. "Wh-what? It wasn't?"
"No, of course not. Unless you want to..."
"No, no, I'm good. Thanks."
"Fine with me." Ellie slid down the wall, ignoring the way the muscles in her legs whimpered in protest. She really was going to feel this in the morning. "I had questions because I just signed paperwork to join the NSA, and I've never done anything like this before. Which is sort of why I asked for the lessons. Since I'm joining the team and all."
"Oh." Sarah was quiet for a long moment. Eventually, she dropped to the floor, folding her legs into a half-lotus. She scooted closer to Ellie, looking a little apprehensive. "I think I can help with that. What did you want to know?"
"Chuck's roommate. What the hell is up with that guy?"
Sarah's laughter pealed over the dojo. "Trust you to start with the hardest question. All right, I'll do my best."
16 NOVEMBER 2007
"And if you twist like so," and Sarah shuffled her feet, twisting her hips, and side-stepped around Ellie, her arm banding about Ellie's neck, "it's really easy to reverse the headlock. Of course, if you apply a little pressure..." Ellie, feeling the pressure against her throat, gasped and went to her knees. "It's really easy to take them down like that. See?"
"Vicious," Ellie said, her voice a little hoarse. Questions about the CIA, NSA, Prometheus, Beckman, Graham, Chuck's brain (she didn't know what "the Intersect" was yet, but Sarah had told her they were setting up a briefing for her, and that it had everything to do with Chuck), and even Switzerland had tumbled over each other until they were almost all a blur in Ellie's mind. She'd asked one offhand question about headlocks, and Sarah, perhaps relieved to get away from the interrogation, had all but jumped to her feet in her eagerness to demonstrate.
Now, Ellie picked herself up off of the ground for something like the millionth time. "Just how much danger," she said, picking her words carefully, as the question had sat at the back of her mind since Sarah had mention Chuck's ability to fight. "Just how much danger is Chuck in, from day to day?"
"He has Casey, and he has me. He's safe," Sarah said. "And I promise you, I will keep him out of fights."
"You'd better." Ellie coughed and took a long gulp of water.
"Time to call it a night?"
"No, no, I want to try that thing you just showed me, I was just taking a rest. Here, put me in a headlock, I want to reverse it."
Ellie held still as Sarah again wrapped an arm around her neck, bracing it with her other arm. "Ready?" the blonde asked. Ellie managed a nod, despite the restrictions. "Okay, go!"
It was awkward, as Sarah had been quick with her demonstration, but Ellie managed to twist like Sarah had said to, and in less than a couple seconds, Sarah was the one struggling against her grip. Ellie knew she should have let go, but she couldn't stop a devilish grin from spreading. "So, Sarah..."
Sarah, perhaps sensing danger, began to struggle.
"Just what, exactly, are your intentions toward my brother, anyway? As head of the family, I feel I should know about them."
Instead of struggling hard, Sarah started laughing, her face turning red. Whether that was the laughter or the headlock, Ellie didn't know. But she kept her grip as Sarah giggled, until the spy asked, "Seriously? You're asking me that right now?"
"Seemed like as good a time as any," Ellie said, grinning back.
"One thing I didn't tell you about this headlock..."
"What is," Ellie started to ask, before Sarah struck, sending Ellie flipping forward over her and into the air.
Ellie was laughing even as she hit the mat.