Title: Discovering Omaha 1/?
Summary: For Chuck, it's a chance enounter. For Sarah, it's a mission. But what happens when the spy remembers she's also a woman and the man realizes he could be a spy?
Author's Note: I know there's tons of AUs out there imagining Chuck not getting expelled from Stanford, so I hope you enjoy my take on that situation. In addition, some chapters, like this one, are pretty heavy on the exposition, since I'm striving to write this as a bit more realistic and less straight-up romance (but hang in there if you're here for the romance). I hope this is a fun read!
Sarah Walker was the first one to say that her upbringing had been nontraditional, to say the least.
The daughter of a con man who was recruited into the CIA at seventeen, she had spent most of her life in motion, spending weeks or sometimes only days in towns and cities scattered across the United States. Joining the CIA meant going to Harvard, thanks to some Agency finagling, and spending summers and breaks at the Farm for advanced training. By the time she had turned nineteen, she was working in the field and honing her instincts for undercover work and split-second decision making. Now, in February of 2003, she was twenty-one, a Harvard graduate (finishing her economics degree a semester early thanks to more CIA finagling) and widely known as Director Graham's most promising agent.
So she wasn't prepared to hear that her next assignment meant she'd be going on Spring Break.
Even with all her training, Sarah knew her eyes had widened slightly at Graham's words. "Excuse me, sir?" she asked, fully aware of what he had said but still very confused.
"Spring break, Agent Walker. I'm sure you've heard of it." Graham's voice was amused.
"Of course I have, Director-"
Graham cut her off before she dug the hole any deeper. "You will be working with an unusual group of recruits. They-and you-will be part of Project Omaha, which is the Agency's joint intelligence gathering and analysis project with our colleagues in Fort Meade."
Sarah schooled her features, even as she felt her heart rate pick up. Everyone had been buzzing about the CIA/NSA taskforce that was implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations to improve the United States' intelligence network, in light of the failures exposed by the September 11th terrorist attacks. To be a part of such a high-priority project could mean very good things for her future.
The director handed her a file folder. "Your mission parameters are there, along with some research materials. Your first action as part of Project Omaha is to assist with the vetting of candidates that have been identified by those who know what we're looking for."
He paused before continuing, his voice even more serious than usual. "This isn't like evaluating other recruits. Several of the candidates don't fit our normal recruit models, yet their skills are so important to this project that we cannot let these individuals refuse our invitation to become part of the CIA. Due to the importance of Project Omaha, we need to know what to expect from these potential recruits, both when we alert them to our interest and once they begin their training."
Sarah nodded. "Yes, sir."
Graham rose to his feet. "I have every confidence in you, Sarah. I know deep cover is your preferred track, but do well with Omaha and you can write your own ticket."
"Yes, sir, I understand." Sarah stood as well and gave him a smile that revealed only a fraction of the excitement she felt. "Thank you, sir."
She walked to the door that lead to the outer office, eager to dive into the file folder and discover what exactly her assignment would entail.
Sarah frowned as she watched the bodies on her computer screen. Was this what spring break was all about? Being drunk in the middle of the day, frat boys high-fiving as their buddies groped clearly-intoxicated girls in skimpy bikinis, while loud, ear-splitting music played?
She wrinkled her nose. It looked like she hadn't missed out on much after all.
Turning away from the footage of MTV's Spring Break 2002, Sarah once again reviewed the mission specs. Project Omaha was investigating methods of non-traditional data storage via encoded images, allowing intelligence to be freed from microdots, hard drives and other physical storage units. She shook her head, amazed at the sheer audacity of it all. Having images that seemed completely innocuous but actually contained intel . . . it was gutsy, risky, and incredibly clever.
There wasn't much in the files about just how agents were going to decode the images and retrieve the data, but Sarah knew that aspect of the mission was still months away. For now, the priority was evaluating the recruits for Project Omaha and determining how strong each candidate was.
And the CIA, in all its genius, had decided to do that by sending agents to interview recruits as fellow spring break partiers.
Sarah knew that the idea would allow the candidates to be seen in a setting when their inhibitions were lowered and barriers were flexible, thus giving a truer picture of the candidate's reaction to stress and pressure. But that didn't mean she was all that happy about playing a dumb coed.
She sighed softly. She knew that honestly, this assignment wasn't so bad. It skirted the edge of seduction: it was more important to see the candidate interact with her than to gain information from him.
Because she had definitely noticed that all the recruits she'd be evaluating were men. They fit a fairly standard profile: nineteen to twenty-two years of age, divorced or neglectful parents, and highly intelligent. Otherwise, it was a mix of ethnicity, background, college major and other factors.
There were five candidates she would be evaluating. Four of them, in spite of Graham's remark that they didn't fit the standard mold, seemed pretty interchangeable to her: conventionally attractive, well-to-do, average.
The fifth one, though, didn't fit. Sarah couldn't completely explain why. Sure, he was more quirky handsome than male model, more of a nerd than the other candidates based on his preferred activities. But there was something about the photo clipped to his file that made Sarah curious.
It was a shame, she thought, that she'd have to evaluate the other candidates first. She checked the mystery man's file again, confirming the scheduling. She would be going to Cabo San Lucas last to interview Charles Irving Bartowski.
After three weeks of Spring Break, Sarah was ready for tea, Jane Austen, and a floor-length nightgown. Partying on the government's dime had seemed, if not fun, at least better than surveillance assignments in Thailand. But she had quickly grown tired of the wild parties, her assigned wardrobe, and the candidates she had been sent to evaluate.
She couldn't find any red flags about any of them, something that would make Graham and the other directors pleased. But none of them were men that she found all that interesting. Acting like she was enthralled by their every word and making her questions seem flirty instead of meaningful took all of her acting ability.
Sarah sighed as she slowly walked through the crowds that lined the Golden Corridor. At least she was nearly done. Charles Bartowski was part of a group that checked into three rooms at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar last night. Tonight, according to the bugs she'd placed in the rooms, the group was going to hit a few of the nightclubs near their hotel. She had done some initial recon on the places mentioned and felt prepared to approach Bartowski-or Chuck, as his friends seemed to call him. Not that she would call him anything other than Bartowski. This wasn't a date: it was work.
The sooner she finished here, the sooner she could go home. That's what this was all about, she told herself, even as she smoothed down her skirt. No one had to know that she had gone through her entire spring break wardrobe to come up with tonight's outfit, or that she was actually looking forward to evaluating this candidate, not because he was the last one on her list but because he seemed . . . interesting.
With practiced ease, she ambled along the Corridor near the main entrance to the Sheraton, sipping a virgin daiquiri and waiting for Bartowski and his friends to leave the hotel. After an hour of listening to the audio surveillance, she was ready to find another way of setting up a meet when she heard the sound of doors closing. She kept her eyes on the hotel entrance while acting like she was just hanging around, and soon she spotted the target.
Putting aside the fact that the CIA was eager to recruit him, Chuck Bartowski stood out. From his file, she knew he was listed as six feet plus; she guessed he hit about six-four. His build was lanky, the kind that still looked a bit gawky and awkward even at his age. He smiled a lot, at his friends, at the people he passed in the street. He wasn't one of the loud, high-fiving guys in his group, but he was definitely someone that everyone liked and enjoyed being with. He was seemingly dressed for comfort, not flash, in a dark-red t-shirt with Stanford across his chest, jeans and a pair of black sneakers.
Sarah took all this in as she watched the group exit the hotel and make their way along the Golden Corridor. Based on both their loose-limbed walks and what she had heard over her earwig, they had been pre-gaming in their hotel rooms, but Chu-Bartowski seemed fairly sober. From his file, he definitely seemed the designated driver type, the one to look out for his friends even during the debauchery of spring break.
She started tailing the group, still observing Bartowski. He spent most of the time talking to another one of his friends, shorter and eerily pretty. It seemed like his friend was urging Bartowski to do something that he wasn't very excited about. Taking a risk, Sarah got closer.
"All I'm saying is, it's been two months and you're still calling her. You've gotta let it go, man."
"I know," Bartowski said with a sigh. "But it was just out of nowhere, Bryce. One day we were happy, and the next, she was breaking up with me."
Bryce? Sarah made a face. And here she thought Chuck had been an embarrassing name.
"You guys weren't that happy. Remember what happened last Christmas?" Bryce challenged Bartowski.
"Oh, God, don't remind me. Ellie still is upset about how Jill acted. When I told her that Jill had broken up with me, she was ready to throw a party," he said glumly.
Sarah dropped back, letting him and the rest of the group move away. So Bartowski had been dumped. His file had contained a reference to a steady girlfriend, but no info about a break-up. That definitely made her job easier. Not that it mattered, she reminded herself. This wasn't a seduction mission.
After a half-hour walk, she saw the group walk into one of the beach-front nightclubs. She followed them in, sticking to a dimly-lit corner of the room. She wanted Bartowski to have time to relax and get comfortable before she made her move.
It took an hour and a half before she judged he was ready. His friends had bought him a couple of shots, and he was now talking animatedly and even giving a few high-fives. Sarah downed the last of her second beer and rolled her shoulders. Then she walked towards the dance floor that opened up on the line of booths that included the one in which Bartowski and his friends were sitting.
Sarah might look like a normal coed, a bit tipsy and lost in the music. She spun around, moving in time with the music as she danced. But she wasn't normal. Her half-closed eyes darted around, checking to see if Bartowski was watching her. She added an extra measure of sensuality to her moves, seeking to draw attention to herself. It wasn't in the normal spy rulebook, but Sarah had found that sometimes it paid to stand out.
After just a few moments, she saw that Bartowski was walking towards the bar, and he was alone. She let her moves grow a touch more uncontrolled, a bit looser, until she spun directly into his path.
They bumped into each other, and Sarah immediately put on her giggly coed act. "Oh! I'm sorry-I'm so clumsy." She smiled up at him, a bright uninhibited smile. A smile that Sarah Walker never used unless she was a mission.
Bartowski looked shell-shocked. Like no one had ever smiled at him. Then, as if he was suddenly realizing that he was staring at her with his mouth open, he took a step back. "No, no, it was my fault," he said, his eyes wide. "I wasn't watching where I was going-are you okay?"
"I'm good," Sarah reassured him. "But I'd be better with a drink." She turned down the wattage on her smile, making it more intimate.
To her surprise, Chuck responded with a bright smile of his own. "It's the least I could do after almost running you over. But since I don't buy drinks for strangers-" He held his hand out to her. "Hi, I'm Chuck."
For a second, she looked at him, making mental notes, wondering if this was the type of candidate that Project Omaha really wanted. This nerd who seemed to be a sweet guy. But it wasn't her call. She was just here to observe. So she reached out and shook his hand, and smiled back at him. "Hi, Chuck. I'm Sarah."
End, Chapter One