As with most plans designed by ex-operatives who were at least slightly, if not completely, insane, Stanton's was lacking in both preparation and effectiveness. Reese could see flaws immediately with each piece she doled out to him, but he dared not mention it, not when she had Carter's life in her crazy, spiteful little hands.
On all of their joint missions, Reese had always been the one to do the planning, the preparation, the stakeout, the "boring" parts as Stanton termed them. Without a boss to demand such work of her, Reese knew valuable information would be lacking. Like a plan. An exit strategy. A fallback. Things that would wind up being extremely important to the success of the mission and likely their lives.
Rather than pointing out the aggravating stupidity, Reese said nothing. He didn't give a shit if the mission failed or if it killed him. Instead, he thought of Carter, the woman who'd already given up everything she had for him, in the unenviable position she was trapped in and Taylor, who didn't even know he was facing the prospect of losing his only living parent, and Finch, who'd be forced to find someone else to work the numbers, someone who wouldn't have any morals left whatsoever. Machine manipulations aside, Reese knew he was one-of-a-kind, somehow having emerged from special forces and CIA training and a career as an assassin and still having a strong sense of right and wrong.
He wasn't doing this for himself. He was doing this for them. For the friends he didn't want to lose.
Reese remained a docile passenger while Stanton navigated the city streets. She pulled to a stop outside a drab gray skyscraper, carefully putting her ponytail loose and arranging her hair in front of her face. Turning to him with a smirk, she shrugged. "Sorry, I forgot to bring you a hat. You'll have to be careful, I guess."
Normally, Reese might have been concerned about being seen and adding to the list of reasons why the government wanted him dead. Except under the current circumstances, knowing Stanton had no intention whatsoever of letting him live, he figured camera time might help Finch intercede in whatever was going on. She wanted access to the machine and believed someone who had it was in this building. He wasn't too worried; he knew the machine could look out for itself.
Stanton pulled into the parking garage, leaving the car by the fire stairs, pointed toward the exit. She was preparing to leave in a hurry and Reese fully expected he'd be left behind.
Instead of getting out of the car, she leaned over to open the glove compartment and withdrew a pack of hand wipes. She sighed and shook her head. "I guess this is as much my fault since I was the one who crashed into the truck, but you really should have worn your seat belt." With all the tenderness of a Munchausen by proxy mom, she wiped at his face, removing some of the more obvious damage. She pulled a compact out of her bag next, dabbing on some makeup to cover the bruises. "That'll have to do. Tuck your shirt in."
He glared at her while he climbed out of the car and complied, knowing that tucking his shirt in would hardly make him blend in with the business types who would be in the building. He was a mess, wrinkled, unshaven, bruised, and battered. He was probably the worst choice to help her with this mission based simply on the amount of attention his appearance would garner. He knew, as ill-planned as it seemed, Stanton had some idea what she was doing. He was there for a reason. He was supposed to get attention. To keep it off her, he suspected.
She flashed a badge at the guard and dragged him along with the crowd heading into work for the day. The elevator was crowded at first, the group petering out as they climbed to the forty-third floor. When they were finally alone, she dropped the other shoe.
"This is a SCIF. All you need to do is create a diversion. Be the confused temp who's on the wrong floor or the boss no one knew was coming or a fucking vagrant begging for change. You get the trigger happy receptionist out of the way and I'll meet you back at the car."
His eyes were on the camera, the one she had carefully avoided. "You're setting me up."
She laughed. "Of course I am, John. But you'd do the same if you were in my shoes, wouldn't you? Snow was the only person who knew I was still alive and he's dead. So, you'll take the fall for this and I'll get the information I need, and it'll be just like always." She led him out of the elevator and across the hall.
"You'll be lucky if you walk out of here alive. You'll never get whatever you're looking for."
She pulled him into the stair well and pointed toward the next floor. "You're on. I'll meet you up there in five." With a wink, she headed for the elevator. "Don't let me down, sweetheart, or Carter goes boom."
With the knowledge that the best outcome he could conceivably expect was to be shot on sight, Reese sighed and headed up to the SCIF. At least he wouldn't be alive to know Carter was dead.
He had no idea what he was going to do. He hadn't been able to talk his way into a SCIF when he'd actually wanted to. And after the last few days, his brain was on overload. He knew nothing was going to work and rather than jumping on one idea and going full speed ahead with it like he normally would, the certainty of defeat left him wanting to just turn around and walk away. But Stanton would have a remote on that vest, she'd kill Carter no matter what.
The best he could hope for would be for Stanton to succeed, and maybe decide to keep her word for the first time ever.
He was so distracted that he wound up doing exactly what Stanton had asked of him. He walked right into a woman who had her hands full of coffees and files tucked under her arm, the collision resulting in loose pages and coffee flying everywhere. He faked a smile and mumbled an apology as he helped her pick up the papers, doing his busted ribs no favors, and offering to get her some wet paper towels to clean up the coffee that had spilled all over her shirt.
Clearly not on the right floor herself, the woman was hysterical, crying over her ruined clothes and shrieking about being late for her presentation and drawing the attention of everyone in the vicinity.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stanton slip through the door.
And then the woman had finally looked at him rather than her shirt and realized all was not right. She was yelling for someone to call security.
The last thing he was in the mood for was a foot chase with a bunch of rent-a-cops, but his options were limited. He could stand there and wait for someone to call the real police or he could run. So he ran. He took the stairs, knowing that security would lose precious time waiting for an elevator to bring them to the forty-fourth floor. And rather than waste his time going down where they'd be expecting him to emerge, he ran up. Only twenty or so stories to the roof, he estimated. Wouldn't normally be a problem.
He was out of breath and barely able to lift his legs by the time he got there, continuing to move only because Carter needed him. And maybe a little because he'd die of embarrassment that he'd been chased down by out of shape security guards. Of course, the options from the roof were limited, considering there was no helicopter, but he could make do. A quick survey told him the best choice was the building to the east, the upper floor still under construction and thus open, provided he could make a horizontal leap of fifteen feet across and not plunge to his death.
He took as deep a breath as he could force, backed up, and gave himself a sprinting start. As soon as his feet left the concrete, he closed his eyes and thought of Carter and of the way he'd someday tell her this story and laugh, hopefully over a cold beer.
And then, there was just white-hot pain as his battered body connected with rebar, stealing his breath, filing his consciousness with excruciating pain as he rolled across it.
He wasn't sure how long he lay there, staring at the sky and wondering if he was dead yet. The sirens told him he wasn't. And he knew no one had called the police over him, the sloppy guy who'd bumped into a hysterical woman in the hallway. The sirens were there for Stanton. Or Finch had arranged a distraction for him.
He forced himself to his feet, wincing with each step because of his freshly twisted ankle, and raced down to the street. Luckily the parking garage with Stanton's car was only a few yards and he was looking forward to being able to sit down. But as he entered the garage, the unmistakable sound of gunshots, first one, then two in rapid succession, then a minute of silence before a fourth.
No silencer, so it wouldn't be Stanton, although it was hardly unlike her to have a backup weapon. He ran toward the car, toward the shots, searching the area for both the shooter and the victim.
And then he saw. Snow, who wasn't as dead as Stanton had thought, standing over her body, his gun still trained on her even as she lay unmoving. He was laughing, proving himself to be as crazy as she was, though that wasn't news to Reese.
"You never were a very good shot, Kara."
"Mark! Don't!" He ran forward, blinded by fear, bulldozing Snow. While Snow was looking for the weapon he'd dropped, Reese crawled back to Stanton's side. The puddle of blood under her was undeniable. There was no point in calling for help; she would be dead long before anyone got there.
He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. "What's the code, Kara? The bomb vest, what's the damn code?"
As always, Stanton smiled at him, her eyes as crazed as ever. She kept smiling right through her last words. "Fuck you."
He was shaking as he stared at her empty eyes, the situation dawning on him.
"Don't tell me you're sorry she's dead, John. You hated her as much as I did."
Reese turned back to Snow, realizing his former friend was holding him at gunpoint. And then, he decided, he didn't fucking care anymore. "You son of a bitch! Did you have to kill her right now? She's got Carter strapped in that damn vest!"
Snow's face faltered for a moment. "That's unfortunate. She was a good cop at one point."
Slowly climbing to his feet, knowing he was Carter's only chance, he met Snow's eyes. "Kill me or let me go help her. Just do it now."
Snow snarled until he glanced down at Stanton's body. Then with a smile much like hers had been, he shrugged and holstered his gun. "Next time, John."
Reese paid him no more attention, turning to grab Stanton's keys and phone then speeding back to where they'd left Carter.
She knew the minute she looked at him that something had gone wrong. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that the woman holding them both hostage was missing, but she didn't even realize that. She just saw the dumbstruck, terrified look on his face and knew.
But she told herself it was just the situation. She was scared. She was in pain. She was ticking. And he was there. Oh thank god, he was there, pulling the gag from her sore mouth.
He stepped right up to her, closer than he normally did, bending down to inspect the panel with the flashing lights, the very one she'd been trying to ignore the whole time she'd been waiting there. He took a deep breath and stepped back. "I'm going to call the bomb squad, Carter. I don't want to mess with this."
"Where's Stanton?" In her dealings with the CIA, she knew them to be less honest than run of the mill criminals, but her own humanity wanted to believe that if John had done what was asked of him, Stanton would disconnect the bomb. It would be fair that way.
He didn't need to answer, just shot her a pained look that said everything. She nodded, understanding that Stanton needed to be stopped, no matter the cost. "I didn't do it, Carter."
She looked up, knowing that he was telling the truth. She knew him well enough to know that he'd never gamble with her life like that. "There's not enough time for the bomb squad, John. You can defuse this thing, right?"
He stared at it again, trying not to see the numbers that kept changing, and not for the better. "Probably, but I'm not going to take that chance. I don't want you wearing it while I'm playing with it."
"That's not exactly an option right now, so how about you disconnect it and then we can call the bomb squad?" She was scared, but she trusted him a million times more than she trusted the NYPD. Reaching out, she took his hands. "Please, John? I trust you."
He looked down, muttering something about her being right regarding the time. "Sit tight for a minute." He poked around the room, gathering various tools, faking such a calmness that she almost believed it. When he had everything he needed, he nodded toward a table. "You sit on there. It'll give me the best light."
She moved gingerly, fearing that the damn thing would explode at any moment. The time still read a little under twenty minutes, but she didn't trust it. She didn't want to be hanging around when it said zero.
"Ok, I'll have this off you in a second." He raised a screwdriver to the panel and started to work.
Carter closed her eyes. She couldn't watch. She could see how nervous he was, despite his bravado, and she didn't want to add to it by staring at him. It made her wonder if he was afraid of dying himself or if he was afraid of her dying. She wanted to ask, expecting that the gravity of the situation would encourage an honest answer, but she wasn't sure she wanted to hear it. She suspected she already knew and after everything they'd been through together in the past few days, well, she hardly needed to feel more bonded to the man than she already did.
He worked silently for several minutes, swiping at the sweat on his brow and trying to hide his shaking hands and the way he'd frown involuntarily every few moments. His silence, his lack of smart ass comments, told her the truth.
She covered his hand with hers. "Can I call Taylor?"
He looked up, startled by her breaking the silence. Finally he offered her a crooked smile. "Don't trust me after all?"
Her chin trembled, at his attempt to lighten the mood, at the fact that she was discussing saying goodbye to her baby. "John-"
"I'll tell you when we're there, Carter. We're not there yet, ok?"
She nodded, letting the tears streak down her face. There was no point in hiding it. She was terrified, he was terrified and in just over ten minutes, they might be dead.
She tried to be patient. She tried to be calm. She tried to not look at what he was doing or the timer that remained stubbornly unaffected by his attempts to stop it. But her heart was racing and her ears were ringing in the silence and she was about to lose her mind for wanting an update of some sort.
"What? Jesus, I'm trying to work here." He jerked, his whole body shaking with tension. He squeezed his eyes closed and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you." Then he reached into his pocket for Stanton's phone and offered it to her.
She glanced down, seeing that the timer was down to under five minutes. She took the phone and dialed her son's number. She blinked back tears at his breathless greeting as he whined that he was busy. "I know you're in school, baby, I was just thinking about you and I wanted to say I love you."
Reese looked away, revealing his hurt having to listen to the call by refusing to make eye contact with her. She reached for his hand even as she assured Taylor that nothing was wrong. He squeezed it in response when she said goodbye and hung up.
She forced a nervous smile at him. "You'd better get back to work. We don't have a lot of time here."
"I'm sorry, Carter." He wasn't moving, just standing there, holding her hand and staring at the controls on the vest.
She looked down, seeing the timer hanging from the vest, connected by only two wires. "I think I've seen this movie before. You cut the red one." Except there was no red one. Just two identical black wires running into the vest beyond where either of them could see.
"One of them will diffuse it."
"But you don't know which?"
"Stanton was crazy. She did this on purpose."
Reaching over, Carter grabbed the pliers he'd left on the table beside her. "Go. Get out of here. No sense in both of us dying."
His hand closed around her wrist, keeping her from lifting it. "No, I'm not leaving you."
"John, just go. I wouldn't be here if I didn't have to be."
He moved closer, his other hand moving to her cheek. "You wouldn't leave me either, Jos. Don't even try it." He leaned in then, taking the opportunity that could easily be his last, pressing his mouth squarely against hers. For a moment, it all faded away, all the hurt, all the pain, all the stress, all the worry. It was just him and her and their tongues tangling the way they were meant to from the first time they'd met.
But then reality came crashing back down.
Ninety seconds. And they were just standing there, looking at one another and trying to accept the situation.
She broke eye contact at forty seconds. "Which one are you leaning towards? Because if we don't cut one, we know what'll happen."
He looked at her, looked at the wires, looked at her, and then back at the wires. "This one," he said, his finger shaking as he indicated the top one. "Cut this one."
There wasn't enough time left for her to even weigh the options. And when it came down to it, she trusted him.
So she lifted the pliers with his hand still wrapped around her wrist and pinched them around the top wire.
It took her a moment to pry one eye open, looking around slowly as if a sudden movement might change the outcome. But no, she wasn't in heaven, sitting on a puffy cloud and having a chat with her grandmother. She was still sitting on the table, her sweaty hands gripping the pliers, John's hand wrapped so tightly around her wrist it was almost painful.
And the blasted flashing timer had gone blank.
She took a breath, wondering if she was imagining it.
John's hands moved suddenly, his actions frantic and uncoordinated as he pulled the straps of the vest from around her and lifted it off her. "Let's get the hell out of here." He didn't wait for a response from her, just grabbed her hand and tugged, leading her down the dark tunnel and back to the street.
He still had a hold of her when he lifted the phone, dialing Finch's number, but he stopped before he placed the call, putting the phone back in his pocket. "That can wait a minute."
For once in all the time she'd known him, she knew exactly what he was thinking. She raised her arms, sliding them over his shoulders as his hands gripped her waist and pulled her closer. A hug was exactly what she needed, exactly what she'd been hoping for the evening before, until Donnelly had shown up. Donnelly. Shit. That was a whole other can of worms they'd have to deal with.
But for the moment, wrapped tightly in John's arms, she knew it would be ok. They would be ok. They had all the time in the world.