Saving Moscow, Chapter 1 (1/9)

Author: dettiot

Rating: T

Summary: Fulcrum may be nearly defeated, but the greatest struggle yet is still to come for Chuck and Sarah. Sent undercover at Volkoff Industries, Sarah worries about losing herself. Back in Burbank, Chuck worries about his future. Will they defeat their enemies in time for their dream wedding and get their happily ever after? The fourth story in the Finding Home series.

Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck. No copyright infringement intended.

Author's Note: The ending of Solving Burbank left a lot of people on the edge of their seats. I hope the tension doesn't get to be too much for y'all in this story, because the suspense isn't going to be letting up anytime soon. But just hang in there and I hope you enjoy this fic!

XXX

There was smoke in the air. Sarah ducked back behind the column, reloading her guns as quickly as she could while avoiding the bullets flying in the air. She paused for a moment and closed her eyes, trying to stay focused on her job.

Opening her eyes, she quickly looked around the edge of the column, just long enough to time her next move. Then she dived into a forward roll, scrambling to her feet and firing quickly. And by the time her guns were empty, her opponents were dead and everything was quiet.

Quiet except for the sound of her breathing.

Without delay, she slid one of her guns against her back and walked over to the bodies. It was the matter of a few moments to quickly and efficiently search them for the USB drive containing the information she had been sent to retrieve. Once she had that drive, Sarah pocketed it, tucked her other gun into her purse, then walked out of the warehouse into the moonless chill of Vienna.

Her hands sunk deep into the pockets of her trench coat, Sarah walked with firm steps, her boot heels clicking against the pocked pavement. Now that the job was done, she kept her face blank as she walked, heading towards a nearby tram stop that would take her back to the center of town, back to her hotel. And within the quiet and privacy of her luxurious suite, standing under the hot needles of the shower spray, that would be when she would let herself think about what she really wanted.

The last six weeks had only one constant: nonstop work. Sarah had criss-crossed Europe, Russia and the former Soviet republics, sinking deeper and deeper into her cover identity. Becoming the part, just as she had been trained to do. She wasn't Sarah Walker anymore; she was Sabina Radwanska, born in Poland and part of an ethnically Ukrainian family who worshipped in the Eastern Orthodox religion rather than the neighbors' Roman Catholic faith. Sabina spoke Russian, Ukrainian and English fluently beside her native Polish, was a proficient marksman, and had served in terrorist groups on both sides of the Polish-Ukrainian border. But now, she had struck out on her own, working freelance to build her reputation outside Eastern Europe.

A tram was arriving at the stop, on its way to the downtown sector, as she approached. Sarah climbed on and stood near the doorway, one hand holding a strap while her other hand stayed in her pocket, close to her gun. She gazed out the window, watching as the tram neared the Kärntner section of the Ringstraße, where she would depart and walk to her hotel.

Even though she appeared lost in thought, like any other young woman heading home after a late night at work, Sarah's eyes took in everything in the tram car. Her attention kept returning to a young couple, teenagers really, sitting a few seats away from her.

The boy had the knobby knees and elbows of a young man still growing. His hair was dark and curly and his arm was wrapped around a girl with long, blue-streaked blonde hair. The girl was pressed up against his side, turning to whisper in his ear frequently before giggling. Her laughter was so free, so easy . . .

Sarah turned slightly so the couple was out of her line of sight. The tram stopped and she stepped out, her boots moving quickly as she walked towards the Hotel Imperial. She was nearly there, nearly ready to become herself if only for the length of her shower.

Walking up to the glass doors of the hotel, she caught sight of her reflection. It was only thanks to her training that she didn't flinch, didn't look around as if looking for herself. Because otherwise, she wouldn't recognize the young woman before her. Not the pale-skinned woman with long dark hair, skinny in spite of the heavy trench coat wrapped around her.

The ornate lobby and antique furniture were subject to the standard sweep of her eyes as she walked through, but no one was paying attention to her. Her heels made distinctive clicking sounds as she walked across the marble floors to the elevator bank.

Once the door of her suite was closed behind her, she could feel the tension start to leave her body. Stepping into the walk-in closet, she pulled off her trench coat and hung it up, then began undressing. Her guns she took with her as she walked in her underwear towards the en suite bathroom. She taped one of the guns underneath the writing desk, disregarding how the duct tape had already damaged the priceless antique, and carried the other into the bathroom with her.

Although she normally showered, tonight something made the bathtub more appealing. Sarah started filling the tub, carefully placing her gun on the ledge before undressing and pulling off the dark wig, placing it on the small vanity by the sink. Next came the wig cap, letting her blonde hair tumble around her shoulders.

With a soft sigh, Sarah ran her fingers through her hair, enjoying the lack of pressure on her scalp. Then, she walked over and sank down into the tub, the hot water enveloping her body. She closed her eyes and tried to relax. Tried to focus on soothing her tired muscles, on savoring the feel of hot water against her skin.

But the marble bathtub was cold against the skin of her back. Her arms floated in the water, adrift and unmoored. And her hair was only stroked by her own fingers.

Looking up at the ceiling, Sarah knew that once again, she had failed. Failed to keep away the thoughts of the one person she wanted most in the world. The person she couldn't have. The person she shouldn't even be thinking about.

Sarah wouldn't let herself say his name out loud. She was too paranoid, too scared of having eyes and ears on her at all times. But she needed to do something, so again, she settled for the best she could do.

Slipping down under the water, her eyes closing, Sarah used the water to distort her voice and disguise the most important word she knew. "Chuck."

She repeated his name a few more times, then pushed up, her head breaking the surface and water streaming down from her hair. Rubbing her hands over her face, Sarah tried to find some kind of calm. Tried to stop beating herself up over something which she had no control.

Perhaps it had been tonight's job that made her feel so . . . unsettled. Because tonight had been her first kills. Up until now, it had just been beatings or intimidations, information recovery or petty theft. But her most recent client had insisted upon no witnesses. And knowing that kills would attract attention from those whom she wanted to notice, Sarah had done it.

It brought back memories of her Red Test. And memories of Chuck-of sitting on a bench at the Project Omaha base and telling him about that day. Remembering how sad he had looked and how upset. Remembering how disappointed she had felt in herself, for going through with something she had thought she wouldn't do.

Those memories just made tonight even worse. How could she ever tell Chuck what she had done? Would he look at her differently, knowing she had killed in cold blood? Or would he pretend like nothing had changed, when everything was different?

Damn it, she was doing it again. Once again, she had gotten ahead of herself, thinking about the end of the mission when she had barely started. It was something Graham had cautioned her about while briefing her in Washington, after she had left Los Angeles.

"Stay in the moment, Sarah. Don't think about the end, or the end will come sooner than you think-and in a way you don't want to happen."

It was good advice. She hadn't really paid that much attention to it at the time, since she was still silently, furiously angry over Graham selecting her for this assignment. In truth, she was still mad. But time had dimmed her anger as well as letting his words begin to resonate. And because she didn't want to be killed due to a moment's distraction, she had set boundaries for herself. No conscious thinking of Chuck outside of her hotel room, no pausing in front of wedding dress salons, no purchasing of magazines that Sarah Walker might read if she was in Burbank.

In fact, she tried not to think of Chuck at all. Because when she thought of him, the pain of missing him hurt her all over again. Yet it was a sweet, almost addictive pain and maybe it was time she admitted that her plan wasn't working.

She ached for Chuck to the marrow of her bones. For the first time, she cursed her powers of observation and near-photographic memory, because those traits allowed her a wealth of details and images and memories of Chuck.

His smile-the way the hair curled on the back of his neck-his feet covering hers in bed-a kiss brushed over her temple when she was drowsy in the mornings-his laughter-hearing him babble excitedly about video games-watching his jaw clench as he held a gun-inhaling that Irish Spring and grass scent he always had-touching his skin as she pulled off his clothes-tasting the sweetness of his lips-

Biting her lower lip, Sarah made herself stop. That was more than enough. If she let herself keep going, she'd never leave this room, might not even leave this tub. Once upon a time, she thought she would live this life, traveling on her own, staying in different hotel rooms, moving from one assignment to another. She could do this. She had to do this.

At least all the heartbreak and work was paying off. As her name became established, clients were starting to come to her: some furtive and nervous, others brazen and practiced. It didn't matter to Sabina Radwanska who the boss was or how they acted: all that mattered was what they paid and where the job was. Soon, she would be on the radar of Alexei Volkoff, who was always looking for new blood for his organization. Mostly because he had killed the old blood.

And once that happened, she would be that much closer to finishing this. To go back to her real life, the life that she had worked so hard to create. To have time for friends and for herself. And most of all, to never have to leave Chuck again. Once this was done, they could get married and be together. Forever. That was all she wanted.

The water was going cold and she probably had spent too much time in here. She needed to clean her guns and send a message to her local contact, informing him that she had the USB drive. Once she had her delivery instructions, Sarah could get out of Vienna and find another job. One that might finally get the attention of Alexei Volkoff.

XXX

Two weeks later, she was in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, taking advantage of another flare-up of hostilities between Georgia and Russia on behalf of her most recent employer, when while scrambling for cover she literally fell at the feet of John Casey.

She could see how his eyes narrowed slightly at the change in her appearance-the hair, the tight denim jacket, leather pants and motorcycle boots-before he reached down and hauled her to her feet.

"This way," he said, his voice nearly drowned out by the shrill sounds of overhead mortar fire. He pulled her off the streets and into a deserted restaurant-part coffee house, part bar, by the looks of it.

It took a moment for her ears to adjust to the sudden drop in volume, although there was still the occasional very muted whistle or thump of artillery. Casey made a beeline for the bar and started looking through the bottles, giving her a moment to look him over. It had only been about five months since she had seen him last, so there wasn't much different about him. He was still the same imposing, gruff NSA agent. The fact that he hadn't just shown her a way out of the firefight-that he was creating a situation for them to talk-made her wonder what was up.

He looked over at her. "So? What's the story?"

"What makes you think there's a story?" she asked, leaning against the bar.

Casey grunted. "Uh-huh. Try again, Walker."

"It's Radwanska right now," she said. "Sabina Radwanska."

"Polish cover?" He paused, then shrugged after she nodded. "Makes sense. I heard about a new player called Radwanska. Didn't realize it was you."

"I've been on this assignment about two months. It's good to hear that my name is getting out there." There was a few rickety-looking stools in front of the bar. Sarah tested two before finding one that seemed capable of holding her weight. Casey rustled up two glasses and filled them with amber-colored liquid.

"Think this is whisky," Casey said, setting down the bottle and picking up a glass. He tossed back half the contents, then looked at her. "So spill."

Sarah took a small sip from her glass, looking at him. "What makes you think I have anything to spill?"

He gave her a long look, then shook his head. "You really trying to bullshit me? Actin' like we don't know each other?"

Looking down into her glass, Sarah swirled the whisky around. "No. But . . . I'm undercover. And I don't want to jeopardize finishing this assignment."

"Yeah, I know you're undercover. And if you've got Bartowski waiting for you, I get wanting to get back to the nerd. You say you've been on the job two months, with no end in sight? Then when you get a chance to connect with someone you usedta know, you learn to take those chances."

The colors in her glass were a blur of brown and orange tones, combining into a dull amber. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, trying not to think about how similar the whisky was to the color of Chuck's eyes. All it lacked was the sparkle that she could see there, that spark of happiness and excitement and love.

When she looked at Casey, his expression was about as close as he could get to sympathetic. It made something inside her uncoil a little. She tossed back some of the whisky and looked at him. "Did you hear that Chuck and I are engaged?"

Casey smirked a little. "Knew he was thinking of doin' it. I'm glad he got up the nerve."

"I really had no idea he was going to ask," Sarah said softly, running her finger along the rim of her glass. She paused, considering whether she should mention it, then went ahead. "The wedding is going to be on August 20."

"August 20, this year?" Casey asked, arching an eyebrow. "Takin' a risk there, aren't you?"

"Everything's a risk," Sarah said, looking at Casey. "And . . . and we both needed to think that I wouldn't be gone long enough to miss the wedding. Because if I did, that would be six months apart."

He nodded slowly, before lifting his glass. "Congrats. You seem to be makin' it work."

She gave him a small smile. "Remember when we were talking in Rome, about how everyone in a relationship screws up?"

"Yep," he said, refilling his glass and holding the bottle towards hers.

Nodding, she watched as he topped off her drink before continuing. "We nearly did. But . . . but Chuck and I, we managed to convince Graham that we should keep working together, even after we got married."

Casey grunted, his eyebrows raising. "CIA's got all those no-fraternization rules, though. How'd you convince him?"

"Well, Chuck couldn't quit, not with the Intersect and all . . . so I was ready to resign if Graham didn't let us keep working together," Sarah said, feeling the irony hit home yet again. If Graham hadn't pretended to be fine with being outwitted by them-if Sarah had resigned-then she wouldn't be here now. They might actually be married by now, if she had quit.

It was somewhat gratifying, in the midst of all this, to discover that she hadn't completely lost herself yet. Because it was really funny to watch John Casey nearly do a spit take. "You? You offered to quit?!"

"It seemed better than any other option," she said, looking at him. She didn't really want to get into the story of Chuck's father marrying his handler. About how they had that little fact ready in case they needed it. But during the meeting, she had made the decision to offer to quit, rather than using the precedent of an asset marrying a handler.

Casey shook his head. "Still can't believe it. You love the job."

"I did once. But now . . ." Sarah's voice trailed off, then she shrugged and took another swallow of her whisky.

Could she explain to Casey that she had been ordered onto this assignment? Would he actually listen as she explained how much she missed Chuck, how worried she was about him? Because she knew he had to be so scared about her safety, so concerned about not knowing how she was doing that he was bound to be a mess. And yes, Bryce had shown what a friend he was, to both of him, with his whispered promise to her that he would look out for Chuck while she was gone. But it wasn't the same.

Sarah sighed. It was a sign of how lost she felt that she was considering dumping all of that on Casey. Casey, who had a distaste for lady feelings that was only eclipsed by his hatred for traitors and terrorists. No, he wasn't the right person to share all this with. But there were other things to talk about.

"What have you heard about Fulcrum?" she asked, looking at him.

"Hunh," he said, letting out his annoyed/curious grunt. "You're still chasin' after them?"

"That's what we were doing when our team split up," Sarah said. "I thought you were going back to Afghanistan."

"I was there for a while. The Taliban have come back and turned to a buncha former Soviet republics for guns and recruits. So they've got me following the trails here." He grimaced a little and drank some more whisky. "Least I ain't had to go to Chechnya."

The bitterness in his voice made her wonder just what had happened in the war-torn republic, but she held her tongue. If she asked, Casey wouldn't answer, and he still hadn't answered her first question. If he had been traveling around in this part of the world, he could provide some good intel on Volkoff and Fulcrum. She certainly trusted Casey and his judgement more than some analyst back at Langley.

"So you've been moving around. What have you heard?"

He shrugged. "They never were a big player in this part of the world. That's Volkoff."

"Yeah," Sarah said, sipping her whisky. "Word is that Volkoff has become a major player in Fulcrum."

"What's left of it," Casey said.

"With Volkoff's money and resources, it could get a lot bigger. Back to the glory days for them, so I've heard."

Grunting, Casey leaned back against the back portion of the bar. "You know much about Volkoff?"

She shifted in her chair, wrapping both hands around her glass. "Just what you hear. Crazy Russian arms dealer. Loves ice cream and rocket launchers."

Casey looked at her over the rim of his glass. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he fitted all the pieces together. It hadn't exactly been subtle, how she had let him figure out what she was working on. Between the Polish cover identity and the jobs she had been doing, and her remarks on Fulcrum and Volkoff, Casey would have to be pretty stupid to not figure it out. But it had been three days since she'd gotten more than four hours of sleep at a stretch, and going on a week without a hot shower. If this was what undercover life was like all the time, she had gotten too soft for it, she suspected.

"He's a lot more than just crazy," Casey said. "Him or his people, either way-they're good strategists. The crazy helps, but he's makin' sound moves. If he's got his fingers in Fulcrum, that's not good."

The fact that Casey was confirming just what Graham had told her when imposing this assignment on her wasn't very comforting. His reference to Volkoff's people tugged at her curiosity, though.

"Anyone you know as the big mover and shaker inside his organization?" she asked. "You can guess how much luck the Agency's had getting that kind of info."

This grunt was almost a snicker. "Yeah, gotta be a bit beyond what a Spy Ken can do. All I know is that he lives and dies by what his number two says. Some woman that he's in love with, I've heard."

Sarah arched an eyebrow. The rumors had it that Volkoff's right-hand man was a woman, but the news that he was in love with her was . . . interesting. It would give her something to work with, when Volkoff got interested in Sabina Radwanska and her talents.

The sounds of mortars flying through the air and impacting with the remaining buildings had gradually faded. Sarah finished the rest of her drink. "I should get moving."

He looked at her for a minute, like he was appraising her. "Like I said, congratulations on the upcoming wedding."

She gave him a small smile. "Thanks, Casey. You know we'd love to have you there."

Making Casey embarrassed wasn't something she had much experience with, but it seemed like her invitation to her and Chuck's wedding had done that. Casey shuffled his feet, then nodded a little. "Send me the info care of Fort Meade. They'll get it to me."

Her stool rocked a little as she slid off the seat and stood up. "I will. It was good seeing you."

"Yeah, you, too." He sounded gruffer than normal, so Sarah just gave him a nod and turned towards the door. She didn't want to embarrass him any more than she already had.

She had just put her hand on the doorknob when Casey's voice stopped her. "I gave you grief about you and Bartowski screwing up, 'cause you seemed too joined at the hip. If you two didn't work out, you'd both be useless."

Turning to face him, she could see how uncomfortable he was. But if there was anything she knew about John Casey, it was that he always said what he saw as the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it was. Usually it was just his listeners who squirmed.

"And I still think that," he said. "But if anyone can make it in this line of work, I think it's you two."

If he was anyone else, she might hug him. But instead, she walked back over to the bar and rested a hand on his arm. There weren't any words for her to express how touched she was by his statement, by his belief in her and Chuck.

Clearly affected by the awkwardness, he shifted his feet, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. "This is my direct line."

Sarah did her best not to let her jaw drop open. Casey was intensely private. Getting his direct phone number-the number he could be reached at for any reason and at any time-was a show of trust that she hadn't expected.

Slowly, she took the card. She looked at the number and memorized it, then tucked the card into her pocket. "I'll destroy the card by the end of the day." Sarah swallowed, looking at him. "Thank you, John."

He nodded. "Be careful out there, Walker."

"I will," she said, feeling a new sense of resolve. Not that she wasn't always careful, but . . . Casey had been right. Running into an old friend while undercover, it had given her a chance to reconnect with herself. With Sarah Walker. And although it might be against protocol, she had a hard time caring about that right now, considering how much better she felt now. She had been struggling ever since Vienna. Now she felt ready for whatever came next.

And what came next was right outside that door, and she couldn't afford to put it off any longer. So she smiled at Casey and slipped out of the building, picking her way through rubble to get back to work.

XXX

Sarah stared at the spectacle that was formerly her hotel room. A giant floor vase of roses, positioned next to the bed, filled the room with their heavy, cloying scent. On the bed was a large box of ptasie mleczko: a Polish candy, made up of merengue covered in chocolate. A large case was laid out next to the candy-a case that looked suspiciously like it contained a rifle or other large gun. A snowy white envelope, with her cover name written in scarlet ink, was placed on top of the weapons case.

It would appear that Alexei Volkoff had noticed her. And while this was what she had been waiting for, and she had expected something unusual, she hadn't expected to feel like a woman being wooed by a billionaire.

Although she doubted such women got guns. They probably got diamonds.

Shaking her head, Sarah walked over to the bed and picked up the envelope. She took out one of her throwing knives and used it to slit the envelope open-it might be helpful for the CIA if she didn't interfere with any DNA left behind.

Inside the envelope was a matching white card, bearing a handwritten note in the same scarlet ink.

My dear Ms. Radwanska-

How unfortunate, a woman of your talents and skills, left to fend for herself in this world! I admit I am old-fashioned enough to believe that women, nay, all people need protectors.

You have intrigued me and I believe you could fill a niche for my organization. If you are similarly intrigued by excitement, excellent pay, and benefits that are highly-regarded by those who do not work for me, then let us meet and begin a beautiful friendship!

Report on Monday the twenty-fourth, at nine in the evening, to the Volkoff Building in Lubyanka Square, Moscow. If you are late, too bad. So please do not be late.

(By the way, you wouldn't happen to be any relation to those charming Polish girls who play tennis? They are scrappers!)

I await your arrival with impatience. Make sure you bring the gun case with you for our meeting. I wish to see a display of your sniping skills for myself, and I've always found the Bravo an exemplary weapon for such activities, don't you?

With warmest regards,

Alexei Ivanovich Volkoff

Sarah slowly put the note back in the envelope, then sat down on the bed, pushing aside the weapons case when it slid into her leg. So this was it. Alexei Volkoff wanted to see her the day after tomorrow.

And she was suddenly very worried.

The last two and a half months, she had been doing nothing but trying to live the life of Sabina Radwanska, ruthless terrorist and assassin. But she had enjoyed plenty of time when she was alone, when she could drop her cover identity and be herself.

Once she stepped foot inside Volkoff Industries, though . . . there would be no breaks. She would have to be Sabina, not Sarah. And she was realizing that she didn't want to be Sabina. Didn't feel ready.

But there was nobody to blame for that but herself. Because she had been so upset with being sent on this assignment, so angry at Graham and so worried about Chuck, that she hadn't prepared to go undercover like she should have. When she had to play a coed for a few hours at a time, strung out over three weeks, she had done three days of intensive research, building her legend and role-playing scenarios. She hadn't done any of that this time. She had taken the sketchy details Graham had given her and then just gone through the motions, trying not to think.

She took a deep breath. If she wanted to survive, she had to know her new identity backwards and forwards. Anything less and she would slip up once she got inside Volkoff.

All was not lost, though. Sarah had two solid days to do research and get ready before her meeting with Volkoff. It was just over two hours to Moscow by air; she could fly out of Ferihegy International Airport here in Budapest on Monday morning to make her afternoon meeting with Volkoff.

The time for self-pity was over. Now she had to work.

Getting up from the bed, Sarah walked over to the closet and bent down to enter the code in the safe. She removed a laptop from the safe and set it up on the small desk. Once the computer was awake and connected to the Internet, she took a few deep breaths and got to work.

When she was in training, Sarah had always enjoyed creating her cover identity's history. It had been kind of fun. But this time, she was very, very serious. Slowly, she put together an idea of who Sabina Radwanska was.

Once upon a time, Sabina had been happy. She had studied languages at the University of Krakow, she had enjoyed camping with her boyfriend, and she had warm memories of life with her parents. But things began to change when her parents were killed in a car accident and her boyfriend turned out to be the son of a Russian mobster. He drew Sabina into his world, a world of bombings and assassinations and cutthroat dealings. It was a world that made so much more sense to Sabina than life as a Polish university student.

When her boyfriend tried to break up with her, Sabina cut off his hands and sent them to his father, who constantly belittled his weak son. Impressed with her, the mobster took her on and trained her, grooming her as a weapon that no one suspected. But after one too many sexual advances, Sabina killed him and went out on her own.

Since then, she had stepped onto a larger stage, one that went beyond the petty business deals of low-level mobsters and into international terrorism. Working for Alexei Volkoff would be a major step up for Sabina and she was determined to make that happen.

By the time Sarah boarded an Aeroflot plane bound for Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, she had become Sabina. Her clothes were tighter but her heels were lower. She had dyed her hair black, to speed up the application of the wig when needed. She had spent the last two days speaking Polish and using a Polish accent when she spoke Russian or English. In a drugstore she had bought several tubes of lipstick and face powder, crafting a look that focused on brick-red lips and pale skin. Completing the look was a pair of aviator sunglasses that she rarely took off.

Thanks to a generous tip to the baggage handlers, the gun case was loaded into the plane's cargo area without the usual paperwork. When the plane landed in Moscow, Sarah picked up the case and provided another tip, then headed into the ancient Russian capital.

She arrived in the city with an hour to spare before her appointment. She found a small restaurant and had blinis and borscht, figuring she might as well enjoy the local food. For a split-second, she thought about how Chuck would have enjoyed picking a restaurant and going over the menu. But then she pushed away that thought. For now, she had to not think about Chuck. Not if she wanted to stay Sabina.

At five minutes to nine, Sarah walked into the lobby of the Volkoff Building. The receptionist took one look at her and whisked her to a private elevator, telling her in Russian-accented English that Mr. Volkoff's assistant would meet her at the top floor.

With a silent nod, Sarah stepped into the elevator and let it carry her to the twenty-ninth floor. During the ride, she cleared her mind and focused on being Sabina. When the doors opened silently, she stepped out and met the promised assistant, who led her to another set of doors and opened them.

Stepping into the room, Sarah looked around. It wasn't as imposing as it could have been; it was actually fairly small. But the large, floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall made the room appear bigger, as well as providing quite a bird's-eye view of Moscow at night.

It appeared to be some kind of office, judging by the desk and sleek computer. Otherwise, the room was bare of any personal effects and empty. She set down the gun case at her side and, although she hated keeping her back to the doors, stood facing the windows. If nothing else, it showed her confidence.

The doors were flung open and a rich voice called out in Russian, "Welcome, welcome!" Then the voice switched to Polish. "Or perhaps you would prefer to speak in your mother tongue?"

Turning slowly, Sarah got her first look at Alexei Volkoff in the flesh. For a terrorist, he did not look very intimidating. Somewhat thickset around the middle, which was camouflaged by an expensive black suit, and graying dark hair, Alexei Volkoff did not appear to be a hands-on arms dealer. But then, being an arms dealer, one didn't need to be hands-on when you had access to the largest inventory of guns in the whole of Russia. And the four burly men who were accompanying him tonight were supposed to up the scary factor, she presumed.

"Thank you, Mr. Volkoff," Sarah said in smooth Polish. "I am flattered that you would use my native tongue. But please, I am more than comfortable conversing in Russian." She promptly switched to Russian as she said, "It is a beautiful, violent language, I have always thought."

The corners of Volkoff's eyes crinkled as he grinned widely at her. "Ah, a girl who thinks as I do." He turned towards his companion, a woman who had hung back until he looked at her. "You have brought me a real live wire, Frost."

"I know what you like, Alexei," the woman named Frost said. She eyed Sarah for a long moment, and Sarah got the sense that the woman was searching for something. Looking for some kind of recognition, almost.

Sarah kept her face blank and her hands clasped in front of herself, staying focused on Volkoff and his men. They had assumed standard flanking positions around her: one beside Volkoff, one on either side of her, and one behind her. It would appear that the sniper test was only one part of this interview.

"So, Ms. Radwanska . . . may I call you Sabina?" Volkoff stepped towards her, peering at her face-perhaps trying to see her eyes through her sunglasses.

"You may, Mr. Volkoff," Sarah said, drawing off the shades. Partly as a show of good faith, but also because it was so dark in the room that she could barely see with the aviators on.

"Wonderful. So, tell me, why do you want to work for me?"

This was her chance. Without hesitating, she slowly unzipped her motorcycle jacket, locking her eyes on the man beside Volkoff. His hand made a small movement towards his own jacket, reaching for a gun. But his hand stopped when he saw the tight black crop top she was wearing underneath the jacket, the one that barely covered her breasts. He smirked, and she could tell from the quiet mutterings that the other three men were paying more attention to her chest than anything else.

Sarah smirked back. This was all too easy.

Reaching under her jacket, she pulled out the tranq guns she had attached there and whipped them out. The man in front of her and to her right were down in a second; the one to the left and behind her were down in three. Then she turned and looked at Volkoff, holding both guns on him.

"Normally, I would not use tranquilizer darts, you understand, Mr. Volkoff," she said softly. "I am not restrained. Yet one hedges one's bets a little, just at the beginning, no?"

Volkoff's smile was wide and beaming. "Well done! And I normally think tranquilizer darts are a waste of a gun. But it was an engaging display. Let us have a seat and we will talk more."

She nodded and lowered the guns slowly, dropping them at her feet and picking up the gun case. "Yes, Mr. Volkoff."

As she followed Volkoff, she walked beside Frost. Sarah glanced at her for a moment, quickly cataloging the middle-aged woman. The name 'Frost' sounded familiar to her, but amidst everything she had learned in the last seventy-two hours, the connection wasn't coming just yet.

Whoever she was, Frost had something about her. She had long brown hair and brown eyes, but there was a definite American tinge to her accent. That was certainly unusual enough-

The realization hit Sarah like a ton of bricks. Somehow, she managed not to show any outward sign of what she had just recalled. But she couldn't help turning her head just a little, so she could get a better look at Frost.

After all, meeting your fiancé's mother was a big deal.

End, Chapter 1