Stephanie (slybrunette) wrote,

chuck vs an american tail

Title: Chuck vs. An American Tail
Series: Unleashed (Season 1, Episode 4)
Characters/Pairings: Ensemble, various pairings.
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 25K.
Summary: Chuck struggles to reconcile with his past in light of his increasingly bleak future; Sarah's bizarre behavior draws unwanted attention from Casey.

Author's Note: This took me a year to write. I don't mean it took me a year to write 25,000 words either, I mean it took me a year of throwing documents in the recycle bin and tweaking every last sentence. This isn't the same version of this particular story that I was writing in January or April or July, and the universe it takes place in has changed so much since I updated this last October that sometimes it makes my head spin. It's been trying times, my friends, but I think I finally know where I'm going and this is the broken down old bridge you've got to travel on to get there. It's not my best work ever but it achieves what it's meant to and frees me up to write the parts of this story that I've been dying to tell for months.

Thanks to gigglemonster, clouberding, and casterlys for all of the supportive comments, hand-holding, patience, and willingness to deal with my late night whining. I appreciate it more than you know.

March 30, 2009 10:41:16 PM
Callback Number: Bryce Larkin (Mobile)
where are you?

March 30, 2009 10:44:23 PM
Callback Number: Bryce Larkin (Mobile)
you left your gun. i’m not amused.

March 30, 2009 10:45:34 PM
Callback Number: Bryce Larkin (Mobile)
you also left your keys and locked yourself out

March 30, 2009 11:52:55 PM
Callback Number: Bryce Larkin (Mobile)
fine. we’re on the road at 8 tomorrow.

“No, wait, I know this one.”

“Really now?”


The peculiar woman to his left raises an eyebrow, fingers circling the damp rim of her shot glass, long since emptied of its contents. Said contents had involved four different kinds of liquor, which Chuck, as the sensible adult nursing the rum and coke, thought was a little overkill, or at least he did until the guy further down the bar was served something that was actually on fire. That was just fucking showy.

“Hans,” he guesses, finally.

“Hans? You think the name of my motorcycle is Hans?”

“Well. Hans and Greta. Hansel and Gretel. It makes a certain kind of…literary sense.” She – Greta, that is, Greta the twenty-two year old with the motorcycle fetish and the taste for really strong drinks whom he met half an hour ago and appears to have fallen in love with, a little bit, for reasons that he can’t quite put his finger on yet but probably have to do with the fact that he’s both a lightweight and lonely enough to walk into a strange bar in a strange town – she smiles, but it’s a funny sort of smile, like she can’t quite figure out what to make of him. That makes two of them. “Don’t tell me you aren’t familiar with the Brothers Grimm. Not with that name.”

“What’s wrong with my name?”

“It’s very – German.”

“Or Scandinavian.”

“Or Scandinavian,” he repeats. “But that’s not as useful for the argument I’m making.”

“I’m familiar,” she says, back-tracking with a kind of ease that should not be possible for someone who’s got that much alcohol coursing through their system. “I’m just trying to figure out what a cannibalistic witch would want with a hunk of metal.”

“Don’t bog this down with logic.”

She laughs and her fingers ghost along his arm. Her touch is warm where his skin is cold, the bar drafty and Wyoming still stuck in winter ten days after spring has officially made its debut, but there’s no burst of color high in her cheeks and her expression hovers on the edge of amusement, with no more depth to it. It’s an unintentional gesture. He’s just contact starved.

“So, what is it?”


“The name.”

“Esteban,” she says, and steals the lime wedge that straddles the rim of his drink.

And sucks.

That – that was definitely intentional.

His stomach ties itself into knots as he struggles to keep from tripping over his own tongue. “Esteban. Spanish variant of Stephen. Means, uh, crown. Or king. I could never keep that straight.”

“You going to tell me what Greta means next?”

“I honestly have no idea.”

“Found another one.”


“Back of your thigh.” Sarah turns her head to look behind her and, from beside her, Casey huffs. “Other side.”

If she cranes her neck just right, she can see the beginnings of a bruise forming an inch or two below the hem of her shorts. That makes it three minor injuries sustained from last night’s unscheduled head smashing -- the answer to what do bored spies do on a Monday night is apparently raid a warehouse in Baltimore that’s played home to a badly-concealed smuggling operation for weeks now -- which is two more than he has. She wrinkles her nose. “I should’ve known you were a leg man.”

He grumbles something that gets lost in the clanging of pots and pans as he fishes out a skillet from the truly impressive selection of cookware that he’s managed to collect over the years. She’s been spending an unfortunate amount of late nights and early mornings here as a consequence of the job and the amount of takeout she’s consumed while sitting at that kitchen table is kind of ridiculous in the face of all of that. She’d ask if he can cook but he’s a grown man who’s never been married and is far closer to forty than thirty; if he couldn’t, he’d be dead by now.

She knocks the coffee creamer with her wrist and just barely manages to catch it before it tumbles off the counter. He gives her a look, one which she returns with a shrug and then backs out of the immediate area, taking her mug and sitting herself down at the table. She steals the style section out of his copy of the Post and is content to lounge there with her bare feet on the chair next to hers, knees drawn up, newspaper laid flat against the expanse of her thighs, while he shakes his head and gestures towards the stove. “Breakfast?”

“Please,” she says. He doesn’t bother to elaborate on what exactly constitutes breakfast and she doesn’t bother to ask.

The next few minutes pass in companionable silence. He cracks eggs while she contemplates the crossword puzzle, unconsciously humming along to some stupid jingle on the radio over the rustling of the pages and the sizzling of the pan. It’s disgustingly domestic but it’s also kind of nice and there seems to be a significant shortage of nice in her life lately so she’ll take it without too much complaint.

The radio switches back over to something older than she is and she yawns, stretching her arms overhead and feeling a twinge of pain that radiates back into her right shoulder, making her hiss through her teeth. It catches his attention, a raised eyebrow as she drops them back down to her side, and she rolls her eyes. “You didn’t get thrown into a wall last night, okay. I am entitled to some moaning and groaning.”

“I also didn’t wake up and run five miles either.”

“I run every day.”

“You don’t get thrown into walls every day.”

“No, I’m trying to keep that down to once a week,” she says, dryly. “I’ve seen you take a bullet and still show up for work the next morning, so you’re not exactly the pillar of good judgment that you like to think you are.”

“It was a graze,” he interjects.

“It was a through-and-through and the doctor wanted you to stay overnight for observation because you were so ticked off about being shoved in the back of an ambulance that your blood pressure went through the roof, except you decided you had better things to do and somehow I got stuck filling out the paperwork and forging your signature on the AMA form.”

“What’s your point, Walker?”

“My point is don’t make that face at me or I’ll tell everyone at work that you secretly really like being called John and they should all do it more often.”

He glares as she tries and fails to hide her grin behind the rim of her coffee mug, satisfied that she’s won this round. It’s short-lived, however, because a moment later someone’s knocking at his front door and forces her expression to turn serious. It’s not that she’s worried. Bad guys don’t knock, after all, even if her gaze flicks to her gun on the table, to his knife collection arranged on the counter. It’s just the timing. It’s just that she’s traipsing around his place like it’s her own and that’s fine when it’s just the two of them, completely unwilling to talk about it, but it’s a different story when other people get involved and she’s sitting in his kitchen, hair damp and clothes threadbare, unguarded and unprepared to deal with curious third parties who will inevitably force them to either talk about it or retreat to their separate corners and pretend that this wasn’t a set up that they ever even liked in the first place.

So of course it’s his daughter at the door.

Alex’s voice is the kind of cheerful that just sounds wrong coming out of a twenty year old at six-thirty in the morning, especially one related to her grumbly partner, and it carries through into the kitchen where Sarah’s busy jamming her gun into the silverware drawer in an effort to hide it and trying to keep things from burning. She isn’t as graceful while going about either as she would like to be and so Alex is halfway through explaining a mishap involving the drill she apparently borrowed when she cuts herself off to ask “do you have company?”

Casey doesn’t answer or block her passage through, and three seconds later Alex is standing in the doorway and Sarah is doing this half-wave thing that probably looks as awkward as it feels with the hand that isn’t holding a spatula. Greetings are exchanged and, unperturbed, Alex launches right back into her story about Morgan’s terrible relationship with power tools and how she would be really, really grateful if Casey could come out and fix what Morgan messed up, preferably this weekend, preferably without giving her boyfriend a hard way to go. Casey agrees to both terms, but that’s only because he knows he can torture Morgan at work and out of her line of sight.

“Admit it, you like playing the hero,” she says, after Alex is gone and they’re both arranged on opposite sides of the table.

“Eat your breakfast,” he growls.

March 31, 2009 07:02:11 AM
Callback Number: Alex McHugh (Mobile)
i think i just walked in on my dad and sarah having a morning after

March 31, 2009 07:03:23 AM
Callback Number: Morgan Grimes (Mobile)
by that you mean...?

March 31, 2009 07:04:01 AM
Callback Number: Alex McHugh (Mobile)
i think she spent the night

March 31, 2009 07:07:13 AM
Callback Number: Morgan Grimes (Mobile)
i really don’t know what to say to that

March 31, 2009 07:07:52 AM
Callback Number: Alex McHugh (Mobile)
neither do i

From: Morgan Grimes
To: Sarah Walker
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 08:12 AM
(no subject)

Any chance you’re free for lunch today? I need to talk to you about something.

From: Sarah Walker
To: Morgan Grimes
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 08:14 AM
(no subject)

I can see you from my office. You couldn’t just walk in here and ask me that?

From: Morgan Grimes
To: Sarah Walker
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 08:15 AM
(no subject)

It’s not you, it’s him.

From: Sarah Walker
To: Morgan Grimes
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 08:17 AM
(no subject)

No, I think it’s the WoW raid that you’re participating in while you’re supposed to be teaching your new friend Roy how to run a phone trace. Casey left half an hour ago to go get yelled at by the munitions guy for taking claymores home with him.

And sure, I’m free.

There is a brief moment, when Chuck first wakes up, that he’s sure he’s back on that early morning ferry from Praiano watching the sun rise over the coast. If he tries hard enough, he can even feel the gentle rocking of the boat underneath him.

Of course, this turns out to be because Bryce threw a very heavy suitcase down onto the very lumpy mattress that Chuck’s haphazardly passed out on and that gentle rocking was, in fact, said mattress coming very close to tossing his hungover ass onto the floor. It’s a wake up call befitting the shitty thirty-five dollar a night motel they checked into the night before. Eight hours on the road and maybe three whole sentences exchanged between the two of them before they stepped into the dimly lit rat-trap of a place that would be their home for the next dozen hours and Bryce announced he was going to take a shower.

Somehow that led to the bar.

He doesn’t know how the bar led back to here because his memory quits on him sometime after midnight, the hours between then and now lost to a blur of lukewarm beer and the sharp smell of leather. He does know, however, that he is currently only wearing one shoe and that Bryce’s mood does not seem to have improved since that last angry text message he ignored like a teenager hell bent on rebellion for the sake of it.

“I’m up,” he says, bleary-eyed and struggling to right himself through the blinding headache and the residual heaviness in his limbs. He can’t make sense of the numbers on the clock but he somehow doubts there’s enough time for him to squeeze in a shower and get on the road by eight, which is something he really regrets right now. He thinks the cold spray would wake him up. He knows that he has smelt better.

Bryce continues methodically cleaning the parts to at least three different handguns at the tiny table next to the window, glancing up for just long enough to determine that Chuck is, in fact, capable of standing on his own. He says nothing. For someone like Chuck who is all about words to the point where he tends to stumble over them because he forgot to take a breath and string them together coherently, who is all about talking about his feelings, it’s fucking infuriating. And Bryce knows that. And that’s why he’s doing it.

“How did I get in last night?” He asks, anyways, because it’s a direct question and he knows the rules of this game well enough to beat it if he’s feeling stubborn enough. Which he is.

“You were sitting on the hood of the car singing Livin’ On A Prayer at two in the morning after that girl you were shotgunning beers with left and I figured if I didn’t drag you in here to sleep it off the truck driver next door was going to get fed up and shoot you.” Bryce says it in a way that implies he might’ve considered handing said truck driver the gun with which to do it with too. He doesn’t look like he slept all that much. There aren’t quite dark circles because Bryce is basically a spy in a GQ model’s body, and so therefore never has to deal with anything like that, but there’s tension in his shoulders and the expression he wears speaks to barely concealed exhaustion. He wonders if it was the singing that kept Bryce up or the worrying about where he ran off to -- a stunt that is not generally recommended in this line of work and, okay, he knows that, he does, really -- and winds up feeling guilty over his own sad little attempt at rebellion as a result.

“Yeah, look, I’m sorry about that,” he says. “About most of last night, actually. I should’ve left a note or something.”

“Or something,” Bryce agrees, and his voice is just as tight as ever, just as strained as it was at the convenience store back in Aberdeen when he reminded him to keep a low profile -- like they were new at this, like he was -- before vanishing into the store for the bottled water and aspirin that would carry them through to Casper, but his eyes soften markedly at the apology, and Chuck starts to think that maybe today won’t be as bad as yesterday.

It’s the little things, at this point.

“Go get yourself cleaned up,” he adds, after a moment. “We’re leaving in twenty.”

From: Earl Dixon
To: Staff (Ft. Meade Campus)
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 11:15 AM
Subject: Lot K

Please be advised that Lot K will be closed between 14:00 and 18:00 hours today. Anyone who is currently parked there should move their vehicles to surrounding lots A or J prior to then, as all access to the area will be restricted during this time.

Thank you for your cooperation.

March 31, 2009 11:58:02 AM
Callback Number: Sarah Walker (Mobile)
going to move your car

March 31, 2009 11:59:13 AM
Callback Number: John Casey (Mobile)
you mean you’re going to take mine since you don’t have yours

March 31, 2009 11:59:42 AM
Callback Number: Sarah Walker (Mobile)

March 31, 2009 12:00:02 AM
Callback Number: Sarah Walker (Mobile)
they’re closing that lot down anyways. how’s the r&d meeting?

March 31, 2009 12:00:54 AM
Callback Number: John Casey (Mobile)
they’ve got a blackberry that shoots 9mm bullets

March 31, 2009 12:01:57 AM
Callback Number: Sarah Walker (Mobile)
steal me one of those while you’re replenishing your supply of things you aren’t supposed to have

March 31, 2009 12:02:17 AM
Callback Number: John Casey (Mobile)
you got it

March 31, 2009 12:02:52 AM
Callback Number: John Casey (Mobile)
don’t hurt my car

She makes it roughly halfway through lunch before she breaks.

“Morgan, not that I don’t enjoy your company, but I’m having a really hard time believing that the thing you wanted to talk to me about earlier was how your old co-workers at the Buy More went from being one sexual harassment lawsuit away from finding themselves unemployed to European rockstars who are solely responsible for me having to hear that cover of Africa every time I turn on the radio.”

He smiles, sheepish, and she does her level best to not find that endearing. “It’s really much better live.”

“I’m sure it is,” Sarah says, and then stares.

Stares straight at him with eyes that promise pain if he doesn’t just come out with it already and Morgan, being overly concerned with self-preservation thanks to schoolyard bullies and, well, Casey, gives in almost instantly. “I got curious after that, um, that thing you had me do, and Howell -- the foreign service guy who beat Casey into the mat that one time, you remember --”

She does remember, of course, because that had been December and all she had wanted for Christmas last year was for Casey to talk a long walk off a short pier so watching him underestimate Howell, who’d spent a little too much time hanging out in Algiers with the French Foreign Legion and was, therefore, incredibly skilled in Savate, and pay for it by ending up face down on the mat in the sparring room in what had been made a very public spectacle thanks to a lot of alpha male posturing, is something pretty much ingrained in her memory. Savate, as it turns out, might as well be French for “face kick” and is definitely not just another one of those showy martial arts people enroll their kids in just to get them out of the damn house.

“Anyways, he usually forgets to log himself out before he leaves for the day and his file said he used to do some pretty high-security work for the State Department, so I sort of exploited his clearance for the greater good,” he finishes.

She doesn’t even know what to do with that. She doesn’t know what to do when half of her is angry that he did something so stupid and the other half of her is sort of proud that he even thought to do the stupid thing that was apparently also an effective thing, so she just says, “Are you sure you shouldn’t have invited someone from legal to lunch instead of me?”

“Nah, I’ve got it covered,” he replies, like it’s absolutely one-hundred percent no big deal that all it would take to land him in some very hot water is someone looking at Howell’s access logs and noticing that he appeared to be both at his desk and off-base at the same time. “I still couldn’t find much about what they’re working on now but the original Orion back in the eighties was definitely male and definitely messing with people’s memories in a really bad way. At first I thought he was developing something like a neuralyzer, because, come on, think of all the situations that could be useful in -- ”

“Rein in the pop culture analogies, Morgan, before you lose me,” she says because, sure, she gets that one just fine, she’s had a decade to catch the better part of Men In Black on cable, but Morgan is the type who shows up to midnight releases armed with movie tickets he bought a month ago and that is a level of dedication that she can not handle while chasing criminals cross-country and pulling twelve hour days that usually end in late-night shootouts. Just for good measure, she prompts, “He wasn’t trying to erase people’s memories?”

“No, I think he was trying to add new ones while keeping the original ones intact. Like a software upgrade if your brain was a computer, only the upgrade must have had a virus in it or something because it just ended up corrupting the hard drive.”

“So you’re saying this guy accidentally fried the brains of a bunch of people with some bad tech and then they, what, signed a few non-disclosure forms and went on with their lives? That doesn’t -- “ and she wants to say that doesn’t sound like something any government she works for would do but that’s idealistic, not to mention fairly naive, and yes it absolutely does.

“I don’t think they fried their brains, I think they just stripped them of what made them, you know, them.” He shrugs, and she’s starting to see the value in all of his references and metaphors; anything to distract from the idea that this was done to people and probably not with their consent either. “It does explain why this Orion guy up and disappeared without a trace though. I wouldn’t want to stick around, after that.”

Sarah pokes at her food but finds she’s lost her appetite. Potentially for the rest of the day. “There wasn’t anything else?”

“Most of it was -- what’s that thing with the little black bars?”

“Redacted,” she supplies.

“Right, that. It was a lot of fill-in-the-blank and I was trying to get out of there before the night shift showed up, so it’s possible that I missed something. I don’t think -- “ he starts, but that sentence dies before it can get off the ground because he’s suddenly relocated his attention to a spot just over her right shoulder, a spot that he looks away from just as quickly, dropping his eyes and his voice as he says, “Guy at your ten o’clock.”

The thing about Morgan is that no one ever sat him down with an analog clock and explained how that whole time-as-direction thing works, and sometime in the very near future she is going to rectify that before it gets somebody killed, probably her, but now is not that time so she just shakes her head and does her best to surreptitiously glance to her two instead of her ten. Unfortunately, that move puts her roughly eye-level with the man’s hips as he passes by, tossing a wadded up paper napkin onto their table and winking at her before casually making his way out the door. Absolutely no one in the tiny sandwich shop even looks up from their lunch. It is, overall, one of the more bizarre moments of her life, and that’s before she unfolds said napkin to find an address in Baltimore scrawled on it in barely legible handwriting.

She opens and closes her mouth a few times but doesn’t quite manage words, so Morgan takes the opportunity to ask the obvious. “What just happened?”

“I have no idea,” she says but, yes, she does, because she’s pretty sure that she was just an unwitting participant in a barely concealed brush pass just like she’s pretty sure that whoever that was just now was not an agent of any agency she’s heard of. She tries not to smear the ink with her fingertips as she sets the napkin down in front of Morgan and says, “When we get back, would you run this address? Find out what’s there.”

He squints down at it. “Don’t have to. This is that old office building they turned into apartments last year. City council had a cow about it; it was all over the news. Saint Paul Street,” he says, with a nod, as if confirming it for himself. “That’s what the twenty-seven is for -- at least I think that’s a two -- it’s the apartment number. You think that guy was trying to set up a meet?”

“Maybe,” she replies. “See if the building manager will tell you who’s paying the rent and then run the name. With any luck, it’ll pop, and I won’t have to go in blind.”

Morgan’s initial giddiness at the idea of being involved in actual spy shit -- because, let’s face it, there is probably very little that he wouldn’t give up if it meant he was allowed in the surveillance van -- falls away in the face of that and leaves him sputtering. “Wait, you’re not actually thinking of going in there without backup?”

“You said yourself it’s just an apartment. Besides, who am I gonna call?” She gets that she walked right into that one about half a second before Morgan opens his mouth to point it out to her and holds up a hand pre-emptively. “Quit while you’re ahead.”

They cross the border into Utah sometime after noon but the scenery doesn’t change. I-80 stretches on interminably, nothing but flat terrain covered in patches of burned-out overgrown grass on either side, rising into cliffs in the distance. There’s not a single sign of life nearby, save for an abandoned hubcap off to the side of the road, and if he hadn’t spent his fair share of time driving through the less glamorous parts of the United States he’d expect to see tumbleweeds rolling across the asphalt like something out of an old western. They’ve got a ways to go before they hit the Mojave Desert, longer still until they reach their destination.

The first gas station they see is attached to a stop-and-go two exits south of a small airport and Bryce instructs him to fill up the Wrangler before he disappears inside to buy a decent map that will guide them through the final leg of the trip once they break away from the interstate. They don’t go this far west, haven’t been further out than Salt Lake City since they started running save for a brief stop in Seattle on a layover once, and the departure from the norm makes Bryce decidedly more wary. He wants maps and plans and backup plans, things he sketches out in his mind instead of on paper, and he wants to talk about approximately none of it. The destination is implied. The reason for the destination is implied. It’s all implied.

No one ever says what they’re thinking here; that’s one norm they appear to be dead set on holding onto.

The balding old man behind the counter of the store has a shotgun proudly displayed inside, a warning to an otherwise empty parking lot that he won’t accept any trouble, but he seems fairly amiable when Chuck heads inside after Bryce has gone the way of the restrooms. Chuck buys a pack of cigarettes and five-dollar sunglasses that somehow manage to be darker than the hundred dollar ones he left hanging from the visor. There’s still a dull throbbing in his head courtesy of last night’s escapades, but he doesn’t feel like he’s five seconds from puking out the window every time the car hits a bump and he’s tolerating the radio, mostly static since neither of them have bothered to change the station since Wyoming.

He fishes a lighter out of his back pocket and tries to remember the last time he did this, remembers the first as a particularly terrible experience wherein he choked on the inhale and wound up bent in half and sputtering. It had been during a mission, then, and he’d heard about it for a week afterwards, but that’s one more thing they don’t cover when they train you. They teach you how to dance and how to charm and how to shoot straight but the smoking and the drinking and the self-destruction, that all comes later. He smokes to remind himself that he knows what the fuck he’s doing, that he’s got this. Now. He’s got this now.

Back in the car, Bryce won’t look him in the eye. The stop-and-go fades into the rearview mirror along with the exit sign and then it’s the interstate again, pack of cigarettes heavy in his shirt pocket, gun pressing cold against his skin. He tries to sleep but can’t get comfortable even with his feet propped up on the dash because Bryce keeps intermittently humming something off of Arcade Fire’s first album like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Chuck wore out that album in college, lost it in the move from Stanford back to Burbank, lost the second copy when he lost his apartment and everything else the moment he went on the run, and bought the third at a used CD store in Kansas City. Chuck played that album for him en route to the Canadian border while the sun rose on an early spring day their first year out, when things weren’t quite so bleak, and he’s sure Bryce doesn’t remember that because Bryce doesn’t remember his own birthday half the time, but he does. For him, it’s a double shot of nostalgia and yet another item on a long list of things he wants to assign meaning to but can’t.

“You ever wonder why they don’t just put up wanted posters?” He asks, more out of necessity than curiosity. It sinks Bryce into silence long enough for him to listen. “I mean, wouldn’t it be easier to just make up some story about why they wanted us and then plaster our faces all over the country? A couple of news stories, an episode of America’s Most Wanted, and then suddenly we can’t walk into a post office or a grocery store without someone calling a tip line.”

“That would mean acknowledging that they want us in the first place,” Bryce replies. Off Chuck’s look, he adds, “Come on, the CIA and the NSA can’t even bring themselves to try to cooperate on a good day, and suddenly they’ve got some sort of top secret task force to take the two of us out? That’s got handle with care written all over it.”

He leans back in his seat. “What, like a cover up?”

“Exactly like a cover up. We didn’t make off with millions of dollars, we made off with tech that isn’t supposed to exist yet, tech that would get a lot of people asking questions. They’re going to want as few people in the know as they can manage and if that gets the job done slower then lucky us.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” He says and relocates his gaze to the window. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense. It’s the opposite, actually. It makes perfect sense. It’s just the reality of it, combined with the gaps in Chuck’s own knowledge about said tech, that makes him anxious. Bryce hadn’t exactly ever filled him in on all the details and Chuck had always gotten the impression that it was because Bryce himself didn’t have them. The unnamed third party who’d dropped the Intersect in his lap did, though, and for whatever reason Bryce had taken what was given to him and run with it. Straight to him. “I still don’t feel very lucky.”

“Yeah,” Bryce says. “I’d noticed that.”

They cut across three lanes of non-existent traffic while Bryce steers with one hand and digs around for the map he bought with the other. Chuck finds it wedged between the console and the Italian-to-English dictionary he’d been reading on the plane; it’s already hastily marked up in bright yellow highlighter that smudges the ink around I-15 and he sighs when his thumb lands on Burbank.

“It’s a right up here?”

“And then a left,” Chuck replies.

There’s an exit and a series of turns that spits them out onto Route 189, the scenery shifting to sloping mountains and the mouth of Provo canyon if he squints. It’s another fifty miles between them and the ramp that’ll take them towards Las Vegas so he stows the map in the backseat, trading it for a bottle of water now that his mouth tastes like ash, and when he looks back up Bryce is watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“Hey, when you said you’d noticed,” he starts, as nonchalantly as possible, “what did that mean exactly?”

“Just that you don’t usually go out drinking with strange women unless it’s for a mission. Not to mention,” and for this he reaches over and slaps a hand against the bulge in Chuck’s shirt pocket, “you don’t smoke unless something’s wrong.”

“Oh, now, that is not true.”

“You don’t want to argue this one out, Chuck.”

“Yeah, I think I do.”

“Alright,” Bryce replies, calmly. “Then show your work.”

“What about that time I got kicked out of that hospital in Dusseldorf, remember? That was totally a smoking-related offense.”

“First of all, those were cigars. Second of all, those were celebratory cigars because the man’s wife had just had a baby. Third of all, you ended up using it as a weapon.”

“So you’re saying that doesn’t count.”

“I’m saying it doesn’t count.”

“Lisbon,” he tries.

“You were high in Lisbon.”

“Everyone was high in Lisbon. They gassed the place with nitrous oxide.”

“You’re missing the point,” Bryce interjects. “You smoke when you’re anxious and you feel like everything’s spiraling out of control. You drink when you don’t want to deal with something. They’re your coping mechanisms.”

“I don’t know where you’re getting that from. I drank all the time while I was still in college. Used to put Kahlua in my cereal actually; drove Morgan crazy when I’d do that. Drove Ellie crazy too. I think that was just about the only thing they could agree on.” He has to stop and clear his throat around an unexpected lump. This isn’t an argument that he can win. It’s not even one that he wants to win, not if it means digging around that far back into the past. “Maybe things have been a little rough lately. It’s just -- ”


There’s a long moment where he’s prepared to say no, figures he might as well go for it while they’re still laying everything out on the table, because it’s California and it’s Rome and it’s Colorado and it’s him and it’s Bryce and it’s Carina. It’s never just the one thing. But Bryce is giving him this look like he just gets it, or at least thinks he does, and it’s the warmest look he’s gotten out of Bryce in days, maybe even weeks. He’d be a fool to go and ruin that now.

“Yeah, you called it,” he says, and tries his damnedest to mean it too.

By the time they get back from lunch, Lot K has been emptied out completely save for a pair of unoccupied black Cadillacs parked parallel to the tunnel access corridor off of the main operations building. It links up with a series of passageways running underneath the fifty-some warehouses, offices, and labs that make up the rest of the complex sometimes referred to as Crypto City, and there’s no reason for Sarah to find that placement the least bit strange except that in her five months of working here she’s never found a single reason to use them.

“I wonder what they’re doing,” she says, tucking Casey’s keys into her back pocket.

“Prisoner transport,” Morgan answers, idly.

She turns to face him. “Are you hacking emails now too?”

“No,” he says, defensively. Then, when he’s had time to fully process her clarify or die look, adds, “There’s this language analyst that Roy has we’ll say befriended and she is, among other things, probably the biggest gossip I’ve ever met. She told him that one of the secretaries at Langley faxed over a transfer authorization her boss had signed for some guy they’d been holding as a person of interest in some top secret case.”

“What the hell is he doing all the way down in Language Analysis? I sent him to the cafeteria for coffee, he came back an hour later to tell me we didn’t have a cafeteria but somehow he found his way into the basement of an office building halfway across campus?” Morgan sticks his hands in his pockets and pointedly looks in the other direction. It dawns on her shortly. “Well, now I know why he couldn’t find it. What about the fax? Why would someone send a transfer authorization there?”

“She didn’t send it there, she just told Moira about it. Moira’s the analyst, by the way. Persian or Pashto or something. Anyways, I think they’re friends.”

“I would’ve thought Greek,” she says, sticking to the insignificant details so she doesn’t have to think about how classified information is being traded like watercooler gossip over what is likely an unsecured phone line. That’s the kind of thing that will keep you from sleeping at night. “Got anything else you want to tell me?”

“No, no, I think I’m good.”

There’s a stack of stuff as high as her heels waiting for her when she gets in, sitting on what used to be the reception desk before the last receptionist quit in January, citing an uncomfortable work environment. Sarah doesn’t know if she was referring to the juvenile delinquents masquerading as agents in the bullpen or the never-ending series of arguments erupting from the inner office on account of being too busy threatening her partner with a letter opener at the time, but she figures it’s probably for the best. Even if her departure means there’s no one around to reliably sort through all the mail and all the phone calls and all the surveillance reports that inevitably end up getting dropped in her lap.

There’s also no one around to make sure she doesn’t walk into her office only to find that it is definitely not how she left it. For one thing, there is a M134 Minigun alongside Casey’s desk. For another, there is a man sitting just far enough behind the door that she doesn’t see him when she walks in and thus comes very close to greeting with a gun in his face.

“Hi,” he says, unmoved. Like he belongs there.

She frowns. “I’m sorry, how did you get in here?”

“One of them,” he gestures out the door, “let me in. I’m Mike. Mike Randleman.” He stands and extends a hand towards her, a hand she regards with more confusion and more frowning. “You must be Forrest’s replacement. I’ve heard -- well, I’ve heard things about you.”

It takes her too long to realize that the Mike in front of her is the same Mike that Morgan had mentioned in passing a month ago as being a friend of Casey’s who worked at the Denver branch. She’d somehow expected him to be taller and angrier; instead, he radiates an almost zen-like calm, small and unassuming. “Right, um, sorry. I’m Sarah. Sarah Walker. I’d tell you I hope you heard mostly good things but I already know better.”

“I’ve heard worse from him,” he says, with a wry grin. “Some of them about your predecessor, if it helps.”

It does, a little. “Has Casey been in to see you yet?”

“Agent, ah, Hunt said he was videoconferencing with the Pentagon, told me to wait in here. Knew by the decor that I had the right place.” He nods as if to say he was referring to the enormous fucking gun in the middle of the room. She laughs, derisively, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s not that. Just -- we don’t have an Agent Hunt. At least not in this department.”

“I see. Someone’s going to get theirs later, aren’t they?”

“Oh yes,” she says. She settles back behind her desk, picking up the innocent-looking BlackBerry sitting atop the paperwork she was making her way through this morning. It’s too heavy in her hand to be your average smartphone but then that’s because it isn’t. Casey usually makes good on his promises. “So how do you two know each other?”

“He saved my ass in Baghdad once while I was still in the service and he was over there doing whatever crazy-ass black-ops shit he was into back then. Took some shrapnel in the leg and blew up half the AO in the process. It was all very heroic and insane. Par for the course.” She bites back a smile. “He’s not very forthcoming with the details, is he? I’m surprised you even knew who I was.”

“You can thank his daughter’s nosy boyfriend for that,” she remarks.

“Morgan’s still around?”

“You say that like you’re surprised.”

“Surprised he hasn’t fled to another country. I would.”

“That’s because your instinct is to run from danger. Morgan’s, on the other hand, is to run towards it and then try to smother it into submission. Persistence overcomes resistance eventually.” When Mike laughs, he does so with his whole body, this roaring production that strips away the last of her wariness towards him. “He’s here, by the way, if you still want to try your hand at convincing him it’s not too late to run.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll give that a go. Maybe run down and get something to eat if Casey isn’t going to be back for a while.” He drums his fingers against the arm of the chair for a moment, perhaps waiting for the nod of confirmation she gives, perhaps not, and then gets to his feet. “It was nice meeting you, Sarah. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you.”

March 31, 2009 02:31 PM
Callback Number: Sarah Walker (Mobile)
did you leave the door to the office unlocked?

March 31, 2009 02:32 PM
Callback Number: John Casey (Mobile)
no why?

March 31, 2009 02:33 PM
Callback Number: Sarah Walker (Mobile)
no reason

From: Sarah Walker
To: JTF-151 (Group) <’click to expand’>
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 02:35 PM
Subject: Reminder

A recap of the rules, since some of you seem to have forgotten:

1) No one is permitted to enter this office unless either myself or Col. Casey is present, barring General Beckman herself making an appearance.
2) Don’t leave visitors alone with machine guns, even if they are from other branches of this agency.
3) Do not take down messages in highlighter. I know there’s no one designated to answer the phones right now, but whoever’s doing this really needs to stop.

Additionally, whoever is in possession of a spare key to my office needs to turn it over by five or everyone here can look forward to spending the night strapped to a lie detector.

From: Sarah Walker
To: Morgan Grimes
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 02:37 PM
(no subject)

Find me a receptionist.

From: Morgan Grimes
To: Sarah Walker
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 02:38 PM
(no subject)

On it.

From: Morgan Grimes
To: Roy Kelly
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 02:39 PM
(no subject)

Man, you are so dead.

Also, I can’t take your new email address seriously.

From: Morgan Grimes
To: Tom Warner
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 02:41 PM
Subject: Favor

Hey, dude, I know you’re swamped but is there any chance that you could find my department a receptionist by the end of the week? We’re rapidly approaching DEFCON-1 here.

From: Tom Warner
To: Morgan Grimes
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 02:58 PM
Subject: Favor

Ordinarily, I’d say yes being that as of late my office has been filled with nothing but attractive yet hilariously underqualified interviewees whose skills would best be put to use answering phones and typing up memos.

But then I remember that your boss is an asshat who got my girlfriend fired.

From: Morgan Grimes
To: Sarah Walker
Date: Tue, March 31, 2009 at 03:02 PM
(no subject)

It’s going to be a while.


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