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Covert Affairs fic: Just Another Mission 2/2

January 7th, 2011 (01:29 pm)


Continued from Part One

The other agent doesn’t leave, but she doesn’t spend much time talking to Annie.  She has hushed conversations on her phone, and mostly waits, though Annie’s not sure if she’s there for Jai or Auggie or maybe just the asset.  Maybe just to babysit her.  When missions go wrong, the CIA likes to control, control, control, keeping a handle on as many pieces as possible until they can force them back into a reasonable arrangement.

This might bother Annie except she’s tired and she’s still got blood on her hands and she’s been sitting here for almost three hours and hasn’t heard anything yet.

It had happened quickly with Ben.  A tense helicopter ride and then a team of doctors and the simple pronouncement that there was nothing left they could do.  No emergency surgery.  No waiting rooms.  She’d been on a plane on her way home within hours.

She’d been numb then, and she’s numb now.  But it’s different.  Where before there was deadened sensation, this was an overload.  Her emotions are too taxed to understand anything anymore, and she feels so much that she doesn’t actually know how to acknowledge any of it. 

Her mind cycles, instead.  She thinks about the mission, about Alek’s hesitation to enter the safe house.  She remembers Auggie’s excitement for the field, Jai’s certainty about their safety.  She remembers how they were all wrong.

She thinks about her sister back in the States, getting the girls out of bed.  She thinks of Joan in her office, Annie’s own empty desk.  She still has a half-finished bottle of water on it, a stash of chocolate in the top drawer.  Auggie can’t see it, but he still knows it’s there.

She sees Auggie’s smile, hears his voice.  She wonders if he’s always been this way, or if being blinded changed him.  If he would go back and change it all if he could.

Auggie doesn’t like Jai, and isn’t afraid to show it.  Jai feels the same, but he hides it better.  Jai hides most things, Annie knows, and his guarded politeness seems so well suited to the agency, but she suspects that it has less to do with his training and more to do with a father he can’t please.

These are her friends, she thinks.  The people who know her best.  She lives in a world of lies, and that changes everything.  It’s all less real, somehow.  Her sister and her nieces.  The trivialities of daily life.  They’re nuanced fronts.  Going home exhausts her.  Pretending to be normal.  Pretending not to hurt. 

She doesn’t have to pretend with Auggie.  She doesn’t have to pretend with Jai.  These are the people she’s safest with and the ones she’s most likely to lose.

She wonders if she could go back, if she would change it.  If she would trade these friendships so she wouldn’t have to be the one sitting here, blood on her hands, wondering how to make sense of simple truths in a life of deceit.

Simple truths.

She was in love with Ben.  Form the moment she met him, to the moment he died.

More than that, she still loves him.  It aches in her heart, so deep that she hardly knows how to deal with it.

She couldn’t help but trust him, because to doubt him would be to doubt her heart.  But knowing him, being with him--made her doubt everything.  Made her doubt herself, her life, her job.  Made her doubt the CIA, its missions, its very essence.

It’s a battle, between heart and mind, emotion and reason.  Ben’s blood is still on her hands, and she should walk away.  She should leave this behind, just like he did.  Because the mission isn’t the Holy Grail, and if she allows herself to compromise her blacks and whites, she’ll never know what orders to trust and which ones to throw away.

Simple.

Auggie is her best friend.  This is a sacrifice he’s made willingly, and she wants to respect it.  But he’s sacrificed his sight and he’s sacrificed the girl he loves and he’s sacrificed so much, and this job still demands more.  She wants to be okay with that, but she’s not.  Sitting here, staring at her hands, she’s not.

Truths.

Jai wants to do the right thing.  He understands good and evil more than most of them, and he walks the thin line between them with an ease that Annie wishes she could attain.  Being a spy is easy for him, but he never thinks so.  He’s still trying to please his father, please his nation, and they keep raising the bar, and he keeps jumping.  Someday he’ll fall short.

Simple truths.

Decisions made are not so easily undone.  Commitments given have consequences.  It affects Ben and Auggie and Jai.  It changes her family, the friends she used to have, everyone.  It defines her.

She can walk away, but it won’t change these things.  It won’t fill the hole in her heart.  It won’t bring the people she cares about back. 

She has to stay.

Alone in this waiting room, she has to stay.

-o-

She has fallen asleep, head leaned against the wall lightly, so when the click of approaching heels wakes her, she startles.

With a gasping breath, she blinks rapidly, looking up to see her boss standing in front of her.

Joan’s hair is pulled back impeccably and her gray pencil skirt and blue blouse are flawless.  She’s looking at Annie, expectant and sympathetic.  “Annie,” she says.

Annie swallows.

Joan smiles somewhat.  “Seems we have something of a mess to clean up,” she says with a dry bemusement.  “Perhaps you’d like to come with me?”

Annie finds her voice and shakes her head.  “Auggie and Jai--”

Joan inclines her head.  “I know,” she says.  “We’ll talk on the way.”

It catches Annie off guard, and she doesn’t know how to respond.  So she doesn’t, getting to her feet obediently.  Joan turns primly on her heel and takes off down the corridor.

Annie doesn’t know what to do, so she does as she’s told, and follows.

-o-

Joan’s pace is brisk, but she lets Annie fall in line next to her.  “The scene has been contained,” she explains.  “Agents Granger and Callen have cooperated with local police.  It’s being called an unfortunate robbery gone wrong.  We’re lucky that the assailants were killed in the attack, so we can trust that our mission wasn’t compromised completely.”

Annie isn’t sure how to take that, considering that they’re in a hospital and Jai and Auggie could be dead.

“We have the verified data in custody, which is still a major coup,” Joan continues.  “You three did excellent work in securing that.”

Usually Annie is hungry for praise, but this feels hollow, all things considered.

“Of course, we still have to create papers and a background for Alek in order to get him out of the country, but the London officials don’t seem overly suspicious at this point,” she says.  She pauses, glancing at Annie as they walk.  “I will need you to file a full report, sooner as opposed to later.”

It’s procedure, and Annie knows that.  Annie knows how to cross her t’s and dot her i’s, but it doesn’t seem important to itemize what went wrong when Auggie and Jai are in the hospital.

Joan stops suddenly, putting out a hand to halt Annie as well.  She looks at Annie keenly, and if it’s never been apparent to Annie just how good Joan is at what she does, it’s now.  Because Joan is looking at her, but it’s more than that.  She’s looking into her, through her, as if she can see every thought in Annie’s head, every emotion roiling in her stomach.

Her expression is intent, but there is something softer in her eyes.  When Joan speaks again, somehow her tone is professional and gentle.  “Normally, procedure would have you on the first flight out of London,” she says.  She forces Annie to hold her gaze.  “But I’d like some time to debrief you in person.  Since I’m here, you may as well stay until I’m done.”

Annie understands this for the amount of grace that it is.  She has no right to be here, despite the fact that these are her friends and this is her mission.  Maybe Joan sees that Annie needs this, maybe she remembers being in Annie’s shoes, or maybe there’s just more to Joan that Annie will ever really know.

Because in all of this, Annie still doesn’t know why Joan’s here.  The director of her division--she has no doubt Joan is well-traveled, but her value as a leader is more important in a centralized location.  It occurs to Annie with sudden clarity that she’s never seen her boss out of the office.

Her confusion must be showing, and normally she might be concerned about how that looks.  She might worry about what Joan thinks of her, of asking too many questions or taking too critical of a stance.  But the long night has left her blunt and the blood on her hands has stripped her of her usual self-control.  “And what about you?” she asks.

Joan arches an eyebrow and settles back on her heels somewhat.  Her arms are crossed lightly across her chest, and it’s hard to tell if she’s impressed by Annie’s tenacity or annoyed by her audacity.  “And what about me?” she parrots back with purpose.

Annie swallows, pressing her lips together for a moment.  It becomes clearer to her that her question is likely out of line, but it’s a line she’s already crossed, and at this point, she might welcome being fired.  “Why did you come?  I mean, you have people who can do this for you.”

People like Annie and Jai, people who are expendable.  Field agents have the glitz and glory, but there’s a reason the bosses have accumulated enough prestige to stay centralized.

There is a moment of indecision on Joan’s face, guarded and careful, but then she sets her face, regarding Annie with clinical reservation.  “It’s a messy case,” Joan says, inclining her head ever so slightly forward.  “If word of this information got leaked to the public, this would cause a huge international incident.  Clearly, if this case has taught us nothing, it’s that we need to reevaluate our security measures.  Until that’s done, I’m not certain who I can trust to handle the finer points of this investigation.”

It’s a valid answer, and Annie knows that.  But somehow, she wants to believe there’s more.

Joan’s expression softens once again, just a little, and she puts a tentative hand on Annie’s arm.  “Jai’s doing very well, according to his doctor.  They’re optimistic,” she says.  “Would you like to go in and sit with him for awhile?”

-o-

For all the things that Annie has seen and experienced in her life, hospitals are still mostly foreign to her.  It’s almost funny to her, how nervous she is.  She can go undercover, work on covert missions, but her heart is pounding and her palms are sweaty just by walking in the door.

She finds out quickly it’s not a private room, but a ward.  There are rooms sectioned off, but all easily accessible.  There’s a nurse walking bxy who stops and looks at her, a kindly smile on her face.  “You must be here for Mr. Wilcox, yes?”

Annie blinks, surprised, and nods a little.

The nurse puts a hand on her arm.  “I was told to expect you,” she says.  “Now mind you, it’ll be a short visit, but no matter what hospital policy may be, I figure the patients appreciate the company.”

The nurse starts walking, and Annie has no choice but to follow.

“Awful thing, though,” the nurse continues.  She looks at Annie knowingly.  They’re walking by other beds, and Annie tries not to look at the people there.  “But way I figure, we’re all living with one foot in the grave, and it’s a blessing to be around people who are aware of that fight, even if we’re not.  Gives us a bit of a fighting chance, I think.”

Annie just looks at her.

Then the nurse pulls up, and her face gets a little grave.  “You seem nervous, dear.  Are you sure you want to do this?”

Annie swallowed, her indecision choking her for a moment.  But she swallows and nods resolutely.  She’s not sure about a lot of things, but she’s not going to leave her friends here without telling them how she feels.  “Yes, I’m sure,” she says.

The nurse smiles, a little sad.  She squeezes Annie’s arm.  “Now, just mind the equipment,” she orders.  “You’ll only have a few minutes, and please remember, dear, in this case it’s not as bad as it looks.”

-o-

The nurse’s words echo in her head, and she really hopes they’re true.  Because walking into Jai’s cubicle, she’s struck by just how bad it looks.

True, there’s not blood everywhere and no shredded clothes.  Jai’s eyes aren’t even open and searching.  He’s lying still, eyes shut as if in sleep, covered in a clean gown and tucked neatly beneath a sheet.  But there’s something wrong about it all.

Something wrong about seeing someone she cares about lying in a hospital bed.  There is equipment surrounding him, and he’s hooked up to wires and leads.  Annie doesn’t know what they mean, but she understand enough to know that it’s bad.

Even if it’s not as bad as it looks, Annie figures that’s still pretty bad.

She can make out the bulge of bandages, over Jai’s shoulder, on his side.  His complexion is somewhat waxy, and there’s a bag with blood dripping into his arm.

To think, this is what Jai gets for doing everything by the book.  Jai is careful.  Jai is experienced.  He’s compassionate and purposeful and knowledgeable.

And now Jai’s in a hospital bed.

It’s almost too much, and the sick irony of it almost makes her want to cry.  Ben couldn’t save himself by breaking free.  Jai can’ save himself from going by the book.  Heroes don’t get special treatment because they’ve sacrificed to the greater good.  They bleed, just like everyone else, only more often.

This is the life Annie has chosen.

This is the life they’ve all chosen.

Somehow, standing next to Jai, unconsciously counting the beats of his heart, it seems more like death.

-o-

Until she’s ushered out of Jai’s cubicle, Annie doesn’t move.  She just stands here, watching. 

On the outside of the ICU ward, Joan is gone again, but Annie’s greeted by an agent.  He’s different from the one who drove her over and the one who cleaned up the scene.  He identifies himself as a liaison from the embassy, here to help her finish up her work for the Smithsonian and book a flight back home.

As if his cover story isn’t a giveaway, Annie can see the shape of his gun under his tailored suit when he gestures her back toward the waiting room.

He’s talkative, this one.  Prattling on about flights and Customs and the bad traffic in London.  She’s only half listening, when she stops him.  “That’s fine,” she says blandly.  “Do you know anything about Auggie?  My--” she looks for the word: friend, colleague, partner, “--coworker?”

This gives him pause.  “I understand he’s just finished surgery,” he informs her.  “I’ll be taking care of his arrangements separately, and I can assure you--”

She shakes her head.  She doesn’t want to be assured, even if he could.  “I need to see him,” she says, and she’s vaguely aware of how audacious her request is.  “Before I get on that plane, I need to see him.”

He does a good job of keeping his composure, and it seems clear to Annie that he’s been briefed on this contingency.  It seems just like the CIA to have plans in place for operatives who are wounded or shell-shocked in the line of duty.  She just doesn’t know what those contingencies are.

The agent nods, with a hint of resignation.  “You will be in a taxi, on your way to the airport at seven AM.  Until then, I’ve talked to the nurses to let you see him.  Meet me back in the waiting room at 6:30, or I will get you myself.”

His tone is harsh, but there is something essentially compassionate in his terms.  Even though part of her wants to dispute the strict time line--because part of her wants to dispute everything that has her here--it’s almost more than she’d been expecting.

She nods.  “Thank you,” she says.

He looks a little weary.  “Don’t thank me,” he says.  “And, please, understand, I am not fully brief on Auggie’s condition.”

He’s warning her.  Auggie could still die.  This could still get worse.

She swallows tightly.

She has to take what she can get.  “6:30,” she confirms.

He nods back at her.  “6:30.”

-o-

It’s a different nurse who lets her see Auggie, and this one is less chatty.  She is efficient in telling Annie that Auggie’s condition is precarious and she mustn’t touch anything.  Moreover, she would only have a few minutes.

Annie nods obediently.  Given all the orders she’d followed lately, this latest batch hardly seems like much of a stretch.

Standing by Auggie’s side is harder than standing at Jai’s.  Because Jai looked bad, but Auggie just looks...wrong.  Like some facsimile of himself. 

Annie tries not to think about how the grayish hue in his cheeks looks like Ben’s corpse.  She’d been allowed to see him, just for a few moments, before being whisked back to the States.  He’d been cold and still and lifeless and wrong.

Just like Auggie now.  But Auggie’s not cold--his hand is warm when she touches it lightly.  And she can see his chest rising and falling, the air being pushed in and out with a respirator snaking away from his mouth.

She doesn’t know what it means that Auggie’s condition is precarious.  She doesn’t know what damage had to be repaired or how much blood he was given during the operation.  She doesn’t know when he’ll recover or even what the odds are.  She could ask, she supposes, but she doesn’t know how.

Doesn’t know if she wants to.

For all that her job is about getting answers that other people easily ignore, it’s also about willful ignorance.  She can’t turn a blind eye to the risks to national security, but she can easily neglect to consider the ramifications for killing someone who may be a threat.  Spies deal in secrets, which makes a commodity out of the whole truth.

There’s always a question, then: how much is it worth?  How much is she willing to sell to get part of the story?  How much of herself will she give up to get all of it?

The problem is, even when she offers all she has, the answers are spelled with blood and still don’t make any sense.

What does Ben’s death really mean?  Her superiors are relieved by it, she thinks, even if they tell her they are very sorry for her loss.  But Ben was an uncontrolled piece, a knight gone rogue, and Annie’s not sure she has enough of herself left to give to understand why he really came back and how he really felt about her.

And what would Auggie’s death mean?  Jai’s?  They’d be buried as heroes, but no matter what their gravestones might say, they’d still be dead.  The dead can’t smile.  The dead can’t laugh.  The dead can’t flirt, they can’t drink, they can’t be.

But Annie can’t smile.  She can’t laugh, either.  She can’t flirt, she can’t drink, she can’t be, and she’s still standing and breathing, just the same as ever.

It could be her, she thinks.  Buried in the ground, lying in a hospital bed.  It should be her.

It’s not.

Because she’s standing in a hospital in London with bloodstained pants.  She’s standing and listening to the sound of a heart monitor that tells her her best friend is still alive.  She’s watching him breathe, watching him with his eyes closed and face pale, watching him and thinking there has to be a reason.

A reason to be here, a reason for any of this.  A reason for the ache in her chest and the pit in her stomach.  A reason for missions, a reason for loving.  A reason to get up day after day and try to do this at all.

When the nurse comes back, Annie still hasn’t figured it out, and she wonders if she ever will.

-o-

She has hours until 6:30, but nothing much to fill them.  She finds a vending machine and scrounges for some change to buy coffee and paces the waiting room while nibbling on a Snickers bar.  She tries to go back to see Jai or Auggie again, but the nurses have changed shifts, and she is politely but firmly told to come back during visiting hours.

By 5:30, she’s crashing, and she dozes in one of the chairs for a bit, head leaned just so against the wall, her body still tense even as her mind drifts.

The sound of heels on the linoleum invades her awareness again, and she opens her eyes to find Joan looking at her.

Annie swallows, and thinks briefly about what she must look like.  It’s been almost 24 hours since she’s showered and she hasn’t taken more than two minutes to wash herself in the bathroom since arriving at the hospital.  The blood on her hands is gone, but it’s still caked under her fingernails, and her clothes are stiff and awkward with it.

Still, the time for vanity has come and gone.  She’s not sure she wants to impress her boss anymore.

Joan’s countenance doesn’t betray any of her thoughts and she inclines her head.  “You mind if I sit?”

Annie’s eyes flicker to the vacant chair next to her and she shrugs.

Joan sits primly, crossing her legs and looking out across the waiting room.  “It’s been a long night.”

Annie has an urge to snort, but manages to refrain.

Joan glances at her.  “You know, you can get new clothes,” she says.  “Ask the desk, and they’ll provide you with some scrubs at least.  Something more comfortable for the flight home.”

Annie looks absently at her clothes.  “I suppose security may flag me if I try to board the plane covered in blood.”

The joke is rueful, and Joan doesn’t smile at it.  “It’s been a busy night, too,” she says instead.  “The files Auggie decoded are better than we could have imagined.  In that, you all had a real success.”

Annie looks at her blandly.  “Two thirds of the team is in the ICU,” she reminds Joan.  “I hardly call that a success.”

“Through no fault of your own,” Joan tells her.  She wets her lips.  “We’ve been working closely with British intelligence.  I thought you might like to know that the oversights were not by you or anyone on your team.”

It’s something, but Annie realizes with sudden clarity that it’s a pitiful solace.  Faced with losing two people she cares about in the name of the mission, she wants to know why the sacrifice has to be made at all.

She shakes her head.  “So who then?  How did the Russians find Alek at the safe house?”

Joan takes a measured breath.  “There are rarely easy answers--”

Annie shakes her head again, more adamantly.  “I don’t care about easy,” she says.  “I want to know how we were compromised,” she says, and she takes a trembling breath, her rage barely contained.  “Jai and Auggie were shot, and I want to know why.”

Joan regards her cautiously.  “Annie--”

“I deserve to know!” she says, louder than she intends.  Someone across the room looks at her and she takes a breath, calming herself somewhat.  “They deserve to know.”

“A small leak,” Joan informs her simply.  “On the British side.  It’s been a sieve for months, but this has been the most significant breach.  Thanks to your work in securing the scene, they were able to discover the source and neutralize it.”

That’s the answer she was looking for, but suddenly it doesn’t seem like much of anything at all.  It’s nothing more than bad timing and worse luck and Jai and Auggie could die.  That’s the problem with answers, Annie remembers.  They only lead to more questions until you just stop asking.

Joan sighs a little, gathering her breath.  She pushes to her feet, looking down at Annie.  “Remember we work in intelligence,” she says.  “Never confuse intelligence with knowledge.  One is usable for some greater means.  The other is simply something we must come to terms with.”

Annie lets her gaze drop, looking at the floor.

Joan lingers for a moment.  Annie can feel her keen gaze but it doesn’t bother her as much as it would have a few months ago.

“Missions go wrong,” she says finally.

At that, Annie does look up.

Joan is still looking at her steadily.  “Even the best missions go wrong.”

Annie doesn’t know what to say to that.  Doesn’t know what to think.

“Sometimes we do everything right and it doesn’t make any difference at all,” Joan continues and her voice is not unkind but it’s to the point.  “Sometimes making it out alive is just a matter of luck, no matter what your trainers and handlers and superiors want you to believe.”

It’s a bitter truth that Annie suspected all along.  But it’s easier to believe she has control.  It’s easier to believe that there’s always a way out.  That she can make a difference in the endgame.

Joan’s expression eases and she smiles, a little sad, a little sardonic.  “We plan and we gather intel and we set up procedures and we have exit strategies, but in the end, we’re still playing with fire and sooner or later, we’re all going to get burned.  We just don’t know when and we certainly don’t know how badly.”

Annie swallows hard, and lets herself ask the question.  “Then how do you do it?” she says.  “How do you send agents out into the field day after day?”

Joan’s smile turns knowing.  “I’d like to tell you that it’s worth it.”

Annie waits, cocks her head.  “But it isn’t?”

“Annie, that’s for you to decide,” she says plainly.  “Just another mission is never just another mission.  They’re all important and they’re all for some greater good whether we see it or not.  I can only use the assets available to me.  Whether you think going out there is worth it or not is a personal decision that only you can make.  And no one will think badly of you either way you choose because we all understand.  It’s a decision we all make every day.  We all understand.”

Joan stays there another moment.  Then her gaze drops and Annie hears her heels click on the linoleum as she walks away.

-o-

She takes Joan’s suggestion, and finds something to change into.  The scrubs will tide her over, and she assumes that the agent in charge of picking her up will have her luggage so she can change into something more appropriate before she gets on the plane.  It doesn’t actually matter much to her, but there are appearances to maintain.

On the plane, she has an aisle seat, and she puts in her earphones but doesn’t listen to music.  She closes her eyes, but doesn’t sleep.  Sometimes, over the constant whir of the engine, she can almost imagine the beat of Auggie’s music or Jai’s gentle breathing.

When the plane lands, she’s both exhausted and relieved as she goes to recover her luggage and catch a cab back home.

-o-

She gets in late, but Danielle is still up, more or less.  She’s zoned out in front of the TV and startles when Annie walks in.

“Annie!” she says, thoroughly surprised.  “You’re home!  I thought you weren’t coming home for another few days!”

Annie smiles sheepishly and shrugs.  “I guess the plans changed.”

Danielle is blinking sleepily as she flips off the TV.  “Everything okay?”

Annie keeps her smile by force of will alone.  “Yeah, everything’s fine,” she lies. Then she yawns.  “I’m exhausted though.”

Danielle rolls her eyes.  “Yes, the woe is Annie routine,” she says, getting to her feet.  “But tomorrow, you’re telling me all about London and the things I no longer get to do!”

Annie keeps smiling until Danielle is gone.  She stands there a minute more, in Danielle’s living room.  It’s homey and familiar, but it’s not her home and it’s still a little foreign to her.  She wonders where she belongs, because it doesn’t seem like she belongs here, but she’s not sure what’s left for her at the CIA.

And for a moment she wonders if there’s anything left for her anywhere.

-o-

Annie takes an extra personal day and tells her sister that she’s especially jetlagged from her trip.  Danielle shakes her head with mock pity.  “Oh, the perils of casual international travel,” she says.

Annie knows she must look pathetic, still in her pajamas, curled up under her covers.

Danielle rolls her eyes.  “Fine, I’ll bring you a cup of coffee and some toast, but if you want something else, you’re going to have to drag your butt out of bed for it.”

Annie can’t help but smile.  Her sister has no idea, of course--no idea that two of Annie’s closest friends in the hospital, that Annie still can’t sleep at night without nightmares--but that’s part of what makes it important.  That Danielle shows her sympathy for something that seems like nothing says a lot about who Danielle is, about what Annie still has.

Joan said it’s a decision they all make every day, to risk their lives or to stay safe, and if Annie chooses safety today, it’s just fine with her.

-o-

Annie gets out of bed at noon, just in time for lunch.  Her sister is in the kitchen, attempting some concoction for her would-be catering business.

Danielle is at the counter, mixing something with two butter knives, the dull metal blades clanking against each other with rhythm impossibility.

Annie peers over her shoulder curiously.

Danielle puts the knives down dramatically.  “It says it’ll get crumbly,” she said.  She gestures to the bowl of powdery substance.  “Does that look crumbly to you?”

Annie examines it, shakes her head.  “Maybe you have to keep going.”

“I’ve been going for ten minutes!” Danielle says, clearly exasperated.

“Then it’d be silly to quit now, wouldn’t it?” Annie quips blandly, moving past Danielle toward the fridge.

Danielle’s eyes narrow at her for a moment, but then she shakes her head, laughing a little.  “That’s something I can always count on with you,” she says, picking up her knives.  “You never quit.  No matter how awful or how monotonous, you always keep going.”

Danielle starts striking the knives together again, and Annie feels numb as she pours herself a glass of orange juice.

-o-

When Annie gets up the next morning, she thinks of Ben dying on the chopper over Sri Lanka.  She thinks of Auggie bleeding on the floor in London, Jai in the hospital bed.

Staring at the ceiling, it’s almost too much.

But then she hears Joan, It’s a decision we all make everyday.

She hears Danielle, You never quit.

She hears Jai, you ready for this?

She hears Auggie, just another mission.

Closing her eyes, she takes a breath, then gets up to go to work.

-o-

Work feels different and the same all at once.  The chocolates are still stashed in the back of her desk and the research she was doing is still spread out across the surface.  A few people welcome her warmly, and the rest barely acknowledge her presence.  It’s all disconcerting and reassuring all at once.

She settles into her desk chair, feeling its familiar creases and crevices, and takes a breath.  She looks out across the room, sees Jai’s empty desk, Auggie’s vacant work station.  Her heart stutters and she swallows hard against it.

Her eyes flicker toward the office, and she sees Joan, standing with her arms crossed.  She is looking out over the floor but her eyes lock with Annie’s for a moment.

Joan inclines her head, a question and a welcome all at once.

For all her doubts, there’s something about this place that still seems to fit, even when Annie doesn’t want it to.

Today she makes the decision to stay and to work, and for today, that’s enough.

-o-

It’s lonely in the office, quieter.  She misses Auggie’s laugh.  She wants to see Jai’s critical eyes in a briefing.  She finds her mind wandering at her desk, thinking about all the ways in which the mission was a failure.

No matter how Joan spins it, it’s still a failure to Annie.  Jai’s reportedly up and about over in London and will be transferred back to the States for outpatient treatment by the end of the week.  Auggie’s recovery is slower, but he’s awake and alert, and the doctors are tentatively predicting a full recovery.

The fact that things will be back to normal isn’t much solace to her.  Because normal is just another mission where this can all happen again.  People get hurt.  People die.  And that’s a part of this job Annie has to make parse even when it hurts.

Because it’s not just that her friends almost died, it’s that they were hurt and the powers that be still call it a win.  It’s hard to look her bosses in the face sometimes knowing that Ben’s last mission is a relief to them, and the fact that he’s a name on a gravestone is actually something they prefer.

It’s a world that makes black and white out of shades of gray, but Annie still sees red.

She startles at her desk, and she remembers she’s at work.  She has a job to do.

She has a job to do.

For some reason, that’s almost funny.  After all of this, after all she’s been through, it doesn’t come back to loyalty or service or the greater good.  It comes down to the fact that she has a job to do.

It’s so funny, in fact, that she actually almost laughs.  Instead, she hides a smile, because she can hear Auggie’s laugh and she can see Jai’s critical eyes meeting hers, and that’s something to hold onto as she refocuses her efforts and gets back to work.

-o-

When she finishes her report on the meeting with Alek, she delivers it to Joan personally.

Joan examines it quickly behind her desk, then looks up at Annie expectantly.  “I didn’t need this until next week.”

Annie shrugs awkwardly.  She’s standing on the other side of the desk.  “It went pretty quickly.”

Joan nods thoughtfully, presses her lips together.  Then she continues.  “I’ll be briefing Jai when he arrives back in the States this afternoon,” she says, watching Annie carefully.  “I talked with Auggie over the phone briefly yesterday.  He says hello.”

She could only imagine it was more than that.

Still, it’s good to hear.

“And Alek?” Annie asks.

Joan looks somewhat impressed by the question.  “We’ve got his paperwork in order and his doctor has cleared him for a transfer.  He’ll be escorted back to the United States no later than this weekend and we’ll relocate him with a new identity.  Thanks to the intel he provided, he’s earned that much.  He wanted to let the team know that he is grateful for all you did.”

Annie isn’t looking for a thank you, but somehow that’s good to hear, too.  Sometimes it’s hard to think about, how one person’s desire to change sides can impact so many people.  The way an entire team can risk their lives for someone else, and knowing that while they did it for Alek, it was really about the intel.

The mission.

Joan’s eyes linger on her for another moment.  “Anyway,” she says, a little prim.  “Thank you again, Annie.  The upper management has taken extreme interest in this mission and it reflects well on you.”

This is news that would have left Annie giddy months ago.  But she doesn’t know if she likes what it could mean.  She doesn’t know if she wants more missions, if she wants more dangerous assignments.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be good at a job that requires life and death.

Annie forces a smile.  “Thank you,” she says, and she tries to mean it.

Back at her desk, she thinks about it.  Thinks about why people turn their backs on their governments, wonders if it’s less about policy and morality and more about breaking ties with an institution that would let you die for the greater good.  She understands the power in this choice, understands that by defecting, Alek gained value he’d lost in his homeland. 

She can’t help but wonder, just for a second, what she would trade for that kind of second chance.  A way to be safe and secure. 

But they are the good guys.  Auggie and Jai and Joan and all of them.  And Jai’s coming home and Auggie says hi and her bosses are taking notice and this is Annie’s job.

This is Annie’s life.

This is Annie.

And she gets back to work.

-o-

Someone has to lead her through the property, and by the time she finds Jai, she’s wishing she’d worn more comfortable shoes.

Jai is in casual clothes.  He’s wearing a loose t-shirt and sweatpants with flip flops on his feet.  He’s sitting poolside with a glass of water.

“Hey,” she says.

He looks at her, unsurprised.  He smiles.  “Hi.”

She presses her lips together and looks around.  “Nice place.”

He glances around benignly.  “My father has done well for himself.”

She nods and can’t think of anything else to say about that.  Instead, she looks at him and smiles.  “You’re looking better.”

“Feeling better, too,” he says.  “The doctors say I’ll be able to go back to work in a week.”

“That’s great,” she says, and tries to mean it.

He smiles, and looks like he’s trying to mean it, too.

Her gaze skitters away and she looks at the pool, the soft ripples in the sunlight.  “It’s been really quiet at work,” she says.  She shrugs a little and lets the thought fade.  “This is a nice place to recover.”

Jai smirks a little and looks around.  “My father has exquisite taste,” he says, and there’s a touch of irony in his voice.  “He insisted I stay with him.”

“A little pampering can’t hurt,” she offers.

Jai doesn’t look at her.  “He’s never asked me to stay with him before,” he says.

Her jaw works, and she doesn’t know what to say.

“The way he looks at me now,” Jai says.  He shakes his head, and laughs a little.  “He said I finally earned my pay.  Like all the years of service didn’t mean anything before.”

She swallows a little.

Jai sucks in a breath and looks down at his hands.  “It’s the first time he’s ever been proud of me.”

She knows it’s not a good thing.  She hesitates, then tucks her hair behind her ear.  “Well, you saved my life.”

At that, he looks up at her.  “Annie, you were the one who saved all of us,” he says, and his eyes are serious.  “You did great work back there.  I owe you my life.  More than that, we owe you the mission.”

She’s been thanked by every boss in the CIA and has received several commendations.  And all of it has seemed hollow until now.

Because Jai is grateful.  As an agent.  As a friend.  And somehow, that’s worth something that nothing else is.  If fighting for the greater good is hard to figure out, fighting for her friends just makes sense.

And with the way her life is going these days, she is desperate for anything that makes sense.

Suddenly, she feels self-conscious.  She blinks, opens her mouth.  Then shuts it.  “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits.

Jai inclines his head, and the hint of a real smile spreads across his face.  “Maybe that’s the secret then,” he says.

She can’t help it.  She laughs.  Nodding, she laughs again.  “I’ll have to keep that in mind,” she says.  Her laughter fades and she meets his eyes steadily.  “Seriously, though.  It’ll be good to have you back.”

It’s not quite everything she wants to say, but somehow it’s enough.

Jai holds her gaze, then nods thoughtfully.  “It’ll be good to be back,” he agrees.

-o-

She’s inexplicably nervous when she gets to Auggie’s place.  When she knocks on the door, she’s surprised to hear a ruckus on the other side and when a woman opens the door, her mouth drops open and she starts to apologize.

“Darling, you must be Annie!” the woman says, and the next thing Annie knows, she’s being dragged inside.

The apartment is like nothing she remembers.  Where Auggie was minimalistic and clean, the entire area now is homey and disorganized.  There are sheets on the couch and a pair of sleeping bags on the floor.  She hears laughter from the kitchen and someone flushing a toilet.

She feels like she’s missing something--a lot of somethings--but the woman doesn’t seem to notice.  “Auggie’s talked about you nonstop,” she says.  “Annie this, and Annie that, and I tell you, even though he says otherwise, I was half-convinced he was just plain in love with you.”

Annie stares and doesn’t know what to say.

“Mom, you haven’t even introduced yourself,” Auggie’s voice comes.

Annie turns and gapes.  There’s Auggie in the doorway.  He’s in pajamas, hair mussed.  He still looks a little pale, but he’s smiling.

The woman--Auggie’s mother, she presumes--shrugs and gestures widely.  “I feel like I already know her,” she says nonchalantly.

“Yes, but she doesn’t know you,” Auggie explains patiently.  “And she’s just a friend, so stop picking out flower arrangements, okay?”

Annie blushes and feels flustered. 

Auggie walks in easily, somehow managing to circumvent the wide array of stuff that’s accumulated in his living room.  He extends a hand and nods toward the bedroom.  “You want to talk for a minute?”

“Ah, yeah,” Annie manages to say. 

Auggie’s mother prods her a bit.  “Go on, go on then,” she says.  “I’ll make sure Auggie’s brothers leave you alone, just for a little one-on-one.”

She winks at that, and Annie can’t do anything but stare.

Auggie rolls his eyes and moves off.  Annie can’t help but follow, stepping carefully over the abundance of bags and clothes in the hall.  When they finally get to Auggie’s bedroom, he somehow knows when to close the door behind her then turns to her with a sheepish grin.  “Sorry about that,” he says.

She raises her eyebrows.  “You said you had family helping you, but I had no idea.”

Auggie feels his way over to the bed and sits down gingerly.  It’s clear that it’s still a little uncomfortable for him and there are dark circles still smudged under his eyes.  “Yeah, my mom brought the whole contingency out,” he says.  “She’s never liked the fact that I moved all the way to DC.”

Annie smiles, remembering her own mother.  The thought makes her a little sad.  “Family’s good to have around,” she says, thinking of Danielle and Michael and her nieces.

Auggie snorts a little laugh.  “It has its moments,” he agrees.  “But you haven’t met my brothers yet.”

Annie looks to the door with interest.  “Is that who else is here?”

Auggie nods.  “Two of them, anyway, and their wives,” he says.  “They were all going to come but I convinced them that my apartment wasn’t big enough.”

It’s sort of a funny image, and it makes as much sense as it doesn’t.  Auggie’s always been an effervescent person to her, and people are always drawn to him.  In all of that, she wonders how few real connections she’s seen him make, because all the girls in the bars and friends at work never seem to count in times like these.

She wonders if that’s how it is with big families.  Camaraderie that comes easily and disconnection that is hard to overcome.

Auggie doesn’t seem to mind, though.

“Well,” Annie says finally.  “At least I don’t have to worry about someone taking care of you.”

Auggie gathers a breath and smiles again.  “Definitely not that,” he says.  He shrugs a little, his eyes staring off just to Annie’s right.  “Of course, if they stay much longer, we’ll be lucky if there are no more physical injuries to contend with.”

She cocks her head in amusement.  “They’d pick on a guy recovering from multiple bullet wounds?”

There is the sound of laughter outside, and a voice that is warm like Auggie’s, but deeper, threatens to pour orange juice on the carpet.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he muses.  “But actually, I was talking about me going after them.  My brothers still think I’m the same little brother.  But even without my eyesight and the gunshot wounds, I’m pretty sure I could take them now.”

Annie can’t help but smile at the image.  She actually believes Auggie could pull it off.  “Joan probably wouldn’t be too happy.”

Auggie shrugs.  “It’s not all about following orders.”

She wonders how he can say that, given everything that’s happened.  Given what he’s been through and how he’s still willing to go back.  She remembers feeling that way.  Remembers thinking that the sacrifices would be worth it, until she had to really pay the price.

Now she’s not sure.  How much of this is her decision and how much of this is a fear of quitting.  How much of this is not wanting to let anyone else win.  How much of it is nothing more than the fact that she doesn’t know what else to do.

But she’s here.  With Auggie.  And Jai’s recovering at his father’s house and Danielle lets her eat breakfast at the table in the mornings where her nieces bicker and play.  She can’t bring Ben back, but she’s been here before.  Bullets can’t be unfired, and quitting or staying doesn’t change the past.

It only changes the future.

Auggie is looking intently in her general direction.  “You okay over there?” he asks.  “You got kind of quiet.”

She startles a little, her heart lodged painfully in her throat.  “Yeah,” she says.  “It’s just been a long couple of months, you know?”

Auggie’s expression softens a little, but he smiles nonetheless.  “You don’t have to remind me,” he says.  “I’m going stir crazy without something to work on.  I’m anxious to get back to work.”

Of course he is.  Because Auggie is sure of what he wants and is willing to risk everything to get it.  The CIA doesn’t necessarily want the best recruits, but it wants the ones who are committed, and there’s no one more committed to it than Auggie.  He knows its risks and its weaknesses, and he still wants to go back, even with fresh bullet wounds still healing and eyesight that will never come back.

“Now I just have to think of a way to convince Joan that I’m still good for the field,” he says, only half joking.

Annie scoffs.  “Just another mission, right?”

“Hell, yeah,” Auggie says.  “Any mission.  I’ve got more than enough battle scars to prove I can do it.”

“You just try to pitch that to Joan,” Annie suggests.  “See what happens.”

He inclines his head.  “Maybe I will.”

She doesn’t doubt it.  She doubts a lot of things, but she doesn’t doubt that.  She doesn’t doubt that Joan will try to do right by them all or that Jai will live up to his family legacy while defying it all the same.  She doesn’t doubt that Auggie will come back with as much wit and enthusiasm as he had before. 

And she doesn’t doubt that Ben loved her or that in any of his regrets, saving her on the last mission was worth it to him.

She knows she was hired to lure Ben back, and put in the field to keep tabs on him.  But Ben is gone now, along with part of her heart, and she’s still here.  She’s still an agent, standing on her own, better than she was before because part of her is missing.

It’s that loss that makes it real.  It’s that sacrifice that makes it possible to achieve. 

“But maybe no more Russian turncoats,” Annie suggests finally.

It’s Auggie’s turn to scoff.  “That was some of my best work, right there.”

“Yeah, you would think so since you were unconscious for the real excitement.”

Auggie waves his hand dismissively.  “You worry too much.”

“You don’t worry enough.”

“Okay, a compromise then,” he says.  “I’ll worry more if you’ll worry less, and maybe we’ll find a happy medium.”

Maybe, Annie thinks.  She can’t expect total happiness but someplace in between sounds about right.

Auggie hesitates, then continues.  “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Annie says quickly, trying to keep her voice even.

“Annie,” Auggie says, and even if he’s not able to see her, he’s looking right through her.  “It’s all in what you make it.  You know that, right?”

She wants to smile, but her throat feels tight.  Something sharp stings at the back of her eyes and she nods readily, even though she knows Auggie can’t see it.  “I know,” she says, but her voice sounds weak, even to her.

Auggie sits forward, more seriously now.  “I’m serious,” he says.  “In everything--from the accident that blinded me to getting shot on this mission--I don’t regret it.  I don’t regret any of it.”

The emotion is almost too much, because Annie doesn’t know what she regrets and what she’d do again.  “How can you be so sure?”

“It’s easy,” he says.  “I mean, yeah, it sucks.  I don’t like being blind.  And I don’t like being cooped up in this apartment with my family hanging all over me.  But I can’t go back.  I can only go forward.  And if I let it break me, then that’s me, and nothing else.  I don’t want to be my own downfall.  No matter what happens.”

There’s something in the way he says it.  Something in the clarity of his eyes, the certainty of his voice.  Because Auggie’s lost his sight and he almost died and if anyone knows what it’s like to suffer at the CIA, it’s him, and yet he’s still here, he’s still fighting, and he’s still smiling.

And if Auggie can do it, Annie wonders if she can do.

This time, when her lips tug up at the ends, it feels different.  For the first time since Ben died, since Ben lied to her and broke her heart, it feels real.  She nods again, this time with certainty.  “No matter what happens,” she agrees.

Auggie’s smile breaks into a grin.  “Of course, if I were you, I might run in the opposite direction right now.”

She looks around, curious.  “Why?”

Auggie leans forward a bit and lowers his voice furtively.  “Because there’s no way you’re getting out of here without the full-on Anderson welcome,” he says.

“I’ve survived almost a year with the CIA, including a shootout with a pair of Russian assassins,” she reminds him.  “I think I’ll be okay.”

He doesn’t look so convinced as he gets to his feet.  “You clearly haven’t met my family.”

Her face lights up and her chest feels warm.  “Not yet, anyway,” she says.

Auggie opens the door and laughs.  “Not yet.”

-o-

It’s late when Annie finally leaves.  She’s well fed and her cheeks almost ache from smiling so much.  The Andersons are a lively bunch, and she’s never played so many group games in one evening.

She doesn’t even want to go, if she’s honest.  But she saw Auggie begin to sag with exhaustion and told everyone that her sister would worry if she didn’t get home soon.

It’s almost the truth, and it’s close enough to count.

Auggie’s brothers have almost adopted her, with noogies and nicknames and all, and his mother has already begged her to come visit the family farm out in Illinois during her next properly scheduled vacation.

Auggie’s mortification was her only reason to consider the invitation.

As Annie gets into her car, it seems a little hard to believe that a year ago she was still at The Farm, bright-eyed and willing to try anything to forget who she’d been before.

The problem is, nothing can make her forget.  She doesn’t need to forget.  She needs to let go.

Sliding the car into the ignition, she looks up and can see the lights still on in Auggie’s window.

She smiles and starts the car, thinking she might just figure it out after all.

-o-

Joan calls her into her office.  Jai is back today, and he’s all smiles at his desk.  Auggie is due back in another week, and someone is talking about a party.

Annie is still smiling when she walks in, but she pulls it back when Joan looks at her appraisingly.  “Good morning?” she asks.

Annie nods seriously.  “Not bad.”

Joan’s eyes betray her amusement, but she picks up a file and holds it out to Annie.

Annie takes it, a little tentative.

“We’ve had mounting chatter over an asset in Germany,” Joan says.  “He’s been out of communication for a few days now, and our local response teams are busy with other things.  This isn’t quite high priority, but we’d like to get someone on it.  Do you think you’re up to it?”

Annie looks at the file, a little surprised.  She glances at Joan.  “A mission?”

Joan nods.  “A mission.”

She doesn’t exactly want to say yes, but for the first time she realizes that she doesn’t want to say no.

Joan tilts her head slightly.  “So you think you can handle it?”

Annie smiles, sure and confident.  She shrugs.  “I can,” she says.  “After all, it’s just another mission.”

Joan’s smile is small but there as she invites Annie to sit down and begin briefing.

Comments

Posted by: sarievenea (sarievenea)
Posted at: January 7th, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)
Neal eyes

That was wonderful. Annie was spot-on, Auggie was perfect, even Joan and Jai were great! I loved it. :D

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 8th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
neal peter bw

I'm glad you liked it! I was really uncertain about it, so it's good to know that it worked :)

Thanks!

Posted by: sendintheclowns (sendintheklowns)
Posted at: January 8th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)
Auggie-What

Is it wrong of me to get excited because you shot both Jai and Auggie? I am one sick puppy.

Your Joan is spot on and Annie's voice is so real. It made me sad. At least until Auggie and his rowdy family made an appearance. You get another hug for that.

I'm so spoiled. Thank you. You are made of squee :)


Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 8th, 2011 06:57 pm (UTC)
auggie jai

You are entitled to be a sick puppy any day you want, as far as I'm concerned, but that's doubly true on your birthday :)

And Auggie's family was specifically for you, so I'm glad you enjoyed that.

This was a fun foray into CA so I'm glad you wanted something against the grain for me. I hope you have a fantastic day!

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