TITLE: Paper Heart
CHARACTERS: Gillian, Cal, Emily, Zoe, Torres, Loker
SUMMARY: What if Cal had never returned from Afghanistan back then? Leaving her on her own, forcing her to go on without him. AU from 'Secret Santa'.
—This is not me
I was never cut out for this scenery
I'm just a paper boy
Your crushed paper toy—
It took her milliseconds to know something was wrong, minutes to catch her breath, days to understand what had happened, weeks to stop crying, months to move on just the slightest, and years to finally accept that he won't ever return.
Every step of this timeline was paved with pain. Excruciating, agonizing pain right to the bone, the marrow. It was a relief when it got more dull and numbing over time, but it was still pain she felt every day and every night. And every second in between.
Yet life went on—it had to. It wasn't life as she knew it or life as she had imagined it, but there was also something that told her to not surrender; to take this pain and make something of it. The best she could or the best she had hoped for. Maybe it was the voice of him left inside her head, gradually becoming more and more quiet, until she couldn't even be sure anymore how his loves and darlings exactly sounded. Life became lifeless, but it somehow went on.
Some memories drifted away—like the melody of his accent, the exact transition of colors in his eyes—some remained painfully close.
She remembered the kiss on the cheek. The last words. The scent of his cologne as he drifted away from her to a place she didn't want him to be in. She remembered every detail of it and at the very same time she was so afraid of forgetting it all. It was a fear that kept her thoughts swirling, her memories going back to these painful places over and over again. Every day, never resting. Bye, darling.
She was glad for every minute she could concentrate on something that wasn't him or their shared past. Not the good times or the bad, the Group, the cases, the war, the laughter, the devastation on Emily's face. She celebrated those minutes, though she didn't even realize it. They just were, they happened. Only afterwards she could see the preciousness of those moments. And then there was him again.
She was lost in one of those rare moments, scribbling something in a case file, listening to the birds finally taking up their hymns again in the warm spring air, when a knock on the door brought her back to reality. She looked up and cleared her throat quietly before Sarah opened the door.
"Somebody from the CIA for you," she explained with some worry in her voice. Her eyes studied Gillian's face for a moment, making sure it was alright.
She gave her a sign of approval and nodded tentatively. "Thanks, Sarah."
The man who entered was tall and upright, making her otherwise spacious and light-flooded office seem instantly smaller somehow. His confident stride was elegant and he stopped right in front of her desk. She remembered those days. Instead of walking around the desk, she however remained on the other side, keeping her distance. She got up, but she wouldn't shake his hand. In fact, he didn't even offer it.
"Dr. Foster, I'm agent Cole. I have something that requires your attention, I'm afraid." The last part was just a vain phrase. He wasn't really sorry.
She put her fists on the desk and didn't blink. "I'm not taking cases like this anymore. You and your bosses should know that."
He seemed unimpressed. "I have to ask you to come with me." He looked at her sternly, not giving anything away.
"Is it a matter of national security?"
"You could say that." Something about him seemed off, but she couldn't exactly pinpoint it. There was nothing in his voice she could use and his features remained unmoved.
There was some silence on her part, thoughts running through her head. "Can I see your identification?"
He fished a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. "You might want to call Andrew Henderson for verification." The way he said it was smug and loaded with disapproval.
She'd known Henderson for a long time, but she also didn't want to lower her guard and run for the phone. "What if I'm not coming?" she simply asked instead.
Cole shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing then." He grew more intense at that point, giving her an earnest look for the first time. "But I think you should come."
"Where will you take me?"
"I can't tell you that now. But you'll see."
"Will I be allowed to leave once we're done? Today?"
"Absolutely. You're free to go."
She looked out of the window for a moment, watching rays of sunlight tangled within the blooming tree in front of it. She breathed in and thought of the past again. Of how it used to be. Of how it became. Of how it ended. She thought of the pain and the promise to move on.
Then she breathed out and took her purse, leaving the office and letting Cole follow. She was still good at this game, maybe even better. She had almost forgotten about that part.
Out in the hallway Sarah was still waiting, the door to her own office open. The look on her face was still concerned, but she relaxed a little when Gillian came closer.
"I'm helping the CIA with something. I'm sure it will be okay, but just in case: Can you give me a call at six? If I'm not picking up, let someone know." She made sure Cole heard her words.
Sarah nodded dutifully, but not convinced that everything was going to be alright. Maybe it was paranoid, but Gillian felt she had every right to be suspicious and not trust people and organizations she used to work for. She had lost this trust a long time ago.
"Take care, okay," Sarah said and Gillian gave her a small smile.
Again, she left the building first, letting Cole trot behind her like a beaten dog. The day was even more beautiful outside, but with her stomach twisted into a knot she couldn't enjoy this just as much as she might have wanted to.
"I guess we're taking your car then?"
Cole looked at her, but this time he was almost amused. Not in a nasty way, but maybe admiring her for her strength and attitude. "You can take your car. Just follow me."
She was a little surprised about that, but she got in her own car and trailed him as requested. After some minutes she was sure that they were indeed going to the CIA headquarters in Langley. He could have just said so, but maybe it was part of the game.
Her fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly while they went through neighborhoods and then along the river. She had no clue what this was about and maybe she didn't want to have one. One of the things she did after that day was to mostly eliminate surprises from her life, so being in this unfamiliar situation she not only felt anxious but also utterly unprepared. This used to be her life; now it was alien.
But there was still some Gillian Foster left inside of her. That Gillian Foster.
Cole showed her to a parking space right in front of the building. This time it was him who went first and brought them both through security gates and checkpoints until they ended up in an elevator going further down into the earth.
She didn't like the air she breathed, or what it reminded her of for that matter.
"So, you're going to tell me now what this is all about?"
"Just a moment," he put her off and gestured her to follow once the elevator stopped and the doors opened to a long corridor with harsh, artificial light.
By now she was getting tired of this game and just wanted to know what she was needed here for. Maybe it was wrong to get entangled in a potential mess like this again, when all she wanted was to get away from these things and live her life as quietly as possible. She wasn't even sure if her abilities were still sharp enough to help them at all. Catching liars and criminals was something she had left behind. It was important for her to focus on the good in people again, so that's what she did now instead.
He led her deeper into the corridor and she could see several rooms left and right, some of them with open doors, looking like scarcely-equipped interview rooms or maybe even places for holding suspects. She was wary and grew more suspicious with every step she took. There was no one else here except the two of them.
Cole stopped in front of a closed door, his eyes checking her out in a way that made her feel uncomfortable.
"I wanna know what this is about," she reinforced with a voice as strong as possible.
Cole didn't react and just opened the door slightly; not enough to allow her to see anything inside. He looked at her again with the same intensity he had shown in her office earlier. The one that made her cringe and question her choices.
"Let me know if you need anything," he simply stated without giving any further instructions and she looked at him confused, brows drawn together.
She didn't understand at all. "What am I supposed to do here?"
He stepped aside and walked away, taking the same way they had come. Gillian followed him with her eyes, unsure of what to do next. She was angry for being treated like that. Angry for having to deal with people she had deliberately chosen to get away from.
For a moment she thought about running after Cole, but in the end her curiosity got the best of her. Cautiously she opened the door further and almost expected to find an empty room, but that was not the case. It was everything but empty.
She froze in time and space. Her life might have stopped right there, in this cold and uninviting room a few meters below the ground. "No no no no no no…," was all she could say and repeat over and over again, until it felt like a mantra to calm her down.
This was not possible. It simply wasn't.
His face was soft, attempting a smile, but she could see that he was struggling just as hard as she did. Struggling to understand, struggling to grasp any clear thought, struggling to deal with all those feelings that were washing over them all at once with the intensity of a broken dam.
"No no no no no…," she just continued helplessly and tears sprang from her eyes. Her purse had fallen to the ground and she was covering the shock on her face with her hands. Eventually she closed her eyes and buried her face deeper in her hands, sobbing so much she didn't think she could ever go on breathing.
This couldn't be real. He couldn't be real. It was the worst nightmare by far, because of the intensity she felt. An intensity that suddenly overwhelmed her so much, thoughts about dying ran through her head and choked the last bits of air out of her lungs.
It was just seconds later when she felt his hands on her wrists, pulling gently. She let him do so and allowed him see her face again. He smiled bravely. I'm so sorry, he formed with his lips, but the words wouldn't come out.
This was real—she knew this now. Knew it the second she looked into his eyes and suddenly remembered the different colors, the small darker spots and their exact position again. She knew it then, but it didn't make it any better, because four and a half years were still lost and life just wasn't life anymore. A cold sweat formed on her skin and she found it hard to concentrate.
He enclosed her in a tight, tight hug, not saying anything, but just holding her. Her sobs went on and she reckoned he sensed when her knees threatened to give in. He held her even more firmly and slowly guided her to a cheap plastic chair. When she sat down, darkness came over her for a second and didn't let her see. When the light returned her ears rang with unbearable noises and she didn't know where she was.
Helplessly she looked at him, only to find him slipping away from her. "Can we get some water in here?" she heard him say closer to the door and eventually he returned, pulling the other chair next to her, sitting down and taking her hand. The tender caresses of his fingers made it a little better.
He smiled that soothing smile again. "You're having a panic attack, darling. Just breathe." He didn't tell her everything was alright, because nothing ever would be.
"I don't understand," she said and sounded like a little broken child.
"I'll explain," he replied and it was the moment when Cole entered the room with a glass of water that he put on the table in front of her. His eyes seemed to say that he was sorry for this charade earlier. When he left again, he closed the door.
She drank the water in small mouthfuls and felt the chill of it calm her down a little. Her heart had stopped hammering against her ribcage, but the shock still engulfed her. She looked down at the place where their hands touched fondly.
"Better?" he asked.
"Yes." She nodded, but she still felt queasy.
Cal looked at her for a long time and pain marked his face. "I'm sorry it had to be like this. The operation is still classified. They're trying to get out another man."
She shook her head as if he didn't make any sense. "You're dead."
He looked taken aback for a moment, but his features softened again. "I certainly hope I'm not. I wanted to see you before that ever happens."
There were so many questions in her head. So many that she didn't even know where the hell to begin. The sheer vastness of the hole opened inside of her threatened to knock her right into the next panic attack. More—this time silent—tears ran over her cheeks.
"It's been over four years", she mumbled and wished so much for this to be a happy reunion instead of this mess. She couldn't explain her feelings, only that she felt the loss for the first time in its devastating entirety, which was incredibly weird after all this time of constant pain.
"I know." His voice was quiet and he looked down at their hands as well. "We'll make the best of it."
She didn't know if she could.
He sighed. "You were right. I shouldn't have gone to that place. Should have listened to you and spared everyone the pain."
She wondered who exactly he meant with everyone and it reminded her of something. "Where is Emily? Are they bringing her here?"
"I saw her yesterday. In Boston." A tear ran down his cheek now as well. He quickly wiped it away. "They said I could only see her until this is all over, but I begged them to let me see you too." The look on his face was heart-breaking.
"I'm sorry for acting so weird," she said and felt bad about not being as happy as she should be. The thing was, that she was so utterly unprepared for this, because she had been adamantly sure those last few years that this moment would never come. She had given up. She had given him up.
"It's just shock, darling. Nothing to be sorry about."
She ran a hand over her face and looked at him again with fresh eyes. He looked a little unfamiliar—clean-shaven, hair freshly cut, slightly thinner and oddly sun-tanned. More gray in his hair as well. Still, he looked better than she would have imagined.
"Did they hold you in Afghanistan all this time?"
"First there, then they brought me to Pakistan with a short detour to Tadzhikistan, and back to Afghanistan again. Quite the globetrotter, eh?" He tried to make light of the situation as much as he could.
She remembered. She remembered him.
"I'll tell you everything."
"I wanna know everything," she confirmed. "Are you allowed to leave?"
"I'll have to talk to Henderson."
She nodded, somehow relieved. "Good. Then we're going home."
He considered this for a moment. "Do I still have a home?"
"With me you'll always have a home."
A grin spread on his face, revealing the all too familiar wrinkles around his eyes. "Is that taken right out of a sappy romance novel of yours?"
"Probably." She smiled for the first time since entering this room as well. "It's also true."
"I can see that."
Maybe they could make the best of this mess.