A/N: It's Oscar night, so I'm in the mood for a speech. :) Here goes:
Please don't hate me for ending where I did! I am aware that several of my loyal readers may have been expecting me to continue this fic well into the canon. Truthfully, that has never really been my intention, though I did waffle on it a few times. Ultimately, I think it's best to draw this fic to a close in my originally planned spot: the last possible moment before the meeting of our heroes.
For what it's worth, this has been an absolutely amazing (exactly!) 2 months, and I'm beyond grateful to all my readers, reviewers, and PM'ers. You couldn't have known, but your encouragement has literally changed my life. I've met some incredible new friends, had even more fun than usual watching Covert Affairs, and decided to work towards becoming a professional writer (don't worry - I know I still have a lot to learn). So, from the very bottom of my heart, THANK YOU!
Aaaaaand, for cutting off at the knees those of you who expected more, allow me to present a little peace offering: The Covert Affairs Pilot...from Auggie's perspective, of course. ;)
The door in front of him opened and Auggie snapped his wristwatch shut, hoping she hadn't heard the stupid thing talking. He stood and offered his hand, "Annie Walker?"
"Yes?" she answered like a question, sounding confused. Yup, she's new, all right.
"Auggie Anderson, Tech Ops," he smiled, feeling her small hand clasp his own. "And your friendly neighborhood cruise director. Walk with me."
As they pushed through the double doors and into the walkway, Auggie put on his best show. Kicking things off with his signature blind schtick, he attempted to put her at ease. She had a big day ahead of her. And maybe if I play my cards right, he thought mischievously, a big night. He couldn't hide a little grin at the thought, but then he smelled something that slowed him to a dead stop. "Jo Malone Grapefruit?" he asked incredulously, turning to face her slightly.
"Am I wearing too much perfume?" she worried.
"No, no, it's very subtle," he answered thoughtfully, feeling a little guilty as the aroma immediately brought his promise to Mel back to him. "A lot of the ladies around here lay it on so thick it's like they're chumming for hammerheads."
As though her ears had been burning, Bea's voice came to him, a full second after her perfume hit his nose. "Morning, Auggie," she flirted, placing her hand on his arm.
"Hey Bea," he greeted back, not unpleased to showcase his virility to Annie, but also not wanting to ruin his chances with her. So when Bea was out of earshot, he turned to Annie and whispered conspiratorially, "Case in point." He made a little pffft sound with his mouth, which served not only to emphasize the joke, but also to get the overwhelming scent out of his nostrils. Annie didn't laugh, but...it was the strangest thing: He could feel her smile. Huh. That was new. Get it together, Anderson, he chided himself immediately. This is not a comic book and you do not have that superpower.
"Everyone here is so young," Annie commented, and Auggie explained about the unfrozen hiring freeze that had resulted in half the Agency having 5 years experience or less. She responded with a witty remark about the weirdness of it all.
He agreed, "You'll find this is a weird place to work." He began to list off the reasons, "Polygraphs every year, no cell phones allowed inside the building, no dating foreigners." He paused a moment, then added cheekily, "In fact, the CIA highly encourages dating within the Agency. Keeps things in the 'circle of trust.'" He'd used the line before, more than once, to great success.
As they left the walkway, he pointed out the food court and was mildly annoyed to have Conrad Sheehan swoop in on his play. He listened impatiently while Conrad flirted with Annie, and was uncharacteristically relieved when he heard Arthur beckon Conrad from the lobby.
"He works for Arthur Campbell?" Annie asked, sounding impressed, and Auggie felt a little sliver of resentment pierce him again. He had worked for Arthur Campbell, too, he felt like pointing out. But that was ancient history, and as classified as it got. He settled for a little jab at the actually-quite-likable attaché. A few paces later, they arrived at Joan's office. As he turned to leave her, she called out, "Wait! You're not coming with me?"
He couldn't stop the smirk that curved one side of his mouth. So she liked him, too. "Oh, I'm not going in there if I don't have to," he teased and continued back down to tech ops.
As he walked into his office, he could hear his techs discussing something quietly. "Hey Auggie," Barber asked, "who's that girl you were with by the food court?"
"New operative. Annie Walker," he replied as he leaned over his desk and found the encrypted two-way transponder disguised as a Blackberry and powered it up. Then he turned to them. "Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"'Cause she's - oof" grunted Barber, responding to being prodded by (Auggie guessed) either Stu or Hollman.
"She's what?" Auggie asked. When they didn't respond, he stood and crossed his arms over his chest. He pointed his best Boss Man gaze in their direction and waited for an answer.
"Well, we were just theorizing," Hollman finally spoke up shyly, "that her arrival today is the reason Joan's wearing that dress."
Auggie smirked and cocked an eyebrow. "What dress?"
Barber answered quickly, perhaps to avoid being interrupted by another elbow to his ribs, "Let's just say Joan's dress is so revealing it probably wasn't totally necessary for her to go through the metal detectors this morning."
Auggie snorted, shook his head, and sat down at his desk. "I believe you three have an op to prepare for," he threw meaningfully over his shoulder, and listened to them scatter. It was true; the mission falling into their laps this morning was a surprise and they'd been scrambling to make sure everything was in place. They'd even had to call in a few other techs from the old unit to help, and the extra bodies were filling up the tech ops space. But Auggie was also dismissing them to hide the fact that he'd just had an unsettling experience: For the first time since becoming blind, he couldn't conjure up Joan's face in his mind. He sat for a few moments running his fingertips idly across his Braille display, screen locked, willing her image to appear. But it wouldn't come. Before he could start to brood over its absence, the doors to his left slipped open and Joan walked in with Annie.
No-nonsense as always, Joan requested he put up the screens. "Coming up," he replied, pulling on his headphones and calling up the Orlovsky file. He hadn't yet gotten a bead on whether or not Annie understood that he was more than a just the "friendly neighborhood cruise director." But he was looking forward to surprising her with his competency.
Unfortunately, as the screens came up, Annie seemed completely unimpressed that the blind guy was the one running them. Hm. That was unusual. Most people freaked out the first time they saw him work his magic, and he'd be lying if he said he didn't love it just a teensy bit.
Yet, there was also something kind of great about this girl not seeming to notice it at all. She seemed completely comfortable with him, unfazed, almost like she hardly noticed he was blind. Auggie's estimation of her grew, though he fought to keep it in check. It had been two and a half months since he'd made his promise to Mel, and he'd kept it so far. Now he really wanted to sleep with this girl - especially after hearing Conrad flirt with her and gleaning that little morsel from his team - but he wouldn't be free to do that if she kept being so...well, perfect.
Auggie caught his mind wandering and drew it back to the task at hand. Damn, Joan was in rare form today. She wasn't cutting this poor girl any slack. He made a mental note to reassure Annie later that Joan was just a hardass and she shouldn't take it personally. He felt bad for Annie but couldn't hide his grin when Joan implied that Amy had been killed on the job instead of moving on to a cush position as a legislative director, and a moment later basically told Annie she was dressed like a streetwalker. As much as he would've loved to see what, in fact, Annie was wearing, he'd have chosen seeing her face when Joan said those two things instead. Geez. Well, Annie Walker was going to need thick skin if she was going to survive in this job; no sense in coddling her at the outset.
Five minutes later, he met up with Annie as she studied the case file in the maps area. He handed her the pager she'd use for the op and she once again pleasantly surprised him with a bit of witty back-and-forth. Then she went and dampened the mood. "Auggie?" she implored earnestly, and he knew what was coming. He remembered back to that night in front of the fireplace at the VISOR center, when Mel had told him he'd get good at knowing when The Question was coming. He had.
"Can I ask you a question?" And there it was.
He took a subtle breath, telling himself it was unfair for him to be disappointed; she was just doing what every other rational, curious person would do in the same situation. Hell, he'd probably have done it, too. In any event, he gave her the well-rehearsed company line: "I was Special Ops Iraq. I got out of a Humvee to look at what I thought was a dead dog. Next thing you know, I'm Ray Charles." He had the delivery down pat, even the little self-deprecating smile and twist of his head. He waited for the obligatory pitying response, the "I'm so sorry." Or worse, the "You're so brave." But it didn't come. After a second of silence, she uttered a little "Oh." Oh shit, he suddenly worried. He hadn't pegged her for a crier, but it wouldn't be the first time.
"I was gonna ask what the headphones are for."
Whoa. She flipped the script, he thought, too amazed to be embarrassed. Once again, he couldn't stop the smile that crept onto his face. "Oversharing. My bad," he smirked, turning to walk back to his desk and feeling pleased when he heard her follow him. "Grado RS2s," he clarified, tapping his headphones with his thumb. As he felt her come up beside him, he did something he never did with uninitiated people: he reached up and grabbed her arm just above the elbow. It wasn't until he was in the middle of explaining the headphones that he even realized he'd done it. He blamed it on the fact that she smelled like Mel. "...and listening to Mingus when I'm supposed to be working," he finished.
"Yep," he answered briefly, unsurprised that she didn't know the artist. Most people didn't.
"I went to the Mingus tribute festival in Stockholm," she declared proudly.
He fell back on his heels a little bit and announced that she was officially his hero. He wanted to ask her more, but just as he opened his mouth, he heard the tech ops doors whoosh open. He didn't know for sure that it was Carl, but being around this Annie Walker was vaguely intoxicating, and he was feeling a little punchy. So he threw caution to the wind and went big. He pointed over her shoulder and proclaimed, "And there's your ride."
Nailed it, he thought, as he heard her turn and walk to the doors. When she reached them, he heard her stop. "Wish me luck?" she pleaded.
He smiled, recalling how she'd stood her ground with Joan 10 minutes earlier. "You don't seem like the type to need luck...but good luck." Then, leaning back on his desk and listening to the seductive sound of her expensive shoes walking away, he mused aloud, "Mm, gotta love those kitten heels."
He was startled and chagrined to hear Stu cough behind him. "Oh, I didn't realize you were in here, Stu," he said, feeling himself inexplicably blushing.
"Yeah, I get that a lot, mostly from people who aren't blind," the meek tech op replied good-naturedly. Auggie turned to log onto his computer, when Stu's voice once again came from behind him. "And, I don't know if you care, but she's not wearing kitten heels. They were stilettos."
Auggie chuckled, once again surprised by Stu's extensive knowledge of shoes. "Thank you, Stu. Good to know."
Twenty minutes later, Auggie sat tensely at his desk, listening to the chatter from the ops team they'd put in place at the Capitol Grande. The Agency didn't usually place this many ancillary officers around an operative doing a simple intel swap. It made Auggie wonder what the higher-ups weren't telling him, which in turn made him nervous. When he'd asked Joan about it, she'd brushed it off with the lame excuse that it was Annie's first mission. Auggie didn't buy that for a second; his first mission had been a solo brush pass that, when it had gone sideways, had ended with him being forced to go to ground in Amsterdam. He'd had no back-up. If it hadn't been for the friendly, back-slapping local hash bar owner, he'd have been toast. He smiled at the memory and reminded himself to call Joost soon.
Suddenly his headphones, which had been intermittently receiving standard sit reps from the various parties on the ground, exploded with noise. Everyone was trying to get on the line at once. "One at a time!" Auggie commanded into his microphone. "Wong, you first!"
The tactical operative on scene, posing as a bellhop, came frantically on the line, "Auggie, we're reporting gunfire! A lot of gunfire! Looks like it's coming from the 4th floor!"
Fear seized his heart. "Get her outta there, now!" he shouted. "And keep the line clear!" Tech ops erupted into furious activity behind him, and he felt like punching something. Dammit, Joan, Auggie thought. What'd you send her into? He crouched at his desk, listening intently for any activity. He'd only been handling operatives for a few months, and none of them had (yet) been shot at. The idea of Annie Walker being the first one to go down was painful in a way that didn't really make sense to him, considering the matter of hours he'd known her. He shook his head; it wasn't a good idea to go there, especially not with everything going to hell on-site. He needed to keep his head clear.
After another excruciatingly tense minute, Wong reported in: "She's in the van, unharmed, and headed back to Langley."
Auggie exhaled in relief. "Thank you, Dave," he said. "Clean things up over there and then get back here, too."
"Will do, sir."
Auggie dropped his head and let the tautness in his shoulders slowly abate. Then, he grabbed one of the bottles of water he kept at his desk, fetched a clean glass from the kitchenette, and poured Annie Walker a glass of water. He was guessing she was gonna need it.
As Auggie got word that Annie was coming through security, he dialed Maxine's extension and gave her the news. Auggie knew he'd be interrupting the Campbells' hush-hush counseling session in the DCS's office, but he also knew that Joan would want to know what had happened. Still, he told Joan's secretary to hold off 5 minutes. He wanted Annie to make it into the DPD before Joan did, so he could assess her mental state and give her a few pointers on how to handle the situation.
It wasn't hard to tell when Annie entered the bullpen, as Auggie heard gasps and murmured inquiries as to her welfare trail her from the entrance over to where he sat by the screens area. He rose when he smelled her perfume, though he was puzzled that he didn't hear her stilettos. "Hey," he offered softly, when he could hear her hitched breathing right in front of him. He held out the glass of water, and she took it silently. He sat back down, grabbed his coffee, and gestured to the chair in front of him.
"Aren't you going to ask me what happened?" she asked, her voice wavering.
He just smiled, keeping his voice low and soothing. "In a minute. First, are you okay?"
She let out a strangled little laugh, then caught herself. "Oh," she said, that same whispered syllable from before. "I guess I should tell you I'm a wreck."
"You're hurt?" he asked anxiously, sitting up straight.
"No, no, it's not that," she assured him in a shaky voice that didn't exactly inspire confidence. "I'm...I just...I look terrible."
He leaned back again, relieved, and smiled. "Well now, don't be so hard on yourself; I think you look fine."
He was rewarded with a chuckle, and knew that she was indeed going to be fine. "So now," he said, clearing his throat, "tell me what the hell happened up there."
It was an extremely disturbing picture she painted. Most upsetting of all, if totally understandable, was the fact that she hadn't gotten the intel. No one could blame her for having left her device behind...but he had a feeling Joan would. Just as he thought it, Joan's voice came from above them.
"What went wrong? This was supposed to be simple," she asked in irritation, making her way down the steps from her office high above the ops center.
Annie, you picked the wrong month to start at the Agency, Auggie thought to himself. He mentally willed her to be tough.
"It all happened so fast. I was talking to him one moment, and the next - the room seemed to explode," Annie offered.
Not good enough, Annie, Auggie silently warned her. He wished he'd had just a few more minutes with her before Joan had arrived.
Joan mentioned to Annie that most operatives went their whole careers without being shot at, which was technically true, if completely unhelpful in the situation. Well, no one had ever complimented her on her bedside manner. Auggie had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from jumping in to defend Annie. Or to remind Joan that the star wall wasn't for decoration. But Annie astonishingly held her own with Joan once again. Auggie was finding her more and more intriguing. On the one hand her voice, which was pitched high and soft, sounded like a teen pop star's. But, every so often, something else slipped into it. Something hard and tenacious. Something sexy as hell, if also a little terrifying for even a confident guy like Auggie.
The two women engaged in their bizarre little subliminal catfight until Joan discovered that the intel had been lost. Auggie winced for Annie, waiting for Joan to really whip out her claws. But then Annie did something that shocked him and, he was guessing, Joan too. She stood up and offered to go back to the hotel. Annie Walker, he mused, you've got guts.
As Auggie had expected, Joan immediately shot down the idea of her taking anything from the room. But, as she did, an idea occurred to Auggie. He recalled the back-up transponder sitting in his desk drawer. His mind raced through the outline of the code he'd need to write on the fly, gauging whether or not he could do it in the limited time they had. A few seconds, and he was sure he could.
"She doesn't need to take anything," he interjected, to Joan. "She just needs to get in the room."
Joan had sent Annie to cover ops to procure a change of clothes, with instructions to meet back up with Auggie in the maps area in 30 minutes. Auggie had laughed to himself at the fact that Annie was now, indeed, going to be wearing "some sort of costume." Annie had suggested they re-vamp her call girl role, this time really going for it. Auggie admired her willingness to use her obvious charm and looks to get the job done; it reminded him of himself in the field. As he disconnected the device from his computer, he clenched his jaw against the nostalgia of that thought. Maybe it was watching a new operative in the field for the first time, but the desire to be out there himself was especially strong today. He shoved it down as he walked to the maps area. Distracted as he was, he didn't notice how easy it was to locate her. She was totally silent; he shouldn't have been able to find her. But he did.
"Try not to break or lose this one," he teased. As he handed her the re-worked gadget, he unintentionally reached up and placed a hand on her bare, toned shoulder. Her skin was warm and smooth, and a shot of heat raced through his palm and up his arm in response. Hoping she didn't notice the effect she was having on him, he fought off the inappropriate desire to explore further and casually dropped his burning hand as he explained how the apparatus worked. But when she rose, she bumped him with her elbow, and out of habit he grabbed her arm. As though sighted lead with someone he'd just met and hadn't taught it to was the most normal thing in the whole world...
"Oh, Annie," he called out to her 2 minutes later as she was leaving the DPD.
"You remember that number?"
She rattled off the 302 number, and he grinned.
Sure enough, 45 minutes later, his headset rang, announcing to him that the FBI Secure Exchange was forwarding him a call.
"Gold Circle Club, where pleasure is our pleasure," he answered, barely restraining his laughter. "How may I direct your call?"
Annie, he thought proudly, you did good.
However, a half hour after that, when Annie had triumphantly returned to the DPD, Auggie was crestfallen to realize the intel she'd risked her life and freedom for was useless. Talk about a rough first day. Well, these things happened. Making his way out of his office, he decided to trust his weird new sixth (fifth! he amended with a snort) sense as he passed by someone getting water from the tap at the kitchenette. He leaned on the stainless steel counter, inhaled quietly, and was rewarded with Jo Malone Grapefruit in his olfactory glands. Yup, it's her.
"Word to the wise," he intoned gravely, "these pipes haven't been cleaned since the Johnson Administration. I'd invest in a bottle of Evian." He waited for her laugh, and when it didn't come, he changed his tactic. Maybe she didn't need a joke right now. Maybe she needed someone who cared. "You all right?" he asked softly.
"I saw a man get killed today. I lied to a federal agent. I was shot at."
"Hm," he murmured in assent. "Or, as we call it, Thursday at the Agency." He heard her let out a shaky little breath before she continued.
"Asset entanglement. Evasion techniques. Deception. These are all words they use in training. They make it sound so clinical, but it's not. It's...it's messy, and it's dangerous," she remarked, her voice strained from the day's events.
"It is messy, and it can be dangerous," he agreed promptly. He of all people knew that. And right that moment, he knew something else, too: He wasn't going to pursue this woman as some sort of notch on his belt. He mentally rearranged his categories, taking Annie Walker out of the "Amy" column, and placing her in the "Mel" column. It felt right somehow. Realizing Annie was staring at him, he added, "But you're doing it well." He paused a moment, trying to decide if his original plan to get her to come out to Allen's for the purpose of seducing her was still salvageable. He realized he actually really wanted to get to know her, and decided he could make the evening platonic. Plus, he had a feeling a drink would do her good. "Now, it's Miller Time. Happy Hour at the Tavern."
"That's your solution?" she prodded skeptically.
"Oh, absolutely," he responded confidently, crooking his elbow in a gesture he'd perfected to seem like chivalry but which was actually his own surreptitious modified lead technique.
"One drink," she ceded, and he laughed. He could once again feel her smile, and somehow he just knew she had dimples. In fact, strangely enough, though he still couldn't bring Joan's face to mind, his brain was actively constructing an image of Annie Walker. He had no way to know if it was accurate, but it was so pleasant he hardly cared.
"Probably best if you drive," he joked as they made their way out of the DPD together.
Annie's driving was...intense. If he hadn't read her file, including the bit about her scoring higher on defensive driving at the Farm than any woman ever had, he'd have been extremely nervous. Arriving at Allen's, she parked her car and they both exited the vehicle. He stood at the passenger side waiting for the awkward moment when he'd have to explain that he needed a lead, since using his cane in the bar on nights like this was more of a hassle than it was worth. But as usual she didn't seem to require any lessons from him. She walked up beside him and he caught her elbow like they'd been doing it for years. But as nice as it was, it was also a little odd.
"You know somebody blind?" he asked as they walked to bar's front door. "Friend? Family member or something?"
"No," she answered, sounding confused. "Why? Did I do something wrong?"
"No," he replied quickly, "Opposite of that, actually."
Before she had a chance to respond, they were assaulted by the noise from inside the tavern. Happy Hour on Thursdays was always the busiest, loudest time at Allen's. He ordered them two pale ales and paid for both, over her objections.
"I can buy my own beer," she contended.
"Uh-uh," he argued back. "First day on the job, first time at Allen's - you get a free beer. It's practically in the employee handbook."
"So who bought you your first beer?" she quizzed teasingly.
As if on cue, a throaty voice he recognized immediately as Tia's greeted him from somewhere to his right. He made his usual wry observation about how lovely she looked, and then Jane, sitting a few booths away called out a reminder for her party on Saturday. He confirmed he'd be there just as a waitress whose name he could never remember addressed him, too. He could feel Annie's amusement and, as an explanation, he remarked drolly, "Ladies love a blind guy."
It was true, and one of the most surprising things about life post-injury for him. If he'd been a bit of a player before, now he had to fend women off with a stick...or a cane, as the case may be. The idea had bothered him at first. What was wrong with a woman if she were interested in a guy because he was disabled? It had taken him awhile to realize that what the women were really turned on by was his difference. They were endlessly fascinated by the adaptive set-up at his apartment, his cane, the Braille slate and stylus he kept in his kitchen for notes-to-self. Basically, all the things that he'd resisted and hated so much when he'd first been forced to incorporate them into his life. It was a twist, and one whose irony continued to baffle him.
So there was that, but there was also their (arguably incorrect) perception that he was a cocksure superhero who was unexpectedly vulnerable in a way that was especially appealing to the gentler sex. To extend the comic book metaphor, he'd realized they didn't want Daredevil; they wanted Iron Man. They expected a wounded warrior when they found out how he'd been hurt, and he could play the part for a night or two so they both got what they wanted. More than a night or two, however, and he became exhausted by the charade. He'd revert to his lockbox ways, bored of pretending to be more tortured or needy than he really was. Ultimately, for the long-term, he was only interested in being with a woman to whom his blindness was just another minor physical characteristic, like the cleft in his chin or the color of his hair. It was a tall order, he knew, and maybe even too much to hope for. But he was holding out hope that someone like that existed somewhere. Someone (he hesitated to think it, it was so early, but there it was) like Annie Walker.
All of this passed through his mind in a second, and he came back to her quickly enough to elucidate that women thought blind men didn't care about looks. That, of course, was another aspect of the attraction and the easiest to give Annie in a quip.
"Think?" she bantered back, and he found himself revealing one of his trademark "blind man" secrets, the one about taking a cue as to a woman's looks by listening to how other men spoke to her. It wasn't something he did often; he preferred to remain a little mysterious on that front. But he was once again feeling inebriated not by the beer in his hand, but by the woman at his side.
Just as he'd been about to launch into a flirtatious speech about her looks, Conrad interrupted them and made his point so perfectly it was like they'd planned it. It's better this way, he thought, even as he somewhat jealously listened to Conrad turn on the charm. He reminded himself that his intention was not to hook up with her. But that didn't mean he particularly loved the idea of Conrad hooking up with her instead. So he was a little relieved when Conrad left to go get them another round.
Alone together once more, he decided to try to get to know her a little better...and maybe fill some of those holes in her file. Before he had a chance, though, she started talking shop.
"Why do you think Stas tried to sell us such bad intel?" she puzzled.
Predictably, she was still obsessing over what she surely saw as her failure earlier in the day. "Just because a guy can shoot a sniper rifle doesn't make him smart. Intelligence can be a bit of a misnomer," he offered. Honestly, the whole situation had confused and disturbed him, too; he'd just become more comfortable with mystery and half-truths over the years.
"I guess..." she murmured.
Sensing his opportunity to reclaim the conversation, he dared to ask, "So tell me, why'd you get into this? You certainly don't fit the profile."
"I thought there was no profile," she retorted. There was that smile again; dimples, too.
"And yet, everyone joins for some reason, and it sure ain't the pay," he tossed back. He listened carefully and heard her clear her throat uncomfortably. He leaned in a little and adjusted his voice to a more earnest note: "Tell me, I can take it." He wasn't sure she picked up on his reference to his own clearly painful past, but it got her talking, which was the point anyway.
As she laid out the bittersweet details of the heartbreak that had led her join up with the Agency, he knew for sure that his decision had been the right one. Annie Walker would not be a one-night stand. As with Mel, he rapidly started to develop a protective instinct toward her. That would come in handy as her handler, but it wasn't only a professional feeling; as a person, he just didn't want anything bad to happen to her. And that included him.
While she talked, he also found himself doing something he hadn't done since his first days out of rehab, which was actively trying not to make eye contact with her. There'd been a time when he'd felt distinctly self-conscious about where his gaze fell while conversing with someone. He knew he was probably close to looking in the right place most of the time, as he'd been told most people blinded as adults did. But he was also sure his eye contact was rarely absolutely direct. He'd assumed it would make sighted people more comfortable if he just didn't even try.
Then, one day, Andy had asked him why he looked up or away so frequently while speaking to people. It had brought Auggie up short; he was startled to realize that Andy had noticed. He wondered then, as he had many times since, if the people around him had any sense of what it was like to walk around in total darkness 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Pitch black in the morning, pitch black in the afternoon, pitch black in the evening. Ink-dark night while he worked, ink-dark night while he socialized, ink-dark night at home. A lightless murk for Easter, Fourth of July, and Christmas. He recalled the panic, the way it had felt like he was smothering to death in the beginning, like someone had thrown a heavy, suffocating blanket over his head and held it there. Gradually, as he adjusted, he stopped noticing it. Now, he knew he was starting to forget what it was like for "them," too. What it was like to be able to see the person you were talking to, and what they were doing. In any event, Andy's subtle observation was a turning point for him. He figured he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't, so he'd just do whatever seemed natural in the moment. In this moment, it seemed right for him not to stare her down while she was baring her soul. So he didn't. But not because he was thinking of himself; because he was thinking of her.
"...I wasn't gonna get burned again," she finished her story, and he once again heard that unyeilding note in her voice. It was downright scary, and he hoped she never used it against him.
Auggie inhaled through his nose, honored she'd shared her story with him, but also feeling a tad uncomfortable at the sudden intimacy that seemed like a living thing sitting on the table between them. So he did what he always did when he felt uncomfortable: He made a joke.
"Man, you do fit the profile," he grinned.
But as it turned out, his diversionary joke hadn't been necessary, as his phone buzzing right then provided a more-than-adequate deflection. He put in his earpiece and tried to hide his grin as his phone privately read him the text he'd just received from Conrad.
Moments after Auggie got his text, Conrad showed up at their table with their drinks. And about two minutes after that, Conrad kicked Auggie under the table as Auggie heard two women thread their way past where they sat. Game on, Auggie thought.
"Oh, oh, okay, how about that girl?" he began as though it were a surprise, calling Annie's attention to the passing women. "She smells great."
Conrad's "all right" in response was Auggie's cue that he'd gotten the right girl. Excellent.
Conrad paused for a moment, while Auggie assumed he pretended to be observing for the first time the girl that he'd already inventoried at the bar and sent Auggie the details of. Then he commented, "Vintage Irish Heart ring, crucifix on her neck, LSAT prep book in her purse, holds her liquor...I'm guessing Boston College."
Auggie tried to hide his annoyance, though he hoped his clenched fist got the point across. Conrad was stealing the show, repeating basically everything his text had said. Leave something for the blind guy, Auggie thought in irritation. If he didn't, what would be the point of this little game they'd perfected?
And it was a game, one that Conrad had unexpectedly initiated one night when Auggie had been trying to impress one of his conquests. Conrad, whom he'd initially written off as basically a dilettante, had cornered Auggie at the bar that night and suggested they fool Auggie's date by pretending to be super-spies. In that instance, Conrad's cousin, who also lived in DC, had been at Allen's that night too. Conrad had rattled off some facts about her, including what she was wearing that night, and he and Auggie had returned to the table with the drinks and a plan. It had worked, too - the girl (Steph? Candace? Auggie couldn't recall) had been gobsmacked that the men could get all that from just a glance. Since then, they'd pulled the prank a half dozen other times with excellent, er, "results." So Auggie couldn't understand why Conrad was changing it up tonight. Auggie shot him a peeved look, just as Annie piped up:
"Maryland accent, not Baltimore. Traces of Dublin...I bet her parents are first generation off-the-boat," she mused quietly.
Auggie tried to keep from laughing, or applauding, or both. None of the women they'd pulled this on had ever attempted to get in on the action. Her contribution emboldened Auggie, who did have one detail of his own to add to the mix in the hopes of impressing Annie: "And she's fit, huh? Her heels barely made any noise when she was walking by."
"In fact, she was walking a little gingerly," Conrad upped the ante. "I'd say she's training for a marathon."
You smug bastard, Auggie accused silently...not that he blamed the guy. "Okay, time for more drinks," he announced, hoping to cut Conrad off at the pass. Auggie may have known he wasn't going to sleep with her, but he also wasn't going to sit idly by and let Conrad upstage him like that.
Unfortunately, that was the exact moment when Annie noticed Auggie's wristwatch, and the time it displayed. She rushed off with a hurried explanation about dinner with her sister, leaving the two men alone at the table, their elaborate hoax epically failing for the first time. Though Auggie did take a little pleasure in the fact that it was him she explained the situation to, his arm she grasped just before turning to leave. He felt superior for only about 2 seconds, though.
Oh, it occurred to him, she told me because I'm the one who rode with her. "Wait," he weakly attempted to get her attention, "how'm I gonna get home?" Conrad said nothing, knowing that Auggie was perfectly capable of getting home in any number of ways and understanding that this routine was solely for the purpose of drawing Annie back in. But she was apparently already too far away to hear his manipulative plea. Well, that was just as well. The girl with the Irish Heart ring laughed with her friends from one table over, and Auggie was drawn to it like a siren's song.
I never promised Mel I'd be a monk, he reminded himself.
The next day Auggie was already at his desk, having extracted himself from Louise's embrace before the sun was up, when word trickled into the DPD that someone had just been rounded up by security at the front gate. Gossip and rumors circulated around the room, including one claiming the incident involved a new operative, a female one.
Auggie walked out of the tech ops doors and listened for a voice he recognized. He caught Tommy's and got his attention. "You seen Annie around?" he asked. "She at her desk?"
"No to both. Sorry," he replied. Uh-oh. Auggie decided he needed a better source.
"Joan?" he called out as he entered her waiting area.
"She's not here, Auggie," Maxine explained from her seat behind her desk.
"What's going on, Maxine?"
Maxine paused a moment, then got up and took his arm. She walked him further into the room, away from the eyes and ears outside the door. Auggie looked down toward her quizzically. "New girl got herself into some trouble," she whispered.
"What kind of trouble?" he asked.
"That's above my clearance," she replied.
"Okay, thanks, Maxine," he responded distractedly, patting her hand on his arm before turning and making his way back to his desk. He tried Annie's phone, but just as it went straight to voicemail, he heard a commotion from Joan's office above the DPD.
Knowing he was probably the only person in the department who could get away with it, he walked quietly back up the stairs and stood just outside the window that overlooked the bullpen. He tried to stay out of sight in the corner, not sure whether or not Joan's blinds were open. From the sound of it, Annie was being dressed-down pretty harshly. Something about discussing the Stas case with an old professor. He couldn't hear every word, but he definitely caught Joan telling Annie she was headed back to the Farm. His heart squeezed in disappointment while he waited for Joan to fire her...but she didn't. What's your play here, Joan? he wondered. Just scare the poor girl to death? Joan didn't baby anyone, but she'd been especially cruel to Annie since the moment she'd walked into her department. He heard Joan dismiss her and took a lucky guess as to where Annie was headed.
The clamor coming from inside the women's restroom confirmed that he'd guessed correctly. He knew it was a risky gambit to go in after her, but he was a little worried she'd break the door - or her hand - if he didn't intervene. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
He already knew it was her, but the smell of her (Mel's) perfume made him even more confident.
"Whoops," he stage-whispered. "Perfume. Wrong bathroom." His laser cane showed him that the bathroom was a mirror image of the men's. "Jo Malone Grapefruit...Annie? You're here? I had no idea." The ruckus had abruptly cut off when he entered; he hoped she'd say something so he could pinpoint her location.
She did. "Liar."
"How you doing?" he asked quietly, leaning against the stall next to the one from which her voice had come.
"I'm fine," she answered testily.
Now it was his turn. "Liar." He paused. "You know, I remember when I first started at the Agency. I was so freaking confused by everything," he explained, turning so his back was against the metal door. "And this was before my accident; I could still see, but...protocol...bureaucracy...People I thought were mentors turned out to be jerks, and vice versa. I was a mess." His mention of mentors-slash-jerks was a veiled reference (that he hoped she couldn't see through) to Arthur Campbell, on whom the jury was still out at the moment. "Of course, back then, I could at least read the bathroom signs," he ended as a continuation of his opening joke. Of course he knew he'd walked into the women's restroom; there were Braille plaques on the walls outside all of Langley's bathrooms, and he never entered one without checking. But he'd sacrifice his dignity for comedy, if he could just get her to laugh.
She didn't laugh, but her next words were quieter, calmer. "So what's the secret?"
He let her in on his: a sense of humor and a full bottle of Patrón. When she still didn't laugh, he realized she probably thought her career at the CIA was over (and with good reason, he thought, annoyed at Joan). "Annie, if Joan was gonna fire you, she would've already done it. The Agency likes people who take initiative. It's kind of a weird push-pull thing."
Annie was quiet a moment, and then she opened the door to the stall. "In that case, I need your help."
Holy shit, thought Auggie exuberantly. I'm in the field. I am IN the field. I'M IN THE FREAKING FIELD.
When Annie's favor had turned out to be him secretly accompanying her to a DC morgue to find the body of the man killed in the Oval Suite the day before, he'd decided he'd walk across hot coals barefoot for the woman. Since he'd been back to the DPD, not one person had even considered that he might be useful out from behind his desk. Now, this woman had walked into the CIA one day, and dragged him out the next. Because she needed him. It was like a drug.
He tried not to show his euphoria, wanting to play it cool like the seasoned operative he actually was...and also hoping not to tip her off to the fact that he was definitely not allowed to be doing this.
'This,' at the moment, was standing outside the medical examiner's office trying to figure out how to get access to the restricted morgue level. They walked arm in arm, since it didn't seem smart to make Auggie's blindness obvious while they were undercover. That was also why he'd left his regular cane at Langley and had his laser cane tucked into his pocket, and why he was wearing sunglasses even though he ironically felt like a terrible blind cliché in them.
He was racking his brain for ideas to get in when Annie suddenly asked someone walking by them if they'd take a picture of them. Auggie couldn't guess what she was up to but played along, feeling distinctly weird about pretending to be sighted (and hoping all the while that he was selling it) as he looked in the man's direction. When the man handed back her phone, Annie turned him around and he heard a little plastic snap, followed by the familiar smell of wintergreen. His mind turned fast, deducing that the snap sound meant it wasn't gum. And the smell was so strong it had to be Listerine, which he gargled with every morning. But that company didn't make mints in snap cases. Suddenly, he realized what it was. "Wintergreen Listerine Breath Strips?" he puzzled. Please say those aren't for me, he worried, thinking of the cup of coffee he'd abandoned before eavesdropping at Joan's office.
"I'm improvising," she revealed. "I once washed a pair of jeans with these in the pocket. When I fished them out, I couldn't get them...off...my...fingers," she trailed off, and suddenly it was clear to him what she was attempting. Which was incredibly clever and inventive. And definitely, definitely never gonna work.
He told her so, but not 10 seconds later he heard an electronic beep and the restricted access door open. He stood there in shock for a second, and then realized with considerable alarm that she'd left him behind. Crap! He did have his laser cane with him for emergencies, but it was hidden away in his pocket since it was technically not even supposed to leave the CIA campus. Using it out in public without life or limb in danger would be a huge no-no. "Annie," he called out, trying to keep the fear out of his voice, and received a bump on the back of his hand a moment later. Whew.
She led him down an echo-y hallway and then they ducked into what he guessed from the fusty smell was a janitor's closet.
"What's the plan here, Annie?"
"Um..." she hemmed.
"Okay, I have an idea," she said after another momentary pause. "But...it involves you staying put here for 5 - no, 10 minutes, tops," she answered apologetically.
"All right," he agreed promptly. "Do what you gotta do." Apparently she really didn't have any clue how magical it was that he was even outside the DPD, let alone the building. He'd have sat in that closet for a week if it meant he got to be in the field like this.
"Thank you so much for this," she whispered hurriedly as she slipped out the door.
Five minutes passed, and then ten, and then fifteen. Auggie started running scenarios in his mind, not only of what might have happened to Annie, but also how the hell he'd get out of there if she'd been caught. He knew she wouldn't tell anyone about him being there, so he'd be on his own. He nervously felt for his phone in his pocket and let its presence calm his nerves a tad. Joan's voice, and then Arthur's, sounded in his mind, big "see-why-you're-not allowed-in-the-field" speeches from the both of them. A bead of sweat trickled down his back when all at once he knew she was near. He couldn't hear her or smell her (let alone touch or taste her, though those thoughts were extremely appealing), but he knew she'd be opening the door in 3...2...1...
- click -
The door opened and there she was. She'd found the room with the extra gurneys. Now it was Auggie's turn to play the role of dead guy, which had been her initial idea in the bathroom at Langley and why she'd needed him to come along in the first place. He handed her his shoes, laid down on the cot, and tried not to have an episode of PTSD as she gently placed the sheet over his face.
After a long walk through convoluted hallways, they finally made it to the morgue. She ensured the room was clear, then threw back the sheet. Auggie tried not to show what a relief that was, and sat up quickly. He felt for his shoes, which he thought she'd placed at the foot of the gurney, but came up empty-handed. "Annie, you forgot my shoes," he complained. "I'm supposed to walk around a morgue barefoot?"
When she didn't respond, he sighed and stepped gingerly onto the concrete floor, trying not to imagine what kinds of things had dripped and plopped and splurted onto its surface over the years. He made a mental note to wear his socks into the shower when he got home, and then burn them.
He took a moment to listen for her and to the room around him. Feeling positive they were alone, with the way she was talking openly about the case, he removed the laser cane from his pocket and swept the area in front of him, eventually making it to her side at the doorway to one of the huge freezers where they kept the corpse-sicles. She didn't seem the least bit freaked out by the macabre nature of what they were doing, which earned Auggie's admiration and his curiosity. Did this have anything to do with the holes in her file? he pondered.
"This guy," she announced triumphantly, clearly coming across the right body. "Clean as a boy scout. I knew it. Stas is still alive. I should've noticed it when his robe came off."
"Wait," Auggie stopped her, incredulous. "His robe came off?"
Annie didn't get a chance to answer, though, because that's when the FBI arrived.
Auggie assumed from the way he spoke to her that the FBI agent who'd apprehended them was the same one who'd been at the Capitol Grande. Predictably, this Agent Rossabi made a move to separate them. But he only did it once they were out of the ME's building entirely, which by then was too late. He'd allowed Annie to lead Auggie out, and Auggie had whispered a single word into her ear as they walked down the hall: "John." She made an almost inaudible grunt, and he knew she'd understood. As they exited the doors of the building, she'd taken advantage of the noisy rush of air to whisper a word back to him: "Fetishist." He'd kept a straight face and nodded, though his abs hurt from trying not to laugh. This girl was ballsy.
They were separated then, and driven in different cars to what Auggie assumed was FBI Headquarters. He tried to keep track of the distances and turns, and he was pretty sure that's where they'd ended up. After all, the building was only a couple of miles down Pennsylvania Ave, on the other side of the White House, from his M Street apartment.
Hustled inside and into an interrogation room to wait, he explored the room the way he'd learned to in rehab if he ever lost his cane: with one hand protecting his upper body and the other outstretched at waist level. When he reached a wall of what felt like windows, he ran the back of his hand along it. At the corner, he turned and continued going around and around the room, using the time to formulate his story. And not just his story for the FBI. Oh no, he'd have a lot of explaining to do back at Langley. And that was infinitely more troubling than selling some bullshit story to the g-men goons until someone at the CIA made a call and they were released.
Actually, he smiled, the bullshit-story-selling should be kinda fun. And it was.
Once released, Annie and Auggie took a cab back to the medical examiner's to grab her car, and then they headed into Langley, where they were both wanted posthaste. Annie, who'd kept her cool during the interrogation, was practically hyperventilating by the time they made in onto the GW Parkway headed toward McLean.
"She's gonna fire me. She's actually going to fire me now," she panicked.
"Annie, calm down," he reassured her. "The important thing to remember is, you made good. That body was not Stas. Well, from what I could see of him anyway."
She gave him a small laugh, but then immediately returned to fretting.
"Hey," he said softly, laying a hand on her forearm. "I'm not gonna let you take the fall for this."
He could feel her looking at him. "Thank you," she finally said, placing her hand over his and making his pulse beat through his skin.
At Langley, the two tried to appear busy as they awaited the DNA results. A test that would have taken a two weeks for a run-of-the-mill paternity suit was processed in two hours using an advanced microchip the DST had developed only months earlier. It was good to be the CIA. That drastically cut down the time they'd have to wait anxiously to hear whether or not they'd blown it, anyway.
Auggie was biding his time for one of the newer techs to bring him a Braille printout of the file Annie was currently sifting through, feeling mildly frustrated that he couldn't just look over her shoulder. Just as Kent touched his arm and handed off the file, Joan approached from Auggie's left:
"You were right," Joan announced, and Auggie silently savored the victory for Annie's sake.
"Really?" Annie asked, sounding stunned.
"Don't make me say it again," Joan warned. "We got ahold of the body after you two were pinched at the morgue - not good, by the way - "
"We're sorry about that," Auggie jumped in. But he didn't feel sorry, and he was guessing he didn't look sorry, with the Cheshire-cat grin pasted on his face. He ducked his head deferentially all the same.
"Two days on the job, and you already have him apologizing for you?" Joan snarked.
Auggie again threw himself in front of the bullet, even though it had been aimed at Annie. "She likes Mingus," he quipped.
They discussed the case further, trying to tease out the reason the man in the morgue hadn't been the real Stas. Finally, the proverbial light bulb went on over Auggie's head as Annie emphasized that the man was an assassin.
"Oh man, is Stas still on the HSTL?" he muttered, making his way back to his desk. He pulled up the High Security Threat List, confirming his fear: Stas was listed as "deceased," which meant no one anywhere was going to be looking for him. Or expecting him.
He silently cheered as Annie and Joan discussed the case like peers. Annie had earned a foot in the door with her audacious move this afternoon. And he'd gotten into the field with only the mildest of rebukes from Joan. It was a win-win and practically a miracle. Which was why he was able to say entirely without bitterness, "Go get him, girls," as the women hurried out of the DPD without him.
Three hours later, Auggie was wondering what the hell was going on around this place. It was almost 10 o'clock, but Arthur had called an emergency meeting in his office that had turned into an awards ceremony for Annie. Auggie was all about celebrating Annie's win, but the bizarre immediacy of this ceremony, literally within minutes of the conclusion of the op that had merited it, was unheard of. Only the Friday night skeleton crew was even in the building at the moment. Which may have been the point, Auggie considered, turning over the Annie Walker enigma in his mind.
He'd hung with his friend Jenna from cover ops throughout the unusual event, the two of them whispering back and forth about how odd it all was, and he was still by her side when he overheard Joan tell Annie that the man who'd shot Stas was Agent Baldwin. Jim Baldwin? Auggie ruminated dubiously. Uh, no. The guy was a glorified accountant whose riskiest ops involved him posing as an IRS auditor and secreting financial documents out of American corporations suspected of indirectly funding terrorists.
He heard Joan request the medal from Annie and walk away, and knew it was his opportunity. He had Jenna point him in Annie's direction and walked until he sensed the warm, fuzzy aura he'd begun to associate with her, and which he swore he'd never tell a soul about. Now there's a way to ensure a psych evaluation, he reflected sardonically.
"The Agency giveth and the Agency taketh away," he remarked, spoofing one of the few Bible verses he was familiar with.
She slipped her arm easily into the crook of his elbow. "You were right," she noted. "This is a weird place to work."
She'd had a long, harrowing day, and he wasn't about to add to her bewilderment by mentioning that it had gotten even weirder since yesterday morning. So he just said, "C'mon, let's go scarf down a few more of these cheese cubes before they take those away."
But what he thought was:
Annie Walker, I got a feeling you and I are gonna make a great team.
...or is it THE BEGINNING? ;)