Chapter 2: You'll Be Comin' Down
Larry: I see two extraordinary minds that can communicate on the purest level a man and woman can interface on. [pause] Okay, second purest.
Charlie: Geek love.
Larry: Hey, no better kind.
--"Bettor or Worse"
Charlie leaned back on two legs of his chair and regarded Amita, sitting across the desk from him. They were in her office for once, a smaller space than Charlie's but with a quieter location down at the end of a hallway on the little-trafficked fourth floor. It was beastly hot in the summer, but this time of year, with a cool fall breeze rustling the long, slender leaves on the eucalyptus tree outside the window, it was perfect. And it was far away from the parade of students who were no doubt knocking on his door to complain about the results of the first midterm. He'd found it was always best to let them cool off for a day or two before listening to their grievances, and it gave him an excuse to spend some time with his favorite combinatoricist.
Amita was typing away furiously on her laptop, head moving back and forth between the screen in front of her and a sheaf of papers on the top of her desk. He could tell the desk was too high for her typing to be ergonomic, but it was the hand-me-down the math department had provided her as a new faculty member: dented battleship-grey steel that was older than either one of them. Heck, it might even be older than his dad. It was clearly intended for writing, not typing, but he hadn't been able to persuade her to use any of the start-up funds the university gave her to purchase something more modern. She'd only muttered something about how the university apparently figured since she didn't need expensive lab equipment or specimens, she didn't need much of anything at all, and he hadn't been able to drag out of her how much money they'd given her. He was a full professor, he could look it up in her personnel file if he wanted to, but that would be an invasion of privacy that was likely to get him in big trouble with his girlfriend if not his department chair.
"There," she finally said, hitting one last key and sitting back in her task chair. At least the chair had been built for twenty-first century activities, he thought. "The problem with e-mail is, even though you can answer it whenever you want, people expect you to answer it right away. And the students are the worst."
"Midterm grades are in?" he asked, balancing on the back two legs of the chair.
"No, not yet. I haven't entered everything from the last exam yet."
He frowned. "I thought you had a TA for your class."
"I do, but I like to enter the grades myself. It helps me keep track of how each student is doing."
"Amita, the only thing that matters with regards to how well they're doing is the letter grade they get at the end of the course." She looked up at him, and he hurried on, "It's great that you're concerned about your students, but sometimes you've got to delegate the work to someone else."
Two parallel lines formed between her elegant eyebrows. "If I don't at least enter the grades, I have no idea about how well they understand the material. I don't grade their homework. I don't talk to them in problem sessions. I feel like I understood how well the class was doing much better when I was a TA myself than I do now that I'm the one teaching the class. That seems backwards to me."
"Don't you get a sense of how well they're doing from the questions they ask in class?"
"Charlie, I teach at 9 AM. I'm lucky if a third of the students show up on any given day."
"Good point." Even his afternoon classes were considered to be successes if over half of the students who were registered actually appeared in the classroom. And he was one of the most popular teachers on campus.
He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "So, are you ready to go to Munich after the quarter ends? The conference'll be okay, I suppose, but we can skip out a day or two early and head out to the Alps. It might be a little early in the season for skiing, but we can always sit in front of the fire and..." Charlie trailed off as he noticed she wasn't meeting his eyes. "Amita?"
She closed the lid on her laptop. "I'm not going."
Charlie furrowed his brow. "What do you mean, you're not going? The best young mathematicians from all over the world will be there. You have to go; it's a great place to get feedback on your work – "
"My paper wasn't accepted."
He blinked. "What?"
Amita looked up at him, her dark eyes flashing with hurt for a second before smoothing into calmness. "I submitted an abstract based on part of my dissertation that I'm writing up for the Journal of Combinatorics, and it wasn't accepted. Ergo, I'm not going to the conference. There's a complex analysis conference in Banff around the same time; I think it'll be useful for me to go to that."
"How could that not be accepted? It's a great piece of work, it's surely going to get accepted by the top journal in your field, and it's of interest to a lot of mathematicians in related fields of work."
"Too bad you weren't on the selection panel," she retorted. Then the corner of her mouth turned up with un-Amita-like derisiveness. "Then again, I suppose that would make things even worse."
"Come again?" Now he was confused.
She let out a sigh and leaned forward, her forearms resting on either side of the silver laptop. Her deep red V-neck shirt fell slightly forward, and Charlie pulled his attention up to her face as she spoke. "I heard from a friend that there's been some...uncertainty about the quality of my work among some of the key combinatoricists."
Amita licked her lips. "Yeah." She picked at a jagged cuticle and then flattened her hands on her desk and said simply, "They think that I'm passing your work off as my own."
"That's ridiculous!" Charlie flung himself up from his chair. "Your work is much more analytical than mine, it's more computer-based, and...and I haven't written anything on combinatorics in years."
"That may be true, but apparently it looks different from an outsider's perspective."
Her voice was growing quieter, and he slowly sat back down again, realizing from the expression on her face that this was not the first time she'd heard a rumor like this. "How long have people been telling you this crap?"
Amita looked up sharply. "It's obviously not crap if it keeps me from getting into Munich."
"But it's perfectly groundless. Anyone who knows your work should know that." Charlie stared at her for a moment, and then an idea popped into his head. "Listen, I know the organizers at Munich. I'll talk to them, explain that someone was operating under a misconception when it came to not recommending your paper, and -- "
She was shaking her head. "That'll only make it worse," she said softly.
"What do you -- " A second light bulb went on in his head, and he slumped back in the chair. "Oh," he said weakly.
She bit her lip. "Apparently the story is that I got the job here at CalSci because of you, and that my paper that's coming out in the Annals of the American Mathematical Society is because of you, and that maybe my dissertation got accepted because of you, too."
He opened his mouth to protest, but soon realized there was no point. The people he wanted to shout and scream at weren't here, and Amita didn't need his anger right now. She needed his support. "So what did you say back to this 'friend'?"
"All that I could say," she replied with a shrug of one shoulder. "That my work is my own and it's ridiculous to say otherwise. But of course that's what anyone would say who was sleeping with their advisor."
"But we never -- everyone knows that we weren't involved until after you graduated. Right?" He'd gone through months of torment, being so close to her and not being able to tell her how he felt about her, not being able to touch her like he wanted to do. He was damned if that self-restraint was all going to have been for nothing.
Her mouth twisted sideways again. "People think what they want to think, Charlie. It doesn't matter that we weren't officially dating until I was no longer your student. People assume there was something going on before that, and they assume that it had an influence on my career choices." She held his gaze for a moment longer before looking out the window. "Sometimes I think it was a mistake to stay here instead of going to MIT," she said so softly he nearly missed it.
Charlie's mouth went dry. "What are you saying?" he asked, his heart pounding, his voice almost shaking.
When Amita looked back at him, her expression quickly changed from sadness to reassurance. "I don't regret us, Charlie," she said swiftly, reaching a hand across her desk. "I don't regret it for a second." He automatically laid his hand in hers as she went on, "I just wish we'd been smarter about it."
"It isn't anyone else's business anyway," he muttered, feeling a wave of relief wash over him at her words and actions.
"It shouldn't be, but the math world is a small community, and mathematicians gossip as much as anyone." She squeezed his hand before withdrawing hers.
"Well, they shouldn't be spreading rumors about you," he said firmly. "You're more than capable of getting this job on your own, and getting your papers published on your own. And then there's Harvard, right? I couldn't have had anything to do with them making you an offer -- it's all you, and you know it."
"I know it, Charlie, but I'm not the one you have to convince."
He opened his mouth to say something, but his cell phone rang. With a grimace of apology, he flipped it open. "Charlie Eppes."
"Dr. Eppes, this is Assistant Director Wright. I wanted to thank you again for your assistance this morning. We've just received additional information that confirms your findings, and I wanted to let you know that we're prepared to act on your recommendations."
"That's great." He stared out the window for a moment, forcing down the desire to ask the obvious question.
Wright answered it anyway. "And you don't have to worry -- Special Agent Eppes has another assignment this evening."
A rueful smile crossed his face. "Thank you for telling me. Glad I could be of assistance."
"We always appreciate your assistance, Dr. Eppes. Take care."
He closed the phone and returned it to his pocket. At Amita's questioning glance, he said, "The AD wanted to let me know that the analysis we ran this morning is being put into action. And that Don's not part of it."
"You did figure that was the case, since he wasn't the one to call and ask for your help."
"Yeah, I know, but it's still nice to know that I don't have to worry about him, at least for one night."
She gave him a half smile, obviously still distracted by their earlier conversation. "So what do you want to do tonight?"
He waggled his eyebrows at her and gave her a mock leer. "I might have some ideas." That got him the full smile he was hoping for, and he stood up and reached for her hand. "C'mon, let's blow this joint."
Four hours later, Don was already beat, and the most intense part of the day was still coming. If they really were dealing with one of the biggest gangs in East L.A., he would appreciate more than just his three teammates to go into the field. But to his chagrin, Operations was too tied up with the cartel thing to pay much attention to his request for additional field agents, and he hung up the phone on his desk with a little more force than necessary. Colby turned to look at him, and he muttered, "Sorry," rubbing a hand over his eyes.
This whole thing really bugged him: having a counterintelligence agent on your team for nearly two years and knowing nothing about it obviously either said something about the skills of that agent or the lack of awareness on the part of the team. He preferred the former explanation, especially now that Colby was back with them full-time, but his superiors obviously thought it was the latter. Don wondered for the twentieth time what Colby's observations back to his handler had been like. No sign of any spies here; they're all completely oblivious to what's under their noses.
Don checked his watch. Still half an hour to go, but not enough time to go anywhere farther than the cafeteria for a quick dinner, and he'd eaten there for lunch. Maybe they could grab some fast food on the way. He blew out a breath and looked at Liz across the aisle. She was flipping through the file folder with the information about tonight's assignment. The tightness of her jaw told him that she was not pleased that she was still sitting here in the quiet bullpen and not on her way to the Valley.
It's not fair, he thought. It wasn't fair to send everyone but her after the Salvadorean cartel that she'd been focused on for months. Sure, she'd handed off the case to someone else when she was transferred from Organized Crime to the L.A. office, but common courtesy in the Bureau meant letting all of the agents who'd had a hand in a case in on the final bust if and when it did happen. She'd put a major dent in their operations by keeping Ivan Tabakian safe -- they all had, protecting him from the prison attack that had been covered by a series of blackouts -- and this was really just an elaborate mopping-up operation. Still, it hurt to be left out of it.
Don sighed. Maybe it was time to think about asking her to join another team. He didn't want to do it himself; asking to have her reassigned wouldn't look good, considering their (by now) known personal relationship. But he didn't want to see her career damaged because of him. It might not have been six months yet, but he already knew that she meant much more to him than someone to spend the night with when a case got a little rough and one of them needed some release. Hell, he spent more nights with her than not, nowadays, and the fact that most of those nights consisted of actually sleeping together, no euphemisms involved, told him something was different about Liz Warner.
Apparently feeling his eyes on her, she looked up. He gave her a slightly embarrassed smile at having been caught looking, and she narrowed her eyes before gracing him with a smile in return. He turned away to his desk, deciding to spend the remaining time going through his inbox and dealing with old e-mails.
The time passed fairly quickly, and Don called the team together for a final run-down of what they were going to do. He looked around carefully, judging their moods. "Petulant" wasn't a word he would normally associate with David Sinclair, but it seemed to fit at the moment. Colby had the same look of patient resignation that he'd been wearing since the first time he reappeared in the bullpen last month. Liz looked angry but also resigned, her arms folded across her midriff in a way that pushed up the swell of her –
Red light, Eppes.
Don rubbed his hand over his jaw and reviewed their strategy: how they would approach the facility, how they would verify the missing cargo, what to do if they saw unfriendlies, what frequency they'd be using to keep in touch with Control. He was impatient to get going, and he knew they were, too, but he ran through it all anyway. No matter how many times you'd gone out in the field, each experience was always different, and one little detail could mean the difference between life and death.
"Any questions?" he finally asked.
There was silence but for the rustle of fabric as David's leg impatiently jounced up and down.
"Okay, Colby, you're with me. Liz, you're with David." He didn't miss the surprised relief that flashed across David's face, the resignation that crossed Colby's features, or Liz's quick hurt look before she schooled her expression.
He sighed and leaned forward in his chair, resting his forearms on the tops of his legs. "All right, here's the deal. If Megan were here, she could say this a lot more gracefully or insightfully, but I'm just gonna come out and say it. You two -- " he shot a gaze at David and Colby -- "don't know what to think of each other right now. I can understand that, from both of your points of view, but we're all going to have put that aside in the field. Got it?" They gave nearly identical nods, neither looking at the other, and he went on, "And I don't want anyone thinking that we -- " he stole a glance at Liz -- "are making out in the car on our way down the 10, okay?" That got him a more sheepish nod from Colby and a hard stare from Liz. Great, now that they're all pissed at me... "All right, let's go."
Ten minutes later, Don was easing the SUV onto the San Bernardino Freeway, heading east with the remnants of rush hour traffic. Even in the carpool lane, traffic was nearly at a standstill. He checked his watch. They had some slack in their schedule, but traffic was always unpredictable.
In the passenger seat, Colby was gazing out the side window, tapping his fingers against his knee, his expression blank. Don tried in his head and rejected several ideas about trying to start a conversation, and then traffic kept taking up his attention. Finally, things settled down enough that he could risk it. "So, have you guys gotten a chance to talk?" he asked, leaving it unspoken as to whom he was talking about.
"I keep trying, but someone keeps assigning us to different tasks," Colby muttered.
Don drummed his fingers against the steering wheel. "I know you both have some things to work out, but it can't take place on the clock, you know? There's too much work to do, and I've gotta assign you to the best place for that work to get done."
"And yet we've still got to have this magical conversation that's going to get everything back to normal."
"It's not going to happen overnight." Don shifted in his seat. "Look, I'm going to be perfectly honest with you: it's taking me a while to sort out what was really you and what was your assignment. I know that's only magnified for David."
Colby let out a sigh and leaned his head back against the seat. "Yeah, I get that. Just remember that you're not the only one with some things to sort out."
He cast a curious look at Colby. "Re-adjusting to civilian life for real this time?"
The reply was a quiet scoff. "I wish that was all."
Traffic in front of them opened up a bit, and he punched on the cruise control. "Then what is it?"
Colby spoke in a tight, level voice, staring straight ahead out the windshield. "See, here's the thing. When you were...questioning me, you had this look on your face. Like you didn't believe the words you were saying, but they were the words you were supposed to say, the questions you were supposed to ask, so you did. But you didn't believe it."
Don hadn't believed it, not for five long weeks. But he hadn't been able to find a good reason not to believe it, other than that he was in denial or that he thought so highly of himself that he couldn't admit he was wrong. And he had been starting to conclude that it was only denial when a transport vehicle was blown wide open and two prisoners escaped.
Colby was still speaking. "And it wasn't like shock or refusal or anything. Or wishful thinking on my part," he added. "There was something in your eyes that said this didn't make sense, that you couldn't believe it was true." Then his tone dropped lower, and he turned to look out the side window at the five lanes of cars creeping along as they whizzed past. "I never saw that on David's face."
Don let out a long, slow breath. "Yeah," he agreed reluctantly. There wasn't much more he could say to that. David had believed Colby's guilt, had taken his betrayal personally, and now he was regretting it with all his heart. But that regret couldn't erase what he had done or said or thought about his former partner and best friend.
Colby reached over and clapped his shoulder, his voice lighter as he said, "You don't have to worry, though, Don. We got your back."
"Well, that's not good enough," he said, tapping on the brakes to cancel the cruise control as the car in front of them slowed. "We all have to have each other's backs."
"Hey, the man saved my life on that freighter," Colby replied. "I know I can count on him in a firefight. And he should know he can count on the same thing from me."
"Here's hoping we don't have to find out today," Don muttered as he hit the accelerator again and glanced at his watch.
Two cars back, David and Liz were riding in relative silence after exchanging the usual comments about work and tonight's activities. After a few minutes, David blurted out, "So, how are things with you and Don?"
She pressed her lips together and stared out the windshield. This was exactly why she was mad at Don for splitting the two of them up on this drive. It was bad enough that Colby had been questioning her about their relationship on the last case. Now she was going to hear it from the other member of the team. I suppose they'll compare notes later, she thought snidely. Maybe sharing gossip will help them be friends again.
"Hey, I'm sorry." From the corner of her eye, she saw David casting her a glance. "I don't mean to pry, I'm just making conversation."
"I'll answer your question if you tell me when you're going to forgive Colby," she shot back.
There was silence for a moment. Then David said, "Touché."
She tilted her head back against the headrest. "Look, when Don and I got involved, we weren't on the same team, we weren't even in the same office. If I'd known what was going to happen...." Oh, who am I kidding? she thought, remembering the first time she'd realized those velvet-brown eyes were sparking with interest in her. I'd still have gone for it.
"I'm sorry, it's really none of my business," David said, tapping on the brakes as traffic slowed.
"But it is your business," she replied, folding her arms across her chest. "That's what sucks. It's your business and Colby's and Megan's and anyone else who's going to wonder if their boss is handing out assignments fairly or trusting everyone equally because he's sleeping with one of his junior agents."
He gave a half-laugh. "That's what I like about you, Liz. Always sugarcoating things, never coming out and saying what you think."
She snorted. "It's the only way to be in this job." Especially when you're a woman, she added in her head.
They drove in silence for a while. Then David said, "You know, I forgave him weeks ago."
She turned to look at him, surprised. "When was that?"
He pursed his lips as he stared out the windshield. "When we found out what he's been up to: not just the triple agent bit, but keeping tabs on all of us."
Liz raised her eyebrows. "Seems to me that would make it harder."
"You would think, wouldn't you?" He gave her a quick glance and went on, "But he was walking such a tightrope, you know? Between doing his job here, and keeping an eye on Dwayne, and reporting back to his handler." He shook his head. "He was just doing his job, really."
"That's very understanding of you," she replied.
David shook his head. "I might have forgiven him for spying on us, but I'm still not sure what to think of him. How much of it was real and how much of it was a cover."
"He really is from Idaho," she blurted out. "And he really did lose his dad when he was fifteen."
David gave her a sharp look before returning his attention to the road. "I'm not gonna ask how you knew that."
Liz rolled her eyes. "Hey, if I'm going to have to deal with the negative repercussions of my relationship with Don, I might as well get something positive out of it, too."
"Besides the obvious?" he asked in a teasing tone.
She swatted his shoulder. "Watch it, Sinclair, or I'll make sure you're doing grunt duty for the next month."
"No, you won't," he said, his baritone voice suddenly serious. "You're too conscientious an agent for that, Liz."
A surprised smile stretched across her face. "Thank you. I appreciate that."
He smiled back, a quick flash of white teeth. "Anytime."
The conversation dwindled off again as they drove, but the silence was warmer than it had been. Maybe this isn't going to be so bad after all, Liz thought.