Now look at me baby
Struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart
When out go the lights
I'm just a lonely pilgrim
I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust
'Cause I damn sure don't trust myself
--Bruce Springsteen, "Brilliant Disguise"
Chapter 1: Hungry Heart
Liz: Right, like why is it all your girlfriends are people you've worked with? The hours we put in, that's just the way it is. It's what we do after we punch out that makes a difference.
It had been a long time since Colby Granger woke up with someone else in his bed. The couple of times he'd met a woman in L.A., he'd insisted on going to her place so he could leave before morning. Part of it was worrying about saying something in his sleep. Not that he was known to do that, but a word or phrase uttered at the wrong time to the wrong person could have deadly consequences.
The other part of it was keeping the attachment as casual as possible. He wasn't at a point in his life when he could seriously get involved with anyone, triple agent activities aside, given the requirements and dangers of his job. He wasn't morally opposed to a hookup now and again, and it was a whole lot easier to slip out quietly than wait around for the morning-after conversation.
So when the alarm went off Friday morning and Colby automatically reached over to slap the snooze button, he froze at the awareness that he wasn't alone. There was a warm body tucked next to his under the sheets, and it took a second before he remembered Theresa taking him home last night and everything that had ensued afterwards.
Then a broad smile crept across his face.
"Wh' time's it?" came a murmur from where Theresa's head was resting on his chest. Her arm was over his ribcage, her body a welcome warmth in the chill morning.
Colby smoothed a hand over her bare back, tilting his head forward to breathe in the scent of her hair. "Six-thirty."
"God, you're inhuman," she muttered. "And stop sniffing me."
"Not inhuman, just ex-military," he returned, continuing his gentle stroking of her back as he laid his head back against the pillow.
Theresa grunted and shifted against him, and he couldn't tell if she was trying to get something started or just changing position. Given what a big deal she'd made about not being a morning person, Colby figured it was the latter, and he willed himself not to respond.
They stayed like that in comfortable silence. Colby felt more relaxed than he had in a long time, and it wasn't just the aftereffect of last night. He'd had a respite of only a few weeks after his reinstatement on the team before he and Megan were chased by what he thought at the time was the Chinese, and the dread that it wasn't over after all had been choking him for the last few days. Now it turned out it really was all over, at least for him, and it was going to take a little while to get used to that.
The alarm sounded again, and Colby slapped it off just as quickly the second time. Theresa lifted her head, blinking at him in the morning light filtering through the curtains. "Guess I didn't think ahead about this part," she said.
He looked at her sleepy eyes and the lips he'd spent what felt like hours kissing last night, and his hand stilled on her back. "What, the awkward morning after part?" he asked with a nervous smile.
"No," she said, and then her jaw split open on a yawn. "The part where we get up too blanking early and go back to the damn office."
"I make a mean pot of coffee," Colby promised.
"From what I've heard, 'mean' would be the right word for it," Theresa replied with a sly grin that suggested she wasn't as out of it as he'd thought.
"If you can't stand a spoon up in it, it's not proper Army coffee," he retorted, and then that made him think of Dwayne, and he bit his lip and looked away.
Theresa's hand came up to his cheek, and she turned his face back towards her, pressing a soft kiss to his lips. "Everything okay?" she asked, her eyebrows furrowing slightly.
"Yeah," Colby replied automatically. He drew in a breath to say more and then realized that for all he'd already risked his life to protect this woman, he didn't really know who she was. The past few years of not trusting anyone except his team reared up and closed his mouth for him, and he let out a short sigh.
She looked at him, her expression suddenly serious. "Here's where I'm supposed to reassure you that of course you can trust me, but the truth is, that's something you're going to have to work out for yourself."
He quirked up an eyebrow and went for the humorous diversion. "What, and getting naked together doesn't imply a certain amount of trust?"
The serious look on Theresa's face dissolved as she let out a snort and collapsed forward onto his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and held her there, relishing the softness of her hair on his chest and on the underside of his jaw, ignoring the faint pressure on his bruised ribs.
When the alarm sounded a third time, Colby groaned and rolled sideways, depositing Theresa on her back before sitting up and turning the clock radio off for good. "You want to shower first?" he asked, stifling a yawn. Just because he was used to getting up at six-thirty didn't make it pleasant, especially not when he'd been up till—well, he didn't remember what time they'd finally collapsed, exhausted, but the digits on the clock had been pretty small.
"They say that showering together conserves water," Theresa returned, blinking up at him innocently.
"Oh, they say that, do they?" Colby returned, trying to keep back a smile but failing.
She nodded solemnly. "And this is a dry climate, and we should do everything we can to conserve water."
"Well, far be it from me to endanger the environment," he said, rising to his feet and holding a hand out to her.
As it turned out, they probably didn't achieve much conservation of water, given that the shower took half an hour instead of the five minutes Colby was accustomed to. But it did get his day off to a very good start.
Sadly, it also meant that there was no time to do anything but grab a bagel on the way out the door, the promise of FBI coffee a poor substitute for a homemade brew. Still, the sparkle in Theresa's eyes was worth it, as was the warm, relaxed feeling Colby carried out of the apartment, even if he knew neither would last longer than the drive to the office.
They were silent for the first part of the trip, Theresa concentrating on the unfamiliar streets and Colby watching her, enjoying the competency she seemed to project just by the simple motions of driving. "What?" she finally asked with an exasperated look.
"Nothing," he replied, stretching his legs out and enjoying being a passenger for once. "How long did you say you've been in L.A.?"
"About two months," she returned, easing them to a halt at a yellow light that Colby probably would have blazed through. "Why?"
"I'm still bitching about the traffic after two years," Colby said with a shake of his head. "You don't seem to mind it at all."
"Well, I came here from DC, which is worse. The drivers here might be crazy, but at least they know how to drive." The light changed, and as she moved them forward, Theresa added, "Also, I didn't grow up in small-town Idaho, so I'm used to more than two cars on the road at one time."
It was a sign of how Colby was starting to relax after everything he'd been through that the words didn't register with him right away. When they did, he sat up sharply in the seat. "How did you know it was a small town?" he asked casually. Maybe she'd assumed it when he'd said he was from Idaho, but he was too attuned to paying close attention to every word everyone said to him to let this slide.
"Oh," Theresa replied. "Er. Well, I don't know if you know this, but you're—well, people have heard of you. Outside of this office. So when I knew I was coming here, I might have asked a friend to look up some things on you."
"Why?" Colby asked warily, eyeing Theresa closely. Damn it, David had told him about this, and it was still a kick in the teeth to hear that his reputation had preceded him. The one person he'd thought was enjoying his company because they liked him and not the stories that were flying around about him, and even that wasn't true.
There was a faint flush on Theresa's cheeks. She cleared her throat and spoke rapidly. "Because I saw a picture of you and thought you were really hot."
Colby blinked. "Seriously?"
She shot him a quick glance and returned to driving, expertly weaving through the early morning traffic on the 10. "I don't usually go home with people I work with," she said. "Even if it's a one-time thing."
Disappointment twisted in his gut, and he forced his voice to stay light as he asked, "Was this a one-time thing?"
There was silence for a moment except the hum of the tires. Then Theresa said quietly, "I hope not."
"Me, too," Colby replied quickly, hoping he didn't sound too eager. When she looked at him with a small, warm smile, he knew it was okay.
He cleared his throat. "So, uh, what else was in that file you saw?"
"Not a lot." Theresa maneuvered around a slow-moving pickup truck and said, "Most of it was super-classified."
Colby grimaced. "Yeah, I guess so. Eh, not like everyone doesn't know about it, anyway." As quickly as the FBI transmitted information between offices for the purposes of catching criminals, information transfer happened even faster when it was gossip being transmitted.
"I don't." Theresa bit her lower lip and shot him another glance.. "But hey, you know what?" she asked with a shake of her head, ponytail swinging back and forth. "It's none of my business."
"No, it's okay," Colby said. "You're probably curious, right?"
She shrugged and started crossing lanes towards the off-ramp for the 110. "It's not why I wanted to get to know you better, if that's what you're wondering."
It had crossed his mind, but Theresa's easy friendliness and openness had put that idea to rest sometime in the past couple of days. "I know that," he assured her.
"Good," she replied quietly.
They passed over the curving arches of the cloverleaf, and then Colby said, "I was undercover for two years, pretending to be working with the Chinese. No one knew I wasn't really a double agent except my handler and his higher-ups. Not my partner, not anyone at the FBI. No one." He'd never told anyone the story before, and it was really weird to be laying it out like this, almost like it had happened to someone else and he was just telling a story.
"Wow, two years." Theresa blew out a breath. "You must have been really good at it."
"Guess so," Colby said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his tone. He cleared his throat and went on, "'Cause when it hit the fan, they all believed the story I was telling them. Every single one of them."
"And yet you decided to stay here," Theresa said, weaving across traffic towards their exit.
He stared unseeingly out the windshield, remembering the decision, when he'd had the opportunity to take any position the Bureau had to offer, and he'd chosen to stay here. Here, with the people who thought he'd sold out his country and yet had put their lives and careers on the line to go after him when they thought he was in trouble. "Yeah," Colby finally said. "I guess I figured they had my back in the end."
As they came to a halt at a traffic signal, Colby saw a sign on the nearest lightpost warning that there was filming going on in this area, including gunfire and explosions, and to expect delays. He snorted quietly, wondering if he'd ever get used to L.A.
"It's got to be awkward for them, though, right?" Theresa asked. "I mean, it must be embarrassing to be convinced your teammate is a traitor and then find out he was only faking it. Talk about trust issues."
"No, I trust them," he said automatically. Then something occurred to him, and he shook his head. "I guess if they hadn't believed me, I'd be upset that I wasn't very convincing."
Theresa's hand landed on his leg. "Listen, I know I haven't been here long, but it seems to me that they're not sure where they stand with you right now. Maybe the same is true in the other direction, I don't know. But if you just be yourself, and keep working with them like nothing's changed, they'll come around."
He regarded her for a moment, impressed at how she had managed to put all that together after only a few days of working with the team. "Maybe you're right," he said.
"I'm always right," Theresa replied cheekily, patting his leg before accelerating forward as the light changed.
Colby let out a short laugh. "Well, you were right about giving me a ride home last night," he said, knowing that any further discussion about this not being a one-time thing was going to have to wait until the long day ahead was done.
She replied with a quick, smug smile that warmed him down to his toes.
Charlie rubbed his eyes and took another sip of coffee. It was eight in the morning, and he'd already been at work for a couple of hours. Given the choice, Charlie would rather have gone back to the FBI office and pulled an all-nighter, but Amita had persuaded him that one four-hour sleep cycle would do them both a world of good. After driving home from Megan's hospital room, he and Amita had fallen asleep almost instantly, waking up about four hours later. He wondered if he would have felt even muzzier than he already did had he not gotten that little bit of sleep.
"How're we doing?" Don asked, coming into the conference room with two fresh cups of coffee.
"Better now," Amita said, reaching for one of the styrofoam cups.
"Making progress," Charlie said, flipping though Beachy's notebook. "About two-thirds done."
"Find anything else that could be useful?" Don asked, dropping into one of the swiveling chairs.
"Maybe," Charlie replied, "but I'd rather wait and cross-check it with the rest of the code."
"We haven't come across anything that might indicate where the RPGs are," Amita inserted before Don could say anything.
"Yeah, well, we still got guys scanning the traffic cam footage looking for the truck that left the U-Stor-It the other night, so maybe we'll get lucky," Don said in a tone that indicated he thought the odds of that happening were vanishingly small.
"How's Megan?" Charlie asked, looking up from his work. "Have you called the hospital this morning?"
"I stopped by on my way in," Don said, rubbing at one temple. "She's doing fine, already raring to get out of there."
"Did Larry stay there overnight?" Amita asked.
Don let out a soft snort. "The way Megan tells it, he refused to move when they told him he couldn't stay. Very calm, kinda zen, but also very stubborn. Looked like he had a crick in his neck from sleeping in the chair, but I guess I can understand wanting to be there, you know?"
"What about the men who were following her?" Charlie asked. He still felt chills when he thought of how close they had been last night. If they hadn't figured out the code at that moment, if they hadn't taken the time to explain it to Don and Colby, and if Liz hadn't decided to confront Marta Moreno, Megan might not have had any cavalry coming to her rescue.
Charlie shook his head to clear it. He didn't need to be focusing on that right now. They'd caught this particular set of bad guys, and they needed to focus on getting the rest.
"Colby and David are arguing to see who gets first crack at them, but unless they break right away, we can't do much with them right now." Don rose to his feet. "Finding those RPGs and Hector Simeon are our top priorities."
"Got it," Charlie said, looking back at the computer screen. "We should have something for you in a couple of hours."
"Great," Don replied.
Charlie expected to hear the conference room door opening and closing, but it stayed quiet. A few seconds passed before he realized Don was still in the room. He looked up and said, "Was there something else?"
Don was squinting slightly, like there was something he wanted to say but couldn't figure out how to word it. Finally he drew in a breath and said, "What do you guys think of Theresa Pennington?"
Charlie exchanged a surprised look with Amita. It wasn't like Don to ask for someone else's impression of a colleague; his own instincts were naturally good, and honed by years in the FBI, he was as good at reading people as anyone Charlie knew. Certainly better than a couple of mathematicians.
"She seems nice," Amita said offhandedly. "I haven't talked with her much, but everyone seems to like her."
"She did okay out in the field with you guys, right?" Charlie asked.
"Oh, yeah, she was fine. And she did great with an interrogation yesterday, so I'm not exactly complaining." Don's hand came up to rub at the back of his head. "It's just kind of odd that this new person happens to show up right at the time Colby decides to stay with us, you know?"
"And maybe you're a little more suspicious of outsiders than you used to be," Charlie guessed.
The rueful half-smile he got in reply told him he was right. "Probably someone expected we'd be short-handed and then couldn't reassign her fast enough," Don said. "She said it was a temporary assignment anyway."
"Well, someone seems to like having her around," Amita said slyly, looking through the glass of the conference room walls.
Colby and Theresa were exiting the elevators, and Charlie couldn't hold back a smirk as he instantly recognized their careful positioning. How many times had he and Amita done the same thing, walking into the office together in the morning, trying not to so much as lean towards each other in case someone got the wrong idea (which was actually the right idea) and clearly overcompensating in response?
"Five bucks says Colby's car never left the garage last night," Charlie said impishly.
Don shook his head with a frown. "That's one bet I'm not taking," he said before turning on his heel and walking out.
They watched as Don walked by the other two agents with a casual greeting, and even Charlie could see the way Colby's eyes were darting around as he nodded in reply. He let out a snort. "Two years of deep undercover work, and he can't keep a guilty expression off his face?" Charlie mused out loud.
"Maybe he used up all his undercover energy with the operation," Amita mused.
They watched for a second longer as Don addressed Colby and Theresa. "He can't be giving them a hard time for sleeping together," Charlie said. "Not without being a total hypocrite."
"Do you really think Don would do that?" she asked. "More likely, he's warning them to keep it out of the office."
"If he's bringing it up at all." The serious expression on Don's face suggested he had work on his mind, and when he pointed towards the conference room, Charlie and Amita both hastily looked away, back to their computer screens. "Do you think they saw us?" he asked.
"Serves you right for staring if they did," Amita retorted.
"Me?" Charlie asked indignantly. "You're the one who was watching them come out of the elevator."
Amita tossed her hair back over her shoulder and only said, "Come on, let's finish this up. I have class at noon."
Slightly annoyed at letting himself get distracted by the possibility of another office relationship, Charlie focused back on his work. Don's odd question aside, there were much more important things for them to be doing right now than worrying about the status, romantic or otherwise, of Theresa Pennington.
The quiet beeping of the heart monitor had been hard to ignore while falling asleep, but Megan had managed, due in part to the rhythmic, repetitive stroking of Larry's hand through her hair. Now, it was the first thing she noticed upon waking. The room was dark with the heavy curtains over the windows, but daylight was peeking in around their edges. Lifting her head from the pillow, she saw the digital clock reading 8:06 and tried to remember what time the doctor had said he would be by on his rounds.
"You missed your first visitor of the morning," came Larry's quiet voice from her other side. "Your doctor was in to check your vitals about half an hour ago and requested that I wake you soon."
She turned to see him sitting in the same chair where he'd been when she fell asleep, still clasping her hand. "Did you sleep?" Megan asked blearily, trying to sit up.
Larry's gentle hand on her shoulder kept her down. "I believe I drifted in and out of consciousness in the small hours of the morning."
"You must be exhausted," she yawned, squeezing his hand.
"I had a lot to think about," he said with a small smile.
Megan tried to smile back, but it felt more like a grimace. Here was where Larry told her that he couldn't take the stress of being involved with an FBI agent, that he hadn't really considered what it was like to be with someone who was in such a dangerous job, and that they were better off apart. It had happened before, to her and to almost everyone she knew in the Bureau, and it never surprised her to hear about it. "What did you come up with?" she asked, hoping the face she was putting on was brave.
Larry let out a breath. "I went up to the monastery to seek a simpler life," he started in what seemed to Megan to be a complete non sequitur. "And for the most part, I have succeeded. Minimal material possessions, hours of contemplation, and simple food and drink have all helped me pare down to the core of what is important, or at least what I thought was important."
"And what is that?" Megan asked, her throat dry and scratchy.
"Oh, goodness, forgive me," Larry said, reaching for the glass of water on the bedside table. He held it for her while she sipped from the straw, closing her eyes in relief as the cool water slid down her throat. When he set the glass back on the table, he said, "I learned that what is most important is the quality of relations with my fellow beings. The other monks, the natural world, my students and colleagues." He looked down at their joined hands, a muscle twitching in his cheek, and it was a tiny shock to Megan to realize that he was nervous. "And you."
"And then yesterday happened," she prompted, steeling herself for what was going to come next.
Larry nodded, still looking downward. "I know it's the most melodramatic of clichés to suddenly realize when a loved one's life is in danger just how beloved they are. But it's true." He lifted his head to look at her. "Megan, I truly do not know what I would do with myself if something happened to you."
"You'd figure it out, Larry," she said, squeezing his hand again. "You'd have your friends to support you."
"No," he said firmly. "I would be utterly lost without you. I was thinking about it all night, positing how I would feel if you had been more seriously injured." He shook his head. "I know that you're comfortable with the concept, at least comfortable enough to do your job, and of course the thought had crossed my mind on occasion, but never with the intensity that it did yesterday."
Megan nodded. "I understand, Larry," she said quietly. "It's not unusual in your position to have a hard time dealing with someone you care about being in a dangerous job."
"I need to come down from the mountain," Larry said abruptly. "That is the conclusion I came to. I can't be indulging myself in the selfish pursuits of monastic life when there are people who need me down here."
"Trying to figure out what you want out of life isn't being selfish," Megan insisted.
"It is once it becomes not only the focal point of one's existence, but the only point of one's existence." Larry took her hand in both of his and went on, "You carry the weight of your mortality with you every day, Megan, every time you leave your office. I don't want you to have to carry that burden alone. I want to be there for you and with you."
"Larry," Megan sighed, stunned. She hoped this man never ceased to completely amaze her. "I think that's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me."
He brought the back of her hand to his lips and kissed it. "I hope you will accept my meager offering of myself."
She wasn't sure if it was a marriage proposal or a declaration of undying love or simply a sign of deep friendship, but there was only one answer she could give. "It's not meager at all, Larry. It's generous and giving and so very much part of the person I love."
Larry's eyes lit up, and as he bent closer, Megan lifted her head. They exchanged a sweet kiss that filled her with enough warmth to chase away the vestiges of fear that she would have to go back to being on her own.