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Just In The Nick of Time

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Upon Susan's return to Washington, she notices two things. One, she now catches her co-workers looking at her furtively, with an odd sense of awe, disbelief, heck, maybe even admiration in their eyes. These looks are fleeting and Susan wants to be embarrassed but that's not happening.

She knows what she's done and it was awesome. There isn't any other way to put it.

The second thing is that everyone seems to know about her drunken fling with Ford. She's confused about that for exactly three seconds into her first briefing until Ford greets her with a wink, a tongue lick over his upper and lower lip and a hip arch, which he almost falls out of his chair from the exertion of.

"Are you here to get your world rocked once more, Cooper?" Ford's voice is gravely with want or booze, she can't tell. "I can find us a nice spot in one of the other hallways."

Susan sighs. "Discreet is your middle name I see," she mutters, taking her seat, this time at the table, with Bradley to one side, Crocker at the head and two nameless agents on the far end, both of them trying their hardest not to be noticed.

"He's full of shit, of course," Bradley says, with a confident smile.

"No, he's telling the truth this time, believe it or not," Susan says off-handedly, as she has more important things on her mind right now -- such as her first time sitting at the table for God's sake. "Only slightly less probable than reattaching his own arm, but I guess he must have done that too."

Triumphant, Ford smirks and relaxes back in his chair.

Bradley goes very, very still.

Crocker has had enough. "If the note-passing is over, can we talk about that little vial we need to find? The one with the deadly biological agent in it?"

Bradley leans toward Susan, his blue eyes wide. "You really slept with him?"

Susan clears her throat and brushes at some invisible bit of lint on her suit. "Yeah, pretty much, but ..." Her voice trails away, this isn't what she signed up for today, that's for certain.

For the first time in Susan's experience, Bradley looks completely lost, the confidence that radiates from him like the rays of the sun dimmed in a pale expression of confusion. He falls back into his chair, stunned into silence.

"Are we done here?" Crocker snaps. "Focus, people! Lives are on the line."

In one quick motion, Bradley sits up, straightens his immaculate cuffs and smiles broadly. "I'll take it. I'll get Nancy debriefed and off we go."

"Wonderful," Ford agrees. The two other nameless agents nod and get ready to leave, both looking relieved. "Susan and I are busy."

"No we're not!" Susan growls, slapping the table. The two agents roll their eyes and ruefully retake their seats. "Ford, I know asking you to shut up is like asking the Red Sea to part on one side and braid the other, but I'm asking you ... Shut. Up."

Ford shrugs and laughs, winking at her again for good measure.

Crocker has gone into Ignore mode with Susan and Ford at the top of her list of what's not on her radar. "That's fine, Fine. It's yours. Don't drop it anywhere, remember what happened with that first killer bee hive."

Bradley laughs, but Susan notices that it's a hollow sound. "My bad on that one, that's for sure." He leans down and pats Susan's shoulder. "You go and have some fun, you deserve it. Remember, no worries, Fine is my last name."

"And Beverly is your first one," Ford guffaws. "Don't forget your tampons."

"Oh my god, will you never stop?" Susan begs, completely disconcerted. If she thought this place was ridiculous before, she had no idea how the other half inside of it lived. Until now. "Listen, Fine, you'll need back up and ..."

But with another smile and a head shake, he's gone, out the door and probably halfway to California before she can follow him.

"That takes care of that," Crocker says, pleased. The two agents nod and look to make a run for it before the plan changes again. "Good work, everyone, let's break for lunch."

"It's ten in the morning," Susan says helplessly. "I thought ... "

"You thought that we Did Very Important Things In Here while you were fighting off the rodents in the basement," Ford interjects, as the rest of the room files out. "Nah, we just piss around like everyone else. Until we get into the field. That's when the man juice splatters on the ..."

Susan gets up and covers her ears, humming. The less she has to hear about Ford's man-juice, the better. It's not that she doesn't like him, she guesses, in her own way, like a person watching a train wreck might become fascinated with the random, surreal insanity of it all. Waking up next to him after a champagne and beef jerky fueled night was just one more bit of surreal ... random ... insanity.

Of course, the afternoon isn't over. She finds an assignment on her desk with her new identity, the maintainer of a beaver rescue habitat, on her way to Tacoma to purchase some more wood for her charges to make dams with but really, she has to shadow an environmental terrorist group -- at a far distance of course.

"For fuck's sake," she mutters, tossing the "I Love Beavers" bedazzled t-shirt in the trash can. But she takes the tickets to Tacoma, she can make her way to Northern California on her own.

To back up Fine, whether he likes it or not.

~*~

Driving down the coast in a convertible is one experience she's always wanted to have, the road sliding away beneath the wheels, wind blowing through her hair, the brilliant West Coast sun settling at just the perfect angle to blind her even though sunglasses. "Ow, ow, jeez I can't see a damn thing ..."

It takes about twenty minutes to figure out how to put up the top, adjust the flaps so she can see and it's back on the road. Nancy has been a bit closed mouth at first about Fine's location -- she's proving to be a very loyal backup -- but Susan wheedles it out of her with reminders of the sisterhood and a promise of more of that excellent champagne they enjoyed that night.

"His communication has been spotty, but the last time we connected he was in Oakland, trying to gain access to Riley Laboratories in downtown. After that, he hasn't been on the grid, but I'm sure he'll come around. He is rather the laid back sort, isn't he?"

"Yeah, right," Susan mutters under her breath, after hanging up with Nancy. "He's the definition of high maintainance." Not that she had minded it, in fact she sort of missed being the 'voice in his ear', a tiny bit. Nothing was as wonderful as the thrill of the field, but there was a deep satisfaction in her old job as well, even if she was just beginning to recognize it.

The ride to Oakland becomes tiresome by the third hour and it's dark outside by the time the lab complex comes into view. It's not a cute little white building, like the ones she's used to on the East Coast, this is a sprawling maze of imposing gray labyrinths and razor wire topped fences and Susan thinks she can hear a dog's growl echo through the gloom.

Her equipment has been upgraded, slightly. There's a small, very powerful bolt cutter disguised as a hair clip and her pepper spray is labeled Warts B Gone which is better than the last time, sort of. She snips and tugs and cuts some more and hopes that's just a recording of a snarling guard dog in the distance, which it's not as she finds out soon enough, having to use a real dog whistle this time to calm down a pair of frothing Dobermans.

"A real Disneyworld, this place," she says to no one in particular. Her basement training makes her eminently suitable to enter the deep interior without setting off any alarms and she buzzes Nancy, trying to get a location on Fine.

"I think he might be in trouble. I received a very fuzzy SOS signal from building 84 and a half..."

"84 and 1/2? What's a half a building?" Susan hisses, using her night vision lens to look around. And, surprisingly, there's a building that looks like it's been cut in half, with a side that's made of mirrored glass, reflected the building opposite creating an illusion of multiple buildings in every direction. "That's weird. It's like it's wearing a disguise...."

She pauses. The building is wearing a disguise because that's where they probably keep the stuff they don't want anyone to find.

Screw that, she thinks, hacking past the keypad and once the door opens, she grabs a lab coat off the hooks lining the foyer. She hadn't checked the size and it's kind of tight, but she makes do, even though lifting her arms is a bit of a struggle. Maybe she won't have to shoot anyone tonight, Susan thinks hopefully

The two guards that come up on her suddenly, drawing their weapons make short work of that wish. She takes them out with her new gun, silencer attached and steps over them with a wince. This part will never get easy, but it has to be done and she strides down the hallway, buzzing Nancy again to get better coordinates.

"First door to the left and hurry, I think there's a real problem ..." Nancy's voice is fuzzy and very far away sounding. The lab must have jamming capabilities, up to a point. Nancy comes to the door and it also has a keypad, which takes her longer to unlock than the first one, much to her surprise.

But nothing prepares her for the surprised of Bradley Fine lying the floor of the sterile chamber, gasping for air, his normally perfect hair slick with sweat, his handsome face a disturbing shade of crimson. He shakes his head at her, making a 'shooing' motion with his hand but Susan ignores that and kneels beside him, helping him to sit up, fumbling through her pockets for the antidote pills she'd held onto from her last time out.

He grimaces at the bottle. "I don't need a stool softener, thank you."

"It's not stool softener, you idiot. It's poison antidote," she says, feeling helpless at his obvious distress. "It'll help." She pops it into his mouth and unceremoniously holds his nose closed, making sure he swallows it. "What did they give to you?"

"I have no idea," he rasps. "Which is why you should probably go."'

"Fuck that," she says, hauling him up, distressed to see how weak he is. He can barely stand up and it takes all her strength to drag him down the hallway, where, of course, two more guards are and she's forced to drop him and fire.

Fine hits the floor with a limp 'thud' and guards also fall down, but they aren't going to get up again. "Yeah, sorry," she says quickly, dragging him into her embrace again. "Come on, one foot in front of the other."

"I really think you should leave me here. The vial is already on its way to DC via the messenger, I wasn't able to make it out in time. I'm just collateral damage now," he rejoins weakly, stumbling every other step. "You're a field agent now, Susan and we shouldn't lose an excellent one because of my mistakes."

A shy pride fills her at this. "You think I'm an excellent field agent," she says, unable to stop beaming at him. "That's so nice."

"Just the truth." He coughs and there's a disturbing pink tinge to what he spits out. "Ford thinks so too, or so I assume."

Susan can't help but make a dismissive noise. "Ford thinks I'm not a real agent until I swallow enough microchips to shit out a computer." The exit is coming into view and if she can just get him out into the open, past any dogs, through the hole she cut in the fence at the far side to the car she hopes she's left gas in ...

"Don't be silly. You'd never fall in love with someone who thought so little of you." He coughs again, almost falling over when Susan stops in her tracks.

"Wait? You think I'm in love? With Ford? What the hell did they give you in there? Seriously, you might need two 'stool softeners', if you think that," she says.

He glances up at her. "So you're not?"

"No, I am not. Now start putting some afterburners on, because we have to get past some Dobermans who aren't as well fed as they should be. Come on, Fine, or do I have to sling you over my shoulder like a cavewoman?"

"I wouldn't hate that," he says, but he somehow finds it within himself to walk with a bit more energy. "So, you aren't in love with him, but you're not in love with anyone else, is that correct?"

They get outside and she's forced to spritz a touch of pepper spray in the air, to ward off the rushing guard dogs that yelp and run off at a tiny sniff of it. "I'm in love with living," Susan snaps, pulling him after her, hoping she can find her way back to the fence she came in by. "What's up with you anyway? You've never been this suicidal before."

"It's not really suicidal," he demurs, pulling out a gun she had no idea he had when the rest of the guards arrive, dispatching a few of them with surprising energy as they both make a run for it. "It's just very depressing to think that someone might actually be lying about lying that they're in love with you even though you didn't think they were lying and then they turn that theory on its head by doing something you wouldn't think they'd have done in a million years, a total plot twist, which I guess I should be used to by now, considering the business I'm in, still ... "

"What in the ever living hell are you blabbering about?" Susan shrieks, as they finally make it back to the car, the stupid lab coat getting caught on the fence and ripping as around them bullets fly and Fine stubbornly standing on the wrong side of the fence, not even firing back. "Come on!"

He shakes his head. "Not until you tell me why you came for me."

"Because you're an idiot! And I know you're an idiot, so get in the car, idiot!" She can't believe this, he's going to get them both killed because of her stupid confession in the negotiating room and even if it were true, now was not the time for this.

Fine folds his arms over his chest. His very nice, slim, muscled chest Susan thinks, hating herself for it. A bullet brushes so close to his head, his hair moves in its wake. "Do you love me or not? I want to know right now."

"This isn't Fiddler on the Roof! Get in the fucking car!" Her voice sounds like her mother's did when she found Susan with a pile of Playgirls under her bed. Actually, her mother was kind of overjoyed, she kept those things for years afterwards.

Fine shrugs and those bullets are literally creating a cloud of shrapnel around them.

Susan can't help but stare at him with a mixture, of fury, awe, disbelief and, oh what the hell, love. "Yes! Yes, I do! YES. Everything I said was true. Now get in the car before I kill you with my foot in one ear, my fist in the other, holding a toenail clipper! I swear to God I'll do it!"

The look of childlike joy that crosses his face at her confession melts her heart. Of course that doesn't stop her from slapping the back of his head ... hard ... when he finally gets in the vehicle. "Ow," he says, rubbing his head petulantly. "That hurt."

She hits the gas and they escape, as usual, just in the nick of time.

"You're an idiot," she breathes, waves of relief making her giddy.

"But I'm your idiot," he points out very sensibly and she can't help but grudgingly agree. "And therein lies all the difference."

~*~

If Ford is heartbroken over Fine and Susan's new affair, he doesn't show it, except to crack a few jokes about Susan's tendency to scream in bed and tossing a pair of earplugs upon Fine's desk with his usual aplomb.

Fine laughs airily and throws them back. "Who wears these to the symphony? By the way, we're going again tonight. I'd love to invite you, but ... "

Ford makes a face. "Seen it."

"Have you?" Bradley asks smoothly and Susan feels her face burning. She takes refuge in Nancy who asks Susan for details that she gives, with a bit of laughter that comes more easily now.

"Are you still going to take field assignments?" Nancy asks, both of them tipsy from their third ... sixth? ... drink in the local bar. "Now that you're in love and all."

Susan looks at her like she has two heads. "Hell, yes. I might even take you on a couple more. Love is nice ... but bullets are better."

She then tells someone passing by that Nancy's snorting laughter is an illness, kicks back when she goes for a shin and together they stumble home, laughing at the bats flying overhead, a few of them they pretend to recognize, as everything wonderful is happening to Susan Cooper ...

Just in the nick of time.

~*~

the end