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Left All My Doubts on the Airplane

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They talked about it, once.

Annie was across the room, doing something that made fabric rustle. Auggie still had trouble believing that he'd been able to touch her skin, so soft and responsive. Make her cry out in pleasure.

"When I go out," Annie started, then hesitated. "There are actions that can --" she paused again.

"You do whatever you have to," Auggie said. "Whatever makes the mission a success."

He felt her warmth a second before her fingers ran down the line of his jaw. Her lips landed on his cheek, light as a butterfly.

"You're amazing," Annie said.

"Always," Auggie said. He pulled her into his arms and they forgot about the world for a little while.

* * *

"The stupid rock wall on the GW Parkway is making my commute miserable." Annie sipped at her coffee and tried to relax her nerves after inching northward for miles.

Whatever Auggie would have said in return was cut off by Joan's entrance; she started talking immediately. "You've heard about the situation in Mali? The African Union and certain of our European allies are preparing to send in troops to evict the Islamic extremists who've taken over the northern part of the country."

"It's like Afghanistan in 1995, when the Taliban took over," Auggie said. "They're lopping hands off criminals, beating girls for speaking with men on the street, and destroying priceless cultural sites."

"For once, the world has decided it's not going to wait for al Qaeda and its affiliates to strike first. The problem is that we have indications that our plans are being shared a little too widely. We're concerned about how they're getting word, which is where you come in, Annie."

The outline of the operation was simple enough: get close to a French attaché, learn what he knows and who he's talking to, report back. The devil, as ever, was in the details.

* * *

Heels tapped a fast rhythm on approach to his desk, almost buried beneath the synthesized drone of the computer in his ears: File. Open. Airline status…

"Heard from Annie?" Joan asked from behind Auggie's shoulder.

He pushed his headphones around his neck. "Her plane hasn't landed yet," Auggie said. "Circling the airport."

"Let me know," Joan said. She didn't speak further, yet Auggie felt like the silence had weight and substance.

He spun his chair around, facing the direction her voice had come from. "Something bothering you?"

There was another pause. "Last time Annie was in Morocco, it was for Lena Smith. She told Annie to meet Simon Fischer and cultivate him as an asset."

His gut twisted. "You're worried about memories," he said.

"Ghosts," Joan replied.

"She'll get through it," he said.

He hoped it was true.

* * *

The weather outside was gorgeous, warm and sunny for autumn. Annie took her lunch to the courtyard, prepared to enjoy the amber and russet of the leaves. The color was a relief after the sand and scrub outside Marrakech, and the grey blandness of CIA headquarters.

The new liaison from British intelligence was sitting on a bench, holding a sandwich. Her mustard-colored skirt contrasted with the black-painted wood. Annie admired the cocoa shade of her complexion and the riot of curls that somehow formed a chic hairstyle.

"How are you settling in?" Annie asked, after she'd taken a few bites of salad.

"Still jet-lagged," Eve said, "which is annoying. And waiting on computer accounts."

Annie winced. "Everyone waits," she said. "It's more than a little crazy, but the wheels of bureaucracy grind --"

"Like D.C. traffic?" Eve suggested, and Annie nodded.

"Exactly so." A gust of wind draped blonde hair over Annie's eyes, and she shook it back to her shoulders.

"You're just back from overseas, aren't you?"

Annie hummed assent, then Eve continued, "Can I ask about it?"

"I can't tell you the particulars," Annie shrugged. "OPSEC."

"Operational security rules all. I understand. I was just wondering, how you handle life as a field agent. It's stressful, and --" Eve paused.

"I love the challenge," Annie jumped in. "Seeing pieces of a puzzle, and making connections between them. Convincing people to give me pieces of them." She took another bite. "It's quite a rush."

Eve sipped at her soda. "Do you ever get it wrong?"

Lena flashed through Annie's mind: emerging from shadows, firing a gun at Simon, at Annie. The shock of impact pushing her body back and to the floor. The sudden, horrible insight that Lena was the mole, that everything she had directed Annie to do was part of a larger plot. Waking to the news that Simon had died.

"Yes. I get it wrong." Annie breathed deep, telling herself that her ribs were healed. Her lungs functioned properly. Her skin was whole once more.

Eve gave Annie a skeptical look. "I sense there's more."

"There's a Russian novel of more," Annie said. "I'm still dealing with the repercussions of my worst mistake, and probably will forever."

She no longer wore the key to Simon's family trunk around her neck; she didn't need the physical talisman any more.

"But you pick yourself up, and you handle the fallout, and you learn. And hopefully, the next time, you're better." Annie smirked. "Like this last mission."

"Was it easy?" Eve asked, scandalized.

"Not easy. But my target was French, and he likes the ladies."

"Oh," Eve said, a wealth of implication in her tone. "One of those."

"It is truly amazing what men will give up for a glimpse of cleavage and a hand on their forearm."

"You'd think they'd learn."

Eve grinned at Annie, and Annie grinned back, both perfectly in sync.

* * *

"We need the damage assessment of Monsieur Paillaud's leak in two days," Joan said. "Consult with our MENA analysts, and the counter-terrorism group. I've heard RUMINT that AFRICOM and SOCOM J-2 are keenly interested, so you might get in touch."

Auggie spun around in his chair after he heard Joan's heels click away. "This is just like the Army. The reward for a job well done is another job."

"Ha," Annie said. Her fingers ran across her keyboard. "I will ace this."

Half an hour later, he heard Annie groan in frustration. "What language does the Pentagon write in, Auggie, because it is not English. These aren't even real plans, they're just slides. Maps and symbols and -- I don't even have words for these hieroglyphics."

"Let me try to translate. What don't you understand?"

"There's all these acronyms -- F-22, I get. But BCT?"

"Brigade combat team," Auggie reeled off. "The Army's new way of organizing ground forces."

"MAG-TF?"

"Marine air-ground task force. They tend to float off the coast in Navy amphibious landing ships."

"ODAs?"

Auggie laughed a little. "Operational Detachment Alpha, otherwise known as the Green Berets. Everybody bitched when the beret became standard for the rest of the troops, even if regular forces got black ones."

"I bet you were very fetching in green," Annie said.

"Oh, I was a fashion model," Auggie shot back. "They wanted to use me on a recruiting poster, but I told them the power of my attractiveness would be so overwhelming that I'd intimidate potential recruits."

There was a long pause. "I'm trying to picture that," Annie finally said, "and I think you're probably right. Maybe we should just air drop you into Timbuktu, and watch the insurgents run."

"It might be a better plan than Phase Four stability operations. What other questions do you have about the slides?"

They kept at it until a draft was written and sent out on JWICS for coordination.

"There's a show, tomorrow night," Auggie said as they left the building. "At Blues Alley. Want to come?"

It would be an official date. Auggie told himself he was ridiculous to be nervous, but his stomach was not as sure.

"I'd love to," Annie said, sounding pleased.

* * *

He arrived at her doorstep in a suit, carrying hot pink roses.

Annie raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really," she said, laughter in her voice.

"It's traditional," Auggie replied.

He waited in the foyer while she put the flowers in water.

Annie ran her thumb over the velvet petals, inhaling their scent. She was very careful not to let any of the thorns prick her skin. Nothing bad tonight, that was her mantra.

"Lead on," she told Auggie, and he held her elbow as they walked together to the taxi. Emerald silk swished around her knees, the line of her dress flaring out from her waist into a classic party silhouette.

The club was just off Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, and the hostess greeted Auggie by name.

"I see how it is," Annie said once they were seated. "You're just using me as an excuse to feed your jazz habit."

"I cannot lie," Auggie said.

Annie ordered a Manhattan, and savored the sweet note of vermouth. The walls were brick, and their table was on the edge of the stage. The chairs pressed close together, maximizing the space.

"You smell fantastic," Auggie murmured close to her ear.

Annie let the tip of her nose graze his jaw. "Thank you."

They held hands under the table once the musicians started playing, except for those times when the virtuosity on display demanded applause. First the piano took precedence with runs of quick notes and syncopation, then the standing bass stole the spotlight. Annie could see the bassist's fingers plucking at the strings, fast and dexterous. The saxophone emerged next, mournful wailing and rising melody.

"You're tapping your feet," Auggie said.

She traced lines up his palm in response, the calligraphy of enjoyment and pleasure better than any words.

They shared cheesecake, bite for bite. Annie let its richness combine with the headiness of alcohol and jazz improvisation, and felt like she could laugh and smile forever.

In the cab on the way back to her place, Annie drew Auggie's hand to her knee. He rubbed the nylon of her stockings, and she intertwined their fingers to pull them higher. The expression on his face, amid passing headlights and the red glow of stoplights, turned delighted when he found the top edge of her stocking and the fastening of a garter.

"Ms. Walker," he purred. "What do we have here?"

"I figured you deserved an extra-special night out," Annie replied. "After all your help in Morocco and while I was writing that report."

"Your performance bonuses are so much better than the Agency's," he said. They giggled all the way to her door.

* * *

Later, a noise from the street roused Annie from her doze. She slipped into Auggie's discarded shirt, and went to use the bathroom. Her body felt easy and languorous, humming from endorphins still. She drifted from window to window and peered out into the dark.

Auggie sprawled on his belly while his arms embraced a pillow. The broad expanse of his back was too tempting to resist. A lamp on her nightstand cast a soft glow over the bed. Annie sat on the edge and stroked her palm down the line of his spine. She traced the words on his tattoo, de opresso liber -- to liberate the oppressed -- and the crossed arrows and sword of the special forces insignia.

Auggie's shoulder blade twitched and he hummed under his breath. "Hello," he said, and the low timbre of his voice sparked something wild in Annie.

"Hi," she said back. She leaned down and kissed his shoulder. His leg moved, preparation to turn over. She pressed him flat with her weight. "No."

He settled, and Annie began to explore. She ran her hands up and down his sides, appreciating the muscle tone. She took her time, allowed herself to appreciate the warmth of his body. She searched out the places that made him shiver, then leaned down to kiss her way over them, soft and delicate. Small noises came from Auggie's throat, and she redoubled her attentions.

He liked the brush of her hair, so she made it deliberate. Sine waves bending left and right, top and bottom.

Mouth and hands and hair, all devoted to his pleasure.

By the time she moved further down, to the swell of his ass, Auggie was moaning. He trembled under her touch, a damp sheen on his skin. His grip on the pillow looked desperate.

Annie traced the curve where gluteal turned into hamstring. She loved the suppleness of his skin, the heat floating up from between his thighs. She used her legs to spread his further apart. Her lips nibbled toward his knees, then retraced her path. He bucked underneath her, and she slid her hand down to touch his cock.

Auggie said her name, sounding wrecked.

"Turn over," she told him.

Their kiss was an inferno. Auggie's arms came up to embrace her, but Annie wasn't done yet. She bit at his nipples, ran her hair from his collarbones to his navel, then even lower.

When she took him in her mouth, he said, "Oh my God." Annie smiled, and used her tongue to lap at the slit where bitter drops emerged.

She encouraged his hands into her hair, sank deeper, relishing the feel of him nearing her throat. She hollowed her cheeks, sucked with intent, and fell into a slow rhythm.

Auggie's breathing quickened with her pace. His fingers clenched on her skull. Annie sped up her rise and descent, then went faster still. He moaned loudly, and she tickled her fingers around his balls. When she squeezed, gently, his hips surged upward. He came with jerking shivers for an eternity before he collapsed.

* * *

It was a timeless interlude until Auggie's brain rebooted. Annie rested in his arms, her legs tangled with his. He turned onto his side, and pulled her close for a kiss, dirty and heartfelt.

"You are amazing," he said.

"Always," came her response.

Auggie kissed her again, and again, and again. Annie's legs moved, restless, and he ran his hand down the front of her chest. The weight of her breast was heavenly. The crest of her nipple drew his fingers to pinch and twist. His tongue dipped into her mouth, and Annie's hips surged against the side of his thighs. He felt her, wet, against him.

He stroked lower on her torso, ran across ridged flesh -- the scars where Lena shot Annie. Auggie could still remember the panic of trying to clear her name while she lay unconscious in the hospital, accused of treason. He had been so worried, so desperate. It was impossible to believe that she was guilty, that she would ever betray her country. He thought that Annie's quest to find Lena had exorcised at least some of those ghosts, even if weeks in a Russian prison had deposited new ones afterward.

They both had scars enough to share.

He kissed her deeper, continued his trail downward to reach the crease of her hip. As he filigreed his nails inside her thighs, he lowered his head. Mouthed at her nipples, used his teeth, gently at first and then with sharpness, alternating one to the other, suction, as intense as he could, then another bite. Annie liked that.

The curls between her legs were coarse, but directed his touch to where she was soaked and hot and perfect.

Auggie bit down at the same time as he slid a finger inside her. Annie gasped, shook beneath him, and slid in another finger. He rubbed at her clit and she was panting now, the beginning stages of desperation. He did all that he could to stoke it hotter.

He was good with his hands. Good at delicate manipulation, the kind that didn't need vision to succeed. He searched out the place inside her, the one that made her moan, low and long. He kissed her again, tongue plunging deep, in time with his fingers.

A bite at her lips, a more intense curl of his fingertips, and Annie shook apart beneath his touch.

Auggie didn't stop. He kept plunging in and out, moved to lick at the junction of Annie's neck and shoulder, used his teeth, hard, until she whispered, "No more, no more."

They fell asleep, still intertwined.

* * *

"Guess who I ran into." Annie's tone over the phone line was indecipherable.

Auggie missed her like he missed his sight.

"Poseidon? Athena?" he ventured.

"Were you a fan of Greek mythology as a kid?" Now she was amused.

"I cannot tell a lie: D'Aulaires illustrated Greek myths were my favorite," Auggie said.

"Well it's not an Olympian," Annie replied. "It's Eyal, and his boat. And Haidar is sailing around with him. They're supposedly fishing, but that's almost laughable as a cover story."

"A Lebanese arms merchant and a former Mossad agent are fishing in waters atop massive natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean," Auggie said. "Yeah, that's an article for the late, lamented Weekly World News, not an intel report."

"Supposedly former Mossad agent." Now she was skeptical. "I've kept my distance so far, but they're also occupying dockside tavernas, drinking ouzo until dawn. Haidar's wife is not pleased, if I'm reading her body language correctly.

"It's surprising they're on the Greek side of the island," Auggie mused. "Turkish Cypriots seem a more natural fit for Haidar, given his background."

"Turkey's claim on the Levantine Basin runs into the same problem a lot of others do. How do they extract the oil and gas? Israel's technology base is better positioned."

"Well, whatever else is happening, you still need to find out if Haidar really does have links to Syrian rebels that the United States does not approve of."

Annie huffed out a breath. "Yeah. Update Joan for me? And let me know if you can find out anything about Eyal's status with Mossad."

"Will do, Walker."

After Annie hung up, Auggie tried to figure out how he felt about Eyal's intrusion into this already tangled scene. They had so many players in the game, so many connections throughout the Levant, that pulling on any one string could unravel the whole mess. Or snarl them into a knot that would take forever to comprehend.

That was the professional level. On the personal side, Eyal had saved Annie from a Russian prison when the CIA refused to act. He'd worked with her, betrayed her, and they had some crazy sort of connection that managed to overcome all the obstacles.

Auggie didn't know if he should be threatened or not.

* * *

The dilemma, from Annie's perspective, was that Haidar was gaga over his wife. A love for the ages. And he was not fond of Westerners. But there was an aide who looked like a promising vector for entry into Haidar's circle. One who checked his phone constantly and fidgeted at another table while Eyal and Haidar told sea stories and laughed.

Or she could approach Eyal directly.

She ended up doing both.

"Hey stranger," she called as she approached Eyal. He was finally leaving that night's tavern; his walk listed to the right.

"Annie!" he said, delighted. Then he squinted, a look of confusion on his face. "Annie?"

"We can talk later," she said, slipping her arm around his waist. "Let's get you back to the Flying Lavine."

The stars were brilliant overhead, and Annie tried to recognize constellations. Orion was easiest, the archer with his sword; then she found the big dipper and the Gemini. Lights from the marina finally glowed too bright, and she returned her gaze to the place where earth met sea.

Eyal settled into the small galley while Annie explored his supplies and equipment. Pot of coffee brewing, she poured a glass of water for him.

"Drink up, you'll get dehydrated," she said.

The time it took to get him less inebriated was spent in silence. She reviewed her mission and the players in her head, and sipped her own mug of coffee.

"What are you doing here?" Eyal asked at last. He sounded more alert, but still not totally sober. Good. He'd preyed on her weaknesses for an advantage often enough that she wasn't guilty.

Annie leveled with him: "Investigating Haidar's ties to Syrian rebel groups. Trying to determine if they've managed to acquire any of Assad's chemical weapons, if they're channeling arms to Hizbollah, why he's funding natural gas pilot projects. What are you doing here?"

Eyal blinked. "We knew each other, back in the day. We worked together on a few items of mutual interest. He's not --"

"A bad guy?"

"Well," Eyal hedged. "Nothing is black and white in this part of the world. But he's not a dirty shade of grey, at least."

"Are you sure?" Annie asked, wondering if she should believe him. Did alcohol equal truth?

"Certain. Mehmet, though. I wonder about him."

"The aide?"

Eyal nodded. "He's not happy that Haidar's taking a vacation."

"Neither is Haidar's wife," Annie said.

"Well," Eyal shrugged. "She likes him to be focused on her alone."

The plan they came up with exploited jealousy. When Annie checked back with Auggie later, he told her Mossad denied an association with Eyal. And that Mehmet's relationships were even shadier than his erstwhile boss's.

Then came the approach and the exploitation, and Annie felt like she was surfing through complicated waters where an errant current could sweep her out to sea or let her ride a wave all the way to shore in a smooth, triumphant, glide.

* * *

Annie reported in late in the evening her time.

"I think we've got the aide on the hook," she said, her voice filled with the exultation of a successful lure. The encrypted phone line crackled with static.

"How'd you manage it," he asked, then wished he hadn't.

"Flirting got him interested in me, and I was able to go from there. Smiling and batting my lashes worked wonders."

"Oh, Walker," Auggie said, aware he was revealing too much, "what I wouldn't give to see you bat your lashes at me."

He breathed in deep, held the air in his lungs, and exhaled long and slow before she replied.

"You're the only one where it means anything," she almost whispered. "You can feel it when I get home. Your fingers on my face. I promise."

Auggie was counting the minutes.

* * *

A few days later, Haidar vindicated, Mehmet turned for his contacts and knowledge, Annie prepared to say goodbye to Eyal once more.

They stood on the dock by the Flying Lavine, lit by the glow of the sun setting into the Mediterranean. Eyal smiled at Annie, that same charming grin, so familiar from all their encounters.

The air coalesced into solidity between them, the moment fraught with nascent meaning. Annie couldn't find words to express all that she felt.

"The timing has never been right," Eyal said, "but maybe --" He leaned forward a little bit.

Annie raised her hand to his chest. "The timing still isn't right," she said. "Auggie and I are" -- Eyal's heart beat warm and steady underneath her palm -- "together now."

"And how you played Mehmet? How does that fit?" He was curious, not disapproving.

"We have an understanding, about missions," Annie said. She'd never had to explain it before.

"You're lucky, then," Eyal said. "I hope it works out."

"He's always there for me," Annie said. Her anchor and her encouragement. Her partner in banter and success.

* * *

The debrief at Langley was long and intricate. By the time they were wrapping up, Annie thought she'd never relax the tightness in her muscles. The plane ride back had let her sleep some, but not enough.

Once they were done with specifics, Joan drifted into broader musings about the implications of the mission's results. "This will assist us enormously as we go forward. Assad won't be able to last forever -- he's gone too far now, without quashing the rebels."

"But the whole situation is a mess," Annie said. "Rebel factions with conflicting loyalties and aims, Hizbollah and the Lebanese connection, Iranian Quds Force and their sponsorship of Assad, the chemical weapons, Israeli security concerns, Haidar's desire to be a legitimate energy magnate." Annie threw her hands up in the air. "Joan, I try to do my best for this agency and for the country, I really do, but how can we know what the right thing is?"

Joan sighed. "The world is convoluted, and growing more so every day. Arthur gets nostalgic for the Cold War, for the simplicity of having a single overriding enemy. He could give you chapter and verse about Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC 68 and how their analysis of communism and the Soviet threat guided decades of American foreign policy. We don’t have the attention span to keep our eye on any one country or group these days, let alone be consistent in how we react."

"I guess that's it," Annie said. "I don't want to react. I want to see clearly enough to block the threats before they get dangerous."

"We all do," Joan said. "And that's what we're supposed to do, as an intelligence service. We're spread thin, though. We can only look to leadership for priorities, and do our best."

As Annie walked back to her desk, she met Eve in the corridor.

"Welcome back," Eve said. "Is all well?"

"As well as it can be," Annie said, rueful.

"I've got to go to a working group meeting, but we should get together for lunch next week?" Eve's voice lifted up as she finished talking.

"Sure," Annie said. "I can tell you about my experiences tasting a variety of Greek liquors, and the hangovers they induced."

Eve said, "Oh yes. I can share stories of holidays on Ibiza, and my wretched decisions in the night clubs."

"Was there good eye candy?" Annie asked.

"The best," Eve said with a dirty grin.

Annie laughed to herself as she kept walking. A helpless smile spread over her face when she spotted Auggie typing with reckless speed while he talked to one of his minions. She wanted to get him alone, and bury her qualms in his skin.

* * *

Auggie concluded his conversation with Barber, and heard a familiar voice to his side.

"Hey."

"Hey yourself," he said.

"When will you be done?" Annie asked.

"Ten minutes, tops. I need to eat, though."

"Burgers?" There was a hopeful note in her voice.

"Five Guys?" He was hungry enough to want to go for the fast option.

"No," she said, decisive. "Ray's Hellburger."

"The fancy burger," Auggie said. "I approve."

Annie ran her hand across his shoulders as she moved to her own desk. Auggie wanted to grab her and never let her go, but that wouldn't be appropriate here and now.

* * *

The block of stores and restaurants looked a little bit shabby, but Annie knew it hid treasures. So did the rest of Arlington, if the lack of parking spaces was a clue. She circled around, once, twice, narrating their progress to Auggie.

"Pedestrian on the left."

"That would have been fifty points if this were Grand Theft Auto," he said.

"Ha. No. A mini-van is crawling in front of us."

Eventually, they snagged a spot, and Annie led Auggie over to Ray's, his grip warm on her elbow.

"They have milkshakes now," she told him.

"Do they?"

"I'm going to get a burger with white cheddar and mushrooms, fries, and a chocolate shake." She could almost taste them. "Oh! And a cream soda."

"A veritable feast," Auggie said. "Give me the run down."

Annie read menu options to him as the line moved slowly toward the counter in back.

The right wall displayed a map of the world, mounted on corkboard. A riot of push pins decorated it, showing where patrons had travelled from to eat at Ray's.

Once they ordered, Annie led Auggie over to an open table, next to the map.

"I almost think I should put a pin on Cyprus," she mused.

"It's a long way to come for a burger," Auggie said.

Annie looked at his face, and knew she'd travel forever to come back to him.